Performing "truth": Black speech acts.
Let a Black sistah break it down fo' ya. (RuPaul, Foxy Lady )
Introduction: Dialogic, Dialect, and "truth"
"Wha' choo mean, y'all ain't got no heat?!"
"How come y'all ain't ha' no heat?!" I inquired, invoking my best Black dialect, as a friend explained that his family had recently installed central heating. Previously, a wood stove had been the family's sole source of fire. As quaint as it seems, my urban sensibilities, and those of my other dinner companions, could not grasp the intentional immersion in Midwestern winters without the benefit of a modern heating system. We, university colleagues and children of the diaspora, laughed heartily at the honesty and wonder that the invocation of Black Speak conveyed. The questions were, of course, rhetorical. But the performance was unquestionable: Black speech acts.
Living in the two worlds that constitute the America detailed by Du Bois in The Souls of Black Folk has equipped me (and others) not only with dual consciousness (or, as Du Bois dubs the duality, "twoness") but also with multiple languages. Among the languages is a dialect that I title Black Speak. It is a language that resonates a "truth."
I posit that the form of "truth" asserted by the invocation of Black Speak is based in the sense of community evoked by and attributed to the cultural/communicative form. Black Speak communicates a "truth" by infusing its messages with the linguistic style that formulates and informs cultural identities and communities.
Americans of African descent share a unique relationship with Western culture. The experiences related to slavery, subjugation, and discrimination have blended to produce the duplicitous effect on the development of Black consciousness noted by Du Bois. The simultaneous inclusion in and exclusion from the mainstream places peoples of African descent at the precipice of American culture. This precarious position provides a distinctive vantage point from which to observe the mechanisms and machinations of culture. The history of the denial of freedom and discriminatory applications of rights and privileges cultivate a Black Speak (and a Black consciousness) that delves for a "truth" beneath the surface of standardized, legitimized mainstream culture. Such a "truth" resonates from the shared social identity and heritage that permeate and necessitate the construction of Black Speak, linking its interlocutors to the socially constructed and historically transmitted patterns of meaning that define culture (see Gee rtz).
Multiple experiences have constructed a combination of communal and private spaces in which Black Speak has become encoded by what Henry Louis Gates calls an authenticated sign of Blackness. These shared experiences imbue the conscious articulation of Black vernacular with "soulful" qualities which resonate as the message is transmitted from the orator to the receiver. The invocation of Black Speak evokes a "meta-discourse" of discemable significations, connotations, and denotations (see Gates) that transcends the oratory and signals "true" communication.
That is, Black Speak is invoked to communicate clearly and concisely a "truth" to another or others who have shared the cultural history and who are conversant in the vernacular form. The purposeful invocation of the dialect and manipulation of standardized English suggest that the orator is in command of all the languages involved. For those individuals whose daily demands require a reliance on "mainstream," standardized speech acts, the purposeful invocation of Black Speak can be a powerful statement about identity, community, connectedness to the counter/alternative culture, and the oration as well as the perception of a "truth."
As I consider Black Speak, I will move toward an understanding of its purposeful invocation by presenting observations and theory. Based on observing my relationship to Black Speak and the influence of this speech act on popular culture, Twill highlight the sources of the resonance associated with the communicative act. That is, I will illustrate how Black Speak acts to communicate a "truth" (i.e., convey a shared counter-cultural consciousness within personal and mass-mediated settings). Finally, turning to the effect that cultural icon Oprah Winfrey has on the reconstruction of the popular and the acceptance of the alternative oratory represented by the vernacular, I will examine the form and function of Black Speak as she invokes it to expose a "truth." Analysis of transcripts from the Oprah Win frey Show will demonstrate that Oprah purposefully evokes Black Speak in the mass-mediated setting in ways that affect, inform, and influence the cultural potpourri of individuals who form her viewing audience.
According to Gerry Philipsen in his empirical analysis of communicative acts and culture," ... wherever there is a distinctive culture, there is to be found a distinctive code of communicative conduct" (17). The conduct to which Philipsen refers acknowledges the deference afforded to individual orators within particular social contexts by virtue of their sociocultural identity. That is, for Philipsen, particular communicative forms indeed form communities, and such forms and formations are honored as cultural identifiers.
