When it comes to our use of the English language, it seems that black people just can’t win, no matter what end of the mastery spectrum we fall on.

This past week Rachel Jeantel, the last person to talk to murdered teenager Trayvon Martin, took the stand in the trial of George Zimmerman, a watchman who is accused of stalking and killing the unarmed 17-year-old in 2012 as he was walking from a convenience store in Sanford, Fla.

Martin’s slaying and the circumstances that surrounded it – the fact that the black youth’s body lay in the morgue for three days before his family learned of his death and the fact that it took months for Zimmerman, who is white, to be charged – rubbed salt on the unhealed wounds of injustice and racism that still scar this nation’s soul.

But suddenly, it wasn’t Zimmerman who was on trial for second-degree murder and a tragedy that occurred mainly because he didn’t follow a dispatcher’s instructions to not follow Trayvon that fateful night.

Suddenly, it was Jeantel who was on trial because she didn’t talk like a Rhodes scholar.

When the 19-year-old began testifying, Twitter was atwitter with disparaging comments about Jeantel’s monotone responses, her use of Ebonics, i.e., “he had said, he had did,” and what critics saw as her lack of education.

The substance of what Jeantel was trying to convey – that substance being the last words that her friend spoke while he was being followed by a wannabe cop – was all but lost.

Then again, I don’t know if speaking like a Rhodes scholar would have helped Jeantel that much – as least not in the eyes of critics who are looking to marginalize her anyway.

All it takes is a look at how many of those same, mostly racist, critics disparage the Harvard scholar who occupies the Oval Office when he speaks.

Obviously, President Obama and Jeantel are worlds apart when it comes to articulating the language. But they occupy the same, schizophrenic universe when it comes to white people using the way they speak to judge either their motives or their intellect.

And they can’t seem to win with these folks.

There’s Obama who, when he began his campaign for president in 2007, was singled out as being a rock star for his articulateness. Even well-meaning people saw his ability to speak as something designed to impress or amuse rather than inform– hence the “rock star” label.

Racists, on the other hand, saw Obama’s ability to speak as part of some scheme to baffle and deceive. They derided him for using a teleprompter – something that is not uncommon for speakers to use – and disparaged him for being “uppity.”

Obama’s education, accomplishments and speaking skills should have earned him praise and trust. But from many of his disparagers – and especially from the spelling-challenged tea partiers – it earned him scorn and suspicion.

Then there’s Jeantel – a young, black woman and Haitian immigrant who critics apparently believed should be held to speaking standards just shy of Obama’s. What makes the insults especially unfair is that Jeantel didn’t speak badly on the stand – I understood everything she said. It’s just that she spoke in the language she knew, Black English, and didn’t code-switch.

Saying that Jeantel was unintelligent because she deigned to speak in a way in which she was familiar is almost like saying a Latino person is unintelligent because he or she speaks limited English.

But I’m wondering if it matters either way.

This persistence on the part of many white people to use the way black people talk to either otherize or condemn speaks to the undercurrent of racism and notions of white privilege that exist in our society.

President Obama tends to be reduced to the sum of his eloquence, or criticized by crazies for using it as a cover for some imagined nefariousness. Jeantel, on the other hand, was reduced to caricature for not enunciating her words in the way that many people thought she should. Black people who talk like Obama are marginalized as enigmas; black people who talk like Jeantel are marginalized as imbeciles.

And I’m left to wonder when or if any of this will ever change.

Tonyaa Weathersbee is an award-winning columnist based in Jacksonville, Fla. Follow her @tonyaajw. Or like her at www.facebook.com/tonyaajweathersbee.

(Photo: AP)

20 thoughts on “Blacks and the English Language: Damned If We Do, Damned If We Don’t

    • JanCorey on said:

      I saw on a site a question posed by a commentor who said: what’s dumber, Rachel Jeantel or a box of rocks? Answer: too close to call.

      I thought that was sad.

  1. Braveman on said:

    Exactly how many years has this Jeantel woman been in the United States ??? Where did she go to school ??? I find it amusing that so many Black folks are making excuses for her as well as her obvious ignorance !!!

    But then, that seems to be the nature of the beast !!!

  2. PHKatz on said:

    Her speech is neither nor there. If they knew they were going to put her on the stand, let alone as the last person Treyvon talked to before he was killed, they should have coached her, and they just dropped the ball in that aspect. In the end, from the Zimmerman’s fake reenactment of what happened that night to Treyvon’s past transgressions, the fact still remains,Treyvon did not pursue and kill Zimmerman. But was the pursuant in the sight of someone anxious to play cop, instead of leaving it to cops.

