Charles Ramsey and the Racial Language Barrier

charlesramseyIt’s high time for white folks to stop laughing at the way black folks talk.

Of course, I’m referring to the latest social media sensation: Charles Ramsey, the man who is a hero for his Good Samaritan role in the rescue of Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight from the Cleveland home of Ariel Castro where they had been held hostage for years.

Articles and memes abound about Ramsey’s first comments to the media when describing what happened on May 6:

But you know he’s not the only African-American who has this manner of speech, and who has been the subject of some ridicule. Others include Sweet Brown and Michelle Clark.

Some will argue that this Internet attention actually celebrates Ramsey’s heroism, rather than mocking it. I’d suggest it’s a little of both: a sensational story told by an easily sensationalized guy.

The great irony is this — many white people laugh at black vernacular because they think it’s ignorant, when in fact, it’s actually white ignorance about black vernacular that lies at the heart of the joke. With little understanding of the origins, intelligence and cultural value of black vernacular, it can be easy to mistake it for an unsuccessful attempt at Standard English. In that light, black speech can come across as charming, child-like, hilarious, or even offensive.

As Americans, we hear a lot about the many things slavery took away–things like freedom, dignity, family, and wealth. We need to know about those things. However, white folks also need to understand that three hundred years of living and dying in bondage did not happen in a cultural vacuum. Slaves developed rich cultural traditions, especially around religion, music, and language.

While our high school teachers drilled into us the importance of proper grammar and vocabulary, the reality is that language is alive and ever-changing. That’s why it’s hard to read Shakespeare and nearly impossible to read Chaucer. It’s why we don’t say “thee” and “thou” anymore, and it’s why “ain’t” and “bling” now appear in the dictionary. It’s also the reason that enslaved Africans, when thrust into their English-speaking bondage, did not speak a precise copy of the language they heard from the mouths of their captors.

Inevitably, slaves blended Standard English with the many African languages they either spoke themselves or were introduced to over the course of the slave trade. This kind of blending typically simplifies grammatical structures in language. We see this especially in verb conjugations such as that used by Charles Ramsey when he says “It’s” instead of “There were” in the phrase, “It’s some mo’ girls up in that house.”

Consider also that slaves had only limited access to Standard English. They didn’t, after all, sit around chatting over tea with their overseers (those men probably didn’t speak it very well anyway). In addition, a systematically enforced illiteracy denied them access to the written word. Without the corrective of written language, transmission of language becomes less specific, with the proliferation of substitutions like “wif” for “with” and dropped endings like “mo” for “more.” In the context of an evolving language that communicates effectively, these alterations aren’t errors, they’re simply changes that reflect the given circumstances.

You may be thinking, “But that was a long time ago, why doesn’t Ramsey learn ‘proper’ English now?”

I can’t speak specifically for Ramsey, but I can point out that slavery continued for three hundred years. That’s a lot of talking. It’s certainly plenty of time to develop a rich oral tradition that serves not just as a means of communication, but as an important source of cultural identity and pride.

Black vernacular can be inspirational and participatory. We see this in call and response patterns that still characterize political and religious speak today. It can also be double-voiced, which means it’s intended for two audiences: often a black insider and a white outsider. It is intentionally and creatively indirect, with “yo’ mama” jokes providing just one small but popular example. And finally, it is subversive. Since black vernacular evolved under extreme stress, with its speakers under constant surveillance, it carries with it an awareness of a listening third party, one the speaker will invoke or evade as necessary.

We can see Ramsey’s awareness of a third party in both his 911 call and in his initial live interview. He references McDonald’s early in both. On the call he gives the address then says, “Hey, check this out. I just came from McDonald’s right?” Similarly, at the beginning of the interview he explains that “I heard screaming. I’m eating my McDonald’s.” Rather than a hilariously irrelevant piece of information from an ignorant neighbor, this savvy tidbit offers up an alibi to police or other officials who will eventually overhear these conversations.

Ramsey appears to recognize himself as at risk in a racially charged situation where a distressed white girl has called 911 in the presence of a black man (who also happens to have a record of domestic violence). While he sets up the story for the reporter (it all started when I was eating my McDonald’s and I suddenly heard screaming), he communicates a slightly different narrative to police who might eventually overhear (a white girl started screaming but it didn’t have anything to do with me because I had just come from McDonald’s and was minding my own business eating my food on the porch).

Later, Ramsey makes his awareness of the racialized narratives around black men more explicit when he says, “Bro, I knew something was wrong when a pretty little white girl ran into a black man’s arms.” Again his statement is double-voiced. For a black audience, this statement is a joke that he punctuates with, “Dead giveaway!” For a white audience, the statement is a veiled accusation about how racist stereotypes unfairly represent black men as dangerous to white women. While people in the background laugh at the joke, the white reporter hears the accusation and runs away.

In light of all this, it doesn’t make sense to ask why someone like Ramsey doesn’t make more of an effort to learn “proper” English. If his speech is part of his identity and serves as a positive signifier for his community and its history, why would he want to give it up? And why should he?

Ramsey’s grammar reminds us that abducted Africans brought their languages here and blended them with that of their captors. His animation illustrates a long tradition of story telling in a culture that suffered centuries of forced illiteracy. His content shows his social and political savvy as well as his ability to speak to two audiences at once.

If Ramsey’s interview entertains you, I think that’s okay, just as long as we see that entertainment not as an accident of stupidity but as a product of the richness and artistry of living language.

Deb Werrlein is a literacy advocate and tutor for dyslexic learners. She is a freelance editor and writer who blogs at Small House Big Picture.

Image via Clarion Ledger crime beat blog

  • Lisa Solod

    Fascinating! Thank you.

    • deb

      thanks Lisa!

  • Kim

    Let’s just stop making race a thing altogether, shall we? I’m from the south, particularly the New Orleans area, and there are many of all colors who speak in a similar vein, with nothing to do with the color of their skin. While we’re at it, lets stop making fun of accents altogether. While I know none of this will never happen, I also know that I for one enjoy hearing the different dialects, accents and words others of all races use in their everyday life. It reminds me that we are all of one world and that we can learn something from each other every day.

    • deb

      you are right, “we are all of one world,” and I absolutely agree that we should learn from (instead of laugh at) our differences!

    • No. I will not stop being African-American, Black or a not White person to make you feel comfortable. It is not a thing. It is part of my connection to my heritage, my ancestors and my historical place in the world.

      Would you say this to a person of Irish, Italian, British or Swedish decent to not be who they are? It is frustrating being asked on a daily basis to ignore my linkage to the many places of origin my people come from.

      Yes, there is dialect. Yes, there are accents from different parts of the country. Yes, their are shared language experience that are wrapped in history and culture.

      Mr. Ramsey spoke from his experience as a person of African decent living in an American northern city. I wasn’t laughing because I knew he was trying to communicate a very serious situation. He had people around him, a mic and a camera in face.

      He was in narrative mode telling the story.

      • Saad

        That is ignorant, Gena. I happen to know the OLDEST African American in the United States and she doesn’t use what you are calling your linkage to where your people come from. In fact, as an educator of Englisg Language Learners, I would say using terminology of African countries is beautiful and not a mockery of the English language. If you think Mr. Ramsey has spent time researching the true language of his decendents you are only fooling yourself.

        I believe the the African American story is truely remarkable. Your ancestors lived and died for you. Perhaps it is time to honor their legacy by taking advantage all the benefits that are afforded to you, starting with education.

        • Excuse me. The word is spelled English. Now being a person who has made a typo or two I’m going to chalk this up to you wanting so very badly to set me straight.

          You make assumptions. Silly, cruel assumptions. I never said Mr. Ramsey studied linguistics or history. I wouldn’t rush to assume he has not either.

          We all, except maybe you, absorb the various types of language we are exposed to and use on a daily basis.

          U.S. English does not have one singular finite form; it changes from gender, education, experience and circumstance. It is a living evolving language (well, maybe not for you) and the African influence is a part of that structure.

