The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Wednesday June 7th

Column: Poetics of AAVE slang


Columnist Jalynn Harris

“Black life is not lived in the world that the world lives in, but it is lived underground, in outer space,” Jared Sexton said.

Afro-pessimist thinkers — Frank Wilderson (who will be speaking at the Campus Y on Oct. 21), Saidiya Hartman and Sexton, to name a few — theorize about the fatal positionality of the black self. To be black is to live a stillborn life of social death. To exist as a sentient being but to be written out of modernity’s social codes and society’s conception of subjecthood. Instead Blackness is a perpetual state of objecthood — a condition that positions black bodies as fungible, a commodity, free to be traded, exploited and exchanged for monetary profit.

In social death, European colonial standards demand “civility” through the constant policing of our bodies. It “civilizes” our congregation — for if two or more of us are gathered, we are a riot. It “civilizes” our hair — for a curl pattern not 3B is unprofessional. It “civilizes” our tongues — for a grammar outside of prescriptivism is unintelligent.

Because of this, Black social life — in its death — is inherently resistant. One such way is in our linguistic performance. Though natally alienated from our mother tongues, Africans removed to the Americas have been forced to create new language. Afro-Carribeans call it “patwa” or “patois.” Afro-latinos/as call it creole. African-Americans call it African-American Vernacular English.

Slang, defined as “street language,” has historically been the in-group speech of the marginalized. It is a complex socio-linguistic swapping that incorporates cultural references, metaphors, oral traditions, mass media and euphemism, etc., into a complex vocabulary.

AAVE slang, though often rebuked as an unintelligent dialect, reflects the socio-political triumphs and anxieties of black people.

Slang is Black rhythm in verse, a poetic discourse of an exclusive code that is difficult for dominant culture to decode. As Black people do not occupy equal, horizontal alliance with non-Blacks, slang becomes a point of vertical engagement and lateral disruption. Its grammaticisms discomfort academics. Its references confuse white culture. Its elasticity binds Black people.

When I tell my sister, “I am going through it,” I am speaking of what it is to trudge through metaphorical forests of living social death. When I call my brother my “homie,” I acknowledge him as part of the place of my first breaths, as a part of me.

Black names, too, are a type of anti-colonial imaginative space. My name is a hybrid — a homage to ancestral legacies. It is a combination of the last syllable of my paternal grandfather coupled with the first letter of my siblings and cousins.

As a people socialized to disassociate with ourselves, we continue to connect through the linguistic playground of slang. We greet each other in it. We write poems in it. We craft names in it. We continue to seek self-reclamation by reimagining our tongues as they were before being violently ripped away.


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