Growing up as a budding word enthusiast in urban North St. Louis, I was subject to code policing from all sides. The nature of my early life made it difficult for a binary understanding of language and identity to compute. My zip code encompassed an overwhelmingly black, poverty-ravaged maelstrom of gang violence and drug mercantilism. By contrast, the elite private elementary school I rode two city buses to get to every morning in the city’s Central West End was an incubator for the children of the white elite. Each milieu presented its own navigational challenges for me, the son of two bohemian Northwestern University dropouts who ran their own theater company from our rickety kitchen table in one of the nation’s most murderous ghettos.
Even with only a nascent grasp of the traumatic history that underlined it, I was hip to the condescension at play when well-meaning white authority figures at school couldn’t stop marveling that I could “speak so well!” But I was equally exasperated when backyard arguments with the neighborhood kids would inevitably culminate with someone lobbing the charge that I “talked like a white boy,” as if no betrayal could be more heinous. The message was clear: you’re a subaltern, kid, and we expect you to talk like it.
Accusations of inauthentic blackness and white amazement at my formulation of coherent paragraphs both struck me as unfounded. I was reluctant to accept the premise from which these syllogisms were generated. The avalanche of books that overwhelmed my household’s cramped, ramshackle living room provided confirmation that there was no shortage of staggeringly eloquent brown people and that many of them and their gifts of gab had played pivotal roles in American history. Handwritten reproductions of James Weldon Johnson poems were scotch-taped to the jagged-edged walls of our dusty, crumbling hallways. Worn, hand-me-down alphabet magnets pinned Marcus Garvey quotes to the refrigerator door. Between daily jaunts through the concrete jungle and casual exposure to the literary tastes of our aesthete parents, my first nine years were a comprehensive overview of the alleged genus of black verbiage. There was no credible reason to view as standard the speech proclivities of the swaggering Crip across the street who offered Joe crack every day. I even chafed when our parents would try to placate me with the suggestion that I just needed to learn to be more “culturally bilingual.” It was frustrating that two people whose daily activities flew in the face of this mythic dichotomy seemed to validate it even as they urged me to transcend it.
Doing homework in my bedroom, I’d often overhear Mom concocting songs and dialogue for the musicals she produced with Baba. Assessing them aloud in her own voice, she’d thunder with august Shakespearean diction one moment and slur streetwise colloquialisms the next, often while inhabiting the same character. Telling me I needed to be schooled in two different, color-coded tongues nettled me in a deep and abiding way. It was like saying that the complexity and variety of the language I observed every day was something I’d only imagined.
I didn’t want to be “culturally bilingual” because I rejected the notion that one style of speech corresponded unilaterally with one group, or that its opposite belonged exclusively to a separate one. The fellow ghetto dwellers I knew from the block did not, as far as I could tell, constitute “a people.” It seemed a stretch that everyone struggling in theaters of inner city warfare—from the teenage crackheads in the abandoned house two blocks down to the retired homeowners next door who’d been married thirty years—shared a culture that could be understood as a coherent whole. It wasn’t only that the categories used to silo language felt inadequate. The very inclination to use speech for sequestering didn’t smell quite right. To use words in the service of solidifying divisions, or to view them as resources to which only a select group are entitled, is to fundamentally misapprehend their magic. But I understood the territoriality other people seemed to have about language, even if I didn’t relate to it. If knowledge is power, then words are levers for its manipulation.
