It’s been hard to miss the flap over Harry Reid’s unfortunate remark about Barack Obama’s lack of “Negro dialect,” quoted in the gossipy soon-to-be-released book, “Game Change.” Even in Mobile, a city recently humiliated nationally by a film depicting its strictly segregated Mardi Gras celebration, the paper sees fit to print a cartoon poking fun at the “racist” Mr. Reid.
Well, this is my take on “Negro dialect.” Twenty-five years ago I worked for an insurance company in Metairie, LA. There was a girl there, I forget exactly what her job was, but it was low on the clerical totem pole. “Brenda” was a willing & hard worker, never late, never grousing, and furthermore she was an excellent typist, which was important back in the days before personal computers. She dressed professionally. She got along with everyone in the office. In short, she was the perfect worker – except for her speech. Brenda spoke AAVE—not the occasional colorful bit of slang or turn of phrase, but pure “Ebonics,” as the Oakland School Board would describe it.
Whenever an opportunity for promotion came along, Brenda would put her name in and interview, but she was never promoted – because every other job in the office involved dealing with the public, and her inflections and grammatical patterns did not fit the image the company wanted to present. “He be back around three o’clock,” may be perfectly regular and comprehensible to a linguist, but it didn’t sit well with our office manager. And so he’d promote somebody else.
As she was passed over time and again, Brenda began to grow resentful, certain that the manager was prejudiced. And he was – but against the color of her speech, not the color of her skin. We – the “girls in the office” – were all too terrified to actually tell poor Brenda what the problem was. We thought she would think we were bigots, and she may well have done. We left Metairie in 1988 and I never found out what happened to Brenda. But I still wish I’d found the courage to take her aside and tell her to “talk white.”
Harry Reid probably would have had that courage. As a politician, he necessarily is expert at assessing how a candidate presents him- or herself and judging how the public will respond. (In a less expert way, so is an office manager, which is why Brenda never got that promotion.) In a milieu where advisors are adjusting the “folksiness” level of George Bush and telling Hillary Clinton how to laugh, a remark about something as important as the dialect a candidate speaks is surely par for the course.
Although I feel sorry for the undeserved beating Harry Reid is getting, I’m glad this almost-taboo subject is getting some attention. Obama knew the way he talked might stand in the way of his getting the job he wanted. Poor Brenda didn’t.