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date: 21 November 2017

Black Masculine Language

Abstract and Keywords

In this chapter, I theorize Black Masculine Language (BML) using a critical lens to explore issues of power, desire, hybridity, and pluralism relevant to Black Language. In so doing, I describe indistinguishable purposes and patterns of usage that behave according to fixed sets of rules, that code and govern BML—a language invented through necessity and evolves based on utility. BML is defined as a communicative practice associated more or less with Black male identities, which has an ability to shape shift, to alter cadences of (mainstream) languages to fulfill a variety of functions tied to counterhegemonic articulations of Black identity. As such, BML has done important and complex work in Black communities, helping to shape Black social life and the Black self on terms that are uniquely African while at the same time providing users a powerful tool to subvert and resist hegemonic western colonializing structures of cultural domination.

Keywords: Black Masculine Language (BML), Black Language, Black identity, communicative practice, cultural domination

46.1 Introduction

As soon as they hear Black males, they either shrink or scowl (or do both) because the particular dark-shaded phallic rhythms that rise from our bellies make many people uncomfortable (see Kirkland 2013). They hear our Father Tongue through the same veiled deficit prisms through which they see us. In fact, the deficit prisms guiding their (mis)conceptions of Black males are so pervasive, so entrenched, and so unbelievably fastened to our most egregious associations of human behavior that we (all of us) rarely recognize these unconscious and negative associations with Black Masculine Language (BML) as a problem (Noguera 2008).

Beneath this deficit veil, too many of us (Black males included) have been conditioned to understand BML as a kind of sociolinguistic deformation—something to loathe instead of something to value and affirm. In this vein, BML has been pathologized, associated loosely with slang and street talk, violence and hypersexualization, ignorance and aggression (Alim 2005; Baugh 1995, 1999; Labov 1972, 2010; Rickford and Rickford 2000; Smitherman 2006, 1977). However, in spite of prejudicial public perceptions, BML does important work in the Black community, specifically (Craig 2010; Haddix 2009; Smitherman 2006), and throughout the globe, more generally (Alim 2006; Alim, Lee, and Mason Carris 2011; Baker-Kimmons and McFarland 2011; Paris 2009).

As such, scholars of Black Language (BL)1 have vehemently warned against the mistake of dismissing BML as a linguistic deficiency (Ball and Farr 2003; Baugh 2000, 2009; Smitherman 1999). Hence, anyone familiar with the prevailing ideologies surrounding it knows that BML enjoys a peculiar and sometimes special place in the American linguistic imagination. That is, it enjoys male privilege in relation to AAWL (see Lanehart 2009; Morgan, this volume), and the psychology surrounding it is often as complex as it is contradictory. Perhaps one problem with writing this chapter is the idea that much of (p. 835) what we know about language is gendered knowledge based on male usage (see Labov 1972; Lanehart 2009; Morgan, this volume). Hence, for some, any commentary on BML underwrites a long-standing hegemonic contract that further privileges a configuration of language that embodies a particular (though raced) patriarchy that guarantees the dominant (sup)position of men over the subordination of women.

Notwithstanding, in many public contexts, BML is scorned and finds itself at odds with the status quo. What is likely to conjure envy and desire also and simultaneously invokes fear and loathing. Both social exigencies exist side by side, producing phobias and fetishes in non-linguistic discussions of BML. However, understanding the language—how it performs legitimate communicative work (Gilyard 1991), and how narrow notions obscure its importance in American linguistic heritage and reify deficit ideas of Black males (Kirkland 2013)—is a key part of freeing Black people from the tangles of linguistic racism and the traps of deficit logics. In this chapter, I describe the indistinguishable purposes and patterns of usage, which behave according to fixed sets of rules, and code and govern BML.

46.2 Understanding Black Masculine Language

By BML, I do not mean languages used by only Black men. It is vital that those of us who study BLs move beyond essentializing descriptions of how Black people use language and toward more nuanced interpretations of the textured and pluralistic forms and flows that comprise the multi-sensual, multi-accentuated repertoire of languages that Black people, regardless of gender,2 use. In this light, I theorize BML as a communicative practice associated more or less with Black male identities (Smitherman 2006; Young 2004). This understanding of BML sees it as a particular yet unstable sociolect of BL, or what is sometimes called a genderlect (i.e., a language variety associated with a specific gender; though, I use the term loosely here to refer to sets of linguistic performances and associations that are mainly reflective of maleness). This particular description of BML locates the linguistic scripts we typically ascribe to Black masculinity on a fluid plane of socially coded expectations of linguistic behavior that can be grouped and understood by patterns of racial (Black) and gendered (male) boundaries of practice that are tied to one’s social and cultural identities.

