To Sir, With Ratchety Love: Listening to the (Dis)Respectability Politics of Rachel Jeantel
Editor’s Note: July 18th, 2013 has been designated as World Listening Day by the World Listening Project, a nonprofit organization founded in 2008 “devoted to understanding the world and its natural environment, societies and cultures through the practices of listening and field recording.” World Listening Day is a time to think about the impacts we have on our auditory environments and, in turn, its affects on us. Once again, Sounding Out! has decided to observe World Listening Day by planning a month-long special forum of posts exploring several different facets of listening such today’s offering by SO! regular Regina Bradley, questioning how American racial ideologies impact listening as a cultural, embodied act. Listen carefully, because we will be following Regina’s post with a special Sounding Out! Comment Klatsch on Wednesday, July 3rd that considers the consequences of racialized refusals to listen. What are the consequences of a listening that is interrupted? distorted? denied? perpetually deferred?—Editor-in-Chief, Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman
Rachel Jeantel gave me life with a curt “that’s real retarded, sir.” Responding to George Zimmerman’s attorney Don West’s suggestion that Trayvon Martin pursued and wanted to hurt Zimmerman, Jeantel undoubtedly lifted many eyebrows and possibly a few “hell naws” under the breaths of those watching her testify. Her response to West regarding his lack of understanding can be extended to assess the firestorm of controversy surrounding her testimony: questions of her literacy as oppositional to the prosecution’s hopes of conviction, surprise at her brashness and demonstrative gestures of irritation, and, worst of all, judgments about the literal and figurative fullness of her girlhood/womanhood and chocolate skin as signs to ring the alarm as grounds for dismissing justice for Trayvon Martin. Because her testimony operated outside of normal constructs of witness etiquette and respectability, it was greeted with a hailstorm of controversy paralleling the rawness of responses to scripted reality shows. The shallowness of “critique” of Jeantel—whom, it must be continually repeated, is not on trial—was disgusting.
But you don’t need me to tell you that, because if you were really listening to Rachel Jeantel, SHE told you. Jeantel’s delivery was particularly striking, offering her audience low timbred and often emphatic quips of “what?!” and “you ain’t get that from me” to indicate her irritation and frustration with West. Jeantel’s refusal and inability to conform to expected cultural and aural scripts of black womanhood within the confines of the courtroom – the epitome of a hyper-respectable space – destabilizes not only racial paradigms of black (southern) respectability but Americanized expectations of black women’s scripts of respectability. As Brittney Cooper points out, “Rachel Jeantel has her own particular, idiosyncratic black girl idiom, a mashup of her Haitian and Dominican working-class background, her U.S. Southern upbringing, and the three languages – Haitian Kreyol (or Creole), Spanish and English – that she speaks.” Her people ain’t from hea and because of her upbringing can’t be categorized like other black girls from hea. In this sense, Rachel Jeantel is ratchet.
As I previously define in an analysis of Beyonce’s “Bow Down,” [sonic] ratchetness is a means of navigating sliding representations of respectability within American popular culture. Jeantel’s testimony, however, thinly treads between ratchetness as performative discourse and lived experience. Her reference to the television show The First 48, during a line of questioning regarding how she knew the police would contact her, for example, signified to some that Jeantel was oblivious to the judicial process.
Upon closer examination, however, The First 48 is a touchstone in understanding her negotiation of the criminal justice system as a series of steps/performances surrounding the policing of black bodies from her native Miami (which, it seems, is always on the show). It provides a widely acknowledged– and commodified – representation of black trauma in relation to the U.S. justice system. Jeantel’s ratchetness, then, is a tragicomedic site of cultural and gendered trauma accessible to the national public. Her personal loss of a close friend is overshadowed by her performance of that grief in a space of hyper-respectability. Her emotionally charged question “are you listening?” jolted not only West but those watching the trial. Were we listening? What were we listening for?
Jeantel’s performance of ratchetness both pointed out and disrupted America’s racialized and gendered listening practices. I’d like to suggest her two-fold performance of ratchetness – sonic and cultural, imposed and embodied –presented ratchetness outside of a strictly pop culture lens. Instead, Jeantel’s performance and lived experiences present ratchetness as an antithetical response to (hetero)normative politics of respectability currently in place in the black (diasporic) community.
