The writing style which is most natural for you is bound to echo the speech you heard when a child. – Kurt Vonnegut
What speech patterns did you grow up with as a child?
My mother’s family migrated from North Carolina when she was young, and from then until the time I met her, she had eliminated everything from her speech that would betray her roots.
Not so my grandmother.
My grandparents were born in the 1890s. Just to put that in context, the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1863. My grandfather’s father was nicknamed Pen but his full name was Independence–so named, I think, to celebrate his birth outside of the institution of slavery.
My grandmother was a fairly typical of black women of her day. She had raised her brothers and sisters when their parents died youngish. She herself was a young widow who eventually married again, to my grandfather. She was not overly educated, at least not formally, but she was wise in the ways of life, witty, and quick on her feet. When my own parents separated when I was 7, my mom, my sister, and I went to live with her for a few years and she helped raise me.
At first I had to ask for help to understand what my grandmother was saying. What did she mean when she said, “I fin to make dinner?” Why did she ask us to tote this up yonder instead of to take or carry this over there? When she was busy with her housework and I was bothering her with too many questions, she would say, “Chil’, I ain’t studin’ you.”
I soon came to understand this language and meet children at school with similar speech patterns, though a little more geared toward urban life. I even recognize subtle differences based on what part of the south their family was from.
Much to my mother’s chagrin, I became bilingual. She needed have worried. It didn’t take long for me to learn when speaking my second language was acceptable and comfortable, and when it was not.
As the years went by and assimilation became more widespread and desirable–and people like my grandmother died–so went the language. It’s retro. Some black people are ashamed of it. The minute you drop the ‘g’ on the ‘ing’ you’re immediately suspect. Whereas people from other cultures freely and unashamedly speak the language of their ethnicity, we dare not speak ours. Hell, even for me, it doesn’t flow from me as naturally in everyday speech as it once did.
But when I think of my grandmother–and I do a lot–I almost always hear her voice. I hear her rhythm.
I’ll write more on this topic in a future post.
© Sweepy Jean and Sweepy Jean Explores the (Webby) World, 2011