Black History Month: Why do we (I) code switch?

Speech Bubble

I’m a writer, so I have a thing for words–both written and spoken.

I used to be crazy about this one guy I met in college—we’ll call him Sed. Sed was something more than a friend but not quite a romantic interest. A buddy with whom I could just be. We loved rapping the lyrics to Scenario together, taking slow walks to K&B to buy candy bars, and having the campus computer lab all to ourselves in the wee hours of the early morning.

I remember riding the bus down to the French Quarter with him, our shoulders leaned together as we slouched on seats near the rear. We rode in silence, taking in the chatter of the tourists all around us. None of them spoke English.

Sed spoke low to me saying, “I want us to have our own language with each other.”

I replied, “Me too.”

We were silent again as we regarded each other, thinking the same thing. What African language were we supposed to know? Did we even belong to the same tribe? Was it possible to quickly learn a common African language together?

I said, “Well, you took French in high school, right?”

Sed said, “Yeah, you?”

I nodded. And then we perked up and began exchanging the following sentences in French with probably the worst accents ever: My name is Nikki. My name is Sed. I have forgotten a lot. I remember a little. You okay? I’m okay. I speak French. I do not speak Spanish.

We sprinkled oui and sacré bleu throughout our dialogue feeling somewhat better as we got off at our stop on Canal Street.  It took us sharing a Hurricane to completely get over the whole thing.

I don’t know where Sed is now, but if I could go back and repeat that bus ride I’d tell him that we already had our own language, our own dialect. We had our code—our vernacular that relaxed certain consonants and gifted melodies to certain word combinations.

Nahmsayin?

Nahmean?

We already colored our communications in different hues, making otherwise mundane sentences into pop-up poems in thought-provoking technicolor.

Hole up, Ma. Let me spit atcha, git atcha.

S’cool, Chief. Holla.

English is not my first language. My first language is the lingo my family spoke at home, a lingo that reminded me that I was loved, appreciated, admired and valued. When I encounter this lingo in other places, I know that I am home.

My home language has a unique rhythm and accent to it. It is mixed with a soundtrack of gospel, soul, jazz. Baked for decades in the Southern heat. It has a distinct frequency. A snap and a wiggle. A staccato at times. A legato at others. It is a Black code of our own creation that liberates us from Western convention; it is one that is neither imposed nor binding.

As is the custom with all languages, my home language has grown and adapted over time, casting old conventions aside to adopt new. Still the spirit and sentiment remain every bit the same as the version spoken by Paul Laurence Dunbar in his poem Party:

All de folks f’om fou’ plantations was invited, an’ dey come,

Dey come troppin’ thick ez chillun when dey heyahs a fife an’ drum.

Evahbody dressed deir fines’—Heish yo’ mouf an’ git away,

Ain’t seen sich fancy dressin’ sence las’ quah’tly meetin’ day;

Gals all dressed in silks an’ satins, not a wrinkle ner a crease,

Eyes a-battin’, teeth a-shinin’, haih brushed back ez slick ez grease.

I don’t code switch to make anyone comfortable with who I am or what I know. I code switch to protect who I am and what I know. I LOVE my home language. I do not speak it in mixed company because it is precious to me. It is reserved for those holy moments where I’m neither invisible nor forced to wear a mask. It is familiar and judgement-free. It is pure communication that is neither lost in translation nor relegated to a singular interpretation.

I code switch because I’m not interested in my language being kidnapped, trafficked and exploited. Think “bling bling” and “ratchet.”  We don’t say that ish no more.

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