These are the facts:
Granny solved the issue for me pretty early.
She called me “black boy.”
I answered easily, lovingly.
Of course, I didn’t know there was an issue that needed solving, steeped, as I was, in my own naïveté–a condition no doubt precipitated by the time spent in my mother’s womb. And besides, who runs around a few years later–jumping over ravines, hunting birds by slingshot (“pull-and-go” rubber, not “pull-and-stop”), pitching marbles badly in the dusty rings of cocoyea broom-swept yards, and finding other manners of mischief to occupy the mind–and still finds the time to think about the blackness of one’s skin? Well, you. You, if you were one of us. I know that I was not the only one, nor were the children I played with in any way unique in our knowledge that we were, indeed, black. Black and, thus, different. We didn’t need to know that. Didn’t need to make the connections, to deduce and conclude, and so we made little effort to. You see, “difference” was as default a condition as our naïveté at that age. And at that age, a few years outside the womb, where there was no longer any amniotic fluid to filter the noise of a world only experience and adulthood would allow us to make sense of, we relied instinctively on the experience of our forbears.
But filters fail from time to time, as we know. So when a “brown-skin” girl I loved told me I was “too black to wear yellow,” it was nothing less than a laceration on my soul. “Kids are cruel” is what we’ve learned to say, which is shorthand for dealing inadequately with our hurt. And when her sister, equally brown, fell in love with a man as black as I was, the pain of preference bore a certain tint. A deeper hurt.
More lacerations came, along with the coagulations and resulting scars that have taken deceptively simpler, axiomatic forms and have since connected themselves to the mind and heart:
black and beautiful
black and stupid
blacker the berry
black and ugly
And so it is that following an airing of the Dark Girls documentary on the OWN network the other night, I got into a brief twitter exchange with Dr. Yaba Blay, who wrote an article for Clutch Magazine in response. In that article, Color Me Beautiful: A Dark Girl Reflects on “Dark Girls,” Blay noted–correctly, and, for my part, thankfully–that missing from the documentary was a sense of nuance–complexities and subtleties. According to Blay:
The voice of the confident, assured, self-affirming, self-loving, “I wish you would tell me I’m not the ish” sister, who although she can relate to the pain refuses to stay stuck in it and has somehow figured out how to find beauty in her reflection. We needed that voice, not to distract from or to negate the experiences of pain, but rather to balance them with the capacity for triumph, if the purpose of the dialogue is in fact our healing.
My response to the article was succint:
@fiyawata boom goes the mfkn dynamite.
It was an unveiled reference to Scandal, a tv series we find ourselves tweeting about. We mused on the possibility of a “dark boys” documentary and whether the commensurate hashtag–#darkboys–was yet a thing. It was. I went about my business, thinking about how I could join the conversation and express some of the nuance that Blay challenged me–all of us, really–to bring to the fore. Nuance was all around me, but you know how things go. Things come up, and we get caught up. I’ve explained this a little bit before. Nuance was all around, and someone else more capable would take it up and make of it what it deserved to be.
We academic types must be judicious in how we pick our battles and our projects, after all.
I tend to view a great deal of things as a rhetorician, so I acknowledged the deeper, more implicit challenge–that the purpose of dialogues about trauma ought to be oriented toward healing–as a key example of how rhetoric can lead to meaningful outcomes for those directly and indirectly involved. Then I just kinda passed the plate. Others would take it up.
Then came Rachel Jeantel, a key ear witness for the prosecution in George Zimmerman’s trial for the second degree murder of Trayvon Martin, a child. But this is about Rachel Jeantel. She is black. She is 19. Her friend is dead. The man who killed him sits in the same room a few feet away. These are the facts.
Much has been made of Jeantel’s testimony over her two days on the stand, which has stoked people’s passions beyond the immediacy of the trial. This is not to say that people have forgotten that Trayvon Martin ended his life face down in wet grass on February 26, 2012. People haven’t forgotten that George Zimmerman pulled the trigger and now sees his freedom hanging in the balance in a Florida court.
