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.