Listen to this story
Black Writers, Don’t Be Afraid to Embrace ‘Anti-Standard English’
Language can be a battleground — and I choose to wage war on the confines of convention
Let me state, emphatically, that I do not hate White people. Quite to the contrary, I love White people. I just hate what some have done and continue to do to Black words, thoughts, appeals, and feelings. Let me also state, with the same enthusiasm, that the United States has never liked me. With the constant erasure of Black culture, White America still makes it inherently clear that the color, gloss, and hue of my skin unsettle the puppeteers of the nation’s power structures.
Race can be considered many things. One thing it is not is real. “White” and “Black” are social constructs, much like the English language is a borrowed thing used to ensure that some Americans are perhaps better cared for than another. That disparity exists in many places, and then it permeates everything we see.
These obstacles make it very hard to be Black in the world.
As reparations seem to be nowhere in sight, writing is the most suitable means by which to reclaim my history’s glory — to take the language whipped into our bones and detangle its roots.
Furthermore, it is hard because the value assigned to Black life is criminally little. If we take it a step further, a Black writer who acknowledges their Blackness — and leans into it without regard for consequence or slight — is playing Russian roulette with their career, and potentially, their life.
I unapologetically take liberties with the English language. I take them freely and willfully, mainly because so much has been taken from my people. As reparations seem to be nowhere in sight, I find that writing is the most suitable means by which to reclaim my history’s glory — to take the language whipped into our bones and detangle its roots. This rule-breaking spirit can mainly be attributed to hip-hop culture. The creation of the art form encouraged the use of sampling, inventing meters, and taking work sonically in newfound directions. It’s a jambalaya pulling from reggae and blues, jazz and funk, disco and soul, poetry, and the original rock and roll that is rhythm and blues. It’s the foundation for writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates, who extract their flavors and cadences from the melodies and lyricism incorporated into eight-bar loops and 16-bar verses. By its origins, hip-hop serves as the antithesis to the literary gatekeepers who behold traditional grammar as a godly science.
There is a standard way I’m supposed to write for the New York Times and the New Yorker. A way to align words and paragraphs. Maybe I’m too lazy, too stubborn, too insatiably defiant. A good friend and former co-worker of mine once shared (while slightly inebriated at a work function) that he had decided, on his own time, to edit one of my pieces. His thoughts were that I was James Baldwin-esque in my approach to prose, and some minor shifting of paragraphs and such could have my work in the New York Times or the Atlantic. While I understand his juxtaposition clearly, I kindly let him know “that was the point” of my work. I don’t doubt that it’s “good enough.”
Maybe the lexicon Black writers use today will eventually spur a new wave of artistry.
I recognize the rules; I do not respect the value we have given them. All land is stolen and redistributed, and language is no different. Not all have the privilege or access to a better grasp of the English language, to learn the usage of participles, why conjunctions function in the way they do, or why tenses matter. My question, whether misspelled words in prose or missed punctuation in essays, is only: Did the story inspire you to do more than what you were doing before reading it? There are no rules for quantifying that.
I’m so adamant about the free and unconventional uses of language, about the allowances needed, and telling those who consider themselves the masters and dictators of language to stop forcing young people to read Grapes of Wrath without exploring Toni Morrison’s canon of work. Stop deferring to Ernest Hemingway and W.B. Yeats without having the same reverence for Saul Williams and Junot Diaz. They all hold weight, and they all matter.
I write from the unspoken diaspora of the ghetto, patrolling its way through every misplaced comma and obvious syntax error, 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 and hieroglyphics. Ebonics, slang, urban vernacular, and colloquialisms are what I have formed to become my bread and butter. Maybe the lexicon Black writers use today will eventually spur a new wave of artistry. Perhaps being anti- “Standard White English” is really just another dig at elitism. Maybe we’re so counter-culture that we’re projecting the entitlement that comes with believing what you create is above culture. Either is fine, I suppose. No matter how you dissect it, I still like my language like I like my rules: broken.