Pass the plate, Kevin, pass the plate. Yeah, nah.
Rachel Jeantel is black. She is plus-sized. Some would say she is fat. Some would chuckle, others would laugh, and (lucky for us) others will be reminded of other public shamings and remind us of the inherent problem with this. On Twitter, exemplifying the latter, Joan Morgan (@milfinainteasy) pointed out that:
[T]he defense simply strategizes that her black, female body makes her foreign and suspicious enough to cast doubt on her credibility…but the real tragedy is that this strategy can always rely on black folks self-hatred to help it right along.
Even more was made of her language. She speaks Black English. Atlantic Creole. African American Vernacular English. Ebonics. Black sound. She also speaks Haitian Kreyol and Spanish. These three, Jeantel noted, were the languages she grew up speaking.
Never mind that, though.
Predictably, others in social media and on tv have taken it up and have begun debating whether the attacks by the defense or her stereotypically black reactions to them were more objectionable. Lest there be any confusion where I stand on this, let me be clear that I think Rachel Jeantel’s composure was commendable, especially so given the context, and I challenge anyone to maintain such composure while being harrassed, as Jeantel was by defense attorney Don West (as is his, or any defense attorney’s, prerogative), about what you really heard on the phone the night your friend was followed, interrogated, wrestled with, shot, and killed. Maintain your composure then.
Rachel Jeantel is not just a black woman, she is very black. Darker than I am. She is the kind of black that rests at the heart of traumatic connotations and self-hatred. The kind of demeanor that Lolo Jones sought to make fun of by comparing her to Tyler Perry’s “Madea” and which was described as disrespectful, immature, uneducated, and so on and so forth into the far too familiar territory of angry black bodies–bodies cursed to be grotesque and unsophisticated as the natural consequence of an indelibly black skin. Talk about shade, right? Right? She is, like many of us are: marked as different by default. This is a principle with which we are supremely familiar. But she could handle it–and did–right? As Rachel Samara, writing for Global Grind has noted, “Rachel was raw, emotional, aggressive and hostile, and she was unapologetically herself.” Agreed, to a point. To a point because I wouldn’t want to conflate the elements of Samara’s list. With Blay’s charge still fresh, I went in search of nuance–most of which I’ve restricted to my Twitter timeline. Among other things, I noted that, “Black language is on trial.” I should have added that black language–visual, oral, and aural–was also on display.
We saw and (mis)interpreted the kinesic features, such as her “cut-eyes” when she determined a question was ridiculous. We heard the tonal semantics or paraliguistic features embedded in the range of “Yes, Sir” responses. You remember that thing Jeantel did with her mouth? That was a steups. In my book, Tropic Tendencies, I discuss the steups:
The steups… is used to express disgust, disrespect, insubordination, impatience, anger, and frustration. Conversely, it is also used to effectively show empathy, regret, and relief. [It] also communicate[s] that the practitioner intends to be seen and heard by the subject. (62)
Unfortunately, what is missed is very often missed by choice. Never mind that the languages we all speak are nothing if not consistent and subject to logical rules and discernible redundancies. You know, a grammar. There’s a grammar in play, for example, when she said, “I coulda heard,” which could mean either “I could hear” or “I could have heard.” In both cases, the tense used could refer to something that actually occurred, even though the latter could also be read as possibly having happened. We don’t need to get but so technical, here.
Regardless of complexity, speakers of black languages have historically been and continue to be maligned in the classroom and wider society–that is, marked primarily in the context of cultural, educational, and sociolinguistic models of deficit. From that point of view, it is the speaker who lacks the intelligence, skill, capital, and credibility to be effective. Not that the listener has either failed or refused to listen to what was being said. A person subject to deficit lacks the polish, the sense of sophistication that would garner respectability in the mainstream. This is not news. As you can imagine, the criticism was all too familiar and far too easy to find–such that it was likened to a social media stoning. Rachel Jeantel’s body, her brain. I made no attempt to apprise myself of that firestorm. Not news. Naturally, as in any asymmetrical power dynamic, speakers of the nonstandardized language have to defer to the speakers of the stanardized language:
West: “Can you understand English?”