Given this definition, there is not much difference between BML and BL, BML’s umbrella category (see Spears, this volume). Like BL, BML has an ability to shape shift, to alter cadences of (mainstream) languages to fulfill a variety of functions tied to counterhegemonic articulations of Black identity (see Lanehart, this volume). In BML, terms such as nigga transgress and transform the meaning of associated and sometimes pejorative terms in ways that reinterpret the Black self and begin to erase or interrupt some of the prejudices maintained by hegemonic systems of language. As in the case of nigga, (p. 836) this transformation sometimes takes place by transfixing word parts (‒er) and (‒a) to image contrasting words with not only inverted meanings but also with varying proximities to agency for users. We see this at work in the contrast of nigger (which denotes racial inferiority) and nigga (which in BML, as in BL, can sometimes denote endearment). As Campbell (1997) notes, Blacks sometimes use “the standard English pejorative label ‘niggers,’ by replacing ‘‒ers’ with ‘the Black vernacular ‒az to affirm their identity and community ‘in the face of anyone or anything that poses a threat to Blackness’ ” (68). Here, nigga works to not only interrupt racist discourses that seek to code Black inferiority, the term also reinvents Black identity linguistically, affirming a meaning that is both human and desirable (see Alim, this volume).

Another example is brother, which denotes a male sibling. However, brotha (like nigga) transforms the idea of the term to specifically code/capture Black masculinity, connoting close friendships and/or male-to-male nonsexual relationships that might be defined as closer than friendship. Both nigga and brotha, by contrasting the –er and –a endings, signal their transformations/transgressions of the hegemonic meanings of mainstream words. In this transformation, BML users gain a certain kind of agency over terms and self and, through the act of counter-labeling, gain a particular kind of freedom over themselves and their language.

These figurations of BML are not without complication. Such uses of BML have been policed as much as they have been celebrated and exoticized by a public too willing to dismiss BML as slang, street talk, or sybaritic. Moreover, because it transgresses the social role assigned to language by the dominant culture (as in the case of nigga) and is criticized as primordial and primitive because it embodies and expresses a tone that explicitly rejects the reigning codes of propriety and place (as in the case of brotha), BML has seen its rejection early in American linguistic history. Scholars such as Labov (1972) have noted how mainstream attitudes toward various elements of BML have associated it with laziness and stupidity (see Kirkland, Jackson, and Smitherman 2001; Rickford and Rickford 2000).

In his study on the perceptions of Black males, Foster (1995) provided an empirical context for this peculiar, prejudicial gaze policing BL. He cited a number of studies that found Black males “disproportionately identified as behaviorally disordered or emotionally disturbed” (39). More specifically, he found that of the “Whites [surveyed]: (a) 53.2 percent rated Blacks as less intelligent, (b) 56.1 percent rated Blacks as more violence prone, (c) 77.7 percent rated Blacks as likely to prefer living on welfare, and (d) 62.2 percent saw Blacks as being lazier” (42). In spite of these (mis)conceptions, Foster suggested that so-called “street corner language of Black males” did valuable work in Black male lives. According to Foster:

Most often, the street corner [Black] male student used his street corner language and behavior—survival and coping techniques—that were appropriate for his survival on the street corner, but caused him problems in school. Some of these street corner coping and survival techniques included, playin’ the dozens, ribbin’, signifyin’, woofin’, and non-verbal kinesic behaviors. (38)

(p. 837) The linguistic dissonance between the Black world, where BML gained incredible purchase, and the wider world, where it caused its users incredible trepidation, should not be overlooked. Much of this dissonance, according to educational researchers and sociolinguists (Alim 2005; Kinloch 2005; Paris 2009), is rooted in a misunderstanding or dismissal of the important work that BL does in Black social life and beyond.

