Speak the Way You Write, She Said

“Jermaine,” Ms. Willard said, as she took the seat beside me. The other students elbowed each other on the way out the classroom.

Looking me in the eyes, Ms. Willard asked, “Why don’t you speak the way you write?”

I stayed up for nights on end…

I tilted my head to the side. At the time being a 14-year-old freshman, I didn’t understand how profound but loaded of a question it was. I didn’t understand it was a challenge to my culture, my beliefs and my identity. As unaware as I was to the questions beneath the question, my response to it may have changed the of my life. Why didn’t I speak the way I wrote?

After Ms. Willard asked me that question, I stayed up for nights on end reading my own writing. It was clear, concise and organized. But it didn’t have any missing “ings” or “What’s ups”. And so I practiced how I spoke.

Using American Standard English also caused my peers to alienate me.

By the time I was 16, I could give a speech in what I didn’t know is called “American Standard English”. It became my natural default language. It had smothered my African American Vernacular English (Black English).

The more crisp my language, the more seriously adults and my classmates took me. For example, I gathered a group of seniors and had the dress code for luncheon changed after giving a soapbox-style speech to my classmates.

For all the attention American Standard English got me, it it also caused my peers to alienate me. At the time, I was living in the notorious Chicago Robert Taylor Projects on the southside. Black English was our language. It was what separated us from them. It protected us from them.

So, for me, using American Standard English polarized my identity. Though it opened doors for me and ultimately led to my love for the language and getting two Writing degrees, it drew a line between me and the people I so closely identify with.

Ms. Willard’s “Why don’t you speak the way you write?” question really meant, “Why do you speak like them?” “Why do you use that vile dialect?” “Why don’t you speak like us?”

American Standard English is technically a dialect of British English, just as Black English is a dialect. Neither is better than the other.

…but Ms. Millard’s question sparked something in me that neither of us could foretell.

I’m not sure from where this quote was taken, but a Professor once told me, “Language is decided by those who win the war.” If sloths took over, we would be speaking sloth. Language is arbitrary. If you called your stovetop a mushroom, you would still be able to cook steak on it.

Ms. Millard’s question was wrong. And thinking back to the sincerity in her blue eyes, I’m not sure she had any malice. From that day when I was her student for at least a couple years, she addressed my writing errors side-by-side with me. She maybe help make me a better writer.

Sometimes, other Chicagoans… ask me where I’m from.

I had already had a live for reading and writing, but Ms. Millard’s question sparked something in me that neither of us could foretell. Writing has been my path to success, even on an emotional therapeutic level.

To this day, I still default to American Standard English unintentionally. Sometimes, other Chicagoans, Black, white or otherwise, ask me where I’m from. When I tell them I’m a lifelong Chicagoan, they nearly always say, “Oh. You don’t sound like it.” This feels like a passive aggressive statement, and it strikes at my identity. To the young Black man wondering if he “Talks too Black”, if you want, speak Black as you are, and be proud of it.

Thanks for reading. Follow my blog.

Published by Professor J

Professor J is a professor, author, poet and screenwriter.

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