Jeantel: “I can understand you.”
Think of Jeantel’s response as demonstration of a kind of forced versatility and a common characteristic of vernacular education. We speakers of black language have had to deal with this kind of discrimination in every aspect of our personal and public lives. As a consequence, we are forced to make hard choices about how we represent ourselves as language users–these, academic types like myself will corroborate, are examples of complex rhetorical choices that demonstrate the practitioner’s awareness of a situation and (often) her conscious response to it. You see, the response would have to be conscious because, unless completely beaten down, a practitioner like Rachel Jeantel would be unlikely to “just take it” without the impulse to talk back or fight back. Yes, Sir. There are other processes at play that show Rachel Jeantel to be a particularly astute practitioner of black rhetoric, but you get it, right?
Regardless of what you hear, or are led to believe, ignorance is not bliss. Ignorance is ignorance. There is no satisfactory synonym, no substitute for not knowing, which is why you often hear the term ignorance paired with the adjective “plain” (and about as much as you hear the above pairings). And, try as we may, there is no known process for someone else knowing something for you–it’s one of those things you must do on your own. You must draw upon what you would like to know (motive) and find a balance with what you happen to know (memory). It’s a process. What will Rachel Jeantel remember of all this? What attitudes toward white people will linger, whether justice is served or not? Will there be any exoneration for her language, her confusion on the stand, her apparent failure to parse the nuances of culture and community, her exasperation? What will she deduce and conclude from this time in her life?
I don’t really know (can’t know) but I have to ask because this is where I find myself, right now: in the echo chamber that is my mind. Maybe it is that all things begin in the mind, that vast reservoir of memories and motives that seem to shape us regardless of whether we are aware or not. Maybe not. Right now, though, this is where I find myself: obliged to consider what occurs at the intersection of memory and motive, of what I know and what I can prove. Once there, knowing little and proving nothing, I am obliged to consider what and who I see.
Right now, I see Rachel Jeantel.
Obviously, this is not about Rachel Jeantel the person. I don’t know her personally and have the impulse to reject attempts–say, by major news networks–to “get to know who she is.” General curiosity aside, I understand that the Rachel Jeantel I saw on the news is a representation–a symbol–upon which we could but shouldn’t heap fears, frustrations, proclivities, prejudices.
I don’t know the child whose friend was murdered.
This is not about her. It is about a challenge that I have failed. In a way, I had to fail. Because there was no nuance that I could see in how Rachel Jeantel was treated on the stand, try as I did to look for it. Condescension is not nuanced; it is raw, uncompromising, and unmistakable. It is neither soft nor smooth. Abuse is never subtle. And yes, condescension is a form of abuse–it is meant to demean, undermine, ridicule. Never mind that.
In the end, I had to fail because Rachel Jeantel is a effin boss, because in the end (or by the end of the news cycles that often define us or our timelines), it is clear that Rachel Jeantel–whoever she may turn out to be in the wake of this–never needed me to come to her defense. Instead, this “confident, assured, self-affirming, self-loving, ‘I wish you would tell me I’m not the ish’ sister, who although she can relate to the pain refuses to stay stuck in it and has somehow figured out how to find beauty in her reflection” has come to mine, a black man whose grandmother once called him “black boy.”
Abrahams, Roger. Everyday Lives: A Poetics of Vernacular Practices. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2005.
Gilyard, Keith. True to the Language Game: African American Discourse, Cultural Politics, and Pedagogy. New York: Routledge, 2011.
Mufwene, Salikoko, ed. Africanisms in Afro-American Language Varieties. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1993.
Richardson, Elaine. African American Literacies. New York: Routledge, 2003.
Rickford, John. African American Vernacular English. Massachusetts: Blackwell, 1999.
Smitherman, Geneva. Talkin and Testifyin: the Language of Black America. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1986.
This essay was published on July 9, 2013 in Enculturation, a refereed journal that explores contemporary theories of rhetoric, writing, and culture. You can download the pdf here.
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