In first grade, a babysitter got me out of her hair by cuing up Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, a film I barely understood but found transfixing nonetheless. The movie crystallized the relationship between power and eloquence. Malcolm’s transition from petty crook to magnetic leader and orator required more than the abandonment of conk and zoot suits. His superhero origin hinged, in part, on the cultivation of an agile tongue, a mastery of talk both plebeian and patrician. Upon returning home from the babysitter’s house one evening, I announced my intention to make like Detroit Red and read and hand copy the dictionary word for word. I wanted to possess as many words as possible and to deploy them with Malcolm’s discernment. At seven years old, I barely made it past “abrupt,” but the short-lived aspiration left a lasting imprint. I went on to find another model in the wisdom of an animated dog. To the accompaniment of jaunty horn stabs and rollicking piano licks, Billy Joel and Malcolm X seemed to be in conversation with one another. Joel voices Dodger, a streetwise terrier in Disney’s 1988 musical Dickens adaptation, Oliver and Company. The swaggering canine is a strategic injection of irreverent cool in an otherwise wholesome entry in the Disney canon. Dodger’s signature number is “Why Should I Worry?” an up-tempo banger in which he boasts of his panoramic familiarity with his city and the elegant negotiation of its nuances. When Dodger croons, “One minute I’m in Central Park / then I’m down on Delancey Street / From the Bowry to St. Marks / There’s a syncopated beat,” I’m reminded of my childhood fluctuation between unlike zones, my own burgeoning awareness of the subtle correspondences between each. On scholarship in the Central West End, I learned the ropes of private school life alongside white kids from families wealthy enough to pay the sticker price. Then I returned home to the land of fistfights and food stamps in North St. Louis, sopping it all up like sauce overflow on a plate of Baba’s barbecued tofu.
Dodger expounds on his grasp of the multivarious in the second verse: “The rhythm of the city / Boy, once you get it down / Then you can own this town / You can wear the crown.” Like Malcolm, Dodger’s command of varying terrain is central to his power. The rub lies in his adherence to a unifying syncopation. His is a dance defined by fluid motion through liminal space, and the choreography is an intuitive fit for someone of my own beginnings, not to mention yours. In the tune’s irresistible chorus, Dodger celebrates himself as adroit blender of the urban and urbane.
I got street savoir faire.
Over the years I’ve whistled that hook under my breath like a mantra. There are so many things I like about it, from its valuation of language as a precious commodity to its playful confidence. But it’s the concept of “street savoir faire” that I’ve been most attracted to. The phrase always seemed like a hint, a clue to where I wanted to go with words. The inviting sibilance of the phrase belies its joining of two ideas with opposing connotations. In those three words I hear the harmony between the pedestrian and the aristocratic. Stark, earthly concrete kissed with Francophone refinement and finesse. Street savoir faire feels to me like a way around the limitations of “code switching,” a beacon toward something more like code blurring or smearing.
I’m still indebted to that four-legged sage now. I grew to be invested in writing and speech that complicates or challenges prevailing views of the world. To me, even the most casual kinds of talking and writing have always been critical fronts of a broader deconstructionist project. As an alternative to being culturally bilingual, I opted for what I’ve come to call “code queering.” I landed on “queer” as the verb for this approach to words because of the term’s pause-giving properties, its multivalence, its status as reclaimed slur, its transgressive effect. I define code queering as the use of language to defy, revise, or undermine prescriptive ideas about speaking and writing.
“Queerness is disidentification, which would mean that queer writing also moves counter to normative forms,” says Darnell L. Moore, writer and managing editor of the Feminist Wire. “Queer writing is more fluid than fixed, more disruptive than appeasing. To me, queer writing need not be written by so-named queers, but are forms of writing that refuse to be addressed by conventional writing standards that are shaped by racist, classist and ableist and imperialist legacies that we write and identify, if we are brave enough, as writers.”
Kathleen Hanna, punk icon and former front woman of the radical feminist quartet Bikini Kill, is a writer who has proven to be brave enough to flout such legacies. Hanna made a name for herself in the early ’90s as a fiery performer and wry provocateur, raising feminist consciousness in the male-dominated Pacific Northwest punk scene and playing a prominent role in the riot grrrl movement. “We just tried to take feminist stuff we read in books and then filter it through a punk rock lens,” the musician has said of her band. An unexpected wrinkle to Hanna’s rhetorical persona is her signature Valley girl accent. She combines the eloquence of a gender studies professor with the affect of one of Cher Horowitz’s cronies in Clueless. It was watching Hanna’s contemporaries describe her impact in The Punk Singer, a 2013 documentary detailing her life and career, that precipitated my eureka moment about code queering.
