Black people have made major contributions to American culture, particularly in the field of language. Lit, Dope, and even Woke are instances of Black vernacular that has made its way into the mainstream.
“Usually, things that we are doing are hair-brained things of mine,” is how jarrett hill begins to describe how his new book, “Historically Black Phrases: From ‘I Ain’t One of Your Lil’ Friends’ to ‘Who All Gon’ Be There?’” co-authored with Tre’vell Anderson, came to be.
“…Typically, I have an idea people kept say we should do a show, maybe we should do a podcast,” hill adds, “and Tre’vell’s response is ‘hmm, I don’t know and that’s how FANTI (a podcast hosted by hill and Anderson) began.
“And now this book is something that I have been working on for about 5 years,” hill continues, “trying to figure out what to do with the idea of pulling together all of these phrases that I’ve been compiling. When we got together on the book idea, it’s where it crystallized and became an opportunity for us to work together.”
The two friends, who wrote the book in celebration of Black culture and the diversity of Black language, compiled over 200 Black conversational mainstays, ranging from religious sayings to expressions and communication in the Black community displayed for public consumption.
“Historically Black Phrases” provides explanations and highlights key pop culture moments when vernacular took center stage, as well as pronunciation and usage suggestions for phrases such as “feelin’ yourself.”
hill is a distinguished journalist, moderator, presenter, and author. He is the current president of the National Association of Black Journalists of Los Angeles and was included in the 2016 Ebony 100. He came to the public at large for breaking the story of Melania Trump’s 2016 Republican National Convention speech in which she allegedly recited portions of Michelle Obama’s 2008 Democratic National Convention speech. Currently, he’s on staff as a professor at the University of Southern California and co-host of the popular podcast “FANTI.”
Anderson is an award-winning journalist and a noted podcaster host and author doing world-changing work around society and culture. Named to the Root’s 2020 list of the 100 Most Influential African Americans, Anderson, who uses the pronouns they/them, has dedicated their career to centering those in the margins and at the intersections of life. Anderson also co-host’s Crooked Media’s “What A Day.” “Historically Black Phrases” is their second published book of the year. the first being “We See Each Other: A Black, Trans Journey Through TV & Film” (May 2023).
This project, like everything the two colleagues work on, is rooted in friendship and advocacy. The two authors took time out to share what inspired them to write the book and how this brought them closer as friends.
Anderson explains how they became part of the conversation for “Historically Black Phrases” and what led to them co-authoring the book.
“Jarrett started about 7 years ago just defining words that we would consider historically Black phrases on Facebook, like [the phrase] ‘Charge it to the Game’ and someone commented by asking ‘are you doing a book?’” they explained. “…After pitching it in several formats to different publishers, he had the brilliant idea to bring me on.”
Once Anderson joined the project, it took off. The authors believe it’s their two different regional perspectives that makes this book a gem. hill grew up on the West Coast, specifically the Bay Area.
“It’s a particular type of Black experience and I’m from South Carolina, an equally different Black experience,” Anderson shares. “Mixing in our college years and my being a military brat, this allowed us to have a fuller picture when it comes to how Black people communicate and the different phrases we wanted to highlight.”
Not only does Black language have regional roots, but much of its vocabulary is also city-based, such as the word “Jawn” in Philadelphia and “Deadass” in New York, making it difficult to choose which words to include in the book.
“We had a bit of a process,” hill describes. “When I brought Tre’vell on, I had around 200 phrases that I accumulated. As we were reviewing those words, Tre’vell began to add words. The first words that were eliminated from the book were words that were self-explanatory. We wanted to keep words that one may know the meaning of but not sure how to always incorporate.
“This is where our regional upbringing comes in how we may utilize the same word but in a different way,” he continued. “This [made] us realize that we had to narrow down the list from 350 to 220 just due to space. We also wanted to make sure we had room for essays to expound around the way that we speak; this enabled us to streamline the project.”
While the book is a celebration of community and Black culture, it was asked of hill and Anderson if they had concerns about the book being co-opted for commercial gain by people that aren’t of the culture, which often results in erasure and application that at times harms the very people that created the culture.
“We worked hard to achieve a balance in terms of which gazes we would consider,” Anderson states. “This is a book we want to be successful, and based on population alone, some non-Black people will pick it up and engage with it.
“However, we wanted to produce something that Black people, particularly Black people in America, could pick up and feel as if it was put together by Black people, rather than by Black people for a white audience. This was accomplished by ensuring that the definitions of those words came from an unabashedly Black prism.”
The idea being that Black audiences would see themselves reflected in those pages and while white readers are welcome to read the book, some aspects are going to seem unfamiliar as they were not the intended audience.
hill explains why having our words in a book is interpreted differently than in other popular culture such as music. ”It’s because putting our vocabulary in a book legitimizes it. We haven’t seen our language in such a medium.”
The Black LGBTQIA+ population contribution when it comes to Black vocabulary is undeniable. Sadly, rarely have those contributions been celebrated by the mainstream populous. hill and Anderson made sure that readers were aware of such contributions and demonstrated through an essay how important the queer community is to Black culture, particularly language.
“We have an essay in the book called a ‘Lifeblood In and of Itself.’ That essay significantly talks about the contribution of Black queer communities to Black culture and broader culture,” Anderson explains. “We say in the essay that every major social culture development that has happened since the beginning of time is not only owed to Blackness, but more specifically owed to Black queerness.”
“I am a child of television. I loved television and still love it. As an adult now looking at the shows that I watched as a kid, I see them with a different lens” hills shares. “I can appreciate that those shows that leaned progressive, whether or not they had particular political messages in them, and were inclusive in their casting, aged really well.
“I think about shows like ‘Living Single,’ ‘The Golden Girls,’ and other shows that queer communities have really attached to even in modern day because they were having conversations about abortions, sex positivity, sexuality, and other social issues that we thought about when writing this book. They aged well because of the discourse they sparked. If this book is going to be on people’s shelves or coffee tables for a long time, I want to ensure that when it is picked up in the future, it will feel progressive and not problematic.”
“Historically Black Phrases” comes out at a time when Black history is being erased and Black books are being banned, demonstrating how vital it is for us as Black people to tell the origins of our lexicon. While the essays in the collection address pressing issues, they also harken back to childhood memories and joyful occasions, demonstrating the vital contributions that Black Americans make to American culture.
In Philadelphia, you can find “Historically Black Phrases” at Uncle Bobbie’s Coffee & Books and Harriett’s Bookshop.