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Run and Tell That!

September 22, 2010

On July 28, 2010, Antoine Dodson appeared on a WAFF-48, a local news channel in Huntsville, Alabama, to react to a local crime. A month and a half later, people are still talking about him. Dodson became an overnight sensation when an intruder entered his family’s home in Lincoln Park Housing Projects and attempted to sexually assault his sister, Kelly Dodson. When the local news channel interviewed Dodson and his sister about the incident, Dodson used the interview as an opportunity to warn community members about the intruder.

Well, obviously, we have a rapist in Lincoln Park. He’s climbing in your windows, he’s snatching your people up, trying to rape them, so y’all need to hide your kids, hide your wife and hide your husband, because they’re raping everybody out here.

He went on to send a message to the intruder, who remains at large.

We got your t-shirt. You done left fingerprints and all. You are so dumb. You are really dumb. For real. You don’t have to come and confess that you did you did it. We are looking for you. We gon find you. I’m letting you know now. So you can run and tell that, homeboy.

A youtube video of Dodson’s impassioned speech immediately went viral and led to the creation of numerous musical remixes, the most famous one being the Bed Intruder Song by the Gregory Brothers, the famous duo behind Autotune the News. The Bed Intruder song was soon available for purchase on iTunes, with half of the proceeds going to the Dodson family. The song quickly became a hit, peaking at number 89 in the Billboard Hot 100. It was the only song that week to enter the chart based solely on iTunes downloads.

The video was of course not without controversy. WAFF-48 received many complaints from viewers who felt that the clip was perpetuating negative stereotypes about poor blacks. In an NPR interview, Baratunde Thurston, a web editor from TheOnion.com, referred to the Dodsonmania that ensued as a form of “class tourism”, much like the kind found in shows like Cops and Jerry Springer. It was suggested that maybe people were laughing at Antoine, not with him. Other critics suggested that the explosion of the online songs that followed the his news appearance seemed to be diminishing the seriousness of what had happened to Kelly Dodson, who was the victim of a violent assault.

In follow-up interviews, the Dodson family has remained positive about their experience in the public eye, and certainly the public’s interest in them has not yet disappeared. Thurston has praised the Antoine Dodson for taking control of his internet meme and using it for his own personal and financial benefit, creating his own online persona via his personal website, Facebook and Twitter. But there’s still more to be gained from this experience, especially in what we can learn from looking at the force of Dodson’s message. Language and verbal skill is critical to African American culture. According to Geneva Smitherman, “Aside from athletes and entertainers, only blacks who can perform stunning feats of oral gymnastics become cultural heroes and leaders in the community”. This can include, for example, preachers, politicians, rappers, activists, poets, and yes, even athletes and entertainers (Muhammad Ali, a highly-skilled verbal performer). The African American emphasis on oral culture is said to be have originated from an African oral tradition that survived the middle passage.

Looking at Antoine’s verbal performance critically reveals the depth of the effectiveness of African American English as it is used to communicate about issues that are relevant to his community. It is in large part Antoine’s verbal performance that grabs the attention of so many. Of course there’s the raw emotion and the honesty that people immediately notice, but there is also a strong element of African American English, which comes out not only in Dodson’s phonology and syntax, but also in the number of traditional African American verbal strategies he employs. Here, I focus on the verbal strategies:

  1. Repetition (key words and sounds are repeated in succession, both for emphasis and effect):
    “Hide your kids, hide your wife, and hide your husband”, “You are so dumb. You are really dumb.”
  2. Braggadocio (also called “woofin”–used to convey image of omnipotent fearless being, capable of doingthe undoable): “We gon find you. I’m letting you know now.”
  3. Intonational contouring (manipulation of stress and pitch in pronouncing words and phrases):
    “and hide your husband, because they’re raping everybody OUT HERE”
  4. Spontaneity (speaker is free to improvise by taking advantage of whatever comes into the situation, including audience responses and spur-of-the-moment ideas): We assume that Dodson’s performance was not rehearsed, but rather he was responding to the interviewer’s questions.
  5. Use of words and phrases that come out of African American English: “For real”, “homeboy”, and the definitive expression “So you can run and tell that”. In Black Talk, Smitherman claims that this last expression has its roots in slavery, “when traitors within the race would run and tell ‘Ole Massa’ about the slaves’ schemes and plans for escape.”
These verbal strategies stood out to people and lent themselves well to the production of the Gregory Brothers’ song. On Wired.com, Michael Gregory says  “When I heard [Antoine] talk, I could hear the melody… Sometimes in our videos, we include a lot of singers, and when we do, we might arbitrarily use a beat that we’re going to shape them all to. But Antoine, you know, he kind of owned the song – this was going to be all him – so I wanted [the beat] to be specific to that.”
And own it he did.
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9 Comments leave one →
  1. Marcos Rohena-Madrazo permalink
    September 22, 2010 3:52 pm

