Black English

U.S. Black English speakers are “po,” poor, and rising working class. “Po” people are those who do not have enough resources to qualify as poor. Rising working-class people are those who are trying desperately to get away from their origins as poor people and make it into [succeed in entering] the working class.

By the time Black people in the United States make it solidly into the working class, they have shed their Black English and try to hide all traces of it. Middle-class Black people do not speak Black English in public except when, like myself, they are deeply and irrevocably rooted in their families and communities of origin. To earn a doctorate degree and teach at a university for forty years, I had to be fluent in academic English. For my academic survival, I had to place academic English at the forefront of my mind and thinking. I am so far removed from my Black English origins that I only speak the language when in the presence of other Black English speakers.

Black English is a contextual language. It often depends on the listeners and speakers for its nuances and meaning. For me to speak Black English at the RC World Conference requires no small amount of courage and concentration. When interpreting into Black English, I slip back and forth between Black English and academic English, comforted only by the fact that only a few people in the room will know the difference.

The reaction to my speaking Black English at the World Conference has been mixed. Some people feel that I should not speak it at all, some have expressed shame, some have expressed outrage, and in the past some Black people have felt betrayed that I would shame them by speaking this (almost forbidden) language.

Many white U.S. people laugh when I interpret into Black English. (Some people have suggested that I ask people to not laugh.) I think they laugh for a variety of reasons—shame, surprise, disbelief. My interpreting into Black English is a profound contradiction to the racism and white supremacy they have been taught all their lives. This contradiction encourages discharge. Laughter is the discharge available to them.

At an RC workshop, a Black Co-Counselor started to speak Black English during a demonstration and was interrupted by the leader and told, “I am going to teach you how to talk.”

White people in the United States have been taught that Black English is not a legitimate language, that it shouldn’t be spoken in public spaces, and that speaking it is a sign of illiteracy or stupidity.

Children are punished for speaking Black English in schools.

No one speaking Black English can expect to get a job above that of common laborer. Black English speakers cannot get hired for any civic, governmental, or corporate position. Any Black person who gets such a position and makes the mistake of speaking Black English on the job can expect to be fired.

Black English is variously declared “not a language,” “broken English,” and “bad English.” Most Black people who have a choice don’t speak it.

Not only is Black English considered bad (undesirable), but people who speak it are judged to be bad.


The languages spoken by African Heritage people in North, Central, and South America are survival languages. Africans who were stolen by Europeans and sold into slavery were forbidden (upon pain of dismemberment and death) to speak any African language. They were forced to learn the languages of their enslavers—the English, Dutch, Frisians (many words and phrases in Black English are similar to Frisian), Spanish, French, and Portuguese. The languages they developed, including words, pronunciations, intonations, and inflections, became a mixture of the enslavers’ language and their native language.

Haitian Creole, for instance, is a mixture of French and African languages. Jamaican patois is a mixture of English and African languages. The patois of Curacao is a mixture of Dutch and African languages. Black English is a mixture of English, Dutch, and African languages. That it is a distinct, authentic language is a hard-fought-for concept in the United States. In most of the U.S. mainstream, Black English has no legitimacy.

When I insist on interpreting into Black English at the World Conference, it is my one small effort to stand against racism and white supremacy.

Barbara Love

International Liberation Reference Person for African Heritage People

Amherst, Massachusetts, USA

Reprinted from the e-mail discussion list for RC Community members

(Present Time 193, October 2018)

Last modified: 2022-12-25 10:17:04+00