“Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ’Round” is a crowd favorite for the Northwest African American Museum’s African American Choir Ensemble.

Based on the spiritual “Don’t You Let Nobody Turn You ’Round,” the song is a civil rights anthem with lyrics that reflect a piece of the Black experience: “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me ’round / I’m gonna keep on a walkin’, keep on a-talkin’.”

Its verses are rich in African American English, also known as AAE or African American Vernacular English, says NAAM president and CEO LaNesha DeBardelaben. And it’s an example of how central language is to Black culture, as Black people seamlessly weave significance and shared interpretation into their speech.

“Now that is African American Vernacular,” DeBardelaben said of the lyrics celebrating Black resilience. “But we all understand what that means and how rooted it is in the sense of self-determination and collective strength.” 

The choir is practicing for three Seattle performances surrounding Juneteenth, the holiday celebrating the end of chattel slavery in the U.S. on June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas, and proclaimed all enslaved people free — more than two years after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. A year later in Galveston, the first Juneteenth celebration took place, and in 2021, Juneteenth was made a federal holiday. 

Seattle’s Juneteenth celebrations are a call for community convening and a celebration of Black culture, DeBardelaben said. And a significant part of Black culture is language, specifically AAE. 

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Black language has a history as emotionally charged as the Black experience itself. Today, AAE remains an intrinsic element of Black culture, widely appropriated by non-Black speakers when convenient yet commonly criticized. As more Black people in Seattle and beyond are finding or raising their voices after the racial reckoning of 2020, they are saying the inclusion of Black language must be reckoned with as well.   

Understanding Black language

AAE is a dialect of American English spoken by Black Americans. A form of both comfort and contention in the Black community, Black English has always had the capability to unite and divide. Hearing AAE brings to mind a Southern cookout with Black family members, but within the community, there is contention over its use, dividing speakers on class, generation and gender lines.

AAE has its own origin story, grammar structure and vocabulary. So what does it sound like?

Take these two sentences from “Spoken Soul: The Story of Black English” by John R. Rickford and Russell J. Rickford: “You ain’t gotta eat it,” and, “He might could do the work.” Both have distinct AAE grammar structures, studied at length by linguistic scholars. While “ain’t” is commonly utilized by AAE speakers, the use of the word is still frowned upon in formal use as it clashes with “Standard American English.” But as Merriam-Webster puts it, despite being “widely disapproved as nonstandard … ain’t is flourishing in American English.”

“Powerful” is how lifelong Seattleite Jean Harris would describe Black language. Harris, 79, has a doctorate in anthropology and grew up in Yesler Terrace, the first racially integrated public-housing project in the nation. She describes a tightly knit multicultural community in which neighbors did more than just borrow a cup of sugar from each other — they borrowed colloquialisms.

“At Yesler Terrace, [Black people] enriched the language there, and we were also enriched by the language of other ethnic groups,” Harris said.

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Harris’ work to collect oral histories from other residents who, like her, came of age at Yesler Terrace in the 1950s and 1960s has been highlighted by The Seattle Times and researchers in the University of Washington’s Department of Linguistics.

One such account, recorded by Harris, illustrates Yesler Terrace’s cross-culturalism. A white man Harris grew up with explains that when he speaks, even now, people say he sounds “like a Black guy.”

Harris understands what he means — though if she hears anyone firsthand making sweeping generalizations like that, she will tilt her head to the side and ask rhetorically, “And how exactly do Black guys talk?”

The history of AAE 

African American English stems from colonial circumstances. There is general consensus that AAE developed from a creole language, or a mixed language, sourced from West African languages, Caribbean creoles and English, says Alicia Beckford Wassink, director of the sociolinguistics laboratory at the University of Washington.

“Enslaved peoples did not fully abandon their heritage languages. They brought at least some features of their home languages (both West African languages or creoles from West Africa, Jamaica or Barbados) to the U.S.,” Wassink explained in an email. “Most speakers then shifted to English, but their English still shows features of an earlier creole.”

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In the years following the abolishment of chattel slavery in the U.S., African American English presented itself proudly in Black expression, says Ron Holland, associate professor of English at Bellevue College. He pointed to movements like the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s and the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s as examples of the impact of Black language.

“The vernacular presented itself in music, in poetry, in literature, in speeches, in sermons,” Holland said. “Even to this day, we are descendants of that vernacular.”

Holland’s family moved to the Seattle area in the Great Migration, among the millions of African Americans who relocated away from the rural South. Born and raised in Bremerton, Holland says that while AAE was the language he knew from his grandparents and from his upbringing in a Black church, he was discouraged from speaking Black English at school.

