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Jamila Lyiscott talks language and African American identity

(Benno Kraehe/Daily Collegian)

Jamila Lyiscott, founder and co-director of the Cyphers for Justice advocacy program, spoke about the power of language and its relationship to African American identity and power. Lyiscott, currently a lecturer in the department of student development at the University of Massachusetts, drew an audience of approximately two dozen people on Wednesday afternoon.

During the talk, Lyiscott established identity as an important component of the discourse on language. She presented an excerpt from Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Toni Morrison’s novel “Beloved,” which she described as one of her favorite books. “Hear me, they do not love your neck unnoosed and straight,” Lyiscott read from the excerpt. “So love your neck; put a hand on it…hold it up.”

Lyiscott interpreted that the former Black slaves in the passage were reclaiming their self-identity in a world stacked against them. “This is the framework for how I view Black communities and Black language in today’s world,” she said.

She proceeded to describe how her own identity was formed. “When my parents would engage in Creolized English, so much of who I thought I was forged,” she said, adding that her identity was also forged in her community.

A pivotal moment Lyiscott recalled in her perception of self-identity was when a women complimented her for giving a highly “articulate” speech. “I was offended,” Lyiscott said. “If this woman heard me speaking with my father or friends in African American varieties of English, would she have viewed my worth differently? I think so.”

This experience highlighted what Lyiscott sees as a difference between school and education. “Through hip-hop and spoken word, I made the distinction [between school and education],” she said.

The relationship between power and language and how language is used to assert power was also explored. Lyiscott cited multiple instances of corporations making money off of slogans written in African American English. “McDonald’s garners billions off the ‘I’m lovin’ it’ slogan. Yet, if I were to say this in college, I would be corrected,” she said, adding that “[African American] structures of grammar are deemed delinquent.”

Language not only controls money but can also control physical people, Lyiscott noted.

“An important component of the colonization [of Africa] was divorcing people from their language,” she said. In the American context, Lyiscott explained that by policing the language of slaves, slave masters forced slaves to become complicit in their own oppression.

Lyiscott established how she sees language as a tool for oppression, but she also detailed how the society’s marginalized could resist.

“Authorship over yourself is crucial,” Lyiscott said. “Ask yourself who is authoring and framing the legitimacy or illegitimacy of our communities.”

Warning against inadequate action, Lyiscott closed by saying, “My life work is a call to action. If we hope for equality we must take up the reigns ourselves.”

For Naphe Fatahi, a junior biochemistry and molecular biology double major, Lyiscott’s talk both informed and moved him.

“I came here to gain extra credit,” Fatahi said. “Later I got interested in the topic and how language has a big impact on power.”

Fatahi connected with Lyiscott’s topic as his father immigrated to the United States from Syria. “[Language] had a big impact on how people viewed [my father] as a real estate agent. People judged him off of his grammar and language.”

Melvin W. Smith, a former UMass professor who worked in the Afro-American studies department from 1971 to 1975, also approved of Lyiscott’s talk.

“Much of what our speaker referred to is that it [fostering self-identity] is essential to the resistance of the imperialist and colonialist project,” Smith said.

Smith also has his own plan to resist marginalization.

“Social justice and liberation is what I work for as a conscious citizen,” he said.

In the meantime, Lyiscott said she is “convicted to transform institutional spaces to include the lives of those that were not included historically.”


Benno Kraehe can be reached at


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