Or ex-slaves. My whole theory of beautiful language holds that it comes from nameless, groups of people looking for a more expressive way to say something. I'm always thankful to get a note where someone praises a sentence I wrote. But what I really want is the kind of genius that takes "I'm leaving" and turns it into "I'm ghost" and then takes "I'm ghost" and turns it into "I'm Swayze." Seriously, what kid decided to pull "Ducat" out of obscurity (at least obscurity for us 80s city kids) and use it as easy as bread, or ends, or greenbacks? Who decided that a gun should be called a "heater" and then a "toaster" and then finally a "biscuit"?
A lot of the most vivid language, I find, often comes from the street. I mean that in the broadest sense--that language that's alive comes from places where people (black, white, brown, yellow, whatever) are living close to the ground. Perhaps I've just spent too much time around those sorts of people. But I swear, I've heard some of the most evocative language come from the most formally unlettered people.
I thought about this yesterday, while I was listening to another David Blight lecture. He started quoting from Bailey Wyatt, a freedman at an early Union League meeting, and I was just spellbound. Blight has a cool voice, but it was the words that got me:
We now as a people desires to be elevated, and we desires to do all we can to be educated, and we hope our friends will aid us all they can. I may state to all our friends and to all our enemies that we has a right to the land where we are located. Why? I'll tell you. Our wives, our children, our husbands, has been sold over and over again to purchase the lands we now locates upon. For that reason we have a divine right to the land. And then didn't we clear the lands and raise the crops of corn and of cotton and of tobacco and of rice and of sugar and of everything? And then didn't them large cities in the North grow up on the cotton and the sugars and the rice that we made? Yes, I appeal to the South and to the North, if I hasn't spoken the words of the truth. I say they have grown rich, and my people are poor.
There are all sorts of things wrong with that passage. But there is something beautiful about the extra "s" on desire, especially placed in a sentence like "and we desires to do all we can to be educated." And then this phrase, "the lands we now locates upon." Again, all sorts of things wrong with that sentence, but something about it's immediacy, its understatement, and maybe it's very wrongness.
I used to be a djimbe drummer. I thought it was going to be my life, at one point. The best lead drummers would play in such a way that they sometimes almost sounded off-beat--not off-beat like a guy who doesn't know what he's doing, but off-beat like a guy who can hear pockets in the rhythm that you can't. It's the same for great dancers. The same for hip-hop. Great MCs hear more.
Not saying that old Bailey was Rakim. But he heard a little more....Or maybe I'm just making excuses for my own grammatical failings.