Thursday, May 03, 2007

The King's English

(Originally posted on my other blog, February 9, 2007)

I was skimming through The New York Times’ online version recently and ran across their Feb. 4 article titled, “The Racial Politics of Speaking Well.” Beside the headline is a pair of hands with two fingers each bent to mimic quotation marks.

I knew what the story was about before I even read it. Still, I scrolled down into the depths of the debate on black people who can talk; that whole “articulate” conversation.

Now, I don’t read the NY Times often (a former Mizzou colleague recently joined their staff, so I peeked in) and not many topics raise my ire. However, this perfunctory surf opened up the gates to a whole herd of memories and opinions that sparked this column.

Let’s see:
  • “You talk like a white girl.” – Classmate taunts. (elementary school)
  • “I thought you were white!” – An in-store customer who’d chatted with me on the phone a few minutes before. (high school)
  • “Where are you from? What do your parents do?” – My on-air audition for Mizzou. The answers, BTW are St. Louis, nurse and works for the Department of the Army. The instructors’ amazement? I sounded so “Midwestern.” Duh. (college)
  • “If you don’t mind my asking, are you white?” – A phone exchange with someone who knew of me, but had never seen me. (fully grown woman, as Cedric the Entertainer might say)

This is the part where I vacillate between sighs and GRRRRs. By the time I was 12, I was sick of people commenting on my voice like it was some rare, extraordinary attribute. Imagine how those backhanded compliments come across now.

I sound the way I do because that’s how I was taught to talk. My father always stressed being able to “speak the King’s English,” which he and my mother did very well. Neither of them claim overly impressive backgrounds. They hail from ordinary southernish upbringings with hardworking parents who earned far less than middle class money.

Yet, both my parents possess incredible tenacity. They each set their sights on a goal, figured out what they needed to do to achieve it, and went about making it happen. Subtly for my mother and overtly for my father, Lesson One translated into making sure their kids knew how to “talk right.” And I have to say that more than anything else, surprising people with a pleasant tone, and well-pronounced “ings” and “ers” has probably gotten me further than talent alone.

I find that both amusing and maddening.

That anyone would assume how I’m going to sound when I open my mouth is, first of all, a little insulting. Come on. Nothing made me crazier in Journalism School than watching my fellow black students get booted out of the broadcasting sequence because they “sounded ethnic.” Especially considering that white students with southern or Bostonian accents got to stay, along with a bevy of international students.

Until then, I’d never seen the reality of non-standard speaking make its point so succinctly. Just being able to move my tongue deftly between teeth and gums made the difference in my college career; allowing me to anchor early morning TV news and long format evening radio.

Now, some people associate "articulate" with "intelligent" as if those who aren't swift of tongue must be stupid. So, was I the smartest student in the J-School? Not hardly. (No slacker, but never valedictorian.) The guy I dated throughout most of college ran circles around me academically. And, of course, he was extremely well-spoken. By choice, he was in the print sequence back then, better known as newspaper, and is now an exec at one. So, while his voice may not have caused him grief, others -- whose speech betrayed their backgrounds -- suffered for it.

That’s where the whole drawl vs. diction debate got hot: Well-spoken-but-sounds-black did not play, while well-spoken-Alabama-dialect did. I happen to have an incredibly middle-of-the-road tone that has nothing to do with my race. It is fairly indistinguishable in a crowd and, obviously, very inoffensive to those who need a well-spoken woman of color to conduct an interview, address a staff meeting, or facilitate a workshop.

(SPOILER ALERT) There’s a line in Dreamgirls where Jamie Foxx’s character tells Beyonce’s that he chose her vocals because they’re…what was his phrase? Innocuous? No personality? Something along those lines. That’s my voice: The Innocuous Blessing + Parents’ Demand of King’s English = The Ability to Get Folks’ Attention and Then Put Your Talent on the Table.

Please note today's takeaway: I am hardly an endangered species in the black community.

I guess that’s why I’m a writer. Now author. (Big grin there.) Voice comes through via air and on a page. Mine, though nondescript to the ear, has been known to pack a punch in a paragraph.

Whether in a column, feature story, ghost-written speech or manuscript, I’m known to be a good writer. And that’s all I want. Here, in the world of keyboard strokes and ink, no one has ever called me articulate.

For that, I simply say “thank you.”

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