          I can hear Mr. Ramsey in the family and community that I was raised in. Working people. Some educated and some from the hard knocks school of life. One of the things we did do is respect what the person was trying to say.

          One of the reasons I responded to this post was because I felt that Mr. Ramsey was being laughed instead of listening to what he was trying to communicate. Yes, there were portions that were comical. That is part of the greatness of language and storytelling.

          Creativity. Code switching. Giving the facts while telling a story.

          If you are indeed talking with an elder that talks in a form of English that is acceptable to you more power to her for the endurance of having to converse with you.

          As to you other implied remarks about my education, or the implied benefits you feel I have yet to access …Flibit!

          • Saad

            My dear, excuse my typos… I certainly didn’t point out your grammatical error of using “their” when clearly you should have used “there”, and the several other mistakes. I assumed that you were honoring your ancestors. I speak seven languages (including two from the continent of Africa) plus English, which were “absorbed” by living in various countries and honor their beauty by using them correctly.

            It was very frustrating to me to hear you call your language the “linkage to the many places of origin my people come from”. I’m African American and never heard such language on my home continent, therefore I take offense. Personally, I would never consider slang (code) a linkage to my ancestors, nor would the people where I come from. They take pride in the education they are given, and for those who may not have an opportunity to receive a formal education, they absorb proper English. Mr. Ramsey is being laughed at in the country of his decendents! That is what angers me!

            I hope to God you don’t feel as though I’m attacking you, but rather realize that it is ignorance to blame one’s social location for their lack of language.

            Mr. Ramsey is a hero, it is unfortunate that he will probably be better known for the foolishness that has gone viral. He did indeed tell a story, sadly it was one all to common of the typical African American man.

            In the words of Malcom X, “There is no better than adversity. Every defeat, every heartbreak, every loss, contains its own seed, its own lesson on how to improve your performance the next time.” Use it wisely.

            Best to you Gena.

          • P.S. Code switching is not slang. It is the ability to switch from different modes of English i.e. from parent to child, employee to customer, friend to stranger.

            http://www.learnnc.org/lp/pages/4558
            http://www.glottopedia.org/index.php/Intersentential_codeswitching

            It is not slang. Slang may be used but code switching is more of an unconscious effort to communicate with a specific type of person.

            I will take me and my grammatical errors (and I never said I was perfect) back to the shadows so that others can get focus on the reason for the post.

  • Chris

    I’m an African American and I laughed at this myself. I even talk like Mr Ramsey as well, probably worse because I’m a Mississippian. It’s not just white people laughing at him, the country is and it’s not making fun of him, just making something good out of something bad.

    • deb

      I do agree that many have laughedwith (instead of at) Ramsey as a way of making something good of something bad. However, I unfortunately don’t believe that’s the case for everyone. I hope the historical context can help those inclined to make fun to see things in a different light.

  • Beverly Uhlmer

    I am glad to have the historical context for the style of speech used by this brave man. However, a shared language among the citizens of a nation helps bind them together. It is not just bigotry that prevents people whose English is difficult to understand from achieving their goals, it is also that perception is reality. If a person’s speech makes him/her seem uneducated or incompetent it will be harder to rise to the top of a profession where he/she might otherwise be well qualified. The US schools have just about abdicated their role as upholders of high standards for writing and speaking English, making it harder for us to communicate. I know Hispanics who still enjoy speaking Spanish at home, which I certainly applaud, but in order to compete in the business world they also learn to speak English clearly and correctly. This in no way diminishes their cultural heritage but opens doors that might otherwise be closed to them. I see this daily in Houston where 49% of the population is Hispanic, many of whom are highly successful.

  • Susan

    Refreshingly intelligent. Thanks

    • deb

      thanks susan!

