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.