February 15, 2013
African American History: All That Jive
“What is Jive?
Jive is language in motion. It supplies the answer to the hunger for the unusual, the exotic and picturesque in speech. It is a medium of escape, a safety valve for people pressed against the wall for centuries, deprived of the advantages of complete social, economic, moral and intellectual freedom. It is an articulate protest of a people given half a loaf of bread and then dared to eat it; a people continually fooled and bewildered by the mirage of a better and fuller life… It is the same means of escape that brought into being the spirituals as sung by American slaves; the blues songs of protest that bubble in the breasts of black men and women believed by their fellow white countrymen to have been born to be menials, to be wards of a nation, even though they are tagged with a whimsical designation as belonging to the body politic. Jive provides a medium of expression universal in its appeal…”
This is how the late African American journalist and musician Dan Burley began his 1941 Original Handbook of Harlem Jive, which serves as a reference for the original hip lingo that became popular during the Harlem Renaissance. For Dr. Thomas Aiello, assistant professor of history at Valdosta State University, Jive has profound significance in African American cultural and intellectual history. With this in mind, Aiello released a book titled Dan Burley’s Jive in 2009. The book is an edited compilation of Burley’s handbook and 1959 book Diggeth Thou?
“Although the handbook on Jive did not come about until the 1940s, the lingo really surfaced around the 1920s,” said Aiello. “It became a code language for the cool Black America and it served as something that was exclusive to black people.”
Jive was introduced during a movement of self-expression and self-determination in the black community—one that Aiello described as a reaction to the first two decades of the 20th century.
“Until that point, black people had been oppressed in America,” he said. “The nation went into World War I on a mission to ‘make the world safe for democracy’ according to President Woodrow Wilson, yet our white and black soldiers were segregated to the point where white blood and black blood remained separate throughout the war. Then the war ended in 1918, the peace treaty was signed in 1919 and that summer became known as the Red Summer because of the mass murders of black people and race riots throughout the nation. Living in a nation like that spurred the black population to do something different. Black people began to stand up and start claiming things for themselves.”
With the Harlem Renaissance, also referred to as the New Negro Movement, came the syndication of all-black publications, an explosion of black music and art and educational advancement in Black America.
“Many people think of this era as a literature movement, but it was not just that,” said Aiello. “During this era we began to see the flourishing of black people in all areas—from anthropology to Hollywood. The black population was not rich, but definitely doing better. This was also the time period when Negro History Week, which later became Black History Month, was introduced.”
Jive was the signature language of the movement.
“Because it was being printed and distributed in all the black press, a black person did not have to be in New York or be actively participating in the movement to still be able to experience it,” said Aiello. “They were able to experience it in a way that was never really an option before World War I.”
Jive serves as a forerunner for modern hip-hop lingo. Just as one can recognize remnants of Jive in today’s lingo, there are also traces of West African languages found in Jive.
“Many of the words used in Jive lingo appear to find parentage in the West African Wolof language, which was one of the principle languages during the slave trade,” said Aiello. “What’s so interesting is that throughout the history of lingos in Black America, you will notice that they all borrow from each other. So while many people believe that these words are just made up, the truth is they are not.”
Aiello’s book includes poems, essays and parodies that Burley wrote in Jive. It also includes excerpts from Shakespeare’s literature that Burley translated into Jive.
Dan Burley was a well-known journalist for several black publications, which include Amsterdam News, the Chicago Bee and the New York Age. He also wrote and served as an editor for Ebony and Jet magazines.
Dan Burley’s Jive can be found on Amazon.com, Google Books and Target.com .
Excerpt from “A Home Boy’s Dream”
Now Homey was a Home Boy, a strictly Hometown Square;
He never went to dance unless “mama” was right there.
He went to bed at seven, was fast asleep at nine,
While other cats were drinking Harlem’s mellow, blood-red wine;
His shoe soles never needed mending, (he cut no rug, you see);
And his life was unoffending since he craved no company.
But Homey couldn’t collar just what in life he’d missed;
(Though oftentime he’d wonder ‘bout the chicks he’d never kissed.)
Excerpt from “The Jive Nite Before Xmas”
‘Twas the dim before Nicktide and all through the Crib,
You could hear Joe Hipp spieling that righteous ad lib.
Them leg-sacks were stashed by the smoke-hole, in fact,
They were a Lamb’s unhipped beg on Santa’s fine sack;
The cats and the chippies were all knocking a nod,
While the most anxious ideas through their thinkboxes trod;