Language & Black Culture

Originally posted on Fembot Magazine and reposted with permission. The following is condensed for our Dylan Lex community.

Millennial communication is so deeply rooted in AAVE that many people forget to notice it. For those who don’t know, AAVE stands for African American Vernacular English and is often seen as the academic word for “ebonics.” For generations, black people have adapted and combined their linguistics from communities all over the globe, from West Africa to Jamaica to even the Caribbean.

AAVE definition

Language is not created by happenstance – but is rather built upon and constantly adapting, which is one of the most amazing things about it. It is not only a way of communicating verbally, but also a different way of connecting with the individual you are speaking to. To me, speaking to someone in their native language can be a lot more meaningful than speaking to them in their second, because it shows that you have put in the effort to learn about their culture and methods of communication.

It shows you are making an attempt to understand someone else’s “normal,” and respect that might be alternative to yours. This is why AAVE is such an integral part of black culture to a lot of people, but too often is ridiculed and patronized by people who may not even know where it came from and what it truly means.

So many people think AAVE is ridiculous and improper. If so, what’s to say on those with Boston accents and Boston lingo? What’s to say on those with Southern accents and southern vernacular? And what about the Londoners speaking in Cockney rhyming slang? Are they also speaking improperly?

A few months ago I was listening to a commercial on the radio in which someone purposely mispronounced the term “That is so on fleek.” saying “on flick.” Then, they proceeded to blindly ask, “Is that what the kids are saying these days?” ridiculing the saying without even acknowledging the fact that fleek as a term rooted in AAVE, is not a joke. Rather it is a serious, passionate part of black culture. It is not just what any kid says. It is what many non-black kids say without thinking about where it came from; yet we do not want to claim AAVE in fear of being seen as less than we already are in society.

What if we love Black people as much as we love Black culture - Amandla Stenberg

AAVE is one of the most difficult issues to discuss when addressing culture appropriation, and personally it’s very difficult for me to straight up deem AAVE spoken by non-black persons is culturally appropriative. Language and linguistics are actually something many people, including me, think of as a very fascinating field of study. It’s so adaptive and mesmerizing to see how cultures, peoples and humanity have evolved over time by means of communication. The truth? Language is a beautiful, prepossessing way of communicating, so to deem any kind of verbal speech as even slightly culture appropriative brings tremendous pain to my heart, and to the hearts of many language-lovers. Language is supposed to be something that brings people together. Language is something that is supposed to be felt. It is not something that is supposed to be taken for granted and used lightly. Language is not a joke, yet again and again, teens and adults everywhere belittle all that AAVE stands for.

Why is it that the only thing that makes the class clown funny is his blatant use of AAVE when he wants to make a punch line? When I think of AAVE, I think of Amandla Stenberg and how she once stated, “What if we loved black people as much as we love black culture?” What if?

Language quote

Why is it that the same people who are using AAVE for their aesthetic are the same people calling us black people ghetto, and ratchet? Why is it that the non-black people who use AAVE end up using it against us? Why is it that as a result of this we end up using something blacks created against ourselves?

I have to admit that I have not grown up speaking AAVE. I have always felt afraid to express myself using AAVE because I did not want people to think I was somehow “uneducated,” as if speaking AAVE and being educated are mutually exclusive. Most of all though, I feared people would think I was “ghetto,” one of the most problematic words used in reference to black culture. But please, take a moment to reconsider why one cannot be both incredibly intelligent and speak AAVE to a T. Why is it so unfathomable to believe that somebody who knows English might choose to speak AAVE? But then again, maybe it is unfathomable to many people that anybody would choose to associate themselves with black culture. Maybe this is the raw, mind-numbing reality of our society. Maybe.

When I hear non-black people using AAVE, I realize how spunky and flavorful it is and how prevalent it is in our society without us even realizing it. People love black culture but they don’t love black people nearly as much, and are so quick to call us “ghetto” when we speak it ourselves. I laugh at the joke that a non-black person has just said and then I ask myself, well why didn’t I think it was cool when I heard that black girl using it? The unspoken of “it’s only cool when non black people say it” complex has really hampered black progression, but I still find myself resorting to the word “ghetto” every time I see my fellow black girls saying “stay woke” or “on fleek” or even “ya girl.” (You’d be so surprised to see how much of your current vernacular is rooted in black culture. (Yes, YAAASS is Black drag culture.).

When I was a kid, I was so proud of the fact that I didn’t sound ghetto because I spoke a white man’s English. I spoke properly. But what is proper English? Isn’t one of the most correct versions of English to the original version the English spoken in England? So then technically, aren’t all of us American’s speaking improperly too? Why does AAVE only become improper on people of color?

Why should we have to be scared to love our culture when everybody else gets to embrace it?

Is AAVE culture appropriation? It would be easy to say yes, and be done with it. But I cannot give a yes or no answer. It’s a language. But it’s also being taken for granted so much that people don’t even notice there’s a problem. I am here to say that there is an astronomical problem with the way we regard AAVE. Being honest here, there are a plethora of culturally appropriative aspects of AAVE in society, yet it takes a lot for me to call language of any kind appropriative. This is the sad reality that we are living in. A reality where we have to question why our language feels like it is being stolen from us, like it is no longer ours to use because we are constantly demeaned when we use it, while everyone else is reprimanded and applauded for making a mockery of it. I am still standing behind the gate of accepting my culture after it has been derogatorily presented to me in a million different pictures.

I will strive to embrace AAVE. Yet ask yourself why we as a people need to be overcoming something like this in 2020. Why should we have to be scared to love our culture when everybody else gets to embrace it? This is the underlying question you should be asking yourself next time you want to use AAVE to be funny, ironic, or in your everyday language.

Baudelaire Brooks, author

By Baudelaire Brookes

Baudelaire Brookes is a Togolese-American young writer who seeks to embrace feminism and social justice issues through the written word. She loves creating and being surrounded by good art and hopes to one day create writing that changes the life of anyone willing to listen, even if it is just one person. She also strives to create influential content on feminism and social justice issues on her YouTube Channel, the Somebody Campaign.