When I was in third grade, a friend asked me one day: “Why you talk like that?” Confused, I asked for clarification. “Like you white,” she explained. “Why you talk white? Black people ain’t s’posed to talk like that.” If you are an African American who grew up in the inner city and happened to speak proper English, you likely had a similar conversation at some point in your life.
My grandmother was at my house to greet us after school that day, as my mother wouldn’t get off work until a few hours later. “Grandma,” I started out nervously. “Why do we talk like white people? We are supposed to talk like black people.” My grandmother whipped her attention away from the food on the stove and fixed me with an intense look. “Don’t you ever let me hear you say that again,” she snapped. “We all speak English. Some folks just have lazier tongues than others.” Throughout my school years, I was accused of being a “sellout” or “trying to be white” for speaking proper English. At least I was until I started hitting the weights in the gym at school.
During the era of slavery, blacks were not permitted to be educated. There were some who quietly learned to read and write, but most were illiterate. The slaves who were first brought to America did not speak English, and learned it only after arriving here. With English not being their native tongue, the language as it was passed down to their children was poor and broken. My parents were not slaves, nor were my grandparents or great-grand parents. However, my great-great grandparents were slaves. That is probably the case for many other African Americans in my age group.
The fact that we are so many generations removed from slavery makes it difficult to understand why we still insist on speaking in slave dialect. Some will say that the education offered in city schools is substandard compared to the education offered in suburban schools. Having had the opportunity to do an exchange with one of the suburban schools during my senior year in high school, I can confirm that the resources available to us in the city were certainly inferior. Our teachers did they best they could with what they had, and I will never dispute that. Not only did they have poor resources to contend with, they had our environment to struggle with. But they all spoke proper English, and attempted to teach us to do the same.
Poorly spoken English is an incessant dilemma in the inner city, because parents tend to teach their children what they are comfortable with. Not only are we guilty of passing down bad grammar, the notion of equating proper sentence structure with “selling out” is also perpetuated. But my question is this: How far do you go to avoid “acting white”? In addition to speaking in slave dialect, is there a dress code requirement? And if you choose to become educated beyond high school, is that an affront to your blackness? I am not sure where this backwards way of thinking may have originated, I only know that it appears to get worse with each generation instead of improving. That is painfully obvious when scrolling through social media feeds and attempting to read posts that are purposely misspelled and grammatically incorrect.
With slavery having officially ended so many years ago, we can’t continue to fall on it as an excuse for our linguistic sloth. I am not saying that we should disregard that atrocity of slavery and the affect it still has on us as a people. I could write a hundred blog posts detailing the sense of inferiority that we undeniably still suffer from. Remembering our history and learning from it is paramount to our continued advancement. We shouldn’t ever forget where we came from, but we cannot take up permanent residence there.