Over the past 10 years, the terms “baby mama” and “baby daddy” have jumped the fence, as it were, and become mainstream American terms, albeit usually in an ironic sense. Rap group Outkast’s megahit “Ms. Jackson,” dedicated to “all the baby mamas’ mamas,” seems to have made “baby mama” officially American in 2000. By 2008, Fox News was confident enough about the general awareness of the term to pull it out of its inner-city associations and apply it to Michelle Obama, and the film Baby Mama, about middle-class whites, decontextualized it even further. Meanwhile, “Jesus Is My Babydaddy” T-shirts testify to the mainstreaming of the male version of the expression.
There have been those who wondered where the expressions come from — and as often as not, you’ll be taught that the answer is Jamaica. Nah, mon. It’s from even further away than that.
West Indians can say “baby-mother,” but the chance that a random locution from the Caribbean becomes common coin across black America is infinitesimal — why would lingo from Kingston take root everywhere from Atlanta to Detroit to Oakland to Philly to Brooklyn to Chicago? Black Americans have no more been in the habit of picking up their lingo from Jamaicans than other Americans have been embracing the latest slang from Toronto.
“Baby mama” and “baby daddy” are actually, of all things, grammar — of the “Negro dialect” that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid got such flak for referring to early last year. There is such a thing, although linguists refer to it as African-American Vernacular English, Black English or, since the 1990s, Ebonics, and it existed long before Outkast.
It isn’t the cartoon speech of minstrels — no one speaks that — but neither is it identical to Southern white dialect. Linguists have found that most blacks and whites can immediately identify even a Southerner’s race on the phone. There is a particular collection of sound and sentence patterns that are typical of black Americans, and one thing that defines it is doing without the possessive ‘s — but not just when they’re talking about parentage.
University of Massachusetts at Amherst linguist Lisa Green gives the basics in her grammatical description of Black English, with sentences like “Sometime Rolanda bed don’t be made up.” At a fast-food restaurant staffed by black Americans, one might hear, as I once did, “That’s Brenda drink, not his.” Back in the 1980s, the bawdy black comedian Robin Harris was doing comedy routines about a woman’s naughty brood of children, laced with the catchphrase “Dem Bébé kids!”
It goes back even further. In the 1943 film This Is the Army, legendary black boxer Joe Louis does a cameo in which he says, “All I know is I’m in Uncle Sam’s army and we are on God’s side.” Or at least that’s what the script had — but the way Louis actually rendered the line was, in good Ebonics style, “All I know is I’m in Uncle Sam army.” Louis, of Alabama and Detroit, would have been perplexed to be told he was channeling calypso.