Based in the analysis of communicative acts, sociolinguistics examines, among other things, gender, social stratification, and stylized speech patterns in order to understand the variations and differences in culture and society. Accordingly, sociolinguists have long connected codified languages to aspects of Black culture (see Wolfram; Labov; Dillard). In general, the discussions of Black English have focused on either the linguistic pathology or the relevant syntactical/cultural incongruity represented by the in voluntary invocation of the vernacular in comparison to standardized speech patterns. Black Speak moves beyond a study of ebonics and its alleged pathologies, or even its legitimized predominance in segments of the African American community. Rather, my examination of what I call Black Speak acknowledges the agency of the orator and affirms the role of cultural contexts and the interplay of linguistic structure and social structure that ensures that, as the agent adapts a language, s/he purposefull y provides meaningful social signals (see Spolsky). That is, my various identities become recognized and acknowledged based on my language choices. I link my self with values and belief systems as I perform communicative acts. As I invoke Black Speak, I avert standardized speech patterns and adopt the counter-cultural. My varying speech acts identify me with a community whose communication flows (at will) both with and against the tide of the mainstream.
Thus, Black Speak is recognizable to, definable by, and inclusive of those conversant in the cultural/communicative form. It is a sociolinguistic form that resides among the artifacts of the shared history, heritage, and culture of Americans of African descent. (1) And importantly, unlike the traditional perspectives on Black English, the purposeful invocation of Black Speak signals the intent to make (re)cognizable a "truth."
Additionally, the significance of Black Speak is more readily observed when contextualized within a broader linguistic repertoire. That is, among multilingual orators it becomes clearer that the switching of communicative forms serves to delineate a "truth." Such codeswitching highlights the use of multiple linguistic forms in the course of a communicative act (Heller).
Charles DeBose observes codeswitching in the communication of middle-class Blacks. According to DeBose, an educated middle-class Black person "may express his or her identification with African American culture, free of the stigma attached to nonstandard speech, through the use of...'Standard Black English'" (159; italics added). What DeBose observes as "Standard Black English" looks and sounds like Black Speak, as I have dubbed it (and as is shown in the opening quotes and later transcripts). And what DeBose describes is codeswitching within the linguistic repertoire of an educated, middle-class Black woman as she seeks to reconstruct events and stories of her experiences and the experiences of others.
DeBose shows us two things: one, that in order to construct a message that resonates with the listener(s), the educated, middle-class African American female orator whom he observes invokes 'Standard Black English'; and, two, that the status of the individual and her multilingual abilities indicate the potential for a purposeful use of dialect regardless of the "stigma attached to non-standard speech." However, for DeBose, the discussion of Standard Black English focuses on the "autonomous grammar" of the dialect. Black English is viewed as a second language utilized by African Americans once they are comfortable within a social setting. DeBose illustrates his emphasis by highlighting the codeswitching from Standard English to Black English as a passive response that occurs once the middle-class Black female "informant" becomes more comfortable with the observation techniques "as the session progresses" (161).
Alternatively, I emphasize that Black Speak acts. I define Black Speak as a fully conscious and purposeful performance. As she attempts to convey her perceptions to the listeners, the orator invokes Black Speak in order to communicate and illuminate a "truth." The invocation of Black Speak acts to link the orator to the shared cultural experiences and consciousness of the listener and connect the listener to the purposeful subversion and aversion of standardized language and culture. Black Speak acts to enliven, enrich, and affirm alternative/counter-cultural observations. And, as I will discuss shortly, as the speaker adopts Black Speak, she potentially adapts culture by reconstructing popular speech acts. The purposeful performance that defines Black Speak moves beyond the examination of grammar or the implied study of varying social norms introduced by DeBose. I posit that Black Speak represents the culturally enriched, purposeful conveyance of a "truth."
