If you have not been called a jawn, this theory is not really about you.
Its creator, Zalika U. Ibaorimi, a West Oak Lane native and a doctoral candidate in African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, is most interested in how the word functions within Black Philadelphia.
Jawn is a term that’s been widely appropriated, even beyond Philadelphia. (Note: Research shows that jawn is a Philadelphia mutation of the term joint. That has led some to argue that jawn comes from New York, but jawn and joint are not the same word.) Jawn carries a symbolism that allows it to be a Philly mascot in word form. But for some Black women in Philadelphia, jawn can land pridefully or dismissively. Just hearing that jawn is a pronoun might suggest that a jawn could be any person, but in Philadelphia, it’s rarely used for men. And depending on the context, calling a woman or femme-presenting person a jawn could resonate with a range of connotations, from affectionate, to invisibilizing, to stigmatizing.
“When we say ‘Oh, that’s a jawn,’ we might mean that ‘she’s from Philly,’ ” Ibaorimi said. “But then we might mean, at the same time, when we say jawn, in a sense, we might be using the jawn as an insult. Somebody might mean that literally she might be loose, she might be a wild card, she might be ghetto, she might be rash.”
Ibaorimi, who studies Black sexual politics, has been researching jawn’s deeper meanings and offering some new ones of her own. In June, she wrote an essay on her theory for the Society of Cultural Anthropology, including video of her performance art Jawn Theory: A Bodily Geographic Tour.
Vanderbilt English professor and literary critic Hortense Spillers’ work influences Ibaorimi’s approach. In Spillers’ 1987 essay, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Spillers uses the term grammar to assess the social constructs that circumscribe parenthood and gender for Black people, and how these constructs come from enslavement. Ibaorimi, who also cites cultural theorist Fred Moten, is thinking of Spillers’ grammar in tandem with the grammar she heard Philadelphians using in conversation.
The dialect that many Black Philadelphians speak, which is the dialect that jawn comes from, exists without a formalized writing system. All the same, even local colloquialisms like jawn and drawlin’ can have grammatical complexities. African American English is often considered ungrammatical because of anti-Black language discrimination, but is actually anything but. African American English follows syntactical rules of its own, that, depending on the sentence, can be more complicated.
Ibaorimi thought of how she’d been called a jawn, “a freak jawn,” more specifically. She also thought about language rules within community that govern that type of talk.
“I wanted to expose whatever ‘those demons’ were, so to speak,” she said. “And so I started playing with language.”
She noted: “I was truly actually interested in what happens when the other Black folk, as the other, figure out a way to other someone who was supposed to be inside community.”
Ibaorimi plans to expand on jawn theory in her dissertation. She’s been looking to Black queer feminist and Womanist theorists to revisit to the legacies and reputations of legends like Billie Holiday, who grew up in Baltimore but was born in Philadelphia, and Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, who hailed from Logan.
As Ibaorimi says, “a ‘jawn’ knows a ‘jawn’ when they see one,” even from a gesture.
“For some people, it may be the way that we might move our hands or it might be the way that we speak,” she explained. “It might be the way that we might look at someone, the way we might gaze upon someone.”
Iboarimi spoke to The Inquirer about her research. This interview comes from two conversations that have been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Your essay was the first essay that I’ve seen that is articulating what the work of reclaiming that term has been in and also offering ideas for what it could be. How would you describe what that reclaiming work has been for you, as a scholar and as somebody who identifies as a jawn yourself?
A part of this naming or renaming had everything to do with my relationship to shame. Because something may or may not be true, but once the rumor is spread, once it’s said, it really doesn’t matter if it’s true or not, because that is who you literally are understood to be.
I was dealing with this from like my early teen years up until now. I thought ‘Damn, like, I’m incredibly deviant. And I feel really, really ashamed of this.’ For some people I was a thot, or some people I was a ho… I didn’t know how to wade those waters.
This is a city that I love. And this is also a city that I loathe at the same time. I really wanted to leave Philly. Not because of family — I love family — but I wanted to leave Philly for my intracommunal relationships that I felt like made it really really hard to be me, to accept me.
I’m faced with these feelings and these relationships, whether it be.... my relationship with my sexual decision-making practices, or my relationship with [how people perceive.]
I was like, ‘You know, it doesn’t even have to be like that. You are a jawn, stop running away from it. You don’t even have to act like it because you already are. So just be it.’
How can the term jawn be gendered and un-gendered?
Blackness as a category has a strange relationship to gender. And I believe that intracommunally and intraracially, we really, really are committed to the concept of gender, because of our past relationship and the making of ourselves as black beings. And I’m not saying that we made ourselves. I’m saying that to a certain extent, in the ways that Spillers talks about [enslavement and] the way is that race was constructed, made it so that we had to do with some sort of deconstruction of our very ways of being within this context — the exploitation, this subjection, the abjection.
So here we are, as Black people working very, very, very hard to be gendered subjects. But just in the same ways, we’re working very, very hard to be gendered subjects, we are also working very, very hard to undo that too.
I think this is where the queering comes in. ... The jawn as a category has always had to be open to that formlessness, and even the contradiction within it. As Black women, we’ve had a precarious relationship with our gender identity historically.
I think for so many reasons we have to wrestle with these concerns. These serious and dangerous concerns of transphobia. The ways that people think that even within Blackness, we have to police and define what bodies are, who they look like, and how they’re supposed to be, by any means necessary.
Can you break down what you mean when you say that the jawn haunts?
Sometimes I read [UC Santa Barbara sociologist] Avery Gordon’s work, Ghostly Matters. And you don’t necessarily have to be dead and something tragic doesn’t necessarily have to happen in order for someone to haunt. But I see it as whether it’s ephemeral, or whether it’s everlasting, there are just some people that some people will never be able to get out of their minds or even their mouths. You know, there’s some people where it’s like, they seem to have so much to say about you. You must have really, really left some sort of imprint on them. I think a lot of it has to do with memory.
And so I think for so many jawns, because of the ways that we might carry on, it might be through sexual decision making practices, it might be through the ways that Black people in Philly just have a unique way of speaking. It might be just the way that we dress. It might even be the ways that we might relate to other people or people like ‘Why you so mean?’ Those kinds of things. There’s a memory in this city.
Can you explain why Toni Morrison’s Sula is a good way to imagine this?
[In the book], there’s Medallion, Ohio, and they call this place “the Bottom.” It’s literally called the bottom even though it kind of looks from up top, and it’s a very Black community. They look down at the white people literally, who actually have more resources and all those other things. But they have figured out a way even though they are the bottom to create a literal bottom.
For this community called the Bottom, Sula was the bottom. And people wanted access to that kind of bottom. They did everything to shame her, but their existence and their world cannot exist without creating this person that they’ve cast off as other even though they’re literally other to everyone else.