In the film, when Corin Tucker of Sleater-Kinney does her impression of a young Hanna, she shakes girlishly as if animated in Squigglevision. “Here I am, and I’m going to talk like this,” Tucker says in character. “And I’m going to sound like a Valley girl and what I have to say is actually totally brilliant and you have to take me seriously.”
A cut to an interview with Bratmobile vocalist Allison C. Wolfe reinforces the sentiment. “It goes to show that you can be … some Valley girl and you can still be smart and still have feminist ideals and you still should be listened to,” Wolfe says. Hanna’s inflection, while genuine, functions as part of
her performance. Her critiques of misogyny and sexual violence are deepened by the cadence with which she delivers them. By forcing her audience to contend with their surprise at hearing someone drop science in a Valley girl accent, Hanna exposes the fatuity of the ditz stereotype. The substance of the Bikini Kill singer’s famous credo—“grrrls to the front!”—is enhanced by the style used to present it. Her incisive command of the microphone is a subversion of all the faulty justifications for confining women to the margins in punk and beyond. The effect of this performance relies on a queering of codes—using the rhythms of the “airhead” to elucidate the ideas of the academic. In Hanna, I felt I had an ideological compatriot, an encouraging case study for code queering’s efficacy.
More affirmation of the practice’s viability came when I stumbled upon anthropologist Elizabeth Chin’s 1999 essay “Ethnically Correct Dolls: Toying with the Race Industry” in a gender studies class during my senior year in college. After completing an ethnographic study of ten-year-old black girls in working-class New Haven, Connecticut, Chin suggested that the children’s resourcefulness in the absence of black Barbie dolls was best understood as a practice of “race-queering.” Chin observes that Mattel’s 1991 introduction of ethnically correct Barbies—figures of varying skin tone, anatomical build, and facial features purportedly based on African American faces—may have been intended to redress issues of representation, but ultimately had the effect of solidifying racial boundaries in the public imagination. In fact, Chin argues, the children’s race-irreverent modes of play with white Barbie dolls actually provide a better schematic for the disruption of prescriptive racial boundaries than the advent of “ethnically correct” dolls themselves. She cites the photographs she took during her study that “showed, over and over again, black girls with white dolls whose hair had been elaborately braided, twisted or styled in ways racially marked as black.” Instead of seeing the apparent race of the white Barbies as barriers, these girls brought the toys nonchalantly into their own worlds. Rather than feeling constrained to a particular kind of play with the doll because of the doll’s racialized appearance, the black children effectively queered the categories toymakers assumed were binding. Their form of queering is a powerful form of resistance but striking in its simplicity: denying the legitimacy of a construct by not behaving in a way that’s beholden to it. Chin’s working definition of the word “queering” is “the bending, twisting and flipping of apparently real or natural or accepted social states.”
“Embodied in these children’s activities is a profound recognition that race is not only socially constructed but has potential to be imaginatively reconstructed,” Chin writes. This imaginative reconstruction and queering of consensus categories was an enterprise I’d long undertaken with talk, and recognized in Kathleen Hanna’s performance as well. The term “code switching” never sat right with me because “codes” themselves are real or accepted modes that reinforce hierarchies. Naming one variant of English the “proper” one and another variant something like “African American vernacular speech,” reinforces a value-laden understanding of difference that usually props up the same tired stereotypes.
I credit little-known Canadian singer-songwriter Fefe Dobson with achieving the catchiest, most spirited example of code queering in a punk rock tune. Her “Stupid Little Love Song” is an imaginative reconstruction of the narrative possibilities of a code that has generally served as an outlet for white male disaffection. Allow me to indulge my inner Rob Gordon for a moment: the artistically crafted mixtape is like a poem. Dobson’s emergence on yours, Gyasi, is the volta. If her name registers as a curveball among the household names that make up the majority of your mixtape tracklisting, she’s an equally aberrant figure within punk annals in general.
