Wednesday, May 15, 2013

charles ramsey, white folks & living language

photo credit:

I think it's high time for white folks to stop laughing at the way black folks talk.

Of course, I'm referring to the latest social media sensation: Charles Ramsey.  But you know he's not the only one.  There are others such as Sweet Brown and Michelle Clark.

Some will argue that instead of mocking Ramsey, the Internet attention celebrates Ramsey's heroism.  I'd suggest it's a little of both: a sensational story told by an easily sensationalized guy.

The great irony of it is, many white people laugh at black vernacular because they think it's ignorant, when in fact, it's actually white ignorance about black vernacular that lies at the heart of the joke.  With little understanding of the origins, intelligence and cultural value of black vernacular, it might be easy to mistake it for an unsuccessful attempt at Standard English.  In that light, black speech can come across as charming, child-like, hilarious, or even offensive. 

As Americans, we hear a lot about the many things slavery took away--things like freedom, dignity, family, and wealth.  We need to know about those things.  However, white folks also need to understand that three hundred years of living and dying in bondage did not happen in a cultural vacuum.  Slaves developed rich cultural traditions, especially around religion, music, and language.

While our high school teachers drilled into us the importance of proper grammar and vocabulary, the reality is that language is alive and ever-changing. That's why it's hard to read Shakespeare and  nearly impossible to read Chaucer.  It's why we don't say "thee" and "thou" anymore, and it's why "ain't" and "bling" now appear in the dictionary.   It's also the reason that enslaved Africans, when thrust into their English speaking bondage, did not speak a precise copy of the language they heard from the mouths of their captors. 

Inevitably, slaves blended Standard English  with the many African languages they either spoke themselves or were introduced to over the course of the slave trade.  This kind of blending typically simplifies grammatical structures in language.  We see this especially in verb conjugations such as that used by Charles Ramsey when he says "It's" instead of "There were" in the phrase, "It's some mo' girls up in that house." 

Consider also that slaves had only limited access to Standard English.  They didn't, after all, sit around chatting over tea with their overseers (those men probably didn't speak it very well anyway).  In addition, a systematically enforced illiteracy denied them access to the written word.  Without the corrective of written language, transmission of language becomes less specific, with the proliferation of substitutions like "wif" for "with" and dropped endings  like "mo" for "more."  In the context of an evolving language that communicates effectively, these alterations aren't errors, they're simply changes that reflect the given circumstances.

You may be thinking, "But that was a long time ago, why doesn't Ramsey learn "proper" English now?"

I can't speak specifically for Ramsey, but I can point out that slavery continued for three hundred years.  That's a lot of talking.  It's certainly plenty of time to develop a rich oral tradition that serves not just as a means of communication, but as an important source of cultural identity and pride.

Black vernacular can be inspirational and participatory.  We see this in call and response patterns that still characterize political and religious speak today.  It can also be double-voiced, which means it is intended for two audiences: an insider and a an outsider.  It is intentionally and creatively indirect, with "yo' mama" jokes providing just one small but popular example.  And finally, it is subversive.  Since black vernacular evolved under extreme stress, with its speakers under constant surveillance, it carries with it an awareness of a listening third party, one the speaker will invoke or evade as necessary. 

We can see Ramsey's awareness of a third party in both his 911 call and in his initial live interview.  He references McDonald's early in both.  On the call he gives the address then says, "Hey, check this out.  I just came from McDonald's right?"  Similarly, at the beginning of the interview he explains that "I heard screaming.  I'm eating my McDonald's."  Rather than a hilariously irrelevant piece of information from an ignorant neighbor, this savvy tidbit offers up an alibi to police or other officials who will eventually overhear these conversations.

Ramsey appears to recognize himself as at risk in a racially charged situation where a distressed white girl has called 911 in the presence of a black man (who also happens to have a record of domestic violence).   While he sets up the story for the reporter (It all started when I was eating my McDonald's and I suddenly heard screaming), he communicates a slightly different narrative to police who might eventually overhear (a white girl started screaming but it didn't have anything to do with me because I had just come from McDonald's and was minding my own business eating my food on the porch).

Later, Ramsey makes his awareness of the racialized narratives around black men more explicit when he says, "Bro, I knew something was wrong when a pretty little white girl ran into a black man's arms." Again his statement is double-voiced.  For a black audience, this statement is a joke that he punctuates with, "Dead giveaway!"  For a white audience, the statement is a veiled accusation about how racist stereotypes unfairly represent black men as dangerous to white women.  While people in the background laugh at the joke, the white reporter hears the accusation and runs away.

In light of all this, it doesn't make sense to ask why someone like Ramsey doesn't make more of an effort to learn "proper" English.  If his speech is part of his identity and serves as a positive signifier for his community and its history, why would he want to give it up? And why should he? 

Ramsey's grammar reminds us that abducted Africans brought their languages here and blended them with that of their captors. His animation illustrates a long tradition of story telling in a culture that suffered centuries of forced illiteracy. His content shows his social and political savvy as well as his ability to speak to two audiences at once. 

If Ramsey's interview entertains you, I think that's okay, just as long as we see that entertainment not as an accident of stupidity but as a product of the richness and artistry of living language.


  1. Thank you for a most informative and wonderfully written post, one which has needed writing and widespread publication for YEARS........

    I think I read somewhere (which of your "all great blogs", I can't remember) that if you succeeded in writing well (or perhaps you said beautifully), that is a worth goal (big paraphrase). In my opinion, you succeed in so many ways in each piece I have read so far, I may never go to bed....

    Thanks for reminding me I was missing Barbara Kingsolver's writing, will check out her latest soon, and the exquisite writing about "stories - importance", from "Ceremony", I believe it was, must check that out too.

    Looking forward to many more timely, intelligent, informative, passionate posts, can't wait to share with friends who will love your writing also.

    1. thanks so much! and i hope you enjoy the Kingsolver, i thought it was great!

  2. I'm confused.

    Are you saying that slavery has explicitly led to a "black" vernacular? Or are you saying that our experiences of language is fluid are subject to the communities we live in and participate in?

    Is this a race issue or a class one? I think it's the latter. Those who only experience a limited access to education with express themselves through the easiest method possible which is expression of language they are familiar with.

    This discussion is very paternalistic. Maybe we should stop our evaluations of language and listen to what is being said and not how it is being said.

    1. I'm saying both - that language is subject to our communities and that slavery is a significant and unique factor in African American history that had a huge impact on language.

      I agree that language also relates to class and access to education. However, race and class are connected in the U.S. because the forced economic conditions of slavery and Jim Crow were applied according to racial categories. For that reason, I think it's important to talk about race too.

      And I think we can agree - I wanted to point out the historical/environmental/economic factors that might contribute to language development as an avenue towards (as you say) listening to what is being said rather than judging how it is being said.

      thanks for your great questions!

  3. Great writing and perspective Deb!!

  4. Thanks Debra, Taya, and Erin! I appreciate your coming by! :)

  5. Well said. I don't think I can listen to his interview the same way again. Everything you said is logical, but unless you are thinking about it, you wouldn't realize.