Don’t grok shibboleths, do you?


‘Course you do.
Shibboleths are the little worms in the heart of your pride,
the delusions of shifty strangers,
the sly winks when sincerity can’t wait.
Think of a black dude yelling at another
in a drive-by mouthing, ‘Yo, niggah!
Now, see, that’s a shibboleth,
the illusion is the sense of control.


A shibboleth is a word, sound, or custom that a person unfamiliar with its significance may not pronounce or perform correctly,” and adds that it may refer also “to any ‘in-crowd’ word or phrase that can be used to distinguish members of a group from outsiders…”

It was a long battle for society to learn how harmful and demeaning racist words are and to turn away from their use. In the USA, the worst of these epitaphs was the “n word.” So it may seem surprising that it is now used by young black males to refer to each other. They do it, I think, because they can and not be stopped by anyone. But even more importantly, they do it because white people can’t, and who are yet forced into an ill-at-ease situation upon hearing it. It is, in its way, an act of self-empowerment and esteem building.

Grok‘ is a term coined by Robert A. Heinlein for his 1961 science-fiction novel, Stranger in a Strange Land, where it is defined as understanding so thoroughly that the observer becomes a part of the observed.

Thank you for reading Don’t grok shibboleths, do you?. I humbly appreciate your visiting the Book of Pain, and as always, I look forward to your comments.

The photograph was taken during a trip to New York City. For more photography, please visit the Book of Bokeh.


© 2012 by John Etheridge; all rights reserved. The poem and accompanying notes are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License. This applies to all original written work found on this site, unless noted otherwise. The attribution claimed under the license is: © 2013 by John Etheridge, The photograph is not licensed for use or reproduction in any way, unless so granted in writing by the copyright owner.


Filed under Poetry

2 responses to “Don’t grok shibboleths, do you?

  1. Piercingly sacred (not religious – sacred) … Naming our nature, and also naming that dynamic of empowerment in the ugliness of identifying each other …

    • T, the tragedy is that while I can understand the mechanism of the action by young black males, and I can understand the pain that drives it, I just cannot accept it or believe that it is ‘good’ for them or society. It’s a cheap return on a small thrill. Here’s something interesting: over the last day the poem has received over 64 viewings…and only 6 ‘likes.’ As my wife said, “It is a good poem, but it is not an easy poem to warm to.”