July 15, 2009

Black English

Cyril Dabydeen“Purify the dialect of the tribe.” --T.S. Eliot

Black English is more than hip talk, Jamaican lilt, a Rastafarian chanting the name of Jah by a surrogate Babylon in a Caribbean stream or river. It’s the English language’s own with syntax and de/construction, parsing in more than a passing phase. It’s also inner-city cadence; it is Ebonics writ large on the pages of magazines, if only in small talk or liming by a rumshop. Indeed Black English has its own distinctive intonation with hip hop and dub poetry, Lillian Allen’s or Clifton Joseph’s, and if strayed from an original source it, yet forms its own song with fire in its belly. Verve, √©lan, far removed from the Queen's English it is, but with its own standard variation nonetheless: American, Canadian or Australian, though we like to think it isn’t.

Black English--never a dialect because of the same fire in its belly--creates its internal rhapsody and singular diction, compressed or telescopic, even as an informal grammar’s rant. It is also Eldridge Cleaver’s rhetoric or Amiri Baraka’s poetic lilt, not distinctly un-American. Hip-talk, jive, rap or rapso, in Brother Resistance’s style in Trinidad at Carifesta (as I’ve heard). Spike Lee's dialogues or cinematics too, indeed. Parodied phrases all, if scintillation with accent, or down-south English beyond Faulknerisms: inner rhythms exposed, or fibre of the soul choreographed with energy and ecstasy combined. It is also Michael Jackson’s twists, moonwalk, “Billie Jean,” you name it. Oh, metaphor encapsulated with words like "cat" or "brother." Reflecting more than the filial or anthropomorphized? Ah, street language’s onomatopoeia: the gang’s rat-tat-tat, you hear?

An unexpected crescendo with nothing being circumlocutory with urbane euphemisms. Shibboleth all. Black English is also the dialect of the Aborigine’s tribe “down under” chockfull of spirit, accompanied by unbridled or wide-mouthed laughter: who can really tell! Memorable angst, see, or just another’s anguished cry, or pent-up rage slowly being released as grief. Black English is also mute-tongued, the individual self struggling for utterance with Alice Walker, which more conventional English can’t fully articulate with generalized words, rhythms, or Latinisms. Ask George Orwell. Whose politics? Whose English language with the backbone of empire, or power imposed? Ask Walter Raleigh, Francis Drake...and who else?

Black English is also the core of "nation language" aimed at reclaiming dignity because of history's caravel coming through the Middle Passage, if only aided by the North Star and birds like the albatross slanting in the sun and guiding a vessel along in the ocean. Now who’s really below deck? Elmina Castle too, as I hear echoes coming from Ghana’s hovels of despair, or from a nigger-yard or bound-coolie yard in distant Caribbean sugar plantations, more than lore. Orality being all, or historian-poet Kamau Brathwaite’s tidalectics. Do I hear ancestors speaking? Not just my grandma’s dialectal grammar, even if unpredictable...as my stoning the wind?

Whose voice really? Cries of the mind and spirit because of the longing to be free from an accursed infamous cargo. It’s also the strong impulse to reclaim oneself with identity intact, even if in the caricatured figure of an anonymous X. Indeed, Black English is ongoing Creole talk in Bridgetown, Port of Spain, Kingston, Toronto, New York, Miami, London. Verbs, nouns compounded and continually compounding.

Distinctly new rhythms too in Canada’s north, I hearsay, with the Inuit’s voice being resonant across snow drifts, and everyone truly being authentic drawers of water and hewers of wood, if just as latter-day immigrants who’re blue-collar workers, the steel mill’s own, or hotel and restaurant workers, laundry-room workers all. Oh, never the self-reflexive writer of verse in the League of Canadian Poets. Ask Milton Acorn, the People’s Poet. Never those in the Writers Union of Canada?

Black English is stridency in a plantation-overseer’s voice with remnant Irish, Scotch or Welsh, if the backra’s man own. Reggae relived again and again in Bob Marley’s chants. It is also a French-Canadian forging an Acadian lilt in New France or Louisiana. Indeed Black English is the Great Spirit as coyote, or Nanabijou–the Sleeping Giant--looking across Lake Superior, or simply a Cree’s or Ojibwa’s reaction to a beaver crossing water or a partridge scuttling through thick brush...on Turtle Island! It’s also akin to my immigrant mother's talk in a living room in Brampton, Ontario, close to the Toronto airport (always ready to head back “home”). More surreal utterances too among those falling asleep and always dreaming of tropical “escape”, if it’s only my deep longing or vicarious going back to the equator, or just north of it. I am also part of Sam Selvon’s rhythms in his once-Calgary home, yet wrestling with being an alienated “Lonely Londoner.” Black English is also intricate or fragile in its fragmented form, while being genre-embedded in us all. A nomenclature of expression no less with the new literature’s demand because of sprung rhythms, if seen at a glance around in Austin Clarke’s voice of domestics in a ‘50's and ‘60's Toronto.

More compelling it is, Black English being the image of an ocean swirling with sargasso’s serpentine strands, or sheer eddying drifts. See, vocalization being all. Poseidon, d’you hear? Classic Homer, with Odysseus going to a farther sea, distant horizons being compelling from an ancient or fabled time, maybe. Black English keeps asserting itself with blood pumping through the arteries–the heart’s wild thump, and always the body being closer to places like Belize, Barbados, Bermuda, if indeed still being with the likes of Baker and Rhodes in Africa calling out, “Dr Livingstone, I presume.” Who’s Stanley...if not being Richard Burton also? Trash-talk intermingled or just commingling with one like Eminem’s white-talk also. Black English keeps becoming more complex without love’s rhythms, or just being alive with jive-talk, always. Or it’s simply listening to those exulting or exclaiming "Domino!" in the Jane-Finch area in Toronto’s North York, if not everywhere in Canada’s multicultural mix-up. Sheer wrap-up.

Here I go again. Victory at last!

© Cyril Dabydeen (first published in the Ottawa Citizen)


Cyril Dabydeen was born in the Canje, Guyana. He began writing in the early 1960s, winning the Sandbach Parker Gold Medal for poetry in 1964. His first collection of poems, Poems in Recession, was published in 1972.

In the early 1970s, he left Guyana for Canada where he obtained a BA (First class Hons) at Lakehead University, an MA (his thesis was on Sylvia Plath) and an MPA (Master of Public Administration) at Queen's University. He was literary juror in 2000 for the Canada's Governor's General Award for Literature, the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, and the James Lignon Price Competition (the American Poets University & College Poetry Prize Program).

Dabydeen has been a finalist four times for Canada's Archibald Lampman Poetry Prize, as well as for the Guyana Prize. He received the City of Ottawa’s first award for Writing and Publishing, and a Certificate of Merit, Government of Canada (1988) for his contribution to the arts. He is a regular book critic for World Literature Today (University of Oklahoma).

Cyril Dabydeen has worked for many years in human rights and race relations in Canada, and currently teaches in the Department of English, University of Ottawa.

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