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Mouthing-Off In Black America

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In African barracoons (slave holding prisons) and aboard slave ships to the Americas, the European ship captain and ex-convict European overseer crew necessarily had to communicate with their "Black Gold" or "Human Cattle"--and therefore used several simple trade languages-- called Pidgins. Pidgin Portuguese was the first of these "Lingua Francas" (Frankish tongue-- the name of an extinct hybrid tongue, Sabir) but Pidgin English replaced it by the 17th century when the slave trade to North America began. The small vocabulary and simple syntax of Pidgin English was ideal for ordering the polyglot (meaning those who speak several languages) Slaves about. Since their Middle Passage ship transportation to the New World often lasted between 6 to 12 weeks, most Slaves had a rudimentary knowledge of Pidgin English upon arrival. It use was reinforced by many of the slave owners to whom the enslaved were sold. Pidgin was spoken on the plantation, along with many varieties of English, and in time it grew into what is called Plantation Creole--a Creole being a pidgin language spoken by members of a second generation-- one whose speakers regard it as their native tongue. Such a Plantation Creole was called "nigger English" or just "nigger" at the time- -and it varied from place to place by the mid-19th century. Mixed into all these Pidgin Languages and Plantation Creoles were the prison words showered on the Slaves by the ex-convict European overseers. Such was reasonably successful because the only possible way the Slaves could learn Plantation English, which mainly consisted of offensive and work related words, was by imitating the words associated with certain concepts and the special dialects presented by their owners.

Through English the Slaves shared not just the names for things but also the values, meanings, and rules outlined by the captors so as to shape how the Slaves related to these things (Bailey, Afrocentric English). This admix of English and a few African retained words, based upon individual interpretations of what those meanings and values were, made up a large part of what the Slaves used to re-fashion their philosophy of life. During slavery "mouthing off" or any form of Impudence by the Slaves was not tolerated. Yet, it was a daily routine for Whites to "mouth off" to the Slaves- -i.e. to speak rudely--so as to harass the Slaves to the point that they would be: (1) easily broken in spirit and in self-esteem; (2) made to feel half-rotten; (3) seen by others as worthless; and (4) feel chronically humiliated. Many Slaves copied the "mouth off" practice and used it privately but without knowing its reasons and without intending to be demeaning--a circumstance I call a "zombie" practice (whereby the meaning of the practice, but not the practice itself, is lost or was never known).

Coming out of slavery "mouthing off" took a twist in content but persisted in its "zombie" context. For example, in the 1940’s, when jazz guitarist Slim Gaillard was turning out hits on Atomic Records in Los Angeles, a little pocket handbook called: "Slim Gaillard’s Vout-o- Renee Dictionary" became popular for its “Double-talk.” This was taking "mouthing off" speech and purposely making it meaningless as, for example, “dig” (translation: "do you understand”?). Yet, this speech seemed meaningful because normal words and intonation were (and are) mixed in so as to be evasive -- an offshoot of African Indirection. This book contributed greatly toward standardizing the street language of his generation. "Mouthing off" has continued to this day. One of its forms is verbal re-enactment of what was done by Whites to Black people directly or done to their Slave and ex-Slave Ancestors. Another is a "zombie" continuation of "loaded" words of slavery as, for example, the "N" word. This "zombie" practice helps explain, I believe, why Black youth can use the "N" word so freely among their in-group "Dudes" and without any intention of it being disrespectful. However, when White people use it Black folk see this as a malicious tip of an Iceberg of hatred.

website: www.jablifeskills.com

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