Jargon for the Blacks—and Others

Chestnut St. Mural — Philadelphia, PA (Flickr: Gloria Bell)

Time and again, usually a few times a year, I haphazardly stumble upon someone castigating the use of “jargon,” at times appended to “academic,” in various works that almost always fall under the helm of the humanities. It goes, I gather, that those who produce work speaking to or about the human condition, as it were, must produce that work in a diction able to be understood by those humans who are undergoing said condition. This might be given the shorthand accessibility. And, to be sure, I like to think I get it, truly.

As I understand it, the rationale is that for one’s work to be anything other than what James Baldwin called a “masturbatory delusion,” which is to say for one’s work to be actually putting in work toward liberation rather than simply stroking (pun intended) the intellectual ego of its producer, it must be given over to the very public that might be affected by the work. That is, if one’s writing or art is intelligible only to those with a specialized knowledge — a knowledge very deeply mired in institutions that have long been hostile to, and disproportionately exclusionary of, various racialized, gendered, and classed demographics — it is unworthy of the notoriety it presumed itself to deserve. This injunction is even more forcefully incumbent upon those, like myself, who study and write about people of color, women, trans and genderqueer folks, poor folks, and the like, as these groups of people need the emancipatory messages within the work most, yet are too often not seen as the audience for that work.

There is, too, the understanding that the very language that meets the ire of negative accusation is not neutral language; it is, indeed, at least racially and class-coded, steeped in a whiteness and masculinity (or, “phallogocentrism”), the purpose of which is to exclude certain people from being able to access it. Going under the tentative nominative “jargon,” such language is understood by some as not merely descriptive of, say, philosophical phenomena or theoretical conceptual apparatuses; it is, rather, stake-claiming: this stuff is for us, not for you. To understand jargon in this way means that, in short, words are not innocent.

All of this, I humbly, timidly submit, is quite sensible to my mind, and it is a metric worthy of heeding. To the extent to which you, the reader, discern a notable essayistic pivot here, a pivot that the primary thrust of my argument hinges on, you would be analytically keen. My pivot, thus, hinges on a worry, mostly, and a peeved frustration, minimally, by which I mean my concern is largely rooted in dangerous assumptions latent in many vitriolic chastisements of jargon or academic language or, put colloquially, “big words.” But, too, in a small, minimal, fleeting sense, my concern is one fueled by just being annoyed with some of y’all.

I have long believed that Black people, non-Black people of color, queer and trans people, and impoverished folks are keener than many often presume them to be. Imbuing an a priori intellectual deficiency into them is, after all, a function of that bell hooks-ian “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.” But I know, I know, y’all don’t mean it that way. Nevertheless, though there is undoubtedly an acknowledgement of the exclusionary access to places and resources which the language at hand pervades — or, put another way, Black folks and poor folks and the rest are not usually the ones in the spaces where this language is most commonly used — I hesitate to put a ban on jargon. Simply because one does not wield an MA or a PhD, or even a BA, does not, of course, mean that they do not know the definition of the word “catachresis,” for example. But maybe they don’t. And, it is likely, one might dare say, they don’t. The point to me is not the likelihood of someone from the aforementioned demographics knowing the meaning of a word; it is, rather, the prohibition of the very possibility that they may come to learn the word. (And, too, in sort of an inverse supposition, we must also be super wary of the hegemonic prohibition of the users of “catachresis” learning from the non-users of catachresis, that “catachresis”-user may not know some words that non-catachresis-user knows — the nerve!)

But also, I mean, what precisely do we mean by jargon? As a lover of etymology — which I’m sure there’s some obscure “-ophile” word for — I’ve turned to the OED on a number of occasions to discern the roots of words. When it comes to “jargon,” it is a late Middle English word referring to words or expressions used primarily or solely by a certain profession or group that are often unintelligible to those outside the group. It seems that the word has largely retained its etymological meaning in common parlance. So yes, for da** sure, academics have and use jargon, sometimes in ways that are hostile to those not within its hallowed halls. But also, I come from a blessedly majestic community of Black folks from Philly who, lo and behold, also have what, definitionally, can be called jargon: Yo, I ain’t seen you in a minute. I been lunchin’. Or Man, that jawn was wildin’. Or Yungbuhls out here is getting’ way too outta pocket. Find me an academic who can decipher these: what might loosely be called Black jargon.

