“Cool” Theft: AAVE Appropriation as a Tool of White Hegemony by Anna Lehn

The 1940s archival footage may be grainy, but the big band and its lead singer, Helen O’Connell, are lily white. Her blond perm, powdered nose, and demure blouse pop in the delicate grays of black and white film. So it may come as a surprise to contemporary audiences when she opens her mouth to sing, “In the lingo of hi-de-ho / when the Harlem rhythms flow. / Here’s the way to say, yes I know, / Man, that’s Groovy!” (Black on White). Why is a white singer backed by a white band explaining a phrase popularized by Harlem jazz musicians, a black linguistic community? Is she friends with people who commonly use this term? Did she want to lift up and celebrate the cultural heritage and creative output of African American Vernacular English (hereafter AAVE) speakers? Was she trying to use AAVE to be more like black people?

The answers seem obvious given the context: she and the band were successful, white musicians during the Jim Crow era, when black Americans’ second-class status was legally enforced. She almost certainly didn’t learn the phrase through authentic exchanges with black equals. The song does not advocate for dignity and justice on behalf of black citizens, and she surely didn’t want to be seen as “more black.” In 1941, the year the song came out, the Center for Studies in Demography and Ecology’s Lynching Database shows that at least four Americans were lynched on the basis of their black skin (Bailey). No, O’Connell likely neither knows, nor cares about, nor wants to be like subjugated black Americans. O’Connell sings “Man, that’s groovy” to capitalize—economically, politically, and ideologically—on black cultural production, namely the symbolic “coolness” capital of the AAVE-speaking Harlem jazz community. In doing so, she reaffirms hegemony, the white mainstream’s cultural and political authority over American society, while AAVE—the creative font of her newfound phrase—remains “bad English.”

White Americans’ appropriation of AAVE reinforces white hegemony. While a white woman backed by an all-white band explaining AAVE to a white audience may feel like a relic of a racist American past, this example demonstrates a white stance toward AAVE that is ongoing and harmful: that of the carefree appropriator. Drawing examples from John Russell Rickford and Russell John Rickford’s comprehensive study of AAVE’s origins, development, and status in Spoken Soul: The Story of Black English, this paper will use bell hooks’ concept of appropriation of an exoticized Other from “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance” to argue that when white Americans (the author identifies as white) “put on” black lingo like “Man, that’s groovy,” we do not accept AAVE as a valid and equal English dialect, nor African Americans as equals. We steal from the black community, appropriating elements of AAVE to shore up our own symbolic “coolness” capital while reinscribing the boundary around our separate and superior linguistic community.

The questions asked earlier about why white, Standard American English (hereafter SAE)-speaking O’Connell was singing “Man, that’s Groovy” provide an entry point into appropriation as a concept. Did she have an equitable relationship with the AAVE-speaking originators of the phrase? Did she believe AAVE was an English dialect of equal standing with SAE? Did she genuinely admire and wish to emulate the work of the AAVE-speaking black community? How did she rank herself against AAVE-speakers? The answer to the latter: she most likely placed herself above. Rickford and Rickford remind us that, “[t]hough its lexicon and sensibilities have seeped into mainstream talk for centuries, […] nonstandard English itself has generally been scorned or ridiculed by the dominant culture” (76). So why does O’Connell, member of the dominant culture and speaker of its dominant dialect, appropriate “Man, that’s groovy”? Before answering, let’s examine two more examples of appropriation to develop a fuller picture.

Rickford and Rickford offer two examples—the Rolling Stones and James Brown—that present a spectrum of reasons and ways in which white folks appropriate black cultural production. The white Rolling Stones, argue Rickford and Rickford, “became famous by borrowing black styles and black talk […] Several of their hits can be loosely traced to black standards of the South; a few are plain knock-offs” (77). The band’s 1971 track “You Gotta Move” lifts its lyrics directly from an old African American spiritual: “You gotta move, you gotta move, child,/ Oh, when the Lord gets ready,/ You gotta move” (qtd. in Rickford and Rickford 77). Mick Jagger, the British lead singer, goes so far as to affect the Southern accent often associated with AAVE speech in the Sticky Fingers album recording of the song (The Rolling Stones).

