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Opinion

How I learned to talk Black: Confessions of a "well-spoken" black girl

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courtesy Kinsey Clarke
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I was 11 years old, a small black child in Detroit with crooked pink glasses and a slight Michigan accent. I stood surrounded by a group of liberal, middle-aged white donors hosting a charity Christmas event for the children at my school. I fed on their attention as they benevolently smiled down at me and coaxed me on to explain what else I had planned for my future. In my naive mind I figured maybe they were impressed with my plans to become a forensic scientist. But there was something else too: I felt it as they marveled at how “eloquent” and “well-spoken” I was. It seemed that I was receiving a pat on the head for not speaking like those “other” black kids. You know the ones: the stereotypical images of Detroiters people outside of the city conjure up whenever those “poor, uneducated, inner-city youth” are the topic of discussion.

I went home that day and shared with my mother what they told me. “They said I was well-spoken,” I told her, as we stood in the kitchen making dinner. She was a small woman, but upon hearing my story she seemed to grow 10 feet. An aura of anger radiated from her core. “Next time you see them, “ my mother replied, “Ask them exactly what they meant when they said that to you, and ask if they would tell the same thing to a white girl.”

I didn't know it yet, but my sudden shift in attitude marked the beginning of the end of performing to the white gaze.

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Credit courtesy Kinsey Clarke
Kinsey Clarke

I never saw those people again, but my mother’s words still resonate with me to this day: I had been othered and placed on a pedestal because the way I spoke was more socially acceptable to those white people. It made me angry. Until I reached sixth grade, I was not exposed to the language many people casually refer to as “Black English.”  But after my exchange with what I now understand to be a microcosm for white America, I realized that I needed to speak the language of my peers – and fast. I was done being the token “safe” black child, done being the kid white liberals would call on, and put on display to show that they were progressive. I didn’t know it yet, but my sudden shift in attitude marked the beginning of the end of performing to the white gaze.

While I regularly spoke Standard English up until that point, African American Vernacular English – or AAVE, or Black English – has been a part of black life for centuries. The historical context of this dialect illustrates the tenacity of black people to retain their culture. 

Lately, it has become popular to discourage black people from using AAVE. Often it is deemed too “ghetto” or “uneducated”, and has been relegated to being the scarlet, shameful “B” on the chests of black people for daring to be overtly, unapologetically black in a society that has historically suppressed black creativity unless it can be used for mass consumption.  It is viewed by some as a mark of ignorance or an unwillingness to conform to the standards of Standard English, and therefore an unwillingness to be absorbed into the mainstream. 

But to me, Black English was necessary.

In being taught only Standard English, a barrier had been constructed between me and my peers.

In my early stages of learning AAVE, it was clear that I lacked the cultural knowledge when interacting with my black peers.  Although AAVE was not forbidden in my house, it still was not regularly spoken and my ignorance showed. I started my plan in the lunchroom; awkwardly inserting a phrase or dropping a popular song lyric around classmates in an attempt to gauge their reaction to my progress.  Usually I was met with the unforgiving sting of pre-teen laughter and scorn, but still I pressed on and although I felt an immediate disconnect from the very children I’d longed to be friends with, I would eventually create a bond with my classmates who helped me. In being taught only Standard English, a barrier had been constructed between me and my peers. It took work to overcome it, and I was tasked with the exact opposite problem that many educators complain black children have. I was experiencing culture shock in a culture that was mine.

It took years to master which sounds to drop, which inflection to use, which words had double meanings. I was learning to speak another dialect. At first I didn’t even realize when I would begin to code-switch in different social settings. In seventh grade, I left home to attend fine arts camp in the woods of west Michigan. Away at camp, I became even more aware of my two dialects: There was this pressure to conform to what white non-Detroiters thought I should sound like. This time, instead of marveling at how “eloquent” I was in my mastery of Standard English, my new white cabinmates insisted that I speak only AAVE, because I was the only black girl in our cabin. I was tired of hearing versions of, “Yo what’s up, homegirl!” from white girls who waited expectantly to see how I responded every time. I was tired of being treated like a party trick whose only function was to constantly perform for white satisfaction. Pre-teen girls are vicious with words, and I didn’t spare anyone’s feelings with my rebuttal. In that moment, I realized that, though the way I spoke was nothing to be embarrassed of, the mainstream had again taken and commodified my language and othered me because of it.

Black children are taught that as long as we speak "proper" English our quality of life will be better. But why do black children have to align themselves with whiteness in order for their lives to be considered deserving of equal opportunity?

Black children are taught that as long as we speak “proper” English our quality of life will be better. But why do black children have to align themselves with whiteness in order for their lives to be considered deserving of equal opportunity? Teaching this literally shows black children that “white is right” and that anything inherently black is wrong. The adherence to mainstream culture is not a safe haven for black children: It erases facets of the black American experience for black people while offering it as a hot commodity for non-black people to consume without consequence.

Black English is not a dialect full of mistakes, nor is it improper, and we need to teach our black children the advantages of speaking AAVE: That it is not something that they should be ashamed to speak, but that it is a piece of what creates the multifaceted black culture that they are a part of. While it is true that black children should learn the ability to switch back and forth between Standard English and AAVE, there are many children that did not – and will not – learn until later in life. It was the reversal of this kind of teaching that led to the lack of AAVE in my home growing up. Black children need to hear that we should embrace the fact that we are not a monolithic community. Instead of socializing black children into believing that there is something inherently wrong with the way they speak, we should instead work to help them realize that although mainstream society mandates that we must code switch, we do not have to lose ourselves in the process. 

Kinsey Clarke is a senior at Michigan State University, majoring in Humanities with a minor in Japanese. She no longer dreams of being a forensic scientist. She's working on her writing instead. See more of her work at kinseymclarke.tumblr.com, or follow her on Twitter @tiny_kinsey.

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