‘Reclaiming my time’
signifying, reclamation and the activist strategies of Black women’s language
Keywords:African American Women’s Language, counterlanguage, indirectness, intersectional feminism, resignification, semantic inversion, signifying
This article explores how three Black women use the culturally grounded semantic and rhetorical strategies of their discursive practices as modes of symbolic action to negotiate alternative relationships and realities in response to white supremacist patriarchy. Placing intersectional feminist perspectives in conversation with the literature on African American Women’s Language (AAWL), this research applies critical discourse analysis to cases of signifying and resignification (semantic reclamation). The interactions are taken from contemporary US politics: Maxine Waters’ assertion ‘Reclaiming my time’, Therese Okoumou’s literal retooling of ‘We go high’ and Samirah Raheem’s reclamation of ‘slut’. Together they highlight three iterations of Black womanhood, intersectional feminist linguistic resistance and gendered, racialised defiance to engage with the inclusive scope of feminism. The application of interdisciplinary insights to the analysis of AAWL herein demonstrates the broader social significance and productive political power of language for intersectional women, people of colour and gender minoritised communities.
Abrahams, Roger D. (1975) Negotiating respect: patterns of presentation among black women. The Journal of American Folklore 88(347): 58–80. https://doi.org/10.2307/539186
Alim, H. Samy (2015) Hip hop nation language: localization and globalization. In Jennifer Bloomquist, Lisa J. Green and Sonja L. Lanehart (eds) The Oxford Handbook of African American Language 850–862. New York: Oxford University Press.
Alim, H. Samy and Smitherman, Geneva (2012) Articulate While Black: Barack Obama, Language, and Race in the U.S. New York: Oxford University Press.
Allan, Keith and Burridge, Kate (1991) Euphemism & Dysphemism: Language Used as Shield and Weapon. New York: Oxford University Press.
Allen, Irving L. (1990) Unkind Words: Ethnic Labeling from Redskin to WASP. New York: Bergin & Garvey: Distributed to the trade by National Book Network.
Bailey, Moya (2013) New terms of resistance: a response to Zenzele Isoke. Souls 15(4): 341–343. https://doi.org/10.1080/10999949.2014.884451
Bolton, Sharon (1994) Influence of gender on compliment exchange in American English. Education Resources Information Centre: 1–46. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED368195.pdf
Borba, Rodrigo (2019) Gendered politics of enmity: language ideologies and social polarisation in Brazil. Gender and Language 13(4): 423–448. https://doi.org/10.1558/genl.38416
Botz-Bornstein, Thorsten (2015) Veils, Nudity, and Tattoos: The New Feminine Aesthetics. Lanham: Lexington Books.
Brontsema, Robin (2004) A queer revolution: reconceptualizing the debate over linguistic reclamation. Colorado Research in Linguistics 17(1). https://doi.org/10.25810/dky3-zq57
Brown, H. Rap (1972) Street talk. In Thomas Kochman (ed) Rappin’ and Stylin’ out: Communication in Urban Black America 205–207. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Bucholtz, Mary (1996) Black feminist theory and African American women’s linguistic practice. In Victoria L Bergvall, Janet M. Bing and Alice F. Freed (eds) Rethinking Language and Gender Research: Theory and Practice 267–290. London: Longman.
Burrows, Cedric (2020) Rhetorical Crossover: The Black Presence in White Culture. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctv17nn00m
Butler, Judith (2011) Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of ‘Sex’. London: Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203828274
Carlos, John, Zirin, Dave and West, Cornel (2013) The John Carlos Story: The Sports Moment That Changed the World. Chicago: Haymarket Books.
Carr, Joetta (2013) The SlutWalk Movement: a study in transnational feminist activism. Journal of Feminist Scholarship 4(4): 24–38.
Clemons, Kristal Moore (2019) Reclaiming my time: a reflection of my journey as a Black woman in the field. In Rhonda B. Jeffries (ed) Queen Mothers: Articulating the Spirit of Black Women Teacher-Leaders 67–83. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing Inc.
Collins, Charles A. (1984) Bitch: an example of semantic development and change. Lambda Alpha Journal of Man 16(1): 69–86.
Crenshaw, Kimberlé (1989) Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: a Black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory and antiracist politics. University of Chicago Legal Forum 1989(1): 139–167.
Cunningham, John T. (2003) Ellis Island: Immigration’s Shining Center. Charleston, SC: Arcadia.
