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Legbatics: A Theory of African-Descended Hermeneutics

Mojuba Elegba. Elegba ago.

My lifelong interests are in language, literacy, sociolinguistics, pedagogy, and Africana studies. My writing is divinely inspired, ancestrally edifying, and culturally conscious. I am outside of the mainstream, aligned with the Universe. I teach from my spirit, driven by the ethos of unity and justice to fan the flame of inquiry within all students.

Researchers in the fields of linguistics, anthropology, speech and hearing sciences, and English language arts continue to generate important data on teaching and learning strategies for multilingual and monolingual students. Yet, few contend with translanguaging practices of multilingual youth, and even fewer address linguistic diversity within named languages. When we name something, we both construct and deconstruct meaning.

Named languages refer to politically constructed and often imagined ideas of a monolithic languaging practice within a monolithic nation state. English, Spanish, French, Italian, and German are examples of named languages. Tok Pisin, Hawaiian Creole, Jamaican Patwa, and Haitian Creole are other examples of named languages, but their statuses as languages are contested because of the recent colonial contexts in which they emerged. In addition, scholars contest the terms 'dialect' and 'creole' because states subjectively apply the labels based on socio-political interests. Some linguistics argue that all languages are creoles, and some argue that all creoles are languages. Naming matters.

Taking into consideration that there are no scientific differences between a language and a dialect, it is nonetheless important to examine languaging practices that evolve from different contexts. While I first learned the term 'African American Vernacular English' to refer to my home languaging practices, I now adhere to the label 'African American Language,' largely because it more accurately reflects the multiple roots of African American linguistic features, including indigenous and African languages.

Dr. Ofelia García, mi madrina académica, has written extensively on translanguaging theory and pedagogy. Translanguaging is the integrated and flexible languaging practices of bilingual people who draw from their entire linguistic repertoires in social interactions. Code-switching rests on the concept of two monolingual selves in one body, with separate cognitive "compartments" for each language. In contrast, translanguaging asserts that multilingual speakers have one integrated linguistic and semiotic system that they draw on to communicate in varied settings.

In researching the linguistic needs of African Americans, it is imperative to address the multiethnic, multiregional, and multidialectal nature of this community. Effective language arts instruction for African American students--particularly in states such as NY and Florida that yield the highest concentration of Black multilingual learners--must take a differentiated, interdisciplinary approach. Pedagogical methods must address the socio-emotional and developmental issues related to racial and ethnic identity formation in the United States.

In parallel to translanguaging, I define transvariance as the dynamic language use process that multidialectal speakers of the same language employ to negotiate meaning and expressions of identity. In other words, transvariance is the practice of translanguaging among speakers of multiple, closely related varieties of a language. I am interested in the linguistic dexterity of speakers who are otherwise considered monolingual, in the disparaging sense of "only"speaking one language. As Dr. Jamila Lyiscott so adaptly reminds us, linguistic diversity is not only for bilingual speakers:

In order to interpret and analyze the complexities of languaging practices, there needs to be a new paradigm that attends to the spiritual, ancestral, and diasporic nature of language in transvariant languaging practices. I propose the framework of Legbatics for discussing hermeneutics rooted in African-descended cultures.

Inspired by African-descended religions and Diaspora Literacy concepts, I developed an experimental framework that I have termed Legbatics. Coined by the preeminent literary theorist Vévé Clark, God-bless-the-dead, Diaspora Literacy is the ability to understand and interpret the multiplicity of meanings in a broad variety of language use within any given community of the African diaspora. In both the Dahomean and Haitian Vodou traditions, Papa Legba is the divinity of communication. In the Yoruba tradition, one of the praise names for the messenger god is Eshu-Elegba.

‘Legba’ is the morpheme that unites all three traditions through spatial and temporal distances. As Hermes is the messenger god of Greek mythology, Papa Legba is the messenger god of the Vodou religion. In honor of Hermes, hermeneutics is the methodology of interpretation concerned with meaning and human actions, particularly Biblical texts; I propose Legbatics as an alternative methodology of interpretation, rooted in the theological and oral liturgical texts of Vodou. In multiple ways, Legbatics positions African-descended identity as an asset.

Concepts central to Legbatics are:

  1. Nested signification

  2. Multiple perspectives

  3. Informed decisions

  4. Transvariance

Nested signification refers to the myriad, indexical meanings embedded in a phrase, word, or morpheme. In African diasporic religions, punning is more than entertainment. It can have a mystical quality and be a conduit for divine messaging. There are no coincidences. Stories of Eshu-Elegba wearing a multicolored hat teach us that it is important to consider multiple perspectives in every matter. In everything there is a lesson, and balance is the law of the universe, not antagonism.

As the gatekeeper of the crossroads and messenger of the gods, Papa Legba is the embodiment of intersectionality and decision-making. He is the wise elder leaning on a crooked staff and the sprightly young warrior with a gigantic phallus. He is a trickster who teaches you to follow protocol and slow your roll. His lessons in some way lead back to humility. When you meet a crossroad, consider your options, and ask for guidance. There is always a path, a way outta no way, and Papa Legba is the energy that helps us to make informed decisions.

Transvariance is a reflection of inherent intersecting, overlapping, and nested cultural identities. Language and culture are intimately connected, and historical notions of race and inferiority have generated identities in the Americas that share several cultural traits rooted in their African ancestries.

Image Credit:

"Vodou Flag: Legba" Silva Joseph 29 x 29 in. Photo by Sandra Sider

Citing this Blog Post:

(In APA 6)

Martin, K. M. (2018, May 23). Legbatics: A Theory of African-Descended Hermeneutics [Blog post]. Retrieved from

(In MLA 8)

Martin, Kahdeidra M. "Legbatics: A Theory of African-Descended Hermeneutics."Kahdeidra M. Martin, 23 May 2018,

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