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From Dead Presidents to the Benjamins
(1): The Africanization of American English
Lyin and signifyin . . . talkin and testifyin . . . marinatin and playa hatin . . . This is the dynamic language of U.S. slave descendants, more commonly known as African Americans. Terms for this language vary - Black Talk, African American Vernacular English, Black or African American Language, Black English, Black Dialect, Ghetto Speech, Street Talk, Ebonics, and others. This book favors the terms "Black" or "African American Language," "Black Talk," and "U.S. Ebonics" (more accurate than just "Ebonics" because there are other Ebonic languages, such as Jamaican). Speakers of U.S. Ebonics can be found in all sectors of African America, from senior citizens to Hip Hoppers, from preachers to politicians, from schoolgirls to gangstas, from the African-Centered to the e-light. Black Talk crosses boundaries of age, gender, region, religion, and social class because it all comes from the same source: the African American Experience and the oral tradition embedded in that experience. In this dictionary you will find words and phrases from all segments of the Black (2) community, with cultural history and experience that charts word meanings within the various contexts of Black life. And, to paraphrase the late writer James Baldwin, if the language spoken in these contexts isn't a language, then tell me what is.
In one sense, there is today greater diversity within the African American community than ever before in the history of U.S. slave descendants. Takejust a simple thing like a Sista's hairdo. There was a time when virtually all Black women straightened their hair, usually with a hot comb and/or hot curlers. There was good hair and bad hair. The bad hairstyle (which in the 1960s would come to be celebrated as the natural) was almost nonexistent; it was viewed as ugly and uncouth, a disgrace to the race. And braids, they wuhdn't even in the running! Today, African American women wear their hair in all variety of styles. There is the natural, in both long and short hair versions. There are dreads, adopted from the Rastafarian Culture of the Caribbean, in both long and short hair versions. There are all kinds of braided styles, done up with and without extensions, in zillions, goddess style, and the Senegalese twist. There are permed hairstyles, relaxed, Jheri- Curl, and wave nouveau treatments. There are all sorts of weaves, including those that render an ultrathick hairdo. And there are still the older hot combed and hot curled treatments. Sometimes these styles are all worn by the same Sista at different periods of time. In another sense, however, there is an underlying uniformity among Blacks, owing to the fact that race, meaning not just skin color, but also culture, history, and experience, continues to define African America. Contrary to what many assume, the language within the African American community goes beyond mere slang, encompassing words and phrases that are common to generations, social classes, and both males and females. True, Black slang is Black Language, but all Black Language is not Black slang. (And what is Black slang today often becomes mainstream American English tomorrow.) Black Language is much more inclusive and expansive than the label "slang" suggests. For one thing, slang refers to language that is transitory and that is generally used by only one group, such as teenagers' slang or musicians' slang. African American Language, however, has a lexical core of words and phrases that are fairly stable over time and are familiar to and/or used by all groups in the Black community. This dictionary attempts to capture the essence of this lexical core. Africans in America have always pushed the linguistic envelope. The underlying tone of resistance in the language may explain why African American linguistic innovations are so often dismissed as slang. It's an easier concept to deal with than confronting the reality that the words represent. Slang, after all, is rather lighthearted and harmless, and it's usually short-lived - here today, gone tomorrow - but the social critique embodied in Black slang is serious as a heart attack. For 1990s Hip Hoppers, fed up with the oppressive treatment of People of Color in the nation's major cities, it's not New York, it's Zoo York; it's not Los Angeles, it's Los Scandalous. In the 1960s, Malcolm X shocked white America by dubbing northern cities up South, contending that these supposedly progressive areas were just a variation on the theme of racial domination that Blacks were experiencing down South. In these and many other examples, Africans in America flipped the script, making an alien tongue their own by imbuing "ole massa's" language with their unique, African semantics. Words came to have double meanings as their definitions shifted according to the situation and were infused with irony, metaphor, and ambiguity. When it first came into use, The Man referred to the white man, or the white man's enforcer, the policeman. Today, of course, it is used to refer to any male of distinction and power. Ann is just a woman's name, but in the past as well as today in Black Talk, it represents an uppity, demanding, spoiled white woman. In one context, "Everbody talkin bout Heaben ain goin dere," an expression that dates back to enslavement, was an admonition to those Blacks not practicing the religion they sing and testify about; in another context, it referred to white Americans who preached Christianity but practiced enslavement. "I cain't kill nothin and won't nothin die" is still used as a blues metaphor from the survival-of-the-fittest animal world and is applied to times in a person's life when they are down on their luck.
