The Atlantic

There’s Nothing Wrong With Black English

Accepting it as an alternative form of the language, and not a degraded one, requires being open to artists employing it in their work, even if they didn't grow up speaking it.
Source: AP Photo

The Nation recently published a poem in which a homeless narrator speaks a complex, nuanced variety of English with a long and interesting history.

The variety of English is Black English, and the poet is Anders Carlson-Wee, a white man. In the wake of the controversy, The Nation’s poetry editors have appended a kind of trigger warning to the poem calling its language “disparaging.” (They also apologized for its “ableist language;” the poem used the word “crippled.”) Carlson-Wee has dutifully, and perhaps wisely, apologized that “treading anywhere close to blackface is horrifying to me” and declared that the poem “didn’t work.”

However, I suspect that many are quietly wondering just what Carlson-Wee did that was so wrong—and they should.


The primary source of offense, in a poem only 14 lines long, is passages such as this, in a work designed to highlight and sympathize with the plight of homeless people: “It’s about who they believe they is. You hardly even there.” The protagonist is referring to the condescending attitudes of white passersby who give her change. Yet Roxane Gay, for example, directs white writers to “know your lane,” and not depict the dialect.

To be sure, America long harbored a tradition of mocking black speech, in which white men portrayed black ones), were central to American entertainment well into the 20th century.

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

More from The Atlantic

The Atlantic3 min readPolitics
The Atlantic Politics & Policy Daily: And Then There Were 10
Tomorrow there will be ... 10 more Democratic 2020 candidates sharing a debate stage. Plus: How a home-goods company got tangled up in the migrant-detention crisis.
The Atlantic4 min readPolitics
Trump Takes A Back Seat To Policy At The Democratic Debate
The president dominates every aspect of American politics, but you wouldn’t have known that from watching the first batch of candidates Wednesday night.
The Atlantic5 min readPolitics
America’s Free-Rider Problem In The Strait Of Hormuz
“The United States has not been willing to walk away from the Gulf, so other allies may not step up to do anything because they know that if they don’t, the U.S. will.”