African American Vernacular English: Different but equal

I’ve been lauded for my speaking abilities since I was a child. I delivered a commencement speech at a local school when I was just in the 8th grade. I may have been in more speech competitions than I can actually remember, but I know that I’ve never lost one. Mastery of Standard American English and the associated behavioral cues have always been my strength. It has fared me well.

I didn’t grow up speaking African American Vernacular English. At least not initially. My family is known for its elevated lexicon, its crisp diction. No splitting verbs. Enunciate words. My mother could butcher slang like no other, always putting it in a headlock and forcing it to be grammatically correct according to Standard American English. “Nooo, Momma. It’s not ‘All OF that’. It’s just ‘all that’. This outfit is ALL THAT.” Now, don’t get me wrong, when she speaks, you unquestionably know a Black woman is speaking to you. She’s got that Barbara Jordan flavor. With a touch of rowdy. But her speech is hopelessly standard and amusingly-to-me does not convert to African American Vernacular English easily.

Nevertheless, my sister and I were Black girls growing up in an area so densely populated with Black folks, there were probably only two non-Black students at my high school. We also were growing up in the Atlanta metropolitan area, an area that for many Black children often carries with it a thick, heavy dialect—a twang of dropped final consonant sounds and chained words most familiar to anyone who’s ever listened to the Ying Yang Twins, Ghetto Mafia or Outkast (though Andre 3000, Big Boi and Katt have somewhat lighter accents than the first two groups).

I moved to Atlanta from Michigan when I was in the second grade. It was like moving to a foreign country. I couldn’t understand what most of the kids were saying to me. The dialect and accent was so unfamiliar to my midwestern Standard American English ears. Nevertheless, I adapted. And like most Black people in America, I learned to code-switch.

Code-switching is the linguistic behavior of switching back and forth between two or more dialects of a language, that switch often dictated by the social and linguistic environment of the speaker in any given moment. For me as a child, that meant Standard American English when speaking to the teacher or my mother and African American Vernacular English when speaking to my Black friends.

Black people don’t all possess the ability to code-switch with ease (or sometimes at all) for various reasons. But for most code-switching Black folks, we instinctively know when and where to speak what. We do it without even thinking. We don’t usually speak the wrong one in the wrong place…not as Black people living in a white supremacist society where social, educational and financial opportunities are gatekept by institutions that resoundingly declare in policy and practice “the whiter, the righter.” For many Black people who colorfully and effortlessly move between “isn’t” and “ain’t,” “about to” and “finna,” “sure is” and “shol is,” “threatening me is not advisable” and “run up and get done up.” code-switching is not a matter of shame for one’s own cultural dialect or racial identity. It’s a matter of survival.

That being said, and being raised fluent in the politics of how to move in and out of white spaces as successfully as possible, I don’t usually make the “mistake” of speaking African American Vernacular English in front of who my college friend used to call “the cousins” (i.e., white people). To do so is, indeed, ingrained in most of us to be quite the noir faux pas.

But one day I found myself submerged in that casually anti-Black cesspool that is graduate school. The relentless onslaught of microaggressions, covert acts of racism and class “discussion” attacks. One class after another. One week after another. One semester after another. And for the first time in my life, my code-switcher malfunctioned. Chronically.

Well, what had had happened was my subconscious accessed my dialectal and lexical repertoire for a way, any way, to push back against the white supremacy that was threatening to break my spirit—that was declaring every day that my blackness didn’t belong there even in spite of possessing social, educational and professional white societal markers of achievement that they couldn’t even dream of obtaining. That code-switching malfunction? I sincerely believe it was my mind’s way of asserting the equality of what they were trying to denigrate, of who I am—Black—by making that small (but not so small) cultural indicator take up space in an environment that does not welcome its presence.

And thus it goes; you’ll notice in my writing, in many of my tweets or articles, that I often move back and forth between African American Vernacular English and Standard American English. I realize now that when I do this, I do this as a form of resistance. As a rejection of the white supremacist rule of custom that dictates what words, what language, what forms of speech and communication are worthy, deemed acceptable, a reflection of intelligence. This didn’t begin as a conscious decision on my part. In fact, it began as an unconscious act of self-preservation.

