“Black Talk/Back Talk…Ya Know What I’m Sayin’?”


One of the things I love about being a Black person is our linguistic repertoire and fluidity. My own linguistic heritage comes from South Carolina with my father’s Geechie (Gullah) roots and my mother’s more “upstate” Spartanburg, SC linguistic register. My father had so many witticisms and phrases that we HAD to become little linguists to keep up. He would say things like, “That fool ain’t worth a white quarter.” A white quarter? Never heard of one, but we knew it was someone of low repute. Or, he might say, “When I say now, I mean now, not now!” Try figuring that out as a 10-year-old. However, my brother and I understood it as a kind of immediacy. When he said, “Every shut eye ain’t sleep” or “he better be sleeping with one eye open” we knew the conversation was more than about eyes. My grandfather once told a man who owned him money that if he didn’t get it to him by 5 o’clock that “the groundhog was going to be his mailman.” Believe me, the man returned promptly with the money. My mother, who lived all but her first 5 years in the North (in Philadelphia) could throw in a few Black South Carolina phrases every now and then. If you asked her what she had in her bag she might reply, “Lairos ketch meddlers!” We stared at her puzzled but we knew we weren’t going to learn what was in the bag.
Today, we see incredible fluidity and flexibility among the language young Black people use. The combination of “tech speak” and hip hop have provided them with both variety and novelty in vocabulary (which is true of every generation), but also new forms of expression that incorporates the syntax and structure of Black English (or African American Vernacular English). Those people who argue that our children don’t “speak properly” know little about the nature of English. Speaking properly typically means holding on to former conventions. However, linguists will tell you that languages that do not change eventually die. If we never changed our language we would be speaking like texts of “Beowulf” or “The Canterbury Tales.” At the least we’d all be saying, “thee” and “thou.” That old aunt who used to tell you “ain’t’ is not in the dictionary” is now wrong. “Ain’t IS in the dictionary because language shifts and adapts.
So, while you may not want to “conversate” or “let me holla at you” don’t presume I have cognitive problems because I insist on code-switching.
As an educator I believe our obligation to students is to help them acquire the language of business, trade, and education WITHOUT destroying the language with which they come. They need to hold on to the language of Big Mama and Uncle Roscoe along with the language that emerges from their own youth culture. You know what I’m sayin’?

Stay Black & Smart!

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