  3. I’m a bit surprised the writer didn’t reflect on the first lady’s experience in the White House, instead of the POTUS. Because we all know Michelle Obama is a well educated black woman who speaks proper English vocabulary, but she’s constantly condemned and vilified by her critics for being the “ANGRY BLACK WOMAN”. without any merit.

    So this all proves an educated Rachel Jeantel on the witness-stand would not be exempted from any stereotypes or racial bigotry from the twitter-universe.

  4. R Freeman. on said:

    Buckwheat’s (notice the punctuation sweetie) Mama, I learned the difference between then and than in grammar school…..get it? You embarrassed yourself. Have you even completed first grade?

    • 55th st silverbacks on said:

      u have made a case in my point , what part of my statement did u not understand due to the misplaced word? , and how does this relate to OUR plight as people of color? i did not mean to insult but to elighten USING ANY WORDS THAT WILL GET THROUGH. when there is a loss of communication the guns come out , DO U GET IT.

  5. 55th st silverbacks on said:

    this is where we come together not feed into the defenses attempt to divert the attention off of a killer.i am chicago born and raised in this racially biased city divided by roadways and poverty lines.i have been stopped for walking in an area and told to leave because i don”t belong. if we continue to let others
    decide for us then here is the result. a cold blooded muder questioned because of how the child appeared. “YOUNG AND BLACK”

  6. Tami Quintana on said:

    She speaks French and Spanish. Her dad is Colombian. English is her third language. With that in mind, she did well.

    • JanCorey on said:

      As the “star” prosecution witness, I think her testimony only helped the defense. She needs some additional school fast, super fast, and allot of schooling. She made a mockery of black women imo.

      • Jan how in the H did you determine that “she made a mockery of black women”?? See that’s where a lot of people make a mistake in thinking that ALL black women think, and act the same, and that we ALL have the same level of education. What planet do you live on. Black women are as diverse as any other group. Get a grip!! Rachel doesn’t represent all black women in any shape, or form of the imagination.

      • JanCorey on said:

        Yes, Joy, I agree with you, she made a mockery of blacks and the perception of the overall unschooled blacks as a whole.

  7. Phil Watson on said:

    Just wondering why the article failed to mention that she is actually tri-lingual and that english is not her first language. I just wonder how many of her critics have the ability to speak more than one language.

  8. JanCorey on said:

    She comes across as the most un-informed, illiterate, actually likely mentally-disturbed individual in any court proceedings I have ever seen. Plus, it sends the wrong message out to the public that all blacks must be behaving this way and are all stupid. What a disgrace by the prosecution.

    • While I agree that the prosecution didn’t do a good job in prepping her for the witness stand; anyone (in the public…..your words) that thinks Rachel represents all black people ISN’T VERY INTELLIGENT. Further it appears to me that your use of the word “public” is code for white people. And for me personally I couldn’t care less what white people think. Does Zimmerman represent all whites, or latinos? I think not!!

      • JanCorey on said:

        Joy, many blacks are not very intelligent, hence my point. No codes, just facts substantiated by proven statistics. Mr. Zimmerman represents to me the majority of gun owners that feel they would protect their own life if attacked and beaten by some illegally-high-want-to-be-thuggster like Trayvon Martin. I only wish I was there that night to add a few more bullets into that thuggster while he attacked Mr. Zimmerman.

  9. Buckwheats Momma on said:

    Although I did understand what this young lady was saying, she did present herself as being uneducated. Come on now!

    Please tell us what you mean by “Black English”? Does that mean that speaking badly is considered “Black English”? If so, why? Why would we even consider being on the bottom rung?

    Can we at least present ourselves with simple, basic language skills?

    Frankly, and we all know this to be true, this young lady embarrassed us. We may not want to say it in public, but she did. A 19 year old woman in the year 2013 who presented herself as she did is unbelievable. My 7 year old niece has better control of the English language then this young lady.

    What I hope one learns from listening to her speak is the value of an education. I hope that parents listening to her speak will make sure their child will not grow up speaking that way, and or fall into that trap.

    Bottom line is that I felt she did come across as being honest for the most part and that may go in her favor with the jury. I certainly hope so.

    Yes, racist and others certainly did see her as uneducated/ignorant, and that is a strike we did not need.

    • 55th st silverbacks on said:

      unless we are talking about an education from a private school, this would a good time to bridge the gap with those who believe that money is the issue with our public schools and the so called education that our children recieve. and futhermore THE POINT HERE IS THE COLD BLOODED MURDER OF A CHILD BY AN ADULT. what we need is to help eachother not continue the “willie lynch” lifestyles we have become used to. PLEASE TAKE OFF THE MASK AND YOU WILL SEE WHO U ARE.

      • Excellent point. With all the trial theatrics, the senseless killing of a child is being forgotten. A mother and father have lost a son. Siblings have lost a brother and a friend has lost (what sounds like) a very special friend…

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