art of the roast: how joanin’ helps black people survive in the white world

May 18, 2018
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By Tayo Omisore, AFROPUNK Contributor


Roasting, joanin’, a packing session, or whatever your zip code calls it. All of these terms remind many of us of a simpler time. A full July sun, a bedroom full of the homies sipping half & half on a Friday afternoon. Soon, an off-hand comment about someone’s hairline becomes a dog whistle to a two-hour spectacle of jokes and obscure cultural references, all at the expense of the supposed friend. Somehow, his hairline looks like a treasure map to naps, a tired barber, and the equation y= mx+b, all at the same time and all leaving the room short of breath.

Black banter is perhaps the most ubiquitous aspect of black culture. You can try to take our clothes, our dances, even our language, but you can’t grab our humor. Not with those ashy hands. The thing about being roasted is that, with no hyperbole, it is an art. We don’t say, “I don’t like your shoes.” We say, “Boy, where ya mama cop them 2 striped Adidas for you, that’s the newest drop?” There is a certain magic in the way we joke, every quip and hand chop (which is universally accepted hand motion to begin one’s roast) a quick, but carefully made, potion of subject matter, simile, and cultural relevance that rivals that of a mage.

In my university, most of the well-spoken people on my campus are black. To survive in a PWI as a minority, you have to be able to speak. And you adapt to that expectation quickly. You learn the lingo, adjust to jokes, and learn to make them in social settings. This no easy feat, but when has being black in an academic setting ever been? In turn, what I frequently see in my friends and classmates alike is that minorities tend to be the most interpersonally proficient and engaging members of any dialogue group, regardless of whether it is a “black” space or not. I believe joanin’ is the reason for this ability.

When you take a step back, a joke is a simple argument: I see the world this way, and you should too. In the same way, flaming someone requires an argument that your observation about another person is entertaining enough to be true. And to do so, one must use the same “proper” elements of debating; tone control, relevance, an optimal distribution of ethos, pathos, and logos, to create a consumable, but resonant point. And time after time, the aspects of dialogue that has given even our local congresspeople difficulty, we’ve mastered before leaving middle school. This is where our reputation for arguing comes from, why we take to a platform the way a plane takes to sky.

The way humor is intertwined in the black community is pervasive yet structurally delicate. We use it to not only acknowledge and maintain friendships but to express dominance or seniority over each other. The crucible of the black experience teaches to one major end: people will take you at your word, and your word is all you have. It’s very hard to exist in this space if you can’t take a critique and throw a better one back. You learn how to pack, or you will be the center of every packing session. That is not to discourage being vocal but to assert that it is so easy to be silent and colored in this world, but if we want to thrive, that isn’t an option.

In the outside (read: white) world, the default is attempting to drown out our voices. As a black person existing in a white space, there are constant calculations that we are required to take into consideration. We are constantly monitoring our volume, our interjections, and our non-verbals; all in an attempt to disarm the people that we’re talking to, to avoid being pigeonholed the “wrong type of black” for the occasion. But the best part is that we succeed in this, with ease and grace because we’ve been flexing the same mental muscles since we were barely in middle school.

Growing up with a childhood of quick-tempered banter prepares us for an adulthood of code switching. Much like the rest of the mammals in the animal kingdom, flaming a friend is a lot like a mode of play fighting. It may seems aggressive to outsiders but in actuality, it is done to practice the skills necessary to survive in the real world. defines code switching as the use of one dialect, register, accent, or language variety over another, depending on social or cultural context, to project a specific identity.  

According NPR, people code switch for many reasons, not just to fit in, but to actively ingratiate themselves to others. As a person of color, if you want to progress in this world, you have to have an agile mind and flexible tongue. So it logically stands that, as an evolutionary tool, we would invent ways to keep our minds sharp and nimble amongst ourselves. What else is a good roast session but a masterclass in mental agility, audience awareness, and the ability to craft a strong argument in the most engaging way possible? A practice that would teach not only how to properly assert one’s self in a room but also gives us the thick skin needed when we receive an inevitable pushback.

This is all important because this skill set is frequently looked down upon by those who continue to colonize us. The art of our conversations are nuanced and dripping with our culture, only to be stereotyped as our community being “too loud, mean-spirited, and rowdy negroes”. In times like this, it is imperative that we remember that the way we banter with each other is not only valid and cultured, but it is our biggest weapon in surviving a white world that wants us muted.

*Tayo Omisore is a poet, singer-songwriter, filmmaker and now graduate of the University of Maryland. He is currently somewhere forgetting to drink water. You can hear more of his ramblings about black life on twitter