Arts Desk

Don’t Be a Bama: The T-Shirt

dont-be-a-bama-shirtBama-like behavior. It's everywhere. We've gotta stop it.

Luckily, there's a T-shirt for that.

Let's say you're hosting a party at your house. You chose the playlist, and your friends are all liking it—they're dancing and enjoying themselves. Then some guest-of-a-guest walks up to the stereo, turns off your music, and hooks up his iPod. He wants to hear Trace Adkins' "Honky Tonk Badonkadonk." Oh hell no, you might say. Is this dude serious?

Put on one of Natalie Star and Tremain Davis' T-shirts, and you'll set that bama straight pretty quick.

Maryland residents Star and Davis came up with the idea for a "Don't be a bama" T-shirt in November, and they began producing them in March. Since then, the tees—which they make in their own print shop—have taken off. WPGC started airing "Don't be a bama" commercials last week, Star says, and the shirts are now for sale in six local Sports Zone stores in addition to their website, dontbeabama.com. They start at $25 apiece for a single-color print (three bucks cheaper than that Minor Threat T-shirt for sale at Urban Outfitters).

Star, a 29-year-old Gaithersburg resident, says she's astonished by how quickly D.C.-area residents took to the shirts. Athletes in particular seem to love them, like the Boston Celtics' Jeff Green, who's originally from Cheverly. But she's even more surprised by how many non-locals want them. She says she's gotten orders from all over, including from someone in London.

D.C. natives are generally familiar with the term "bama," but outside the area, not so much. Originally, "bama" was a word that black D.C. residents applied to Southern transplants who seemed less urbane, or unsophisticated—a kind of "black hick," according to cultural anthropologist John Franklin. It's since grown to refer to any person who's tacky, rude, ignorant, or simply distasteful in any way (though older people probably still use it just as a synonym for "country"). Comic Huggy Lowdown has long crowned his "Bama of the Week" on the syndicated Tom Joyner Morning Show; he recently named Bobby Brown a "bama for life."

If you call somebody a "bama" among company that doesn't know the word, it could cost you. In 2010, Chris Costa got fired from his job for calling out arguably bamafied behavior in the workplace. His employer, Dupont Circle restaurant Buca di Beppo, thought he'd used a racial slur, or something like a racial slur. (It isn't, really. But it's not polite, either.)

One question that's never been satisfyingly answered about "bama" is how to spell it. "Bamma" is the more phonetic spelling, and it seems more common. But for their T-shirts, Star and Davis went with the single-M spelling. "The original term got created... [based on] people from Alabama," she says. "The original spelling was 'bama,' so that's what we decided to do with the T-shirt." Plus, she thinks it just looks better, design-wise. "It looks fresher to have it with one M." (For what it's worth, the debate over "bamma" vs. "bama" is ongoing. City Paper has spelled it both ways in the past: here's Exhibit A and Exhibit B.)

But does spelling "bama" with one "M" cause confusion? When I first saw the shirt online, I misread it as an anti-Obama T-shirt—one of those "Nobama" shirts that were popular during the president's first and second campaigns. Also, when people read "bama" for the first time, do they think it's pronounced "bomma"? And what do Alabamians think about all of this? Star says there have been questions."Some people from Alabama are like, 'Are you talking about us?'"

Then there are the other bama shirts out there: Alabama Crimson Tide produces BAMA T-shirts (and tank tops, for lady bamas); the British Association of Mixed Martial Arts emblazons their T-shirts with the acronymn "BAMMA." These are both fine gift options for the bamas in your life.

But the "Don't be a bama" T-shirt may be one of the only widely available shirts that intentionally refers to a D.C. kind of bama. (If you know of another D.C. bama shirt, let me know.) That's surprising, considering the term's obvious fanbase. Star says she's heard grumbling from people who wished they'd come up with the idea first. Her response? "It's a little too late," she says, "but you can buy a T-shirt."

Image from dontbeabama.com

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