Curzan, Anne (2003) Gender Shifts in the History of English. Studies in English Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511486913
Davis, Markeysha D. (2019) Iconography, race, and lore in the Atlantic world. American Studies 58(2): 31–40. https://doi.org/10.1353/ams.2019.0033
Davis, Tiffany J., Greer, Tomika W., Sisco, Stephanie and Collins, Joshua C. (2020) ‘Reclaiming my time’ amid organizational change: a dialectical approach to support the thriving and career development for faculty at the margins. Advances in Developing Human Resources 22(1): 23–40. https://doi.org/10.1177/1523422319885115
Destine, Shaneda (2019) #ReclaimingMyTime: Black women and femme movement actors’ experiences with intra-movement conflicts and the case for a transformative healing justice model. Societies Without Borders 13(1): 1–21.
Ehrlich, Susan and King, Ruth (1994) Feminist meanings and the (de)politicization of the lexicon. Language in Society 23(1): 59–76. https://www.jstor.org/stable/4168494. https://doi.org/10.1017/S004740450001767X
Felmlee, Diane, Inara Rodis, Paulina and Zhang, Amy (2019) Sexist slurs: reinforcing feminine stereotypes online. Sex Roles 83: 16–28. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-019-01095-z
Fontecha, Almudena F. and Jiménez Catalán, Rosa M. (2003) Semantic derogation in animal metaphor: a contrastive-cognitive analysis of two male/female examples in English and Spanish. Journal of Pragmatics 35(5): 771–797. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0378-2166(02)00127-3
Fryett, Sarah E. (2018) ‘I’m female as fuck’: Samantha Bee’s full frontal as feminist voice of resistance. In Adrienne Trier-Bieniek (ed) The Politics of Gender 145–164. Leiden and Boston: Brill Sense. https://doi.org/10.1163/9789004381711_009
Halliday, Aria S. (2020) Twerk sumn!: theorizing Black girl epistemology in the body. Cultural Studies 34(6): 874–891. https://doi.org/10.1080/09502386.2020.1714688
Herbert, Robert K. (1990) Sex-based differences in compliment behavior. Language in Society 19(2): 201–224. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0047404500014378
Higginbotham, Evelyn B. (1992) African-American women’s history and the metalanguage of race. Signs 17(2): 251–274. https://www.jstor.org/stable/3174464. https://doi.org/10.1086/494730
Holmes, Janet (1988) Paying compliments: a sex-preferential politeness strategy. Journal of Pragmatics 12(4): 445–465. https://doi.org/10.1016/0378-2166(88)90005-7
Holt, Grace S. (1972) ‘Inversion’ in Black communication. In Thomas Kochman (ed) Rappin’ and Stylin’ out: Communication in Urban Black America 152–159. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
hooks, bell (2014) Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black. New York: Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315743134
Houston Stanback, Marsha (1985) Language and black women’s place. In Paula A. Treichler, Cheris Kramarae and Beth Stafford (eds) For Alma Mater: Theory and Practice of Feminist Scholarship 177–193. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Imza (26 July 2018) Samirah Raheem Slutwalk Interview. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hsGRUUHosq4
Jacuinde, Mireya (2019) Queen of the clapback: a framing analysis of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s use of social media. MA thesis, West Texas A&M University, Canyon, TX. https://hdl.handle.net/11310/273
Klasfeld, Adam (5 July 2018) Statue of Liberty climber: ‘I went as high as I could.’ YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mkdrIN-9JrY
Koger, Gregory (2010) Filibustering: A Political History of Obstruction in the House and Senate. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. https://doi.org/10.7208/chicago/9780226449661.001.0001
Kremin, Lena V. (2017) Sexist swearing and slurs: responses to gender-directed insults. LingUU 1(1): 18–25.
Lanehart, Sonja L. (2002) Sista, Speak! Black Women Kinfolk Talk about Language and Literacy. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Lanehart, Sonja L. (ed) (2009) African American Women’s Language: Discourse, Education and Identity. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars.
López Rodríguez, Irene (2009) Of women, bitches, chickens and vixens: animal metaphors for women in English and Spanish. Cultura, Lenguaje y Representación 7: 77–100.
Love, Bettina L. (2019) Black women’s work: resisting and undoing character education and the ‘good’ white liberal agenda. In Deborah Willis, Ellyn Toscano and Kalia B. Nelson (eds) Women and Migration: Responses in Art and History. Cambridge: Open Book Publishers. https://doi.org/10.11647/OBP.0153
Marron, Maria B. (2020) Misogyny and Media in the Age of Trump. Lanham: Lexington Books.
McGregor, Kristidel, Belcher, Deanna C. and Fitch, Katie S. (2019) Reclaiming your time: tools from culturally responsive pedagogy (CRP) for making general interventions local. The Educational Forum 83(3): 266–277. https://doi.org/10.1080/00131725.2019.1599655
Mgadmi, Mahassen (2009) Black women’s identity: stereotypes, respectability and passionlessness (1890–1930). Revue LISA/LISA e-Journal 7(1): 40–55. https://doi.org/10.4000/lisa.806
Mitchell-Kernan, Claudia L. (1971) Language Behavior in a Black Urban Community. Language-Behavior Research Laboratory, University of California Berkeley, Monograph no. 2.
