Tuesday, October 28, 2008

"Talking Black"

Hear a discussion between John McWhorter and biracial voice actress and playwright Sarah Jones on the subject of voice and language and how you are perceived based on how you sound. The discussion centers around "Talking Black"...and the so-called "blaccent". (link below).

Sarah Jones is an amazing voice artist....

This segment is courtesy of the Studio 360 public radio program (PRI).

From Studio 360:

Black is not just a skin color; it’s a quality of voice. Sarah Jones, the Tony Award-winning performer, talks with linguist John McWhorter about what it means to sound black today. They look at how Barack Obama has used “blaccent” to drive audiences wild.

Click to hear the Sarah Jones, John McWhorter discussion.

You are definitely treated differently based on voice. There have been a couple of cases where it has caused me grief. My voice and use of language is not immediately identifiable as "Black" whatever that definition is. I would describe my voice as being close to that of Alfonso Ribeiro. Soliloquy: (I may have a similar voice, but I wish I had his money...and his women... My goodness! But that's for another post). While on a job search (many years back) I called and set up an interview with a major Department store's loss prevention team. This was a fancy chain (top of the market) located in the rich, mostly white Western suburbs of St. Louis County. The average home price in that area has to be $500,000-$600,000 or more, which is high for this part of the Country. Clearly they had an opening. I described my work history over the phone, explained that I was already licensed to do the work, and I had references. The lady on the other end (the hiring manager) explained that she really needed to fill the slot which had just come open and that I should come to the store and talk to her in person the next day, basically for an interview.

So the next day I arrive at the agreed time (cleaner than the board of health of course), resume's in hand, ready to go. I went to the Customer service desk and asked to speak to the hiring manager that I talked with the previous day, and they told me to wait...that she would be right out.

When she finally arrived.... her attitude seemed to change from the one she had over the phone. I wish I could have had a way to see inside of her mind when she walked up and realized that I was Black. All of a sudden they weren't looking to hire "right at that moment". She stated something to the effect that she was sorry that she may have misled me over the phone... but she was fully staffed at the moment. After about 3-5 minutes of her blow-off routine I realized that I had wasted my time getting ready...and driving across town. She told me to fill out an application and that they would call when there was an opening.

There have been a few situations like this in my life... I can't erase them from my memory... I recall them like they happened yesterday. Another incident similar to this one happened when I was looking for an apartment.

I was also teased in school for the way I talked (using...or attempting to use standard, proper English). Most of it came from.... can you guess?... Black students. I started to use standard English as my default language after I moved from St. Louis to Kansas back in the early-mid 1980's... I went from a mostly Black grade school... to an almost all white (but mixed) grade school in what was basically rural Kansas...although the town I was in could be considered a KC suburb...a far flung one. From that point on I was in mostly white, but mixed schools. Although as a young teen I listened to rap music and that had an influence on me. But as I got older....15, 16, 17.... I began to drift away from that and really started using standard English. Before that I would code switch...but later I began to stick with one use of English more often.

Now, as an adult, I find myself (unconsciously) doing the switching thing again...although slightly. I still run into the perception problems though.
I hate the idea that there is some box that i'm supposed to be in... a box that someone has assigned for me, telling me how I am supposed to talk and act.



Hear another, more extensive interview with Sarah Jones from a couple of years ago.


zinjanthropus said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
zinjanthropus said...

I was also teased in school for the way I talked (using...or attempting to use standard, proper English). Most of it came from.... can you guess?... Black students.

If you speak like Alfonso Ribeiro, I think for the most part that it wasn't the correctness of your grammar that the other Black kids were reacting to, rather the thing that irked them was if you used White cadence and dialect. These are different from CORRECT english as I'm sure you know.

I think the common misconception is that poor Black kids dislike good diction and correct English.

Compare Saul Williams and Wynton Marsalis-both of whom speak correct grammar with Black cadence- to Ribeiro, and say Bryant Gumbal(sp?) who also speak correct grammar but with mostly White cadences and inflection. From the same TV show- Fresh Prince- compare the Judge dad's English to the oldest daughter's Valley girl.
Again, both speak correct English but the daughter is the one who would spark ire amongst young ghetto denizens.

There was a pimp named Reggie who "worked" near my neighborhood in the mid 70s who always used the newest slang, the coolest phrases and he spoke with perfect diction. While he employed various "slaguages" for emphasis, he never used the phrases "friggin" or "F%cking A". These would've been foregin to his culture and would've been deemed un-cool.

Anonymous said...

You know I have a different experience. In my adult life I've not dealt with black women who say I "talk white." The black women I know and have dated have been professional or at least had a knowledge of self and didn't go that route.

Some of the white women I've dated have given me the "you know you don't talk black" thing. I have occasionally corrected them with the "no, I don't talk like you think I'm supposed to talk" and never afforded them the opportunity to revise their opinion.