Friday, February 22, 2013

How To Talk Black

I saw that Clutch Magazine had posted a piece about code switching and "talking black," and it made me think about my on-again, off-again, love affair with “y’all,” “ain’t,” and double negatives.

As a child, my peers used to tease me for “talking white,” which basically means, I think, enunciating my words, using large words, and putting words together in complicated ways. This is not, in fact, the way most white people speak but instead is the way little black kids think white people speak. (And it sure as hell isn’t the way white people write, ‘cause I was a manager in corporate American for several years, and I saw first-hand that many of those particular white people couldn’t string a damn sentence together.)

But I digress.

As I was saying, I’d get teased for “talking white,” and I’d always think that the accuser was really dumb, because white people don’t own words, and I know that. Everyone in my family “talked white.” No big deal.

Jive time turkey mother
Then I got to college, the University of Pennsylvania here in Philly, and all of a sudden, I felt very self-conscious about the way I spoke. But not because it was “too white,” but because it was “too black.” In particular, I determined that I really needed to ditch the use of the word “y’all,” which regularly crept up in my speech.

“Y’all” is not exclusively a black thing, but it is a black urban thing. I imagine it as passed down from our Southern ancestors who migrated North, along with their recipes for sweet potato pie and macaroni and cheese. No white person I’d ever met said “y’all,” and when I used it I felt exposed. Common and low-class. That is, until I met Dr. Parker.

Dr. Parker was a researcher at Penn, and I was her research assistant. Dr. Parker was from Georgia, and she said “y’all.” A lot.

I admired Dr. Parker very much. She was smart, accomplished, and nice. She was a natural teacher, a good writer, and a great boss. So, that was it. If “y’all” was good enough for Dr. Parker, I reasoned, then it was darn sure good enough for me.

I graduated from college, entered the workforce, and pretty much spoke as everyone else. But as the years went by, something funny happened.

I can “code switch” with the best of them, but the older I got the more I began to appreciate the rhythms and cadences of “black language.” I like the flow of the well-place double-negative, and I like the word “ain’t.” So, on occasion and for effect, I’d “speak black.”

Once I used the word “ain’t,” while speaking with my white boss, and he corrected me, telling me that his father had always corrected him. Yeah, whatever. I’d worked in this organization long enough for my boss to become thoroughly familiar with my language skills, and he knew, or should have known, what I said before—that there were managers in the organization who couldn’t string a sentence together. I found it ironic that he concerned himself with my “ain’ts” but had nothing to say about their spelling mistakes, grammatical errors, run-on sentences, incomplete thoughts, and just plain poor writing. Please man.

And so now, at this point in my life, I accept my black Southern roots and its influence on my diet and my language.

When I was little, a favorite expression of my Dad’s was “You have to learn to crawl before you can learn to run.” He’d tell me this while sloooowly helping me with my math homework. I just wanted the answer, and he wanted to explain everything leading up to the answer. Ugh. But my Dad’s voice would often come to my mind when my boss corrected me. (Which occurred a few more times, because then I began saying "ain't" just to bug him.)

I know how to run. I’ve mastered the English language. I’ve earned the right to violate a few rules now and again if it suits my mood or my spirit. Go lecture that manager down the hall who doesn’t know the difference between “there” and “their,” for God’s sake, and leave me alone. You ain’t got nothing for me.


  1. According to NPR, code-switching is natural and necessary.

  2. Kimberly thanks for the link. I checked it out, and it was interesting. I'm looking forward to seeing what they do with this project.