It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it – June Harris, Mom’s Mantra
My favorite and most influential Howard University professor, Samuel F. Yette, taught me that the language of dehumanization precedes war.
Mr. Yette (for some reason we never called him Professor!) taught me that the language of dehumanization psychologically shapes the conceptual framework for genocide.
Mr. Yette’s assertion has been confirmed by history’s robust, dehumanizing lexicon forged across cultures and spoken in various languages to sanctify one set of folks over another set of folks, to justify one set of folks exploiting another set of folks.
Chosen people over here. Pagans over there.
Classes that are ‘untouchables’ in one society. Classes defined by ‘royal blood’ in another society.
It’s stunning the range. It’s stunning how robust. It’s stunning how persistent.
It’s stunning how pliable folks are when activated by dehumanizing language.
It’s stunning how easy it is to trigger folks into dehumanizing action.
We are still in thrall to the egregious lowlights drawn from the 20th Century. We are reeling during the first generation of the 21st Century.
But I resist the urge to survey the specific examples of this social viciousness.
Instead, with thanks to the All ‘n All, I prefer to cut straight to Earth Wind & Fire’s visceral cautionary mantra:
“Sounds never dissipate, they only recreate … in another place…”
What sounds out my mouth do I want to recreate in another place?
It starts with a voice “you’d have to lean in a thousand years to hear,” in the words of Joy Harjo.
It extends to interpersonal flows of various configurations.
It expands to whatever social platforms I’m afforded.
Out my mouth, I’m cultivating the universal sound of the world … I’m describing what I fight FOR – the humane day-to-day … I’m contributing my voice to the healthiest harmonics.
I grapple with words and intonations. I sink into language. I’m aware of my gifts. I’m aware my gifts can make or break someone.
I speak my way out of the toxic categories imposed by the powerful on those without power. I identify rancid hierarchies. I reject rancid hierarchies.
Baby Talk, a simple phrase, a simple concept, a universal sound of the world, snaps me to attention.
Without censorship, I volunteer to start from my single existence, my individual relationships.
Dehumanizing folks? Done! Even when I got implacable beef with someone.
Wishing death on folks? Done! Even as I point to genuine enemies of wellbeing.
Adding to the political lexicon of dehumanization? Done! Even when I call out unrighteous manipulators of state power.
Doubting the value of Baby Talk? Done! Ever mindful I’m no saint and I will have to walk switchbacks.
I’m stunned that I’m making these pledges, having earned my MFA from the urban Academy of the Dozens.
I’m stunned at my fealty to this walk on our beloved Earth, imprinted as I am by the heinous legacies I’ve studied.
But Syreeta also sang: I don’t know if this is love, but I’m sure gonna find out!
white august clouds
blue collar oasis hugging dry mountains
cry for me
rinse moan off my tongue
dilute my summer mirage
where I am iridescent
hipper than Gregory Hines in tap shoes
& invincible against grief
white clouds soak me float above my path soften my regrets
drop temperature of my grudges splash on loss before it becomes fossil
white clouds of august my skin bakes cupped hands crack
memories evaporate if you refuse me
wash my face
wash my hands
wash my feet
sob for me
make me into water
rain become my reputation regrets lightning grudges thunder
loss drizzle blood watershed
white mountain clouds flood my touch
wash my face
wash my hands
wash my feet
My mother once, literally, washed my mouth out with soap for cursing in her presence. In fact, Moms once got so mad at me that she ordered me to go to the small bathroom in our apartment in Parklands, pull down my pants, grab the hairbrush, and wait for her to come and whip my behind.
The spanking hurt, believe this! But the psych job while waiting for her to open that closed door?! I was crying, apologizing and atoning before she ever showed up. Writing this makes me shiver at the memory!
Fortunately, I do mean memory! Moms was no sadist. Mostly, she schooled me with shame, or she challenged me to live up to my Home Training, or she checkmated my selfishness with amazing moral and ethical logic.
Yet it’s not her punishments that most fundamentally grounded or changed me.
I’m more inspired to choose tenderness thanks to her relentless love and laughter and her willingness to explain her rationales for ground rules, guidelines, or disciplinary borderlines.
Moms explained that she and Pops worked too hard – which made me a latchkey kid from 3rd grade onwards – for me to worry them with disobedience or lying or disrespect. She explained that she truly wanted me to be independent and that she trusted me to handle business until she got home from work. It was capacity building at its working class best, I see now. But she didn’t leave my behavior up to me alone. She never left me really alone.
Folks like Miss Joyce, her best friend, who’s now 98 years old, and still full of sharp memories from our youth in Southeast D.C., looked out for me even when I didn’t know she was looking out for me.
Miss Joyce and them helped maintain standards forged by a neighborhood of mostly hard working, hard drinking, men and women, who considered Do the Right Thing cherished community law.
All these years later, I’m MORE imprinted, in fact, reinforced by Mr. Yette’s instruction, by Moms’ dedication to humane living and her timeless mantra.
Making it imperative that I break circuit from dehumanizing language with my most profound Baby Talk, using EWF’s most profound and eternally tender formula:
I’ll write a song for you
You’ll write a song for me
We’ll write a song of love…
BONUS EXCERPT from my book, Black Man of Happiness: In Pursuit of My ‘Unalienable Right,’ WINNER, 2015 AMERICAN BOOK AWARD: “… One man’s life-affirming grito, shouted in the uncensored voice of a ‘long-distance runner…,’ decontaminates the ‘place’ I share with Black men in contemporary American society. Breaks negative circuits in my life. Seeks to neutralize and reverse what scholar Billi Gordon, a postdoctoral researcher at UCLA’s Center on Research, Education, Training and Strategic Communication on Minority Health Disparities, calls the “downward synergy” caused by structural racism, subtle self doubt, and the resulting chemical dump in the lives and bodies of too many stressed out Black men.
Historically, and in contemporary society, Black men have been taboo, target, fetish, boogeyman, sex symbol. The lives, survival, and journeys of Black men form a living, breathing cultural/commercial focus and nexus between the Black community and American media – from the style and substance of President Obama, to the hyper bling of Jay Z and Kanye West, to the pants-sagging plight of urban gang-bangers or police profiling of a Harvard professor, to the targeting of Trayvon Martin and other men killed in the line of fire. But what’s up when the only audience member is me, myself and I? No mic, no camera, no rehearsal, no entourage? What is a happy Black man? ….” https://blackmanofhappiness.com/shop/