Black talk, is it good, bad or maybe it’s just language

“The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” –Audre Lord

This well-known quote by Audre Lorde came to mind last night as I read this post over at Denene Miller’s My Brown Baby. It’s an excellent piece written by Denene’s husband Nick, about the subject of code switching in the Black community. In light of recent discussions in the national media about President Obama’s known tendency to code switch when addressing predominantly Black audiences, I thought this was a timely piece.

Code switching is nothing new, African Americans have been doing it for years and it’s not a Black phenomenon by any stretch of the imagination. It’s not uncommon for someone raised in the working class who ends ups in the upper middle class later in life to change their dialect based on who they are talking to. I have white friends with working class roots who are no longer working class yet they change their dialect when talking to different people.  People with deep southern American roots who leave the south are also known code switchers at times.

It was only a few short decades ago that Black Vernacular English or African American Vernacular English was discovered to be a very real language, not something relegated simply  to the unlearned. Yet despite the fact that Black Vernacular English is very real and at times much needed (the DEA was actually looking for speakers of Black Vernacular English not too long ago). Many Black Americans are frankly conflicted about its use especially those in the middle and upper classes. Too many Blacks see Black Vernacular English as a sign of ignorance which is confusing…George W. Bush served 8 years as president and mangled Standard American English regularly.  I think this speaks to the fact that deep down many of us struggle with our identity, too many times we fear being associated with the rampant stereotypes about Black Americans. So in many cases we try to overcompensate by disassociating ourselves with that which we view as the negatives about being Black and that includes Black language. However in doing so, we are hiding parts of our history and roots and no good can ever come of pretending. Granted there are many Black Americans especially those with immigrant roots who have no connection to Black Vernacular English and in that case this post doesn’t apply.

Nick Chile’s piece talked about how he and his wife have made the decision to expose their kids to Black vernacular English and how they want their kids to be proficient in the art of code switching. While many commenters seemed to understand their views, there was more than one who didn’t instead using the old criticism why would anyone want to deliberately teach their kids to speak in a grammatically incorrect fashion? Again ignoring the fact that even linguistics scholars fully recognize that Black English is real English, just a different form of English.

In 2012 when we live in an ever increasing multicultural world one may wonder is there real value in teaching a Black or even a biracial child code switching if it’s not something that they are naturally exposed to and I say yes. I live in Maine but I was not born or raised here, most of my family is either in Chicago or in the south with a few exceptions. My eldest at almost 21 has split his time between the Midwest and New England and even as a college student in Northern Wisconsin has learned that code switching has value.

For me code switching is about being able to meet people where they are and making connections, human connections. In my decade in Maine code switching allows me to connect with other Blacks; on the surface there isn’t a lot of code switching in my corner of the world, but it makes the difference in my experiences and interactions with others. It’s the difference between going to one of the two Black hair salons and getting ho-hum service or getting awesome service. Right or wrong, it just is. I use code switching to a lesser degree in my professional life as well, the way I talk to a colleague or donor is different than the way I talk with one of the families served by the agency that I run. Again, I am trying to make connections and meeting people where they are and making a deep connection means being mindful of how best to connect.

Truthfully we all code switch, one could say Mitt Romney was code switching when talking privately or so he thought with other rich folks about the so called forty-seven percent. In the end, the only value that exists between Standard American English and Black Vernacular English is the value we assign, otherwise it is simply language. Both can exist side by side and as a parent I want to prepare my kids for the world they will live in, so like Denene and Nick, I am a fan of exposing Black and biracial kids to Black Vernacular English.

6 thoughts on “Black talk, is it good, bad or maybe it’s just language

  1. I super heart you—thank you for this! I tell you, the comments section at MyBrownBaby got a little raucous, which still goes to show how touchy a subject it is for many. I’m so happy, though, that there are intelligent, thoughtful people like you who think much more deeply about such things. #ForeverAFan!

  2. We all switch. Whether we know it or not. I used to be terrible at switching. Terrible. I’ve gotten better and mimic speech patterns of those around me. Traveling the country for work really helped me that. This has made life so much easier. People feel more at ease if I can meet them where they are, speech wise. This isn’t about talking down to people, but going to them. We all have different inflections and it makes people feel more comfortable when they hear that you understand.

  3. Kids code switch whether well-intentioned parents want them to or not. Kids especially code switch when grownups are around, and not just vocal inflection but everything about them. Depending on their home and school etc. environments the switching is either colloquial or survival-based.

    My kids meme-speak with one another constantly, including cussing sometimes – many grownups would simply not understand what they were saying. Then when we’re out they generally speak with decorum. I code switch too. Yesterday I was in a financial institution trying to get a loan and my kids’ quality of life was at stake, and you I switched up my manner, tone, & vocab. At the Mexican restaurant I speak my Spanish but sort of like what Nic says, that is not out of necessity so much as social graces because it makes for a stronger feeling of community. I wonder if some code switching is fun and some, out of necessity due to hostile environs.

    I am not a member of the black community and so I can only imagine how loaded the issue can be with the community. It would be inappropriate of me to have an opinion. Suffice to say for black people living in a white supremacist culture, often any strategy or lifestyle is a survival issue, so if there is controversy, I can understand why.

  4. I don’t necessarily think you need to teach children to code switch. My parents were immigrants to this country from Nigeria and basically spoke “The Queen’s English”. But in school, I learned other ways to speak. My parents wouldn’t understand me if I spoke that way at home but it was necessary to try to fit in at school that I learn various ways of speaking.

    I think when I accepted that AAVE is a legitimate form of English it changed my whole way of thinking. There are so many similarities between AAVE, patois, and pidgins and these are not “broken” English. I grew to respect the ways in which folks who have been oppressed have taken the language of the oppressor and made it their own. Nothing to be ashamed of with that.

    1. Reading your comment reminded me of why I learned to speak AAVE, it was about being able to fit in and connect. Even as an adult I have family members who frankly are always suspicious of me due to being married to a white man, being able to connect over language allows for some form of connection.

    2. I think for many of us learning to speak AAVE was about being able to connect with others. For me it allowed me to connect with a certain segment of my family.

Comments are closed.