We now hold a treasure trove of scholarship in Black linguistics that details the remarkable utility of BML in Black social life (see Makoni et al. 2003). Perhaps chief among this work is Labov’s (1972) foundational study of BL, which sought to affirm the product of Black lungs by describing the deep contents of BML and its concern with countercultural themes (some of which is indeed problematic): drugs, sexism, pleasure, excess, nihilism, defiance, pride, and the cool pose of disengagement. For Labov, these items were all a part of the style, personality, vision, and countercultural practice of BML, which could not be confined within the dominant cultural logics surrounding language. In his work, Labov painstakingly illustrated how BML challenged dominant linguistic orthodoxy between the races; however, with respect to women, he maintained this same powerful and defiant linguistic performance of Black manhood while overlooking unequal relations of power between the sexes.

Notwithstanding, Labov’s (1972) early research into what he termed “Black English Vernacular” described the remarkable linguistic dexterity that BML users flexed. For Labov, this verbal flexing amounted to particular political disturbances and cultural rearticulations of the ever-emerging Black self. That is, BML enabled and ultimately manufactured an alternative cultural experience for its users. Hence, early on, Labov and others (Baugh 1999; Smitherman 1977; Wolfram 1969; Wolfram and Christian 1989) were charting the usefulness of BML, documenting its subversive (though stigmatized) nature. Moreover, because it operated differently than mainstream hegemonic codes, BML required new contextualizations and different frames for social and linguistic assessment. Yet, in a stubborn and highly racialized public, old frames that privileged the primacy of elite White language practices continued to dominate. In this context, BML continued to be figured in the public imagination as the basis of legitimate linguistic prejudice—critiqued or celebrated, as in the case of rappers (see Alim, this volume); viewed as naturalized and commodified speech, as in the case of athletes (see Smitherman 2006); as symbols of menace and threat, as in the case of Black gang members (see Baugh 1999); and as noble warriors, as in the case of Black nationalist groups such as the Black Panthers and the Fruit of Islam (see Alim 2006; Kynard and Eddy 2009).

46.3 The Evolution of BML in Black Social Life

As much as one might experience it daily through ads, music, television, situation comedy, sports, and so forth, the utility of BML in Black social life seemed historically (p. 838) structured by and against dominant (and dominating) discourses of masculinity and race, specifically (Whiteness). For example, Baker-Kimmons and McFarland (2011) write about “the Black jazz men” of the 1950s and 1960s. In so doing, they describe, notably, how the language use and style of musicians such as Miles Davis and John Coltrane became emblematic of “the complex social relations (race, class, sexual) and cultural politics surrounding the self-construction and representation of the Black masculine in the public sphere” (337). In the mouths of Black men, or at least through Black masculine strategies for subverting power through linguistic play, BL gained a kind of swag. In this “cool” space, BML scripts and proverbs began patterning the dialectal dispositions of the Black masculine communicator in desirable and stylish ways. Take, for example, the statement:

  1. (1) “Yo, homie! Don’t hate the playa; hate the game” (Kirkland 2006).

From a purely descriptive standpoint, the statement reveals BML as patterning certain scripts of the Black self. These scripts, what Lanehart (this volume) calls “Acts of Identity” (from Le Page 1986; Le Page and Tabouret-Keller 1985) and “Possible Selves” (from Markus and Nurius 1986), illuminate features of Blackness disposed through language that are rife with the wisdom and experience of Black “socioculture,” “sociohistory,” and “sociopyschology.” In this use, the language makes intimate the strange, necessarily disarming or disrupting (as in fully signifyin3) by naming the world in ironic, witty, and, sometimes, humorous terms.

In example (1), homie not only acts as an accepted (and acceptable) term of Black masculine endearment signaling casual friendship (cf. nigga and brotha, as discussed earlier in this chapter), but also offers a conceptual metaphor (Lakoff and Johnson 2003) that explains sociocultural nature and human sociopsychology. If used in this latter way to signify (or signal) the natural equalities of person (we are all equally playas in some unjust game), then the informal personal label homie expresses more than familiarity; it suggests equanimity in that one can’t judge or be seen or see themselves as superior to another homie/playa. Hence, judgment (or indictment of social inequity) expresses a macro consciousness that is critically aware of inequity in society (i.e., the game).

