In this episode of As In Heaven, hosts Jim Davis and Mike Aitcheson welcome Jon Aragón and Ameen Hudson to discuss the nuances of the Afro-Latino experience, and the ways language and code-switching relate to power dynamics from a pastoral and cultural perspective. The group addresses:
- An introduction to Jon Aragón and Ameen Hudson (1:13)
- Afro-Latinos in South America (3:50)
- Afro-Latinidad culture in the U.S. (8:17)
- Afro-Latina diaspora (17:43)
- Afro-Carribean, American Descendants of Slavery, and African Americans (24:04)
- Speaking to white Americans as an Afro-Latino (26:14)
- African American Vernacular English (30:15)
- Code-switching (39:37)
- Understanding the heart behind code-switching (45:05)
- “Not sounding like you’re black” (52:26)
- Code-switching in the Christian community (58:22)
Explore more from TGC on the topic of race.
- What has been your understanding of the Afro-Latino diaspora? How does this history shape the way we relate to those of Afro-Latino descent?
- Why is it important to recognize the unique cultural realities that the Afro-Latino diaspora presents? How does this affect the church?
- How have you generally interpreted and understood the history and development of African American Vernacular English (AAE)? How did the history that Ameen Hudson presented change your view?
- What is code-switching? Why do those in minority cultures feel the need to code-switch? Why does understanding this help give full affirmation to the humanity of a person?
- How does the diversity of language and cultures offer a beautiful picture of who God is and how he acts in the world?
The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy.
Matt Kenyon: You’re listening to As In Heaven, a Christian conversation on race and justice. In this episode, we talk with Jon Aragón and Ameen Hudson about the nuances of the Afro-Latino experience, and the ways in which language and code switching relate to power and power dynamics. Now, if you’re newer to this conversation, and you’re not really familiar with these terms, Jon and Ameen, do a great job of defining them in an approachable and a pastoral way. Jim Davis is your host. Mike Aitcheson is your co-host. Mike Graham is the Executive Producer, and my name is Matt Kenyon, I’m the Technical Producer. And without further ado, please enjoy this episode of As in Heaven with Ameen and Jon.
Jim Davis: All right. Welcome to As In Heaven. I’m your host, Jim Davis. My co-host today is my brother, Michael Aitcheson over there, and we’re excited to do something a little bit different today. We’re bringing two friends on the show today. We’re joined by Ameen Hudson and Jon Aragón. Ameen is a writer and speaker who focuses on the intersection of theology, art, and culture. He’s also the co-host of the Southside Rabbi podcast. Ameen and Jon are both members of Living Faith Bible Fellowship down the road in Tampa. Your Pastor Darryl Williamson, we’ve had him on this podcast. We had a lot of fun. We consider him a friend. So, just that connection gets me excited.
Jim Davis: And then Jon, you serve on the teaching and preaching team at that church. You are a proud son of a Colombian immigrant. You have a heart for the unique beauty and challenges of immigrants and Afro-Latino people. You are the founder of Jon Aragón and the creative director and co-founder of the Native Supply Company. And you live there with your wife and your daughter. Both of you, man, I’m thankful for you. You both have done a lot in writing. You’re both contributors to the Gospel Coalition, whose family podcast we’re a part of. So, just thank you both for what you’re doing and joining us today.
Mike Aitcheson: I was reflecting on some days when I was at RTS with somebody recently, I was so excited, of course, when Pastor Darryl came on and then I heard that Ameen was going to come on. I was like, “Oh man, this is going to be a nice season.” Because I was thinking back to the times I’d come down there and worship with you all and even had the opportunity to preach at the canon. And some Sunday mornings, we had a good time, man.
Ameen Hudson: Yes, man. I miss you, man. Yes, I’m glad. I’m glad to see you again.
Mike Aitcheson: Yeah. So, we got to figure out how to get you up here to Orlando one of these days, both of you all.
Jon Aragón: Yes, sir.
Ameen Hudson: We’re only down the road, man. We’re right down the road.
Jon Aragón: Yeah, not too far.
Jim Davis: There are a lot of reasons that we wanted to have you all on the show. You’re down the road, we love Darryl. We love what you’re doing. We love your podcast. We specifically wanted to bring you all on, and we really want to talk about three things in this episode that really we don’t address elsewhere. We want to talk about the unique contours of the Afro-Latino experience. The ways in which language impact our cultural moment. We want to introduce the concepts of transitional justice. And so, we felt like you two would be really great for the sprawling conversation, and in many ways it builds upon our previous episode where we talk with Jerome Gay about dominant and subdominant culture.
Jim Davis: So, if you haven’t listened to that one already, it would be worth your time to go listen to Jerome Gay, and then come back and listen to this episode because really they’re building together. So, with that in mind, I’m going to throw Jon the first question. Could you just paint for us a high altitude picture of Afro-Latinos in South America?
Jon Aragón: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Again, thank you for having us where both, Ameen and I are excited to be part of this conversation and just lend our voices to this topic. But yeah, wow, high altitude of Afro-Latinidad. So, I’ve said in passing and Ameen has probably heard me say this over the years that Afro-Latinos we’re like the sugar in coffee. You can’t see us, but we bring the flavor. I think what that speaks to the can’t see part is the reality that afrodescendentes or Afro-Latinos, Afro-descendant people have had to navigate and grapple with their own cultural identity and how that interfaces with the context that they find themselves in.