The lightning-speed meme-ification of Jeantel invoked flatter, more familiarized representations of ratchet. Because of our inability to translate Jeantel’s grief as “respectable,” she bore the brunt of public scorn and attempts of humiliation. The idea that Jeantel signifies a real life Precious, for example—the main character of Lee Daniel’s Oscar-nominated 2009 film adaptation of Sapphire’s novel Push, played by Gabourey Sidibe—demonstrates increasingly blurred lines between black women’s performative and lived experiences. It should be noted that Sidibe herself was frequently attacked in the press and on the Internet, to the point where she told her co-star Mo’nique in Interview Magazine, “I try to stay off the Internet. Just because people hurt my feelings sometimes. . .a lot of people commented that I’m an incredible actress. But other opinions weren’t so nice, physically or whatever.” Jeantel-as-Precious inadvertently suggests Jeantel’s ratchetness is grounded in the sense that she is plus-sized, dark, “illiterate,” and from a working class background. Precious-as-Sidibe becomes the medium through which Jeantel’s (il)legible womanhood is comprehensive.
Further, meme-ing Jeantel as Precious solidifies her working class background and ultimately her testimony as a threat to Trayvon Martin’s (re)deemed middle class respectability as a portal of victimization. Returning to Cooper’s observations of Jeantel’s use of hybrid-linguistics, it is Jeantel’s sonic delivery that most threatens Martin’s perceived and scripted middle class respectability. Jeantel’s use of so-called “broken” English has overwhelmingly been heard by what Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman calls America’s dominant “listening ear” in “Reproducing U.S. Citizenship in Blackboard Jungle” as a marker of her working class background – not her trilingual background – and thus, it sonically aligns Martin with the black working class and voids prospects of him being considered a victim of violence rather than its perpetrator. Don West’s treatment of Jeantel on the witness stand attempted to impose a parallel between Jeantel’s alleged “illiteracy” and Martin’s criminality. The “crime” of illiteracy within the courtroom and supposed “crime” of Martin beating Zimmerman into shooting him co-exist within a policed space of (white) respectability that black bodies are frequently forced to adhere.
Jeantel retaliated against West’s attempts to back her into this tight space, however, with her emphatic use of “sir.” Jeantel’s brilliantly subversive tactic demonstrates ratchety resistance because it provides a subtle inversion of the white supremacist discourse directed towards her. Her use of “sir” reminded me of the unnamed protagonist’s grandfather at the beginning of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, who on his deathbed commanded his family to “live with your head in the lion’s mouth:” “I want you to overcome ‘em with yeses, undermine ‘em with grins, agree ‘em to death and destruction, let ‘em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open” (16). Indeed, Jeantel busted “the lion’s mouth” wide open vis-à-vis a hybridized slang and an emphatic “yes sir” or “no sir.” Most importantly, Jeantel sustained her dignity and self-respect in the process. Jeantel’s mastery of a low, monotone “sir” signifies her existence outside of the politics of respectability that frame not only black women’s experiences but blacks’ submission to white supremacy.
Where West and others focused on her facial features or even her delivery of “sir” as a sign of (dis)respect, what was lost upon many was how her aurally subversive delivery of arguably the most hyper-respectable word in (American) English kept her in command of her testimony.
Rachel Jeantel is ratchety brilliance. She witnessed, performed, and sounded her truths in ways that complicated if not contradicted the normative discourse policing black women’s bodies. Although much of her cunning was shortsightedly heard as uncouth and aural evidence of a lack of (middle class) home training, Jeantel signifies the usefulness of ratchet as a form of resistance to the white privilege that dictates respectable spaces like the U.S. courtroom. Sir.
R.N. Bradley recently graduated with a PhD in African American Literature at Florida State University and is a regular writer for Sounding Out!
REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:
Death Wish Mixtape: Sounding Trayvon Martin’s Death–Regina Bradley
Hearing the Tenor of the Vendler/Dove Conversation: Race, Listening, and the “Noise” of Texts–Christina Sharpe
The Noise of SB 1070: or Do I Sound Illegal to You?–Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman