THE BEST statement I ever heard on the subject of racial tolerance was uttered some years ago in Anacostia by a black teenager eating a McDonald's cheeseburger.
Our family was new to Washington, our children were still infants, and we did not yet fully appreciate the racial geography that defines this city. One evening we went searching for a McDonald's and found one deep in the Southeast, a part of the District where white folks ain't supposed to go.
In the restaurant, my son stood up on the seat, surveyed the world around him and described it for us with innocent accuracy. One by one, he pointed to each of the customers at other tables -- all of whom were black -- and announced their race. He's black and she's black and they're black and so on. Then he observed, with equal clarity and volume, our race. Mommy's white. Daddy's white. I'm white and so on.
A painful silence. The girl at the next table did not look up from here cheeseburger. She merely remarked: "Don't pay it no mind, honey."
Don't pay it no mind, honey. Is there a better way to say it? Grammarians may enjoy pointing out the technical flaws in that sentence, but the expression have lived on in our family -- an article of enrichment passed on to us by that anonymous girl. We use it on each other. And sometimes, when I hear one of our self-important Washington figures holding forth on his own importance in lifeless but proper English, I get the urge to interrupt: Don't pay it no mind, honey.
American English is a mongrel language, and it is precisely such small interchanges as ours that keep it vibrant, the most versatile language in the world. One group of Americans borrows or steals from another, modifies a stray idiom, crumples the original meaning and makes it fit their own practical usage. Good talk travels across town, even in segregated Washington, from McDonald's to tables set with china and linen. The well-to-do borrow language from the poor, even from the underworld. Sometimes, the well-to-do repackage and record it and sell it back to the poor. The poor, meanwhile, must clean up their English if they wish to become un-poor.
The point is that the sterile critics who preach proper English create pretentious arguments that conceal the real importance of these different voices in non-standard languages. Sure, language is a social and political battleground. But our language differences, I believe, also act as lubricants among diverse social groups, even among economic classes. It this weren't true, America would have torn itself apart a long time ago.
The adaptations of language represent one of American's less obvious strengths, particularly the filtering upward of new words, new idioms, new flavor from whatever castle or class or ethnic group is at the bottom. This doesn't happen in most Western nations, where prop prose is enforced from the top, which is why the government of France worries endlessly about the steady decline of French in the world. The fact is that many in France or Great Britain or West Germany find they can often say more in American English, or express more through the musical language of the black blues singer. Anything as powerful as the blues must be a powerful language.
Do we Americans understand this about ourselves? I'm not sure we do. Every other season, a new book hits the best-seller list scolding us for bad English, or someone raises a pious alarm about the threatened status of standard English v. black English v. whatever else comes along. This is a very old pretention. From the earliest days of the republic, purists have been complaining about the debasement of the King's English. They always lose, as Americans change the language in every generation. But that doesn't seem to deter the scolds.
My colleague Noel Epstein, who has made a scholarly study of these things, particularly the arguments over bilingual education, suggests to me that Americans are more appreciative today. Epstein believes that, unlike the Sixties, when folks were fighting toe-to-toe over standard v. minority tongues, they are intuitively realizing now that it doesn't have to be an eigher-or choice. We can have both; indeed, we have always had both, an incredible dimension of our culture.
Not only are a good number of minority languages and dialects still alive and kicking in this nation, but in a limited way each of us who conducts our life in English is also speaking a little Jewish, a little Italian, a little Spanish, a little Indian, a little black, and little uptown white. The social theorists continue to declaim on the queustion of whether America is a "melting pot" or a "tossed salad," but Epstein's notion is that we are neither. Maybe American is an Irish stew made with North Carolina barbecue and side orders of potato pancakes, corn bread, chicken soup. An ecclectic menu.
In fact, there is a real social disadvantage for those of us who are limited to one standard language, and others sometimes do a number on us because of it. Black Americans who successfully nagivate in the white offices of standard English, for instance, still employ the mother tongue, sometimes to remind the white folks around them that black is beautiful or proud or indomitable. I have seen black reporters in the newsroom do the jive routine on white editors, but I admit that it was startling to read in Bob Woodward's and Scott Armstrong's new book, "The Brethern," that Justice Thurgood Marshall does it, too.
"Dat de way it was, sho was." That is not how one expects Thurgood Marshall, the giant of the civil rights ers, to talk. Chief Justice Warren Burger may smile, but I feed confident that it also makes him uncomfortable. That, of course, is the point. This is Mr. Justice Marshall reminding Mr. Chief Justice Burger, not very subtly, that one of his "brethern" is black.
From deep in the federal labyrith, a bureaucrat told me about a wonderful variation on the same theme. A black secretary in this agency speaks a mumbled dialect that her white co-workers and supervisors can barely understand. Sometimes, with embarrassment, they must ask her to repeat for them.
But when this same woman telephones another black secretary to chat, she doesn't speak black English. She speaks as exaggerated version of standard English -- a parody of the way "proper" white folks talk: "Hellloooow, Miss Jones. Would yooou be free for lunch toooday?"
This is her inside joke, and perhaps she doesn't realize that her white colleagues are on to it. But I suspect she wants them to hear, to know that she can do it their way if she wants to but that she sure isn't about to throw away her own identity in the process. That black secretary clearly has some moves available to her that most white peoeple don't have.
White children who grow up exclusively on standard English sometimes discover that they are prisoners of one language, restricted to a single communications channel, no other knobs to turn. For many of them black English has offered an escape, a way to repudiate their orthodox upbringing. It's impossible to listen to white rock 'n roll without hearing that statement of repudiation. For that matter, listen to groups of white teenagers talking among themselves and you often will hear an awkward mimickry or black street patter.
I'm not suggesting that learning other languages of American or the world will make us all love each other; we'll only understand better what the other guy is really after. But it can help us get rid of that feeling of intimidation, that fear of the strange and the alien, and, I suspect, become stronger people in the process. That's why knowing black English is as important for white children as standard English is for blacks. Thurgood Marshall couldn't do the Kingfish routine on Warren Burger if Warren Burger were able to respond in kind. Can one imagine the Chief Justice slapping hands with Mr. Justice Marshall and exclaiming: Right on, Thurgood, baby, you my main man?