Alice tells Humpty Dumpty in the Lewis Carroll classic that you can't make words mean what you want them to mean. Communication demands linguistic conformity, and so it has been said that words are our masters, otherwise there would be no communication. Yet it has also been said that we are masters of words, otherwise there would be no poetry. Although the "poetry" created in the Africanization of American English undoubtedly dates back to the seventeenth century (3), perhaps the richest period of linguistic innovation was the last half of the twentieth century, particularly the 1960s and beyond. The emergence of the Black Freedom Struggle (4) marked a fundamental shift in linguistic consciousness as Black intellectuals, scholar- activists, and writer-artists deliberately and consciously engaged in an unprecedented search for a language to express Black identity and the Black condition. This era was in fact the first period in the history of U.S. slave descendants when there was a critical mass of highly educated Blacks. To cite just one example, 80 percent of all the doctoral degrees (Ph.D.s, Ed.D.s) in the entire history of Africans in America were awarded between 1960 and 1980 (5). And although a conscious call for Black pride had existed in other historical periods - for example, the Harlem Renaissance (6) of the 1920s - the era of the 1960s Freedom Struggle was the first to call for linguistic Black pride. It was a call characterized by the learning of African languages (notably Swahili), by efforts to reinvent the Africanized language of the Black community, and by other forms of linguistic experimentation. Poet Haki Madhubuti put it this way: "black poets [will] deal in . . . black language or Afro-American language in contrast to standard english . . . will talk of kingdoms of Africa, will speak in Zulu and Swahili, will talk in muthafuckas and 'can you dig it.' " This linguistic consciousness and the experimentation driven by it - particularly among intellectuals, writers, entertainers, activists, and, in more recent years, Hip Hop Culture - has continued virtually unabated.
This dictionary takes you beyond a word list. It is a cultural map that charts word meanings along the highways and byways of African American life. In order to understand idioms like H.N.I.C., forty acres, and tryin to make a dolla outa fifteen cent, and words like ofay, Voodoo, and Johnson, we need to understand how this nation within a nation developed its unique way of using the English language. Which brings us to history and the importance of the past in understanding, and moving beyond, the present.
From African to African American
Just as we were called colored, but were not that . . . and then Negro, but not that . . . to be called Black is just as baseless . . . Black tells you about skin color and what side of town you live on. African American evokes discussion of the world. (7)
Names for the race have been a continuing issue since Jumpstreet, 1619, when the first slave ship landed at Jamestown. From African to Colored to "negro" to Negro with the capital to Black to African American, with side trips to AfroAmerican, AfriAmerican, AfraAmerican, and Afrikan, what are we Africans in America, today thirty-five million strong, "we people who are darker than blue," as Curtis Mayfield once sang, to call ourselves?
Debates rage. The topic is discussed at conferences. Among leaders and intellectuals, as well as among everyday people, the issue is sometimes argued so hotly that folk stop speaking to one another! In 1904, the A.M.E. Church Review sponsored a symposium of Black leaders to debate whether the "n" of "negro" should be capitalized. However, participants in that symposium went beyond the mere question of capitalization to debate whether "negro" was the right name for the race in the first place. In 1967, during the shift from "Negro" to "Black," and again in 1989, during the shift from "Black" to "African American," Ebony magazine devoted several pages to the question "What's in a Name?" And the beat goes on . . . The status of Blacks remains unsettled. Name changes and debates over names reflect our uncertain status and come to the forefront during crises and upheavals in the Black condition.