Jon Aragón: And we’ll talk about the diaspora later, but there’s so many nuances in the term Afro-Latinidad, right? So, the term Latinidad has historically been adopted with and associated with whiteness, right? Ameen is familiar with this, but my experience as an Afro-Latino if you’re stateside because both of my parents are faithful gospel ministers, but once me and my family immigrated here stateside, I wasn’t considered Latin because I didn’t look or appear to be like what people were accustomed to seeing on Univision or Telemundo.
Jon Aragón: So, their concept of what an Afro-Latino was, was pretty much non-existent. But specifically within South America or more so where my family are from, in Colombia, Afro-Latinidad, that label, there’s spaces where that label is adopted and is embraced, but by and large, the label isn’t necessary. So, what I mean by that is, me being a person who I’ve had to oscillate between what it means to be black in Colombia and what it means to be black here stateside. Here in the states, we’re really good at homogenizing identities, right?
Jon Aragón: So, we like to group people together in these pan-ethnic terms and there’s value in that, of course, to some degree taking various racialized categories and bringing them into unified spaces, and there’s a value in that, but it does cause some sense of erasure. In Colombia or in South America and a lot of spaces I’m just considered Negro, or Moreno, Prieto. I don’t have to really grapple with the identity of what it means to be Latino because I’m within the context where it’s understood that you can be a dark skin person with the incredible amount of melanin and be incredibly Latin or Afro-Colombiano or Afro-Ecuadorian or Afro fill in the blank.
Jon Aragón: So, for Afro-Latinos in South America, I think one of the ways that they’ve had to really grapple and wrestle with what it means to be Afro-Latino, a lot of that happens here in the states. But yeah, in South America there are instances and spaces either within my country or in other countries where we do need to deal with a sense of colorism and having to navigate the nuances of what it means to be black, as we understand what black is, but also being a Spanish-speaking black person. But yeah, just a high view, I think it’s one that the stories of what it means to be an Afro-Latino is often unseen. And I think that’s one of the things that Afro-Latinos for centuries have had to deal with.
Jim Davis: So, I really appreciate the way that you set that up and you distinguished between Afro-Latinidad culture and maybe an African-American here. So, now, in America, you said you have both cultures and you grapple with your identity. Can you kind of drill down a little bit on that? How would you process your identity versus an African-American who’s spent his whole life maybe generations here?
Jon Aragón: Sure, yeah. So, I’ve been told from people not just in all the places that I’ve lived here stateside, that I’m not black. Now, those who are just listening to the podcast know that I’m a very dark skin person. So, I think one of the ways that we can think about this is that here stateside, we have created a construct of what it means to be black. So, it’s not just associated to skin complexion, and included in that. So, this experience of what it means to be a black person in America, but in spaces, it’s become a politicized word.
Jon Aragón: So, for example, when me and my family, we immigrated here stateside in Colombia, black skin, or at least in Cali or Manuela black skin is a adored, it’s praised. Yes. There’s black erasure. Yes, Colombia did have a black president, and that was in large part, a race from a history up until a few years ago where he was really engrafted into the history books. But in Colombia, by and large, in my experience, blackness was embraced and celebrated. Coming here, stateside, that was completely.
Jon Aragón: I’ll share this quick anecdotal story for you. So, put yourself in the shoes of a young 13 something year old, young Afro-Latino, who is proud of his cultural identity, which is, he’s a Colombian, and now he’s here stateside having to grapple with what it means to be black. So I was then at that time, learning English because Spanish is my first language, and I wasn’t fully embraced by African-Americans because I didn’t act black enough. So that was one cultural hurdle that I had to really learn how to navigate over the years.
Jon Aragón: But also, I wasn’t really embraced by the Latin community because I didn’t look Latin enough. So for Afro-Latinos here stateside, for many of us we’re having to navigate the complexities of what it means to be black in America, but also have this rich, diverse Latin history and heritage that has been clear to represent Afro-Latinos in our respective countries. But here stateside, it’s either not embraced or understood.
Jon Aragón: So over the years, especially as I was hitting the cusp of my adulthood, I really had to wrestle with what it means to be an Afro-Colombiano or Afro-Latino in America. Because the challenges here are very, very difficult. There are similarities because we know colorism is a global issue, but here stateside, navigating the nuances of what it meant to be black and Latino, yeah, that took years. That took years of grappling and having to navigate and unlearn and relearn what it means to be … Or unlearn and relearn what it meant to embrace my skin color.
Jon Aragón: Last thing, when I came here stateside too, it was one of the first times I started to be discriminated against as an Afro-Latino, being called … Any person of color can resonate with this, and this is why there’s so many similarities between Afro-descendant community, which includes African-Americans, and Afro-Latinos, which are part of the diaspora in all of South America, but having to navigate hearing either racial slurs or included with the racial slurs, people including expletives in their language towards me and my personhood, that does something to your soul formation. So I’m just thankful that I had my father and surrogate fathers in my life to really help me find my identity, which included my identity formed in Christ of course, but what it means to be a black man, a Spanish-speaking black man in America.
Jim Davis: Man, it’s so sad to me, I mean, that you’ve experienced no discrimination. And when you moved to the United States, that’s when you began to experience it. Thinking back to South America, back to Colombia, I’m curious, are there linguistic differences or nuances that are unique to Afro-Latinidad culture or the cultural identity that are different from non Afro-Latinos?
Jon Aragón: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. There surely are. Though the majority of the discrimination I’ve experienced in my life has been here stateside, you see the same in South America and Colombia, which was the context where my identity was shaped and formed. I mentioned earlier that Colombia back in the 1860s had one of their first black presidents. It took more than 160 years for this president to be, not just recognized, but really be a part of the legacy and the history of what Colombia has had to experience for the last 200 years of their independence.
