Mother’s Tongue

NOTE:  Now, if you’re not familiar with the culture understand that Mother or Mother Dear or Madea is a common term for the matriarch of the family. And my great-grandmother was that to all of us, but she was a kindred spirit to me. 

Back in the day, way back when Black folks in Alabama spent sometimes in the one room school house and sometimes in the fields, Mother was an avid and advanced reader. She was educating her siblings who were 5 years older than she as the teacher’s assistant. She beamed when she’d tell me about how smart the teacher told her she was. About the books she remembered reading , even 80 years later giving me detailed retellings of those stories. One day that little one-room school closed and from then on it was hard for Mother to come by a book, much less an educator to help her attain more material to fuel her intellect.

I’d always wondered about the possible lives of the women in my life. Had those who raised me had better opportunities and better luck, what great things would they have been better able to give to the humans of this world? Would Mother have lived differently if that little school house had not been closed that rainy day? Would she have gone on to be a teacher? A professor? A novelist? Would she have had more income? A different style of dress? Would she have spoken differently? I do not equate speaking business English with intellect, but it seems inevitable that a certain level of education bequeaths an its recipient the ability to speak with the tongues of the professors and texts that groom them. Again, I need you to understand: speaking business English does not an intellectual make.

The English language was never monochromatic in my life. My mother’s heavy Korean accent. My grandmother’s Alabama drawl. The urban Miami Ebonics of my cousins. The Spanglish of my childhood friends. The business English of my father’s grand attempt to remove himself from the language of Black poverty. The florid, narrative styles of The Hobbit, Narnia and The Grimm Brothers. The pompous tongues of both villains and heroes of my comics. The nonsensical babble of Dr. Seuss. My language is an amalgamation of these voices of my childhood.

Because I encountered these all in the period where language was new and newly formed in my mind, I was blissfully unaware that one would be more respected than the others. Because Mother was an unfiltered source of knowledge, I never believed her inability to speak like my teachers was a sign of a lack of education. I suppose I was blessed with parents who taught me that a formal education was a means to an end but it was, by no means, the only mark of a person’s ability to be wise.

So here is a confession: I am an English teacher that corrects the “improper” use of language of my students. I take the bits of home they carry on their tongues and in their scripts and I reform them. A friend once argued that I was teaching these black and brown and yellow and red babies how to speak White. I understood and still understand her position. But this is not my intent. I am sorry for correcting them. Because I love language and the things we can do when we manipulate words and how we have evolved over time, I know that sometimes these colloquial – slang – phrases and shortened speech would one day be proper.

I teach my students business English because not because it is better, more refined or correct but because it is part of the system. And I was taught that, for the most part, you must know the system in order to beat the system.

Mother’s wisdom was spoken with a dialect that has been questioned, “othered” and deemed inferior. But I have yet to meet a professor that could have taught me what she taught. And I wonder, had Mother had more formal education, would she have fared better financially in this system than she had? She was the single most wise woman I had the blessing of knowing, and her life was full of people who loved her and revered her; but still, because we hold business English to such high esteem I wonder if Mother’s tongue were more formal, would she have had less struggle in the years she walked this earth?

 

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