African American Vernacular English (AAVE) is not just “slang.” It isn’t an accent, though both slang and a regional accent are generally to some extent part and parcel of AAVE. It’s not Standard American English with mistakes. Rather, AAVE is considered a dialect of Standard American English (SAE), and some even argue that it is a derivative language unto itself.

While obtaining my degree in speech and language pathology from Northwestern University, I remember writing a research paper on the similarities of African American Vernacular English-Standard American English bidialectal speakers and their functional linguistic similarities to Standard American English-Spanish bilinguals. I know that’s a mouthful. Here’s the takeaway: The most amazing thing I learned in that process was that the code-switching behavior done by Black people when switching between AAVE and SAE is linguistically almost identical to when a bilingual person switches between two totally different languages. And get this: Research suggests that the same way bilingualism strengthens certain areas of cognitive functioning, AAVE-SAE bidialectalism can, too.

So, why is this? Well, AAVE is a dialect governed by language rules, and it has real functional social purpose. That’s why Black people can always tell when “others” are imitating us or for whom the dialect is not natural or native. You can’t fake this funk. There is a wrong way to speak it. It is a legitimate spoken language.

When working with children in the capacity of a speech-language therapist, I never “correct” them if the speech used is AAVE. The speech and language of the dialect is not wrong. It’s different. I always explain this distinction to my students. I tell them, “It’s a good thing that you speak AAVE. It’s not wrong. So, what I’m going to teach you is not the “right” way to speak. I’m going to teach you another way to say the same thing, so you can meet the expectations of other environments. But hold on to the way that you speak, okay? It would probably be strange if all of a sudden you started speaking this other way in certain areas in your neighborhood or with certain friends. So, I’m gonna help you do both.”

Then, I usually show them I can speak both ways, too.

So, when all of a sudden, their high-end education-having, distinguished-sounding, SAE-speaking instructor busts out with, “Look here, we ain’t gon’ be havin’ no pro’lems outta nobody. Y’all gon’ be chill, and it’s all love, y’feel me?” Then, they be lookin’ at me like, “Bet. Let’s learn.”

But please don’t misinterpret that anecdote. It’s not necessary that students’ educators speak AAVE. What is necessary is that adults respect AAVE-speaking children when they do. Don’t impose SAE on children (or anyone for that matter) when it isn’t necessary. If they’re speaking to each other in class, leave ‘em alone. (And you for dang sure bet’ not mock their speech, ‘cause that would be monumentally ignorant on your part and racist as all get-out.)

This is where teachers of all races get their attitude and actions all WRONG in terms of shaping children’s speech into the standard. The way they speak is valid. And speech is a part of CULTURE.

They can’t receive from teachers trying to exterminate one of the most critical, basic tenets of any culture—their language/dialect—telling them a part of who they are is wrong; an error. Because it’s not. There’s something in the soul that will resist that. Even when I’ve had academic sessions with all Hispanic students, I have them start each session teaching me a word in Spanish. I take the time to pronounce it and ask if I’m saying it correctly. I keep saying it, submitting it to them for their approval until I get it right. That’s how I get them to buy-in to learning from me: humbling myself by becoming the student, validating their experience and their culture in just that small gesture.

I’ve heard one Speech-Language Pathologist comment that she describes this dialectal difference to her students as “neighborhood talking” versus “school talking”. I personally would not use this language to describe AAVE. One, because to call it “neighborhood talking” trivializes a dialect formed over the course of hundreds of years across the United States. Two, it ignores the fact that AAVE is culturally bound, recognized and spoken by Black people the world over, everywhere American Black culture has been exported. Three, everyone’s neighborhood is different and very well may contain people of various cultures, including white and other non-Black people who likely don’t speak or put forth the effort to understand African American Vernacular English. And four, to distinguish AAVE as “neighborhood talking” and SAE as “school talking” is to reinforce colonialized school curricula and the white supremacist position that Black culture is inferior to the “standard”, and by extension, that neither Black culture nor Black children belong in the educational setting.

