When I was born in 1981, my daddy wanted to give me the French name “Monique,” but he didn’t know how to spell it, and when he consulted with a nurse at the hospital there in our little town of Commerce, Georgia, she confessed she didn’t know how to spell it either. And so they guessed. The story of how I got my misspelled name is important to me because today I see my daddy’s ignorance on my birthday as a marker of the type of family I was born into: an uneducated one.
Neither of my parents finished high school. Momma left school when she was about nine years old and became a child laborer who picked cotton and worked on a chicken farm. Daddy made it as far as the eleventh grade. Unlike my parents, I was never forced to leave school or pick cotton. And though I did not go to segregated schools like my parents did, I self-segregated myself from other people.
I think my language, my race, and my lower-class upbringing were the things that kept me apart from the kids at my school. Though I regularly spoke black vernacular at home with my parents and brother, at school my language was different. I learned early on that the world had a certain social order and particular language rules. One thing I learned was that Black English was to be spoken amongst black people who grew up in double-wide trailers like I did, and Standard English was to be used in education and the workforce. And while I learned all of this at an early age, my daddy never seemed to get it, or at least he pretended he didn’t.
“You talk so weird,” Daddy accused me. He stood in front of our kitchen door dressed in the green snowsuit that he wore as a uniform in the poultry plant where he worked. The suit had a few seams missing from wear and tear, and the bottom hem was frayed. “Half the time I don’t even know what you sayin’,” Daddy said, and as he pushed open the kitchen door and walked out into the black night I heard him grumble, “Hell, what chu think you is?”
Daddy’s intended meaning was clear: You are black just like I am, so why don’t you sound like it? I felt shamed by Daddy’s words, and what he said confirmed a suspicion I’d had for some time, which was that he thought I was talking down to him by speaking Standard English. Whenever we had those conversations about my speech, there was always a lot of eye-rolling and frustration on my part. I felt I should explain myself to Daddy, but what could I say? That his way of speaking wasn’t good enough for me anymore? That I was ashamed to sound too black and too Southern? Instead of talking about it, I clammed up.
To make matters worse, Daddy liked to pretend my accent and diction had created a foreign language that he couldn’t comprehend. I think Daddy was just annoyed because I didn’t sound so much like him anymore. His theory was that I was “talking white” because I was influenced by the students at my predominately white school. This was not altogether true. The truth was that we lived in Jackson County, Georgia, a place where it was uncommon to hear Standard English, and nearly all of the kids at my school had a Southern accent. If I had truly planned to fit in with my classmates, I would have adopted a Southern twang, not an inclination toward standard speech. However, Daddy was right on one point— when I was younger, I used to speak vernacular with my family at home, but as I grew older my language changed. By the time I reached high school, my speech was much closer to a Standard American English dialect than anyone else’s in my family. I think the change in my speech was partly caused by the fact that I immersed myself in books. I was a lonely child, and reading books was one of few things that kept me from feeling so alone. Gradually, my Georgia drawl faded and I began to speak like the words on the page. And while my change in speech was partly brought about unconsciously, I can admit now that some of it was done purposefully. I knew how people degraded black speech and Southern speech, and I was afraid of sounding black and Southern.
At school, I felt alienated. While I did sometimes try to speak vernacular with the black students, some of those students judged me as not being ‘black’ enough. Karen did. She was a black girl in my grade who went to the same church as me.
“You a white girl trapped in a black girl’s body,” Karen said to me more than once.
At first I didn’t know what Karen meant, but then I noticed she usually accused me of being too white when she saw me off to myself reading a book or heard me use words longer than two syllables. I finally caught on that Karen associated reading books and using proper speech with being white. I never saw Karen read a thing, and her speech was far from what I would call proper. She had a distinctly black Southern style of speech, not the charming kind (à la Morgan Freeman), but the sort that made me want to get a set of earplugs. I could never admit to myself that I hated how she spoke—to hate it would be to hate a part of myself.