Around the time you were born in 2001, brick-and-mortar record stores were commonplace. People still mostly thought of music as a physical commodity you paid money for and held in your hand. Blossoming art nerd that I was, Borders Books and Music was a highlight of all of my customary teenage trips to the mall. Instant musical gratification was not yet in my horizon of expectation. Napster was only a few years old and Kazaa, which had begun to overshadow it, was so incredibly slow on our family’s dial-up Internet that stealing songs that took hours to download felt like more of a hardship than begging Mom for the fourteen bucks it would take to buy the whole record. As a result, the listening stations inside Borders were an oasis. Across from the aisles upon aisles of now vestigial compact discs, you’d find a row of LCD screens, each equipped with a pair of headphones. The listener could select from a menu of complete albums and sample their album of choice right there in the store. I’m not sure what hormonal calculus compelled me to select Dobson’s self-titled debut record. I’m tempted to chalk it up to destiny.
The opening track, “Stupid Little Love Song” was a critical juncture in my punk rock awakening. I was Edna Pontellier and “Stupid Little Love Song” was a piano sonata by Mademoiselle Reisz. The sledgehammer opening riff landed in my brain as if a void, contoured to its exact sonic qualities, had been waiting there all my life. The chord progression is reminiscent of Minor Threat, but Dobson’s sassy, megaphone-effected ad-libs are more indebted to the spoken asides in Christina Aguilera’s “Genie in a Bottle.” Where Aguilera’s breathy pseudo-rap went “My body’s saying let’s go / But my heart is saying no,” Dobson augments her chorus with the couplet “three chords and a microphone / hip-hop and rock n roll.” As the kick and snare drums seemed to lunge from the speakers to nip at my earlobes, Dobson’s haughty, heavily eye-shadowed brown face stared back at me from the glowing LCD screen. The cultural novelty of what I was seeing and hearing struck me instantly. Here was a charismatic black girl unselfconsciously annexing and repurposing a series of genre tropes that were the traditional domain of white men—and doing so with a magnetism and panache that made the combination feel completely intuitive. It called to mind the scene in Men in Black where a preening Will Smith dons the iconic outfit for the first time, looks at Tommy Lee Jones and says, “You know what the difference is between me and you?” before answering his own question with “I make this look good.” Dobson was an uninvited guest to the punk party (which is forever a black T-shirt affair), but she’d disarmed security with a wink and a blown kiss and all of a sudden become the life of it.
I found “three chords and a microphone” to be a pithy synthesis of hip-hop’s and punk rock’s key ingredients. I loved the idea of aestheticizing a scrappy, homespun approach to making subversive music and was especially impressed that a Top 40–friendly artist on a major label managed to retain that sensibility on a big budget production like Dobson’s debut. I even appreciated that punk and hip-hop both privileged raw inventiveness over virtuosity. But I wasn’t sure there was anything hip-hop about “Stupid Little Love Song.” The reference to hip-hop actually struck me as discordant, pandering even. I don’t need to tell you that hip-hop and blackness are often falsely represented as perfectly coextensive. This is probably connected to how hip-hop is usually discussed as if it’s an insurgent cultural movement rather than something that has been thoroughly co-opted and monetized by the authors of the status quo it purports to challenge. Rap music is so overwhelmingly popular that it is the preferred accompaniment of American youth culture, but because it’s coded as inflexibly black, it’s treated as an innately transgressive mode. A stray Black Star or Public Enemy album made its way into my teenage rotation, but hip-hop’s ubiquity made it seem like it belonged less to me than to the norm-calibrated masses. The backdrop to my Come to Fefe moment was the rigid power structure of an integrated public high school. Hip-hop dominated the stereos and wardrobes of popular black kids and popular white kids alike. It was impossible to see hip-hop as a vessel for an alternative value system when the upper-middle-class white kids who mocked me because our family didn’t own a car could always quote more Big L lyrics from memory than I could. I was also wary of other black people’s strained efforts to reference and incorporate hip-hop as proof of their being forward-thinking and with it. To the bewilderment of so many white substitute teachers, I’d groaned loudly when social studies class civil rights documentaries were overlaid with anachronistic hip-hop soundtracks. I’d winced when pre–hip-hop generation poets bent over backward to give props to “conscious” emcees for accepting the torch. Dobson’s decision to announce herself as representing some amalgamation of rock and hip-hop was disappointing in the same way. It was as if blackness operating “against type” nonetheless required even the flimsiest mooring to one of its most visible reference points.
