Part 4 of the TED Radio Hour episode Playing With Perceptions.
About Jamila Lyiscott's TED Talk
Educator and poet Jamila Lyiscott is a "tri-tongued orator." She unpacks the three distinct flavors of English she speaks with her friends, family, and colleagues.
About Jamila Lyiscott
Jamila Lyiscott is currently an advanced doctoral candidate and adjunct professor at Columbia University's Teachers College where she focuses on the education of the African Diaspora. She is also an adjunct professor at Long Island University, where she teaches adult and adolescent literacy.
A spoken word artist since the age of 15, Jamila works with youth, educators and activists throughout the city to create spaces that reflect and engage the cultures and values of black and brown youth inside and outside of the classroom.
GUY RAZ, HOST:
It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on today's show, Playing With Perceptions. So Jamila Lyiscott is a first-generation American. Her parents are from Trinidad. She grew up in Crown Heights in Brooklyn. And right now, she's working on her Ph.D. in literature and race at Columbia. So she's pretty used to moving between cultures and different ways of speaking, which didn't seem all that unusual to her until she was about 19, and she was asked to be a guest on an academic panel.
JAMILA LYISCOTT: I was speaking my most polished version of academic English, which I'm really adept at.
RAZ: And a woman came up to Jamila to tell her she was very articulate, which might seem like an innocent comment. But to Jamila right then, it sounded pretty loaded.
LYISCOTT: And it occurred to me in that moment that, had I been speaking with my family, who's Trinidadian, or with people in my community who speak black English vernacular, that this woman would have maybe not seen the same worth and value in terms of my intellectual capacity or just me. And so when someone calls me articulate, it's not so much that they've never heard someone put together some words very well. It's that coming from my body, coming from my skin, coming from me, it's suddenly impressive.
RAZ: On the subway home that night, Jamila started writing a poem about the experience which she got to perform on the TED stage. Here's an excerpt.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
LYISCOTT: A baffled lady observed the shell where my soul dwells and announced that I'm articulate, which means that when it comes to annunciation and diction, I don't even think of it 'cause I'm articulate. So when my professor asks a question, and my answer is tainted with the connotation of urban non-suggestion, there's no misdirected intention. Pay attention 'cause I'm articulate. So when my father asks, what kind 'a ting is 'dis? My articulate answer never goes amiss. I say, father, this is the impending problem at hand, and when I'm on the block, I switch it up just because I can. So when my boy says, what's good with you, son? I say, I jus' fall out with 'dem people, but I done. And sometimes in class, I might pause the intellectual-sounding flow to ask, yo, why these books never be about my peoples? Yes, I have decided to treat all three of my languages as equal because I'm articulate. But who controls articulation? Because the English language is a multifaceted oration, subject to indefinite transformation. Now, you may think that it is ignorant to speak broken English, but I'm here to tell you that even articulate Americans sound foolish to the British. So when my professor comes on the block and says, hello, I stop him and say, no, you're being inarticulate. The proper way is to say, what's good? Now, you may think that's too hood, that's not cool. But I'm here to tell you that even our language has rules, so when mommy mocks me and says, y'all be mad going to the store. I say, mommy, no. That sentence is not following the law. Never does the word mad go before a present participle. That's simply the principle of this English. If I had the vocal capacity, I would sing this from every mountaintop, every suburbia and every hood 'cause the only God of language is the one recorded in the Genesis of this world saying, it is good. So I may not come always before you with excellency of speech, but do not judge me by my language and assume that I'm too ignorant to teach 'cause I speak three tongues, one for each - home, school and friends. I'm a tri-lingual orator. Sometimes I'm consistent with my language now, then switch it up so I don't ball later. Sometimes I fight back two tongues while I use the other one in the classroom. And when I mistakenly mix them up, I feel crazy like I'm cooking in the bathroom - I know. Let there be no confusion. Let there be no hesitation. This is not a promotion of ignorance. This is a linguistic celebration. That's what I put tri-lingual on my last job application. I can help to diversify your consumer market is all I wanted them to know, and when they call me for the interview, I'll be more than happy to show that I can say, what's good, whatagwan and of course hello because I'm articulate. Thank you.
RAZ: You ask us this rhetorical question early on in the poem, who controls articulation? Who do we think controls it?
LYISCOTT: I think that we think that language is something neutral and not at all political. I don't think we think too much about who controls language, but I do think that if you did bring the question up, most people would point to the education system in some way - right? - the idea that the values and everything that governs what is allowed in that space reflects so heavily white middle-class values. So if you have mastered standard English, I think that's usually very smoothly connected to your intellectual capacity and your worth.
RAZ: When someone who's not your race - right? - when they look at you, do you feel like they're making specific judgments about the kind of person you are?
LYISCOTT: Most definitely. All the time. Like Dubois speaks about this double consciousness. You have this lens where you're looking at yourself through the lens of other people the way that they're looking at you. That's deeply historical in the black community.
RAZ: So it's almost like - it's almost like the stereotype becomes the way you start to view yourself.
LYISCOTT: It's not that you view yourself that way. I think that there's a tension. I think there's a tension with fighting to not internalize some of what has been placed on you, especially during very important formative years. At a very young age, I knew that at some point I needed to straighten my hair because it was the way to be accepted. And I never questioned it. It was just something that we did. And if you didn't straighten it again, it would just be like straight hair, but then the roots were kinky. And you would get teased by the boys. It was like really - it was like really something to be deeply ashamed of at the time.
RAZ: And your community was primarily African-American, right?
LYISCOTT: Yep. Like your roots are showing was something that was literally said, right? And so even now, I still feel a little, tiny discomfort 'cause it's just, like, a pun on the word roots.
LYISCOTT: That was scarring. I felt like after a while, as I grew older and my consciousness evolved, I chose to not perm my hair anymore.
RAZ: It was like a stereotype that was internalized within your own community.
LYISCOTT: Right, which is why I feel the same way when I'm forced to speak a certain way and denounce the other ways of navigating language that come from the cultural and racial spaces in my life.
RAZ: I mean, that's the thing about stereotypes is that it sort of applies this collective idea to a community or a culture or a race or a religion or a group of people. And once you're in that collective, it's like you're trapped. You have to constantly fight against it to disprove it, and yet, at the same time, you don't want to appear as if you're not part of a collective and loyal to it and reflect it in positive ways as well.
LYISCOTT: Yeah, that's the tension. One of my favorite authors and scholars, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, he wrote a book called "Moving The Centre." And it's informed my work in a lot of ways in thinking about a human center, but then how we go about being OK with and sure with building up our own respective centers, the spaces that make us who we are, affirming those spaces and celebrating and engaging the value of those spaces in the service of adding value to humanity because what happens when people feel like they have to erase themselves in order to become a part of some mysterious whole is that we rob each other of the beauty of our differences. And that's just tragic.
RAZ: That's poet and scholar Jamila Lyiscott. To watch her entire poem "Broken English," go to ted.npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.