Maya Angelou's Lesson About Black Speech

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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.


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.

John McWhorter is a contributing editor at The Root. He is an associate professor at Columbia University and the author of several books, including Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America and Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English.