BOOKS | Mahmoud El-Kati’s “Hiptionary” catalogs African-American speech patterns

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It’s my honor to have crossed swords with St. Paul scholar, historian, and griot Mahmoud El-Kati. Years ago, the two of us feuded in the press, arguing about how African America has progressed. He accused me of being an engaging, reckless word-slinger who didn’t give black communities due credit. I called him a myopic, intellectual thug too busy defending the race to face reality. About a number of things, we’ve yet to be on the same page. However, we get along good these days—usually agreeing to disagree on a note of fond respect.

Whether we’re adversaries or allies, Mahmoud El-Kati embodies that oft-overused word genius. This isn’t just said because Papyrus Publishing placed my endorsement on the dust jacket of El-Kati’s newest book The Hiptionary. It’s said because you can search with bloodhounds and radar without finding such a brilliant mind voiced with unassailable integrity, committed to conveying the reality of African and African-American history and culture. Consider his cutting, insightful observation addressing African-Americans’ past and current conditions in this republic. “American democracy [is] a work in progress, not a finished product.”

He hates doing interviews, but gave one to his one-time nemesis and perennial sparring partner. Among other things, we discussed The Hiptionary: A Survey of African American Speech Patterns with a Digest of Key Words and Phrases. His other books with Papyrus Publishing are Politically Considered: 50th Commemoration of the Supreme Court Decision of 1954, ordering the desegregation of public schools, and Ode to Africa, an 8-page keepsake card celebrating Kwanzaa. (Conflict-of-interest disclaimer: Mahmoud El-Kati signed on to provide the foreword for my in-progress book of essays and Papyrus Publishing has agreed to consider the manuscript.)

Your relationship with Papyrus Publishing. What’s that about?
One of the things we can do in our [African-American] community is collaboration between writer and publisher. We are perfectly capable of doing that. In our culture, there’s a built-in advantage. We have a lot of talent.

You rejected a national publishing house to stay with Papyrus Publishing. Why?
We’re talking about building relationship on communal values, shared value system. [It’s] a shared experience. It’s about building an institution. That’s what it is. I don’t have any choice about what I do. It’s too late in the day for me to start talking and acting differently. A long time ago, I committed my life to this struggle. Whatever you call it—black liberation, civil rights. When I was born, it was the Negro Question.

So, you decided to become part of the answer.
Yes. It’s an answerable question. We want [to claim] dignity as human beings. Whatever I’m doing is about that. There was no epiphany.

Papyrus Publishing has recently released, along with The Hiptionary, Arthur McWatt’s Crusaders for Justice. Speak to that.
It’s important. Timely. Critical. This chronicle that he’s done on civil rights activism in St. Paul and, by extension, Minnesota, from 1885 until 1985: [it’s] a great piece of literature. It brings coherence to our political lives, how we discuss ourselves. It’s a great book. It’s needed. Interesting. Important.

What moved you to write The Hiptionary?
You got six hours?

No.
It’s an organic experience. Been in my head forever. I’ve always been in love with the way black people speak, their oral tradition. [It has] poetry, great tonality, kind of a built-in mysticism. Nina Simone elevated that with “it be’s that way, sometime.” Langston Hughes showed great respect for it. Paul Lawrence Dunbar tried to preserve it and we were so middle class oriented, we didn’t understand it. There’s a book, The History of Language. I butcher [the author’s] name all the time. He explained, when I was in college, what language was. He’s a linguist, obviously. One of the things he said was, true language is spoken, and what [writers do] is artificial. What they speak, that’s true. [This] conversation can never be literally captured on a piece of paper.

You don’t get the energetic inflections and such.
An exclamation point won’t do it.

How pleased are you with the end result?
Can’t say. I think I’ll be pleased when [others] make judgment. That’ll tell me something. I did the best I could right now. I can see stuff I needed to do better and so forth. I’ve written almost another book since we finished that.

That’s why this one is called the abridged edition?
Yeah. Generally people abridge something that’s already out there, but I’ve abridged it in advance.

Only you. How’d you rope Alexs D. Pate into doing the foreword?
Alexs and I have known one another—we’re not hangout buddies, but have shown appreciation for each other—for years.

He’s an important novelist for our generation.
Yeah. I think he’s an important novelist. He has captured the spirit of his times, and he knows how to be responsible as an artist. To himself, first, and to his community, then, obviously to the world, itself. He has that Paul Robeson touch.

You are one busy individual for somebody who is supposed to be retired [from teaching]. What’s next?
What do you mean, what’s next? That sounds one of those Hollywood questions.

Well, then put on some sunglasses and answer it.
There’s nothing next. What I do today I’ll do tomorrow.

Dwight Hobbes is a writer based in the Twin Cities. He contributes regularly to the Daily Planet.

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