Although African Americans are linked to Africans on the Continent and in the Diaspora, the Black American, as James Baldwin once put it, is a unique creation. For one thing, other Diasporic Africans claim citizenship in countries that are virtually all- Black - Jamaicans, Bajans, Nigerians, Ghanaians, for example, are not minorities in their native lands. For another, not only are Blacks a distinct minority in America, but our status as first-class citizens is debatable, even at this late hour in U.S. history. As the Sista said about Rodney King's beating in Los Angeles, the torching of a Black man by whites in Florida, and Malice Green's death in Detroit, "After all we done been through, here it is [the 1990s], and we still ain free." Some activists and African- Centered Blacks have coined the term neo-slavery to capture the view that the present Black condition, with whites still powerful and Blacks still powerless, is just enslavement in another form. Blacks are a minority amid a population who look distinctly different physically and who promote racial supremacist standards of physical attractiveness. This state of affairs has created a set of negative attitudes about skin color, hair, and other physical features that are reflected in the U.S. Ebonics Lexicon, in terms such as good hair (which Zora Neale Hurston once described as "nearer my God to thee"), bad hair, high yella, liver-lips, and nappy. Because black skin color was so devalued at one time, to call an African person "black" was to call him or her outa they name. It was: "If you white, you all right; if you brown, stick around; if you black, git back." Thus the necessity, during the Black Freedom Struggle of the 1960s and 1970s, of purging the racial label "Black" and adopting it as a name for the race in symbolic celebration of the changed status of Africans in America.
Back to Giddayup. The British colonists, who would become Americans in 1776, called the Africans "free" (a few were, but most were not), "slave," or, following fifteenth-century Portuguese slave traders, negro (an adjective meaning "black" in Portuguese and Spanish). But the Africans called themselves "African" and so designated their churches and organizations as in the names African Educational and Benevolent Society, African Episcopal Church, and African Masonic Lodge No. 459. In those early years, the thought was Africa on my mind and in my mind's eye. Enslaved Africans kept thinking and hoping, all the way up until the nineteenth century, that they would one day return to Mother Africa. Some hummed the tune "I'll Fly Away," believing that, like the legendary hero Solomon, they would be able to fly back to Africa. And especially after fighting at Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill in the Revolutionary War, they just knew they would be free to return home. Instead, the thirteen British colonies that became the United States tightened the reins on their African slaves, passing laws abolishing temporary enslavement and indentured servitude for Africans and making them slaves for life.
By 1800, several generations of Africans had been born on American soil, thousands had been transported from Africa, and the Black population numbered more than one million. Both the vision and the possibility of returning to Africa had become impractical and remote. Further, a movement had begun to abolish slavery and to make the Africans citizens. And both free and enslaved Africans were becoming critically aware of their contributions to the development of American wealth. In light of this new reality and in preparation for citizenship and what they thought would be opportunities to enjoy the national wealth they had helped create through two hundred years of free labor, enslaved Africans began to call themselves "Colored" (often spelled "Coloured" in those days), and the designation "African" declined in use.
"Colored" was used throughout much of the nineteenth century until the white backlash began. The year 1877 marked the end of Reconstruction and set the stage for "the Coloreds" to be put back in their place. The political deal cut in D.C. led to the withdrawal of the federal / Union troops that had been stationed in the South to ensure justice for the ex-enslaved Africans. Power and home rule were returned to the Old Confederacy. The "freedmen" (as they were called by the federal government and by whites) lost the small gains in education, citizenship, and political power that the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation had made possible. New forms of repression and torture began - lynch mobs, Ku Klux Klan, loss of voting rights, and the beginning of separate but (un)equal. By 1900, the quest was on for a new name to capture the new reality of being neither "slave nor free," as one ex-enslaved African put it.
