Years ago when I was an editor at Teen People, I met R&B singer Sisqo during his “Thong Song” superstar phase. The first thing he said after we were introduced? “You’re very well-spoken.”
Now, had a white celebrity said that to me, I would have side-eyed all over the place. How patronizing and passive-aggressively condescending, I’d have told myself. How was I supposed to say, “It’s nice to meet you?”
But Sisqo didn’t get a rise out of me. He was a sweetheart, and he seemed genuinely impressed to see a black man working in a high position at a national magazine and speaking grammatically correct English. Still, why was it OK for him to be impressed and call me well-spoken but not for a white person to do the same thing?
Why is it wrong for whites to expect us to talk a certain way, while some of us insist we must speak that way in order to validate our blackness? Why do we criticize and scorn blacks who talk “too white”?
I’ve been thinking a lot about the black voice since Empire returned for its fourth season last month. The series’ antihero, Lucious Lyon – a hip-hop-mogul remix of Suge Knight, J.R. Ewing, and King Lear – is not talking or acting like himself. At all.
Left comatose for months by a car bomb, he awoke at the end of last season with no memory of his family. I rolled my eyes hard at the tried-and-untrue soap trope. Amnesia is so cliché in serialized dramas. Surely Empire’s about to jump the shark, I thought.
Then Lucious started speaking in the season-four premiere. I was shocked by what came out of his mouth. His American approximation of the Queen’s English was on-point, as was his subject-verb agreement. There wasn’t a double negative in earshot and nary a trace of his old hip-hop cadences.
Who is this guy? He lost a leg in the aftermath of the explosion, so he doesn’t even walk the same. He’s also hitting on his white doctor, played by a fascinatingly opaque Demi Moore. Oh, and he now goes by his birth name, Dwight, which is far more racially ambiguous than Lucious. The rapper/singer/exec sounded like he might break into The Great American Songbook, Nat King Cole-style, at any minute. Incidentally, I predict Emmy love next year for Lucious’ portrayer, Hustle and Flow Oscar nominee Terence Howard. Finally.
His doctor says he’s blocking out memories that are too painful to face. Does that include knowledge of how black alpha males are expected to talk? The implication is that the Lyon king’s speech is also tied to the pain he’s supposedly suppressing. One could easily draw a parallel between his subconscious code switching in the throes of suppression and how African American Vernacular English is tied to a black history of pain and oppression.
Empire’s new season is making me reconsider black speech and how we link it to black identity. In the UK, the way you speak reveals your class. In white America, it reveals your geographical origin. In black America, for some, it reveals whether you’re black enough.
But what exactly is black speech, and how does it fit into black culture and black identity, both of which have evolved massively since the ’70 and ’80s? Back then, they were defined largely by magazines like Jet, Ebony, and Essence and reflected on TV, from Sanford and Son to The Cosby Show. In the ’90s, series like In Living Color, Martin, and Living Single held up the mirror while publications like Vibe and Source called the shots.
In 2017, black culture/identity is more complex than ever, informed not just by print journalism and TV, but by a mix of cultures: hip-hop culture, pop culture, celebrity culture, LGBTQ culture, geek culture, online culture, and social media culture. The increase in interracial marriages/relationships and cross-cultural exchanges have made the ways to talk black, to act black, and to be black, as vast and varied as the shades of black.
This has always been reflected in Empire’s smorgasbord of characters, and now we’re seeing it in Dwight vs. Lucious. One of the more telling moments of the new season was when Dwight went onstage at Empire Records’ 20th anniversary bash. Suddenly, he sounded like Lucious again, all hip-hop swagger and distinctly dialectical black-American cadences.
But a moment of truth and revelation capped the comeback. After leaving the stage, he told his ex-wife Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) that the Lucious who had briefly returned to the spotlight was a fake. She had coached him on how to talk and walk like Lucious the night before. She knew those neutral Dwight cadences wouldn’t have gone over well onstage. He wouldn’t have commanded the same respect from his black constituency. He most definitely wasn’t keepin’ it real.
There’s so much juicy subtext here. Is the doctor’s diagnosis and Dwight’s inability to talk like Lucious without coaching acknowledgment that the speech patterns that are so pivotal to black-American identity might not be so second nature across the board? It’s not unfathomable. If we can turn it on and off depending on the company we happen to be keeping, then it’s not necessarily as natural as kinky hair.
There was a particularly telling moment in the third episode when Dwight said “ya’ll,” and then offered an explanation for the linguistic misstep: “See there. I did that conjugation of ‘you’ and ‘all,’ like Lucious.” (Note to Empire writers: That’s a contraction, not a conjugation.)
For as long as I’ve been alive, there’s been criticism within the black community of blacks who talk, walk, and act “white.” It’s a recurring theme on both Black-ish and Empire, particularly in Andre’s relationship with his namesake son on Black-ish and in Cookie’s relationship with her upper-crust, married-to-a-white-man, “Oreo cookie” sister played by Vivica A. Fox. Does this suggest a level of artifice and manipulation in how “white-ish” blacks express themselves, too.
As the son of immigrants (from Antigua and St. Martin) and as a native of St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, who grew up in Florida, my black voice has been an issue all of my life. I grew up being teased by both whites and blacks because of my Caribbean accent. The white kids mocked me and made tired Oreo cracks. The black kids who beat me up after school cast me as an uppity Negro who thought I was better than them because I spoke “proper” English.
At the age of 6, I wasn’t putting any thought into how I talked. I just opened my mouth and spoke. Like any other kid, I wanted to fit in, but I wasn’t a budding Meryl Streep. I couldn’t change my speech pattern just to belong.
As an adult, I still speak “proper” English, but it doesn’t have anything to do with my racial identity. I’m a journalist. I’ve been trained to avoid “ain’t” and double negatives in writing, and habit stops me from using them in life. (Though I love my ya’ll!) That doesn’t make me an Oreo or black-ish or white-ish. It makes me a black man who speaks the way I speak.
Regardless of how we present ourselves, we all get to experience racism. Many white people will always look at us and see, first and foremost, black. Perhaps they feel less threatened when we talk more like them, but that’s their problem, not our shortcoming.
I grew up being told America is a melting pot. Black culture is, too, but no-one really brags about that. There’s no right or wrong way to be black. It’s not about how you talk or how you walk or if the person you’re hitting on looks like Taraji P. Henson or Demi Moore.
We’re all individuals. Ultimately, it’s our shared experiences as black Americans, not the talk we talk or the walk we walk, that truly unites us and informs our identity.