In many accounts, our “language selves” (see Lanehart, this volume) are more than cultural, historical, or psychological. They, too, are gendered (see Morgan, this volume). In her discussion of the term playa, Smitherman (2006) speaks to the gendering of BL when she writes:

Although the term and the concept of ‘playa’ predates the Blackploitation films of the late 1960s and 1970s, it was during that era that ‘playa’ became synonymous with Pimp or Mack, who was characterized as a shrewd manipulator of women or a scam artist with dazzling rhetorical skills. (69)

She further describes how the term playa has been picked up by either male rappers to describe the heights of their exploits or used to describe B-Ball playaz and other (p. 839) men who are at the top of their games. While it might be said that playa occupies gender-neutral space (in the sense that anyone can play and be played), one must note how the term, as Smitherman discusses it, is typically gendered as male. While this seems to be the case, I do acknowledge exceptions. Smitherman explains that “increasingly, in twenty-first-century Black America, playaz are women” too (69). However, in spite of its use, BML terminology such as playa often reinvents/inverts the Black (male or female) self, disassociating it with mainstream proclivities and reconfiguring it as something human and almost certainly as something cool.

This coolness—which I describe as subversive though stylized linguistics acts of “our hoped for possible selves” (see Lanehart, this volume)—has had a long-standing cultural history in the Black community, and among Black males, in particular. According to Majors and Billson (1993), Black men employed coolness during slavery:

To say the least, slavery hindered the Black man’s ability to control his role. Thus, the Black male has had to read the world from his perspective and devise ways to meet the needs of himself and his family in slavery and its aftermath of racism and oppression. One of the ways of knowing and acting exploited by Black males is being cool. (681)

My own research on Black males and language has also pointed to the significance of “cool” in the innovation of a subversive, though liberatory Black (masculine) communication style (Kirkland 2011c; Kirkland and Jackson 2009). In a study of Black masculine literacy practices, Kirkland and Jackson (2009) described the inversion of words like “dog,” frequently used among young “cool” Black men, to signify acceptance, loyalty, and camaraderie (see Smitherman 2000). We found that though many words and expressions such as dog used in the lexical corpus of BML have passed from the mainstream lexicon (see Morgan 2005), the flavor of the word and the style of its saying adopted new meaning in the crafty mouths of “cool” BML users. It is within this larger backdrop of invention complemented by acts of inversion and innovation that BML gets its characteristic forms. Hence, its utility in Black social life (among other things) can be understood as functioning as a sort of linguistic trickster act (see Gates 1988)—one that conceals uncharacteristic things such as meanings and ideas, faces and otherwise legible but less acceptable social functions (e.g., fear, vulnerability, discomfort) (Neal 2013).

In this light, Baker-Kimmons and McFarland (2011) suggested that through strategic acts of cool, Black males, particularly Black jazz musicians (though not exclusively), innovated BML in the process of constructing cool poses. As innovators of BML, these men, Baker-Kimmons and McFarland argued, challenged dominant cultural assumptions about masculinity and race. Through their music and style, these (largely heterosexual) Black men defined themselves linguistically and on terms of their own against a hegemonic White social order that sought to devalue them and their cultural-linguistic practices. Hence, their creative, cool uses of language did important counterhegemonic work in helping to articulate a different way of knowing the Black self, a knowledge that (p. 840) would further seed other, hoped for articulations of (revolutionary) Blackness. In this way, BML also gave Black people, particularly certain Black men, a lens for seeing the world through the very structures of feeling they assumed, articulated, and enacted (see Smitherman 1999)—from the defiant cool pose of Black jazz men to the new cosmopolitan appetite that jazz and the new Black social life craved.

46.4 BML in Contemporary Contexts

In addition to helping to construct Black subversive selves, BML offered itself to users as a language of resistance. Discussing a young Black research participant who knowingly rejected mainstream written codes, Fecho (2003) illustrated the suspicion some BML users express in relation to the monolingual hegemony of “mainstream codes”:

Robert grasped that many codes were within his reach, but also grasped that these codes brought advantages and costs. He came to realize that it was difficult at best to operate and sound natural in a language code with which one had little practice using or had mixed feeling about acquiring…. What I learned was that, for these students and others like them, it was a matter of if they were able to speak and write in the mainstream codes… but was more a matter of figuring out why they would feel disposed to do so. (67)

Robert’s suspicion of mainstream codes is not surprising. Citing Labov’s (1972) research “in male linguistic dominance,” Smith et al. (2000) wrote: “It was discovered that in urban settings, standard pronunciation is associated with women more than men, making formal English a gender marker for women” (431). For students such as Robert, appropriating mainstream codes is not a politically or culturally innocent act. Rather, it carries “advantages and costs,” as well as raising questions that center on uncomfortable topics within gender, race, and sexuality. Anticipating such questions, Fecho suggested that had Robert appropriated mainstream codes he would have also accommodated the litany of “feared possible selves” associated with it because any code (as in language) is very much about the politics of identity and the tensions corresponding to it (see Lanehart, this volume).