Further, there are, indeed, countless occasions or situations in any AAVE-speaking Black child’s neighborhood where it could be advantageous or even socially demanded that they speak Standard American English. Police stops immediately come to mind…

Nevertheless, Standard American English is no more valid than African American English.

As mentioned in the “Mouthing Off” episode of the television series, How The States Got Their Shapes, before the advent of national telephone, radio and television service, not even white Americans realized the full breadth of the accents or variations of American English. It was when technological advancements made it possible for White Bob in Wisconsin to hear White Suzy in New York speak right in his own living room that the general [White] American public became aware in a widespread way that everyone didn’t sound the same. (Keep in mind, there was no internet and traveling cross country was not as easy or accessible for everyone as it is now.) Most people of any race don’t speak “proper” English. What is considered “proper” (wrong term, by the way) or “standard” is completely arbitrary and a function of white power. From “Kill the Indian in him, and save the man” Native American forced assimilation through White schooling to the present.

To remove or inferiorate the language, the cultural vehicle, for communication of a people is cultural genocide. And it behooves educators, the general public and Black folks that love to swim in the pool of respectability to remember that.

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Invisibly disabled at the intersection of marginalized identities

I knew something was wrong long before I was diagnosed. I was gaining weight. I was reasonably active or at least maintaining a certain level of activeness. I was a healthy eater. I didn’t fry anything but an egg and rarely that. I didn’t eat canned foods. I made baked goods with almond meal and smoothies with only soy milk and agave nectar. I sautéed my kale with fresh mango slices. And I was gaining weight. Continually.

Then I noticed I was budgeting energy the same way one figures out how long can their last $5 last them and on what. I don’t even know when it began. Just one day I realized that I was daily mentally negotiating: If I take a shower now, then I won’t have enough strength to get dressed and go to work. Gotta pick one or the other.

I’d go to bed at night. Sleep all night. A full night. Wake up in the morning. And within an hour or two, I was so sleepy, so exhausted, it felt like I had not slept at all. A tiredness deep in my bones that I can only liken to my last-week-of-full-term-pregnancy-with-an-eight-pound-baby-sitting-low-in-my-uterus tired. Every. Frigging. Day.

Something was definitely wrong.

The first folks to teach me that nobody gave a flip about signs of chronic illness in a Black woman’s body were the good doctors I saw at a west suburban Chicago hospital. I went specifically because of the weight gain. That was the red flag, oddly enough, that concerned me the most.

See, I was born with a congenital knee defect. I wore braces on my legs as a baby and walked fine, but somewhere around puberty, my knees started slipping out of place. After my father got me in to a specialist at The Shriner’s Hospital, I was given big shiny blue metal Forrest Gump leg braces and told to stop doing all the cool flexible stuff I could do with my legs because it was making it harder for my ligaments to remain tight enough to hold my knees in place. My teenage self, as can be expected, was not very gung-ho for these recommendations. And unfortunately, my knees never stopped slipping out of place and became even less stable anytime I regularly exercised. Then there was the little problem of not being able to breathe when exerting myself beyond walking due to damage from second-hand smoke as a child. And the thing about breathing is, it’s incredibly essential to being able to exercise.

That’s why the continual weight gain caused me the most alarm. Something was causing me to gain weight that had nothing to do with my actions or inaction, and if it continued, I knew my body literally could not engage in the very activities that could reverse the weight gain; i.e., lots of aerobic exercise.

So back to those good doctors at that hospital in Chicago. I came in. I explained the issue—that I had a job that kept me physically active, I had a healthy diet, never really ate junk food or very large portions, and I was incredibly concerned that I was continually gaining weight for what appeared to be no reason at all.

He processed nothing I said. He looked at my melanin and my Medicaid and decided that I was a poor Black fried chicken- and hog maws-eating caricature of an ignorant Aunt Jemima. To his admonishment that I not eat fried foods and change my diet and get exercise, I responded to the 400-pound White male doctor, “Sir. I can almost guarantee you that I eat healthier than you do. I already eat healthy. That’s why I’m here. I’m gaining weight, and it doesn’t make sense because of my diet and activity.” (And I mention his weight here not as fat shaming, but because: irony. So much hypocritical irony.)

