Reclaiming my Language: The (Mis)education of Wonderful

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Wonderful in High School

Wonderful in High School

When I decided, in high school, that I wanted to become an English teacher, I assumed English was about grammar. Particularly, I assumed English was about the use of proper grammar in writing. Of course, I did not want to be an English teacher because I was a Grammar Rant; I wanted to become an English teacher because I wanted, I needed African Americans to “write better.”

I saw the struggles of my African American peers, and the lack of motivation they had for writing. I also heard how they spoke outside ­ and sometimes inside ­ the classroom. They spoke what I considered at that point to be “broken English” and African American “slang.” And then they had the nerve, the unmitigated gall to write in this Black slang. I do not mean to suggest I did not speak this slang, because I did: at home, at recess, with my friends and in church. But I never would dream of speaking or even writing that way in school. What was wrong with these kids? Didn’t they get it? Didn’t they understand that if you can’t speak and write English you can’t make it in the United States? How were they going to get jobs? How were they going to have their voices heard if they kept speaking this vile, putrid, inferior form of English or rather slang?

I was insulted. I was ashamed. I was hurt. After all, White people already think African American people are foul­mouth, foul­smelling, ugly, inferior people who never seem to get “it” (whatever it is) right. Now we can’t even speak the language correctly after being here for over 400 years?

                 What was wrong with them? And in turn, what was wrong with me?

I was sure that if Black people could not speak well, write well, present themselves according to how White people designed this country, this system of education to work, then we would only reinforce negative views about us. My father always said, “Wonderful, no matter how many White friends you have, your face is always BLACK. And you will always have to do more to be considered equal.” And yet, there was something in High School I could not name. There was something that was wrong. ­ Not with my Black friends but ­with me. No matter how hard I tried, my face was “always BLACK,” and that would be the measure of me…

Wonderful in graduate school

Wonderful in graduate school

Through my journey to this “goal” of helpin’ Black folk out I realized that I was sellin’ out. I realized that I was oppressin’ my own language. A language I had come to speak in secret (at home and in my community) and despise in public (the academy). I was, for all intents and purposes, a linguistic Aunt Jemima. However, through the course of my studies, and some guidance from, oddly enough, “The Man,” I came to realize:

(1) my language is valid, complex, and filled with rich nuances I never knew existed;

(2) My language IS a part of the academy and other forms of public discourse; and

(3) I can only free myself and help other Black folk free themselves through my own language.

As Smitherman notes in her interview with Alim, “language is our identity, it is what makes us who we are… our language cannot be severed from our being in the world” (44). This linguistic double consciousness – talking White, actin’ White, and writin’ White a right peculiar way of living for Black folk. We been fightin’ this double consciousness and this troublin of our soul fo’ a long time now. The struggle for language rights fall in line wit the struggle for Black civil rights. Like Al Sharpton said, “We ain’t where we wanna be and we ain’t where we oughta be, but thank God we ain’t where we was.” But who I was make me who I am. Who am I? I Black. I woman. I lesbian.

Mama ain’t raise no fool and daddy ain’t told no lie when they said, “Wonderful, yous Black and yous female. Your only path to success through education.” But fo so long I was tryin’ to fix sumethin’ in me. Somethin’ wrong went my tongue. It was wild and couldn’t be tamed like Gloria Anzadula was talkin bout (75). I ain’t even realize I was tryin’ to cut my own tongue out. How dumb am I? My soul speaks through my language.

If I said it befo’ I done said it a thousand times: If you cain’t take the BLACK off my face you sure cain’t take the BLACK off my tongue. My language is ME and I am my language. It lives. It moves. It breathes. To kill my language is to kill me. Period. Point blank. End of story.

But Maybe some folks want me to die. That’s what happens when you kill a language. You effectively kill its people. Maybe you think I’m sposed to forget:

“If our enemies can make us forget these words, and then make us forget that we have forgotten, they will have robbed us of our ability to honor and summon our ancestors, whom we so desperately need now more than ever” (Rickford and Rickford 228).

I was almost took. Almost hoodwinked. Almost bamboozled out of my language. But While I almost forgot, almost is still not quite. And now I remember, I remember that I use Black English or rather Spoken Soul because:

“it is a language in which I feel comfortable… because it came naturally; because it was authentic… touching some time within and capturing a vital core of experience that had to be expressed just so” (Rickford and Rickford 222).

I was stuck in this linguistic push-pull, in this borderland and contact zone that is my Black body, in this tongue that is peculiar to my mind and my whole way of being. I was stuck. I was once troubled in the space between, but I done unstuck myself; done unstuck my language.

And I ain’t stuck no mo’.

About Author(s)

I am a current PhD student in the Writing, Rhetoric and American Cultures program at Michigan State University. My research centers on African American Language, African American Rhetorics, Cultural Rhetorics, and Queer Rhetorics.

3 Comments

  1. Right on! “You said that niece.” Our native language, with all it’s nuances and color, is at the base of what I am. Who I am. “Proper English” is a second language to me. I learned to speak one way at my mother’s feet and another way in Mrs. Anderson’s classroom. “I get it ” and I recognized the struggle early in life. Many of my friends could not pass a basic English class. Not because they were stupid but because in many small, rural, southern communities there was absolutely no interaction with people who spoke any differently than you did.
    My approach was a little different. I viewed my mother’s words as gospel. (Cause she ain’t neva’ lied to meh) So what I had to do was learn another language and learn to speak it better than my teachers. So I did that. It does not remove my native tongue nor does it make me despise it. ” Joe you gonna’ need to learn to talk like Johnny do.” (Beaulah Green 1968…ish) Thank you momma!
    Vernacular Pure, Uncle Joe

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