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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And something else: Mainstream America has a much warmer relationship to black English than it did then. Rap is America’s main music. Many white and other kids sound blacker by the year in their casual speech. And have you noticed how often these days that TV-commercial announcers, men and women, are black without it even being called attention to? Black voices sell.

Today, then, the n-word on a public recording has a different meaning than it would have when Angelou wrote Caged Bird. And truth to tell, even a hundred years ago, there were black writers who would have felt the same way. Sylvester Russell wrote for the Indianapolis Freeman, a black newspaper. As odd as it is to read one of those “blacks in wax,” as they used to call the elite, from 1904 with his hair parted down the middle, he actually casually said that “the Negro race has no objections to the word ‘coon.’ “

The expression “ace boon coon” is a testament to the fact that black people then were using the word as a term of affection. Of course, just as now, there were disagreements on the issue within the black community. Bob Cole, a black Broadway composer (one of the first) of a high-class bent, didn’t like “coon” — but approved of “darkey”!

Russell and Cole both, in their ways, were accepting a difference between the formal and the colloquial in terms of how black people refer to themselves. They were also accepting that a word that begins as a slur can evolve into a different word, even if that different word still sounds like the old one. If we told someone that they were being fresh and they asked us why we were telling them that they had just been picked off the vine, we would wonder why they didn’t understand that “fresh” is two words.

The n-word is, too, and America can handle even pungent black language of its kind. It does, every day, just as America handles pungent language from all corners these days. We can write that we’re hungry instead of famished, that we drive rather than motor. Even Angelou herself titled that book Singin’ and Swingin’ rather than Singing and Swinging. Having the affectionate version of the n-word on a cozy, inspiring recording is just a variation on the theme.

Ms. Angelou, from deep wells of respect, I suggest that when it comes to how words change meaning over time, it just be’s that way sometimes!

John McWhorter, a contributing editor to The Root, is a linguist.

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