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Talking Black At Work

Jazz at Lincoln Center?s 5th Annual Spring Gala ?Setting New Standards?Jazz at Lincoln Center?s 5th Annual Spring Gala ?Setting New Standards?
Bernie Mac (Photo by Mychal Watts/WireImage)Mychal Watts WireImage

In a former life, I worked in the marketing department for a small brokerage firm. It was, I thought, an elegant gambit. I had decided to turn myself into a business journalist, so I wanted to better understand financial markets and reporting. I got the education I needed, just not the one I expected.

It took about a month to realize the terrible mistake I’d made. The firm specialized in “speculative” stocks and used a variety of extraordinary emotional sleights to make their products appealing to the most loyal common denominator they could find: White folks who hated the government. (It’s not on my LinkedIn, so don’t even try.)

They were in the business of hedging a dangerous world. It was before conservative television news was born, so they mostly pressed investment newsletter writers into service. They focused on the four “G’s”: God, gold, and guns will save you from kleptocrats and race rioters. And in the years ahead of Y2K, stock up on groceries and related stocks as well. Mining companies. Private prison firms. I’ve read every one of Ron Paul’s investment newsletters. Ask me anything.

A former imperial wizard, then living in Russia, was a client.

I didn’t last long.

But on my way out the door, and because the devil had grabbed my tongue one fine day, I told what passed for a management team that new NASD regulations now required that all the firm’s collateral materials had to be published in Ebonics as well as standard English. Back in the day, Bill Cosby was still eating pudding and telling boys to pull up their drawers, and had recently grabbed the mic to weigh in on whether Ebonics should be taught in the Oakland Public Schools. So, I was sick of him too. I don’t know why I said it, I think I just trying to be a jerk. But the wave of outrage that erupted when they believed me was just too good to be true.

This memory came flooding back as I read Vinson Cunningham’s gorgeous review of “Talking Back, Talking Black” a new book by the linguist, writer, and Columbia professor John McWhorter. It was brought to my attention by raceAhead reader Megan Carpenter, and I spent the better part of my yesterday thinking about how the language used by non-majority people in majority cultures is viewed and policed.

In his essay, Cunningham begins by recalling his love for the late comedian Bernie Mac, who was an expert speaker of Black English. Cunningham expresses delight for the emotional redemption associated with the idea that black speech is important, real and true. “In the book, McWhorter offers an explanation, a defense, and, most heartening, a celebration of the dialect that has become, he argues, an American lingua franca.”

I must admit, it was a redemption I didn’t know I needed. From his essay:

“Talking Back, Talking Black,” then, is a kind of apologia. In five short essays, McWhorter demonstrates the “legitimacy” of Black English by uncovering its complexity and sophistication, as well as the still unfolding journey that has led to its creation. He also gently chides his fellow-linguists for their inability to present convincing arguments in favor of vernacular language. They have been mistaken, he believes, in emphasizing “systematicity”—the fact that a language’s particularities are “not just random, but based on rules.

Feeling alone and under siege in the investment mindset of the real America, I instinctively used black speech as a weapon, a big talk back before I disappeared entirely. I didn’t fully understand the depth of their contempt for the fake NASD rule then, but I do now. I also now understand how exhausting it is to be as afraid as the firm’s customers were, living in the Venn overlap of privilege and oppression, believing all day long that the next Rodney King was coming to turn their stolen tax dollars into crank and drank. And worse. Fear makes easy marks out of regular people.

But those men in suits sure got powerful mad when I told them they’d have to spend money to black up their stuff, their faces all red and saying certain things. They’all lost their mind up in there, but we gon’ be alright.

– Ellen McGirt is a senior editor at Fortune. She write’s raceAhead, Fortune’s daily newsletter on race and culture. Sign up here.