Jon Aragón: In South America, I also think about, there are certain spaces in Colombia that the term Latino or Latina are familiar, but they’re not people who are of Afro-descendant, the part of the afrodescendencia aren’t part of that group. So unfortunately even still in South America, we still have an incredible amount of discrimination that we’re having to learn and navigate through and understand the nuances of what it means to be a Colombian, but not really embraced by the community.
Jon Aragón: As I mentioned before, not only being embraced by the African-American community, but not being embraced by the Latin community, and I’ve experienced this as I’ve gone back to Colombia in my adulthood. My father would not just in Colombia, but here stateside would intentionally in certain spaces because he is experienced and has had to navigate it his entire life intentionally speak in English because he knew he would be respected more as an image bearer, if he wasn’t seen as a black Latino, right? So the same way we experience racialized conversations in America is almost identical in South America.
Jon Aragón: So I’ve had to learn how to navigate, how to take off the, I can’t embrace my Afro-descendant, Afro-Latin identity here, because it’s not going to be respected. It’s not going to be embraced. Therefore, I’m going to put on a persona where I can at least navigate the conversation in a way that’s respectful and dignifying, so that I can be acknowledged and seen.
Jon Aragón: But linguistically, I think the term Afro-Latino is predominantly used here stateside. In Colombia, you’ll see terms used like Negro, or Moreno, or Prieto, which are terms of endearment which is interesting, right? But in certain spaces, we’ll see those same terms used, and they’re more derogatory terms based on the tone or the context. So it’s really interesting where the same term can be used, but depending on the context, it could be something that can really break the person down or really build them up.
So for example, my daughter who’s four, I call her Negra, right? So my wife is Puerto Rican, Jamaican, and Filipino. And my daughter has rich, beautiful melanin skin, and I call her Negra to help reinforce that her skin is beautiful and it should be celebrated. So when she does hear that term in a derogatory way, she’s reminded of, wow, that term I’ve heard. I grew up hearing my father use that term as a form of endearment.
So, even as she grows into her teenage years, oh my goodness, and into adulthood, as her dignity can be stripped from her either by other men or other people, when she hears that term, she’s reminded that that skin is beautiful. So linguistically, that’s one of the realities you see in South America as well.
Jim Davis: So you mentioned the diaspora, the Afro-Latina diaspora. This is something that I actually knew nothing about and I had not engaged with, been exposed to until I had the opportunity to do some ministry work in Cuba actually. But would you help explain some of the layers, explain what it is and some of the layers of that phenomenon?
Jon Aragón: Yeah, yeah, of course. So I mean stateside, I think the understanding for some people can be during the transatlantic slave trade, the majority of slaves came here to the United States. I remember a year ago I got invited to go speak at a school for Black History Month. The teacher who invited me was a Cuban. She was Cuban and she had a heart for Afro-Latino. So she asked me to come to speak to the entire school specifically on Afro-Latinidad.
So there I am, I go to the school. I mean, we’re at the auditorium, I go on stage, and I start the presentation speaking in Spanish. Now, as a school filled with students, now when I tell you there was jaws dropping on the floor, I mean, it was just an incredible sight to see.
But during the transatlantic slave trade, which lasted between the 15 and 1800s, there were around what, 11 million African-Americans disembarked from the slave ships. Of course, there were more, but not all of them survived. Out of the 11 million, about 450,000 came to the United States, right? So the United States got about 5%, the rest of the world, obviously, including Europe, but predominantly South America and the Caribbean got everyone else.
And for us living here stateside and in America, there can be an incredible amount of ignorance around that either through willful ignorance or we could call it revisionist history. But that’s just one of the realities. As I mentioned before, color cast, you experience color cast not just here stateside, but in Africa and in South America, and the hatred towards afrodescendentes in South America has been prevalent for years.
For example, in the hundred year period between the 1870s and the 1970s, Brazil received about 5 million immigrants from Europe in the middle East. It was a conscious policy to whiten the country, because Brazil is one of the countries in the world that has the largest, one of the largest Afro-descendant populations that they received during the diaspora. So it’s just so interesting to see how being a product of la diaspora, I can be left out of some of the conversations, because the understanding is the United States received most, if not all of the slaves during the transatlantic slave trade. That’s simply not the case. Majority went to South America, one of the largest populations being in Brazil.
Jim Davis: I wish I could remember the book that I was reading when I read that for the first time. [inaudible 00:21:23] I was never taught that. I don’t know why I was never taught that, but I never learned it. So as an Afro-Latino here, what are some of your hopes that you have for Afro-Latinos in America?
Jon Aragón: I am in and I’m part of communities filled with Afro-Latinos either, obviously, or in our community, in New York, I lived there for awhile and in Colombia. I know for a lot of Afro-Latinos, their identity and their cultural identity has been erased. They’re trying to discover who they are, especially if you’re an immigrant, I mean, the complexities there are a mile long. I know them full well because I had to live through them myself, everything from what it means to be discriminated against, and not embraced by a people that look like you, but you don’t speak like them, or not being embraced by your own community, and not being embraced by them because you don’t fit the mold of this construct that’s been developed here stateside.
So I think one of my hopes is that Afro-Latinos here stateside find their value, and their identity, and their worth, and their rich heritage, and in their history. I think there’s beauty in, especially for us as believers, being able to find our identity in Christ and how that everything else really derives from that which is one of the beauties of what it means to be a follower of Christ. But I am still a black man in America, which means I’m still having to grapple with the realities of what it means to be black in America, all the systemic challenges, and all of the racialized disparities that I need to experience that my other brothers and sisters that do sympathize with me and don’t share my skin complexion, don’t have to experience.
