On Being Told I Don’t Speak Like a Black Person – Allison Joseph

On Being Told I Don’t Speak Like a Black Person

ALLISON JOSEPH [B. 1967]

Emphasize the “h,” you hignorant ass,
was what my mother was told
when colonial-minded teachers
slapped her open palm with a ruler
in that Jamaican school room.
trained in England, they tried
to force their pupils to speak
like Eliza Doolittle after
her transformation, fancying themselves
British as Henry Higgins,
despite dark, sun-ripened skin.
Mother never lost her accent,
though, the music of her voice
charming everyone, an infectious lilt
I can imitate, not duplicate.
No one in the States told her
to eliminate the accent,
my high school friends adoring
the way her voice would lift
when she called me to the phone.
A-ll-i-son, it’s friend Cathy.
Why don’t you sound like her?
they’d ask. I didn’t sound
like anyone or anything,
no grating New York nasality,
no fastidious British mannerisms
like the ones my father affected
when he wanted to sell someone
something. And I didn’t sound
like a Black American,
college acquaintances observed,
sure they knew what a black person
was supposed to sound like.
Was I supposed to sound lazy,
dropping syllables here, there,
not finishing words but
slurring the final letter so that
each sentence joined the next,
sliding past the listener?
Were certain words off limits,
too erudite, too scholarly
for someone with a natural tan?
I asked what they meant,
and they stuttered, blushed,
said you know, Black English,
applying what they’d learned
from that semester’s text.
Does everyone in your family
speak alike?, I’d question
and they’d say don’t take this the
wrong way, nothing personal.

Now I realize there’s nothing
more personal than speech,
that I don’t have to defend
how I speak, how any person,
black, white, chooses to speak.
Let us speak. Let us talk
with the sounds of our mothers
and fathers still reverberating
in our minds, wherever our mothers
or fathers come from:
Arkansas, Belize, Alabama,
Brazil, Aruba, Arizona.
Let us simply speak
to one another,
listen and prize the inflections,
differences, never assuming
how any person will sound
until her mouth opens,
until his mouth opens,
greetings familiar
in any language.

One of the most interesting things that I have come to consider while reading our course texts under the lens of transnationalism is the ways in which language functions as something greater than simply a means of communication. In this poem by Allison Joseph (as in much, if not all, of the literature that we have read), the poet’s lack of conformity to one particular type of linguistic community is bound inextricably with the experience of being the child of immigrants, of being multi-racial, of always existing in a sphere somewhat separate from the space occupied, whether that separation be real or imagined. Unable to personally identify with the cadence of her mother’s lilting Jamaican accent, traditionally “Black” American vernacular, or any other type of speech associated with a community she feels even marginally a part of, Joseph writes, “I didn’t sound / like anyone or anything.”

To begin the poem’s second stanza, Joseph asserts, “Now I realize there’s nothing / more personal than speech,” a proclamation that, to me, succinctly articulates one of the main themes of our course: how the process of crafting identity – whether personal or collective – cannot be separated from modes of linguistic expression; how language itself becomes crystallized as a signifier of personhood. Yet if there is nothing more personal than speech, then how is someone who sounds like nobody and nothing meant to situate their existence within a larger context of culture, nation, history, heritage, etc.? Does the deeply personal nature of language and speech preclude any sort of shared experience of a “third-culture language”? Or does the absence of a recognizable linguistic identity itself offer a foundation upon which to forge a new collective understanding of the diasporic self? What do you think?

– Isabella Mckinley-Corbo

3 thoughts on “On Being Told I Don’t Speak Like a Black Person – Allison Joseph”

  1. Hi Isa! I’m digging the way you relate linguistic expression to the different modes of identity that arise out of diasporic and transnational experiences. I’m especially fascinated by this sentence: “If there is nothing more personal than speech, then how is someone who sounds like nobody and nothing meant to situate their existence within a larger context of culture, nation, history, heritage, etc.?” It reminds me of the line in Walcott’s “Schooner,” “I have Dutch, nigger, and English in me / Either I’m nobody, or I’m a nation” (346). On the one hand, both these subjects, Joseph and the narrator of the Schooner, have heritages and vernaculars that are distinct, not only from their parents but also from everyone around them. On the other hand, they have also inherited specific linguistic attributes from communities around the world. Are these varied linguistic attributes, which exclude transnational subjects from truly falling under one accent or literary style, enough to situate them to the geographical spaces that contribute to their identities? Or are we transnational subjects truly placeless, nobodies? I’d love to chat about this and hear more about what you think! – Xanthe

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  2. Your question “Or does the absence of a recognizable linguistic identity itself offer a foundation upon which to forge a new collective understanding of the diasporic self?” made me wonder whether such a thing could be achievable, whether there could be a world where national/cultural linguistics are non-existent only to leave room for unidentifiable ways of speaking, still unique but free from a contextual and cultural signifier. Or would this foundation be uniform? Joseph says “Let us simply speak/to one another,/listen and prize the inflections,/differences”. Thus, she seems to be praising the differences, to claim that the collective understanding is meant to be within unique and different accents, tones, inflections. Since these accents, tones and inflections are slowly shifting away from identification, does this mean that new cultural communities should be created? Or does this mean that one is wearing his or her own linguistic identity as a flagship for multiple nations/communities? I was once told that language is not completely lost as long as it is changing… So does this mean that this change is positive and represents the evolution of language? All I have are questions, following reading this post, but I am so intrigued by the subject and questions you have raised.
    -Andreanne

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  3. I love this notion of a linguistic identity, which cannot be pinned down to any one nationality or culture. We are often so quick to associate language with nationality or foreignness–someone is heard speaking Chinese so he or she must inevitably be from China. Yet, so often language becomes much more than a national signifier, for a person may speak many different languages or speak one of many dialects within a certain language. Language is never as black-and-white as we often make it out to be, for just as nations are composed of various cultures and identities, languages have the potential for infinite variations as well. Especially due to globalization, languages have become especially cross-influential, combining words, dialects, and accents from a range of different places. In this way, a person’s speech may indicate his or her cultural background, or perhaps become much more individualized, a mixture of many different influences that inevitably shape one’s identity throughout one’s life. In Joseph’s poem, she states that “there is nothing more personal than speech,” for even one’s language always cannot indicate exactly where one comes from or who one’s ancestors were; rather it combines all these influences to create a speech that is incredibly unique to each person. This is such a great question to examine in terms of transnationalism!

    Audrey

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