Creative Writing & Narrative Designs
OF LANGUAGE AND SHOES
There’s a salient feature in African American English (AAE) that linguists call “the habitual be” as in “I be walkin’ on White Plains Road to get to the patty shop.” The translation in another English dialect, Standard English, would be something like: “I usually” or “It is customary for me to take the White Plains Road route to get to the patty shop.” If my 18-year-old self knew the field of linguistics existed, that might have been my undergrad major. Taking a scalpel to the anatomy of language, peeling back the epidermis of semantics thrills me. Plus Google hires linguists.
"It also works hard to sell you shoes."
In a grad school sociolinguistics course, I read about Geneva Smitherman who demonstrated by writing some scholarly papers in AAE, that despite its association with stupidity and blackness, the dialect is a language that does its job well. The job of language is to communicate. The rest is cultural, historical and political. It’s even pop-cultural. I got an email from giant Canadian shoe retailer, Aldo with the subject line “Your rotation be like…” Economics, history and social media collide in a four-word digital marketing phrase.
Language doesn’t know how to pack light. It’s like a traveler who collects souvenirs from near and far and thinks nothing of paying overweight baggage fees. Along the way it shoots out the rhetoric of violence in war-torn countries, and referees word games during political contests. It also works hard to sell you shoes. A major theme in its overabundant trove of travel tales is how humans do life. Ever wonder what it’s saying about you? I be wonderin’ bout dat sometimes.
I used to think God was arrogant. And this was after I became a Christian. Like me, most people I know have an aversion to others who talk about how great they are and what they can do. That was my secret accusation when I read "I am God; there is no other" again and again (see Isaiah 40-48). I believed it. It just seemed repetitive and excessive. But if something is true you say it. And you say it often, especially if everything else is hinged on that truth. You say it matter of factly because saying it any other way robs it of its essence.
If you've ever taken a translation course you may have this sense that something always gets lost: the nuance of a word, some cultural nugget. You have to ask yourself real questions about intention and meaning. As a non-expert student of the Bible, when it comes to the complexities of Bible translation I consider, among other things, the movement from God to human, from century to century, from language to language. Then there are the biases of the translator and the reader. Juxtapose all of those factors with God who says I am watching over the entire process. "From everlasting to everlasting I am God," he says. TENSION is a fitting word to describe it all -like the kind of tension in a string so taut that if you cut it it would whip you in your right eye producing the sting of 10 paper cuts doused with soapy water. You can't ignore that. It made me pump my fists at heaven in confusion and awe b/c there were too many seemingly insurmountable levels to this.
What I barely understood was that translation carries an innate call to search and find. Some things are understood in layers, over time. Even the repetitive parts. To be Christian is to be committed to a lifetime of searching the mountains, plateaus and valleys of life even after finding that #theserbutthefringes of God's ways, the tip of the iceberg.
CHESS IN THE BRONX
I learned to play chess in the Northeast Bronx. The program I attended was held in a school building which now houses three separate middle schools. Urban education has been a prickly beast. By urban, I don't mean "metropolitan." It's not a code word for "gentrified city grit." By urban I mean the hood. I didn't think of it as the hood back then. I mean I knew it was considered a bad place. The Bronx had and still has a rusty reputation. That’s slowly changing though.
With the advent of Netflix original "the Get Down," a fictionalized narrative about the burning Bronx of the 1970’s, comes a cinematic backdrop and jump off point for discussion about why development in the Boogie Down moves along the trajectory it travels, why the Bronx is still treated like NYC’s Cinderella before she becomes Cinderella. Uptown’s smoky legacy dies hard. When asked, sometimes I still force myself to say above a whisper, "I live in the Bronx." I tussle with knowing that there are great people doing big things here and knowing that mediocrity is ascribed to all the borough’s residents.
Gangs and drugs were not part of my world like many might assume. I grew up shielded from the dangerous elements of my community. My temperament played its part too. Thug life didn’t appeal to me. My parents and teachers told me I was smart. I believed them. Not that thugs aren’t smart; but with encouragement and support I decided to channel my talents in another direction. Teachers paid attention to me. Like the chess instructor who told me I could be good at the game (Perhaps I would be if I still played). School was my thing. Better than school, learning is still my thing. I have this idea that I can learn from everything…I mean EVERYTHING. Even the situations most people think are worthless. I want to surprise myself with the ways I put the stuff I learn to good use.
Painting w/ Flashlights - Part 1
Victorine is no pushover. “Sometimes when people spoke to me they would yell,” she said. She promptly informed them that she was blind, not deaf. She manages to disarm with a dose of humor even though she says what she wants to say. On one occasion after church, I gave her a hug and she asked me if I put on a little weight. A frown followed. I wondered if her skill for detecting pounds was intensified because she’s blind. I would have asked, but I was on my way out and I knew my feisty would be matched. I didn’t have time for banter that day. She reminds me of other Antiguan women I know. Some of them are my relatives. Honesty in its simplicity is what they deliver. Tact only gets in the way.
People can’t see their own faces without a mirror. We only observe our visages as reflections. I guess there are some things we can’t recognize about ourselves unless they are reflected off of others. I listened. I peered into her story wondering how I would cope if in my twenties I had been presented with such travel arrangements. I imagined her standing on a threshold then being abruptly pushed into another dimension. She lost her vision at 26 in May 1979.
In the weeks preceding her sight loss, Victorine endured inexplicable bouts of headaches and vomiting. After exhausting all options at the then Holberton Hospital in St. John’s, Antigua W.I., a six-week stay at Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn, NY yielded the same results: doctors were unable to pinpoint the cause of her blindness and restore her vision. On a day like any other day, a sudden sharp pain at the back of her head resulted in sightlessness within a few weeks.
She handed me a large envelope and I pulled out photos of ethereal scenes featuring wild streaks of multicolored lights. “Painting with flashlights” is how she described her photography…