by Kuae Kelch Mattox
When I was growing up, I couldn’t quite figure out if talking like a white girl was good or bad. All I knew was that the charge had been leveled against me on more than one occasion, and I wasn’t white.
Growing up, there were pockets of time when I wasn’t sure where I fit in. Of course my parents worked hard to make sure I was comfortable in my own skin, but it was my peers who made it evident that I wasn’t always a member of the club. I was the black girl with the unusual name, the one without my hometown Philadelphia twang, who didn’t use the stereotypical slang to which many had been accustomed. At an all girls high school, where cliques reined supreme, that didn’t always help me know where to sit in the lunchroom. But my parents knew that it wasn’t about sounding black or white. It was about being educated, speaking properly and doing well in school.
Michelle Obama shared a similar conflict with language and identity during her own early years, speaking about it recently during a career day for a group of Washington, D.C. area students. “How did you get to where you are now?” one student asked. Mrs. Obama said her command of the English language had helped her along.
"I remember there were kids around my [Chicago] neighborhood who would say, 'Ooh, you talk funny. You talk like a white girl.' I heard that growing up my whole life. I was like, 'I don't even know what that means but I am still getting my A,'" said Mrs. Obama.
As a young black girl it was a curse and a blessing all at once to speak clearly, rounding out my vowels, conjugating my verbs, enunciating my words. But my parents wouldn’t have it any other way. They were the consummate proprietors of proper English, correct terms and excellent diction, my father a longtime college professor and my mother, a drama teacher and playwright. In my house, sentences did not end with a preposition. We didn’t say “ax” for “ask.” “Ain’t” was unacceptable. We also didn’t do “number one” or “pee.” We urinated. We didn’t do “number two” or “poop.” We had a bowel movement or defecated. We didn’t “fart.” We flatulated. I remember my mother telling me my Montessori preschool teachers just didn’t know what to make of it.
In her early days in the Philadelphia Public School system, my mother was a speech therapist, traversing across the city to six different schools to provide therapy to children with speech difficulties. Mom was a lover of language, spoken, written and in song. I can still remember my brother, sister and me in front of the mirror practicing her dramatic pronunciation of the words “How Now Brown Cow,” her handwritten letters with detailed lists and clear expectations, and her foray into the opera world, lending her alto voice to a wide range of arias in different languages.
It was that emphasis on language, properly spoken and written, that I have carried with me into my own life. Now, as a mother of three children, one who is a pre-teen at an impressionable age, my expectation is that my children will carry the torch and not think twice. As an African American, I will see to it that they know education is a golden ticket to economic empowerment and success, and proper language goes right along with it.
Just as Mrs. Obama has alluded, I never bought into the pervasive expectation that African Americans should sound a different way, and I certainly cringed every time someone tried to say that Ebonics was the way of the black world. But for years, so many, both black and white, have been invested in that stereotype, so much so that “talking white” and “talking black” has become a dangerous undercurrent in American culture. As a mother who routinely takes her three children to auditions on the acting circuit, I know that those stereotypes continue to be perpetuated on television, radio and the silver screen. Casting agents at many auditions continue to look for children who “sound black” or “street.”
This perpetuation has spider legs that spur a wide range of similar insulting perceptions about those of us who understand the importance of speaking clearly and properly. There’s “You think you’re white,” You’re “uppity,” and You’re “Bourgie”…and the comments that sometimes plagued President Obama as he travelled the country, that he was either “too black” or “not black enough”…as if there is someone in a high and mighty robe weighing “blackness” on a scale.
As Mrs. Obama travels the world speaking to young people, I hope her presence will continue to dispel the stereotypes and push for the notion that there’s nothing cooler than getting educated and doing well in school. As parents, we need to set the example at home by speaking to our children the way that we want them to speak to the world. They need to know that it’s not about black or white. It’s about intelligence.