No Props to Give
American rhetoric in black and white.
Jul 16, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 41 • By JOE QUEENAN
Recently, as I was putting the finishing touches on a story, an editor suggested that I “give props” to the people I was writing about. The idea came from a superior who felt that I should also give a “shout-out” to the subjects of my essay. It was a suggestion which my editor, after considerable reflection, said he was “down with.”
Those are mad props.
All of the people involved in this conversation were middle-aged white people. To a young African American, or in fact to any young person, it must have sounded like Tuareg spies trying to pass as good ol’ boys by using expressions like “Shut your pie hole there, feller, or we’ll lock you up in the hoosegow.”
Let me be perfectly clear about one thing: I personally have no trouble manning up and steppin’ out and even on occasion getting jiggy with it; but I am constitutionally incapable of giving props. I would rather have my head chopped off than give props. Just as I cannot and will not tweet, wear a gelled, spiky hairdo that makes me look like somebody worked me over with a weed-whacker, or refer to my well-appointed suburban colonial house as my “crib,” I cannot envision any scenario in which I would ever give props.
Sixty-one years old, a Caucasian in good standing since the Truman administration, and never what you would call a downtown hipster, I am not the sort of person who would ever feel comfortable giving props or receiving props or soliciting props or thumbing my nose at props or lambasting props or excoriating props or waxing poetic about props or bitterly complaining that I had not received my long-overdue props.
I can, to be sure, show respect, hand out accolades, give credit where credit is due, award kudos, single out others for praise, give a little doff of my hat, and even express grudging admiration for someone I do not like but nonetheless admire. But there is no way on earth that I could ever find myself in a situation where I would consciously, voluntarily give props. If I started using expressions like “Let’s give props to . . .” or “Here’s a shout out to . . .” my wife would get the police to jail the impostor and start dragging the lake for her real husband’s body. Either that or she would think I was trippin’.
Back where I come from—North Philadelphia—white guys neither give props nor use expressions like “giving props.” Just as Detroit street kids are incapable of using expressions like “You’ve taken the queen’s shilling,” or “Aye, now there’s a hale fellow well met,” in a culturally plausible fashion, I would never feel comfortable giving props to anyone or anything, in any time or any place. Guys like me do not “get ghost,” we do not engage in “frontin’,” and we are not “down” with anything or anybody. We do not “chill,” and we most certainly do not “keep it real.”
We just don’t have the chops for that kind of stuff. But it’s not just because we are old and lame and Irish-American and almost actionably unkewl—though that is certainly a factor here. And it’s not because we are haters. It’s because we belong to that dwindling class of people who are pathologically afraid of doing something culturally, professionally, genetically, or chronologically preposterous. We do not want to sound like the fortysomething bozos on Jim Rome Is Burning who bandy about hip-hop slang that is already 10 years out of date, and honestly believe that this makes them sound cutting-edge. We do not want to look and sound like fools.
But there is also the issue of respect. I admire expressions like “giving props.” I wish my own ethnic group could come up with pithy expressions like that. We used to, but those days are long gone. The best we can do now is to manufacture inanities like “Awesome, dude!” and “Good job, Skyler!” Still, we recognize verbal facility when we hear it. And pasty-faced curmudgeons like me show our respect to those who have the moral authority to give props by keeping our grubby little hands off their bitchin’ expressions.
We expect our counterparts to do the same. I would hate it if I turned on the television and saw Lil Wayne using expressions like “Have a good one!” and “Just another day in paradise,” and “Don’t sweat the small stuff,” and all the other morbidly chummy Parrothead banalities that make up the dismal patois of modern office life. Richard Pryor, at the dawn of his career, used to do a routine about speech patterns getting dramatically altered after goofy white boys started playing basketball with black kids. After a week, the white kids would be talking like Reverend Ike while the black kids would be saying things like “Aw, shucks!” and “Gee willikers!” and “Wasn’t that a dilly?”
At least half of the Pryor Doomsday Scenario has come to pass. In today’s world, young white people barge in and annex black people’s expressions all the time. This is sometimes done in an affectionately ironic way—“I’m down with that, mofo!” or “True dat”—because white boys never entirely forget where they pilfered these expressions from. But when middle-aged white people start tossing around these phrases, when the yammering nitwits on sports talk shows start doing it, it’s just sad.
Kobe Bryant is not going to think Fred Steinhunker is cool just because Steinhunker gave him props. This stuff doesn’t make white people any more likable, and it doesn’t give them street cred. Black people know how white people operate: First they are mystified by an expression, then they start to employ it in a semi-parodic way, then they annex it, and ultimately they suck the life out of it. By the time middle-class white people get around to saying “word up” and “chill out,” those once-evocative turns of phrase are ready for the morgue.
I myself give props to those who have the authority to both give and receive props by never, ever letting the words “give props” pass through my lips. A middle-aged white man who uses the expression “give props” or “I’m down with that” needs to be taken out to the alley and worked over with a two-by-four.
For best results, his assailants should open a can of whup-ass. A big can. I’m not being a hater or anything, but those are asses that need whuppin’.
Joe Queenan is the author, most recently, of Closing Time: A Memoir.