Damien McClendon – “Word (after Steven Willis)”


So me and my son get ready
to go to the grocery store, right? And after he puts on his shoes
and gets on his coat, I’m like, “Is you ready to slide?” And I watch his face scrunch
into a question, and he’s like, “Slide? But, Daddy, I thought we was
going to the grocery store, not the park?” This becomes a teaching moment. One of my child’s first lessons in slang. I’m like, “Nah, when I say
is you ready to slide, I mean is you ready to go.
Slide just means go somewhere.” This is how I hand down the closest thing
we have to a mother tongue. We say “sto” instead of “store.” And I watch our great grandparents
walk the great migration north up the back of his throat. He says, “yo” instead of “your,” and a garden of mouths
blossom off his tongue. I’m teaching my son
how to speak two languages, the one that will take you away from home, and the one
that will bring you back to it. The one that sounds like shackles
and shattered chains, and the one that will sing a song
so good, it will sew a soul back together. There is power in these words that comes from a time when our survival depended on white people
not being able to understand what we were saying to each other. When we couldn’t just say, “Let’s go,” so we spoke in code
like, “I’m about to bounce.” Like, “We gotta dip
before massa peep this plan to escape.” This underground railroad
of a language, this ability to transform
the meaning of words, it’s a reflection of how we turn
tragedy into triumph, how we make a way out of no way. Add some seasoning
to a colonizer’s tongue. Give it some flavor. They used to say
everything Black was bad. We said, “You damn right I’m bad.” Gave us nothing but chitlins to eat, and I be putting the stank on everything. Yeah, we the shit. But they wanted us buried beneath the bricks of a Birmingham church, married to nothing but our death, destined to nowhere but the bottom. But look, y’all,
look how fucking fly we is. I’m teaching my son
to never be a caged bird. Boy, you might not have
no wings on your back, but you got ’em in your heart. So maybe, you can’t fly,
but you can be fly. Put us down. Watch us defy gravity. Watch us refine reality for ourselves. Watch us reimagine our whole world
through these words we use. If we the motherfucking bomb
in these words, be fuse these verbs infused with the blues
and all that jazz. This world broken, but this slang
be a tool for that [as], so I’m teaching my son
how to fix his tongue to say, “We gonna be alright.” Like God ain’t never left, like God be writing verses
to our heartbeats, beating instrumentals on our eardrums. Our Father freestyling
in our Mother’s tongue, this family reunion of a language, this place inside our blossoming mouths. We don’t die, we dialect. I’m teaching my son the meaning of a word. Now he be like, “Daddy,
I’m ready to slide.” And I be like, “Word?” And he be like, “Word.” (cheers and applause)

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