Karen and I could not be friends, and I think part of the reason was our different styles of speech. She was friends with the blacks who spoke like she did, and I think some of them considered me an uncle tom.
Aside from her accent, Karen’s behavior was also a big reason for our disconnect. After school, she’d go down to the east wing of our high school and have sex with boys in empty classrooms. I admired her, not for her cock-sucking, but because she did what she wanted and was unashamed of it. She seemed to enjoy what she did with those boys, and those boys loved it, so it was a win-win situation to me. While I admired Karen for her brazen boldness and authenticity, I was a virgin who was terrified of boys, even terrified of my own voice, and so I felt I couldn’t relate to her.
The qualities that I admired in Karen—confidence and genuineness—were the same qualities I admired in a lot of black people, especially the ones who spoke Black English. They had the attitude that they wouldn’t change for anyone else, and whenever I heard them speak I knew that they were simply being themselves, whether other people liked it or not. And while I admired the genuine style of black speech, I understood, even back then, that as a culture we shun Black English and accept the blacks who talk white. I cannot think of any powerful, well-respected blacks who speak Black Vernacular. Oprah Winfrey doesn’t. Barack Obama doesn’t. And if Oprah and Obama spoke like Karen, would they be in such powerful positions? Probably not.
In high school, my disconnect from Karen was representative of my disconnect from the other black students. Though I did speak vernacular with them, I suppose I didn’t do it well enough. Maybe I didn’t use enough double negatives. Maybe I couldn’t quite clip the ends of words like “door” and “store” crisply enough. I don’t know what the hell it was, but sometimes when I spoke to blacks, they would listen with their heads cocked to the side (the way a person might gape at something unusual). The strange looks they gave me were bad enough, but when those looks were mashed together with my shyness, it succeeded in crippling me. I rarely spoke unless spoken to, and even then my replies were tentative whispers. I started to hate my own voice.
As uncomfortable as I was with myself, I hated Ana’s voice even more. Ana was a Hispanic girl at my high school who tried to conceal her Mexican heritage. Though passing for white appeared to be her goal, her skin was too dark to be considered white, and so her attempts at passing were futile. Ana’s voice was so affected and high pitched and “valley girl” that even the white girls at our school would stare at her, and the few Mexican girls in our school wanted to kick Ana’s ass. I once asked two Mexican girls why they hated her so, and one of them responded with, “Because she say she is no Mexican.”
I had a Spanish class with Ana during my sophomore year. The other students in class asked her for help with homework and in-class assignments. Ana told them her Spanish was limited, and I think most people believed her until one day our Spanish teacher pronounced the word pharmacia (pharmacy) with the accent on the third syllable. Ana said, “I, like, heard that it’s, like, pronounced pharmacia (accent on second syllable). Like, I dunno, but that’s just, like, what I heard.”
The room went silent, and I felt the anger of about twenty students silently cursing Ana. I saw at least one pair of eyes roll. If Ana couldn’t help us with our homework because she didn’t speak Spanish, then how could she correct our teacher?
Ana and I were never friends, and so why do I care, even now as a grown woman, that she denied her heritage? I think it’s because I understand what it’s like to speak one way at home and a different way at school, and I sometimes wonder if other black people talk about me the way the Hispanic kids from my school talked about Ana. Am I trying too hard to assimilate? It’s a question I ask myself all the time. I examine my habits and all of my likes and dislikes for signs of too much milk in my bloodstream. My love of country music (Randy Travis, Dixie Chicks, Tim McGraw) counts as one point for the white team, but on the other hand I also like Sam Cooke, so that’s a point for the black team, right? Growing up, I was a fan of Kate Hepburn and black and white movies in general, and I see that as a point for the white team. And what about the books I’m reading? I’m a fan of Mildred D. Taylor and Roxane Gay (both black), but I definitely read more white writers than black. I blame my predominately white reading list on American schools. I cut my eyeteeth on the Western canon, but if I hadn’t been assigned so many Western writers in school, I doubt that I would read the canon as often as I do.
