Anti-Standard-White-People-English: An Idea
Let me state, emphatically, that I do not hate white people. Quite to the contrary, I love white people. I just hate what white people have done and continue to do to Black bodies, to Black words, to Black thoughts and Black appeals and Black feelings. Let me also state, with the same enthusiasm, that America has never liked me. With all its advancements and shiny inventive things like microwaves and WiFi and Viacom’s acquisition of BET and proprietary occupation of Black culture, it is still made inherently clear that the color, gloss and matte of my skin, and the color of many others just like myself, makes America, and specifically the power structures that inhabit and puppeteer the strings of America, squeamish.
Race is many a things. One thing it is not, is real. White is a construct as much as Black is. However, it is a thing that now exists. Much like language, much like the English language — a borrowed thing, a thing we have used to indoctrinate that certain people are perhaps better or more well-informed than another. That disparity exists in many places, but race and language share very similar talking tracks in that context. This is why one may suggest that it is very hard being a Black person in America. Rather, it is hard being a Black person in the world. Furthermore, it is hard because of the value that is put on a Black body, or lack thereof. A step further, being a Black writer, and being a Black writer who acknowledges their Blackness and leans into their Blackness without regard for consequence or slight, is playing Russian Roulette with their career, and potentially, their life.
I have taken certain liberties with the English language. I take them freely and willfully, mainly because so much has been taken from my people. And, since reparations seem to no where in sight, I find that writing is the most suitable means in which to reclaim the glory of my people, by taking the language whipped into your bones, de-tangling its roots, and deforming it into a thing to be feared and questioned. This rule-breaking and the justification for such can mainly be attributed to the culture of hip-hop. The music and the creation of the art form, the use of sampling, the taking of meters and taking work sonically in newfound directions, a jambalaya or gumbo of inspiration pulling from reggae and blues, jazz and funk, disco and soul, poetry and the original rock & roll and rhythm & blues; it is the music that serves as a foundational backdrop for my favorites, writers like Ta-nehisi Coates, who extract their flavors and cadences from melodies and lyricism incorporated into sixteen-bar verses and eight-bar choruses. By its own origins, hip-hop serves as the antithesis to the same gatekeepers who behold grammar and punctuation and Oxford commas as a godly science.
There is a certain way you are supposed to write for the New York Times, for the New Yorker. A certain way to align words and paragraphs. Maybe I’m too lazy, too stubborn, born with the never-ending insatiable urge to be defiant. And so, I take certain liberties as writer now. A good friend and former coworker of mine once shared (while slightly inebriated at a work function) that he had decided, on his own time, without a prompt from the author present, to edit one of my pieces. His thoughts were that I were Baldwin-esque in my approach to prose, and some minor shifting of paragraphs and such could have my work in the Times or Atlantic. Now, for context, said friend was white. Said friend is also a wonderful human and writer. And said friend also used David Foster Wallace’s beautiful essay on urban slang and proper dictionary usage, and his terming of Standard White English, as a reference tool. And, while I understand his juxtaposition clearly, I kindly let him know that “that was the point.”
Because, while I recognize the rules, I do not respect the value we have attributed. All land is stolen and redistributed; bodies are stolen and separated and carved; language is no different. Not all have the privilege or access to a better grasp, to the nuances and usage of participles, why conjunctions function in the way they do, why tenses matter — my question always is, whether misspelled words in prose, or missed punctuation in essays, did the story compel you to do more than what you were doing prior to reading it? There are no rules for that.
Some bodies are already born trained to die — they are cut from womb, skin intact, veins throbbing, sunlight in their lungs, breathing in the world, knowing and prepared that they can and will be snatched before their expiration date — this is the life of Blackness. This is the life, the lives, I and others like me, write for. This is why I am so animate about the free and unconventional uses of language, about the allowances needed, about telling those who consider themselves the masters and dictators of language, the editors and publishers of the world to stop forcing young people to read Grapes of Wrath without exploring Toni Morrison’s canon of work; stop deferring to Hemingway and Yeats without the same reverence for Saul Williams and Junot Diaz. They all hold weight, they all matter…alongside Dylan and Cobain and Nasir and Shawn Carter.
My work is personal, but I do not take my work personally, if you can understand such a process. So, there is a level of detachment from critique of the prose. I write for me, yes, inherently and very much intrinsically. But, I also write from the diaphragm of a people, the unspoken diaspora of the ghetto, patrolling it’s way through every misplaced comma and overt syntax errors, the erroneous placement of ellipses and periods in and out of quotations, the blatant misuse of hyphens and spaces. It is with this detailed eye that I massage language, because my people have been doing this since papyrus, hieroglyphics and such. Ebonics, slang, urban vernacular, the colloquialisms we use to dance and away through sentences and speak, is what I have formed both bread and butter. Maybe the lexicon we use will spur a new wave of artistry. Or maybe, not. Maybe what writers like myself cling to is this idea that our writing is so outside of conformity and the rigid system of verse and written English, that we are not only above scrutiny, but so underground that we are elite; so that, being anti-SWE is really just another shade of elitism — being so counter culture that you’re really projecting the entitlement that comes with believing what you are doing and creating, is above culture. Or, maybe not that, either. Maybe this is all bullshit, and we are all twiddling our thumbs with our hands up our butt-holes as farce, as ways to justify our attachment to one or the other. Either is fine, I suppose. Either way, I still like my language like I like my rules: broken.