Run and Tell That!
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:
- 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.”
- 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.”
- Intonational contouring (manipulation of stress and pitch in pronouncing words and phrases):
“and hide your husband, because they’re raping everybody OUT HERE”
- 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.
- 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.”