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BOOKS & THE CULTURE Up from the Sidewalks BY LORENZO THOMAS 1 n a recent airline magazine interview, hip-hop music mogul Sean “P. Diddy” Combs’s business advisor Jameel Spencer pointed out that “urban” is a term that no longer should be understood as shorthand for black, Hispanic, or innercity youth boisterously “representing” what used to be called the culture of poverty. “The urban demographic is now more of a psychographic,” the young marketing whiz declared, “it’s a lifestyle. There are a lot of urban cats-40to 50-yearold white people who are cool and cutting edge. Bruce Willis is urban.” I’m not so sure about all thatespecially the Bruce Willis part. But Jameel Spencer, dapper in the GQ mode, obviously comfortable in the boardrooms of Fortune 500 companies, does present a new illustration of the word urban. What a difference a new century makes! W. E. B. Du Bois, in his pioneering sociological study The Philadelphia Negro identifying and alleviating social problems than in discovering uniqueand marketablecultural innovations. Surveying the thousands of young black migrants streaming northward to the industrial cities, Du Bois’s work laid the foundations for the Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, new organizations that joined settlement houses in efforts to point the newcom ers toward successful acculturation. As the difficult 20th century unfolded, other black intellectuals and leaders, earnestly devoted to “uplifting the masses” and their own upward mobility, evinced scant concern about how African American grassroots culture might fare when transplanted to the pavements of Northern cities. The newcomers found ways of coping, of course. They adapted what they already knew and created appropriate new designs for survival. What developed was a luxuriant oral tradition, a fascinating body of urban folklorewith an emphasis on survival against the oddsthat has contributed to the glowing self-confidence of a Jameel Spencer, even as it serves as a demonstration of what critic Barry Maxwell has called “the centrality of community to the oppressed:’ Working in NewYork and Philadelphia between 1969 and 1973, just before the emergence of hip hop, college professor Onwuchekwa Jemie asked his students to collect samples of the oral tradition in their neighborhoods. Retrieving lore from their own memories and carrying small tape recorders to playgrounds, barbershops, and sidewalks, Jemie’s crew compiled an archive of late 20th century African American “street poetry” that has now been published in an attractive volume by Temple University Press. One problematic aspect of this lore as with anything created by the impoverished and powerlessis that it makes its tellers vulnerable to ridicule and charges of social dysfunction. Decades of negative stereotyping from old-time minstrelsy to contemporary media have made African Americans particularly sensitive to detrimental images. Jemie has little patience with that concern, however, and the materials presented here are vibrant and full of brilliant detail. “Empowered by their heritage of West African languages,” writes Jemie in an informative 100-page introductory essay, “African Americans have bent, stretched, broken, melted down, and reshaped the English language, forging for their imagination a malleable instrument capable of carrying their own version of the world:’ He is entirely confident of the value of what they have created. Drawing upon the same improvisatory and communal dynamic that informs jazz music, the keyword for the types of folk expression collected in Yo’ Mama! is “dramatic?’ “African-American oral literature is drama,” Jemie stipulates, “and players, audience and setting are crucial to the total experience?’ In orature, as in literature, the linguistic choices made by the performers are also crucial. Jemie as editor does not flinch from the original language of his sources and, in fact, can draw upon earlier scholarly work to discuss the importance and nuances of a word that I will type here as mother for you. “That these words carry such a burden of complex meanings does not make them any more acceptable in polite company,” he admits. But it is also clear that much of this material derives energy from the accuracy of its vernacular. As with all folklore, this material is both timeless and quite specific. Several versions of a children’s call-and-response chant are included. The archetypal Yo’ Mama: New Raps, Toasts, Dozens, Jokes, and Children’s Rhymes from Urban Black America Edited by Onwuchekwa Jemie Temple University Press 311 pages, $19.95. LEADER Sardines on my plate And I don’t want no steak CHORUS Sardines, hey! And pork and beans can also appear in a form reflecting the grim reality of the Reagan administration’s “trickle down” economics: LEADER I can tell by your knees You eat that welfare cheese 24 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 6/18 /04