For contemporary examples, some of the linguistic scholarship on Hip Hop4 helps explain the situation of BML (see Alim, this volume). In his foundational analyses of what he calls “Hip Hop Linguistics” and “Hip Hop Nation Language,” Alim (2006) alludes to a grammar structure for BML, describing how it differs from canonical grammars and hegemonic Englishes (and even from BL, as it is more traditionally/or narrowly understood). For example, in Hip Hop as in BML, Alim sees a “new equative copula” (i.e., the verb to be) employed in the masculine to brag or to place emphasis not on doing (i.e., a verb phrase) but on naming one’s being (i.e., a noun phrase). He describes how rappers (cf. BML users) use the copula with noun phrases to construct (p. 841) ideas and images of the self even though previous literature on invariant be5 (Fasold 1972; Labov et al. 1968; Wolfram 1969) deemed sentences like (2)‒(4) as ungrammatical:

  1. (2) “I be the king supreme.”

  2. (3) “He be my father.”

  3. (4) “I be the head nurse.”

Smitherman (2006) explains this more “contemporary” linguistic innovation the following way:

For more than four decades in Black America, you would hear statements like “This my pastor,” not “This be my pastor.” However, today’s Black Hip Hop youth have expanded (or perhaps resurrected) the domain of the Black Language icon, be. Today in Hip Hop Music, we hear: “Dr. Dre be the name” (from the producer and co-founder of NWA): “I be the insane nigga from the psycho ward” (from Method Man); “My grammar bees Ebonics” (Nelly)… (102)

When examined closely, Smitherman’s (2006) examples suggest that BML users (in this case, rappers) do much more than simply innovate the copula construct; they reconfigure the language with brazenly masculine undertones that operate within forms of Black (masculine) discourse, such as machismo and braggadocio (see Kirkland 2011c). Moreover, if we take, for instance, example (2) in relation to examples (3) and (4), a clear discourse of braggadocio can be observed. This form of Black discourse earmarks gender-specific linguistic results not unlike the associated forms of masculinity found in other languages. With this said, I have noticed at least three common patterns of grammar significant (though not exclusive) to BML users:

  • Use of invariant be for emphatic present as opposed to future tense—what I call the God tense for boasting and constructing exaggerated figurations of the self (see Smitherman 1999)

  1. (5) “I be the king supreme.” (i.e., I am [presently] the [highest-ranking] king.)

  • Use of alliteratives in grammatically inverted structures

  1. (6)Real recognize real.” (N.B.: contextual signals for tense)

  2. (7) “Only niggas know niggas.”

  • Implied or deleted elements (usually like or as) in simile or simile-like structures (often used in rapping, toasting, and boasting)

  1. (8) “I gotta put that patch over my third eye, [deleted like] Slick Rick.” (from Lil’ Wayne’s “My Homies Still”)

  2. (9) “Give you that iPhone 4, [deleted like] FaceTime” (from Fabolous’s “You Be Killin Em”)

(p. 842) Hip Hop, as it embraces BL, has also afforded its typically male interlocutors a rich, dynamic, and unique phonetic repertoire. Hip Hop Nation Language, like BML, pronounces –ing (/ɪŋ/) as ‒in (/ɪn/), as in chillin, feelin, hatin, and so on:

  1. (10) “He be controllin the mic”

This phonetic element promotes what could be called a cool effect, or natural smoothness of sound concerned with cadence and flow, which also evokes rhythm and confidence (i.e., key elements in BML, which in some ways exist as linguistic performances that disrupt dominant linguistic scripts) (Rickford and Rickford 2000; Smitherman 1977, 1999). Like BL, BML use is also typified by unique consonant constructs, significantly the comparative difference between its initial, middle, and final consonant sounds and that of mainstream Englishes:

  1. (11) Variation in pronunciation of /θ/ and /ð/

    1. (a) the pronounced /də/ in BL (i.e., /ð/ as /d/)

    2. (b) father pronounced /fɑdə/ in BL (i.e., /ð/ as /d/)

    3. (c) with pronounced /wɪf/ or /wɪd/ in BL (i.e., /θ/ as /f/ or /d/)