Why was borrowing from AAVE, so long maligned, suddenly fueling mainstream white America’s favorite 1960s rock band? Look no further, Rickford and Rickford argue, than 1960s soul singing sensation James Brown. “Wrapped in bodysuits and capes, Brown would tattoo the stage with magical feet, slinging sweat and exchanging indecipherable calls and responses with his band” (76). Rickford and Rickford compare the AAVE-drenched text of his 1971 hit “Soul Power”—“I got something that makes me wanna shout, / I got something that tell me what it’s all about, / I got soul, and I’m supa-bad” (76)—with a Standard American English (SAE) version. Compared to the potent AAVE, the SAE sounds like an automaton: “I have something that makes me want to shout, / I have something that informs me what is happening, / I have soul, and I am super-good” (76-77). Both black and white audiences, they argue, “[f]eeling hip, outta sight, cool, funky, bad, or fly themselves, … prefer[red] Spoken Soul, which by virtue of the experience that produced it, conveys the intoxicating feel of cool” (77).

Rickford and Rickford’s “intoxicating feel of cool” (77) is at the center of what white appropriation of AAVE is about and why it occurs. One can see the desire for it in each example of appropriation: O’Connell’s audience curious for the latest Harlem lingo, James Brown’s white fans singing along to grammar they’d snub on the street, and the Stones flapping in Brown’s soulful tails.  Theorist bell hooks argues that, “When race and ethnicity become commodified as resources for pleasure, the culture of specific groups […] can be seen as constituting an alternative playground where members of dominating races, genders, sexual practices affirm their power over […] the Other” (23). Appropriation, per hooks, occurs when dominant groups consume the culture of the exoticized, sensualized, transgressive, and intoxicatingly cool “Other.” Appropriation, she argues, offers dominant members of society a safety-valve escape from the constraints of their own ideologies, but maintains their power because it’s a one-way street. Dominant groups can dip down and scoop up bits of exotic flair to add to their narratives, but “Othered” members of marginalized communities are expected to master dominant modalities, including SAE, as a means of merely participating in the mainstream discourses of society.

All three appropriation examples show that elements of AAVE have been gradually drifting into favor with the white majority. Rickford and Rickford write, “As hip-hop culture and the language, body movements, dress, and music that embody it spread among young Americans of virtually every ethnicity and are adopted by teenagers in countries as distant as Russia and Japan, the status of black language and culture at the popular level is rising” (224). Ironically, the more mainstream recognition that black cultural production has gained, the more attractive it has become for white SAE speakers to borrow from it to boost their own cultural capital. Unironically, this flow of black invention and artistry into appropriating white hands is not only divesting economic and cultural profits from AAVE speakers, but is reinforcing black subjugation as well.

hooks uses the metaphor of a playground to show how white appropriators are able to step into black culture and try on AAVE vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar like a child picks up and just as readily discards a new toy (23). Lest this metaphor imply childlike innocence and knee scrape-sized harms on the part of the appropriator, let’s explore several ways in which this carefree appropriation, to use hooks’ words, “affirm[s] power over the Other” (23). Hegemony, as introduced earlier, describes the white mainstream’s cultural and political authority over American society: the ability to dictate which modes of speech, dress, interaction, work, and leisure are invisibly normed as correct. In contemporary American society, hegemony—writing the invisible code of behavioral rules—is the most efficient tool of the powerful because it doesn’t require the use of force. Appropriation, I argue, is a hegemonic tool.

