At the putrescently senescent age of 23, I sit in my rocking chair (okay really, my desk chair in lab) and continue to ask myself “what do you want to be when you grow up?” My mother used to ask me, whenever I had a ½ midlife crisis (which was any day that ended in ‘Y’) “what would you do if you could do anything, and didn’t have to worry about making duckets?” (That’s a direct quote, I swear! Also, for those of you that aren’t as down as my mother is, duckets = money. Oh, and down=cool). I told her then that I would either teach or write. Today, I feel so far removed from my desire to teach that I’d rather write. And hopefully teach through writing. I wonder why I thought one was somehow exclusive of the other.
I had yet another invigorating discussion yesterday evening with my roommate (from henceforth referred to as R. Matey) about language and how it is used to define who we are. How one speaks is often associated with how intelligent they are, where they come from, and – unfortunately – their status in society, so to speak. I’ve been told on multiple occasions by people from all walks of life that I (here comes another direct quote) “sound like a white girl.” R. Matey brought this up in our freakin’ awesome pad yesterday evening. She has the honor of teaching a cultural anthropology course at our institution and the issues of language and race were brought up during discussion. Apparently, one of the students was frustrated by the fact that speaking “standard” English was associated with “sounding white” whilst (yes, whilst) anything else was associated with “sounding black.”
This, dear readers, is an age old story that refers to a war that has been waged on our shores for as long as I can remember. My generation has lost many warriors in its salient fight against the destruction of English. Texting, Facebook, Twitter and the like are just the tip of the iceberg in what I like to call “technowarfare.” This young lady brings up an interesting point. I’ve heard it all my life, now this woman (who I assume is younger than me) faces it as well –“why do you talk like that?” When I was growing up, I felt like I didn’t fit in with my extended family because I would always get that question. “Why do you sound like a white girl?” It pains me even now. I didn’t fit in with many of my peers in college because they felt, on some level, that I thought of myself as better than them. At 23, I still suffer from those feelings of never quite measuring up to anyone’s “standard”. I’m always too much of something for some circles or not enough of anything for others. Either way, I’m usually on the outside looking in.
Why is it so wrong to enjoy stringing together (what I consider to be) a properly structured sentence? With enjoying the sound of words like “putrescence” and “polyglot” as they roll across the tongue like fine (or even cheap, which is all I can afford and have no clue what fine is) wine? Why, with all of the words at our disposal, should I be left to say things like “it’s going bad” and “he knows a lot of foreign words and stuff?” What’s more, why is it so common within our society and cultural circles to refer to “standard” English as the “white” sound? As luck or misfortune would have it, these sorts of distinctions run rampant in every cultural circle known to man! I don’t get it. I fear I never will. I speak because I have a voice to do so. And when I do so, I sound like 100% pure USDA NeuroScienceGeek (more geek than neuroscience these days, but, alas (that’s right, alas), I digress).
Yes, I AM upset. I know you’re thinking to yourself at this very moment – this girl’s got nothing better to do than complain about language. But, in my defense, I love the way language can both mold us and set us free. I love that Edgar Allan Poe was able to bring such rhythm and such fluidity to the realms of poetry and short story writing (Annabel Lee anyone? Quoth “The Raven” shall I? Is that a hideous heart I hear?). Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman” was perhaps the first poem that I fell in love with. I had no idea what “diamonds at the meeting of my thighs” meant when I was 8, but damn it I knew I had them! And, ladylike though I may be, I love the way successful, ahem, “oath swearing” can make a statement exponentially more powerful.
So, yes, I AM upset. Speaking or writing in a structured form is not analogous to “sounding white” for those of us that aren’t white. It is not done to somehow denote someone’s status in society. We do not speak it so that we can “sound” smart. It is done because it is beautiful. When we include tones, sounds, vernaculars, etc that are associated with where we are and where we came from it becomes even more beautiful! So please, dear reader, go forth – I beg of you – and find a word today that makes your heart swell, string together a sentence that will make the earth shake (not literally though, that sort of power could be dangerous), and, for the love of Pete and all that is holy, write something. WRITE ANYTHING. And I don’t mean string together a few SMH’s, LOL’s, and ITGTSSBAIDY2SSAI’S. I mean sit down and write a letter to someone you love. Write a story (flash fiction, short story or otherwise) that tells your story as it is or as you intend it to be. Maybe the weight of the world will be lifted from your shoulders, if only for a day. And, if that doesn’t work, maybe you’ll find joy in writing the way your write, or in speaking the way you speak. It, like a fingerprint, is yours and yours alone. Whether it measures up to anyone’s definition of “standard” or not.
Like I said in my previous post, words have power. Thanks to Mr. Kemosabe (aka Google) I learned that today is the 50th anniversary of JFK’s inaugural address. Just listen to his speech and you’ll surely understand. The words he spoke inspired me and, like many, I wondered how he would’ve changed the world had he not been taken from us before his time. I wonder why we do not celebrate him and what he stood for nationally….
This speech, like so many others, is why I choose to speak English as it was taught to me, and why you should find your voice and wield it with all of the dignity and responsibility that it is due. Forgive me if that makes me “sound white” or somehow makes you feel like less of a person because you don’t do it too. Consider “standard” English my form of vernacular speech. And, as this post comes to an overdue close, think about how something as simple as a sentence – the way it’s uttered, the way it’s shaped, the way it is wielded – can have such a profound effect on something as explosive as race, as beautiful as self-acceptance and as dangerous as life (and the losses therein).
So, Mother Dear, I think I finally have an answer to your question. I want to be a writer when I grow up, whenever that may be. I want to embrace the English language that you and Father Dear so painstakingly taught me and use it to reach whoever I may reach, and teach whoever I may teach.
And thanks again, R. Matey, for inspiring yet another post.