Does Charles Ramsey speak poor English, or are we just a little bit racist?

An interesting story over at “The Broad Side” about Charles Ramsey, the man who saved those three Cleveland women, including Amanda Berry, who were kidnapped ten years ago, heard one of them yelling for help from the house next door, and ran over and helped bust the door down.

The story looks at the way Ramsey speaks English, with the “black vernacular, as the story puts it.  And discusses the response from a number of white people who either made fun of his English, or criticized it as “incorrect” English.

I’ve always been intrigued by this discussion, of language generally, but also of how language does (or doesn’t) impact our perceptions of other people, especially minorities.   Admittedly, as a white guy, it’s sometimes (well, often) with trepidation that I weigh into racial discussions.  It seems there’s an ever-shrinking list of topics about which one can safely opine (in my case, gay rights that specifically concern gay people, though not trans or bisexual people).  Then again, who better an expert on how white people see language than a white guy?  So here goes…

The central thesis of the story by Deb Werrlein is this:

The great irony is this — many white people laugh at black vernacular because they think it’s ignorant, when in fact, it’s actually white ignorance about black vernacular that lies at the heart of the joke.

Werrlein seems to offer two explanations for why some African-Americans speak a different “vernacular” than white Americans.  Tying it all back to slavery, Werrlein says that, first, it’s not like slaves got an education and learned to speak the Queen’s English.  They then passed that amalgam, of English and the African languages they knew as their mother tongue, down to their children.  Her second point, as to why the amalgam stuck, is that the language itself became a part of a rich black American culture that African-Americans understandably clung to as a source of pride.

Charles Ramsey (source: ABC interview on YouTube)

Charles Ramsey (source: ABC interview on YouTube). “Inevitably, slaves blended Standard English with the many African languages they either spoke themselves or were introduced to over the course of the slave trade. This kind of blending typically simplifies grammatical structures in language. We see this especially in verb conjugations such as that used by Charles Ramsey when he says “It’s” instead of “There were” in the phrase, “It’s some mo’ girls up in that house.””

I’ve always been interested in language and linguistics.  I speak five languages – three fluently (English, French and Spanish), the fourth with a passable fluency (Italian), and the fifth, Greek, let’s just say I won’t starve or have a problem getting a cab in Athens.  I even took four foreign language classes at the same time during my senior year of college (it’s surprisingly less confusing than you’d suppose).  I’ve always suspected that my love of language is my Greek-immigrant mother’s fault.  Mom loves dissecting English to point out the Greek roots of words (just like they did in My Big Fat Greek Wedding).  So I’ve always enjoyed word-plays, and communication generally.

So suffice it to say, I think I’ve got a pretty good ear for language, and yeah, Charles Ramsey’s English definitely struck me when I heard it.  And while I found it colorful, I didn’t like it.  It felt “wrong” to me, as in “incorrect English.”  It’s the same feeling I have watching TV and hearing so many people, especially with the number of unscripted reality shows there are now, speaking English incorrectly, starting with the “I” vs. “me” error, which is a common mistake on shows like Ghost Hunters.

I also think of the other day, walking my dog here in DC, and some young African-American boys walked by, looking like they were coming from a prep school (they were maybe 8 or 10 years old, and a bit too well-dressed for any kid going to public school).  When they got near me, I heard them using Werrlein calls “the black vernacular.”  It was a sentence that was simply grammatically wrong. And I didn’t like it.

But what was interesting was the contrast between the kids’ appearance (an appearance of education, and of parents who cared about their kids enough to make sure they dressed well for school) and their language (which suggested a lack of education).  And I think this is where Werrlein’s point about “culture” comes in.  The kids, I suspect, knew they were speaking the way they were – they probably knew “proper” English, but chose to speak in the “black vernacular” because that’s the way you talk to your friends when you’re a ten year old black kid in my neighborhood of DC.

