Black Folks Say the Vaguest Things!

Posted on October 12, 2011 by


by Kyla Marshell

Have you ever noticed, dear brothers and sisters, the things our people say with great frequency that have little to no meaning? Empty phrases, colloquialisms, particular to our culture. “Ums.” And I have no idea what any of them actually mean.

I’m just trynna maintain

This one has the potential to have meaning. If only something—anything—came after the word “maintain.” “I’m just trynna maintain my peace of mind.” Aha! That makes sense. Or: “I’m just trynna maintain financial stability in this time between hustles, ’nah mean?” But no. The person who uses this phrase is trying to maintain…everything? Himself? Equilibrium? It’s unclear.

I’ma do me/Do you

This saying leads me to ask: What other choices do we have? And doing oneself—what does that really mean? Not asexuality, of course, or even masturbation; but probably just focusing on all that is the Self. Which can be a lot. And then, the alternative, the Other: When instructed to “do you”—how do you respond? Perhaps you bust out one of your signature dance moves (if you have one), or quote something you once said? It’s hard to tell.

Keep it real

This is the linchpin of all Black speech, conversation, and intimidation. I hear “keep it real” more than any other phrase (not including the use of “son” and “B” at the end of all sentences; yes, some Black people even have their own punctuation). But you have to ask yourself what “it” is, and how likely the chances are that it might mutate into something inauthentic. I know it’s a phrase that originated in the hood—to not “keep it real” means to betray your community. But what if some overly analytical child wants to know—like, is really truly curious—what the actual meaning of the phrase is? Good luck, kid.

Hold it down

Here’s yet another use of the ambiguous “it.” When I was a student at my all-Black college in an all-Black city, I had a friend, part white, and from the suburbs of California, no less, who used this phrase. A lot. He’d fist-jab me and then say “Hold it down” in parting. Hmm, said the still-whitewashed part of me. I wonder what that could mean. I imagined a giant parachute trying to fly away, and someone(s) sitting on the edge (yes, I played this awesome game in grade school), literally holding it down.

In reality, it probably just means “batten down the hatches” or “Serve and Protect,” but no one has a clear answer, so I guess I’ll never know.

It is what it is

This one reminds me of the Spanish phrase, Qué será, será—what will be, will be. “It is what it is,” I suppose, is just the present tense version of the saying, at once profound, and a rhetorical conundrum. And what more can I say about the mysterious sayings of my people? We are what we are.

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