These misgivings aside, the song was still something I felt I’d been searching for—an anthem for the itinerants of unlike zones and an exploration of the conundrums that arise from that oscillation. The layer of “Stupid Little Love Song” that resonated most profoundly with my teenage self was the deft inclusion of an acute class consciousness.
As a scrawny black weirdo plucked from the ghetto and dropped unceremoniously into the suburbs, I knew what it was like to share social space with people from tax brackets the stuff of your parents’ dreams. My clumsy acclimation to largely white suburbia was the negligible cost of black upward mobility. But hearing a black woman sing about it in a punk context made me feel that my woes—despite being a function of privilege I was pointedly instructed to be grateful for at every turn—were comprehensible and sympathetic. When Dobson notes that she arrived by taxi while her crush arrived by limousine, she describes a contrast that characterized my entire social identity. On one level, I was a literal frequenter of cabs in a neighborhood where everyone drove a car and car ownership held particular social weight. On another, the line spoke to a persistent sensation of class displacement. Even though our family had managed to barnstorm our way into a nexus of prosperity, our upstart means of arrival connoted a cursory belonging at best. Mere proximity to privilege and daily commingling with its beneficiaries did not make one heir to it.
This feeling of disidentification is part and parcel with Dobson’s longing for the object of her desire. His pedigree—one of wealth, influence, stability, and access—is not like hers, and her conspicuous awareness of this gulf makes him all the more unreachable—and irresistible. Ultimately, Dobson’s street savoir faire is the salve. On paper, the singer knows she can’t bring the same material assets to the table that her would-be paramour could, but she recognizes her pluck and creativity as her best bargaining chips and leverages them in song.
“Stupid Little Love Song” is an intervention, a guerilla defacement of the prevailing rules governing black expression. Dobson uses a genre dominated by white men to communicate an experience of compound otherness. The singer’s predicament in her choice of genre mirrors the one she finds herself in with her crush. In demonstrating her mastery of the code that is seen as “native” to the dominant class, she underscores the perversity of her exclusion from it. Dobson is the punk equivalent of the Newhallville girls who twist traditionally black hairstyles on to the pates of their white Barbie dolls. I revisit “Stupid Little Love Song” periodically as a blueprint for both code and race queering. It’s as spunky and undeniable as any Ramones song and likely to appeal to any fan of the tradition the Ramones are credited for founding. But Dobson proves that the recipe of three chords and a microphone is capacious enough to accommodate a range of experience that the members of the Ramones would likely not have access to.
As Dobson’s example demonstrates, code queering is not limited to words. It’s finding imaginative ways around and between simply painting a Barbie doll black. It’s using spaces of presumed disjuncture to reveal unheralded continuities. Of course, like Dobson and the black girls in New Haven, queering is really just doing what to me seems most obvious. The integrated, multi-textured social landscape I traversed from my childhood onward had always animated me. I’d playfully adopted my own makeshift code alchemy while conscious of the fact that doing so became a performance, an exhibition of my nativity to what others saw as disparate social contexts. Falling back on “cultural bilingualism” would’ve meant embracing a state of thinking I couldn’t see as real or natural at all. Any attempt to short-circuit the power that race exerts on individual expression must first evaluate race’s legitimacy as a concept, a step that our parents seemed to skip. Elizabeth Chin’s insights spoke to me because she didn’t validate the binary thinking behind the phrase “culturally bilingual.”
