American Literature in the World

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