Conversate Is Not A Word: Getting Away From Ghetto
I admit it: I bristle when my students talk about conversating. At the same time, I try to catch myself, remembering that decades back no one spoke of googling or used the word text as a verb either. Language, like social mores, constantly changes.
African American author, provocateur, blogger, and lawyer Jam Donaldson understands this, and her message is simple: Everyone, but especially people of color, needs to know the difference between slang and proper grammar, and everyone needs to take responsibility for the things they can control. For her, this means dressing age-appropriately and not parading the family jewels—whether a belly button or a pair of Joe Boxer’s—in public. Indeed, Donaldson is so miffed by “ghetto chic” that she created a website to showcase violations she considers particularly egregious.
Called Hot Ghetto Mess, the site has, since 2004, urged readers to send in outrageous photos and commentary. Dozens have been compiled, exhibiting a wide-range of missteps, from a little boy in a faux pimp costume to a woman with a tattoo proclaiming her prowess as “cock sucka.” But Donaldson is about more than style and she uses her writing to push African Americans to own personal failures.
“Sure, there’s racism,” she writes, "but those things in our lives we can control we should control. Fighting injustice and racism is not incompatible with getting a job and acting like you got some damn sense. How about we do both?”
Men who walk away from the children they sire are particularly irksome, Donaldson writes. So, too are women who neglect to use contraceptives to protect against STDs and pregnancy. While her vision of optimal two-parent childrearing is absurdly narrow—and heterosexist—her point about family planning is on the mark: “Decide if you even want children. Having children should be a conscious choice, not a default.”
Like Bill Cosby, Eric Michael Dyson, and Oprah Winfrey, Donaldson values education and sees knowledge as power. She rails at those who spend money on jewelry and designer duds, but not books, and rants that not learning computer basics is essentially acquiescing to subordination. Furthermore, Donaldson believes that a standard work ethic is essential and is aghast at those who eschew the nine-to-five. “Many young people no longer equate hard work with money. Hard work is for suckas… But that’s like all those young white girls trying to look like the air brushed models in magazines. They are chasing a dream. Idolizing a fantasy.”
Her recommendation? Find work you can tolerate, do it, save some money, be realistic about purchases, avoid excessive debt, and remember to give back to those who are less fortunate. She zooms in on churches that continually beg for cash and lambastes them for preying on people’s generosity. “Churches should be about service, not self-serving,” she quips. “Give us something we really need, like food, clothing, shelter, or a mortgage payment. You have the opportunity to be a lifeline for so many. And really, isn’t that what Jesus would do?”
While Donaldson never discusses the N-word, an odd omission in a book about Black pride, Conversate Is Not a Word is engaging and frequently amusing. Few readers will agree with her on every point, but the debate generated will make it well worth the purchase price.
Nelson Mandela once said that “to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” That statement is Donaldson’s starting point. How progressives, whether white or of color, interpret this injunction remains an open question.