Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Talking Back, Talking Black, by John McWhorter

A white person could not write this book.  If a white person said some of what John McWhorter says in Talking Back, Talking Black: Truth's About America's Lingua Franca, he would be labeled a racist.  But McWhorter, a linguist who teaches at Columbia University, can say these things.  He writes frankly about the use of Black English, calling on Americans to recognize its legitimacy.

When the national press got a hold of a story about Oakland public schools teaching "ebonics," McWhorter was teaching at nearby Berkeley.  He became the go-to linguist for interviews.  His goal then and now is to get people to understand that "black Americans' colloquial English is not a degradation of English but one of many variations upon English."  Many other people groups around the world speak differently at home and in the marketplace, school, or business.  Black Americans' vernacular language is just as legitimate as any other.

Most white people, and in fact many black people, find fault with McWhorter's stance.  But, he argues, Black English is not just bad English, or "a series of exceptions to using Standard English rules."  Black English has rules and structures of its own.  Further, to say that someone sounds black shouldn't be viewed as racist, but acknowledging reality.  "There should be no guilt in squarely attesting to the fact that there is such as thing as a black-sounding voice."

Ultimately, McWhorter wants "to help the reader actually hear Black English in a new way, to hear it as an alternative kind of English rather than as bad grammar and a lively slang. . . . It is spoken alongside Standard English, not in opposition to it."  McWhorter makes a good argument, but it's tough to get past the question of racism.  The reason it's not considered OK to "sound black" is that the implication is that the sound is inferior to white (or many other nationalities) sound.  The reason man black people do not want to be considered speakers of Black English is a desire not to seem uneducated, uncultured, or underclass.  It's racism. 

I am interested to hear from my black friends what they things of McWhorter's arguments.  But even to raise the question seems racist.  McWhorter himself points out that his black peers--Ivy Leaguers, professionals, educated and cultured all--"sound black" and even those that deny using Black English can be heard slipping into it every now and then.  So maybe, just maybe, he can break down some of the resistance to talking about the obvious. 

Thanks to Edelweiss and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

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