So my hope is that afrodescendentes are able to … Some of them I know are processing and grappling through various traumas. I really, really pray that they’re able to find their dignity and their worth in the Lord primarily, but they’re able to celebrate and be proud of who they are, which is not just Latino, but Afro-descendant.
Jim Davis: You’ve spoken to one audience right there. I want to give you an opportunity to speak to two other very specific audiences. The first audience is the Afro-Caribbean, ADOS, American Descendants of Slavery, or African-Americans. Is there anything else that you specifically want them to hear from you about your experience?
Jon Aragón: I would say that my … There’s an intersectionality of what it means to be an Afro-Latino. I’m much more than just a black man. I’m much more than a Colombian. I’m much more than a Spanish-speaking black man. I think one of the things that I’d hope they would see and hear and understand is that in the complexities of my identity and the identity of so many of my other brothers and sisters, either in my immediate family or in my extended family, that they would see the richness and the beauty of God’s community, and how through various voices we’re able to have this robust expression of who God is. I think that’d be something really beautiful to see for my brothers and sisters who are non Afro-Latinos.
And then for my Afro-Caribbean brothers and sisters as well, who are part of la diaspora, they have some of the same struggles that we do in South America. I think about Ameen and myself have people in our community who are Puerto Rican, some of them who are Afro-Caribbean or lighter skin, but nonetheless, they’re Puerto Rican and a lot of those struggles are the same as well. But yeah, I think the only other thing I would add there is that I hope and pray that they would see the beauty and the complexities of God’s people and His image bearers, and that they would see past all of the various ways of that we’re vilified and distilled into singular categories.
Jim Davis: Third and final audience, and I’m guessing this is the largest part of our listenership is going to be white evangelicals. What would you like specifically white evangelicals to know about your experience as an Afro-Latino?
Jon Aragón: Yeah. I think I would like them to know that being a person in America is difficult. I think I would like them to know that my lived experience as a black man is very different from theirs. There’s one couple and Ameen is good friends with them, but there’s one couple at our church who I mean, they’ve been a godsend and we love them. In the midst of all the current events that have been happening the last several months, the wife and the daughter came to me and my wife’s house around like 9:00 PM at night.
Jon Aragón: Granted, given the volatility of the season, our hearts dropped what’s happening? And here they are in front of the door wanting to hug and embrace us, but because of the season that we’re in, they couldn’t, and they just wanted to pray, and they just wanted to cry with us and offer any resources that they had to encourage us.
I say that to say that I know for a lot of my white brothers and sisters given the volatility of the season, it could be difficult to enter into some of these racialized conversations because they may already enter into the conversation thinking they’re the villain. But I just mentioned that to say that I’ve experienced sweet community and sweet friendship with my fellow white brothers and sisters that see and understand these issues.
Yeah, so as I was saying before, I think I want them to see and understand that my experience as an Afro-Latino is very different from theirs, and the ways that black people or Afro-Latinos here stateside and in America have had to experience and internalize either self-hatred or the disdain that’s used against us has an incredible amount, the effects are incredible. I’m praying that as we’re navigating these issues, we can see to it that we are dignified and we’re celebrated regardless of our skin complexion, regardless of our color, because we are image bearers. So, yeah.
Mike Aitcheson: Jon, I’m just sitting here eating this all up. Everything you said just resonates so deeply. I appreciate you taking us from the high altitude down to your personal experience. It’s rich. It’s complex. It’s beautiful. And I’m very sympathetic to what you said, our primary identity is Christ, but that does not mean that we have to divorce the culture in which we were birthed from Christ creativity. So, thank you, brother. You are a Christian and all of your culture matters because it’s from God’s creativity. So thank you for sharing that.
It’s interesting to hear you talk about the linguistic nuances and subtleties that differentiated the subdominant Afro-Latinidad culture identity from the dominant Latinidad. I say that all these things were going on in my mind because I’m half Jamaican. My mom’s black American from the South. I was born in Miami. I’ve got Panamanian cousins, Cuban cousins. My first cousin is Malik Perez Wood, okay, Cuban, Irish, Jamaican.
Mike Aitcheson: Everything you described about the Afro-Caribbean diaspora is true of my life. A party at home reggae, soca, I mean, salsa, merengue, all of it. Okay. And we’re not even going to talk about the food, but with that also comes the fun nuances and then the challenges of trying to figure out your place in the world. I found it to be more enriching as far as the challenges are concerned, as far as God’s work in my life than something I’d want to dismiss if you will.
I was on a visit with my grandparents recently. This is on the Jamaican side and we were just sitting down and talking. And it’s amazing how, just in a short course of conversation, as soon as you walk in the house, it’s like as soon as you walk in the yard, you’re in Jamaica. I mean, from the tones, from the looks, from the expressions, to the stories that start and just the different dynamics.
I think about that in juxtaposition to my African-American grandmother who grew up in the South youngest of, I thought it was 14, evidently it was 18 kids. And there was a fascinating incident that happened. And when she was meeting my wife, who’s white from Birmingham, Alabama, we were sitting down and talking and I was just standard American English mama, I said, “It’s about …” I called her mama. She’s gone to glory now. I said, “It’s about [two or 00:31:56],” and she looked at me and said, “Two all, you mean [inaudible 00:31:59]?” And I said, “No, mama two or.” She said, “You mean [inaudible 00:32:04]?” And I said, “Yes, mama [inaudible 00:32:07].”
