Sermo Vulgaris

By Rizzo Bickel


My dad thinks that grammar is useless. My dad is a fourth grade teacher and he thinks grammar is useless. My dad, graduate of the University of Miami with a BS in marine biology and former science teacher, thinks that grammar is useless. Avid New York Times reader, Ken Ken player, Terry Gross listener —thinks that grammar is useless. Born in little town of South Bend, Indiana, and now living in the most populated city in the third most populated country, thinks that grammar is useless. Magnet high school graduate, chess club coach, Pike's Place aficionado, thinks that grammar is useless. Jazz at Lincoln Center, MSNBC, smoked salmon and no grammar. Summer home, salmon roe, and Ta-Nehisi Coates. Wine tasting, Wimbledon, and poached eggs on toast. Do you know what tahini is? Because my dad does. My IZOD wearing, wire glasses toting, L.L.Bean book bag carrying dad thinks that grammar is useless.

My dad doesn't think grammar is useless. Now that I think about it, that award actually goes to my 10 year old brother. My Staten Island born, blue eyed blond haired, bucktoothed brother, thinks that grammar is useless. I think my father just thinks negatively of grammar. Maybe not grammar itself, but it's starchy hygienists and unrelenting militants. It isn't so unheard of to not be too fond of the strict followers of archaic grammar rules—that all is true—and I will say that I didn't even always like grammar: I didn't think it ever meant anything to me. I only began to appreciate it when I realized what it meant for me, and other people like me.

“Rizzo I have to axe you a question.” This really gets me. We’re in a French restaurant on Malcom X Boulevard in Brooklyn—which is an entirely separate essay in itself. “I’m sorry Chris, one more time.” “I have to axe you a question.” “Sorry, just—” I wince a little; I've told him a million times. “Oh leave him alone. You know what he's saying, it's just a Brooklyn thing.” My father: the Barry Goldwater to my Grammar Rights Bill. He goes on to explain how bright his students are at the public school he works at—and how they all speak like Chris. How grammar is regional. How what you say matters more than how you say it. How some of the best most famous arts spoke like him. He doesn't say this, but I know he thinks it.


On November 9th, after Donald Trump was “elected” president, there were some violent reactions from people in Brooklyn. Apparently, a woman was punched in the face (while eating brunch in a French restaurant) by a male Trump supporter, for speaking out against the new President-Elect. My best friend’s mother shared an article detailing the event on Facebook, with the caption: “Trump supporter goes wild in Bar Tabac! If Brooklyn isn't safe, no place is.”


Freshman year of high school I came home with a list of PWs—prohibited words that my English teacher, Ms. Mejias, had given us that day. The list of prohibited words included colloquialisms, general terms, and slang such as a lot, many and ain’t. She had a way about her that screamed Professor Snape and Auntie Em all at the same time, and I couldn't be more excited. I felt as though I was finally going to write like the greats. My grocery lists would sound like Robert Frost on the worst of the days, and my 2 essays would be just as, if not more, pretentious than anything Judith Butler could produce. The second I showed the paper to my dad though, he sucked his teeth. Oh no. “People shouldn't be judged on how they sound, people should analyze what the person is actually saying, you know? Aw, I don’t know.” We have a coffee table book that’s just pictures of bonsai trees, but he’s completely fine with the word ain’t.

Junior year of high school, my parents took my to Barnes and Noble for a book signing of Frank Bruni's Where You Go Isn't Who You'll Be. It was a book that was supposed to calm the feverish nerves of college applying high school students—explaining how some of the most influential politicians and figures in America hadn't graduated from the Ivies, but went to less competitive, and renowned public colleges. One of the first examples used was Chris Christie, and how he went to the University of Delaware. Needless to say, I never finished the book. It was complete communism.

More seriously though, something had always bothered me about the book since I first had heard of its premise, but I don't know what. Then I realized what my real problem with it was. It’s so white! Hear me out. Barack Obama went to Columbia University and Harvard Law School, and Joe Biden went to the University of Delaware. Cory Booker was a Rhodes Scholar, and Harry Reid graduated from Utah State University. Do you see what I'm getting at? Is there an intrinsic disparity between the choices whites and blacks must make to achieve relatively the same goals?


Do you see the sheer irony of this? “If Brooklyn isn’t safe, no place is.” That’s one of the whitest things I have heard in a while. This is some Lena Dunham, This American Life, granola-on-yogurt level whiteness. To be honest, the woman wasn’t even at brunch, I just remembered it that way because of how white the whole thing was. Brooklyn used to be one of the most dangerous places around. You wouldn't be caught dead walking around Brooklyn at night. Even the trains were too scared to run too late. Now we have Jonathan Lethem and organic dry cleaning.