And be clear, I intend not to conflate the rhetorical deployments, dissolving the effects of power. I know that the language stemming from academia holds more weight, is seen as more valid, and, truth be told, real, than the language stemming from, say, my father’s block of South 51st Street in West Philly, which might be classified as a negatively connoted “gibberish” (which is, interestingly enough, also an etymological meaning of jargon: “‘twittering, chattering,’ and later, ‘gibberish’”). The exclusion of (white, monied) academia is not the same as the exclusion of the urban dark-hued ghettoes of Philly. My point, in a way, is that irrespective of the identifiable demographic, there is always the capacity to produce language meant for a specific group, and it is thus a misnomer to say that only certain groups produce jargon, and further, that jargon is universally deplorable.

I am of the understanding that disdain for jargon or big words, or a demand for more accessible language, is at base a struggle over language and its effects. Who can use language, who is permitted to see themselves in language, who cannot, and what is language doing? But the implicit demand for an unmitigated transparency and accessibility in language, to me, is symptomatic of a refusal to work at language, to be thrown outside of language which necessitates that you not always be accommodated, to discover what else might be possible in ways that the very language deemed accessible to all has in fact been exclusionary of. I am coming to an understanding of the jargon debate, if you will, as one that has been spectacularized as racialized and non-masculine-male people demanding less use of specialized language by largely white men from higher educational institutions. But this seems to me not to be the primary site where the debate is going on. The more covert, yet pervasive, site is those very white men (though not exclusively white men) from higher educational institutions demanding the eradication of “jargon” that takes the form of nonbinary folks demanding the use of “they” pronouns, or people with disabilities demanding the use of non-ableist language (e.g. noting that words like “crazy” or “lame” should not be used), or Black folks demanding if not the non-use then the textured knowledge of the histories of Black English and vernacular.

What I’m suggesting is that the ideal of transparent, jargon-free, marvelously clear language disallows new, different things to be known and thought. The work of thinking is, surprise!, difficult work that demands rigor. The work that language requires of us in order to arrive at new knowledge produces “an estrangement from what is most familiar,” which has the marked benefit of interrogating the assumed meaning and validity, the very grammar, of standard speech. Or, to draw on Judith Butler, “What concerns me is that the critical relation to ordinary grammar has been lost in this call for radical accessibility. It’s not that I’m in favor of difficulty for difficulty’s sake; it’s that I think there is a lot in ordinary language and in received grammar that constrains our thinking.” (If you have beef with my use of a white philosopher as support for my claim, we can talk about that. Just come correct.)

And this thought, rigorous thought, has been the calling card of, specifically, Black folks for a while. Du Bois made this quite clear, noting in “Of the Wings of Atalanta,” “they whose lot is gravest must have the carefulest training to think aright.” All of this is, I promise, in service of queer folks, trans folks, poor folks, Black folks. This is all, I promise, knowledge I have been gifted by them. They have called me to, in short, think. And that is, put crassly, Black as sh**. For, in the words of Jared Sexton, “all thought, insofar as it is genuine thinking, might best be conceived of as black thought.”

Share with a friend:
Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.


Marquis Bey

Marquis Bey is Assistant Professor of African American Studies and English at Northwestern University. Marquis is the author of Them Goon Rules: Fugitive Essays on Radical Black Feminism (2019) and Anarcho-Blackness: Notes Toward a Black Anarchism​ (2020). Currently Marquis is working on an academic monograph on Black trans feminism. Find Marquis on Twitter at @marquisdbey.

Comments on “Jargon for the Blacks—and Others

  • Avatar

    Fabulous article! Your absolute last statement according to Jared Sexton, “all thought, insofar as it is genuine thinking, might best be conceived of as black thought.” is utterly provocative. Now we are challenged with getting our language right on what is “Black” thought since I believe most Black folk can tell you what it’s not. Thanks.

Comments are closed.