Friday night/Saturday morning, I am on my way home on from hanging out with friends. I hear the train I need pulling into the station as I’m paying my fare at the upper level. Normally, I do not run for trains, but it is 3:30 in the morning and I am well aware that if I miss this one, there will not be another train for at least twenty minutes. A woman racing down an adjacent set of stairs and I curse simultaneously as the train we want pulls out of the station without us on board. We give each other the “Oh you too, huh?” empathic smile that all mass transit users know so well and strike up a conversation. I am a born and bred New York City; she is a transplant from upstate, living here for less than two years. We touch on BBC television and learn that we are both Cumberbitches, not Cumberbabes – either you know or you don’t, I am not explaining the phenomenon that is Benedict Cumberbatch, just know it is very real. We a good few minutes on classic books version Hollywood interpretations and that’s when it happened…
She shakes her head knowingly, “That explains it.”
“What explains what?” I ask.
“You read a lot. Good books, not just trash novels, it’s why you’re so artic…”
I am going to gather she stopped short at that point, less because her brain kicked in and more because I’m sure my expression went from amicable to apoplectic by the second syllable of the classic “A” word used with well-spoken blacks: Articulate.
Was it because I did not interject “like” and/or “you know” every fifth word or so? Perhaps it was my lack of “neck roll”? I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure I popped a capillary in my efforts to restrain my disbelief at hearing this.
Worse, I am hearing it from someone less than 30 years of age who damn sure should know better considering this nation has been led by a black president these past five years. Political party differences aside, our nation is not in the habit of electing those who cannot properly conjugate a verb. Clearly, Barack Obama is an ethic fluke, as this is not the same English spoken by the majority of educated people in this country.
“I mean, I mean….” She starts the familiar back-peddle seen often when people are caught hoisted on their own petard.
“Oh, I know what it is you meant.” I stop the peddling in its tracks. “I don’t know what you were exposed to in (name of city redacted to not paint all of its denizens with the broad brush of cultural ignorance), that gave you such preconceived notions, but for the record, it is not a compliment to be somewhat surprised that a person of color can speak well as though it is such a foreign concept. And, it is incredibly condescending and patronizing for you to think we should feel complimented that it’s noticed and meets your unasked for approval. This conversation is over.”
It is amazing that this still requires clarification, but here it is: we (black people) get a little pissed-off when white people call us “articulate.”
It perpetrates the stereotypes that blacks speak mostly in slang, in Ebonics, in anything other than standardized English. It is divisive, separating us into an “us” and “them”. It is the stereotype is perpetrated within less affluent black communities every time a well-spoken black person is accused of “talking white”. The stereotype that equates articulate styles of speech as belonging to “white” rather than belonging to “intelligence”, as though one was still the exclusive dominion of the other. Blacks do not assume every white person has a major in English, why is it still a thing of note to some when encountering those of us who have proper command of diction and enunciation?
Here we were in 2014 Anno Domini and yes, this is still a conversation that needs to be had.
Check out more of today’s slices of conversation at Two Writing Teachers.
I’m starting three days of days late, so you’re not too late to join in yourself. Come on in, the slicing’s fine!