Appropriation of AAVE reaffirms white hegemony by positioning black culture as a lesser, exotic Other. Much of the intoxicating cool associated with AAVE phrases like “Man, that’s Groovy” stems from the minstrelsy tradition of viewing black folks as primitive and therefore freer, more sensual beings in touch with the physical pleasures of life. “The minstrel tradition,” write Rickford and Rickford, “was infamous for reinforcing demeaning stereotypes of African American—as comical, childlike, gullible, lazy, and in the words of Nathan Huggins, ‘unrestrained in enthusiasm for music—for athletic and rhythmical dance’ and ‘insatiable in … bodily appetite.’ These stereotypes were conveyed in part by a highly conventionalized ‘Negro dialect’ used by the minstrel performers” (30). Rickford and Rickford’s depiction is chilling both because of the buffoon-like stereotypes put upon African Americans and because—for self-segregated white audiences interacting with African American culture for the first time—these representations might not seem that dangerous. They’re just so jolly! Don’t we all want to have fun? It’s when one contemplates a life locked into the role of court jester that onw sees the demeaning and demoralizing limits of such a position.

Appropriation positions black cultural production as if it were for dominant white consumption, replicating a factory model in which everyone listens up for orders but speaks only when looking down. hooks writes that in appropriative interaction, “there is no mutual looking. One desires contact with the Other even as one wishes boundaries to remain intact” (29). Appropriative contact values the product but not the person. White Americans want that intoxicating cool of saying “Man, that’s groovy” or singing black spiritual lyrics without any of the entrapments of knowing, relating to, and listening to black people, whom we can still cast as inferior to ourselves. Rickford and Rickford affirm this pattern: “In fact, middle America has quite often jeered those who speak ‘jive’ in the same breath and with the same enthusiasm that it has grooved to back sounds à la Bessie Smith and Mahalia Jackson and Ray Charles and Lauryn Hill” (76).

Perhaps the most damning aspect of appropriation is how it decontextualizes AAVE out of the history of black resilience and oppression that forged it. Remember when Rickford and Rickford first mention James Brown’s AAVE special sauce? “Spoken Soul,” they write, using a synonym for AAVE, “… by virtue of the experience that produced it, conveys the intoxicating feel of cool” (77). They will not even discuss AAVE and its cultural and symbolic power without acknowledging “the experience that produced it.” This experience, they elaborate, is “the living evidence of an African encounter with a socially and linguistically hostile New World” (75). It captures “the most intimate spiritual and aesthetic selves of African America, with all its drama, irony, and poignancy” (76). The danger, hooks adds, of the white Rolling Stones divorcing black cultural production like spirituals from this history is erasure: “[W]hite cultural appropriation of black culture threatens to decontextualize and thereby erase knowledge of the specific historical and social context of black experience from which cultural productions and distinct black styles emerge” (30). By further erasing the history of resilience and oppression that produced AAVE, dominant whites take ever more control of the narrative that white ascendancy and control are normal, rather than the product of kidnapping, trafficking, and exploitation.

White use of AAVE vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation without relationship, attribution, or historical critique is a form of appropriation that reinforces white hegemony. While Helen O’Connell saying “Man, that’s groovy” might liven up a white dinner party with an all-around chuckle, black children are shamed, ridiculed, and silenced if they do not attain a perfect command of the vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar of SAE. SAE does not function as exotic flavor for black America. Whites’ hegemonic control of this country requires the mystical belief in SAE as the pure, true, and singularly “correct” dialect of English and the continued positioning of black Americans and their cultural production as a lesser, exotic Other.

But SAE is neither pure nor static. It’s a language in flux, evolving in usage and terminology along with our shifting society. As teachers of English, we shape not only our students’ command of the language, but also their critical understanding of how it came to be and how it persists in changing around them. And cultural appropriation of AAVE continues to play a role in the evolution of the many Englishes our students speak.