  2. (12) Post-vocalic -/r/ variation

    1. (a) cypher pronounced /saifə/ in BL and usually spelled cypha

    2. (b) nigger pronounced /nɪgə/ in BL and categorically spelled nigga

In the context of BML, these linguistic comparatives point out two things with which this chapter has been concerned: a linguistic utility primed at various aspects to transgress hegemonic modes of mainstream languages and script deep dimensions of Black (male) identity. In this way, there is important overlap between Hip Hop Linguistics and BML, when the two entities work in mutually representative ways to resist cultural hegemony while languaging Black masculine being. Thus, in the shift from jazz to Hip Hop, the myriad purposes associated with subversion, resistance, and the varied practices that codify, for example, coolness have remained relatively stable from Hip Hop to BML. That is, rappers today, like the Black jazz musicians of yesterday, invent and invite language as a resource to invert power in acts of being and in the processes of negotiating otherwise socially and politically hostile environments. Hence, the linguistic forms of resistance that the jazz men of the 1950s and the 1960s practiced continued to play, in part, on the cool and cutting Black masculine linguistics of Hip Hop today (see Alim, this volume; Smitherman 2006).

The contemporary forms of BML found in Hip Hop also invite new raw and real associated content that wear the chiseled face of a kind of reclaimed but hypermasculine Blackness, which itself has been subject to public scrutiny, spectacle, and open attack (see Alim, this volume). In the global assault on Hip Hop, even newer forms of BML have surfaced, facing familiar kinds of surveillance, scrutiny, and discrimination as its predecessor forms. These new forms have now become so widely known and studied that they work as an explicit sign(ifying) and smoldering example of the everyday existence (p. 843) of discrimination that BML and its users continue to endure (Alim 2006; Miner 2009; Petchauer 2009; Richardson 2006). According to Morgan and Bennett (2011):

Among African hip-hop artists in particular, there is a sustained critique of hardcore Hip Hop. Commercial gangsta rap lyrics have been central to hardcore Hip Hop culture, and have historically represented, (in some cases) analyzed, and (in too many others) glamorized the intersection of masculinity, dominance, and violence. As a result, hardcore Hip Hop culture has been the historical target of global and American communities; and it has produced a contested relationship with local hip-hop cultures in the United States and elsewhere. (189)

Usually searching for reasons to vilify it, the public has limited BML to the image or sound of an imagined and offensive Hip Hop (Neal 2013), particularly as filtered through the linguistics lenses of gangsta rap (see Smitherman 2006). As the public associates it more-and-more with what it imagines to be a hardcore Hip Hop culture, BML becomes limited to extreme tropes of hegemonic masculinity. Hence, BML, like gangster rap, becomes an easy target of sustained critique—vilified as violent, misogynistic, profane, materialistic, and so on in spite of its incredible complexity and the important work that it does in Black social life.

For many young Black males, however, the utility of this language has never been limited to the hood or the gangster set. Researchers of Black male literacy development have been ardent in their descriptions of how Black males use BML as a rich resource to mediate their literacy development (Haddix 2009; Kinloch 2008; Kirkland 2010, 2011a, b, c, 2013; Kirkland and Jackson 2009). In their study of literacy practices of a group of inner-city youth, Mahiri and Sablo (1996) described the intricate communicative work of BML (in Hip Hop culture). Moving away from a deficit model and toward a profit one, they productively analyzed a rap from a Black male student (Troy) who attended an afterschool program in California. In so doing, they illustrated the complex role that BML plays in Black male development—in this case, how it helped Troy to structure and frame his thoughts and experiences. They found:

The structure of his [Troy] rap… reveals his mastery of other rhetorical devices reflective of African American language styles along with an expert knowledge of contemporary African American slang terminology and its use. As Troy explained, “skrill” was a combination of the terms “scratch”—a somewhat dated slang term for money—and “mill” or million; the term could also refer to a meal ticket, he indicated. For example, he uses the slang term “doe” (for “though”) to emphasize his points in a way that simulates elements of African American preaching style (“you don’t feel me doe,” “I got two families that love me doe”). In effect, “doe” redirects readers’ (or listeners’) attention to and intensifies the importance of the thematic points made in the preceding lines of their respective stanzas. Additionally, Troy’s use of a second-person reference (“you”) in these two lines is reflective of the dialogicality, or multivoicedness… [which] is an essential part of African American youth discourse. This technique drives home the meaning of Troy’s words to persons (p. 844) outside of the two families who feel for and love him—persons who may not know or understand the particular “family values” of these two groups. (2004, 173‒74)

