Prisoners are persons whom most of us would rather not think about. Banished from everyday sight, they exist in a shadow world that only dimly enters our awareness. They are members of a "total institution" that controls their daily existence in a way that few of us can imagine. "[P]rison is a complex of physical arrangements and of measures, all wholly governmental, all wholly performed by agents of government, which determine the total existence of certain human beings (except perhaps in the realm of the spirit, and inevitably there as well) from sundown to sundown, sleeping, walking, speaking, silent, working, playing, viewing, eating, voiding, reading, alone, with others. . . ." It is thus easy to think of prisoners as members of a separate netherworld, driven by its own demands, ordered by its own customs, ruled by those whose claim to power rests on raw necessity. -- Justice William Brennan, dissenting in O’Lone v. Estate of Shabazz, 482 U.S. 342, 354-55 (1987).

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Home Boys, Hos, Niggas and Motherfuckers

[I wrestled hard with whether to write -- let alone publish -- this or to tone down the language but I finally decided to tell my story as I experienced it, raw as it may seem to some. I wrote this while in prison in early May, I believe. Comments in brackets are live additions to the original text.]

Admittedly, I have not spent a lot of time on the "street" or the "hood" hanging out with drug dealers. Nonetheless, people are people and I figured this might be my only chance. I am not afraid to strike up a conversation with almost anyone and ask almost any question, especially "delicate" ones.

My first room (which only lasted one week... I was later told they didn't like me... sigh!) had 10 black inmates (out of 12). My current room (which I have been in for 5 weeks) has 5 out of 12. The barriers are significant: race, economics, class, and even language. In short, it is really a different sub-culture that I just don't get.

I don't get the gold teeth and graphic tattoos. I don't get the rap music and BET Network. I don't ket the 6 kids with 3 different "baby's mommas." [Actually, the most I ran across was 9 kids... 8 women!] I don't get the "smack" talk; indeed I don't even know what they are saying half the time. I am constantly asking these street-talkers to break their 50-syllable sentences into separate words; otherwise, they all seem to run together.

And then there is the vocabulary.

As best as I can tell, their world is divided into four groups of people: home boys, hos, niggas, and motherfuckers. The following might be a typical sentence: "Me and my home boys were in a club and some motherfucking niggas showed up with their motherfucking hos and started disrespecting us so we started fighting like motherfuckers."

Whew! Let me take a quick shower before I finish this article.

I thought a "home boy" was a home town friend or someone you grew up with (although I had never heard the term before [much to my daughters' amusement]) but today I was told it was anyone from your hometown, even if you just met them. Hmmmmm... [According to Urban Dictionary, home boy means "a friend from the neighborhood or a gang member."]

One of my black roomates was telling me very matter-of-factly, as if this was something any self-respecting man would naturally agree with, that he handled all his domestic needs and the only thing he ever needed a woman for was to spread her legs. He wasn't intentionally (i.e. self-consciously) being vulgar, it was just the way it was. I don't think I know a woman would "date" a guy who thought that way but apparently they exist. They are called "hos."

"Nigga" is a term I have been afraid to ask the definition of and I wouldn't dare try to use it myself. It seems to be a versatile term that refers to a "brother" that is not your friend but the context determines whether the person is good or bad. (I'm not sure if a "home boy" can also be a "nigga.") [Now that I am out, I looked this up in the Urban Dictionary and it gives 7 different definitions. I will let you look them up.]

Finally, ahem, "motherfucker" (or "muthafucka"). Or, "motherfuckin" when used as an adjective. This seems to be nothing more than a rhetorical placeholder (which is oftentimes the case for obscenities). It has no apparent meaning [although Urban Dictionary provides some] but still seems to find its way several times into almost every sentence.

I thought maybe it is used as a form of mouth exercise since the word contains so many basic sounds. There is the "m" which requires you to hold your lips together. Then the "th" which requires the tongue to push forward against the teeth. Then the "er" requires the tounge to be centered while puckering the lips (although, admittedly, some get lazy and skip this part... thus, "muthafucka"). Finally, a nice strong "k" (my favorite syllable) pushes the tongue against the palate, followed possibly by another "er." You have to admit, you toss that word around a few times in every sentence, you get quite a mouthal workout. ["Mouthal" is another street word.]

