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Black (Talk) Is... Black (Talk) Ain't*
September 26, 2018
* Shout out to Marlon Riggs
I had a Black talk breakthrough in my English Composition class and was reacquainted with the spirit and power of Black talk-- that enigma DuBois longed to understand when he sat in the back of the church house wondering at the sorrow behind the songs he transcribed.
I'd just performed my version of Baby Suggs' clearing sermon. My students had told me they didn't like to read and I'd pressed them to tell me why. After all, not liking to read is not on the same scale as not liking to ski. Skiing won't help me answer questions every college freshman should be asking: What happened to me and why? Or, if one has not been blessed with such an existential burden, what happened to my peers and why?
So as my students began to unfold the sinister beginnings of their fears around reading and writing, I took an informal survey. Raise your hand if you were ever assigned a Black book in high school. Two hands (of 18 students). Raise your hand if you attended a school where the majority of the students were Black. One of the two students who'd been assigned a Black author dropped his arm. Fourteen more arms shot up. Although I already knew the answer, I needed the optics to drive home my point. Now keep your hands raised if you went to a predominantly Black school and you were assigned a book by a Black author. Fourteen hands dropped. I told the single student of a teacher with a little bit of sense she could drop her tired arm.
I began to preach. Ineed you to see what happened here. I need you to know this is not an accident. I need you to see this is sinister. I need you to know some books are windows and others are mirrors. I need you to know there is nothing wrong with windows, but lovers of reading are people who have found their mirrors. I need you to know somebody hid your mirrors on purpose. I need you to know they pretended you were from a house with no windows. I need you to know they built your prisons with their denial. I need you to know a mirror is a love letter written by someone who chose you. I need you to know how many love letters were written to you, then hidden away, as in Mr. _____________'s attic box. I need you to be angry that you don't know that reference. I need you to tell me your teachers' names so that I can add them to a long shit list.I need you to know I am a writer with a mirror in my hand. I need you to know I choose you. I choose you. I choose you.
By the time I got to repeating "I choose you," and meeting my students' eyes, I felt the spirit burning holy in my bones. I was connecting. It felt like that summer sermon too long ago, two years before I fell from grace and began to occupy the pews instead of the pulpit. It was Youth Sunday. I preached, "How to Go From Sweat to Swagger." I compared God to a coordinating conjunction, "but", and told believers that their faith was the conjunction that linked their past sentence to their future possibility. Later, my father asked me what my grammar lesson had to do with the Mother Board and I got so angry I talked to him as if he wasn't dying of terminal cancer. There is something about being told that you don't connect, that you are speaking in a colonizer's tongue, that the things you've hurt yourself to learn are actually not useful to the ones you were taught to "uplift", that drives you crazy. I don't know how else to frame the rage of the student who tried to get me fired because I assigned Baldwin's "If Black English Isn't a Language, then Tell Me, What Is?" and pointed out the politics of calling her own speech patterns "proper."
But this wasn't supposed to be about her. And it wasn't supposed to be about disrespecting my father for telling me a hard truth. It was supposed to be about that moment in the sermon when the spirit washed over me and I forgot how to swim. It was the moment I was preaching and caught my big brother's eye. Ten years before he transitioned to the other side to regain his spoiled alone time with our father, he set his hope on one thing: that he would live to have a son. This sermon was two and a half years before the promise was fulfilled. This sermon was two years after he'd been diagnosed with heart failure. In the moment when I caught his eye, all that stood between us was hope and love. The combination felt like fire shut up in my bones and I was afraid I'd crumble under the weight of a feeling I didn't understand. Faith without evidence. Hope for things unseen.
The same spirit washed over me when I began to speak my desire to reach students who had been labeled, but not chosen. Many of my students had piles of evidence to support the lie that reading and writing "just [weren't] for [them]." Some students had been tracked into the advanced program and out of Black speech and Black thought. I chose them all. The fire threatened to close off my breath.
One of my students said, "Ms. French, you sound like you gon' cry. You aight?" He asked it in that comical tone that never gets recognized as emotional intelligence-- the way the class clown is usually the person who reads the tension in the room and knows just the turn of phrase to help too many strangers survive their forced engagement.
Another Black teacher peeked her head in the door. We are the minority here; although my school is technically an HBCU, 80% of the faculty members are White. It is an HBCU in the same sense that Rock & Roll is Black music. She said, "I heard you and just had to say Amen. I tell my students this all the time."
Students began to wonder out loud why their teachers did them that way. They began to put two and two together and got to testifyin'. "I knew my teacher had to be racist, cuz she was always correcting the way I talked and she ain't do that to the other kids. Everybody had they own way of speaking."
"Why they got us reading Beowulf if its other authors out there who have lives like ours?"
"Wait a minute, now. Beowulf was good."
"I know, but I'm sayin..."
"My teacher loved Black people. She even had a mixed son. She said she loved Black men." The record scratched.
I retorted, "Yeah, but she ain't never assign Baldwin, so did she?"
Students rewarded my indirection with the praise Black talk deserves. "Ooh!"
"Ms. French comin' for your teacher!"
Here's a secret I'm not supposed to tell: back in the day when I talked mostly White, I yearned for a moment just like this. I yearned to hold court on a speaker's corner like the ones Toni Cade Bambara visited with her mother in Harlem. It wasn't enough to hear Black talk; I wanted to speak back. But the purpose of eradication pedagogy is to crush such a desire into fine powder, then blow it into the wind.
