“Don’t Talk About My Mama!” and Other Problems With Black Intellectual Rhetoric

We’ve all had that moment when we realize that a conversation somehow strayed down a rabbit-hole and turned into a debate, and that debate got intense and turned into an argument.  Somewhere deep down inside you were maintaining your cool when all of a sudden the other Negro made it personal and said something about your family member–probably your mother.

Then all hell breaks loose–generally.

Sometimes chairs get overturned as you jump up ready to fight yelling the infamous “Don’t talk about mama!” catchphrase that has become synonymous with American black folk history.  We’ve heard it called many things from “the dozens” to “signifyin'” or simply put “yo mamma jokes.”  It was a time honored tradition if you will, on many playgrounds across this country where black kids would form circles around one another just to see if they could tell the best “yo mamma” joke.  I remember growing up in elementary school and some persons had actually published a book that all of us in 5th and 6th grade were trying to get our hands on just to memorize the jokes and become immortalized at least for a few days in the kid-dom of the Recess/Playground lot at James E. McDade Classical.  I’ll never forget the one liners:

YO MOMMA so fat, she needed a boomerang just to put on her belt.

YO MOMMA so poor, I came to your house, stepped on a cigarette and she said “who turned off the heat?”

YO MOMMA so old, she fart dust or her social security number is one!

YO MOMMA so ugly, she fell out the ugly tree and hit every branch on the way down!

In Chicago, growing up, we said “uh oh, he heatin’ up” and I discovered that each region had their own catchphrase to describe the process to which this time-honored tradition began. From “clownin'” to “gassin’ up” to “readin'” to “s/he snappin’ off” to “he jappin’ off” to any other verb known to the elementary schoolkid’s vocabulary.  Whatever “bookin'” had to be done it was always capped off with a “…and dats why yo’ momma __________ (fill in the blank).”  And the older we got, the more sexually crude that fill in the blank became.  Of course these were wild hyperbole’s only meant to instigate an already heated situation for the sake of momentarily personal fame from a crowd and were never true.

Except if you’re name was Delonte West and you fell out with LeBron James circa 2010.

After the “yo momma…” line was emitted into the atmosphere like a direct pepper spray hit to the eyes, it acted as the ultimate verbal trump card.  There were three options that the victim (yes, victim) had, two of which maintained their viability: one was to simply throw a punch, preferably in the mouth of the verbal assailant; two was to simply up the ante and throw back another “yo momma…” line and the third was simply to opt out.  Granted third was not the preferred choice if one cared anything about playground or classroom reputation, but it was the one our mothers and Sunday School teachers told us to do.  While secretly older brothers, older male cousins, uncles and even fathers were preparing us options one and two.  No wonder when it actually happened we were so conflicted; it wasn’t the devil that made us do it, but the damn adults who couldn’t get their message straight!

So before I make a ethnological faux pas, I’m putting out a disclaimer that I may have some of the following wrong: flat out, our white counterparts weren’t quite socialized like this on the playground.  Sure there was the playground bully and the general art of childhood disagreements, but I would certainly say that that “yo momma” punchline has not been immortalized quite as much as it has been in the black community.  Because of this, maybe not directly so, (but I am making a distinct connection surely with other factors that I’m not discussing), it has directly influenced American black rhetoric.

To believe that Black Americans do not think differently, speak differently and most certainly listen differently is to succumb to American hegemony as logically correct that what is associated with Black is indeed other. A famous case in point is the coded speech that we observed from Barack Obama during the campaign season of 2008.  Blacks across the country knew when he was speaking directly to the African American populace from when he spoke of “a young preacher from Georgia speak of his dream” in his Democratic nomination acceptance speech to telling the story of Ann Nixon Cooper on November 4, 2008: it was a message that aligned himself with the black community.  Or to put it bluntly, when former New Orleans Mayor C. Ray. Nagin made his famous “chocolate city” comment, it was a direct nod toward the black citizenry.

After establishing that blacks speak and listen differently, it’s not a hard stretch to believe that this is all psychological–which I think it is: we think differently.  That is to say, our collective and individual experiences lead us to process information differently; through a different set of variables.  If this were a Venn diagram, there are certainly many shared experiences in the overlap that come just from being part of a westernized culture and being Americans, however many things are viewed differently.  Certainly blacks will regard the medical community with ever-increasing fear and trepidation in light of the recent discovery of American health officials purposely infecting Guatemalan men with syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases to see how the body and infection would react to penicillin treatment from 1946 to 1948.  This of course was a concurrent “study” as the Tuskegee Experiment taking place in rural Macon County, Alabama lasted from 1942 to 1972 under federal government sanction.  For many whites, this isn’t even something they worry about if they’re not going to a free clinic, or if medical malpractice occurs they have the ability to file a lawsuit.

Okay, now that the groundwork has been established, I think that far too often, amongst ourselves, we have this bad tendency to try and outdo one another when we talk.  And this gets magnified when amongst a crowd of people.

As I said earlier, I’m not specifically saying that blacks have a monopoly on this particular oratorical ploy, but certainly there is a particular flare to it.

More and more I’m beginning to think town hall forums that gather blacks in one spot to listen to black intellectuals dish in front of them produces, at times, a zero-sum gain.  The hope is that someone in the audience or listening on radio or television is inspired to do something different or to think some new thoughts, but I would bet that easily 50% of the crowd is just merely listening for certain catch-phrases that already align with their embedded beliefs.