The "truth" that Black Speak exposes relates to the dialogical discourse noted by M. M. Bahktin. For Bahktin, in contrast to the monological that is oriented toward success, the dialogical is oriented toward understanding. I submit that the familiar dialect associated with Black Speak is a recognizable dialogical form which inverts and averts the culturally hegemonic speech patterns valued as standardized American English in order to effectively communicate an unfiltered "truth." (2) Such "truth" is, according to Derrida, "an unveiling of that which is... an adequation between a judicative statement and the thing itself" ("Signature" 99). Therefore, I posit that a "truth" lies somewhere between that which is observed and the perceptions, or judgments, of the observer. As those perceptions are communicated, language choices made by the orator become both the enunciator and delineator of a "truth." So, while I do not advocate the association of Black Speak with dissemination of the "Truth," I do assert that Bla ck Speak attempts to unravel perceptions of something viewed from the precipice from which Blacks observe American culture and transmit a (subjective/alternative) "truth" to the receiver. (3)
Black Speak, the familiar American dialect that evolved among Black people of the diaspora is a speech act. While it recalls the Africanisms associated with adapting to new roles, language, and land (see Raboteau; Dillard), it also (re)invigorates cultural consciousness. Black Speak acts purposefully recall cultural experiences that deprived Blacks of a voice and access to education in standardized communication. Black Speak acts quickly and clearly to convey the sense of community that is the connection to the shared experiences of Americans of African descent. The purposeful invocation of Black Speak resonates a "truth" by conveying a recognition of the history of subjugation and enslavement and a celebration of a self-directed present and future. It is this conveyance rather than the relevant etymology or "ebonics" that concerns me (at the moment).
Noting the effects I associate with Black Speak, Toni Morrison writes:
American Africanism makes it possible to say and not say, to inscribe and erase, to escape and engage, to act out and act on, to historicize and render timeless. It provides a way to contemplate chaos and civilization, desire and fear, and a mechanism for testing the problems and blessings of freedom. (7; italics added)
In short, as an American Africanism, Black Speak offers a sense of agency. Black Speak represents the invocation of purposeful choices in the means and mode of communicating the rich and complex cultural consciousness of African Americans. In that way, the cultural connection (re)presented by Black speech acts resonates a "truth."
Transcending standardized English, Black Speak functions to enhance communication by uncasing it. The vernacular form removes the constraints of convention. This openness strips the veneer from ordinary oratory. It underscores a statement and purposefully calls attention to an unvarnished "truth." However, this function must be contextualized.
Contextualization: From the Erratic to the Auratic
The relevant application and effect of Black Speak are based in particular contexts. Speech patterns connote class and culture (see Morrison; Labov; Fanon). According to Fanon, "To speak means to be in a position to use a certain syntax, to grasp the morphology of this or that language, but it means above all to assume a culture" (17). This suggests that the purposeful invocation of the vernacular asserts particular pre-meditated distinctions. That is, utilizing Black Speak, the orator purposefully positions her self in the counter-culture. So, while Fanon's work (and other Black English studies) focuses on the disadvantages related to erratically invoking a patois (e.g., Creole), I posit that measured invocations of dialect demonstrate skill and agency related to the improvisational style that is the hallmark of the traditions and contributions of African-descent peoples in the cultural context of America. (4)
Inverting and averting the anticipated, normalized speech patterns generates a resonance, adds an exclamation point, and instantaneously asserts another dimension of "truth" associated with the "risk" of (or, as DeBose notes, the "stigma" attached to) restructuring the standardized linguistic form. (5) The counter-cultural constructions and implications of Black Speak gain validity based on the "risk" involved in confidently (perhaps defiantly) utilizing language to (re)claim cultural roots by consciously opposing the mainstream grammatical/syntactical and cultural norms. Accordingly, the "truth" that resonates from Black Speak is more readily observable when the "bilingualism" of the interlocutors is most pronounced. Therefore, when contextualized with respect to class, the effects and the intent associated with the performance of Black Speak are especially clear.
Key to the context in which I currently examine Black Speak is the formation of intent. The intent behind the invocation of Black Speak is closely related to the socioeconomic class and education of the speaker. (6) That is, the delineation of Black speech acts is contextualized with regard to class. Greater levels of education, socioeconomic status, and social mobility provide a greater number of choices (or a larger number of codes available to be switched on or off). The purposeful invocation of the dialect and manipulation of standardized English suggest that the orator is in command of the languages involved. Among those language choices is the option to invoke (i.e., switch on) Black Speak to clearly and concisely communicate a "truth" regarding the conundrum faced by African-descent peoples simultaneously immersed in the clashing tides of American cultures to another or others conversant in the vernacular form.