    When Antoine says the word “that”, you can clearly see the lower lip making contact with the upper teeth, giving us articulatory evidence that he produces “run and tell [v]at”! Merger of interdental and labiodental fricatives…AEE phonology in action! Awesome!!!

    • Jordan S. permalink
      October 24, 2010 8:46 pm

      I thought that one of the most interesting things about the (news) clip was the contrast between the broadcasters’ English and the victims’ English. For example, Elizabeth seems to have abnormally strong [r] production. Contrast this to Antoine’s “they raping everybody out here” where the r sound in here is absent and the word is produced as “hee-ah.” I see the logic behind the remark about class tourism being a factor in this video’s popularity. The extreme contrast between the Dodson’s English and that of the Broadcaster’s facilitates fetishizing the Dodson’s as exotic and “other.”

  2. Francesca permalink
    October 31, 2010 4:01 pm

    I think the context of Antoin’s speech makes his AAE usage very interesting. He clearly has a great command of AAE rhetorical strategies. His large and diverse audience is what makes his usage of all these strategies so interesting. He is responding to the questions of a reporter (probably speaking in a formal style because he/she is on the job), but is right outside his home with his family and friends in the background (who presumably speak the same AAE dialect), is addressing a general TV audience of people who watch the local news (who may come from a range of speech communities), and at the end is directly addressing the attacker (who is possibly also from the projects and part of Antoin’s speech community). His choice to use AAE might not have been a (conscious) choice at all–his emotional state probably caused him to use his native dialect, even if he would not normally use AAE when addressing this audience in another situation. All of the addressees would have receptive competence of his speech even if they do not have productive competence. Antoin uses tonal semantics, repetition, braggadocio, and AAE-derived lexical items, verbal tools that not even all AAE speakers master. His engaging speech and the wide audience make him a perfect candidate to be parodied and for an even larger American audience.

  3. November 1, 2010 12:25 pm

    When I heard about this news report, I had been shown the “Bed Intruder Song” before watching the actual news report. Obviously Antoine has a musical element in his speech, reflected by his repetition of specific words and phrases – “Hide your kids, hide your wife…” – and the use of spontaneity which is reminiscent of tonal semantics common in AAE. When I watched the video of the news report I found that I would hear the auto-tuned version when Antoine spoke. His speech sounds circular, but varies in rhythmic patterns – short sentences coupled with fast, long and exaggerated sentences. I also feel that because his speech sounds musical, most people find the video to be something easy to listen to, making it something easy to spoof and to repeat for entertainment, despite it’s message to the audience.
    It is interesting to note that the sister does appear to speak differently than her brother. She pronounces an r-full “here,” and almost completely enunciates “idiot.” Her passionate speech proves that she is speaking spontaneously, out of a desire to voice what happened in order to defend herself.

  4. Caroline C. permalink
    November 1, 2010 9:07 pm

    I think it is really interesting to see so many features of AAE working together at once. It is extremely apparent in watching the video that the Dodson comes from an orally oriented tradition. When listening to his speech in comparison to the white reporters that speak at various points throughout the clip, the use of tonal semantics in particular stands out. His speech has such a rhythm song-like quality to it. His use of repetition reinforces his point while also creating the effect of a chorus within his speech. It is very simple to see why the music video was created using his speech, as it already contained so many of the aspects of popular music today. His speech is clearly spontaneous and emotional, and it contains the phonology and lexicon that are characteristic of AAE as well as braggadocio and intonational contouring. His use of all of these features of AAE come together to form speech that is powerful, enjoyable to listen to, and impossible to ignore. I would imagine that any person that had the news on when this story was aired on TV would have stopped whatever they were doing to pay attention to the speaker. He is a true example of a performer of oral gymnastics. I think it is also interesting to note how much more the newscasters’ speech had to be altered in order to be included in the music video. Although their words are used, their actual speech has little rhythm and has to be greatly changed in order to give it a song-like quality and any sort of beat or melody. In contrast to this, Dodson’s speech is hardly altered at all from the original news clip to the music video. His speech created its own song on its own, which was then given music to accompany it. The only real change that was made to his speech was in speed. I find this particularly impressive, since his speech was spontaneous, whereas that of the newscasters was most likely planned and scripted. In addition to this, it is their job to speak on television, and I would assume that they do so on a daily basis; for this reason, it would seem logical that the newscasters should be adept speakers and purposefully speak in ways that are pleasant to listen to. This just goes to show the true importance that speech holds in black culture and AAE in comparison to standard American English.

