Wednesday, January 6, 2010

What's in a Name?

Let's see where should I start unloading all these thoughts that plagued my head early this morning? Warning: what follows is an extended treatise on language, so grab some tea and sit back, and get comfortable for the ride.

I could name this post after my blog's byline: words make worlds.

I could situate myself in this neighborhood text-in-progress. I think about these sorts of things because of my training in postcolonial theory. Postcolonial theory examines institutions that create worlds, categorize cultures and produce hegemony. Often these things are not considered on a conscious level, but rather permeate our thinking and lifestyles seamlessly. Through my training, I have come to see that which creates discomfort and that which creates discomfort without creating an identifying marker or anchoring point. In other words, we may be uncomfortable by some particular thing or phenomenon or incident, but we may not be able to pinpoint it's origin. That's what I see on a daily basis. I used to joke about how this matrix was revealed to me after I ingested the red pill. There's no going back. One cannot unlearn something after its existence is made apparent.

I believe that language is one those things and if one doesn't look at the construction and use of language from a non-speaker's perspective, much of the subtle harm or sense of exclusion is lost.

Often people accuse of me being too smiley, or too naive, or being too much of an idealist. This is how I deal with what I know and what I see. I try to eliminate the discomfort on a superficial level, so if that's all they want to see in me, that is all that they will see, and will leave my company without any discomfort except that which they have created on their own. Too much of an idealist? Hell yah! I've seen the depths, now I shoot for the stars.

Can you tell this post is about a battle of words at the Co-op? No. Right, I should get back on topic. The Eastside Co-op Board is interested in bringing organizations, businesses and faith communities together in the effort to maintain the vitality and viability of our great neighborhood. The intention is good and is focused on expanding the involved parties to include the numerous immigrant and otherwise diverse groups that comprise the bulk of the neighborhood population. Northeast Minneapolis is historically always been a immigrant and working class area, it's just that now in the twenty-first century these immigrants and working class folks are from many different parts of the world and not just Europe. Many of these groups maintain their transnational ties while trying to carve out parts of the American dream for their themselves and their families.

So, we at the Eastside Board Co-op need a name for this vision of a monthly meeting of minds and interests. We are modeling the format of the meeting after a similar event held in the Hawthorne neighborhood of North Minneapolis, convened by the General Mills Foundation on a monthly schedule. It is called the Hawthorne Huddle.

As part of my academic study, I looked closely at language. Language can be a barrier, a mask of conquest, and the very thing that draws the line in the sand. Therefore, I believe that naming of this meeting is vitally important to its success.

Still to this day, at the age of 38, I get comments from folks astonished by my ability to speak English. Despite what their ears tell them, I still often hear "You speak English really good." My accent is definitely Minnesotan with some extended and rounded o's. Don'tcha know? Ahem. I usual reply: "Actually, I speak English rather well, thank you." My attempt to correct their grammar always, I mean, always falls flat. But, there is truly a reason for that.

Let's not forget our country's history. Following on the British penchant for conquest, early Americans entered North America with the intention of creating a new world (of wealth or faith) for themselves. This included an appropriation of language, a manipulation of language that distinguished themselves from British English. If a white American doesn't hear the supposed grammatical error in his/her sentence, it is because in this paradigm of Independence declared back in 1776, this error didn't exist. I'm not trying to make a judgement call here, but rather, to justify the behavior through historicity (in other words, find justification through the observation of progress and purpose).

I think the only other group that has been able to do this since the birth of this nation has been the African American community. A group whose culture is as intrinsically involved in the creation of an American national identity as any other white immigrant group.

This examination of language is what I think I can offer to this Board of Directors, to which I was recently elected, thanks to the good hearts of the Co-op member-owners.

Let's find a language that is inclusive, that allows all to explore and share common ground. Again, I say that is why I think the naming of the monthly meeting convened by the Co-op Board is so important.

Some of the ideas suggested are Northeast NewsHour, Northeast Noodle, Northeast Klatch. I suggested Northeast Network and Northeast Nexus, but neither of these ideas were deemed important enough to make it to the recorded minutes. I pointed out that Northeast NewsHour implies a one-way conversation and references a majority-culture institution. Northeast Klatch sounds too ethnic. As does Northeast Noodle, but a reference to pasta was not the intent. Instead it was explained to me that "noodle" signifies a head.

Last night, I pulled out my dictionary, a much worn and used tome that I've had around for at least a decade and a half: the Merriam Webster Collegiate Dictionary. I skimmed through each page of the N's. I was surprised to find that the very first definition of "noodle" was not an explanation of pasta, but rather this: a stupid person: simpleton.

Do we really want a word that defines a stupid person?

Another person recommended we use the word "huddle" as in the same name of the neighborhood group that originally modeled this sort of community interaction. She said "they" probably wouldn't mind. I wonder: did she mean that General Mills wouldn't mind? Or was she referring to the North Minneapolis Hawthorne community. I can't help but think of the number of things in history that have been originally successful because of African Americans, then appropriated by White Americans; thinking here about Jazz and the Blues.

But, OK, here's another thing I think when I consider "huddle" that's not so racially heated. I can't think of any other context other than football where "huddle" is used. Football is a distinctly American sport and pastime, prominent in both White and Black America. The groups we are trying to bring together in Northeast are mostly immigrant groups, that is bringing the diversity of immigrant groups in conversation with the white, middle-class Northeast population. "Huddle," I think, works in the Hawthorne neighborhood because of the prevalence of an African American community. Although there are large numbers of people from the Hmong community and the Latina community, representatives of these groups were not in attendance at any of the Hawthorne meetings that I have attended.

I believe that we need a word that is less rooted in distinctly American culture. As I mentioned earlier, the Northeast population is transnational, meaning they have ties that cross over, or better, are not limited by national borders. Just like food. See the connection? Food, Co-op, diverse community. Although I perused through the entire "N" section of my dictionary, I did not find something that represented the transnational quality of this great community. So, I'll settle for a neutral term, even if it sounds boring and not hip nor sexy.

I'm going to stick by my suggestions:

Northeast Network
Northeast Nexus
Northeast Nucleus
or
Northeast Catalyst
Northeast Conduit

The next committee meeting is Thursday. Wish me luck on having the courage to stand by my convictions!

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