FMM 7 31 2020 Code Switching

“The reason why the world lacks unity, and lies broken and in heaps, is, because man is disunited with himself.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson.

For many of us foot-loose travelers, the last few months of home confinement have been quite a punishment.  Yet even as we express that, we feel a little guilty, aware of the privilege it has been to be free to jump on a plane and go visit family overseas, or a tourist destination, or an idyllic island.  The contrast between ‘then’ and ‘now’ has forced many of us to recognize how truly blessed our life is, it has brought into sharp contrast the many things we have taken for granted.  And we have been reminded once more how precious the gift of health is.

The person that I am has been impacted immensely by my life of travel.  Not just the ability to visit foreign places, but also to move there, to live, grow and have a family in a country far from the land of my birth. This particular privilege has influenced my outlook on life, my ability to feel at home in many different parts of the world, and to try to fit in. As a child I worked hard to learn to speak like a Jamaican, learning the accent, the dialect, the sayings and the parts of speech to be able to fit in, despite my blonde hair and blue eyes.  The other day I remembered (with a grimace) that as an eight-year-old child, I would hear ‘dolly-baby’ called after me. When I mentioned it (with a grimace) a friend was surprised that my memories of that name were not happy ones, she said ‘but we loved you!’

The ability to adapt and blend with an adopted society has given me a unique perspective on life, and a more empathetic one. It has caused confusion between my brain and my tongue when I have to switch between one accent and another, between one way of speaking and another, as I move from one group of people to another. Even worse if they are in one group together.  English accent for my English family (they no doubt would say I no longer sound English); Jamaican accent for my Jamaican family; and the strange trans-Atlantic mix for my US conversations.

I had no idea that what I was doing was a ‘thing’ until I heard a critique of President Obama, that he was a ‘Code Switcher’, changing his cadence, his sentence construction and vocabulary according to his audience.  His Law School professorial tones would switch into a more folksy, Southern preacher style when he moved from one podium to another.  The critic was suggesting that Obama was ‘talking down’ to his audience, trying too hard to fit in.  But I was fascinated by the concept of ‘code switching’. It is something I have been doing all my life (there are even Ted Talks about it), and I didn’t even know it!

I had a conversation with one of my cousins about it, one of my very Welsh cousins. Unlike his two brothers, her father had lived and worked in Wales his entire life, and so (unlike the rest of us) his children were fluent in Welsh. But my cousin had learnt to speak Welsh from her mother who came from the North of Wales, and then she had grown up in South Wales, where they have a different accent.  And like me, she tried to adapt. Eventually she was accused of sounding too South Walian in the North, and too North Walian in the South! Code Switching is tricky!

The other problem with soaking in the culture and language of the place where you live is that you may be perceived as making fun of the adopted group.  But some of the turns of phrase are so beautiful.  I never forget hearing the Ebonic phrase ‘It be’s that way sometimes.’  Or when a scared patient, seeing a physician approaching her bedside with the equipment needed to save her life (and cause some distress) yelled at him ‘I ‘buke you!’, rebuking him like the devil he appeared to be.

It is a privilege to travel and observe and absorb a culture, to learn to respect and love the ways that other people express their feelings.  Our modern music has taken the sounds and rhythm of Africa, jazzed it up with the syncopation of Latin America, has dressed it up with the lyrics of the poets to show us the world we can live in.  A Southern Spiritual can carry us back to the haunted past, the land of cruelty yet hope, a people tormented yet resilient, a people stripped of their humanity yet strong with pride and self-belief.  It is impossible not to be moved, for your soul not to be stirred, when you listen to a harmonized gospel song.

This week we have contemplated the life and example of a Southern man, a man descended from the enslaved people of Africa.  How can we not be moved and inspired by a man who bore the scars of a beating, who survived a fractured skull yet lived a life based on non-violent resistance, a life of ‘good trouble’.  All of the stories you hear about him make you stand in awe of this giant, this man who from humble beginnings had the strength of character to stand up, speak up and speak out. How can we not draw strength from his life and be determined to continue his work, to strive for his beloved community.

This Friday morning, I salute all of my fellow code switchers, people who move between worlds.  We are the bridges, the means of uniting disparate groups of people, of helping them see that we are more alike than different.  We are the translators, the ones who can open the eyes and ears of those who would think that we are not part of one harmonious chorus.  And whenever possible, stand up, speak up and speak out.

Have a wonderful weekend, Family!

One Love!


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