Campbell (1997) similarly described the role that BML plays in the development of its users. He studied a group of “Black inner city male students,” whom he saw as natural “code meshers” because of the ways they mixed elements of BML with academic discourse in their essays. For Campbell, these male students’ “Hip Hop” language practices were an inseparable part of who they were, as BML gave them the linguistic platform to articulate and embody charismatic, heterosexual, Black male identities. Young (2004) troubled Campbell’s heteronormative view of masculinity as the prime basis for languaging an authentic Black male self. For Young, as much as it might be a language of identity and utility in and out of school contexts for young Black males, BML could also be a mask for young Black males who are subject to a particular kind of scrutiny reserved for those who perform non-dominant sexualities. In discussing this particular tension, Young, a Black male himself, wrote:

They were words I had often used to mask the fear and pain that I experienced while growing up as a rather bookish boy with a high-pitched voice in the ghetto—a boy often teased, called sissy and fag, because I liked performing in school plays instead of playing sports. It didn’t help that I had no “raunchy macho,” or couldn’t develop that “special [pimp] walk,” or that I was no good at the “distinctive handshakes and slang” that early childhood education researcher Janice E. Hale-Benson describes as the “common manhood rites” for black boys (170). Because of this, my gender performance was incompatible with what was required of black boys. So for psychological protection, I convinced myself that I didn’t give a fuck about the ghetto and longed only to get out. (2004, 11)

While Young’s experience masking himself with BML to escape social scrutiny within the Black community presents a needed example of the complexity of BML use, scholars such as Craig (2010) have viewed BML use as less a mask and more like a strategic choice. According to Craig, BML gives users, particularly Black male users, a set of rhetorical choices with language and other modalities to help them constitute their Black masculine identities in situations and environments hostile to it. Craig, for example, maintains that Black male use of and association with BML (and, increasingly, Hip Hop) helps users to define what it means to be Black and male in homogeneous and hostile public contexts. The Black males in his study learn how to adapt to such situations using BML in ways that implicate the meaning and importance of race-and-gender-accented language as a survival strategy, as a means of making adjustments, and as a way of publically identifying themselves (i.e., demasking). Understanding BML from this vantage point helps BL researchers begin to see the linkages between language and the negotiated/constructed Black self, or “how young people actually use these texts to construct their identities, their unique subjectivities, and the social networks in which they are embedded” (Dimitriadis 2001, 29).

(p. 845) 46.5 Conclusion

The relationship between BML and Black (male) identity(ies) is complicated. From its origins until now, BML has done important but complex work in Black communities, helping to shape Black social life and the Black self on terms that are uniquely ours (see Lanehart, this volume) while at the same time providing users a powerful tool to subvert and resist cultural domination and other dimensions of injustice perched against Black social realities. In this light, the language has never been deficit or substandard as compared to ruling, mainstream linguistic codes. Rather, it was invented through necessity and evolved based on utility. Over time, the language has come to do important work for its users, who often critically employ it as a:

  1. 1. Strategy for navigating the world

  2. 2. System for expressing Black manhood/masculine being

  3. 3. Form of resilience/resistance

  4. 4. Posture of aggression, strength, and power

These functions of BML have not developed in isolation, but in collaboration with popular shifts in Black subcultures, such as music (e.g., jazz and Hip Hop) and sports (e.g., B-Ball). And at times, they are promulgated through poverty and educational neglect. In spite of how it emanated and continues to evolve, BML has emerged as an option for all its users, but particularly young Black males in the Hip Hop sector, with a desperate need for guidelines concerning maturity and meaning. This is perhaps why acts of (Black) masculinity such as coolness continue to define the angles on which BML slides.

Even still, this chapter merely scratches the surface with respect to how Black masculine ways work (with)in BL. Deep levels of comparative and inductive investigations are still needed to map the totality of BML and the rules governing its use in Black communities and beyond. What happens when BML—and not just the words that flow out of the mouths of young Black men (as a gender performance)—is adopted by non-Black masculine beings? What happens to that person’s gender performance and the expression(s) of BML itself? BML, among other things, is subversive and demonized, but also readily adopted across racial and gender lines. Thus, in this chapter, I have sought to theorize BML critically by exploring issues of power, desire, hybridity, and pluralism as well as the fluidity and splintering of the masculine impulses that reside in Black whispers. In this light, we do know some things about BML. We know that BML includes many languages, in particular the languages of the many people who clothe themselves in Black masculine bodies, cultural struggles, and political upheavals that leave articulations of Black masculinity displaced or obsolete and the social derisions and lineages of oppression that foment twisted tongues beyond and through chattel spaces. This language, fitted with its own sounds, rules, and vocabularies has emerged as the Black masculine vocal chord—broken and collected, creatively carved and socially strained out of a stew of many delicate voices all folded into one.

