Two lives, James Baldwin’s and a Capitol rioter’s — one story of Black English.

Two lives, James Baldwin’s and a Capitol rioter’s — one story of Black English.

Now, as he attempts to defend himself, the rioter famous for kicking his boots up on Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s desk is citing his use of Black American English…

April 29th, 2021 at 7:48 pm EDT

The Capitol riot was an attempt to overthrow democratic votes tallied accurately by states, with baseless claims of fraud that were so unfounded, presiding, Trump-appointed and lifelong-Republican judges — all of them — threw out the cases. The NAACP is even suing the Trump campaign for targeting specifically Black neighborhoods with these evidence-less claims. Now, as he attempts to defend himself, the rioter famous for kicking his boots up on Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s desk is citing his use of Black American English to justify acquittal.

The usage in question concerns the aggressive note the rioter, Richard “Bigo” Barnett, left for Speaker Pelosi, threatening her while he trespassed both in the Capitol and in her office while arming himself with a stun gun.

Image via federal court documents

Citing freedictionary.com, the defense argued this month that Barnett’s use of “biotch” could possibly have been “a term of endearment.” Right, the rioters stormed the Capitol to endear themselves to others.

Among our more “cringe” moments as a people must be when White Americans awkwardly appropriate Black terms. The adoption, of course, only comes after a term is widespread enough to be safe to use without expulsion from the race. From “Raise the roof” and “Squad”, to “You go, girl” and “Yasss”, too many sleepwalking White Americans seem hellbent on stealing the most expressive and communicatively successful phrases from Black English while simultaneously belittling the language, claiming it’s objectively ungrammatical as opposed to having independent logic and syntax, and unapologetically sending young Black students to take standardized tests that obviously advantage White students — they’re written in White English.

Twentieth-century author James Baldwin would likely be some tortuous combination of heartbroken and livid if he were alive to see an insurrectionist assert that it was only in jest that he called Nancy Pelosi a “Biotch.”

A wordsmith, Baldwin knew the ins and out of language, studying English formally here, and then living in France and studying French, too, for years. Baldwin, writing for The New York Times in 1979, explained just how lame our country’s communication would be if not for Black English in particular, and how hypocritical some White Americans were for using it without any acknowledgment of the dynamic, not even in private. 

“Now, I do not know what white Americans would sound like if there had never been any black people in the United States,” he writes, ”but they would not sound the way they sound.” 

Puritanical White Americans steal linguistic means to loosen up and seem more, well, “hip.” “Jazz”, Baldwin offers as an example, originally referred to sex in the Black American community, “as in jazz me, baby.” Now, much of Jazz as a genre is relegated to elevator music, devoid of its original energy; “white people purified it.” White America wanted to “get down” and be “funky”, he narrates.

Barnett’s attempted defense may be the most public and egregious example of this twisted reality Black Americans have been made to witness. Barnett and those who support the insurrection are literal “oppressors of voters”, especially Black Americans. His, here, is not a figurative or even systemic oppression; no, the intended effect of his actions was the immediate disenfranchisement of democratically participating United States citizens. Blame his red leaders all you want: whether or not he was conscious that his election-borne impetus was a Big Lie has no bearing on his effect.

Baldwin does more than enumerate appropriations in his Times piece, and in his defining, the story fashions itself crueler and crueler. He explains how Black English is identity-founding, life-saving, a way that Black Americans have counteracted oppression and established agency for themselves: “A language comes into existence by means of brutal necessity,” he writes, “and the rules of the language are dictated by what the language must convey.”

About a community only given occasional credit as if it were a toss of charity, about a language so many have belittled for so long as mere “dialect”, Baldwin argues that, “to have brought this people to their present, troubled, troubling, and unassailable and unanswerable place–if this absolutely unprecedented journey does not indicate that black English is a language, I am curious to know what definition of language is to be trusted.”

Of extraordinary offense, then, is the self-proclaimed white supremacist’s shit-eating Hail Mary of a defense. Just weeks after a nation waited unknowingly to see if a murderer caught on video would be convicted of murder, how does any White American still believe that Black Americans have some deficit in their perception as opposed to the other way around?

“And, after all, finally,” Baldwin writes, “in a country with standards so untrustworthy, a country that makes heroes of so many criminal mediocrities… it may very well be that both the child, and his elder, have concluded that they have nothing whatever to learn from the people of a country that has managed to learn so little.”

THE STIFF

White Americans who adopt Black English to sound cooler without any acknowledgment of the hypocrisy. Self-described white supremacists who suddenly leverage Black English as if it has court-ready standardization that they have never before acknowledged and actively spoken out against.
THE SIFT

An understanding of how we’re interrelated. As with Black English, an understanding of the simultaneous elegance and perfect utility in things previously proclaimed somehow both unworthy and simultaneously worthy enough for regular theft.

Ryan Derenberger is a freelance journalist, a Journalism and AP English teacher at Whitman HS in Bethesda, MD, and the founder of 'The Idea Sift.'