Not only was I fed a diet of mostly white writers in both high school and college, but I also grew up in a predominately white town, which whitewashed me even more since most of the kids I interacted with were white. By the unwritten social order rules, I could possibly have been friends with the poor whites since I was poor. I did have some casual friends from that group. I remember I went home with one of them to spend the night. Her name was Beth and she had a Southern accent typical of our region. She lived in a high-ceilinged house out in Madison County. A fat cat lazed around on Beth’s bed, and as we talked in her bedroom, Beth revealed a secret to me.
“I’m glad my daddy’s not home. I don’t know if he would allow you to spend the night here with us,” Beth said.
I wondered why not.
“He doesn’t really allow black people in our house,” Beth said. Her voice wasn’t hateful, just matter-of-fact.
That conversation marked the end of our friendship, and it was an awakening at the time. I was about seventeen that year, and I realized I had spent my time in grades K-12 ticking people off my list. I severed my relationships with black kids who spoke different from me and minority kids who acted “too white,” and the white kids who came from racist families. The thing about writing people off is that soon you look around and there’s no one there, no one to befriend.
During this friend crisis of mine, our household was the pity of my momma’s side of our family. Not that our extended family had much of a pot to piss in either, but my momma, my daddy, my brother and I were the most pathetic of us all. Our financial problems were worsened by the fact that my daddy loved his whiskey. More than once during my childhood, he had to be admitted into inpatient programs for substance abuse, which kept him out of work and caused Momma to struggle even harder to pay our bills. Momma often had to borrow money from her brothers and sisters just so we could afford to live.
During this time, I was given a box of hand-me-down sweaters from one of my older cousins. My favorite one was beige wool, and it had multi-colored argyle shapes across the front. I wore it often, and I was complimented on it. In my Advanced Placement (AP) English class, my sweaters were as nice as anything worn by my white, middle-class peers. I remember that my classmate Emma once said, “You have the nicest sweaters.” She was right. They looked and felt expensive.
One day, my black friend LaTonya was sitting near Emma and me in class. Emma made some comment about LaTonya being ‘ghetto’ or ‘hood’ or some other term often used to describe low-class blacks. I remember looking at LaTonya and wondering what was low-class about her. The only things I could think of were her speech and style of dress. LaTonya spoke like Karen, only not so loud or aggressive. LaTonya was also a bisexual who liked to wear baggy, man-style jeans and oversize t-shirts with sneakers or boots. I knew that LaTonya’s daddy liked to drink, probably not as much as my daddy, but he drank just the same. LaTonya was black and grew up in a double-wide, just like me. The only difference between us was that I sounded like a middle-class white girl and wore argyle sweaters, and LaTonya spoke like what would usually be heard in either of our homes and dressed less sophisticated. As a result of mine and LaTonya’s differences in speech and dress, Emma was kind to me but not to LaTonya. It occurs to me now that for a long time middle-class people like Emma have mistakenly assumed I shared something in common with them: a middle-class lifestyle.
Emma, along with most of the students in my AP English class in high school, belonged to the middle class white group. I was like them in that we all enjoyed books and dramatic movies. Maybe I could’ve been friends with them. Those students were friendly with me, but over the years I began to write them off. Some of them tended to believe that the Western world was ‘right’ and everything else was inferior. I saw this whenever they made fun of speech that was different from theirs. Most of them spoke Standard English. Very few had a Southern accent. Sometimes I wondered what they would say about my family if they heard my momma or daddy speak.
Another reason I felt distanced from my AP classmates was that I was dealing with poverty and my daddy’s drinking, so their concerns about prom and their detailed stories about their cats rarely interested me. I wrote them off based on the simple assumption that they were not poor and therefore could not understand me. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe they had alcoholic daddies like mine, or maybe their home lives were similar to mine in some way or another. All I know for sure is that as a teenager I didn’t think anyone in the world was suffering like I was. And when I thought about reaching out to the students in my AP class, I tried to picture a girl like Emma hanging out with me at our trailer—a place with holes in the floors that was heated by only a kerosene space heater in winter—and I couldn’t.
