BLACK TALK: THE US JUSTICE SYSTEM IS TONE DEAF
February 1, 2019
Fourteen years ago, my very South African family visited New York City on a tour of the West Coast that included Orlando Disney — there was no one we knew to warn us about Florida. As we shuffled around NYC, eating in diners and only getting as close to the Statue of Liberty as the benches of Battery Park, we were blessed with the presence of a Brooklyn Betty, whose phone conversation ebbed and flowed through her body. “She do!” she exclaimed before walking off, leaving the four of us mystified. My older sister turned to us without missing a beat, “She do, though!” We shrugged and laughed in agreement. There sat four Black South African girls, a world away from home and we all understood.
African American Vernacular English (AAVE), more commonly known as Ebonics or Black English, suffers the fate of being deliberately misunderstood by those who choose to ignore its relevance by deeming it “broken English” or “slang.” The Atlantic reported that stenographers and transcribers struggle to understand the rules and traits of Black English. AAVE is its own language and the perpetuated misconception that it is a bastardization of English instead of an alternate formed by Black people is leading to complications in a justice system already tailored to entrap and exploit Black bodies.
The Atlantic mentions a specific incident with a prisoner in San Fransisco whose recorded phone call was mistranslated by the transcriber who listened to the call. “He come tell ’bout I’m gonna take the TV,” the man exclaimed, obviously upset that someone would think he would take the TV. The transcriber allegedly recorded the statement as “I’m gonna take the TV.” Simpler misunderstandings have landed Black people in jail or dead. The other side of that coin is the DEA calling for Black English narraters because Black vernacular was cloaking the dealings of Black people they were surveilling. Hardly surprising that the language only gets recognition when it’s used to put more Black people in jail.
The demonization of Black speech boasts a full history in these United States and when Tiffany Haddish and Cardi B get lambasted for the way they talk — especially when they’re making sense — then we discover that it’s a pastime that has yet to die. If a predominantly white media isn’t using it to condescend to or ridicule Black people, Russian bots are (badly) trying to mimic it to pose as Black dissenters online, in a bid to instill further divides. The derogatory and racist caricatures that cropped up online in the run up to November 2016 came from an orchestrated campaign to misinform and divide the Black community, which is heinous if it wasn’t cut at the legs by the utterly disrespectful and comedic renditions of a racism-framed Blackness that white supremacists behind keyboards try to pass off as the real deal.
Misunderstanding carries a different weight for Black people, especially when it is deliberate and backed by power. It is one more tool used to diminish and destroy. Warren Demesme is a Black man who was accused of sexual assault in 2017, and when he asked: “Why don’t you just give me a lawyer, dog?” his rights were ignored because he didn’t ask for an attorney outright. The problem is that he did, and even people with a basic understanding — paired with a willingness to understand — could surmise that the man wanted a lawyer and that anything he said after that statement was inadmissible in court. That didn’t happen though because to hell with due process, right?
My sisters and I had been exposed to the same Black American media as anyone else with a TV and internet connection back home and what we came away with was an understanding that the multilingualism that defined our home manifested differently in Black American households. Our Black South African tongues also took ahold of English in unconventional ways, twisting it into forms that we could grapple with. It isn’t an act of lowering but a bid to bring a universal language closer to us and our needs as Black people.