I haven't been completely honest. I'm adopted. My father and brother are white, and my mother and I are black. My predicament may make more since now. Such as “Who is this white man telling me what is and isn’t a Brooklyn thing?” “Why is the black kid correcting the white kid's grammar?” “How do two people who grew up in the same place speak so differently?” More central though is, “can blacks and whites ever live their lives by the same means and achieve the same extremes?” If I spoke the way my brother does, and the way my father admires in his own students so much, where would I be? Would Ms. Mejias have given me the same amount of respect? Forget respect; would I've gotten the same grade in her class at all? What would people think of me when they first met me? Another degenerate black kid who can't even speak English properly. What will he ever amount to? When white people speak we tend to be more receptive of what they are saying. Yet when a black person speaks, they must be perfect—and then some—for us to even begin to listen to what they are saying.

Throughout my entire life I have been called “too white,” or “not actually black.” It was never a question of how I identified but how I was perceived. My brother on the other hand, has a majority of black friends, most likely because of where we live, but also because he idolizes black culture—a different aspect of black culture that I’ve always idolized. Ask my brother about 2 Milly and Desiigner and he’ll write you and essay, but ask him about Angela Davis or Ntozake Shange and he’ll be completely speechless. These two women,—pinnacles of black intellectualism—speak like me, not my brother, but their blackness was never questioned. Does it make me any less black, or him any less white, solely based on how we pronounce certain words?

During a car ride with my paternal (white) grandmother, our conversation steered to the topic of the nature of higher education in America, and how she, as opposed to her ex-husband, went to college to learn rather than get a job. She painted my grandfather in a way that made him look profit oriented rather than a person actually interested in learning. In the moment, I completely agreed with her—that people should pursue subjects that genuinely fascinate them in college contrary to merely focusing on work force preparation. Thinking about it now though, I don’t think that it always the case for black families. In a country where income and race are almost synonymous with each other, I get the feeling that there aren't a lot of black linguistics, or Medieval Studies majors.


Senior year my parents saw the movie Brooklyn. It’s about the forbidden love between an Irish immigrant and an Italian guy. When my parents came home, my dad praised it, heralding it as a metaphor for the current state of Mexican and Muslim immigration to America—humanizing the experience of all immigrants. I asked him, why not just make a movie using Mexican and Muslim characters and actors. I don’t remember the answer, mainly because I don’t actually think I asked the question. Just thought it.


One summer my brother an I were fighting outside while we were walking my grandmother's dogs. From across the street, a white man walked out of his pickup truck and yelled to me “What the fuck do you think you're doing?!” It was almost too perfect. It was in that very moment that I knew what my Common App essay was going to be about. I looked back at this long lost Mumford and Son and thought, what would this man have done if I was white? What would he have thought if I was white? When I look back at that moment now I think, what does my brother think happened that day? Does he think about it at all? Can white and black people ever live the same lives? From our grammar and the colleges that we graduate from, to how we interact with each other while walking our grandmother’s dogs, everything we do can ultimately affect our lives in drastically different ways. Maybe the question should not be if we can ever live the same lives, but how the way we live our lives reflect our inherent racial identities.


I bet you Spike Lee is crying right now. Brooklyn has gone from Do the Right Thing to an all white film. What is funny, though, is that Brooklyn is a historical period piece, yet the cast looks more like the Brooklyn of today, than any other version prior.


I always feel like there’s a storm in my stomach talking about this. I get so anxious because I can’t really complain to anyone about it. It’s not a tangible problem; no one gets shot for saying bafroom or liberry. There isn’t even a name for what I’m feeling yet. I feel like Betty Friedan and the problem with no name. I also get anxious, because so many people, black and white, don’t even experience this problem. If you’re black, you are told to aspire to be Snoop Dog or pre-1990’s OJ Simpson, and you’re okay with that because you view this as success. Black made success. And if you’re white no one tells you what to do. You could land anywhere on the ‘White Spectrum’ from Napoleon Dynamite and Leonard Nimoy to Eminem and K Fed, but as long as you have a weird name it’s all good. Honestly though, I do find it unsettling that people like Cornel West and Nikki Giovanni aren’t looked up to in Black Culture as much as athletes and Steve Harvey.

The problem that I experience illuminates what is inherently broken when it comes to racial expression in our society. It is like a glass sheet is covering the entire country, distorting all the figures, so looking through it, you—the viewer—can see the issue, but no one inside the glass can. The distortion the glass creates is a clarity, however, as opposed to an actual obstruction. Looking at race relations—and racial identity—retrospectively, we see how all the preconceived notions about certain groups people that we hold onto manifest themselves as internalized racism. I think that this is more of the racism that we see everyday; it is not an evil out to destroy us, but just a repeated pattern of thoughts that we associate with different kinds of people. When my neighbor Tim first met me, he gave my brother a hive five and me a fist bump. What made it even better was that I went to give him a high five initially, so when he fist bumped into me, it was my open palm against his knuckles. Tim is a friendly guy, but in that moment, his eyes looked down at our adjoining hands and back up at me, with one of the most painfully awkward stares I’d ever seen—as his mouth just hung open a little. When our hands disjoined it became even more awkward, because I didn't know if I was supposed to acknowledge what had just happened. It was like I was in my middle school science class again, when Miles Williams—the quiet, studious kid— was reading aloud, and accidentally pronounced organism as orgasm, and everyone just kind of stared at the ceiling for a while.