(p. 846) If BML boasts such elegance, how can hegemonic sentiments concerning BL—and, by association, Black people—persist, subjecting BML and its users to fierce public spectacles and ongoing demonization? Key elements of this sociolinguistic tangle—Black people’s seeming love for BML beset against the severe hatred it receives in public, including by Black people (i.e., via covert prestige)—are reinforced by contradiction, which is itself further complicated by minstrelized representations of BML and its users in mainstream society (Kirkland, Jackson, and Smitherman 2001; Rickford and Rickford 2000). In viewing BML from the margins of this gaze, two sites representing seemingly opposite ends of the spectrum of contemporary racism reveal the continuing significance of the historical obsession with controlling and “taming” Black (male) bodies and tongues. And though I only hint at it in this chapter, four common themes permeate the public construction of BML and work to justify, even beyond deficit perspectives, linguistic racism. These include a continued emphasis on BML as: (1) inherently aggressive, hypersexual, and violent; (2) wild, unruly communicative practices needing taming; (3) a product of a deficient Black culture; and (4) a corruption of “naturalized” (therefore inherently “superior”) codes of communication.

In spite of how the public perceives them, the languages of Black people, and particularly of Black males, are firmly rooted in the linguistic ecologies of Black America: in neighborhoods and schools, play spaces and work sites, and anywhere else we might socially find Black men and boys communicating. Hence, BML is not confined to the gendered space that is the Black male body; rather, it is a continuance of African languages inflected by subversive derivatives of mainstream, colonial, hegemonic dialects. Further, BML is a form of BL forged between the bonds of brothers (and sisters) who share not only patterns of communication but also deep and abiding histories of performance and oppression where the still emerging subjectivities of Black men and boys (and dare we include women, girls, the genderedly different, and the genderless) are subject to sociolectal (re)shaping. These new insights, if considered seriously, have the potential to liberate Black bodies from the shackles of prejudice and extend conversations about race, gender, language, and literacy in ways that might ultimately expand frameworks for how we understand the life of language in the Black (masculine) world.


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(1.) In this chapter, I refer to Black Language (BL) as an umbrella category that contains beneath it gendered, classed, regional, and subcultural variations. Many of these varieties, as they intersect and overlap with BL, also intersect and overlap with one another. Hence, BML explains internal variation within BL by gender (for a discussion of AAWL, see Morgan, this volume). Further, I have chosen not to contrast variants of BL (e.g., BML versus Hip Hop Nation Language [see Alim, this volume] or BML versus AAWL [see Morgan, this volume] to avoid the less than useful impulse and counterproductive or dysconscious practice of pitting Black subgroups against one another). Therefore, in this chapter, I do my best to explain BML as a gendered variant of BL and only refer to other variations of BL when they become useful for helping to illuminate BML and its many aspects.

(2.) By gender, I am referring to the range of behaviors characteristic of and differentiating seemingly opposing acts of masculine and feminine socializations. In this sense, gender is distinguished from sex. Sex refers to biological makeup and, by contrast, gender refers to the social construction of maleness and femaleness (as in gender roles). Hence, a female can be masculine or use masculine language just as a male can be feminine or use feminine language. Though many of the examples of BML offered in this chapter feature men and boys, I do attempt to be careful about how and when I use “male/female,” “woman/man,” and “masculine/feminine.”

(3.) According to Smitherman (2006), “signifyin is a style of verbal play that focuses humorous statements of double meaning on an individual, an event, a situation, or even a government” (68).

(4.) Hip Hop Linguistics is replete with examples of Black male language usages. Much like jazz before it, Hip Hop and its artists, who are predominately Black and male, have done interesting things with BL (Alim 2006), not only marking it as masculine but also helping us understand the various kinds of work the language achieves in Black (male) life.

(5.) The use of the unconjugated to be verb to mark habitual or extended actions. In BL, the invariant be is used to mark things such as tense and aspect instead of the inflected forms of be, such as present tense is/are and the past tense was/were.