“In looking at the interactions of Newhallville girls and their white dolls, ways of thinking between and outside of bounded racial categories emerge,” Chin writes. Speaking in a mode between and outside of bounded categories (racial and otherwise) is precisely the ethos that gave Kory Gable fits, the style that confounded Californian transfer students, the shtick that incited grrrls to riot. For me, it was the only approach that ever made sense.
Cross-pollinating the codes of ivory tower denizens and ordinary straphangers on the bus seems quite natural if public transportation is literally your daily means of getting to and from the lofty bower. Queering the codes becomes a necessary bricolage for reconciling one’s constant alternation between tourist and tour guide, interloper and ambassador. The need to create coherence between divides that the world insisted were insoluble became for me both an aesthetic preference and a spiritual affirmation of self.
The most delectable spoken language has always seemed to me deliberately mosaic, a pastiche of unadorned lay speech, stilted poeticism, slang you make up, slang you have overheard, regional aphorisms you inherit from unnameable but essential sources, solecisms that slap like a “proper” syntactical construction could never approximate, cadences that careen suddenly in to the melodic. Code queering is the mode that embraces and demonstrates the sprawling diversity of English language communication while dovetailing its seemingly divergent strands. It rejects any prescriptive schema of how one’s chosen approach to manipulating language corresponds with group membership. It participates only in the politics of pluralism, of hybridity, of multitudes within one. Code queering exposes categories as small-minded impositions that shortchange the observable richness, fluidity, and versatility of group or individual verbal style. It is a synthesis by which a confluence of once segregated discourses is achieved. It is a paradigm that aspires to make livable Walt Whitman’s declaration “of every caste and creed am I.” It is a both-and aesthetic that draws a winding, luminous through line to constellate solitary stars. To queer codes effectively is to collect a bouquet comprised of flowers of contrasting sizes and hues—plucked from neighboring fields separated by fences—and through the splendor of that blend imperil all fences. It is to gather lightning and lightning bugs in the same tremulous grasp and brandish the wattage therein to brighten everything in between. Code queering looks upon the supposedly polarized parlances of the street and the academy and traffics in both at once with the gleeful abandon of a toddler who has realized that her crayons scribble as beautifully on the bedroom wall as within the crude coloring book lines they were intended for. Code queering is some revolutionary type shit.
In both private and professional American spheres, diction and grammar are primary instruments of respectability politics. One’s ability to string sentences together in accord with a vaunted code is part of how one demonstrates social or occupational worthiness, deservingness or belonging. A lack of facility with what is seen as the “proper” code is sufficient grounds for exclusion and even dehumanization in many cases. As a person who intuitively approaches language like a great, primeval jungle gym, I’m admittedly invested in words in a way that transcends their practical utility. A verbal style that shuffles demurely through social spaces in single file does nothing to heat the blood. I crave the vitality of a code that gallivants, that saunters indecorously, that swings exultantly from chandeliers.
Romanticism aside, granting people such latitude in their speech has clear political ramifications as well. By bringing wreck to the deceptively tidy categories that preserve an unequal status quo, code queering spoils language’s appeal as a battleground for moral finger wagging. In the breathless hustle for privilege and capital, no one should be fated to eat dust on the basis of their verb conjugation. Yet those are precisely the stakes in the bootstraps rhetoric so often hurled callously at the urban poor, immigrants, and those with disabilities. My swooning for beautifully rendered sentences notwithstanding, no discerning subversive would find amenable the idea of operating within a code even colloquially known as the “King’s English.” I’m not sure precisely who the King is, but I’m no fan of monarchies of any kind and have no interest in deploying my words in the service of extending an imperial reign. English, as far I’m concerned, is one of the most formidable weapons we have available to us in striving to topple the King. If we take Audre Lorde at her word and accept that “the master’s house will never be destroyed by the master’s tools,” keeping the King out of our English is imperative for words to remain a vehicle for progressive change.