  • deb

    It’s true that there is a correlation between language and education, but “educated” language also varies widely. We all use different “languages” or codes as we move in and out of different communities. We speak differently to our bosses, for example, than we do to our children. Interestingly, the more education we acquire on a topic, the more varied our codes become (rather than more uniform). I’m sure my doctor can tell when I describe my ailments that I don’t have a medical degree. And when I describe the funny sound coming from that thingy under the watchamacallit on my car, I’m sure the mechanic can tell I don’t know a thing about cars. I don’t know the codes for those professions but it’s ok because I can communicate well enough and I don’t need to look like an expert. The important thing is to know the code well enough for the circles you want to move in. If we aspire to a particular career/job, we need to learn its code. If the code at your job differs little from the vernacular you learned at home, then I suppose there’s no need to change your language. My point is simply that while language connects to education and environment, varied dialects don’t indicate varied levels of intelligence. If we can understand how history and community shape language, we can do a better job of appreciating dialects as different but equally valid and valuable. That would change our perception which, as you say, would change reality.

    For the record, I did see Ramsey code shifting in his interview. He used the word “testicles” instead of “balls” or something akin to it. Also, while he said “fuck” repeatedly in the excitement of the 911 call, he didn’t use it once during the interview where I imagine he recognized it would be inappropriate.

    Thank you for your comment! And I’m sorry to go on so long! I think these are all such important and interesting questions to roll around.

    • deb

      somehow my responses got out of order – just clarifying that the above comment was for Beverly. 🙂

      • Beverly Uhlmer

        Thank you, Deb. I have lived in several different countries and have learned their languages as a sign of respect. I love language and recognize its ability to bind people together or, unfortunately, create distance among the different groups.

  • Thank you for writing this. My first husband was (is still) African American and I picked up all the subtleties and nuances of his culturally different language while we were married and I interacted with him and his family. I also remember that he had different types of speech to address white people than black people, just as I, an Irish/Scots American have one way of speaking at work, and another way of speaking to my friends.

    I understood everything Ramsey was saying, including the implied message of “I was minding my own business when I heard screaming, i.e., I had just come from McDonald’s.” I got that, but to see it expressed so beautifully was both reassuring and thoughtful.

    We have a long way to go with race relations in this country, a long way, but laughing at others’ differences is the easiest way to minimize their importance and relevance, and then it’s just a quick step to fear, anger, and hatred.

    Charles Ramsey did a good thing and he should be recognized for that. I hope it balances out anything he may have done in the past, karmiclly. What goes around does come around.

    SJ

    • deb

      thanks for your nice comment SJ. “laughing at others’ differences is the easiest way to minimize their importance and relevance, and then it’s just a quick step to fear, anger, and hatred,” well said!

  • Jamie

    A friend of mine shared this article on Facebook. I’m going to repeat what I posted as a response.

    I’m sorry, but I reject most of this article.

    First of all, I don’t mean this to diminish Charles Ramsey’s role in rescuing the people held captive. He was faced with a choice of helping, or continuing on his way, and he made the right choice, a choice that a lot of people might not have made.

    However, the article’s main topic is the grammar that Mr. Ramsey used during media appearances. It argues that this butchering of the English language is somehow more intelligent than proper English, and that this illiterate vernacular is the natural evolution of the language.

    For the one thousandth time, someone wants to drag out the slavery card to explain this. I doubt there’s anyone alive in the United States whose great-grandparents were slaves, and probably no one whose great-great-grandparents were slaves. America is a country of immigrants. The railroad was mostly built by indentured servants from China who suffered every bit as much (although not as long) as African slaves. How many people of Chinese descent who have been here four or five generations have trouble with English?

    The article mentions three hundred years of captivity a couple of times. There have been slaves for thousands of years. However, an estimated 12 million Africans arrived in the Americas from the 16th to the 19th centuries. Of these, an estimated 654,000 were brought to what is now the United States. The white citizens of Virginia decided to treat the first Africans in Virginia as indentured servants. In 1655, John Casor, a black man, became the first legally recognized slave in the present United States. The Emancipation Proclamation was signed in 1861. Do you see the math problem?