In relation to the value of context and intent, Derrida states that "one of [the] essential elements [is] the conscious presence of the intention of the speaking subject for the totality of his locutory acts. Thereby, performative communication once more becomes the communication of an intentional meaning" ("Signature" 99). Derrida continues to contextualize the performatie based on its relationship to "conventionality," "correctness," and "completeness." Here he states that the successful performative is necessarily "impure" (103). However, according to Derrida, this "impurity" is intentionally applied and codified. "For a context to be exhaustively determinable ... it at least would be necessary for the conscious intention to be totally present and actually transparent for itself and others" (105; italics added). The intentional invocation of Black Speak valorizes and legitimates African American culture and heritage by reifying the importance and purpose of the "impure" language represented by the vernacular form in the assertion of and adherence to the counter/alternative culture. Examined in the context of class effects, the intentional usage of the "impure" or counter-cultural form of standardized English dubbed Black Speak offers a greater impact. Black Speak attaches a culturally conceived and perceived difference, a "truth," to a statement that is more readily apparent (or, for Derrida, transparent) and highly functional as the cultural status and routine cultural exposures gravitate to the "mainstream." That is, to borrow a term from Benjamin, the aura surrounding Black Speak is more pronounced when illuminated by the presence of standardized English within the day-to-day oratory of the individual. Such an aura is perceived as a valuable layer of authenticity enfolding the speaker and her words.
Cultural resonance associated with Black Speak provides an aura of "truth" or authenticity. However, recognition of the authentic is not bound by monolithic constructions of Black culture. The aura of authenticity that I observe is not to be confounded by notions of the "ideal, imaginary, and pastoral black family and utopian as well as authoritarian representations of blackness" (Gilroy 99). Rather, I assert that a (contextualized) invocation of Black Speak authentically resonates as a kind of emotional "truth" that emanates from exposures to and knowledge of the mainstream and its shortcomings and is legitimated by the "risk" of invoking the counter-cultural communicative form in the face of normalized speech acts.
Such authenticity dwells both in the intent of the orator and the interpretation of the listener. As Bahktin states," ... language, for the individual consciousness, lies on the borderline between oneself and the other. The word in language is half someone else's." Furthermore, in considering the bipartite nature of linguistic signs, Bahktin continues, "It becomes 'one's own' only when the speaker populates it with his own intention, his own accent, when he appropriates the word, adapting it to his own semantic and expressive intention" (qtd. in Gates 1).
This echoes the assertions of Derrida, who finds that the character of signs is twofold. Significance is the product of the signifier, who provides the "accent," in interaction with the signified, that which is said (Of). For Derrida, the "accent" is an "oral signature" that marks the presence of the "author" as the "person who does the uttering, as the origin, the source, in the production of the statement" ("Signature" 107). Black Speak provides a distinguishable oral signature based on shared experiences and relationships to others and the dominant culture. This signature inscribes a cultural resonance that registers as an authenticated "truth."
As the speaker engages dialect to speak a "truth," that very articulation ordains the signification. As Probyn states,
... theorized within a theory of articulation, the experiential may be pried from the commonsensical location in belongingness. It then becomes possible to distance the autobiographical from the representational logic. Instead of representing a "[T]ruth," a "unity" or a "belongingness," a critical use of the self may come to emphasize the "historical conditions" involved in its speaking. (28)
So it is that significance and orator are inextricably tied, and the authenticity of Black Speak resides in both the con-scions invocation and interpretation. Therefore, I do not posit cultural resonance (or authenticity) as an indication of a contemporary, monolithic African American community. Rather, the aura of authenticity derives from a milieu of shared meanings.
Common interpretations of historical conditions and the experiences of systematic exclusion as well as oppression that have mis-constructed and misconstrued the social identities of African-descent peoples lay the foundation for a sense of another community. Communities construct common languages to communicate effectively. As disenfranchised others, people of African descent inevitably constructed the alternative, counter-cultural linguistic form I label Black Speak in order to elucidate, evaluate, and communicate their American heritage.
Autobiography and Observation: Reconstructing the Popular
"I ain't givin' her no mo' money....She got enuf awready!" (Oprah Winfrey, discussing with her audience on The Oprah Winfrey Show why she will not accept monetary profit from her latest video project)
I began this essay with an anecdote from a personal interaction among my friends and colleagues. I offer the autobiographical reference not as representative of broader cultural exchanges but to illustrate the significance of Black Speak. The conversation occurred among a group of others who find ourselves entrenched in the rigors and environs of higher education. While we relate to "mainstream" academe with relative comfort and joy, as we flow from the vastness of the mainstream to the intimacy of familiar social circles, we regularly pepper our communications with Black vernacular to convey a "truth." In order to inform and engage we invoke Black Speak as a heuristic device to communicate succinctly meta-meanings that standardized speech forms do not efficiently and effectively allow. As Raymond Williams states,"...the process of communication is in fact the process of community" (55). Accordingly, as I step outside normalized speech patterns and invoke Black Speak (particularly in the given context), this communication builds, enriches, and enlivens the sense of community and acknowledges our common experiences and perceptions. The sense of community building, bonding, and sharing associated with the vernacular linguistic form bears a cultural resonance, a sense of openness, humor, and a "truth."