In an earlier draft of this essay, I wrote that I’m not so sure if I can be friends with middle-class whites. One of my friends, a girl who is both white and middle-class, read the essay and said that I should retract that statement. But I won’t take it back. I can’t. For a long time, I have reflected on what could possibly lead me to make such a racist, classist statement. Over time, I have come to realize that my insecurities around middle class whites comes from my resentment of social classes. I see my status as one that has been constantly marginalized. And there, sitting on the other end of the social spectrum, is the mainstream group, which I think is made up of middle and upper class whites. Even today, whenever I am in a room full of people, I am still very conscious of where I come from—the wrong side of that spectrum—and it makes me angry and bitter. Sure, I’ve had middle-class white friends before, but I have always kept them at a distance. I am a product of the environment in which I grew up. I don’t know that anyone can come through the type of poverty I grew up in and survive it completely unscathed and with no anger or meanness or resentfulness. Today, I can say that perhaps my paranoia around middle-class white people stems from being raised in a society where being poor is a source of shame. I think somewhere in the midst of my lower-class suffering, I began to unjustly blame the middle and upper classes. I can’t be friends with people who come from wealthier backgrounds because deep down I worry they will make judgments about me based on where I come from. Several times I’ve heard people use words like “trailer trash” to describe people like me. They used these classist, hateful labels in a way that was directed at other people, and they said it to me as if they thought I would understand, as if they assumed I grew up in a nice home like they did and would somehow agree that to come from a trailer makes someone less of a human being. This is not to say that all middle-class white people have this type of attitude toward the poor. In fact, I’m sure that many do not. And yet, my fear of the middle class and my insecurities around them are very real.
As an undergrad I took a course called American Speech, and it is one of the few classes I remember from all of my years in school. The class introduced me to the concept of language prejudice, which is basically the idea that we are all pre-judged based on the way we speak. I had been aware of that type of prejudice since I was younger, but I didn’t know the name for it, nor did I know that there was so much to be learned about language. It was mind-blowing.
My teacher spoke with an Appalachian accent. He was from North Carolina and admitted that when he first came into the academic world he was ashamed of his speech. I understood him completely. I was a child who felt I should conceal my family life from other students, even adopt a different way of speaking to keep them from knowing about the world I grew up in.
One of the most important things I learned in speech class is that there are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ dialects, just different ones. Language is completely arbitrary. The accents we develop are all due to where and how we were raised and conditioned. Accents do not reflect our level of intelligence. Being born Southern or black doesn’t make a person stupid or less of a person.
Even after my newfound reassurance that my language was nothing to be ashamed of, I confess I am still sometimes self-conscious about the way I speak. When I decided to apply to graduate school in English, I worried that my language wouldn’t be good enough to compete or even stay on the same level as the other students. I was educated by parents who had only the bare minimum of education themselves, and since my education could not begin at home, I depended heavily on my school to educate me. But my high school was a public school in rural Georgia. The South is notorious for having school systems that are admittedly behind the rest of the country. My school was no different. We had low test scores, and no one tried to set the standard any higher for us.
For a long time I didn’t think I belonged in classrooms, and even now I am unsure if I do. Aside from my worries about language, I am also a person who likes to form my own opinions about things, and I sometimes think classrooms basically teach everyone to think alike. Right now I’m in graduate school, a place where some students elevate their teachers to god-like entities and try to express the same thoughts and feelings as their teachers. All of my classmates pretty much speak Standard English and everyone is politically correct. The vernacular I spoke with my family when I was younger is probably as foreign in our program as, well, students who are only one generation from cotton pickers. Sometimes I long to hear a strong regional accent in our cohort, and I wish my classmates would argue instead of always agreeing on the big issues concerning race and class and sexuality. I wish that more students in our academic program could be as genuine and unpretentious as my high school classmate Karen.