Although some Colored had begun using and rallying for the label "negro," when the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was founded in 1909, the community had not yet reached a consensus. The push for "negro" and for its capitalization hit its full stride during the period between the two world wars. With the U.S. campaign to "make the world safe for democracy," and with Colored soldiers shedding their blood for America, the community thought surely that the contradictory status of Africans in America would be resolved on the side of first-class citizenship and economic equity. Leaders such as Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois, editor of the NAACP journal, Crisis, launched a massive nationwide effort to capitalize and to elevate the Portuguese-derived adjective "negro" to a level of dignity and respect. The NAACP mailed out more than seven hundred letters to publishers and editors. Community newsletters addressed the issue, both sides debated it, and talks and sermons in the Traditional Black Church focused on it. By 1930, the major European American media were using "Negro" and capitalizing it. (The two glaring exceptions were Forum magazine and the U.S. Government Printing Office.) The New York Times put it this way: "[This] is not merely a typographical change, it is an act in recognition of racial self-respect for those who have been for generations in the 'lower case.' " "Negro" was the name until the 1960s when Africans in America struggled to throw off the shackles of Jim Crow and embraced Black Culture, the Black Experience, and black skin color. Again, conferences were held, many under the rubric of "Black Power," debates ensued, and yes, folk had hot arguments and dissed one another about abandoning the name "Negro" for "Black," which was "only an adjective," as those who favored "Negro" often put it. However, the motion of history could not be stopped. The name change to "Black" and the profound significance of this change in the language and life of Blacks was captured in a 1968 hit song by James Brown: "Say It Loud (I'm Black, and I'm Proud)." The final period in the name debate (for now, at least) began in late 1988 with a proposal from Dr. Ramona Edelin, president of the National Urban Coalition, to call the upcoming 1989 summit the African American, rather than the Black, Summit. She asserted that this name change "would establish a cultural context for the new agenda." Her view was that present-day Africans in America were facing a new reality - the erosion, since the late 1970s, of hard-won progress; high unemployment; the rise of racism; the growth of urban youth violence; the proliferation of crack (introduced, it continues to be widely argued in the Black community, by the CIA); and the general deterioration of the community. The situation called for a reassessment within the framework of a global identity, linking Africans in North America with those on the Continent and throughout the Diaspora.
As in previous eras, the name issue, this time the shift from "Black" to "African American," has been debated at community forums and conferences. It has been the topic of conversation and heated arguments at the barber and beauty shop, at family reunions, social gatherings, and at Church events. The change has not been as cataclysmic, though, as the shift from "Negro" to "Black" in the 1960s, because "African American" lacks the negative history of "Black." Further, "African American" returns us to the source, the "African" of early years, but with a significant dimension added: "American." This addition calls attention to four hundred years of building wealth in America and legitimates the demand for political and economic equity, or at least forty acres and a mule. This line of argument was put forth as long ago as 1829 by David Walker, one of the first red, black, and green Brothas, in his Appeal, in four Articles: Together with a Preamble to the Coloured Citizens of the World, but in particular, and very Expressly, to those of the United States of America. His Appeal was published during the era of "Colored." Calling for open rebellion against enslavement, and opposing the American Colonization Society's plan to resettle enslaved Africans in Africa, Walker wrote:
Men who are resolved to keep us in eternal wretchedness are also bent on sending us to Liberia . . . America is more our country than it is the whites' - we have enriched it with our BLOOD AND TEARS.
To date, "African American" appears to have caught on throughout the community, although "Black" continues to be used also (and, to a lesser extent, the name "African"/ "Afrikan"). In opinion polls about the name issue, Black youth are the strongest supporters of "African American," which is not surprising, given the African-Centered consciousness that has emerged in Hip Hop Culture. However, there are those - generally the parents and older siblings of youth - who still favor "Black" because this name generated an intense, long-overdue struggle around old, past scripts of racial self-hatred and because the eventual adoption of the name "Black" symbolized a victorious shift to the positive in the African American psyche.
