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:
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.