Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Fallen Angel of Wittiness

We had a visiting preacher from an urban congregation in the denomination this Sunday. I won't spend time on the overall observation that such sermons and such ministries fall into predictable patterns in their style and theology - others have done that better than I could.  Plus, I don't object much, even though it does not speak deeply to me. The preaching I would approve would not - indeed has not - ever done well in poverty settings.

I did notice a theme of establishing one's bona fides via demonstrating knowledge of urban dialect. While that is true of any subculture, which measures whether you are one of us partly by language, it is particularly strong in urban poverty cultures.  Not necessarily young, not necessarily black, though those are strong tendencies.  Knowing the slang terms establishes legitimacy. I recall noticing it with surprise decades ago in The Autobiography of Malcolm X decades ago.  Malcolm makes a point of it:
After a Harlem street rally, one of these downtown "leaders" and I were talking when we were approached by a Harlem hustler. To my knowledge I'd never seen this hustler before; he said to me, approximately: "Hey, baby! I dig you holding this all-originals scene at the track . . . I'm going to lay a vine under the Jew's balls for a dime—got to give you a play . . . Got the shorts out here trying to scuffle up on some bread . . . Well, my man, I'll get on, got to go peck a little, and cop me some z's—" And the hustler went on up Seventh Avenue. I would never have given it another thought, except that this downtown "leader" was standing, staring after that hustler, looking as if he'd just heard Sanskrit. He asked me what had been said, and I told him. The hustler had said he was aware that the Muslims were holding an all-black bazaar at Rockland Palace, which is primarily a dancehall. The hustler intended to pawn a suit for ten dollars to attend and patronize the bazaar. He had very little money but he was trying hard to make some. He was going to eat, then he would get some sleep.
At the time, I knew this was common in youth culture, especially music and media culture, but I was surprised to see it showing up among adults. I could not have said so at the time, but I dimly saw that youth does this for two reasons, to establish cohort bonding/status, and to measure with hyperalertness who can keep up. Slang takes some time and energy, and it tells us something about you if you are willing to invest that.

The young woman next to me at church, who is one of the dozen or so who comes from a program which helps troubled young women, was deeply moved by the preacher's embrace of street culture.  She knew the words to the songs he referenced, she knew the street talk he used. NH suburban culture is not her culture, and her relief that someone was speaking her language was palpable. It was clearly not just something she liked, but something important to her. It is important to a lot of people.

Something like it, something which overlaps with it, is important to wealthier, whiter people.  Eventually the preferred culture that is considered so important dilutes to something emphatically nonblack, nonhispanic, nonpoor, which is why photos of Democratic strategy groups and liberal nonprofits are embarrassingly white. Yet the principle is the same.  In those groups, the method of keeping up is largely one of being 1) witty and 2) socially aware.

I felt the pull strongly, and believe I still understand it. If being witty is that important to you, liberals are just going to look a lot smarter than conservatives, because along that path, they are. PJ O'Rourke is a reformed liberal, as are many of the wittiest conservatives.  Wit was always of enormous importance among the Wymans - you should know that outside of families of professional entertainers, you won't find a wittier group (and I think we'd keep up with half of those) than us live in a pack.* It was tough on our Romanians coming in.  Kyle has held his own better. So the temptations of worshiping that god may be clearer to (some of) us as well.

One just naturally thinks the people who don't get the references aren't quite as smart as you, even if their credentials say otherwise.

One just naturally believes the people who are witty, and have to be more alert to swim clear. Think Hollywood, comedians, and TV, of course, but also writers, humorists - and the guy you find it most entertaining to hang out with. 

Son #5 has the skill, but does not yet see the danger.  He reads a room brilliantly, and does not quite respect those who don't do it so well.  I think that will always be part of him, though it will subside as he separates from highschool.

Here's my worry, in both the urban poor and witty uppermiddleclass cultures:  This is who mobs are made of.  These are communities who move together entirely too much. I write that as one who values community, especially Christian community far higher than most people do. It's a very CS Lewis lesson to remember that it is the good things which are most dangerous when they go bad.  Devils are made of fallen angels.

*Those of you who know us one at a time need to know that we increase in wit geometrically (not exponentially, though we hope that someday the stars will align and we will all have had just the right number of drinks, the precise amount of frustration over the previous few hours, and enough time apart to have an unusually great supply of stories needing to be told, and collectively ascend to some higher plane).


Texan99 said...

It's hard for me to imagine reading a room. For me a room is a closed book with a blank cover.

So it's no surprise to anyone to learn that I never had a command of up-to-date slang or patter. I get a charge out of reading enough old texts to grasp archaic usage, probably because I can do it at my own speed and not in company.

My fallen angel will always be the pleasures of isolation and self-willfulness, not the mob.

james said...

I find it easy to spot some sideways or funny take on a topic, or some aspect nobody has been talking about. I have to squash that tendency to put me at the center. I remember at one Bible study I realized I'd talked more than anybody else for quite some weeks--and some of what I'd been saying wasn't terribly edifying--and tried to exercise the discipline of silence for a few months.
"For I am full of words, and the spirit within me compels me; 19 inside I am like bottled-up wine, like new wineskins ready to burst. 20 I must speak and find relief"

RichardJohnson said...

It might be said that Malcolm X was a pioneer in bringing jive talk to the ofays. Perhaps the jive talk from the movie Airplane was inspired by Malcolm X' work.

It is easy to mock upper middle class types wanting to appear "with it" by becoming conversant in urban street dialect. However,some sort of awareness of those different from you is a good thing- provided that it is not accompanied by the characteristic prog-sneer directed at people of pallor who have the effrontery to disagree with the progs.

For example, I was in a book club that read James Baldwin's
Go Tell It on the Mountain. This novel is rather autobiographical, as both Baldwin and the novel's protagonist were stepsons of a minister, and had difficult relationships with their respective stepfathers.

The book club was largely composed of older people who would label themselves progressives, who would no more vote for a Republican than they would walk naked down Main Street. One of the members concluded from the book that black churches had had a harmful influence on blacks.

Judging from the way that Baldwin had characterized the church in his novel, that might have been considered a correct conclusion. However, from having taught in black schools, my opinion was that black churches have been very helpful for their congregations.Rather, the book showed Baldwin's opinion of his stepfather and all that was associated with him- such as the stepfather's church.

Had the book club member more actual exposure to blacks and black culture- as opposed to what she might read in The New Republic or in The Nation- I doubt she would have made the same conclusion.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I have wondered if black churches do hold people back as well as provide protection of many kinds. The emphasis on community is not quite the same as the Christian virtue, and creates a social pressure to conform that may be more hefty than what white people face. There are yearly essays deploring street condemnation of doing well in school as "acting white," but that may just be a highly visible example of more subtle pressures. Don't leave us behind. If you don't keep up with the hood we will disown you.

GraniteDad said...

James- if you talked more than everyone else, you WON that Bible study! That's how it works, right?