Code Switching & Identity Performance: the politics of talking black

For the progeny of slaves, English has had the dubious utility of being a key granting access, or more often than not, it has been the rhetorical device making black folks the butt of cruel jokes augmenting bitter ridicule and scorn in the psyche of America’s popular culture. From the Constitution (which asserted that black folks were three-fifths of human beings), to Thomas Jefferson’s essay, “Notes on the State of Virginia” (which advanced that blacks were of a species similar of orangutans), to novels like Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Gone With the Wind, to the minstrel shows of Amos n’ Andy and Jim Crow (which later evolved into the name of the South’s nefarious political economy of de facto slavery) to recent box office blockbuster, “Transformers,” that featured two pathetic “Hip Hop” Autobots, English has been a weapon used to castigate and assault the humanity of America’s darker demographic.


Besides this constant and consistent linguistic dehumanization project, English has also been the preferred tool used to permanently divorce Afrikan slaves and their offspring from their ancestral cultural and spiritual sensibilities. Who can forget the heart-wrenching scene in “Roots” where Kunta Kinte is beat until he concedes that his name is “Toby?” We are still dealing with those implications today as scores of black parents deliberately give their children racially-neutral (translated: conjuring an image of white) names in order to make their kids’ names appear less-threatening on a resume years later. I wonder if Oscar Grant’s mother thought his name would be racially ambiguous enough to pass the infamous “resume test?” Thanks to the Oakland Police who shot him while he was already handcuffed facedown on the pavement, we will never know… Is there a name white enough to protect black people from state-sanctioned police murders? I would guess no, but the bullet-riddled bodies of Kathryn Johnston and Sean Bell provide a more definitive answer.


Historical context of legal documents, celebrated novels and names notwithstanding, one must find it ironic that the language used to colonize and castigate a people could now serve as their litmus test pronouncing “authentic” black identity. Is this a ridiculous notion or is there something valid in the discourse of talking black vs. talking white? If this is not totally absurd, then one must inquire how English can now be a barometer of “blackness” when it historically has been the most effective tool that the West has leveraged to enslave and subjugate Afrikan peoples?


The obvious answer lies in the fluid and emergent black vernacular and dialect traditions. Generally speaking, as documented by hundreds of etymologists, linguists and other cultural scholars, no other American group has challenged and expanded the possibilities of the English language like Afrikan Americans. This peculiar wedding of English and black linguistic sensibilities (commonly referred to as Ebonics or “broken English”) can be traced directly back to slavery. Since Afrikan slaves were denied the access to read and write, they were never formally taught English. As a result, they picked up the English vocabulary through the crude conditioning of their lives and imposed an Afrikan syntax and idiom on English. This oral understanding of English has been passed down from one black generation to the next and has become the rhythmic, lyrical expression to important cultural vehicles of resistance like the spirituals, coded sermons, the blues, the vernacular poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar and Langston Hughes, the fiction of Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Wright, the speeches of Angela Davis and Malcolm X, the essays of Amiri Baraka and Todd Boyd, the films of Gordon Parks Jr. and Spike Lee, and all of rap music. Although it has been repressed and suffocated, the creative genius of our African ethos still finds life and vitality in our appropriation of English. Leroi Jones said it best in Blues People when he advanced,


It is absurd to assume, as has been the tendency, among a great many Western anthropologists and sociologists, that all traces of Africa were erased from the Negro’s mind because he learned English. The very nature of the English the Negro spoke and still speaks drops the lie on that idea.


Although many black folk celebrate and practice black vernacular and dialect, there are a large number of Negroes who do not. Unfortunately, for many of the reasons outlined in the beginning of this article, many black folks are ashamed of their history of oppression. In an attempt to erase these markers of shame, many Negroes bent on dogged mainstream (translated: white) assimilation despise all traces of their Afrikan ancestry. I once knew a black girl who said her father’s self-hate was so intense that he would punish her if she spoke slang or that “street coon talk” in his home. “Respectable people speak proper English,” he would go on to add. I guess that would be the English of Thomas Jefferson or any of the other slaveholding founding fathers that assigned subhuman features to us…


While I would never assert that English (or anything else for that matter) is a litmus for racial identity, I do find value in the discourse of talking black vs. talking white which is really a commentary on the politics exploring the loaded nexus of space, race, identity performance and access. And like it or not, all black folk in America must admit that this conversation has serious and far-reaching implications for us on a daily basis. 

14 Comments to ‘Code Switching & Identity Performance: the politics of talking black’:

  1. Toya on 27 Sep 2009 at 6:41 pm: 1

    Olokun Olugbala does it again!

  2. Neil on 27 Sep 2009 at 8:51 pm: 2

    Olukun – As an Englishman who speaks what we back home refer to as “the Queens English” – I found your peice excellent. I love language and words – the nuances of how we use words in different ryhmes – and at different times – is as elegant and remarkable as the human species. And though I speak ‘the Queens English’ – I am fascinated by the variations of my native tongue. English is considered the ‘dominant’ language of the world – not because it is the best language – not at all, in many ways it is clunky and ugly – but because it is the most used language among industrial nations. For this reason perhaps more than any other, it is the language that many tried to adopt (or conform to) to be as widely understood and to widely understand. This isn’t a defense of the English Language – not at all – English was forced upon many nations as England grew its empire in previous centuries – but language is that common bond and common form of connectivity that we use as a vessel to reach out to others. I wish we could all learn multiple languages – so that we could celebrate the beauty and individual nature of various tongues. One last note – English is also a jealous language, eagerly absorbing other tongues into itself to grow and permeate the world. The number of words that are derived from the elegant, but difficult, Latin language, is impressively large. Thanks for article and giving us all something to think about.