“Of course, [Black English] was not seen as equivalent; it was seen as inferior,” Holland said. “I grew up in a very hostile environment where I felt that if I ever used the vernacular in a white setting, I was going to show that I was inferior.”

Learning to code-switch

Holland says he learned at an early age to code-switch — a practice in which (usually) Black people adjust, modify and change their behavior and speech to suppress stereotypes others, typically white people, may see as negative, or to make non-Black speakers feel comfortable. 

Black professionals in Seattle are no strangers to code-switching, conforming to the dominant culture as a means of professional survival, says Michelle Merriweather, president and CEO of the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle. She described the Black professionals she works with learning how to transfer between “the dialect we use in community as opposed to those we use in white spaces.” 

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Nationally, nearly half of college-educated Black people say they feel the need to code-switch or change their behaviors around colleagues of different racial and ethnic backgrounds, per a 2019 Pew Research Center survey. This was true for Seattle resident Rafael Williams, who began his career in sales in Austin, Texas. 

“One of my mentors told me at that job, ‘The best thing to do is shut up and eat your cheese sandwich,’” Williams said, recalling advice from a Black co-worker. “That stuck with me, and I continued to opt into being ‘white professional,’ meaning I would talk a certain way, present myself a certain way.”

There is a shared narrative among Black people of being discouraged from speaking AAE in predominantly white settings during formative years. This is in part the case because AAE, since its inception, has teetered a fine line of disparagement and legitimacy, Harris said.

African American English has been called many things: Nonstandard Negro English, broken English, slang, Black English. In the 1970s, scholars settled on ebonics, a blend of the words ebony and phonics, “to give weight and validity to our particular dialect,” Harris said.

But that term, and the language itself, came under fierce scrutiny after a 1996 decision by the Oakland Unified School District that accepted the terminology of African American English and also acknowledged the intellectual reasons behind how Black people communicate, Holland said.

There was pushback, even among Black parents and Black thought leaders of that time, Harris recalled. And having their language criticized on such a national stage resulted in many Black people being self-conscious and ashamed of the way they spoke.

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“What happens when you take a small child and tell them the way that they talk, the way the people who love them and care for them talk, is not correct?” Harris said. “When you tell them it’s devalued and worthless, that they have to give it up in order to advance: What happens inside of that little child?”

Embracing Black English 

This month marks the one-year anniversary of the African American Cultural Ensemble’s debut. Created to use Black heritage to heal the community through song, it’s intentional that a lot of the choir’s musical selections embody the language and spoken expressions of Black people, DeBardelaben said.

Another favorite the ensemble performs is “Ain’a That Good News,” a more lively tune which idiomatically chronicles the rewards waiting in heaven: “I got a crown up in-a that kingdom / Ain’a that good news!”

That’s just one example of Black folks proudly embracing AAE. 

Studying history and diving into the wealth of linguistic and sociolinguistic research around Black language broke Holland’s inferiority complex, he said. 

“Gaining knowledge about [Black English] and being able to publicly display that knowledge gave me a sense of empowerment,” Holland said.

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For Seattle professionals Merriweather and Williams, the nation’s racial reckoning in summer 2020 ultimately shifted their perspective on amplifying their Blackness, language and all. Merriweather and other Black professionals found safe spaces like the BIPOC ED Coalition of Washington State, created to center the voices and experiences of nonprofit executive directors of color, in which they had tough conversations about code-switching in the workplace.

“It’s time for us to show up in spaces and be our full selves and not be concerned about what our white counterparts and colleagues think about it,” Merriweather said. “For me, and for many of us, our language — how we speak, how we greet each other, how we talk around family and friends — I think that’s a part of who we are and how we show up.”

As the culturally responsive practices lead at Bellevue College, where he helps instructors set the conditions for a more inclusive classroom setting, Holland says he teaches his students that all forms of English are equal. And he finds reassurance in Black students’ recognition of the “richness” of their language.

“We shouldn’t push [Black English] to the back burner; we should embrace it,” Holland said. “Not only embrace it in personal settings but embrace it in professional settings, too. Because when we use the vernacular in professional settings … it shows the dominant culture that we are here and we’re proud of who we are.”

He says the more Black people feel empowered to use AAE, the more powerful it can be.

African American Cultural Ensemble Juneteenth performances

Noon on Saturday, June 18, at the Seattle Sounders match at Lumen Field, 800 Occidental Ave. S., Seattle

7 p.m. on Saturday, June 18, at the OL Reign match at Lumen Field, 800 Occidental Ave. S., Seattle

1 p.m. on Monday, June 20, at the City of Seattle Juneteenth Commemoration at Seward Park, 5900 Lake Washington Blvd. S., Seattle

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