"Many a truth is said in jest." Humor contributes a great deal to the formation and cultural resonance of Black Speak. In his discussion of humor and the Black community, Mel Watkins turns to Ellison for support of his thesis that humor in the African American tradition is shaped by the marginalized status of Black people. Ellison states that Black identity derives from a "tragicomic attitude toward the universe [based in] the social and political predicament [of the African American]" (131-32). Therefore, while Black speech acts invoke humor both in form and content, a "truth" resonates from the collective consciousness that the acts awaken. The purposeful jest often evoked by Black Speak (as in my given anecdote and context) heightens the effect and enhances the communication.
Aware of the "twoness" that dwells within my consciousness, I choose a vernacular articulation to convey irony, satire, wit, knowledge, clarity, and a "truth." Black Speak allows me to say the unsayable and to convey clearly the meaning in the merest of utterances or the seemingly most naive questions. However, by referring to myself and my speech acts, I do not seek to be representative of a singularized, authentic Black culture. Rather, I present significance of a performative communication act: Black Speak in praxis. However, while I serve to present Black Speak in limited cultural contexts, Black speech acts are observable in the broader popular culture. Here I turn to Black Speak and celebrity by analyzing the oratorical stylings of one of the most recognizable and celebrated figures on television and in popular culture, Oprah Winfrey. An African American woman from an impoverished Southern American background, Oprah now is seen daily by more than 100 million viewers worldwide (Kennedy). She is a multim illionaire and a modem-day star. And her cachet is based on her air of familiarity.
Viewers feel that they know Oprah, and indeed the television talk show format is devised to construct such feelings of familiarity (see Marshall). The gap between the audience and the talk show host is bridged by relationships forged over time. Through daily exposure to interactions of hosts such as Oprah with guests, the studio audience and at-home viewers build networks of trust founded on the "obvious and forthright manner... knowledge, humor and idiosyncrasies ... presented for public consumption" (Marshall 131). Yet Oprah Winfrey presents a unique case.
Oprah Winfrey is an African American female (re)constructed as a populist arising from the American mainstream; she is an other who has garnered mainstream appeal. Oprah embodies "mass[-]mediated culture [established as] an inclusionary discourse for normally excluded peoples from positions of power. The construction of Oprah's subjectivity is therefore a new televisual construction of an inclusionary hegemony" (Marshall 139). Put another way, Oprah has contributed to the reconstruction of the popular to include space for the marginalized, (seemingly) relevant discourses and (most important to the subject at hand) alternative speech acts. A portion of her familiarity, humor, charisma, and forthrightness is derived from her "twoness" and her' related invocation of Black Speak.
Prior to her current status, Oprah was employed as a broadcast news anchor. Oprah Winfrey is trained well in mainstream, on-air dialect. However, not unlike myself and many others, she is in command of (at least) two languages, one of which is Black Speak. She rarely misses an opportunity to invoke the vernacular form during the course of a show. it is a familiar trait with which (based on the persistently accompanying laughter and applause) her multicultural audience identifies. The invocation of Black Speak represents her openness, her presentation of unfiltered, unvarnished "truths." (7) These "truths" resonate with the audience, and the openness provides a "risk-free" environment in which to get to "know" Blacks and Black culture and helps account for her enormous popularity and success with people from various cultural backgrounds.
Generally, The Oprah Winfrey Show opens with an introduction in standardized English. Oprah begins by welcoming the audience and describing the topic of the show. These openings feature her directly communicating with the viewers and studio audience, or with a video that introduces the topic with a pre-recorded voiceover. Typically during these welcoming/opening segments Winfrey lowers her voice an octave (as do many newscasters both male and female), and she adopts highly standardized English speech patterns. Shortly thereafter, Oprah often invokes Black Speak in a manner that delineates the important points of the show's topic and affirms her rapport with the audience, as is evident in the following excerpt from a 1997 broadcast:
Oprah: Thank you. Thank you. Today I would like you to welcome our special guest, Mr. Harrison Ford. He is Hollywood's billion-dollar man. And this will be the first time that I have met him.