The historical motion to reconfigure Black identity and Black Language, a movement launched in the 1960s and 1970s, can be viewed as the quest for Re- Africanization. The shift from "Black" to "African American" was inevitable as Black Americans have now come full circle, back to where they had been from the Jump in 1619: "African." The process of linguistic Re-Africanization continues today and is most evident in Hip Hop Culture and in the works of Black women writers such as Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and Terry McMillan. Simultaneously, there is an emerging sense of a bilingual consciousness among middle-class Blacks (particularly those who are not yet middle-aged), who value both U.S. Ebonics and the Language of Wider Communication ("standard English"); this linguistic consciousness has set the stage for a developing level of linguistic experimentation as they incorporate the flava of Black Talk into dialogue and discourse. The linguistic efforts of Black women writers and the Hip Hop Nation, in concert with the linguistic experimentation of young Black professionals, will eventuate in a new language, reflecting a dynamic blend of traditional and innovative linguistic patterns, as U.S. Ebonics enters the twenty-first century. Stay tuned.
Grammar and Pronunciation in Black Talk
Although here we are concerned only with words and phrases in African American Language (AAL), there are correct ways of saying these words, of talking Black, that is, that depend on knowledge of the rules of grammar and pronunciation in U.S. Ebonics. Like the popular DJ said to a dude who phoned in a request for DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince's jam "Summertime": "Okay, man, I'll play it for you, but see, it ain't summertime, it's summahtime." A complete inventory and analysis of the grammar and pronunciation is beyond the scope of this introduction. This Africanized style of speaking the English language is a complicated system, made even more complex by the existence of Euro-American patterns of English within the Africanized English system. Interested readers may consult Lorenzo Dow Turner's Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect; Molefi Kete Asante's "African Elements in African American English" in Joseph Holloway's excellent collection Africanisms in American Culture; J. L. Dillard's Black English; Mervyn Alleyne's Comparative Afro-American; my own Talkin That Talk: Language, Culture, and Education in African America; John Baugh's Black Street Speech; John Rickford's African American Vernacular English (Ebonics): Features and Use, Evolution and Educational Implications; Walter Wolfram and Nona H. Clarke's Black-White Speech Relationships; and William Labov's Language in the Inner City.
Listed below are only a few of the patterns of AAL grammar and pronunciation; these patterns are found in some of the words and expressions in this dictionary:
1. Final and postvocalic "r." The "r" sound at the end of a word or after a vowel is not heard in AAL. Instead, use a vowel sound, as in "summahtime," as that big-city DJ instructed his caller. The expression "Sure, you're right" becomes Sho you right. "Torn up" would be toe up. Use yo instead of "your." And Hip Hop Music's popular, if controversial, word ho is the AAL pronunciation of "whore" (not to be confused with "hoe," as the white teacher in the film House Party did when she asked her Black male student why he called another Black male student's mother a "garden tool").
2. Final and medial consonants. Reduce to a vowel sound or a single consonant sound. Thus, for example, "cold" is coal in AAL. This can get a bit complicated if a word requires the operation of two rules simultaneously, as for example in the phrase "torn up," where the double consonant "rn" must be reduced while the "r" after the vowel sound is deleted. Applying the rules correctly gives you toe, not "ton," which is what one beginning student of AAL produced.
3. Stress on first syllable. For most words, put the stress, or emphasis, on the first syllable of the word. For example, AAL speakers say PO-leece, not po-LEECE, and DE-troit, not De-TROIT.
4. Vowel sound in words that rhyme with "think" and "ring." In AAL, this vowel is pronounced like the vowel in "thank" and "rang." Thus "sing" is rendered as sang, "drink" is pronounced drank, etc. This pattern produced the "thang" in "It's a Black Thang," and the "thang" of Dr. Dre's "Nuthin' but a 'G' Thang," from his 1992 album, The Chronic.
