Worth of Words: On Code Switching as a Black Immigrant
About the Series: Worth of Words
It’s been often said that words have power; they are the vessels of how we perceive and construct reality and our everyday lives. Yet, this power becomes nuanced when looking at just how those words come across—how they’re spoken, why they’re written, when and where they’re read. Moreover, they vary across different cultures, geographies, and times, meaning there’s a lot more to unpack than what our own lived experiences can say. Worth of Words was created to do just that—to tell the stories of our words, our accents, our voices, and our various languages, ranging from the variations of Blackness in speech and code-switching to how language impacts queer identities. Our camp counselors shared their stories, both visually and audibly, so you can read and listen to their experiences on the power, and possible harm, of words.
190 E. 21 street, Apartment 5A. The savory aromas of rice and peas, stewed chicken, and breadfruit bursting thickly into the air as I open the apartment door have always comforted me. Grandma's house has never failed to warm my frosty fingers, and even more so, my childish heart. Sunday has always been Grandma Margaret and Papi's day. My dad, mother, brothers and I would arrive at her house in our silver Nissan Quest to see Papi, my mother's stepfather, waiting by the window. He'd toss the front door keys from his opened window down to my dad. He was almost as happy to see us as we were to see him.
My brothers and I would walk towards the mahogany dining room table to slowly sift through the belly of a clear glass swan, in search of glossy ginger candies, and icy globe shaped mints that always seemed to melt on our tongues and seep from our lips. My mother would silently sit on a small couch near my grandma’s bedroom, as if satiated by the sound of her accent, a thick cutlass blade, carefully cutting paths in the air as she spoke. Her laughter and words rang throughout the walls of her apartment. I’ve heard words leap from her molars to her tongue, and from her tongue, they climbed to dance in the warm folds of her cheeks.
My dad, with a grin on his face, used to playfully mimic her by adding the sound of “blow” to every word that ended in “b-l-e”. “Tablow… applow... peoplow” and he’d continue, “The keys dey pon di tablow”, “Alluh peoplow”, and in return we’d mimic him, “pass di ting over there by di ting, pon top di ting.” He was always aware that her lips could tuck and curl, and that her words never flatten as they traveled from her belly to her mouth. They maintained their eclectic shapes in a way my words never could. I’d unfasten the melody from my family's names. My tongue would release them into the air lifelessly. Asquith, Daniele, Erson, Robert, Raquell, Caleb, (which are all actually pronounced Ah-squit, Dan-eel, Ersu, Rah-Bat, Rah-quell, Kaay-leb). My family would say, almost with a pitch of joy, that I sound “white”, but I’d say that I simply sound lost. I’m in search of a tongue, one I can truly call my own, that I lost at the age of four.
My father had enrolled me into an independent school on the Lower East Side when I was four years old, where White children and teachers ironed the crimps and creases out of my tongue. They taught me to surrender to language. To lay my tongue flat, tighten my jaw, and open my throat. By the 6th grade I understood that all along they were preparing me for a race away from being associated with being “ghetto”. I couldn’t quite grasp what it meant to sound “ghetto” because I was always being referred to as “white-washed”, or told that I sounded like a “white girl”.
As an 11 year old, I wasn’t familiar with AAVE. I was always at school, and my neighborhood misunderstood my business and believed me to be a “bitch” too good to speak to them, or someone they should aim to seduce and brag about to their boys. I didn’t realize that I was othered, and believed us all to be natives of Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. My brother, who adored his neighborhood, told me otherwise. He said I couldn’t use AAVE, and that though everyone called Kings Plaza, a mall in Brooklyn, “KP”, I could not. I talked too “white”. At the sound of me calling my brothers “bro”, my mother thinks to gently remind me that I shouldn’t perform any aspect of myself, and that “bro” doesn’t sound right falling off of my tongue. She knew, from a child, I didn’t believe that any word that I had ever spoken seemed to sit right on my tongue.
Every June or July, my parents would treat themselves to a trip home to St.Vincent, and up until undergrad we continued this tradition. My brothers and I would go shopping at Burlington or T.J. Maxx with our parents for our month back “home”. We’d buy jean shorts, graphic t-shirts, sundresses, sunglasses, and new bathing suits. By the time our plane’s back wheels touched Barbados, my eldest brother Cameron and I would begin to gargul our words around in our mouths until we couldn’t make sense of them. In hopes to sound similar to our parents, we’d switch “girl” to gyal, and add “anuh” after boy, as our dad jokingly did. I’d call our mom from across the room saying “mommy oy” or “muhmah” and sometimes, with a smirk on her face, and her lips on a slippery slope to a smile, she’d say “yes pickney” or she’d answer “oy” awaiting our response to see what it was that we needed from her.
I thought that my accent would somehow sharpen overnight, and that instead of the inches in height that my brother wanted to grow, I’d wake up and wouldn’t be called a “Yankee”. However, the minute we’d open our mouths to talk like we believed Vincentians to speak, and all of our childhood friends would laugh at us. They’d call us “Yankee” and “Americans”, which we acknowledged, and claimed the privileges associated with this instead of fussing. I remember I was walking down the hill with my brother Cameron from my Granddad’s house in Frenchs into our town in Kingstown, and I happened to place my sunglasses on the top of my head, and a man asked me, in an English accent: “Would you like some tea? Would you like some tea miss?” and laughed. I remembered, as my mom would jokingly remind us, that we were American. We were born on American soil, we grew up in Bed-Stuy, but that we are Vincentian, and that we should hold onto our culture, though maybe not in the form of an accent, or a childhood that was never ours to claim. My mom has identified this limbo that I often feel caught in. I’m Vincentian, but I’m too American. I’m too Vincentian and Black to be solely American, but I’m too white to be Black and I’m too Black to be white.
I’m learning though, that being lost doesn’t have to come with an ache in my belly. It can come packaged neatly beside a feeling of relief and even feel freeing at times. I am a human being living an experience unique to that of my family, as their experience has been to me. Along with this feeling of being lost, I feel as though I have the privilege of reinventing myself, my definition of culture, and my own narrative. In this fog I can wholly acknowledge my infinite versions of myself. I can decide who I’d like to be, where I belong, what sits comfortably on my tongue and what I’d like home to be called.
About the Author
Camille Asia Ollivierre is a queer, Vincentian-American poet from Brooklyn, New York. They use they/them and she/her pronouns, and are currently a Senior studying English at Smith College. They are the Founder of Dey Magazine, a platform dedicated to amplifying the expressions and voices of marginalized folx that would otherwise go unheard. Camille aims to use a combination of art and facilitation of conversations to forcibly carve out space for marginalized folx in the world.