(Cut to video describing Harrison Ford's career and life in the limelight There is a very straitlaced, standardized voice-over in which Winfrey gives the audience the relevant details, culminating in the description of his thencurrent film project, Air Force One.)
Qprah: I saw it [Air Force One] an' lemme tell ya... da force was definiteiy wit' him, honey.
(Laughter and applause from the audience.)
The (code)switch from standard broadcast format that introduces Harrison Ford and his accomplishments to the familiar Black Speak signifies and affirms Oprah's connection to the audience and her "honest" enthusiasm for the film and its star. While Black Speak acts to generate enthusiasm within the audience by solidifying the connection, it identifies both Oprah and her statement as "true."
Continuing to connect Black Speak with the dissemination of a "truth," the following excerpt from a 1997 program exemplifies how Oprah typicafly opens a show by invoking Black Speak to establish a familiar rapport with her audience. Introducing a show broadcast from Los Angeles, she begins with a segment titled "50 and Fabulous," in which she presents a number of women who range in age from fifty to greater than sixty years but appear more youthful. She begins the introduction to the segment as follows:
Oprah: You all in LA. don't age. Some o' y'all get a li'l he'p....
(Laughter and applause from audience.)
Oprah: This is Carol. (A Black woman appears on stage next to Oprali.) She's 52 years old. (To Carol) We didn't believe you. I asked them to call the detective. I wanted to see your driver's license. Ya look gooood, girrrl.
(More laughter and applause. Oprah turns to the audience.)
Oprah: Fifty looks good. Don't fifty look good, y'all? Fi'ty lookin' gooood ... um hmmm!
(Audience laughter, applause, and audible sounds of agreement.)
Here, we hear Oprah communicating a "truth." That is, her perception of female beauty over the age of fifty. She invokes Black Speak to engage the audience with humor in the first line. Next she performs the speech act in order to convey the "truth." Carol, though she may not look it, is verified to be 52 years old. And, finally, Oprah invokes ascending levels of Black Speak in order to further illuminate her point. She begins with fairly standardized English, "Fifty looks good," and ascends to varying levels of the counter-cultural form, "Don'tfifty look good, y'all?" before ending with the strongest performance of the Black speech act, "Fi'ty lookin' gooood...um hmmm!" As the audience applause testifies, Black Speak acts to illuminate and resonate a "truth"-in this case, Oprah's unfiltered perceptions.
In many cases, Oprah invokes Black Speak to uncover a "truth." During the course of an interview, she reconstructs questions in, or codeswitches to, Black dialect in order to make apparent her perceptions and elicit an unfiltered response. In the following excerpt from a 1996 show, Oprah utilizes Black Speak to delineate the incredulous:
(The following questions are asked of a White female guest whose child was fathered by an African American rather than her White husband.)
Oprah: So, you gave up your child because you didn't believe that you could have raised a biracial child in that neighborhood [during the 1960s].
Jeri: Yes. I was afraid for the child and the rest of the family.
Oprah: So, what do you say to the family when you come home from the hospital without a baby?
Jeri: I didn't say anything. ... My husband spoke to my mother.. . but I wasn't there.
Jeri: I don't know what my husband said.
Oprah: Wai' a minute. You never said to yo' huzban', "What did you say to ma?"
Jeri: No. Uh uh.
(Jeri shakes her head, no.) Thank God fo' talk shows. Really! Now folks are talkin' 'bout this stuff [Momentarily] We was the notalkin'nest nashuuunnn... umph. (Laughter and applause from the audience.)
Oprah employs the inflection, the intonation, and the intention that I attribute to Black Speak in order to establish her disbelief, her attempt to render a "truth," and finally to affirm her perceptions as well as her role in "truth"-telling: "Thank Cod fo' talk shows. Really!"
Finally, let us consider the following illustrative excerpt from a 1997 interview with Janet Jackson on The Oprah Winfrey Show. Throughout this show, as is generally the case, Oprah glides with ease between the oratorical worlds of standardized American English and Black Speak. The following exemplifies her invocation of Black dialect to render and convey a "truth":
Oprah: When is the last time that you talked to Michael [Jackson]?
Jackson: It'll be two years in December. It's been a long time.
Oprah: Is there a reason?
