The Southern Ritual of Speaking

You mean there's pressure to uplift other folks and show my family's values just by speaking to people?
You mean there’s implicit pressure to uplift other folks and show my family’s values just by speaking to people?

People who spend significant amounts of time below the Mason-Dixon line know that “speaking,” engaging others in basic conversation, is a must.

As a child, speaking seemed like an interruption. A social chore. Can’t I just get more helpings or come play with the kid I actually came here to see? I vividly recall speaking to people, out of duty or to disarm them of preconceptions, when I would rather not have.

As an adult, I see people need and seek validation. Conversation is by no means a cure-all. However, speaking is a fundamental acknowledgment of another person, and his or her validity, in a moment. Conversations mark our connections with each other. They can foster a sense of community and demonstrate where our interests converge.

People matter. And people need to feel like they matter.

Further, speaking does not have to be exhausting. Walking into a space, making eye contact with the people there and offering a generalized greeting suffices. If elders are involved, due deference is warranted.

Doing so shows that your formative years were spent under somebody worthwhile. Speaking shows that you’re not “too good” engage people in conversations, which often prove mutually beneficial. People internalize hierarchies and often resent folks who, as collective wisdom describes it, read their own headlines. Speaking can show you’re level-headed.

Speaking opens doors. “Good morning, y’all” can segue to family values, personal goals, professional aspirations and more. The person you’re speaking to might be able to help. You might be able to help. Either or both of you could know somebody. The more speaking we do, the smaller the world becomes.

I make it my business to speak to people when I see them. Yet, seeing people can prove tricky. In typical westernized Millennial fashion, I plug in constantly and scroll devices until my wrists hurt.

Headphones mute external conversations. I customize Spotify playlists to match moods, promote a conducive reading environment or to let artists sing, rap or play their way through notions I identify with, but am not ready to discuss. I know some of my cyber friends’ proclivities better than people I see in the real life. Social media should augment, not replace, in-person connections.

This post is not to say every person is owed conversation. Speaking and street harassment intersect. Harassers often know that people, especially southern women, participate in a communicative culture.

Patriarchy tells them whatever their age, race, weight, height, tooth count or station in life a woman owes them a chat, and answers about why if she is not into it. Some aren’t above implicit and explicit pressure for women to engage them. Men have physically presented themselves in ways where my instinct is twofold:

1. Acquiesce and 2. Hightail it away from Sirs Creeperton.  Force is contrary to speaking’s spirit.

Through speech we orally affirm others. Their speech back creates a conversation, reciprocates the affirmation, and conveys the message both participants matter. While speaking is a nice touch, we should also focus on becoming the kind of people with whom we’d want to connect.

I’m a Chick From ‘The Hood’

Sisterly selfie. Location: The Hood.

I’m from the hood. By hood, I mean a black neighborhood with some dynamics stereotypically envisioned. The occasional box Chevy, all candy paint and rims, blares southern hip-hop. Well-known panhandlers request coins. Crime is heavily scrutinized.

However, my community contains more variance than flat thinkers usually consider. My late grandfather, a middle school science teacher, Sunday school leader, and Kappa, purchased the lot our family home is on 50 years ago and had it constructed. He and my late grandmother, a television producer and his wife, built a family in the home.

The hood was more the ‘burbs then. The hood had firmly middle class black families and fostered intergenerational wealth. Homes stayed in families. People could go off and live, work, and learn, while knowing there was somewhere to return. Others “boomeranged” back home to save for big American purchases, like their own homes. The community thrived.

The hood was also uprooted by the 2008 recession, resultant housing bubble and predatory lending. Generational conflicts exist. Priorities look different. Class dynamics are pervasive.

Barbecue wings and crab legs sell faster than froyo. Kale might as well precede nah. The hood is a place where business building is slow, but improving. Yet, it’s also a place of tireless activism.

And we should remember that hoods, or their functional equivalents, are ubiquitous. But, this post is about the northwest quadrant of Jacksonville, Florida, where my family home is.

The hood bred civil rights watchdogs who outed the city for building on unfit lands. My grandpa was on the NAACP’s toxicology board and helped spread awareness. Apparently building schools, homes and parks for black, brown and impoverished white people on toxic lands is standard domestic practice. But, environmental justice is another story.

Living in the hood is similar to attending an HBCU. Stuff happens. Some of it is glorious and soulful. Some of it is annoying or troubling. Stuff usually doesn’t occur because people are black, though. It’ll be another issue.

Social status. Family name. Profession. Associations. Religion. Sexual orientation. Grammar. Dialect. Speech is huge.

One benefit of being from the hood, but attending majority white magnet arts schools and storied black universities, is effective code-switching. Code-switching ≠ being disingenuous. I learned to tailor messages for audiences. Such is common practice where I’m from. It’s a survival mechanism. As Philly-based rapper Meek Mill spits, there’s “levels to this.”

The hood is cool (enough). I can always find hair products, and thrifty ethnic jewelry. People are loud–in speech, dress and persona. Some have ironic nicknames like, 350 pound men called Tiny. Elders know your kinfolk.

Clever children make music with instruments and random objects. Politicians buy groceries with normalized fame. You know, everybody knows them, but mostly nobody’s fazed. That’s just Representative So-and-So.

But, fear persists. Jacksonville locals nearly quiver when finding out that they or their loved ones ventured into the abyss that is the hood (as if a city so large doesn’t have other hoods or tony and tawny areas are exempt from dysfunction).

In Lion King Mufasa cautioned Simba to remain where the light touches. Not trying to grasp for low-hanging fruit here, but what does the light touch? Whose light? Must the hood Macklemore to get the same love?

My parents’ house is not in a war-torn third world country. Guests come over, usually for graduation parties, rousing discussion and/or food. They return safely to their destinations.

Typically, if I expect company, I’m on the front steps Stoop Kid style, or beside the window in our airy living room, prodding my sister to practice piano for her betterment a free show.

The hood is also a place that, as the nation grapples with killings of unarmed black kids, confuses outsiders. Jordan Davis was killed in Jacksonville. Non-Floridians, especially people who don’t know much about Jacksonville, don’t know or care that killer Michael Dunn wasn’t on the northside. Trayvon Martin was slain about two hours away in Sanford. The entire state (nation and world) experience set backs when lives are devalued and wrongfully taken.

On a personal level, the hood houses our family home. It is a reasonable structure that afforded us memories, passport stamps and nationwide travel. But, people from the hood do take preventative measures. Our home has burglar bars, a Rottweiler and an alarm system.

Our home provides comfort, which could develop anywhere. It’s a place with art, music and pets. Pets should not to be confused with siblings; however, some of them live there, too.

It contains gap-toothed pictures of relatives, smells like incense, and has more books than opportunities to read them, but enough room and natural light to try in good faith.

It’s a brick house, and mighty-mighty, a place with people bound by biology and values. It welcomes good energy and intentions. The people at home in our home might surprise you.

More than anything, our home and hood illuminate classism, fear and respectability issues.

Hoods are often good enough to give the world greats, but too shamed for longterm appreciation. Yet, no place or people are perfect. As the nation’s face evolves, so should perspectives of community value. A hood, barrio or cul-de-sac’s composition isn’t the biggest quandary.

Hierarchical personhood is. Do as you wish. And live where you may, but don’t disparage where other people stay.