And it was almost as though a history lesson on English history, everything just converged in one moment. My grandmother was reminding me of our culture. She was reminding me not to forget where you come from. And people would discount that as perhaps her speaking bad English, but I mean, you’ll help us with this. There’s a rich history of African-American vernacular. Okay. There’s a rich history there. And it was used in a very crafty way for communication. That’s a part of the history that I share and embrace deeply.
And so as we move into that space, Ameen, for those unfamiliar with the African-American vernacular English hereafter, I’ll just say AAVE, can you explain what it is and some of the history?
Ameen Hudson:Yeah. So AAVE, which it has a interesting history, I actually like the way that Danielle Young put it. Danielle Young, she’s a journalist, she actually calls it a black linguistic experience that’s used to describe a North American dialect of English by some black people. AAVE is something that is kind of opposed to GAE, which people would refer to as General American English. It’s kind of a colloquial form in which you have some black people here in the states, it’s kind of a colloquial way in which we speak that’s not necessarily formal in regards to General American English.
The history of AAVE is very diverse. There’s not really a definitive view on how and where it started. Some folks think that it started with slaves and slavery. Other people think that it just developed out of modern English. There’s not a concrete way in which people talk about how it came to be, but we have it. The thing about AAVE is that some of the history, when you think about the history of it, you see the inception of it a lot was in the South, where a lot of black people, a lot of Africans were slaves during the great migration, we started spreading.
As that happened, the kind of dialect that we used in African-American vernacular English started to change depending on where we were. So there’s some general form of AAVE. But if you go to different places, people are going to speak it in different ways. The way that people use AAVE in New York is not the same way that people use AAVE in Florida. The way that people use AAVE in Los Angeles, or in California is not the same way in which people use AAVE in Chicago.
So it’s very diverse, but we do have kind of a set of rules and regulations to it. Yeah, some folks may know the history of it, and they may call it Ebonics, that may be the history that some people would be familiar with. The thing about AAVE is that historically, it never got any real great treatment from linguists, and now it kind of is. That’s why now we’re calling it African-American vernacular English. Right. But AAVE historically has always kind of been ghettoized. It’s always been seen as communicating in a ghetto or unintelligent. It was kind of seen as a ghetto or unintelligent way of speaking.
Ameen Hudson: That’s not necessarily true. There are certain standards of speech that I think that we have in a Western that we particularly have in America in which we kind of placed on everyone else, and if folks don’t meet that standard, then we kind of relegate their dialect or even their language as something that’s less than ours. So yeah, it has an interesting history.
Mike Aitcheson: So, Dr. Howard Dodson former president of the Schomburg Center, very helpful he says in one of his lectures, that it was in part some of the brilliance of the slaves where people would assume that their lack of speaking “formal English” was due to intellectual inferiority when it was … They were creating their own system. And the mathematics behind it is fascinating as you illustrated, because you can go to the North, you go out West, you go South.
Mike Aitcheson: And I see this when I visit with my family particularly on the Southern side, and it actually emerges too out of my folks in the Caribbean who have come over and onboard into the Southern black culture. And so you’ll hear terms like Florida throwing an ER, or cutting off a word or something like that. And it’s absolute the timing of it as fascinating. It’s almost like you move from one world to the next, and there’s a lot of structure to it.
Mike Aitcheson: Of course, growing up, you think it’s intuitive, but the older you get and look back, you’re like these folks are genius. This is not just some sort of uneducated kind of whatever. There’s a deep intentionality behind this, the timing, the expressions, how long you do it, when, all that good stuff.
Ameen Hudson: Yeah.
Jon Aragón: Right, right.
Ameen Hudson: Yeah. It’s interesting for me too, because I mean, my wife is her family is from Antigua, so they’re West Indian also live here in the South. So the kind of confluence of even like when you have AAVE, and then when you have the switching between that in kind of General American English, and in patois, it’s amazing, man. It’s like being bi or tri-dialectical almost.
Ameen Hudson: So for people to think that somebody that could do that is somehow unintelligent, less intelligent or it’s a lower way of communication or some kind of broken English, it’s just not true. I mean, there’s the base about if it’s the language, but I mean, there’s a whole system behind it. And it’s amazing and it’s beautiful.
Mike Aitcheson: Yes. You talk about the patois and all the good stuff. It’s amazing how from one dialect to the next, it changes the mood of the situation that … It won’t change the entire context and the imagination, the things that it insights and invokes, when you just go from one space to the next and it’s … Anyway, I was talking with Michael Graham about this, my brother, and we had a funeral down in Miami, and some folks from our family who had come over in the seventies were involved with caring for the person.
Mike Aitcheson: And you could almost walk with a blindfold and hear the AAVE/patois being spoken, and you had a good idea of what year they came over. You can tell a person they were reared in Jamaica, but they lived a long time. And our particular neighborhood, Richmond Heights, [inaudible 00:39:23], South Miami or whatever, because you hear this almost third sort of dialect that emerges out of the patois and AAVE is just fascinating. It’s amazing.
Ameen Hudson: It’s beautiful. It’s just beautiful, man.
Mike Aitcheson: This question is for both of you guys, so under what circumstances do you guys code switch from dominant culture English to AAVE or another dialect?
Ameen Hudson: Whew.
Jon Aragón: You could go, Ameen.
Ameen Hudson: So man, for me, first of all, I think that we have to … One of the things that before we even talk about code switching is that we have to recognize why we have to code switch. One of the reasons in which we have to code switch is for the very reason in which we just talked about, right? For some, for when we think through this that in certain we, as a society, especially here in America, we pay social capital to the way that people speak.