Jackson: Other than...I mean, no animosity. Nothing like that. The reason is that...uh... well, he just finished his tour.
Oprah: Y'all ain't ha' no AT&T cards o' nuthin' like that, huh? (Laughter from audience and Janet Jackson. Applause.)
Jackson: That's very true. Very true.
Oprah invokes Black Speak to quickly convey that if the "truth" is to be known Michael and Janet Jackson have the means to communicate with each other around the globe if they so desire. She uses the dialogical form that is Black dialect to strip the veneer of the ordinary oratory represented by standardized English from their discourse and expose a "truth," as Janet Jackson herself concedes. Additionally, Oprah utilizes Black Speak in the above example to make a connection with the audience (and against the evasions of Jackson) that, over the years of viewing her show and based on the personal experiences of many of her audience members, is accustomed to recognize the intricacies, aura, and significance of Black Speak.
The exchange between the two celebrated figures and the other guests illustrates the ease with which Oprah glides between linguistic forms. She moves from the normalized speech patterns of a trained broadcaster in an interview situation to the Black dialect that constructs her as a familiar and popular cultural icon. Also, according to Fanon's conceptualization, as Oprah speaks, she adopts a culture. However, given her status and the context (i.e., a globally televised broadcast), as she invokes Black Speak, Oprah adapts culture. Utilizing Black Speak, she restructures the realm of acceptable, popular broadcast oratory to include the vernacular form. Shifting subject positions, Oprah reconstructs the paradigm under which she operates and takes her audience along for the ride.
The above exchanges are offered as examples of how Oprah regularly performs Black speech acts to communicate a "truth." And given her status, the oratorical stylings of Oprah Winfrey subject the mainstream to value the African American experience as it is translated and telegraphed through the invocations of Black Speak. As Oprah performs Black Speak, she reaffirms Black culture and reconstructs popular consciousness by illuminating the significance of such acts as I have described, invoked, and experienced them.
Endarkening the Popular: Black Speak Acts
Black Speak provides a language to engage and invert the American cultural hegemony. Confronting the mainstream, the vernacular form offers a means to communicate and authenticate perceptions of the inequities and the tragicomic "realities" of the historic and systemic deprivation and discrimination endured by African Americans. The vantage point of Black American identity affords a "knowing" that is telegraphed instantaneously through the invocation of Black Speak. Thus, Black Speak projects the cosmopolitan insight of those who are and have been simultaneously at the background and forefront of American popular culture.
The complex and duplicitous relationship of African-descent peoples and American culture cultivates the "endarkening" of American culture (i.e., influencing the culture by invoking American Africanisms (8)) that dates to the arrival of the first African-descent peoples to the shores of the continent. The alternative/counter-cultural formations of African-descent peoples have intrigued and informed American popular culture from its inception. These forms transport and transfer cultural effects that are distinctive to the African American heritage and that are evident in the popularity of cultural forms such as jazz, R & B, rap, and other popular African-descent contributions that have transmuted American culture. Similarly, the effects of Black Speak are apparent in even a casual glance at American culture.
The media are (ful)filled with the incorporation of the oratorical and comedic stylings derivative of Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby, Queen Latifah, Eddie Murphy, Oprah Winfrey, and countless others whose connection to a Black cultural consciousness has equaled personal success and (re)constructed the popular culture. While their positions in society have contributed to the endarkening of the popular, they are connected to and arose from an African-descent alternative culture that valorized itself and its language. Seeking means to telegraph the perceptions and insights gained from living simultaneously inside and outside American culture, African-descent peoples have developed Black Speak as a heuristic device to communicate a "truth." That is, to share what is learned through the triumph and tragedy of life as another in America and to connect with the community of others who recognize and valorize their accounts.
Black Speak is as soothing as familiar/familial foods that instantaneously bathe one in cultural comforts. Black Speak is not the "Truth" but a "truth" about American experiences as lived by African-descent peoples. A "truth" that is exposed by Black Speak is the acknowledgment of the unfulfilled promises of a society that dishonors its commitment to freedom and equality. Black Speak acknowledges the limits that bound educational, political, and social opportunities and that necessitate the cultivation of the alternative linguistic form.