Right now I work as a tutor in our college’s writing center. I have tutored essays written by Southern kids and minority kids, and even when the content of their papers is good, I sometimes worry about their grades suffering because of their grammar and vernacular. A black boy whose paper was infused with Black Vernacular once came in for help. I stumbled through his paper, all the while tempted to tell him to think about how his white teacher would say things and then re-write it accordingly. Whenever I tutor those types of papers, I feel like I’m acting superior, like I’m climbing up into my ivory white tower and pulling out my little red pen and scratching the words “Whiten up,” across the tops of the students’ papers.
Some of you might argue that students should whiten up, that Standard English is more eloquent and better overall than other varieties of the language. But would you think that way if you weren’t taught to think so in classrooms? What if all of your teachers spoke with heavy Boston accents? What if all of your textbooks were written in the Boston dialect? What if every time you turned on the TV the newscaster dropped every other ‘R’? Would you still think that Standard English is superior to the Boston dialect? Probably not.
When I was accepted to two graduate-level English programs, I gained a little confidence. I thought that perhaps I was good enough—that my language and writing skills were good enough—to move and learn in academic circles. But during the first week of classes, my old worries surfaced again. In a writing workshop, a professor posed a question: Who are your biggest writing influences? I named Anne Rivers Siddons and Mildred D. Taylor, two authors that the professor had never heard of. I explained that Taylor has written several kids’ books I admire and that Siddons writes women’s commercial fiction. The professor gave me a blank look and explained that if I planned to write “up here” (raises his hand above his head), then I should read “up here” (keeps his hand up as though he’s trying to touch God).
I wondered which books I’d most likely find on this professor’s shelf. Probably Hemingway and Proust, I thought, and so I wasn’t surprised when Mr. Write-Up-Here asked if any of us had read any Proust. I was annoyed. If I can mentally go through a list of what a college professor might consider “writing up here,” then there is something wrong with our education system—that many academics think learning to write should involve stumbling around reading the same books. While I never expected to be assigned commercial writers like Siddons in my MFA classes, I didn’t expect my professors to treat me with condescension either. My problem with the professor’s ‘write up here’ comment (aside from the fact that it was laced with condescension) is that he didn’t stop to ask what I admire about Siddons and Taylor before writing them off as kids’ stuff. If he had asked, I would have assuredly told him that Taylor, while classified as a children’s author, is someone who writes about race in a bold way. She’s completely uninhibited, which is what I want to be. And while I don’t always admire the content of Siddons’ novels, I do admire her style. She writes Southern fiction (which I aspire to write), is great with characterization and setting, and I always learn new words from her, not to mention that her prose is often like poetry.
My write-up-here professor loves his Western writers, and while I certainly enjoy reading many white writers, I still have a problem with teachers who can only give me white writers as examples of what I should aspire to. As a minority writer, I feel that teachers like him feed a concern I’ve had for a while now—that no matter how much I improve as a writer I’ll never be considered “up here” simply because I’m not white.
I think one of the things that bugs me most about being told to write up here/get sophisticated is that I know I am not sophisticated and I never will be. I have known this for a very long time. I am a country woman who walks barefoot, loves anything fried, and enjoys reading and writing accessible prose and poetry.
Recently, I read a writer’s forum post where a student writer criticized the black novelist Jamaica Kincaid. He said that Kincaid is from “some country that’s probably a good place to test an A-bomb.” And when I read his comment, it confirmed an idea I had had about American schools for some time—that by focusing on white culture and white writers, we are placing value judgments on countries like Antigua (Kincaid’s homeland). By focusing on Eurocentric literature, we teach students that literature from places like U.S.A., England and France is the only literature worth reading. The result of all of this—reading mostly white authors and being graded by a white standard of speech—is that I believe for a long time I was taught in schools that white people are superior to me. One of my graduate school classmates says this isn’t true, that American students aren’t universally taught that whites are superior. My best response to this is that I am not white or middle-class or from the Midwest, but I had better speak as if I am in order to be taken seriously in a classroom. American schools have taught me that my language is inferior, and language is everything to an aspiring writer.