The language my Black family speaks
4 min read

The language my Black family speaks

The language my Black family speaks
Photo by Jason Leung / Unsplash

For those who don’t know, I’m both Black and Peruvian. I didn’t know or grow up with the Peruvian side of my family for most of my life(long story), but I still grew up in a mixed family with many ethnicities and races.

What most people see, however, is my brown skin.

During the time of the George Floyd murder and the early days of the pandemic, I learned from my mother and uncle that we come from a line of Gullah-Geechee people who settled in panhandle Florida some generations ago.

What I wasn’t prepared for, however, was the realization that all this time, I’ve been speaking Geechee with my family.

There’s common Geechee sayings like “d’reckly” (pronounced: ‘drek-leh’) which means “directly” and “n’ose” which translates to “and those.” Most of the Geechee phrases and sayings honestly sound like deep-South-Black-folk-talk to an untrained ear.

And if you don’t know or understand the history and cultural significance of the Geechee people, you might mistake it for being ignorant and uneducated like I did for most of my life.

On top of that, we invent new sayings and phrases, and continually add to a lexicon that can only be described as “The dictionary of the children of Josephine Fletcher” (my great-grandmother). They’re expressions from real life and moments in time forever recalled by repeating them.

We always remember the time, the place, and the person who said them. Sometimes they’re from movies, but most are from life.

If you’re ever around my family — especially me and my mother — you’ll hear us saying phrases like:

  • Hmmm..: This depends on the speed, intonation of how we use it, and our facial expression but can mean "Wow, really?" or "I question your judgement" or "This sounds sketchy"
  • O-kay? Okay!: A way of confirming something, usually out of frustration
  • Chile (like “child”): A term of endearment and agreement, but especially when one is about to spill some tea
  • That’s a snake pit: You had best avoid that
  • That’s against you / That's not your friend: Similar to the above, but only in contexts where something has been harmful to the speaker
  • Kiki (like “kee-kee”): A gathering, a get-together; can also mean fervently talking about something or gossiping
  • Ain’t no mo’ neck bones: Said when a specific food or thing has run out and there’s nothing left
  • Beef jerky time: Said when you or I need a quick break to rest
  • But my ticket says: A way to say that you were expecting something to happen, but didn’t
  • Sho’ nuff den of iniquity: A reference to a verse in the Bible about a place where immoral or illegal things are done; similar to “That’s a snake pit”
  • Hug my neck: Said when one is about to part ways with the other
  • I can fightchu fo’ free: When you will not tolerate a certain behavior from someone or something else
  • Care for some gopher?: Straight from the movie "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"; said when offering someone something they may not desire, but likely need
  • There's plenty, you know: From "Coming to America"; means the food or thing is abundant; the opposite of "Ain't no mo' neck bones"
  • Nobody wants your wheat: See “Ain’t no mo’ neck bones”; a reference to the stock market imitation game ‘Pit’; used when expressing that something is no longer in demand
  • I must take a rest: See “Beef jerky time”
  • “Two-times grown” or “Three-times grown”: usually said when referring to someone’s age and their expected maturity level; considered a multiplier of the legal adult in the United States which is 18. For example, if one is over the age of 36, they are “two-times grown”
  • That’s a wrap: Another way of saying that something or a situation is over
  • How, sway?: A way to express disbelief in something — especially when in contempt of another person; “How is this possible, sir/ma'am?”
  • Fix it Santa / Fix it Jesus: May the powers that be take care of this for me, please!
  • You used up all the glue on purpose: Said when accusing someone of doing something wrong, but especially when it’s petty
  • Morning affirmations: A reminder to say kind words to one another, especially upon first waking
  • Is it top-rated? / Was top-rated turned on?: a reference to Google Map’s “Top Rated” feature; used when asking if something is good-quality especially when pertaining to food
  • You about to get folded up: Said when making a threat to someone’s life; similar to “I can fightchu fo’ free!”
  • If you: typically in the form of a threat, but it’s important that both syllables are emphasized; short for “If you don’t [insert action or request here]”
  • You really put your foot in that one: You cooked this dish really well! I can tell you put effort into it
  • The ether!: This alcoholic beverage is so good / strong!
  • I felt that in my spirit / I could feel it in my toenails: I felt that very deeply or intensely
  • Bonesaw is ready: I am so pumped! Let’s gooo!
  • Rum-Zac: Said when you or someone you know has had just enough alcohol where they don’t have a care in the world
  • Harpo, who ‘dis woman?: From “The Color Purple”; said when you don’t recognize someone and have a strong feeling you don’t want to know

There’s hundreds more, too. What’s fascinating is that most if not all families have a “language” — a way of communicating that can only come from experiencing or knowing the stories that generated their meaning.

I'm learning how important it is to document your family's lexicon. It might seem small or trite, but how we speak is a part of the legacy we leave behind.