But as a white person hearing that vernacular, Bill Cosby’s famous speech to the NAACP in 2004 comes to mind:

Brown versus the Board of Education is no longer the white person’s problem. We’ve got to take the neighborhood back. We’ve got to go in there. Just forget telling your child to go to the Peace Corps. It’s right around the corner. It’s standing on the corner. It can’t speak English. It doesn’t want to speak English. I can’t even talk the way these people talk: “Why you ain’t where you is go ra?” I don’t know who these people are. And I blamed the kid until I heard the mother talk. Then I heard the father talk. This is all in the house. You used to talk a certain way on the corner and you got into the house and switched to English. Everybody knows it’s important to speak English except these knuckleheads. You can’t land a plane with, “Why you ain’t…” You can’t be a doctor with that kind of crap coming out of your mouth. There is no Bible that has that kind of language. Where did these people get the idea that they’re moving ahead on this. Well, they know they’re not; they’re just hanging out in the same place, five or six generations sitting in the projects when you’re just supposed to stay there long enough to get a job and move out.

I can’t speak to black vernacular as culture, but I can speak to how black vernacular (I don’t like the term, but since original writer used it, and for lack of a batter term, I will too) hits the “white ear,” and it’s not good for a lot of us. And while Werrlein might argue that that’s my prejudice against black culture coming through, I’d argue that one man’s pride is another man’s prejudice. Meaning, that if your sub-culture is starting to hurt you in the larger culture of the country at large, at what point is their problem your problem?

This discussion made me think of Gay Pride parades. For years, it seemed that practically the only people marching in Pride parades were PFLAG, and guys in butt-less leather chaps. Oh and drag queens too. And there was an argument made by many that the depiction of gays as sexual, or as men who simply wanted to be women, was setting us back in the culture at large, was setting back our acceptance, and setting us back politically.

Now, the counter-argument was that this was our culture, we should be proud of it, and it shouldn’t matter if the haters didn’t like it. And that was also a valid point. But it wasn’t completely invalid to worry that lesbians hanging out of hotel windows flashing their boobs (and they did, during the 1993 March on Washington – I have photos) weren’t presenting a less-than-helpful image of the community to a media that we desperately needed on our side.

And it’s all well and good to say “well that’s their problem,” if straight people don’t like to see naked gay people in Pride parades.  But when those straight people go and vote against us at the ballot box, and the people they elect vote against us in Congress, then their negative impression of us becomes our problem too.

I can’t speak for what the black vernacular means to African-Americans culturally, or as a source of pride, to black people.  I can however speak with authority on how one white person, and others I know, feel when they hear that pattern of speech.  And it sounds uneducated, foreign, and “other.”  It doesn’t make me feel like I’m hearing the accent or language of just another ethnicity or people in the greater American fabric.  My reaction is decidedly negative.

And this brings up, in conclusion, a larger theory I’ve always had about culture and prejudice.  I’ve always felt that part of prejudice in America, whether it’s against blacks, Latinos, gays or you-pick-your-minority, is based in culture, and the reaction, impression, of the majority culture to the minority culture.

And I’m loathe to suggest that we should change, and try to be like the majority, simply because aspects of our culture bother them.  However, the political side of me is forced to acknowledge that if I’m doing something that makes people like me less as a gay man, then I can be as proud as I want of that activity, that aspect of our culture, but I’d be naive not to acknowledge that my actions aren’t winning us any friends.

And in the end, I suppose, it all comes down to your theory of cultural change, and how you choose, if at all, to balance the conflict between your pride and someone else’s prejudice.

I’m not entirely convinced with the argument that my reaction to the black vernacular is simply evidence of my not getting the richness of black culture.  But putting that aside, there’s the obvious potential for cultural conflict between any subset of people living in a country (they’re having a similar battle in France over whether Muslim school kids should be able to wear headscarves to public schools).

The challenge, to those of us who care about civil rights, is to figure out how to respect culture (and even define it) while advancing rights.  And sometimes, perhaps even often, the two are inevitably going to come into conflict.

Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Instagram | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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