Feeling desperate, I continued to list off my other troubling symptoms. He proceeded to tell me that he was writing me a prescription. He had run no tests. Taken no diagnostics. Done no due diligence. Ignored all patient history. And was writing me a prescription. He saw my melanin and my Medicaid and assumed I had not the education nor exposure to know what he was prescribing. He was wrong. I have a degree from Northwestern University and a career in a field that works closely with other disciplines such as medical physicians, psychiatrists and social workers. I work extensively with individuals with developmental disabilities and mental illness diagnoses. I knew what the prescription was. It was a psychotropic medication. And I knew the potential side effects included severe disruptions in psychological function. I literally would be putting my mind on the line.

“Sir. I know this medication, and the side effects are severe. You’ve not taken any psychological evaluations. You’re prescribing it for an off-label reason. I have no problem considering the medication. But if I’m going to put myself at risk, I just need you to tell me why you’re prescribing it.” He gave me no reason. He grew irate. He left the room and returned with a White woman doctor — his supervising physician — and they proceeded to angrily scold my refusal to do whatever they said like a toddler…and lecture me in the most infantilizing racist tone about not eating fried chicken and junk food. I was neither refusing to take the medication nor did I have a diet that regularly consisted of fried foods. But when all you see is melanin and Medicaid…

I was so traumatized by that experience that I did not attempt to seek medical intervention again for quite some time. It would be another four years before I would be diagnosed with lupus, Sjogren’s syndrome and fibromyalgia. The physician that diagnosed me sat in disbelief when he asked me if the previous doctors had run this test and that test, basic tests—and the answer to them all was “No, Sir. They didn’t.”

Lupus, Sjogren’s syndrome and fibromyalgia are three of many chronic autoimmune diseases referred to as “invisible illnesses” or “invisible disabilities.” Unfortunately, my story is not an unique fluke, but rather representative of the pervasive medical misogynoir that exists in America. Think Progress reported that “patients of color also received fewer recommended treatments for chronic illness, including HIV/AIDS, cancer, and heart disease. Differences in practitioner-patient interaction played a part in widening disparities.” And is any of it any wonder when one survey of White doctors revealed that some doctors don’t even believe Black people possess the ability to feel pain as much as White bodies do?

I think, for me, I often avoid outwardly identifying as disabled because frankly, in my experience, either no one cares or it puts me at even greater risk for things like loss of employment than I already am as a Black woman, especially in my field. I’ve already got a target on my back thanks to misogynoir. Adding disabled only sharpens the visibility of the bullseye. I’m a single mom that already feels like I’m running for my life. Publically or verbally identifying as disabled rarely protects me. It usually just makes me more vulnerable.

Someone might suggest that my not typically identifying as “disabled” is a form of internalized ableism. And that may be true for some who, in essence, utilize the societal privilege inherent in having a disability that no one can readily see (or at least not be able to see on a good day; bad days are a different story). But in my life, it boils down to what I can afford to risk. I have to survive. I can’t jeopardize my ability to feed my children. So I work hard to hide it and keep a roof over our heads because jobs have no incentive to believe the alternative: that I have a disability but can still be productive.

Thus, I rarely use the term to self-identify in the world. But every day, every pain, meds, every symptom I push and struggle through or some days don’t quite make it through like I hoped to reminds me in my private thoughts that I am disabled. I want to emphasize that my experience is just that — my experience. Does every Black woman with chronic invisible illness go through these things or deal with them the way that I have? No. Are Black women by and large subjected to and harmed by a medical system and community that is too anti-Black racist to effectively help us the way their Hippocratic oath demands that they should? Yes. And we all wade through that toxic water the best we can, the best we know how, to whatever varying degrees we are individually affected. Chronic illness is hard enough. Employer and medical racism makes everything so much harder.

If this piece or this blog resonates with you, please consider a one-time “tip” or become a monthly “patron”…this space runs on love and reader support. Want more BGIM? Consider booking me to speak with your group or organization.

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