Mitchell-Kernan, Claudia L. (1972) Signifying and marking: two Afro-American speech acts. In John J. Gumperz and Dell Hymes (eds) Directions in Sociolinguistics 161–179. New York: Blackwell.
Morgan, Marcyliena (1991) Indirectness and interpretation in African American Women’s discourse. Pragmatics 1(4): 421–451. https://doi.org/10.1075/prag.1.4.01mor
Morgan, Marcyliena (1993) The Africanness of counterlanguage among Afro-Americans. In Salikoko S. Mufwene (ed) Africanisms in Afro-American Language Varieties 423–438. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.
Morgan, Marcyliena (1994a) The African American Speech Community – reality and sociolinguistics. In Marcyliena H. Morgan (ed) Language & the Social Construction of Identity in Creole Situations 121–148. Los Angeles: CAAS Publications.
Morgan, Marcyliena (1994b) Theories and politics in African American English. Annual Review of Anthropology 23: 325–345. https://www.jstor.org/stable/2156017. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.an.23.100194.001545
Morgan, Marcyliena (1996) Conversational signifying: grammar and indirectness among African American women. In Elinor Ochs, Emanuel A. Schegloff and Sandra A. Thompson (eds) Interaction and Grammar 405–434. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511620874.009
Morgan, Marcyliena (2005a) ‘I’m every woman’: Black women’s (dis)placement in women’s language study. In Mary Bucholtz (ed) Language and Woman’s Place: Text and Commentaries 252–259. Revised and expanded edition, original text by Robin Lakoff. New York: Oxford University Press.
Morgan, Marcyliena (2005b) Hip-Hop women shredding the veil: race and class in popular feminist identity. South Atlantic Quarterly 104(3): 425–444. https://doi.org/10.1215/00382876-104-3-425
Morgan, Marcyliena (2015) African American Women’s Language: mother tongues untied. In Jennifer Bloomquist, Lisa J. Green and Sonja L. Lanehart (eds) The Oxford Handbook of African American Language 817–833. New York: Oxford University Press.
Morrison, Toni (1970) The Bluest Eye, 1st edition. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
Nicol, Donna and Yee, Jennifer (2017) ‘Reclaiming our time’: Women of color faculty and radical self-care in the academy. Feminist Teacher 27(2–3): 133–156. https://doi.org/10.5406/femteacher.27.2-3.0133
Patton, Stacey (2020) Why I clap back against racist trolls who attack Black women academics. In Yolanda Flores Niemann, Gabriella Gutie?rrez y Muhs and Carmen G. Gonzalez (eds) Presumed Incompetent II: Race, Class, Power, and Resistance of Women in Academia 332–340. Louisville: University Press of Colorado. https://doi.org/10.7330/9781607329664.c031
Rees-Miller, Janie (2011) Compliments revisited: contemporary compliments and gender. Journal of Pragmatics 43(11): 2673–2688. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pragma.2011.04.014
Richardson, Elaine B. (2007) Hiphop Literacies. London: Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203391105
Richardson, Elaine B. (2009) Gender ideologies in Hip Hop feminism and performances of Black womanhood. In Sonja L. Lanehart (ed) African American Women’s Language: Discourse, Education and Identity 291–304. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars.
Rickford, John R. and Rickford, Angela E. (1976) Cut-eye and suck-teeth: African words and gestures in New World guise. The Journal of American Folklore 89(353): 294–309. https://doi.org/10.2307/539442
Rickford, John R. and Rickford, Russell J. (2000) Spoken Soul: The System, Source, and Significance of Black Vernacular. New York and Chichester: Wiley.
Ringrose, Jessica and Renold, Emma (2012) Slut-shaming, girl power and ‘sexualisation’: thinking through the politics of the international SlutWalks with teen girls. Gender and Education 24(3): 333–343. https://doi.org/10.1080/09540253.2011.645023
Ritchie, Katherine (2017) Social identity, indexicality, and the appropriation of slurs. Croatian Journal of Philosophy 17(50): 155–180.
Robbins, Ted (21 June 2018) ‘This jacket caused a racket: what, exactly, does Melania Trump not care about?’ NPR.org, NPR News Now. https://www.npr.org/2018/06/21/622410485/whats-up-with-melania-trump-s-i-really-don-t-care-do-u-jacket. Accessed 7 June 2020.
Romaine, Suzanne (1999) Communicating Gender. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781410603852
Schulz, Muriel R. (2000) The semantic derogation of woman. In Lucy Burke, Tony Crowley and Alan Girvin (eds) The Routledge Language and Cultural Theory Reader 82–91. New York/London: Routledge.