  3. Everyday sister on 28 Sep 2009 at 5:36 am: 3

    Important article that brings to light many things that we deal with. I can’t help but think about interview situations. Everytime I answer a question with my “proper voice” I feel like I’m selling myself out.

  4. drewcipher108 on 28 Sep 2009 at 11:02 am: 4

    Masterfully written. Good article especially considering that WORDS create our reality.

  5. Twan on 28 Sep 2009 at 11:27 am: 5

    Fantastic brother! As mentioned in a previous comment, our words create our reality. Considering that we are all beings of thought, and our words are our expression of thought, then our WORDS truly define our EXISTENCE. What then can we say about the fact that a power other than our own provides and defines the words of Black Americans? Delicious food for thought Olokun

  6. GM on 28 Sep 2009 at 8:21 pm: 6

    I think talking white and talking black are really crude oppositions.

    what you mean by talking black seems to mean a certain kind of african american slang–thus leaving out all sorts of black people who don’t fit the narrow view of talking black. same can be said of talking white. my father talked west side of chicago slang, but when he went to work he spoke “standard english,” which at the time signified “middle class white.” the working class often doesn’t talk like the bosses–but sometimes they talk similarly since languages mix, and in the u.s., since there isn’t real equality, there can be linguistic equality, with everyone speaking slangs and code switiching.

    the self hatred issue must be opposed. if indeed this is self hatred and not also just class prejudice. but this doesn’t license any kind of tacit “authentic” way of talking (I know you were reaching in this latter direction, but..)

    and who really cares that you don’t speak the language of your ancestors? You speak english in its diverse forms quite effectively. the real crime is lack of literacy not whether or not you speak your ancestor’s tongue.

    I am in favor of “tribal languages” becoming written language. this likely allows any language to develop in directions that facilitate more flexible communication.

    anyway, watch out for that culturalism!!

  7. Z on 28 Sep 2009 at 9:09 pm: 7

    This is a great topic but how about something along the lines of the link below….

    WTF angers a person so much that they can do shit like this to another human being?

    Do explain….

  8. Pierce on 29 Sep 2009 at 9:35 am: 8

    We talked about this in my class the other day, when I played them your poem, “Who Remembers the Names of Slaves”. It was crazy because many of my students still call their own names, “improper” as if it’s inappropriate to have a name that reflects a black identity. It’s crazy how these things still effect us today.

    In school you’re ridiculed by teachers (and by adults in the community) who hear you use “slang”. There’s the ever-present pressure to assimilate. Not only for African Americans to surpress their language, identity or hair styles (schools care more about your son’s braids than they care for his grades – Nas, “Why Remix”) but also for latino, hispanic and LGBT communities as well.

  9. Pierce on 29 Sep 2009 at 9:35 am: 9

    Excellent commentary by the way, brother Olokun.

  10. Elijah on 30 Sep 2009 at 2:26 am: 10

    I think Malcom X even asserted the notion, in order to effectively assert our will, we have to adapt to the western vernacular.. Great Food for thought dude. Just don’t revert back to calling guys lobster heads with guns drawn on you lol!!

  11. MFL on 2 Oct 2009 at 4:21 pm: 11

    Well-written piece on an issue that does need more play.

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  13. Anonymous on 24 Nov 2009 at 11:03 pm: 13

    This blog, like most of your other rants (I checked them), is almost as problematic and contradictory as it is baseless. “Ancestral cultural sensibilites”? Seriously? Does that mean that language somehow ties us to dead folks from long ago? A 10-second course in linguistics would demonstrate the fact that we don’t speak the same language that we did 10 years ago, much less 100 years ago. Language is ever-evolving, and it is tied to environmental experiences/constraints. When you get home from your Black Panther Revival Google Whorf’s linguistic relativity hypothesis. You might learn something.

    Secondly, meaningless terms like “black linguistic sensibilities” may impress your BET-nursed buddies, since it is based (I suppose, since you didn’t explain) on the assumption that “Black” language is somehow different than “white”. Well, my well-intentioned friend, riddle me this: If a Black woman was born deaf, and learned ASL, would she sign based on some “black linguistic sensibility”? GTFOH.

    And shame on you for being so arrogant as to use the name of Oscar Grant (and his mother, mind you) to illustrate such a nonsensical point. Your linkage of resume-friendly names to terrorism was extremely embarrasing.

    Seems to me that in rushing to get to blackness you forgot to pack your humanity. I doubt very seriously that you could produce a single authentic claim to Africa besides your artificial African name and your artificial enthusiasm for African shit. You can call your brothers and sisters all the names you like (e.g. negro) but at the end of the day it is still your self-hatred that speaks loudest.

    Nevermind the fact that (according to your bio) you yourself are actively chasing an english degree (technically Ph.D. is latin). Has it occured to you that humans are born with the neural capacity to speak multiple languages? If any one language was a “dehumanizing project” why is that any human of any so-called “race” can speak (and master) any number of languages with proper exposure? You fail to produce a single shred of evidence that might even hint at the possibility that english is maladaptive. Your own eloquence and mastery of the language illustrates this point.

    If this blog is indicative of what you know about the nature of language, may I humbly suggest that you stick to dividing people up into the arbitrary little pre-fabricated boxes that your television has provided you with…you’re good at it.

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Published on September 27, 2009 at 3:06 pm. 14 Comments.
Filed under academia,black culture,black image,mainstream culture,popular culture.