I do not use profanity, except perhaps under my breath, or when quoting someone else [or, as in the case of this article, to make a purely academic point]. My parents do not use profanity and I was always raised to believe that profanity is a demonstration of ignorance. (Indeed my dad was appalled when I first told him the title of this article [when he visited me in prison].) Thus, the level of profanity in prison conversation is jarring for someone like me. I jokingly requested a vote to remove profanity from our room and was looked at like I was nuts.... which I was.

My speaking style is eloquent I suppose but in a technically precise, not poetic, way... probably a lot like my writing style. I choose words carefully. Street language is vulgar and intense, yet rhythmic and flowing. As best as I can tell (!) the meaning of a conversation is not derived from the specific definition of the individual words in each sentence as much as it is assimilated from the emotional intensity and context of the expression. I am sure it must be more effective spoken than written. After all, half of the words don't mean anything, they are just expletives!

Needless to say, it is awkward at times communicating. "They" can't talk like me and I can't (and really don't want) to talk like them. Additionally, this is compounded by the inherent suspicion guys from the street have towards white guys asking "nosy" questions. Distrust is a learned survival skill. Every question has a hidden agenda. Every stranger is a potential rat.

Humor is also a minefield. Street humor can be dark and sarcastic and not particularly subtle. But there is a line. It is not a fixed line -- it is constantly shifting. Ribaldry can turn into disrespect in an instant. And disrespect will not usually go unchallenged. I try not to be funny!

Unfortunately, I have concluded that common civility is about all I can expect to achieve with them. Attempts at more meaningful interaction are fraught with too many risks.

[UPDATE: It has been almost 3 months since I originally wrote this. I have to admit that it would be difficult to spend a long time in prison and not have one's language affected. Prison, even a prison camp, is essentially populated by "street" people and after a while you just get numb to the unending verbal sewage.

Now I don't want to be overly critical. I am sure there are some academics out there who will defend "ebonics" (if that is what this is) and I actually liked most of the guys who talked like this. But in the same way that gold teeth and tattoos all over the body set them apart from "mainstream" society, language is also part of the subculture identity. Unfortunately, drugs, gangs, dog fighting, etc seem to be a part of that subculture also.

The following links document the grim future facing young black men:

Reports offer grim forecast for young black men

Plight Deepens for Black Men, Studies Warn

Study Finds Black Men 'Disconnected' From Society

I didn't see a whole lot in prison that gave me much reason for optimism.]


Anonymous said...

bill...this post was so fiance' is having this exact experience...he's been in 3 months now and it is really starting to get to him...he used to swear himself before he went down but now he doesn't cause he said it was so overwhelming and he'd never realized how ignorant it made someone sound...he was not the least bit racist before either but that is changing as well...i have loved reading your blog and sending bits to my bf...glad you're done with fed and back out in the real world....keep writing

Anonymous said...

This post was hilarious! I'm glad you decided to post it. I have been pondering many of these questions and issues about language etc. Nice work!

Paul Eilers said...

Having played football and basketball in high school and college, I too have been exposed to much of what you posted here.

I've always been curious as to what makes people tick. One time, during a break from a basketball game, I asked a black guy what was the difference between "nigga" and "nigger". To paraphrase his response, the difference is simply in the spelling.

He also went on to say that if a black person uses these words, it's okay. However, if a white person uses these same words in the same context, then it is racism. Go figure.


Eat Well. Live Well.

P.S. Change can only come from within. I believe only God can truly change a man or woman. Even then, it is usually a process that takes place over time.

There are no simple answers.

Anonymous said...

Niggers are simply a subhuman primate subspecies. Homo sapiens are those who left Africa and populated the Middle East, Eurasia, and later the Americas via the Siberian land bridge during the Ice Age. Homo sapiens have from 1 to 4 percent Neanderthal DNA in their genome, whereas Africans have none. Homo sapiens have undergone brutal selective pressure and evolution to cope with very harsh environments where food was scarce and weather was harsh. Homo africanus was not subjected to such strong evolutionary pressure and did not evolve the intelligence of Homo sapiens.