No Code-Switching Here!: How Audiences Benefit From Unapologetic Black Art
by CAAPP intern Elisa Ogot
In the African American Review, I found an article by Loyola Marymount professor Antonio Brown entitled "Performing ‘truth': Black Speech Acts." In it, he writes, "Living in the two worlds that constitute America detailed by [W.E.B.] DuBois in The Souls of Black Folk has equipped me (and others) not only with dual consciousness but also with multiple languages. Among the languages is a dialect that I title Black Speak. It is a language that resonates a ‘truth'...Black Speak communicates a ‘truth' by infusing its messages with a linguistic style that formulates and informs cultural identities and communities." When Black Americans go back and forth in between these "two worlds," they adopt different "languages," each corresponding to a respective world. This practice is more commonly known as "code-switching," and just about everybody does it. However, for people whose identities are marginalized, especially Black people in the United States, code-switching is often used to “fit in” into environments where not everybody looks or sounds like you. Or, in contrast, code-switching can be used by the same marginalized people to resist homogenized environments and purposefully exclude those who are outside of a specific community.
The first time that I personally witnessed code-switching was with my parents. I noticed that when taking business calls, or when talking to people at work, they would speak in a way that was different from how I heard them speak in any other situation--their native Kenyan accents were dialed down and the emotions they expressed were muted. Something that I love about Africans is that they have a way of bringing a touch of grandiosity (or dramatics, depending on who you ask) to everything. However, in professional settings, my parents tucked that part of their cultural identities away. When they came home, though, especially if my sister or I upset them, the dramatic flair and their accents would return as if they had never left! Very quickly I learned that in order to "fit in" or not be perceived in a negative light, there were aspects of myself that I would feel pressure to dial down in spaces where not everyone had my same background. On the other hand, hearing Kenyan accents or Black Americans using slang and speaking in African American Vernacular English fills me with such a sense of familiarity and safety. There's just something about hearing the "language" of my native "worlds" that makes me feel at ease and creates a connection with the people speaking that language. Forming these connections feels radical at times. In a country where I am not a part of the majority, and the language of the majority is deemed the most palatable, choosing instead to speak the "language" of my native "worlds" sends a message. The marginalized groups who refuse to alter their "language" are both pushing back against centuries of respectability politics and asserting that cultures that differ from the majority are also valid.
This language connection is something that Black American artists have used to educate and build bridges with audiences for over a century. If you have never heard the dialect of a character from Zora Neale Hurston’s historically Black hometown of Eatonville, Florida, then picking up a work by her is educational. You get to experience what that particular brand of southern, Black dialect sounds like straight from a resident. If you have never been a resident of Houston’s Third Ward, then listening to the lyrics of a Beyoncé song can shed light on a completely different strain of Black southern dialect.
Take a look at this excerpt from “Sweat” by Hurston:
“Looka heah Sykes, you done gone too fur. Ah been married to you fur fifteen years, and Ah been takin’ in washin’ for fifteen years. Sweat, sweat, sweat! Work and sweat, cry and sweat, pray and sweat!
Hurston is not only retaining the culture of her community when writing characters who use her local dialect, she's putting that culture on display for those who are outside of her community. Cloaking your art in the language of your particular culture is a tool that can bridge the gap between an artist and the "kinfolk" who comprise a part of their audience. Hurston is writing a love letter to her home every time she includes a character who speaks in her specific dialect. When reading her work, members of her community can feel seen and gain a little something extra from her words. At the same time, everyone else who reads her work may feel excluded but hopefully can appreciate an important aspect of Hurston's hometown culture.
In 2016, Beyoncé released her sixth studio album, Lemonade. The lyrics and visuals contain declarations that are clearly addressing one group in particular: Black women. For example, on the track “Formation,” Beyoncé sings, “I like my baby hair with baby hair and afros” and “I like my negro nose with Jackson Five 5 nostrils.” Very specific words—especially the word “negro”—make it clear who the song’s intended audience is. Beyoncé is speaking directly to the women in her base who have “baby hair and afros.” Her conscious choice of using those specific lyrics acts as a shout out to all the women who share those same characteristics.
Through her language, Beyoncé is forming a connection to those who share her gender and race and painting a vivid picture of her particular brand of Black womanhood for fans who are not a part of that group. In both Hurston’s and Beyoncé’s art, the community connections just add an extra layer of value to those in the audience who find themselves reflected in the art--especially since both women choose to use their art to highlight groups of people who don’t necessarily receive a lot of attention from mainstream media. Also, in those pieces, their refusal to code-switch and make their work more palatable to the masses is a revolutionary act. As Antonio Brown said, it’s using language that “formulates and informs cultural identities and communities” that results in “truth.”