5. Indicate tense (time) by context, not with an "s" or "ed." For example, "Mary do anythang she want to" and "They look for him everywhere but never did find him."
6. "Be" and "Bees" to indicate continuous action or infrequently recurring activity. For example, "Every time we see him, he be dress like that." This rule produced "It bees dat way," which may be shortened to simply bees.
7. Initial "th" sound, if voiced as in "that" and "the," pronounced as "d." This pattern accounts for the popular phrase da bomb.
8. Final "th" sound, if voiceless, becomes "t" or "f." This pattern gives us def, as in "Def Comedy Jam" from the 1970s expression do it to def, with the final "th" in "death" pronounced as an "f." This is also where wit, as in the Hip Hop phrase git wit you, comes from, with the final "th" in "with" rendered as a "t" sound.
9. Is and are in sentences. These words aren't necessary to make full statements; nor are the contracted forms of these words (that is, the " 's" for "is" and the " 're" for "are"). This is the rule that allows What up? for "What's up?"
"Ebonics" Here to Stay?
The term "Ebonics" entered the national consciousness in the midst of the controversy set off by the Oakland, California, School Board's Resolution on Ebonics, passed on December 18, 1996. The board's resolution was the result of months of deliberation and study about the educational crises facing Oakland's Black students. The resolution cited the dismal facts about the educational achievement level of these students - that they were 71 percent of the "special needs" but only 53 percent of the total student population, that they were 80 percent of the suspensions, and that their grade point average was 1.8 (on a 4.0 scale) compared to the average for all students of 2.4. Given this sorry state of affairs, the Oakland board's resolution called for a plan of teaching its Black youth through their primary language, Ebonics. This language was to serve as a vehicle for "maintaining the legitimacy and richness" of the students' language and to "facilitate their acquisition and mastery of English language skills." The board based its plan on standard procedures for teaching students by using their native language (the "mother tongue") to teach the three Rs, and for maintaining that language while teaching the students English (and other languages as well). The Oakland board also based its plan on the voluminous body of research that linguists and other scholars have conducted on the language of African America, especially the work done since the 1960s.
Unfortunately, public discussion did not center on the serious literacy and educational issues facing Oakland's Black students, nor on the deepening educational crises facing Black youth in all major cities, not just Oakland, California. For instance, according to national data presented during the 1997 Senate hearings on Ebonics, at age nine Black kids are 27 points behind in reading; at age seventeen, they are 37 points behind. Instead of focusing public attention on these critical educational problems, the Oakland resolution became an emotional, symbolic issue in which racial attitudes and stereotypes, on the part of both Blacks and whites, took center stage. Some Oakland School Board advocates argue that, in the context of a still-racialized society, the sheer boldness of the resolution made its rejection inevitable. Here was a policy issued by a board comprised of People of Color, who were daring to put forth a plan to empower Black youth while simultaneously preserving their language, which also happened to be the language of their community. Other Oakland sympathizers contend that the negative reaction to the resolution resulted from initial misguided media coverage. From the outset, the majority of the media portrayed the resolution as a plan to teach Black students Ebonics instead of the Language of Wider Communication; thus they would be condemned to a future of poverty, illiteracy, and outsider status in American life. Of course, the resolution does not advocate Ebonics only, but consistently calls for Oakland's African American students to be taught "English proficiency" and "mastery of English language skills." Thus the students would become bilingual. However, by the time the press got the story right, the damage had already been done; people had formed negative opinions and seemed impervious to the truth.
