Sunday, January 23, 2011

Why You Should Learn Black English

Many of my friends are new parents now, married, in long-term careers, and looking to buy their second homes. As for me, I'm on my last unemployment extension, with no job in sight, have been single for decades, and I mutter to myself on the street like a crazy man. And I don't have a cellphone. What I do have, though, is the gift of gab, and I find myself befriending homeless people, just for the conversation. We humans need the company of other human beings, which is why it's important for me that I know the language of the street. What some call black English, ebonics, African American vernacular (Harry Reid racily termed it "negro dialect", before he had to apologize for the trouble he got in) is remarkably the same almost anywhere you go. In a pinch, black English helps me establish rapport and connect with everyday people I might meet, who remain important sources of information. This is true if the person you're looking at is starting out (or starting over) at the bottom, and may lack the peace-of-mind and sophistication we associate with the highly-educated, wealthy and the wise. Once you're out on the street, whether we like it or not, black English intrudes on our lives, sometimes unexpectedly. For instance, the distinguished Alfred Mann, a man I highly respect, had to do a double-take, at 2:05:Now, I'm not black, and you may not be, but I'm not white, either. There is a popular concept that really popular entertainers like Eminem, and Elvis, or comics like Lenny Bruce, either stole the language of black people or their language was stolen from black people:I think this notion is mistaken. By the same logic, since this piece was composed using the King's English, I must have stolen English from white people. I think an argument can be made that what is known on Wikipedia as African American vernacular English borrows heavily, if not outright steals, from the language of low-class white people from the South, many perhaps dirt-poor indentured servants.

If speaking black English is a crime, then may God forgive me. And now that America has a black president, it's high time Americans learn about black English. Barack Obama intuitively knows that you have to be likeable with regular people if you want to get things done. Like the President, I come from an elite school, but it took me 30 years of going to and from this earth, and up and down it, before I learned that I am no more elite than the guy digging through the trash for recyclable bottles and cans. If, by definition, most people are of average measure, wouldn't it be important to know how most people feel and live ? I think learning about black English, and learning how to pull off speaking it convincingly, is part of learning how to be ordinary, or, at least, appearing to be. These men have the right idea:

Top 5 Best Covers or Musical Examples of White People Speaking Black English
  1. Dynamite Hack - Boyz in the Hood

  2. The Gourds - Gin & Juice

  3. Jonathan Coulton - Baby Got Back

  4. Mickey Avalon - Waiting to Die

  5. Todd Rundgren - Bang on the Ukulele Daily
Honorable mentions should go to songs like Crazy Town - Only When I'm Drunk, which is a perfectly good rock band cover, but doesn't have that quirky cuteness that transforms the covers in my Top 5 into softened, almost folksy, American ballads that, despite their white-washed veneers, remain subversive at their heart. You may find yourself humming these seemingly harmless tunes without a second thought, such as the easy-listening, elevator music paean to the female derriere (complete with a singular quack of a duck) by Jonathan Coulton, or the amusing solo guitar riff at the end of Dynamite Hack's track, referencing moonlight howls by an addict who has acquired a large amount of narcotic:
Punk ass tripping in the dead of night.
Homie scored a key, he's gonna fly...
Punk ass, fly
along with the mutterings of the fiend in question: "They're ripping off everybody man, they're ripping off everybody", or the understated banjo-mandolin bluegrass cover, by The Gourds, of the 'G' Funk classic on the joys of consuming hard liquor and cannabis, whilst operating a motor vehicle on the streets of Los Angeles.

What are your favorite examples of white people speaking black English ?

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