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Language and the design of power structures.

I have often wondered about the power of language to shape and design power structures. Until I came across Dave Chappelle (and in that context: African-American culture) I had no idea what language could actually do when taken to the limits. Language has been a mode of resistance throughout the history of African-America: a medium of artistic creation, and a mode of cultural preservation. Chappelle’s Show tells us a lot of things about the problematic relation of Blacks to white language. “White people taught African slaves how to speak English; then Africans helped teach everyone how to speak American”.

Language to Whites is more than just a means of communication. It was and still is the one pillar that supports the “race dichotomy”. Nothing else determines our social and individual identity as our use of language, “It is also a way to signal how you identify yourself”. The proper use of language is an important strategy to exercise authority. From a different point of view I want to look at the nature/culture dichotomy again.    When thinking about language it becomes obvious that while nature does not need to be explained, as it can be consumed transcendentally, culture has to be taught, transmitted and passed on by language. So, the abstract term of culture becomes conceivable by the power of word. Thus, for Whites keeping the language, and the knowledge connected to it, to themselves was the easiest way to shield their culture against unwanted intruders; which is why Whites only half-heartedly gave away their language to African-Americans.

So Chappelle hijacks the white language and with it the key to white culture and the medium through which culture is transferred into reality. Assuming power over white English is assuming a creational, divine power; “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made” (Authorized King James Version John 1: 1-3).

With the key to culture in his hands he is free to design his own culture, a culture that resists white restriction. Before the face of its former owner, Chappelle bends, stretches, abuses and enhances a language that was used to signify white superiority. What Chappelle can do to or with language can be explored by listening to what he says after the first sketch of the series “A moment in the life of Lil John” was aired. Chappelle expresses his irritation about the lyrics in one of the Lil John’s songs he has heard on the radio.

“Skeet, skeet, skeet, skeet, skeet… you can’t say that aloud on the radio! Now, you can’t say “skeet” on the radio. Well, what the fuck? If they can say “skeet” on the radio, then I say it on my show. Do you know why white people don’t ban “skeet” from the radio? Because they don’t know what it means yet. When they figure it out; they’ll be like: ‘My God, what have we done?’” (S2 E6)

this is a perfect example how blacks cipher the white language and throw it back at them (“They don’t know what it means yet!”). It’s a game played at the cost of whites. By expanding the language that once passed on culture changes, it is alienated from its owner. The words that once obeyed and executed white commands now have found a different master. And moreover, from Chappelle’s gesturing (he is doing some awkward movements with the hands in his crotch) the spectator can almost be certain that the word “skeet” has a sexual connotation. The Urban dictionary offers the following definitions (among many others) for the word “skeet”:

„Skeet“ is actually a form of birth control practiced by the African-American tribes of North America near the beginning of the 21st Century. Visionaries of the time (such as Lil Jon and Nelly) recognized the inevitable and ever-present danger of overpopulation in their land and decided to take action. They discovered an ancient form of birth control used by their ancestors that involved „pulling out and shooting“ (much like skeet shooting) during sexual intercourse, as to not impregnate the female, or „biatch“. The visionaries spread the word the only way they knew how: rap music. People would listen to the songs of the visionaries during ritual smoking ceremonies and chant „skeet, skeet, skeet!“

Dave Chappelle does not stop at estranging whites from their own language he also reintroduces the body to the language. And by doing so he reintroduces the body to the white mind that had so thoroughly ejected it decades ago. What seems like a game of mockery is a serious form of resistance.

Chappelle’s treating the “skeet-subject” with jocularity should not be mistaken for his own resistance lacking seriousness. “A life without play is a disaster; thus, play is serious”

<p><a href=“http://vimeo.com/1720918″>Charlie Murphy’s True Hollywood Stories: Prince</a> from <a href=“http://vimeo.com/user746651″>Anthony Dufrense</a> on <a href=“http://vimeo.com“>Vimeo</a>.</p>

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