Language and Lament, or Y’all Really Need To Quit

Please understand that black vernacular and black slang-inflected language in your jokes and memes don’t make them funnier. It does, however, make you appear to be an ass. It’s why Matt Besser isn’t considered the greatest comedian in history. It’s just so damned corny.

And insensitive.

If you checked in with folks from my tribe, we’d tell you that when one uses our unique language and cultural semiotics to make lame attempts at comedy, but not to communicate in earnest, it is severely apathetic. Black folk almost always take it as disrespect, and the first sign one can’t be trusted to back us up when race becomes an issue. We may laugh along with you. We may shrug it off when you claim “no offense.” Laughter is the first response to words that injure. We hear it, or read it, and we may be polite and keep it chill, but you’re definitely going on the Lame List. Your new name, when you’re not around, will be “this muthafucka,” which is a black semiotic for “a detestable individual who unknowingly spoils everything.”

“And then, in the break room, this muthafucka said ‘good lookin’ out,’ and tried to give me some dap, like we boys.”
“Word. And I was, like, ‘Aw, THIS muthafucka—’ But I didn’t say that shit.”
“Naw. Betta not say that shit.”
“For real.”

Most black folks have some variation of this conversation, on average, about once per month.

You see, to us, it’s Elvis Presley and Big Mama Thornton. It’s Chess Records. It’s Vanilla Ice. It’s Tim Wise (yeah, him too.) If I had to coin a term, I’d call it Timberlaking. Wait. TimberFAKING. We all saw that Super Bowl halftime show. No need to unpack that old box here. Just know that all of us have, at one point or another, been Timberfaked. None of us ever forget it. We don’t let each other forget it. We can’t.

Friends, my people’s language is rich, and powerful, and filled with valiant spirit. It has helped us endure this world that has never been kind to us. You may think it’s novelty meant to accessorize your own communication, but black vernacular is a lexicon of the yearning for freedom. It sounds really cool because, frankly, God needed to grant us some kind of a blessing in all this bullshit. We’ve bled for our language. As it evolves, it does as lament. We don’t apply it as affect, like lip liner. It isn’t a garnish. It’s the entire meal. If you use it, please do so with flourish and enthusiasm. These linguistic truffles we dig out of the dirt should be used to heighten discourse. Don’t grind them up and toss them in with the intellectual equivalent of boxed macaroni and cheese. You may think it a kindness to try and sound like us, but it’s about as kind as a line of Tarantino dialogue: contextually unnecessary, egregiously insensitive, and jarringly aggressive. The equivalent of your random “homie” and “dawg” and “my brotha” is Pulp Fiction’s “dead nigger storage.” Doesn’t matter what came before that line. We put the entire thing on pause and ask, “Whoa! WTF?!” The same goes for your random quotes of Wu-Tang and Biggie and Tupac, which are the Day-Glo road cones that tell black folk, “Go no further.” We may not express it, but that’s what we think.

As I said, I like just about all of you, so if you feel that this post puts you on the spot, think about how I feel, day after day, for years, trying my best to be kind and friendly with you in the face of this nonsense. To make the point even clearer, I have friends who aren’t black who grew up in places like the 5 boroughs, Jersey, the Dirty South, Puerto Rico and Mexico who will use the word ‘nigga’ and it feels like love. Then there are folks who will say everything but the dreaded N-word and, although they think they’re being hip and relevant and deftly humorous, it comes off as spat in the face. That isn’t hyperbole.

It’s the same nonsense that made Dave Chappelle walk away from fifty million bucks.

To close out this sermon/lecture, while I may not be able to affect current liberal American culture—in which it’s perfectly okay to ignore my people’s right to a distinct identity while supporting everyone else’s—I can at least ask you folks with whom I’m connected to check yourselves regarding the above. Yeah. It really is bad enough to warrant just under nine hundred words. If you think it’s no big deal, please remember that, not too long ago, lynchings were no big deal. For some of us, that juxtaposition may veer into the extreme.

And then there are black folks.

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