TWA, Power, Proximity ad Literacies of Liberation / Limitation Therein

This week’s reflection will be less about academic thinking and more about sharing some of my feelings, in part because I feel like the topic of “attitudinal literacies and performances” (how I taxonomies this more broadly) taps into a conversation for which I have simultaneously felt strong (mostly very frustrated) emotions and seen few avenues to express them. Because I tend to compartmentalize my feelings as kind of a defense mechanism, or try to police “negative” emotions in favor of more worldly “positive” ones that are more palatable for the institutions and people I have to negotiate with much of the time, I will apologize in advance for any lack of clarity or for the effusive frustration I express over matters that some people probably think of as trivial.

That preface offered, this week I wanted to tie our discussion about Black Girl Literacies (let’s make sure to capitalize this and think of it as canon) and their relation to a handful of public woman-identifying figures who have been on my mind of late. Centrally, Azealia Banks, Mo’Nique, Cardi B and Nicki Minaj have been on my mind—but secondarily, so too have Foxy Brown, Charlemagne “Tha God”, Safaree Samuels and DJ Envy.

To begin with, I want to situate my thinking about the art and public personas of these figures in Koonce’s work in “Loud Black Girls” and Troutman’s “Attitude and It’s Situatedness in Linguistic Politeness”; these world discuss what I think of as both verbal and nonverbal “literacies of being” as articulated by speech, negotiations with power, and people-relations. One mode of such literacy is what Koonce describes as “TWA”, or talking with attitude—which refers to the rhythms, idiomatic expressions, lexical manifestations and physical embodiments exhibited by many in the African American Speech Community—particularly black women.

Thinking about this in the context of hip-hop, I can’t help but think about rap music and “urban” comedy (and women’s contributions to it) as a direct manifestation of TWA. Thinking about it that way, and considering Koonce’s framing of TWA as an act of agency, a “resistance” and site for identity formation, I can’t help but think about it, contextualized in the genres I mentioned above, as manifestations of power. To that end, success, financial independence, and “clout” as earned within those spaces (for the moment suspending those limiting factors which undeniably exist within these genres for women and black women in particular) speak to a certain proximity to power.

In considering the extremely punitive language used to describe Nicki Minaj, Azealia Banks and Monique throughout the years (as their “relevance” has waned and waxed with the time), it occurs to me that perhaps the social punishments doled out to these women socially have more to do with their command over their TWA-literacy and their ability to use that literacy to ascend (in some but not all ways) circuitries meant to keep them subservient, dependent and beholden to a subjugating power structure—and less to do with the actual quality of their work or content of their words.

Nicki Minaj and Mo’nique come up in my thinking here because I find that the goal post is perpetually changed for them—people come up with new reasons to justify their public mistreatment every day, as well as the intentional diminishing of their impact, which on its face should be undeniable and not qualified. As it pertains to Azealia Banks (and thinking about her uptown contemporary, Cardi B), I can’t help but wonder if the former’s immense, groundbreaking command of her literacy (used often as a cudgel, for good or bad I will admit) is as part of the social sanctions she faces as the color of her skin. Why is someone like Cardi B celebrated as an unquestioned success story to which we should all relate, without critique of her sometimes problematic public effusions, while Azealia Banks (equally problematic I imagine) is dragged through the mud?

I’ll refine my thoughts on this after classroom discussion…

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