Whether one agrees with Oakland's educational plan, the crux of the issue was, and remains, how best to teach and prepare Black youth for the future. A full- blown treatment of the racial dynamics and complex educational issues involved in the Oakland Ebonics controversy is beyond the scope of this introduction. Interested readers should consult Theresa Perry and Lisa Delpit's The Real Ebonics Debate: Power, Language, and the Education of African American Children (which includes an essay of mine); Ebonics I and II (special issues of The Black Scholar; one issue includes my article on the education of Black children "one mo once"); John Rickford's "Suite for Ebony and Phonics" in Discover magazine; Keith Gilyard and Nicholas Sitx's debate "Would Ebonics Programs in Public Schools Be a Good Idea?" in Insight magazine; the Journal of English Linguistics special issue on Ebonics (which includes my "Ebonics, King, and Oakland: Some Folk Don't Believe Fat Meat Is Greasy"); and a special issue on Ebonics in Black Issues in Higher Education.
As for the term "Ebonics" itself, even though it was Oakland, California, that showcased it to the nation at large in December 1996, the term has been in use by some Black scholars since 1973, the year it was coined by Black clinical psychologist Dr. Robert Williams at a conference on language and the urban Black child. The conference was convened in St. Louis by what was then the Institute of Black Studies. In 1975, Dr. Williams published the conference papers in his book Ebonics: The True Language of Black Folks. In the Preface and Introduction to that book, Williams writes:
A significant incident occurred at the conference. The Black conferees were so critical of the work on the subject done by white researchers, many of whom also happened to be present, that they decided to caucus among themselves and define Black Language from a Black perspective. It was in this caucus that the term Ebonics was created . . . [It] may be defined as "the linguistic and paralinguistic features which on a concentric continuum represent the communicative competence of the West African, Caribbean, and United States slave descendant of African origin. It includes the various idioms, patois, argots, ideolects, and social dialects of Black people," especially those who have been forced to adapt to colonial circumstances. Ebonics derives its form from ebony (black) and phonics (sound, the study of sound) and refers to the study of the language of Black people in all its cultural uniqueness.
Dr. Williams and the other scholars who early on subscribed to the term "Ebonics" clearly conceived of it as a broad term covering all of the various African-European language mixtures that had developed as a result of enslavement and contact between Africans and Europeans over the past several hundred years. The Ebonics spoken in the United States is only one of the Ebonic languages. The term also refers to the French-African language mixture spoken in Haiti, to the English-African language mixture spoken in Jamaica, to the Dutch-African language mixture spoken in Surinam, and so forth. As is the case with all other languages, each of the Ebonic languages, including that spoken here in the United States, has a grammatical structure, a system of sounds, and a vocabulary.
"Ebonics" is no longer confined to the inner circle of a small group of Black scholars and educators; the term has gone mainstream. And although some linguists and other scholars continue to use the term "African American (Vernacular) English," what one hears outside the academy is "Ebonics." Perhaps in the public mind, the term doesn't shout "Race!" in the way that a term like "Black English" or "African American English" does. Or maybe folk just like the sound of the word - "pretty cool name for a language," one Blood remarked recently. In any event, while the Oakland, California, School Board, who brought the term "Ebonics" out into the public arena, has had its proverbial fifteen minutes of publicity and has faded from the national scene, "Ebonics" is enjoying widespread public use. A Traditional Black Church preacher used it in a recent sermon. Warning his congregation not to be "playin wit God," he said that "some of yall call yoself talkin in tongue and don't even know what it's all about, can't speak English or Ebonics." While some people now view the term as simply a neutral label for a Black style of speaking, others, especially those among the Hip Hop generation, loudly celebrate the term and the language. Late Hip Hop artist Big L., in his 1998 jam entitled Ebonics, gives a lesson in Ebonics, using a kind of Ebonics glossary with interlocking rhymes, flaunting his vocabulary skillz and his ability to flow. The term "Ebonics" seems destined for a long linguistic life.
