JOHN MCWHORTER JANUARY 9, 2010
To rake Harry Reid over the coals about his “no Negro dialect” comment will bring to mind the Biblical passage about trying to take a speck out of someone’s eye when you’ve got a log in your own. Pretty much all of America black and white feels exactly the way Harry Reid does about the way black people talk – and aren’t even worried about saying it out loud.
First of all, we need not pretend that by “Negro dialect” Reid meant the cartoon minstrel talk of Amos n Andy. After all, why would Reid, a rational human being under any analysis, be under the impression that any black person talks like Uncle Remus, much less be surprised that one of them does not? My guess is that he said “negro” in a passing attempt to name Black English in a detached, professional way, randomly choosing a slightly arcane and outdated term. Or, consider that Negro English was what scholars called “Ebonics” until the early seventies. Reid likely caught wind of that terminology -- he's been around a while, after all.
Second, yes there is a such thing as Black English. Sometimes one hears a claim that Black English is the same as white Southern English. We must always beware of stereotyping and be open to the counterintuitive, but here is an instance where we can trust our senses: there is a “black sound.” It’s not just youth slang: it’s sentence patterns – Why you ain’t call me? (not a white Southernism, notice) – and a “sound,” such that you’d know Morgan Freeman was black even if he were reading the phone book. The combination is what we all feel – with uncanny accuracy even without seeing faces, as linguists have found – as “sounding black.” Of course not all blacks speak Black English or have The Sound, and those that do (which is most) do to varying extents. But they do. That’s what Reid meant, we all know it, and it’s okay to know it.
Third: Reid’s comment suggests that he associates Black English with lack of polish and low intelligence, okay. But before we burn him in effigy for it or ask “What’s that all about?” as if we don’t know, let’s admit that most Americans feel like Reid does. He wasn’t being a benighted “racist” holdout; he was speaking as an ordinary American person. We have caught him in nothing we don’t most of us feel ourselves.
It’s a love/hate relationship we have with black speech. On the one hand we associate it with emotional honesty, vernacular warmth, and sex – Marvin Gaye would not have had a hit with “Why Don’t We Venture to Consummate Our Relationship?” or even “Let’s Have Sex” instead of “Let’s Get It On.” Yet it’s not a dialect – a sound – that we associate with explaining Greek verbs or cosines or engaging in complex reasoning. Black English sounds cool, and even hot, and maybe “sharp” – but note that sharp is what you call someone who you wouldn’t necessarily expect to be smart ... and who you don’t actually think is all that smart.
That’s a shame because Black English is as systematic as standard English, and what we hear as “mistakes” are just variations, not denigrations. Try telling a French person that double negatives are “illogical.” The “unconjugated” be in a sentence like Folks be tryin’ it out is used in a very particular way to indicate habits rather than current events, making explicit something that standard English leaves to context.
But in the real world, it’s very hard to hear it that way. You can get a sense of it with linguistic training or curling up with books like these by Stanford’s John Rickford and U. Mass Amherst’s Lisa Green, but otherwise, Black English will always sound to most people like mistakes, in all of its warmth. As we also feel about Southern “hick” grammar – race is not the only factor here. In both cases we spontaneously demote a dialect born in illiteracy. It’s a weird intersection: speech born in illiteracy is not “broken.” The most “primitive” society’s languages are the ones that are the most complicated; often the backwater dialects of a language are harder than the standard – out in the sticks in Bulgaria there are often three ways to say the instead of one.
That’s all very nice, but real life is that Harry Reid hears black speech as lowly. But – so do black people as often as not. In 1996 during the Oakland Ebonics controversy, black people were laughing as loud as anyone at the idea that “Ebonics” is “a language.” Or, over the transom recently I got a copy of a presentation that James Meredith, who was the first black person admitted to the University of Mississippi and caught hell for it physically and emotionally, nowadays gives to young black audiences. On the first page, Meredith spells it out:
BLACK ENGLISH LANGUAGE
PROPER ENGLISH LANGAGE
Which one do you use? Most people in this room use a lot of Black English and a little Proper English.
Anyone who wants to become an intellectual giant must learn and use a lot of Proper English and as little Black English as possible.
I am not going to argue with anyone about the matter. You can do what you want to do.
However, I will tell you that anyone who continues to use a lot of Black English will never become an intellectual giant.
So, Meredith would surely hear it as a plus that Obama has no trace of what a man of his years likely has been known to call, in all seriousness, Negro dialect.
Fourth: Reid’s feelings about Black English are likely couched in a thoroughly compassionate position. Here’s a guess, based on what I have heard countless people of all colors say:
“Black people use bad grammar so much because they were brought here as slaves and denied education. The bad grammar holds on today because too many blacks still have bad schooling, and they pass it down the generations. They would be best off if society allowed them the education and opportunities to get rid of their bad grammar. It’s not their fault.”
There are all kinds of things that are off here, if we are inclined to go pointy-headed. Humans can be bidialectal as easily as bilingual and can speak standard as well as Black English (which Obama does, and as Reid acknowledged); the dialect is now felt as a cultural hallmark within a richly ambivalent yet loving sense of its being "ungrammatical," albeit often unconsciously; and so on. But most of this is for seminars. Back to, as always, real life. I know so very many black people who would agree with the above hypothetical quotation from Reid -- many of them deeply dedicated in assorted ways to black uplift. Are they immoral? Do they hate their own people? No – upon which we can give Harry Reid a break.
Fifth: We have to really listen to what Reid said instead of getting carried away over the tangy, backwards flavor of the one word “Negro.” 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.
Inevitably there will be reminiscences of Joe Biden’s comment about Obama being “articulate.” I’m less politic on that term as applied to black people who have no reason not to be articulate. A recent favorite: someone writing me a letter about one of my Teaching Company set of lectures on linguistics praised me for “enjoying yourself up there so confidently speaking standard English” – as if I have to take a deep breath and “wield” standard English and feel like I'm a pretty special fella for being able to, with my “native” ghetto inflections and expressions turning up in my speech when I’m tired.
But this isn’t the same thing. Reid implied that Black English is lesser than standard English and that it’s therefore good that Obama doesn’t use it in public. This is not about whether black people have to sweat to speak standard English; it’s about whether Black English is as good as standard English. Most of America black as well as white is at the exact same point in understanding vernacular speech and its proper evaluation as Reid is.
For which reason most of America should leave him alone about this and move on.