“So, what did you think about the motorcycle guy?” Michelle asked me as we boarded the plane to San Antonio.
I don’t remember exactly what I said. Something about him being a nice guy with an interesting story.
Michelle said, “Yeah, it was a nice story, but he didn’t need to use that accent. For the love!” she said. “He didn’t need to do that. Just tell the story. Drop the accent, and tell the story.”
Our layover had been long enough for us to grab a sandwich at Au Bon Pain in the Dallas airport where a white man sitting near us started up a conversation. He talked about riding his motorcycle and driving a truck and the prison ministry with which he’s affiliated.
“I have to tell you this story,” the guy had said. Let’s call him Dave.
“Okay,” I answered.
“Well, you’re black,” Dave said to me, and I braced myself because, with those three words, the conversation could go anywhere. First of all, I know I’m black. And secondly, telling me I’m black was irrelevant. Dave told a story about a prison inmate, who happened to be black (also irrelevant), and when Dave spoke for the prison inmate, he used an accent that he must have thought sounded like the prison inmate.
It was awkward.
I am fluent in two languages and I don’t really know how to define them. Both languages are forms of English. One is the language I used when I worked in corporate America, or when I call the cable company to find out how to add the football channels to our bundle, or when I spend an entire weekend at a place where I’m the only black person. I don’t think about it, I just speak it.
The other is the language I use when I talk smack to the NFL players on a Sunday afternoon, or sit around the table with my family at Thanksgiving, or get my hair done, or chill out in my home on a weekday evening with no one but H and my dog to hear me. I don’t think about this language, either.
Michelle and I made it to our Texas destination, and one night the white musician spoke of what she called “black gospel” and she used an accent similar to the one I’d heard Dave use back in the airport in Dallas.
Listening to her wore me out, because the language wasn’t hers and it was awkward. And even though I believe with all my heart that the stories of gospel and spirituals and lined songs need to be told (and I told her so), I know now I wanted that musician to tell her own story in her own language. Just tell the story. Drop the accent, and tell the story.
And I didn’t even realize it, until it was too late.