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Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Let the Healing Begin

On Being Told I Don’t Speak
Like a Black Person

ALLISON JOSEPH [B. 1967]


Emphasize the “h,” you hignorant ass,
was what my mother was told
when colonial-minded teachers
slapped her open palm with a ruler
in that Jamaican school room.
trained in England, they tried
to force their pupils to speak
like Eliza Doolittle after
her transformation, fancying themselves
British as Henry Higgins,
despite dark, sun-ripened skin.
Mother never lost her accent,
though, the music of her voice
charming everyone, an infectious lilt
I can imitate, not duplicate.
No one in the States told her
to eliminate the accent,
my high school friends adoring
the way her voice would lift
when she called me to the phone.
A-ll-i-son, it’s friend Cathy.
Why don’t you sound like her?
they’d ask. I didn’t sound
like anyone or anything,
no grating New York nasality,
no fastidious British mannerisms
like the ones my father affected
when he wanted to sell someone
something. And I didn’t sound
like a Black American,
college acquaintances observed,
sure they knew what a black person
was supposed to sound like.
Was I supposed to sound lazy,
dropping syllables here, there,
not finishing words but
slurring the final letter so that
each sentence joined the next,
sliding past the listener?
Were certain words off limits,
too erudite, too scholarly
for someone with a natural tan?
I asked what they meant,
and they stuttered, blushed,
said you know, Black English,
applying what they’d learned
from that semester’s text.
Does everyone in your family
speak alike?, I’d question
and they’d say don’t take this the
wrong way, nothing personal.

Now I realize there’s nothing
more personal than speech,
that I don’t have to defend
how I speak, how any person,
black, white, chooses to speak.
Let us speak. Let us talk
with the sounds of our mothers
and fathers still reverberating
in our minds, wherever our mothers
or fathers come from:
Arkansas, Belize, Alabama,
Brazil, Aruba, Arizona.
Let us simply speak
to one another,
listen and prize the inflections,
differences, never assuming
how any person will sound
until her mouth opens,
until his mouth opens,
greetings familiar
in any language.

4 comments:

seanag said...

Beautiful. And, I think, very appropriate to the day.

Joannie said...

Yes. Thank you for posting it. I appreciate that she also talks about listening. I think that for the healing to begin, we shall all need to do a lot of listening.

Martha Silano said...

I chose this poem because it begins in anger and ends in hope and inclusion.

Martha Silano said...

I chose this poem because it begins in anger and ends in hope and inclusion.