The Frame of Speaking

In Beyonce’s video “formation”, the gaze is slowly gliding through.

Igiphyt is slowly, steadily and subtly moving in and out of the scene. It is either gliding from left to right (which often depicts entrance) or gliding back from right to left( which depicts a reversal or an exit from the way the frame is arranged- placing focus on Beyonce- or the clustering of people in the neighborhood or the direction towards which the subjects in the frame are walking towards). When not left or right, the gaze is moving in and out. There are only a few moments of distinct cuts of a scene, displayed as if shot from different angles and then patched to show the different angles. However, most of the time, it seems like we are rolling and riding through the “New wildins” with Beyonce. The lens puts us in a steady, moving vehicle. We know it’s not walking because the lens never gallops slightly as we do when we change the weight from our left leg to our right.

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Usually, there is movement: Bey is either dancing or singing. But also, there are moments where the gaze has to move around the stationery poses. And, by simply standing still in the pose or continuing the same movement in the same speed and with the same confidence, the people in the video decide to remain unmoved by a gaze they are aware of.

This is particularly strong when we think about code switching. That is, switching a means of communication ( verbal or body language) in order to pass the same message across to distinct groups of people who identify themselves as or can be identified as members of different racial/social categories. For instance, there’s a viral clip of Obama saying “You know it’s black history month when someone says Heeeey Michelle! Girllll you look so good.”

By this Obama is implying that the words used and the manner of speaking certain words are particular to communication where blackness is the predominant cultural identity. However, make no mistake, all the words in the sentence are English. Too many people, too many times have this idea that English is a static language that is understood only within the word itself- as if the way the words are spoken have nothing to do with the digestion and apprehension of the message being passed across. Thus, there is an assumption that to depart from the Oxford pronunciation would be to speak less of the language; so that the word is actually able to lose its value as English when said in a certain way- with a certain accent that changes its sounds.

Well, I believe ever since colonization, English is no longer a language of England for the English; it’s more of a vehicle of message transmission we had to settle upon. We know the English words but we still have our unique cultural emotions and references that need to be shared within and across groups. In that case, the English words are not everything about post-colonial communication; the word itself is just part of the car, like the steering wheel is just a part.

This is to say that English is a language that can be translated to other English forms whilst still remaining English.

A more complex debate would be the conversation around defining pidgin English /Patois forms of English- but not today Sheila. However, we can talk about how English as a language that has been imposed and then policed for its correctness…as if a cultural expression is perfected when it sheds its language and immerses itself in England’s English. There is an assumption of knowledge, and insight, and capability that comes with thinking the most eloquent expression of self presents itself in the queen’s English. Thus, punishing other forms of expression directly (flogging students who speak their local languages) or indirectly, by simply rewarding those who express themselves both the English text and even, the British accent. An accent comes with a lot of baggage- it’s not just about the way the words bounce into the listener’s ears; it’s a lot more about the way the speaker’s mouth is shaped to pronounce certain words. For instance, the french people have  a guttural R that shows up in their pronunciation of English words. In the same way, my Yoruba people have trouble saying “Eyes” without adding an extra H, because the english letter is not applicable in the alphabetic world of the Yoruba people. However, we have been forced to adjust the way our mouths express feelings.

For many many decades, our colonial masters took the word “local” and dragged it through the mud until it eventually became synonymous with unsuccessful, unachieving, and simply less than ideal.

It was only in writing this blogpost that I realized “Vernacular” is actually a neutral word with no negative charge attached to it: It simply means dialect spoken by local people. However, because it was always written with a huge “NO” beside it, I began to be afraid of even thinking of vernacular. The word itself is coloured in red when I think about it. I grew up in a place where everyone wanted their mouths to be shaped with western expressions of everything. I had a friend who spent two weeks in Texas and came back with an  accent that seemed to have fallen from the heavens (which was probably not filled with Texans). When we asked him to confess his lies, he looked at us and said “Honestly, I thunt know, but it just hyappend.”

Thunt=Don’t. Hyappend=Happened. Bottle =Borrle. Water=Warrer.

Those are some of the words we practice after watching our favorite movies and cartoons. Obviously, our favorite movies and cartoons are Western (mostly American). But then, there are some words we don’t hear enough (on TV shows or movies) to help us pretend we learnt English so well, we became fully foreign within it. For instance, people often slip when it comes to figuring out where to place the stress in a word like “definitely.” There is no R to roll: No “D” or “T” to be replaced with a rolling R. There is no way to hold on to the trope of the American/British accent to hold on to in a word like definitely: It just either sounds right or sounds wrong. It’s usually funny to hear someone stumble on one or two words when they are trying to prove just how far they have transcended locality. Sometimes I laugh. Most times I understand why we want it so badly: We worked very hard to learn the grammar; we changed our lives to learn the text but we become drenched in imperfection because we still can’t seem to mirror the British people who had said “Repeat after me.” How do we know if it’s a repetition if it’s not exactly the same? We being Nigerian. We being any (post)colonial child.

By looking straight into the eyes of the camera but remaining in the position they attain, Beyonce’s people have refused to be intimidated by the gaze of correctness. The fact that we see a movement repeated, or a stance at its stillness, implies an assumption that happened before the gaze was present. In summary, they didn’t move away from what they were or they didn’t move into what the gaze might have preferred them to be.

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There is no code switching. She loves corn bread and collard greens without your permission and dismissive of your derision. The code remained irregardless of when the gaze zoomed in, zoomed out, drove in or drove out of the scene. There was no inclination to become something digestible either because the gaze understood or because Beyonce didn’t give a fuck if the gaze digested it. In those monents, Beyonce and the other black bodies in the frame saw nothing in their being that needed correction, or adjustment. Their movements were complete, and in their positions/formations, they were content. Why did they ever feel incomplete in the first place?

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