Ameen Hudson: So, for General American English, we dull out, we assign meaning to the way that people speak. So if I’m speaking in General American English in certain respects, I’m going to be respected. And so I’m going to have to learn what kind of atmospheres and what kind of places in which I move requires which type of language I’m actually able to use. And that is actually come because we have essentially an America made General American English, which is actually … That’s still even derived from another form of English.
Ameen Hudson: We have made that the standard of language or dialect in which we pay the highest amount of social capital to. So anything outside of that, we kind of deem it unintelligent, uneducated, poor, criminal. I think about how some of the Greeks thought about people that didn’t speak Greek, that they would look at them as barbarians. There are some scholars that I would even say that’s kind of how it came to be that people outside of our Greek speaking language, we labeled them as monstrous, as barbarians, as savages.
Ameen Hudson: We can kind of have that same relationship with General American English here in the states. I think that for me, code switching, and I think that Jon will probably speak to this as well, is almost like living in the kind of double consciousness that Du Bois talked about, that I am a Negro and an American, and I have to kind of navigate both of those waters.
Ameen Hudson: I feel like it’s like a double conscious of language, right? In my world, which is, if I’m going back to Southside St. Petersburg, Florida where I’m from, or I’m around people that’s from my context, I can use AAVE without care. But when I come into the office or when I walk into the boardroom, or even if I sit down with a Christian publisher, book publishing company, now I have to switch to GAE in order to be taken seriously, or seen as capable, or seen as intelligent or trustworthy.
Ameen Hudson: This is kind of why it can almost be … This is why it’s kind of maddening when people talk about black people being intelligent, and then mention that their intelligence is being derived from them being articulate. So when you look at a black, you may have a white person that would say, “Man, this black person is so smart, they’re so articulate.” Usually what they mean by that is that they speak General American English very well, right?
Mike Aitcheson: Right. Right.
Ameen Hudson: What makes them articulate is the mastery of the modern English language and them being able to master the King’s speech, but why we have to be careful with that is because it kind of assumes that GAE is this standard for intelligence that’s almost axiomatic. So if you’re outside of that standard, then you’re not intelligent. But to go back to your question yeah, like I said, if I’m in a boardroom, if I’m at a … Even sometimes, if I’m at a conference, if I’m at a publishing company, it depends on the situation.
Ameen Hudson: I would kind of code switch between just using AAVE, using General American English and this is an experience that many black people have. That’s why they make jokes about your telephone voice or the voice that you put on at work, right? Opposed to when you get around your homeboys and you know what I’m saying? So I think that the code switching is very real, but I think that the code switching can sometimes point to a larger problem in how we assign meaning to dialect, and how we assign meaning to language in regards to intelligence and capability.
Mike Aitcheson: Ameen, did you just pull out the telephone voice?
Ameen Hudson: Yeah.
Mike Aitcheson: Hey, you already know when you’re calling about that phone bill.
Ameen Hudson: Right.
Mike Aitcheson: Hi, I just wanted to call about …
Ameen Hudson: I just wanted to talk to you guys about the price of this deal. I wanted to make sure that we can get it as low as we possibly can [crosstalk 00:44:22].
Mike Aitcheson: Oh, not the telephone voice. Listen, I was reared with the telephone voice. Man, oh man. We used to watch my mama with her head turned sideways.
Ameen Hudson: You watched your parents do it. You watch your siblings do it. You watch your uncles, aunts do it. And it comes from living in the world that doesn’t value AAVE. And so they have to switch to a language in which they do value and which commands respect kind of like Paul in Acts, but that’s another situation. But yeah.
Jim Davis: This has come up with Jerome Gay. We talk about the idea of being articulate or speaking so well, with Trillia Newbell. I want to put my counselor hat, my pastoral hat on for a moment. And I want to understand more about your heart and your soul when you code switch. At a heart level, why are you doing that? What do you think you’re trying to accomplish or accommodating? I just want to know more about what that feels like.
Ameen Hudson: Right. I think that it feels like being black in America. I think that’s why I mentioned Du Bois’s double consciousness, because when we’re code switching we recognize that the dominant culture by and large historically does not recognize AAVE as a language or as a dialect of intelligence. So we have to learn how to speak essentially two different languages or dialects so that we can actually be respected in certain circles.
Ameen Hudson: So I know that when I’m on that phone, that I’m not going to be taken seriously if I’m not speaking in a way in which is in the General American English, that is actually given the social capital of respect and intelligence, right? So I have to know how to, I have to … In my mind, I’m like, okay, I got to pull out my best English, General American English for this conversation, because they have to think that I’m capable. They have to think that I’m smart.
It’s a terrible way to have to live because you are in a sense fighting for your dignity via language. I don’t believe that that is the way that God has intended the world to be, that you should not have to fight for your dignity via the way that you speak. That’s not God’s plan for His creation. You have dignity for the fact that you are made in the image of God, regardless of how you speak, what language you’re able to master or not, how well you’re able to master languages that’s given social capital. That should not be something that determines how folks view your intelligence or your intellectual ability, or your capability, or just your worth in general.
I feel like we have lived in a world in which we were like fish in water. We were raised in knowing that we have to code switch. It’s normal for us, but it should not be normal, right? And it’s damaged. It’s even damaged the black community too, because even if you … Some of my brothers here may be able to relate. But even if you are living in a predominantly black community, you speak General American English very well. Sometimes you’ll have people in that black community saying, you sound like you’re a white, right? Why do you talk white?