Clearly, Rev. Jamal Bryant slipped into preacher mode whilst talking.  And in the middle of it, he went for the kill by slandering Tony Smith.  Granted, I suggest you click on the highlighted name of Tony Smith and watch the Youtube clip and you’ll see that Jamal, believe it or not, might have been relatively justified in such a public dig, but it still a) diminished a truly intellectual conversation and b) Jamal’s rhetorical style appealed to listeners ears and not their minds.

I’ve pontificated for over 1,000 words just to simply say that when we, as blacks and certainly amongst black academicians and intellectuals, we ought not try and play an intellectual game of cards and try and trump someone else with our silver-tongue.  What truly incenses me is the groupthink. We hear it on the radio talk shows to town hall forums when persons question the panel and even from panel members themselves.  There seems to be this weird idea in search of a meta-narrative that speaks to all of the social and economic ills within the black community.  We’ve all heard them trotted out like a magical big joker in a game of spades: the breakdown of the family, black men in jail, HIV/AIDS, downlow black men, hip hop culture etc.  Sometimes you hear folk get real specific about it, some people write on comment sections or blogs or call into Al Sharpton or Warren Ballentine’s show and go off about black men saggin’ as if this is the one problem that would solve all other problems.

This puts the “dialogue” (and I use that term loosely) in the realm of one making a statement that trumps the other, neither ever engaging the idea behind an individual’s statement.  As what Jamal Bryant did, he totally disregarded what Bishop Carlton Pearson had to say and contribute to the conversation, and went for the audience kill.  To frame this discussion in my wheelhouse, black folk certainly have the tendency to go the Bible, quote a scripture as though that would end all debates.   Perhaps that worked last century, but in a post-modern era, that doesn’t work for an increasingly growing swath of the population.

We can’t have an honest and open dialogue in our community when primarily we can’t even listen to one another for failure to listen to one another. All we’re doing is waiting for the other person to stop speaking just so we can say what we wanted to say and we don’t respond to what has been said.  Also, when we do decide to listen we need to make sure that we’re listening properly and not just hearing.  Hearing is merely the physical response of the ear doing its job; listening is comprehending those sounds into speech patterns and allowing those speech patterns to be processed (i.e. critical thinking).

The masses ought not expect “appointed” leader to just be the projection of what they already believe and think.  But, I guess then they wouldn’t be “the masses.”

Meh, point taken.

Nevertheless, the “appointed” leaders and talking heads and Negro intellectuals that are in our midst must take some courage and help frame the discussion appropriately.  We can no longer afford to turn every public gathering into a “church meeting” when each speaker begins sermonizing and the audience slips right back into call-and-response mode.  Just like your average church goer would be hard-pressed by Wednesday to tell you what the sermon was about, we’ll equally forget what was said in a town hall forum.  The non-passivity of call-and-response listening is uniquely African, but still in todays setting, we must question are we responding because we agree with what’s been said?  Are we responding because we already know what’s being said?  Are we responding because it just sounds right?

This sets up a dynamic whereas in a town hall setting the panelist preaches speaks with the intent of garnering a response.  Therefore certain phrases are fashioned, a certain cadence is established both orally and grammatically through parallel structure–all of which are very hard for black church folk to resist.  Moreover, black preachers who are aware of the “game” involved in preaching and speaking often know that preaching, isn’t dialogue.  No matter how many books we read, papers we write, sermons we preach, it’s not a dialogue–I speak, you listen.  The only way it’s dialogue is if mid sermon, you stop and say “Any questions?  Is everyone clear about the new vocabulary word “soteriological” and what we mean by “justification” and “sanctification.”

Black religion makes an interesting intersect in this topic simply because the vast majority of blacks in this country self-identify with Christianity of some sort.  Even with significant numbers aligning with Islam or even Buddhism, still, most blacks have genealogical roots with the Black Church.  So naturally the idea of a charismatic leader coming out of a religious setting is a familiar idea.  Even more so, many blacks certainly feel that at issue to our social ills is squarely a spiritual problem, which results in most black people referring to 2 Chronicles 7:14 that plainly reads

If my people who are called my name, shall humble themselves and pray, seek my face, turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, forgive their sins and heal the land.”

Usually that’s quoted in an attempt to shut down all other discussion, which as I’ve already stated, I categorically disagree with.  I honestly think most people deep down disagree with it as well, if they didn’t they would actually change their behavioral patterns, but clearly from a larger point of view, things are very much the same.

So the next time you get in a debate, actually take the time to listen to them.  The best call-and-response isn’t just an “Amen” or “That’s Right” but actually engaging what got said for the mutual benefit of both participants.  We have to do away with the intellectual “yo momma” jokes and press for the deeper things in life.

Keep it uppity and keep it truthfully radical, JLL


3 thoughts on ““Don’t Talk About My Mama!” and Other Problems With Black Intellectual Rhetoric

  1. Loved this article, I read it the other day and again right now. I am a political scientist and since a child I have loved to debate. It’s often been frustrating when attempting to discuss issues or opposing points of view when I know at some point in time I will be hit with the brick wall of “the Bible says” rather than an opportunity to discover, consider and analyze the views of others.

    It’s almost a guaranteed that at some point during ‘town hall’ discussions someone will make a point and ‘call’ and will receive the appropriate ‘response’. The relevance of the message has little to do with the audiences enthusiasm. What can we do to change this? It seems Blacks want to be led like sheep rather than patrons of their own destiny?

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