Black Santa and “Ebonics Humor”
Guest post by Melissa Duvelsdorf and Mawutor Agbaku
Can Santa Claus be a black man? This holiday season, Indiana University – Bloomington’s CommUNITY Education Program posed the question to its student body on a residence hall bulletin board. A black Santa Claus poses next to the typical stockings, presents, and Christmas tree. A joyful “Yo yo yo” emerges from the saxophone that black Santa plays enthusiastically. The purpose of the bulletin board was to address racial stereotypes about African American men using a light-hearted Christmas theme. Despite the organization’s good intentions, the bulletin board failed to mention its purpose, and IU students wondered why a racist bulletin board was posted in their residence hall. Some of the more controversial questions posed by the bulletin board ask the viewer “If Santa Claus is a black man, wouldn’t all the presents be stolen?” and “If Santa Claus is a black man, would he only visit the ghetto?”
The questions that were asked aimed to address the stereotypes surrounding the perceived lifestyle of black men in America, including the likelihood of a criminal lifestyle and location (and the stereotypes surrounding those issues). Ultimately, the organization removed the bulletin board due to the controversy, but the residence hall later held a discussion on diversity that intended to address the issues.
Controversy surrounding African American English and the holiday season is not an isolated phenomenon. For example, Da Ebonics Page, a website that uses African American English to target African American lifestyle and language, features an Ebonics Translator and other feature “jokes” about black people. One translation in particular, Clement Moore’s ‘The Night Before Christmas” to “’Twas Da Night Befo’ Christmas” takes the Christmas classic and “translates” it into African American English, including pronunciation and slang in order to criticize African Americans.
But don’t worry black, cuz I gots da skillz
I learnt back when I hadda pay da billz.
Out from his bag he pulled 3 small tings
a credit card, a knife, and a bobby pin.
He slid down the fire escape smoove as a cat
and busted the window with a b-ball bat
I said, “Whassup, Santa? Whydya bust my place?”
he said,”You best get on up out my face!”
His threads was all leatha, his chains was all gold
His sneaks was Puma and they was 5 years old
He dropped down the duffle, Clippers logo on the side
Santa broke out da loot and my mouf popped open wide.
The parody not only imitates the language of African Americans, but uses that language to stereotype African Americans and their lifestyles. Here, Santa is a skilled criminal, equipped for violence, and superficially showered in material goods. The author also uses some well-known phonological features of African American English, such as r-lessness (“leatha”), the voiceless th to f (“mouf”), and the voiced th to v (“smoove”), to make the translation more believable.
The Ebonics “Humor” phenomenon is not isolated, not is it new. Russell J. Rickford and John R. Rickford discuss the motivations of this type of “humor” in their book, Spoken Soul:
“Most translation jokes involved translations…from Standard English into Ebonics. They reveal both what people took Ebonics to be, and what they took its speakers to be like” (210)
After the 1996 Oakland Ebonics controversy, many people followed the media’s portrayal of Ebonics as illegitimate by writing satirical pieces using the language and sending them to friends via email threads or posting them to websites. Unfortunately, by using the language of the marginalized community, people further stigmatized this community in their own language, and within a context that they identify with.
People who make Ebonics “jokes” involving the Christmas season are negatively stereotyping a language and a culture, using that very same language and culture against itself. In 2008, 86% of African Americans identified as Christians. Living in predominately white society, African Americans rarely find themselves represented in the media during the holiday season. Beloved Christmas movie classics, such as “A Christmas Story,” “Elf,” and “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” all portray a Christmas celebrated only by white people, forgetting the diverse black, Asian, and Latino Christian population. Even the beloved Santa Claus, bringer of joy and material wealth, is depicted as a pale, Anglicized white man with rosy cheeks and blue eyes (see also, the recent commentary by a Fox News Anchor on how Santa must be white). Unfortunately, some people abuse the power of intersectionality by employing one identity group (religion) to exploit the stereotypes of another (race). After the consistent dearth of positive representations of African Americans during a holiday that is supposed to be about love and peace to all mankind, the use of Ebonics “humor” in the form of Christmas classics African Americans into the season only through negative stereotypes and an attack on their language.