That comes from a larger narrative of General American English, not only being seen as the standard English or dialect that has all of the social capital, but the dialect that is only mastered by white people, and to the point that even black folks can be taught to that kind of language is white language, right? In some respects it could be true, but I think that in our hearts, I think that what is really happening is that we are fighting to be heard, and we are fighting to be valued and respected.
I think that has to change. I think that it’s kind of starting to change. I think that the tide is starting to turn, but it could be turning for the worst because now AAVE is kind of being appropriated. I mean, with internet culture happening now, with hip hop officially becoming the biggest genre in the world, and hip hop is full of AAVE. Now you have a predominant culture taking AAVE and essentially appropriating it and erasing those who are responsible for it.
Ameen Hudson: And so now more respect is being paid to AAVE in some circles, but the respect is being paid to AAVE apart from black folks being the ones who have always wielded it, with the danger of almost any black cultural product appropriation is always a threat, and it’s always something that’s real and is potentially harmful.
Jon Aragón: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I would agree with those same sentiments, and then even speaking from like a heart level and what that does to someone’s psyche. One of the things I’ve often asked my fellow brothers and sisters, to help them understand the code switching or speaking American English, I would often ask them, what would it feel like for you going to a different country and having to learn that language and being seen, or being seen as unintelligent because you’re having trouble learning how to communicate words that you haven’t even learned yet.
So, you haven’t even made the synaptic connections in your head between an object and how something sounds, and already your identity and your worth is being devalued. Not only is that happening on an individual level, obviously, but it’s happening on a corporate level within the black community, especially within the Latin community, I’ve seen this so much, and it’s incredibly heartbreaking.
And now for people of color, whether you’re a black African American who, in certain spaces you’re having to speak standard American English, or if you’re an Afro-Latino or a Latino trying to speak English, it’s incredibly, incredibly debilitating. You’re having to wrestle with this duality in your mind between when do I say this? How do I say it?
So you’re measuring how even you sound and what you say before it even comes out of your mouth, because you know how it lands on people, people can paint you in a certain light, either as intelligent, as someone who is eloquent with their speech and how they carry themselves, or someone who is characterized as someone and how we’ve characterized people here stateside, and we villainized the vulnerable to be unintelligible. And also people who don’t have something to offer, something to contribute to a meaningful and substantive conversation. And even from a heart level, that’s something I struggled with for a very long time, a very, very long time.
Jim Davis: You’ve connected with me on that. I lived in another country, was Italy for five years. I had to learn the language. And then there were these dialects that you have to understand how to navigate over there. And there’s this joke they have over in Europe. What do you call somebody who speaks three languages? Trilingual. What do you call somebody who speaks two languages? Bilingual. What do you call someone who only knows one language? An American. You could almost just say in some ways the white American, but I hear your connection there really, it hit me. So thank you for that.
Mike Aitcheson: Yeah. Thank you guys for taking it to the heart level. I think people need to hear this because it is very much endemic to the experience of being, I’m just going to broaden it and say a person of color here in the U.S., it’s impossible to not have some sort of dualistic experience as a part of your story. I get the joke, occasionally, just going back to what you said, Ameen, about how people will tease you for talking a certain way. There’s a degree of truth to it, but sometimes we unintentionally reinforce maybe white supremacy or black inferiority when we make statements like that or down people, you know what I mean?
Ameen Hudson: Reinforcing just black hatred and white supremacy. You’re right.
Mike Aitcheson: I’ve found that even when our white friends make the statements of, you don’t sound like you’re black. There’s a certain perception that they have about blackness. In many situations if people are honest, they’ll tell you that the perception they hold is of the ghettoized form of blackness. Okay. Really, it’s a tragedy because what that shows is that their access and their experience with the diversity of people of color is very limited and they hold very myopic views.
Mike Aitcheson: So in some ways, people don’t even realize just how narrow-minded they can be. So I think these are all very important things to tease out. You guys sort of moved us in the direction of thinking about how folks don’t quite understand that AAVE has very defined grammatical rules and standards, and it functions a bit like linguistic and encryption. And so when people attempt to speak AAVE but don’t know the rules of the community excuse me, the rules, then the community knows not to trust that person. Right. And so let’s move on to considering what the relationship between language and power is. If you all could help us tease that out a little bit, both of you all.
Ameen Hudson: Yeah, I think that going back to what I said earlier, that if you recognize that code switching comes from power dynamics, then we’ll see the relationship with language and power, if we recognize that those who classify what it is to actually speak correctly, are usually those who make the rules. And those who make the rules are usually those who are in power, right?
Ameen Hudson: Which means that if African-Americans have another dialect that we usually have to conform to a society in which we speak another way in order to earn social capital and even intellectual capital, which means that we’re living in a society that assigns that type of capital to the General American English in which they deemed to be the standard, then I think that that shows you how power can be used when it comes to language, right?
Ameen Hudson: That my AAVE is not seen as … It’s not just as respected even as our General American English, that I have to essentially switch myself up in certain situations in order to earn dignity and that’s directly connected to power. I think that now, again, when I talk about the appropriation of AAVE, because a lot of people may not know that it’s happening, but it is especially online. In pop culture there are a lot of black people that are speaking to the way that AAVE is being appropriated by majority white, suburban internet culture.
Ameen Hudson: And so now that things like that is even happening and it’s becoming in some ways acceptable, right. But it’s being acceptable while erasing black people from the actual dialect that it also speaks to power. It also speaks to how those things can even be taken kind of like what I think it was when Paul Mooney said, “Cute on them, ugly on us.” And so it’s kind of like how hair was done. Braids was seen as ghetto, and Kim Kardashian does braids and People magazine is like, this is fresh and edgy and it’s awesome. But black Alicia Keys did braids, it was ghetto, it was urban, it was ugly.