  5. S.Shaikh permalink
    November 1, 2010 10:13 pm

    I think that the context through which Antoine is speaking to the public allows us to hear his true vernacular native dialect. It’s obvious from the video that he’s in an angry yet excited state (the first reported says “emotions running high”) enabling his vernacular. Other than the stylistic variation, I also find his choice of words quite interesting. He uses terms such as “homeboy”, and “errbody” which are also heard in modern rap by African American individuals. Essentially, the video solidifies my attitude on ethnographic repertoires as a more accurate term to use as opposed to ethnolect.

  6. Jon M. permalink
    November 1, 2010 10:23 pm

    Something to consider:

    Up until now, we’ve been assuming that Dodson has been using Audience Design to tailor his speech to his local speech community. Dodson has stated that he has done previous interviews on the news relating to accidents in the neighbourhood (http://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=129381037). Dodson had advocated for speed bumps, but, he states that nothing came about from his advice. This establishes a pattern for Dodson: to use news interviews as a soap-box to change the community. Therefore, I think an additional factor should be considered when considering how Dodson tailored his speech: that Dodson might have tailored his speech style in the interview based upon previous experience in interview contexts. This theory has additional repercussions — Dodson, when considering that his motive might have been to change the community in some way, might have taken that into account. Thus, he would have tailored his speech for an audience of both his speech community and also more socially powerful people.

  7. E. Viles permalink
    November 2, 2010 12:41 am

    I think the infectiousness of this video and of the song that features Antoine Dodson is, firstly, detrimental to the goal of the news report in the first place. The severity of the situation is in danger of being overshadowed, if it has not already been, by the humor many people see in Dodson’s speech. Second, there is a conflict going on between his speech and the setting. While he is in a “formal” setting being interviewed by news crews and broadcasted on national television, he uses vernacular speech to respond to the questions. This is probably due to the level of emotion he’s feeling, one of those cases where a question is asked whose answer is something the speaker feels strongly about, so in their speech they forget they’re being interviewed and slip into vernacular.

  8. Sarah permalink
    November 23, 2013 9:24 am

    I think we need to point out that the millions of American viewers who contributed to making Antoine Dodson’s message viral were not doing it because they were astounded by his “linguistic gymnastics” or “raw, honest emotion”, but because they thought his speech was racially stereotypical and his performance of it hilarious. While Antoine Dodson’s speech may include various characteristics that have their roots deep in African American English expression, this does not necessarily mean that his speech represents particularly strong use of the language. As in any other language, it takes a certain level of command and eloquence to truly convey your message effectively. James Baldwin described Spoken Soul as “this passion, this skill…this incredible music”, and there are many prominent figures within the African American community who have this mastery of African American English that elevates it to the status of Spoken Soul (the Reverend Otis Moss III, Mohammed Ali, and Barack Obama as just a few examples). But looking at it this way, Antoine Dodson’s speech is not at all exceptional in the power of its language use and certainly should not be used to represent the expressive capacity of African American English. I see no particular skill being shown in the way he conveyed his message, and that’s not a judgment of the language he speaks but a critique of the level of ability he shows in utilizing the various tools offered by his language. What I do see in the American public’s response to this video is a shocking readiness to forget the real subject of this news broadcast – that a young woman was sexually assaulted in her own home. Regardless of the ingenuity or ridiculousness of this young woman’s brother’s speech, is it really acceptable to be creating a parody song about the RAPE attempted against her? About the very real fear that this attack causes for all members of her community?

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