Maya Angelou’s Lesson About Black Speech

In her dismay at Common's use of the n-word, she forgot a point she once made, says John McWhorter.

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Maya Angelou’s dismay that Common uses the n-word on The Dreamer/The Believer, the album he had her participate in, is understandable in itself. However, in her initial reaction (they appear to have cleared the air since then), she may actually have forgotten a lesson that she herself once taught.

That lesson was that most black Americans can talk in two distinct ways, one formal, the other colloquial — more specifically, in-group. She put it perfectly in one of my favorite passages from I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings:

We were alert to the gap separating the written word from the colloquial. We learned to slide out of one language and into another without being conscious of the effort. At school, in a given situation, we might respond with “That’s not unusual.” But in the street, meeting the same situation, we easily said “It be’s like that sometimes.”

The n-word is a modern manifestation of this distinction. We often hear it discussed as if there were a single word, “nigger,” a slur against blacks used by whites, and that our job is to tell black people not to use it among themselves. However, most black people can sense that something isn’t quite right in that analysis.

They’re right. There isn’t just one word. As I have heard even teenagers of modest education explain, there are two. The slur is “nigger.” On the other hand, “nigga,” pronounced with the sounds typical of exactly the colloquial black dialect Ms. Angelou referred to, is not a slur. It is a term of affection. “Nigga” is black men calling one another “dear.”

Common uses “nigga” to communicate warmly with black listeners, to indicate love. He is, after all, notorious for not dwelling on the violence and misogyny that rap is so famous for. He isn’t being abusive; he’s being real.

Angelou, I am guessing, has a sense that however people speak on the street, a recording is a public presentation, and one uses language in a formal way in public. This, for example, is the way she presented black language in Caged Bird and the subsequent autobiographical narratives she wrote. In them, almost no one actually talks in the “it be’s that way” fashion. Rather, we are to assume that some of them are, as we are to assume that the Puerto Ricans in West Side Story are speaking Spanish to one another, although we hear them in English.

Angelou writes of herself as saying things like, “I’m so unhappy. And I have done such harm to Clyde” (in Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas), even at moments of high emotion, when home language — i.e., “Ebonics” — is most likely to feel natural. Hungry, her son says, “Gee, I’m famished” in The Heart of a Woman.

Perhaps Guy really was always this exquisitely formal in speech, but wouldn’t a black boy in the ’50s running in from roughhousing be more likely to say, “Man, I’m hungry!”? Later in that book, a dicey car trip was “an adventure in motoring and a lesson in conversational dissembling.” Throughout the books, people “telephone” rather than call and “tell of” rather than talk about; rooms are “commodious,” and so on.

Angelou was making a point in this, teaching an America still gapingly ignorant about black culture and legitimacy that black people are as capable of Standard English as anyone else. She was also rooted in the more formal language traditions of the era of her upbringing, in which writers less readily committed informal language to print than they do today.

Today, however, language traditions have changed. Colloquial language has much more of a place in public language than it used to, among people from all walks of life. Moreover, one could argue that mainstream America is no longer surprised that black people can use Standard English — or at least is much less surprised than 40 years ago.