Codeswitching from standardized English to Black Speak signals a shift from lacquered politesse of mainstream anonymity to an unvarnished "truth" observed by the others who are connected by cultural constructions of racial/social identity and heritage. Black Speak invokes the "knowing" I associate with the twoness of Blackness. Stripping the veneer of anonymity by recalling the collective consciousness of African American heritage and registering it as authenticated communication produces a "truth" that is not recalled within mainstream interactions. The purpose of the switch is revealed in the very shift from ordinary oratory to the familiar and familial tones of the alternative form: The codeswitch to Black Speak signals that the orator is "breaking down" mainstream statements to authenticated "truths" related to the realities of Black cultural consciousness.
The references to myself and the transcripts of The Oprah Winfrey Show illustrate the intent and effect of codeswitching to Black Speak. The effectiveness and efficiency are apparent in the immediate responses of laughter from my other companions and the predictable laughter and applause of Oprah's audience. Short-cutting through the veneer of the legitimized culture, the aura of Black Speak unmasks the inability of mainstream communicative acts to face the deleterious effects of historic and systemic political, economic, and social hegemony. Because Black Speak is cultivated at the cultural margins, it is well-positioned to critique culture and become a counter-cultural instrument for the criticism of the mainstream. Also at the periphery, African-descent culture encircles the mainstream core and endarkens popular culture to the perceptions and perspectives of others. Black Speak provides a means, a language, with which to engage and examine the limits and limitations of mainstream cultural constructions.
Performative communication, the conveyance of intentional meaning, is at the soul of Black Speak. Black speech acts are invoked purposefully to provoke thoughtfulness and soulfulness, to inform, and to endarken popular culture. In short, Black Speak acts to communicate a "truth." In a similar way to the plethora of other African American cultural forms, Black Speak inverts and averts the hegemonic normative standards. Black speech acts to reconstruct the popular "reality" that is inextricably tied to the contributions of African-descent peoples to American culture.
(1.) As even casual observations of popular culture illustrate, the sharing of Black culture is not limited to Black-identified individuals. However, Whites and other non-Blacks who adopt Black Speak may have their "authenticity" called into question. Warning: Invocations of Black Speak may be made at your own risk.
(2.) This form not only involves a dialogical use of words, but it also includes rhythm and timing (see Gates; Watkins; Sidran). The effects of the flow of Black dialect and the relationship of the linguistic form and its inversion of standardized, normalized American English to the musical form of jazz will be developed in a future treatment of Black Speak.
(3.) Of course, this is not to suggest that Black Speak may not be invoked to mystify or subjugate a "truth." Furthermore, I advance a delimited notion of "truth" in order to avoid the association of Black speech acts with claims of monolithic racial "authenticity."
(4.) That is, the intentional inversion and aversion of standardized language I identify as Black Speak form the linguistic linkage to the African American-inspired musical art form known as jazz. Indeed, Black speak seeks to "jazz up" the language while conveying a "truth" (see Gates; Gilroy; Sidran).
(5.) Aside from the "stigma" referred to by DeBose, the "risk" associated with the counter-cultural linguistic form is well noted in the works of, among others, Robbins Burling, who asks, "Is there anything wrong with [Black English]?" and answers with "What should we do about it?" (89,101), and William A. Stewart, who refers to the "chronic language problem" associated with African American dialect.
(6.) I do not suggest here that those who hail from lower socioeconomic/lower educational levels do not purposefully invoke Black Speak. However, as later examples will illustrate, the delineation of the purposeful effects of invocations of the vernacular are more marked among those who more often shift between the "worlds" of the culturally hegemonic and the other. This becomes clearer as I consider popular figures such as Oprah Winfrey, who consistently exhibits dual consciousness as she shifts between the "mainstream" vocal style of a broadcast anchorwoman and Black Speak.
(7.) Here, I must note that uses of "Black" humor are also associated with self-effacement, self-deprecation, mitigation, and an "easing of tensions" (Watkins 112). It is possible that Oprah utilizes the vernacular linguistic form to deflect scrutiny or to appease the ideological and cultural hegemony. (Also, the cultural resonance relates to the history of the usage of Black vernacular forms, dialect, and stereotypes in entertainment.) However, human motives are often mixed, and in the context of this examination, emphasis on the intentional and purposeful invocation of Black Speak to foster familiarity and popularity seems (however optimistic) appropriate.
(8.) See Morrison.
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Antonio Brown holds a doctorate in Political Science from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Currently, he is a professor of Political Science and African American Studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, California. Brown wishes to thank Susan Douglas for the tireless support and encouragement that made this article possible.
[c] 2002 Antonio Brown
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2002|
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