We've heard it all before like Sunshine Anderson. "I don't talk white; I talk proper." I don't remember saying it (which isn't to say that I never did), and I'd like to think that's because I had the good sense to have low self-esteem. How in the hell, you may be asking yourself, is it ever good sense to have low self-esteem?
I think when you are unequivocally accepted by middle class White folks as one of them, and when they are constantly telling you you're not like other black people, and when they compliment the article you published in the city's newspaper at 17 asking Black criminals to end the cycle of crime (a call for moral reform), well then you'd be a fool to have some self-esteem. You'd be a fool to believe you even have a self to esteem highly. As the drunk grandma in Spanglish said, my low self-esteem was just good common sense. I knew there was something wrong about talking "right;" I just didn't know that talking White was more about my ideas than my subject-verb agreement.
In "Nobody Mean More to Me Than You and the Future Life of Willie Jordan," June Jordan (no relation) says that syntax "leads you to the worldview of the speaker and reveals her values" (260). She poses a hard question; if everybody (teachers and their victims) agrees that there are "profound" differences between the syntax of Black folks and the syntax of middle class White folks, then why do we assume that these differences should be eradicated rather than celebrated? To put it another way, what they got that I need?
Short answer: money. Another short answer: power. Lil' Kim's third short answer: respect. Rappers, entrepreneurs, and athletes may be able to figure out how to get these three necessities without learning the syntax of colonization. The rest of us struggle to join the speech communities of people who never want us to visit, let alone stay.
Because of the uphill battle that is assimilation, I understand the rabid-dog posture my students take when they defend their own rights to Blackness by declaring, "I don't talk white. I talk right." I understand the self-preserving impulse that makes people reduce the complex systems of African American Language to its deviations from the standard. I get why Smitherman ain't everybody's idea of a prophet--- why her gospel of "white ice ain't always colder" feels like condemnation to (Their) Kind of People. Standard English adopts a syntax of superiority, so Black speakers of the language are taught to despise those who refuse its codes. When they learn the truth-- that Black talk is a form of art and source of joy-- their impulse is to uphold money, power, and respect as the only three things in life worth having. What we don't recognize in Grant Hill's classist defense of his family's socioeconomic status is that the case for the "rightness" of adjacency to Whiteness is also a rejection of the perceived rejector.
Middle class students who perceive their own rejection from Black talk are mad because they don't understand how language works. That ignorance, unlike their class status, places them in an American majority.
American language mythology is a simple adaptation of Manichean theory masquerading as truth. So in Manichean theory, the binary system of the English language is exploited and raced such that everything aligned with Blackness is bad and everything aligned with Whiteness is good. A fourth grader could easily figure this shit out, which is why the wealth hoarders depend on keeping the masses (of all races) at a third grade reading level. By this theory, Black language is bad and wrong, which must mean that White language is good and right. The spectrum of languages between good and bad is ignored in this binary arrangement, such that all variations of African American language are reduced to bad and all variations on the standard are reduced to good.
What that do?
It imposes class and racial divisions that harm us all. It suggests that people are inherently monolingual, that they are born into the only speech community that will ever feel like home, that intelligence is the exclusive property of one speech community, that school is the place where one "overcomes" the burden of membership in the "wrong" speech community.
Here's my theory: most teachers are also outsiders to the speech communities they teach students to emulate. Working class white folks may be the descendants of those working whites who did not own slaves and, thus, did not store caches of wealth to support generations of medical and law school. Many of these descendants see the teaching profession as a short path (in Kentucky, the Masters is no longer required to teach) to middle class security. In college, they retain their home language, which is not standard, but they also learn to project their own feelings of class shame onto the language practices of the Black working class students many of them will encounter in city schools. The exploitative relationship between Black language practices and the capitalism of "cool" means that the White teaching/ working class will always be aware (and suspicious) of the Black language practices that make their way into the public sphere via music, movies, and the bad grammar (bad as in untrue to the rules of AAL) of Black characters written by White writers. Hence, their pedagogy becomes one of eradication-- their mission is to tame the tongue of Black students' whose language practices remind them of the trailer parks in their past.
But here is what the Manichean myth hides: all language is learnable. Most social beings have the capacity to become multilinguistic. Nobody has to unlearn her language to learn a new one. The best news for Black students who talk White is that they, too, can learn the language they desire so much that they reject it to save their own hearts. Any system with clear rules can be learned. Black scholars have already done the work of establishing that African American Language is systematic.
I heard somebody shout "How, Sway?" I'm glad you asked. The same way you learned to speak White: cultural immersion. After all, when my Black friends in middle and high school told me I sounded White, they were just telling me they could tell who I'd been with. As my students say, I detected no lies. In his Black English essay, Baldwin describes the relationship between language and cultural immersion in England: "To open your mouth in England is (if I may use [Black] English) to 'put your business in the street': You have confessed your parents, your youth, your school, your salary, your self-esteem, and, alas, your future."
The thing to praise is that my friends didn't push me away because of the confessions laid bare in my speech. First, I assuaged their fears. I was not an enemy wearing the skin of a friend. Talking White did not mean White company was my preference; it meant that none of us chose our class assignments. It meant that we'd all been victim of the state's sneaky attempts to work around forced integration. My friends back then trusted that my choice of lunch tables reflected my detection of the lies our teachers were telling us all. We formed a speech community. Our giggling language still rings loud in my ears.
When you're lucky, the people you choose are the ones who choose you back. All language is choice. When I chose to critique Ms. Love-Black-Bodies-But-Not-Black-Thought with indirection and a tone that would have made my Mama proud, I chose my students. When my students responded with their secular Amen's and kitchen table laughter, they chose me back.