“Could you talk a little more ‘Black’?” – White theatre director at my first professional acting audition

“Why you talkin all white?” – Black classmate of mine in Jr. High School

“Two things everbody’s got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin’ fuh theyselves” – Zora Neal Hurston (“Their Eyes Were Watchin’ God”)

Senator Harry Reid has come under fire with calls for his resignation due to a racial comment he made in private, but was recounted in “Game Change”. During the 2008 presidential election, Reid was quoted as saying that Barack Obama would probably be successful as a candidate because he was “a light-skinned” African-American “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.” Well geez! Me and countless, and I do mean countless, other African-Americans said the same thing! Because we’re racist? No. It’s out of an awareness of the social climate we live in, and what facilitates success in a racialized America (by racialized, I mean race consciousness, not racist). 

  As a student enrolled in Carnegie Mellon University’s Theatre program, students were required to take voice and speech classes. Because the program was dedicated to training students who could perform the Classics, i.e. Shakespeare, Checkov, Moliere, the Greeks, we went through arduous training to not only learn other dialects, but also to unlearn any regional dialects we may have brought with us. The idea was that if we students were to perform the classics with our “native” dialects, some from Brooklyn “Nu Yawk”, England, Latin America, Texas, Russia, well… no one would really accept us as authentically living in the worlds we were trying to portray on the stage. We would lose credibility. As a foundation, we were all taught “Standard American English” (which most Americans do not even speak). Some African-American students resented being “stripped” of their dialect which they saw as a part of their cultural identity, and saw it as an attempt by “The Man” to coerce them into assimilating into “White” culture. Actually, it was a service to us (I am an African-American) by making us more  skilled in our chosen field. We understood the distinctives of black dialect, even if not all of the African-American students spoke in it.

Although I’m disappointed that people equate “Black english” with a lack of intelligence, nevertheless, there is such a dialect, and in many circles, no one who speaks poorly, or has a poor use of proper english, is seen as highly intelligent, fair or not (and it is unfortunate). And yet, there is a need to connect to the masses, on their terms and in their vernacular, or as Paul the Apostle has said: “To be all things to all people, that you may win some.”  The truth is most of us, Black people included, know that not all Blacks speak in “black english”, and so does Senator Reid, and that some do. That there are some who use “proper” english, and some who can do both when necessary. Reid simply acknowledged this fact, which only highlights the silliness of pretending we don’t know what Reid is talking about when he speaks of a “black” dialect. I for one, as well as many African- Americans I spoke with during the presidential campaign, commented on how Obama would go in and out of his “Black-cent” based on the audience and the message he wanted to send. So, attacking Reid for saying out loud what we were already thinking (Come on, admit it), is hypocritical. 

African-American conservative John McWhorter (due to the subject of the post, I’m intentionally pointing out ethnicity to show diversity of thought on this issue), a scholar, author, and linguist, who is fluent in five different languages (including “black english” I suppose ;-0), had this to say about the Harry Reid controversy: 

“In mentioning that Obama doesn’t speak in “dialect,” Reid acknowledged something many blacks are hot and quick to point out, that not all black people use Black English. Okay, they don’t – and Reid knows. He didn’t seem surprised that Obama can not sound black when he talks – he was just pointing out that Obama is part of the subset of blacks who can. He knows there is such a subset. Lesson learned. Indeed Reid implied that black dialect is less prestigious than standard, such that not speaking it made Obama more likely to become President. That is, he implied what we all think too: Black English is, to the typical American ear, warm, honest — and mistaken. If that’s wrong, okay – but since when are most Americans, including black ones, at all shy about dissing Black English? And who among us — including black people — thinks someone with what I call a “black-cent” who occasionally popped up with double negatives and things like aks could be elected President, whether it’s fair or not? Reid, again, deserves no censure for what he said unless we’re ready to censure ourselves too.”

You can read John McWhorter’s article here: http://www.tnr.com/blog/john-mcwhorter/reids-three-little-words-the-log-our-own-eye

Peace,

Ron

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