On Being Told I Don’t Speak Like a Black Person
Emphasize the “h,” you hignorant ass,
was what my mother was told
when colonial-minded teachers
slapped her open palm with a ruler
in that Jamaican schoolroom.
trained in England, they tried
to force their pupils to speak
like Eliza Doolittle after
her transformation, fancying themselves
British as Henry Higgins,
despite dark, sun-ripened skin.
Mother never lost her accent,
though, the music of her voice
charming everyone, an infectious lilt
I can imitate, not duplicate.
No one in the States told her
to eliminate the accent,
my high school friends adoring
the way her voice would lift
when she called me to the phone.
A-ll-i-son, it’s friend Cathy.
Why don’t you sound like her?
they’d ask. I didn’t sound
like anyone or anything,
no grating New York nasality,
no fastidious British mannerisms
like the ones my father affected
when he wanted to sell someone
something. And I didn’t sound
like a Black American,
college acquaintances observed,
sure they knew what a black person
was supposed to sound like.
Was I supposed to sound lazy,
dropping syllables here, there,
not finishing words but
slurring the final letter so that
each sentence joined the next,
sliding past the listener?
Were certain words off limits,
too erudite, too scholarly
for someone with a natural tan?
I asked what they meant,
and they stuttered, blushed,
said you know, Black English,
applying what they’d learned
from that semester’s text.
Does everyone in your family
speak alike?, I’d question
and they’d say don’t take this the
wrong way, nothing personal.
Now I realize there’s nothing
more personal than speech,
that I don’t have to defend
how I speak, how any person,
black, white, chooses to speak.
Let us speak. Let us talk
with the sounds of our mothers
and fathers still reverberating
in our minds, wherever our mothers
or fathers come from:
Arkansas, Belize, Alabama,
Brazil, Aruba, Arizona.
Let us simply speak
to one another,
listen and prize the inflections,
differences, never assuming
how any person will sound
until her mouth opens,
until his mouth opens,
in any language.
—Allison Joseph, from Imitation of Life (2003)
A couple years back, I wrote a poem inspired by Allison Joseph’s “On Being Told I Don’t Speak Like a Black Person.” It addresses an issue that many young black students might have faced in school: being accused of “talking white.”
How does one “talk white”? Does one have to use big words consistently in sentences, as if a walking dictionary? Does one have to enunciate their words? Or is it the inflection of one’s voice that makes them sound “white”?
What are the requirements for speaking like a black person? Is it like yin and yang? Everything opposite of white? Should one use small words, short, choppy sentences? Should one slur vowels, treat ending consonants like d or g as if they were silent letters? Speak loudly, with a deep, threatening voice?
What’s basically being said here is that white people innately are supposed to talk “smart,” while black people by nature are ignorant and unintelligent, and therefore should speak as such. Why are we still believing these horrible stereotypes?
My language has just as much to do with my race as my ability to dance, or how athletic I am, which, if you were measuring my race by stereotype, you would conclude that I am white in every way—except for the fact that I am very much BLACK, and I am not an anomaly.
It’s time we stop judging people by assumptions we’ve heard about them based on race and ethnicity. White, Black, Muslim, Latino, etc. We are all people. Open your mouths and talk to one another!
For today’s BlaPoWriMo prompt, write a poem that starts a conversation. Speak English, Spanish, French, Cajun, Gullah, Ebonics, Patois. Language can be a culture, yes, but it’s not limited to race, ethnicity, or even location. Let your poem be a Rosetta stone for your speech.