    I challenge anyone to rationally explain how “It’s some mo’ girls up in that house” is related to mixing African languages and grammar with English. I have nephews (on my wife’s side) that have Scandinavian heritage. When one of them says “Me and Bobby are going to the mall”, does that mean that it’s just a natural evolution of the language, and mixing Swedish with English is the cause even though they’re generations away from anyone who spoke Swedish, or does it just mean that they failed to learn proper grammar?

    I have a different explanation. Adding “up in X” rather than just “in X” is not from some distant heritage. It’s from vernacular made popular by gang/thug culture in the last decade or so. Using “it’s” rather than “there are” is just ignorance and/or laziness.

    The article goes on to explain Mr. Ramsey’s references to McDonald’s as an attempt to establish an alibi. I can go along with this, but not for the reason the article puts forward. The reason Mr. Ramsey feels the need to establish an alibi is because he has a criminal background. Do you think if he were an attorney, or just about anyone with a completed secondary education and no criminal background, he would feel the need to add those references?

    It has been said about pornography “I can’t define what is pornographic, but I know it when I see it.” I suppose the same is true about humor. Some people find Mr. Ramsey’s speech humorous.

    Just to be crystal clear, I applaud Mr. Ramsey for his role in freeing the young ladies from captivity. I don’t find his lack of grammar particularly funny, nor am I offended by it. I also can’t pretend it’s something it is not. I don’t know if Charles Ramsey is a good guy or a bad guy. I just know that he’s an inarticulate guy who did something good.

    • deb

      Hi Jamie,

      As you can imagine, we will have to agree to disagree. I will, however, address a few of the historical points.

      If you are interested in a timeline of slavery, I can recommend a site (link at the end of comment) which gives quite a detailed accounting of the early years. I would point to 1518 as pivotal for the early slave trade in the Americas.

      As to why I bring up slavery: American slavery is a huge part of American history, lasting for more years than the U.S. has existed as a nation. For that reason (and many others), I think it should be taken seriously as a significant cultural, political, social and economic factor in U.S. history. The fact that it ended in the 19th C doesn’t justify dismissing it out of hand as a “card” that people “play” any more than we should dismiss other major events in U.S. history just because they happened before our great-great grandparents were born.

      Also, American slavery is unique in the world because of the abduction and displacement of Africans from their homeland, culture and language—a point that also makes American slavery a poor comparison to immigration where people came willingly, enjoyed a support community with fellow immigrants, were paid and/or earned their freedom.

      I certainly never argued that African American vernacular is “somehow more intelligent than proper English.” It’s not a contest. We can value standard English and vernacular forms of English equally. The point of the article is to ask readers to think of language in a more complex way, as historically and culturally derived, rather than to pass judgments based on oversimplifications and broad generalizations. If we can dispense with that kind of judgment, we can see the richness of the many vernaculars around us, including that of Charles Ramsey.

      Finally, with regards to your question about your nephews’ Scandinavian heritage – I got curious. I found an article entitled “Tracking Swedish-American English: A longitudinal study of linguistic variation and identity.” I admit I only read the abstract, but even that was interesting to see how words and phrases like “you know,” “well,” and “so,” come from Scandinavian influences. I use all of those words even though no one in my family has ever spoken Swedish. Why? Because language is not something we get from a grammar book alone—it also comes from culture and community, where it is passed over time through the generations. Personally, I find that fascinating.

      -Slavery timeline: http://www.brycchancarey.com/slavery/chrono3.htm#1525
      -Article on Scandinavian influences on English: http://uu.diva-portal.org/smash/record.jsf?pid=diva2:111645

  • Thank you for this, I will admit to having never really thought about any of this prior to reading this piece.

    • deb

      thanks for reading Anna!

  • Cherished131

    I must be ignorant’ because while very expressive I thought his command of the English language wasn’t that bad.

    I love how African descendant cultures tell stories. I’m thinking if a Jamaican would have told this story. Or if it was told in any from of creole.

    It’s a private storytelling made public and that is why we love him and sweet Georgia Brown (and Ma’ Dear come to think of it). It’s familiar

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