Ameen Hudson: I think that the same thing happens with AAVE, but I think also with AAVE kind of being suppressed within society, not being seen as a dialect that fosters or shows intelligence, then we are essentially being suppressed. I can’t be my full self because in certain settings, I have to switch out of my full self and go into the self that I know will be respected in regards to how I speak. And that speaks directly to, I believe, the power dynamics of society of those who set the rules, and everybody else who has to kind of abide by their standards because all language is made up. I don’t feel like we know that, but there’s no standard.
Ameen Hudson: Everybody’s language and dialect should be respected. And so the fact that black people have to think about ways in which they have to switch the dialect in which they may use, not all, but a lot in order to get respect, I think that it speaks directly to power dynamics that a majority culture could have.
Jim Davis: As a pastor, I’m curious, how does this play itself out in the church, in Christian community?
Jon Aragón: I think about how God communicated His truth. He communicated with words and that those words were interpreted and translated through different languages over the centuries. I think there’s something powerful to be said there. God communicated His truth and His word to a specific people within a specific context and within a specific culture. And within redemptive history, we see how that cultural context influenced how they understood God’s word either through His laws and obeying whatever the zeitgeist of the culture was in that day and age.
Jon Aragón: Now we’re finding ourselves in a place where within our Christian communities stateside, because I’m often oscillating between my conversations I have in Colombia with the community I’m connected there, and then what we experience here stateside. Stateside here in America is so interesting because in different parts of the country, it’s incredibly mixed. There’s this mixture of race and ethnicity and language. And as God’s people become more and more amalgamated, and we become a sancocho to borrow a very Latin term, there needs to be an appreciation of the beauty and the complexities within language and scripture speaks to this very clearly, especially in Revelation.
We see this with Paul too, that at the various calls for unity within the churches that he speaks to, it’s not a call for uniformity. It’s a call for unity, which speaks to an appreciation of the unique differences that God designed and created within different people group, that some of those things were developed through human ingenuity and insight like language, and other things got through His providence instituted so that there could be a diversity within the experience of who God is.
So I think about the American Christian experience, and I think about let’s …. To borrow the term the Billy Graham era, where there was this resurge … Well, not a resurgence, but there was a surge of sending missionaries out to various parts of the world to take the message of the gospel to various countries and people groups, and some instances, the way the gospel was presented in some of those spaces, it was colonialized.
For example, in Colombia where my family’s from, when missionaries came to Buenaventura where my dad’s from, which is the coast. And my dad is several shades darker than me, he can speak a little bit of English, but he’s a PhD. He’s a genius, an absolute genius. When the missionaries came to Colombia speaking English and using drawings and signs to help people understand the truth of God’s word, they felt it was appropriate to teach an entire community that it was sinful for people to get an education.
So my grandfather, at the time, the church he was a part of, they were putting families under church discipline because they were still keeping kids in school. My father who’s one of 15 experienced that himself, and he saw how my grandfather disobeyed church leadership because they thought what my grandfather was doing was ungodly. So now we think about here in the 21st century, we may or may not still … Well, we’re in COVID, but we may or may not still continue to send missionaries all across the globe to carry the message of the gospel.
But now we’re in a unique position where literally the nations are coming to us, we experience a rich diversity of God’s multicultural, multiethnic community here on the ground, right? Richard Sibbes talks about how God’s people are like a garden. So I think about our community, our little cultural enclave and all the various experiences that we are navigating through as a community, even this week, and trying to help people grapple and understand what’s happening today in age, and I get a fuller picture of who God is when I’m able to sympathize with my fellow brother and sister, who is from a completely different context, speaks a different language, because their perspective on who God is completely different from mine.
So what Richard Sibbes says, he says when God’s spirit blows upon that garden, which is filled with lilies and roses and all types of flowers and herbs, it releases the sweet mixture, the sweet aroma, which is supposed to be this representation of who God is. So my only experience of who God is is limited to a very singular homogenized community or context. I have no fear in saying this. There’s something that’s missing. You’re missing out on what God is doing within His global community, and even within multicultural, multiethnic context is here in America, and the hatred, or how people of color or various race and different languages are vilified here stateside is disheartening, and it grieves the heart of God.
So when we think about the connection between language and power, and here stateside, we have predominant culture who owns I’ll use that word, owns the American standard language, and is able to fabricate and engineer ways to put people who aren’t able to adapt the language as quickly as they would like to, it puts them at a disadvantage. So I think those are things that we need to consider within the Christian community as we think about language power, and then also bearing in mind that our country is becoming more and more multicultural, multiethnic.
One more thing I’ll add, the issues that our fellow brothers and sisters that are part of predominant culture that don’t either because they have proximity to the issue or not, they’re going to have proximity. So for our fellow white brother and sister that doesn’t feel the weight of a black man being killed, or doesn’t feel the weight of an immigrant being deported. If their son or daughter, in 10 or 15 years from now, marries into a family of a black man or an Afro-Latina woman, you better believe they’re going to feel the same struggle because then it becomes family. Then at that point it becomes family.
Jon Aragón: So within God’s community, within God’s redemptive community of all various communities that we have here at stateside, of all people we should be offering compassion, love, care, concern for the vulnerable. So those are just some quick thoughts as I think about the connection between language power, and how we should think about this in a pastoral way.
Mike Aitcheson: Amen.