We cannot always determine the exact origin of words and phrases in African American Language as we are able to do with the term Ebonics. However, some understanding can be gleaned by looking at four critical forces that have clearly played a role in shaping the direction and evolution of Black Talk: 1) African languages and cultures; 2) the Traditional Black Church; 3) Black Music; and 4) servitude and oppression.
"what is africa to me?" What is Africa to me: Copper sun or scarlet sea, Jungle star or jungle track, Strong bronzed men, or regal black, Women from whose loins I sprang When the birds of Eden sang? One three centuries removed From the scenes his fathers loved, Spicy grove, cinnamon tree, What is Africa to me?
Writer Countee Cullen posed this question in his poem "Heritage" (1925) during the Harlem Renaissance, but it is a question that continues to be raised in African America. Over the past three decades, there has been a decided emergence of African-Centered consciousness, evidenced, for instance, in the wearing of Kente cloth accessories; in the establishment of Africentric schools, teaching materials, and curricula; and in travel to Africa by church and school groups, professional organizations, and individuals. Still, many Black Americans feel a disconnect with Africa, making statements like those in a survey I conducted some years ago: "We are more American than African; we have been here too long" and "What do they mean about 'African American'? By now we have no African in us." On the other hand, there are also many Black Americans who feel and acknowledge a strong connection to Africa, what some Blacks in the same survey called "our origin and cultural identity."
As far as historians, linguists, and other scholars go, during the first half of this century it was widely believed that enslavement had wiped out all traces of African languages and cultures, and that Black "differences" resulted from imperfect and inadequate imitations of European American language and culture. George Philip Krapp, writing in the 1920s, is one linguist who held this view about the speech of Africans in America. In the 1960s these opinions came under close scrutiny and were soundly challenged by a number of experts, such as historian John Blassingame and linguist J. L. Dillard. Today scholars generally agree that the African heritage was not totally wiped out, and that both African American Language and African American Culture have roots in African patterns. (This view had also been advanced by anthropologist Melville Herskovits and linguist Lorenzo Dow Turner in the 1930s and 1940s, but they were a distinct minority in those days.) Over time, and after prolonged contact with European Americans, Africans in America adopted some Eurocentric patterns, and their African patterns of language and culture were modified - but they were not erased.
African American Language and Culture thus reflects a dual heritage, part African, part American. As Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois put it nearly a century ago in The Souls of Black Folk, "One ever feels his two-ness - an American, a Negro." However, Yoruba, Wolof, Efik, Mandinka, and other African languages did not survive enslavement intact. As linguist John Baugh has noted, Black Americans are the only racial/ethnic group in the United States in which the first generation did not speak its native tongue. (Pidgin and Creole English were spoken in the enslavement community.) Nonetheless, there are a few words of direct African origin that did survive; these have become household words, for instance: tote (to carry), from Kikongo, tota; jazz, from Mandinka, jasi; banana, fromWolof, banana; cola as in Coca-Cola, from Temne, kola; juke, as in jukebox, from Wolof, dzug (to misbehave), and Bambara, dzugu (wicked); gumbo, from Tshiluba, kingombo, and Umbundu, ochingombo; banjo, from Kimbundu, mbanza; and Voodoo, from Fon, vodoun, and Ewe, vodu.
Although exact African word survivals are few in number, there is a dominant African linguistic presence that survived in the African style of speaking; in other words, using English words with an African linguistic flava. One such example is found in word meanings that have survived by way of what linguists call loan translations. These are words and phrases in which the literal meaning of the African language phrase is retained, but not the word itself. For example, in U.S. Ebonics, the word bad means "good." In Mandinka, the language spoken by the Mandingo people in West Africa, the phrase is a ka nyi ko-jugu, which means, literally, "it is good badly," that is, it is very good, or it is so good that it's bad! Another example of this kind of loan translation is in the good old American English word okay. Several West African languages use the form kay, which is added to a statement to mean "yes," "of course," or "all right." For example, in Wolof, the form is waw kay; in Fula, eeyi kay; in Mandinka, o-ke.