(In)Articulate while Black

Cory Booker at a Pro-Obamacare healthcare rally (Photo: Senate Democrats, Wikimedia Commons).

I imagine that there are people who believe that Black people are too sensitive. When Blacks are called “well-spoken,” or “articulate,” they may say to themselves that this is not the worse thing that one can be called. After all Mayor Bloomberg, they might say, most likely intended to be complimentary when he said Cory Booker was well-spoken. Despite learning racism’s three card monte— pocketing the term “uppity” and replacing it with the charge of being “too sensitive” —these people have not, in their hearts, learned to replace the idea that Black people are some type of way.

The observation, and especially the pleasantly surprised tone in which it is usually offered, reveals that the speaker subscribes to a way of thinking that holds that Black people are typically inarticulate. “Articulate” Blacks are therefore a welcome exception to the rule. Subject to the delusion that a person’s vocabulary reflects their intelligence or cognitive power, they hold that the articulate (in standard English) Black person is evidence that not all Blacks are illiterate or incapable of speech. Their being witness to this proof, while white, is the compliment on offer.

A non-Black stutterer, a non-Black non-native speaker, a non-Black person placed outside of normative intellectual ability is, but for these conditions external to their inherent nature, considered capable of articulate speech in English. And even if they are not, this should not be taken as telling of the cognitive powers of their race. In the case of the Black person things are reversed. Inability is considered the natural state of Black people, so the appearance of an articulate “one” is considered a small marvel. When the Black person struggles against the limits of their vocabulary or speaks with an accent it is due, for those who praise the exceptional Black, to the Negro’s inherent incapacity for language. Or, for those who find 19th century sociological discourse passé, it is due to a lack of education. This “lack,” of course, is considered a personal failure. It is failure branded onto the body, a lack embodied; it is not the history of racial disenfranchisement, of inaccessibility to tutoring, of Black-kid subject-formation after interpellating antiblack ideology, it is not the history of racism as unfolded in a life. African-Americans are considered uneducated, not systematically dis-educated. When an articulate Black person appears then, it is almost as if they should be doubly-praised because they have struggled and won against the odds of their nature. They have conquered both their inherent intellectual inferiority and the pull of their primitive culture.

If Man is seen as a speaking animal then the further Black people are placed outside of good speech, the further they are dehumanized, and the more their injury can be legitimated. If Man is a political animal and politics is the domain of the dialectical, then the “black” who is in their essence —  or, at the genetic level — incapable of good speech, is always external to politics and thus the law. This is not academic. As detailed in Hartman’s Scenes of Subjection, in several states in antebellum America, enslaved Blacks could not give evidence or testify, i.e. speak to courts and were more vulnerable to state and citizen violence on this account. In Britain’s African colonies the perceived absence of a word in a particular language was taken to mean the absence of the concept or a quality in a particular ethnic group. For instance, one of the more violently racist settler leaders in the East Africa Protectorate, Ewart Grogan, wrote that there is no word for pity in Swahili. This, for him, meant that the natives were inherently wicked. It was no wonder, he argued, that the Arabs who understood them best ruled them with a “rod of iron,” which they in fact preferred to British “philanthropy” and measured punishment which they look on with suspicion. Black college students from Black working and lumpen class cultures exhale audibly when their Black professor gives permission to think, speak and write in their organic voices. They cleanse their pronunciation, provide disclaimers or apologize for their affect, tone, and alternative vocabularies, and reach for “big words” in classes headed by white professors in PWIs. They expect, rightly, that Black speech and nation-language will be punished. When one lives, moves, studies, works and has one’s being in anti-black discourse, one must whistle Vivaldi to shake the target from one’s back. One knows that deviating from standard English, allowing your code-switching to show, can box the food out of your mouth. In an anti-Black society, a mispronounced word can be fatal.

In a society where the killing of Black people is justified with reference to their body-language, where the enslaved were not to put a word out of place, and released Black prisoners die from a lack of being heard, being told one is well-spoken hits different. If you’ve lived under an occupation by Bloomberg’s private army, the mayor’s noticing that you can speak feels more like a reprieve granted than a compliment. We are governed by brutes. Knuckle-dragging, baton-wielding anti-Blacks whose response to mistranslation is battery and murder. “You’re so articulate” means you do not deserve the low-intensity holocaust despite your blackness. It means you are the smart puppy to be saved from the thresher that is the dog pound. It means “you have done what is needed to be done to be worthy of my hearing.”

But they are not kings.

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Yannick Marshall

Yannick Marshall is assistant professor of Africana Studies at Knox College. His dissertation is on policing in colonial Kenya, and he teaches and writes about settler-colonialism, anti-Blackness, and police power. Marshall has also published poetry and short fiction.