Take the phrase “on fleek,” invented by Kayla Newman, a black 16-year-old Chicagoan, in a Vine she posted on June 21, 2014 (St. Felix). More than 36 million replays later, the phrase “on fleek” gained transitory star status as the phrase for all young Americans to describe a look, person, or event that is “perfectly executed,” according to a July 2018 Slang Dictionary entry on Dictionary.com (“Slang Dictionary: On Fleek”). Though “on fleek” may only count as slang in the dictionary, a cursory Google search at the time of writing for “on fleek merchandise” generates 353,000 results. “I gave the world a word,” says Newman in an interview with Doreen St. Felix. “I can’t explain the feeling. At the moment I haven’t gotten any endorsements or received any payment. I feel that I should be compensated” (qtd. in St. Felix). While Newman supposedly managed to capitalize on some of her invention’s fame through a hair extension line in 2017 (Weatherford), the site’s linked webpage no longer loads. Today, none of the early Google results for “on fleek merchandise” explicitly name or compensate her.

So where is all the money from Newman’s innovation going? we as teachers of critical and media literacy must ask ourselves and our students. Furthermore, how might a white student’s casual use of “on fleek” to describe their brows or style be read by their peers and teachers? As the slang of the moment? A playful turn of phrase? Now how might that same phrase be interpreted if the student were black? As evidence of poor English? A whiff of the ghetto? Today, as before, in the flow of words from black cultural innovators to white appropriators, hegemony locks many of the financial and social benefits into white hands.

Rickford and Rickford remark that for many whites, “[a]ppreciating sung soul [their synonym for AAVE] is one thing, but appreciating soul as it is spoken is something else entirely” (75). Our escape hatch from this cycle of oppressive appropriative theft, hooks muses, must come through “[m]utual recognition of racism, its impact both on those who are dominated and those who dominate” (28). Our role as anti-racist English teachers in this space should commence with examination of our lexicons and their origins, but must push toward teaching and applying the concept of “cultural appropriation” in our classroom critical and media literacy instruction. We also need to listen. As black artist Nicki Minaj puts it, “you can’t want the good without the bad. If you want to enjoy our culture and our lifestyle, bond with us, dance with us, have fun with us, twerk with us, rap with us, then you should also want to know what affects us, what is bothering us, what we feel is unfair to us” (qtd. in Grigoriadis). Whites shouldn’t need Helen O’Connell to explain “Man, that’s groovy” and AAVE; given an equally respected and profitable stage, black creators and innovators might be happy to.

 

Works Cited

Bailey, Amy. (2015). CSDE Lynching Database, 2015, lynching.csde.washington.edu. Accessed 14 Jan. 2020.

“Black on White.” Films Media Group, 1986, fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=103912&xtid=36927. Accessed 14 Jan. 2020.

Grigoriadis, Vanessa. “The Passion of Nicki Minaj.” The New York Times Magazine, 7 Oct. 2015, nyti.ms/1OkMfp4. Accessed 22 February 2020.

hooks, bell. “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance.” Black Looks: Race and Representation. South End Press, 1992. 21-39.

Rickford, John R. & Rickford, Russell J. Spoken Soul: The Story of Black English. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2000.

“Slang Dictionary: On Fleek.” Dictionary.com, http://www.dictionary.com/e/slang/on-fleek/. Accessed 1 March 2020.

St. Felix, Doreen. “Black Teens are Breaking the Internet and Seeing None of the Profits.” The FADER, 3 Dec. 2015, http://www.thefader.com/2015/12/03/on-fleek-peaches-monroee-meechie-viral-vines. Accessed 2 March 2020.

The Rolling Stones. “The Rolling Stones – You Gotta Move.” YouTube, uploaded by TinyMontgomery204, 12 May 2011, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xCbAGsWMvZs. Accessed 2 March 2020.

Weatherford, Ashley. “Kayla Newman, the Woman Who Invented ‘On Fleek’, On Building a Beauty Empire.” The Cut, 25 Oct. 2017, http://www.thecut.com/2017/10/kayla-newman-peaches-monroee-on-fleek-extensions-interview.html. Accessed 2 March 2020.

 

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