Scott, Karla D. (2000) Crossing cultural borders: ‘girl’ and ‘look’ as markers of identity in Black women’s language use. Discourse & Society 11(2): 237–248. https://doi.org/10.1177/0957926500011002005
Smalls, Krystal A. (2010) Flipping the script: (re)constructing personhood through Hip Hop languaging in a U.S. high school. Working Papers in Educational Linguistics 25(2): 35–54.
Smitherman, Geneva (1977) Talkin and Testifyin: The Language of Black America. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.
Smitherman, Geneva (1994) Black Talk: Words and Phrases from the Hood to the Amen Corner. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Smitherman, Geneva (1997) ‘The chain remain the same’: communicative
practices in the Hip Hop Nation. Journal of Black Studies 28(1): 3–25. https://www.jstor.org/stable/2784891. https://doi.org/10.1177/002193479702800101
Smitherman, Geneva (2000) Talkin That Talk: Language, Culture, and Education in African America. New York: Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203254394
Spears, Arthur K. (1998) African-American language use: ideology and so-called obscenity. In Guy Bailey, John Baugh, Salikoko S. Mufwene and John R. Rickford (eds) African-American English: Structure, History, and Use 226–250. New York: Routledge.
Spears, Arthur K. (2001) Directness in the use of African American English. In Sonja L. Lanehart (ed) Sociocultural and Historical Contexts of African American English 239–260. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. https://doi.org/10.1075/veaw.g27.15spe
Spears, Arthur K. (2007) African American communicative practices: performativity, semantic license, and augmentation. In H. Samy Alim and John Baugh (eds) Talkin Black Talk: Language, Education, and Social Change 100–111. New York: Columbia Teachers College Press.
Troutman, Denise (1996) Culturally toned diminutives within the speech community of African American women. Journal of Commonwealth and Postcolonial Studies 4(1): 55–64.
Troutman, Denise (2001) African American women: talking that talk. In Sonja L. Lanehart (ed) Sociocultural and Historical Contexts of African American English 211–237. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins. https://doi.org/10.1075/veaw.g27.14tro
Troutman, Denise (2006) ‘They say it’s a man’s world but you can’t prove that by me’: African American comediennes’ construction of voice in public space. In Judith Baxter (ed) Speaking Out: The Female Voice in Public Contexts 217–239. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. https://doi.org/10.1057/9780230522435_12
Troutman, Denise (2010) Attitude and its situatedness in linguistic politeness. Pozna? Studies in Contemporary Linguistics 46(1). https://doi.org/10.2478/v10010-010-0005-7
Van Dijk, Teun A. (2001) Critical discourse analysis. In Deborah Schiffrin, Deborah Tannen and Heidi E. Hamilton (eds) The Handbook of Discourse Analysis 352–371. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers.
Wald, Elijah (2012) The Dozens: A History of Rap’s Mama. New York: Oxford University Press.
Wald, Elijah (2014) Talking ‘Bout Your Mama: The Dozens, Snaps, and the Deep Roots of Rap. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press.
Washington, Adrienne R. (2010) Bad Words Gone Good: Semantic Reanalysis in African American English. MA thesis, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh.
Washington, Adrienne R. and Burnett, Diana A. (2019) Examining linguistic continuity and the richness and multidimensionality of Black Atlantic discursive practices through the lyricism of Lauryn Hill. In Bettina L. Love, Venus E. Evans-Winters and M. Billye Sankofa Waters (eds) Celebrating Twenty Years of Black Girlhood: The Lauryn Hill Reader 5–21. New York: Peter Lang.
Weinbaum, Batya (2004) A survivor within a culture of survivors: untangling the language of sexual abuse in oral history narrative collected in a politically violent situation. In Carol Lea Winkelmann and Christine Shearer-Cremean (ed) Survivor Rhetoric: Negotiations and Narrativity in Abused Women’s Language. Toronto and Buffalo: University of Toronto Press. https://doi.org/10.3138/9781442684836-005
Wingfield, Adia Harvey (2019) ‘Reclaiming our time’: Black women, resistance and rising inequality. SWS Presidential Lecture. Gender & Society 33(3): 345–62. https://doi.org/10.1177/0891243219835456
Wolfson, Nessa (1986) The bulge: a theory of speech behavior and social distance. Working Papers in Educational Linguistics 2(1): 55–83. Retrieved from
Wolfson, Nessa (1989) Perspectives: Sociolinguistics and TESOL. Rowley, MA/New York: Newbury House Publishers.
Zeigler, Mary B. and Osinubi, Viktor (2002) Theorizing the postcoloniality of African American English. Journal of Black Studies 32(5): 588–609. https://www.jstor.org/stable/3180954. https://doi.org/10.1177/002193470203200506