Saturday, January 14, 2012

I am a light-skinned African-American and I use Negro dialect

I am a light-skinned African-American and I use "Negro dialect."
So what does that mean?
What does this say about me?
At least one of those things is a liability, according to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Reid is facing criticism for calling President Barack Obama a talented candidate who was a light-skinned African-American "with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one" during the 2008 election as reported in the new book Game Change.
Are Reid's words shocking?
Of course not.
As many times as I have been told that I am articulate by white people who seemed to be both impressed and disappointed to hear me speak as well as if not better than them, Reid's words are no bombshell.
They are just another indication that America still needs to confront race in a real way and reconsider how we use language to evaluate people.

All of us alter our language to fit our atmosphere. When I'm around high school classmates I slip back into 1980s slang. With colleagues I use professional jargon that others wouldn't understand. I speak a little Spanish and often find myself saying "dios mio" when I gasp at something surprising or outrageous.
Some relatives laugh at me because "yall" and "maine" are still a part of my vocabulary after living in Mississippi for 10 years.
I love black people and I don't apologize for it.
Communicating with other black people I know well in a familiar and comfortable way using relaxed language is like talking to family.
Does that mean I am ignorant and unintelligent?
I am an accomplished public speaker who has spoken before large crowds since I was 15 years old.

The use of "Negro dialect" has its place in the lexicon of language and American culture. The use of such language in Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God or J. California Cooper's books Family and In Search of Satisfaction illuminated the black experience in an authentic way that only the language of the people could.
Is it always appropriate to use "Negro dialect?"
Probably not.
But if people choose to communicate with others in a way that is comfortable for them that is their choice.
There may also be consequences. We use language as a barometer to determine competency and worthiness. Sometimes we are right to do that.
However, we can also sometimes make mistakes using language to establish intelligence.
Many of us have come across people who speak eloquently but their words were empty because they couldn't back up what they said.
As a reporter I have come across many immigrants who spoke broken English.
Does their inability to use the English language in a way that others may deem inappropriate make them stupid?
Some of those new Americans were multilingual and spoke several languages but English just happened to be the language in which they had the least proficiency.

As the country becomes more brown and black we need to re-evaluate what it means to speak "Negro dialect," Spanglish and other variations of the English language within communities.
We can use this moment as a way to start talking about race and the issues around it in a meaningful way.
Why do fair-skinned African-Americans (and all Americans of a lighter hue) still have an advantage in this country and seem less threatening than darker brothers and sisters?
Why is the language people of color use still judged so much?
Why are old white men still calling black folks Negroes?
Why did Bill Clinton think it was OK to privately say to Ted Kennedy that Obama "would have been getting us coffee" a few years ago?
And why does Clinton's comment from the book receive less analysis than Reid's?
Addressing these questions are essential because some other notable politician or public figure is going to say something similar sometime soon.
This country needs more than a beer summit to patch up this latest racial gaffe.
We need a real conversation about race and we need to have it soon.

Originally published 1/11/10

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