In her book Americanah Nigerian author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, brings into sharp focus the politics of an African accent, through the protagonist, Ifemelu. She goes to the US and for the first time has to consciously live as a black person, writes MASEEISO RADEBE
How often do you find yourself practising an accent hoping to sound “right”, or – to put it bluntly – to sound smart? Because we unfortunately live in a world that measures your intelligence with your accent, and for some reason a distinctly African accent does not quite say you are smart.
So our parents take us to “good schools”, formerly and still colloquially known as Model C schools, so we can speak well and sound “right”.
I often wonder how many times Advocate Tembeka Ngcucaitobi was rejected by peers and professionals in his discipline simply because he had a thick isiXhosa accent, which becomes more pronounced when he speaks in English. You can tell that he did not go to a posh, upmarket private school from how he speaks.
It begs the question: how many times did law graduates and professionals in the discipline, or even outside it, question his intelligence and quickly dismiss him purely because he did not sound like he went to a private school with a “Saint something” at the beginning – a school often found in the Northern suburban areas of cities in South Africa?
Before Black Twitter hyped him up and affectionately referred to him as “Advocate Bae” and the reference gained momentum, I wonder if he tried to mould his tongue, so when he spoke English the words rolled out a certain way – in a more “acceptable manner”. When you meaningfully listen to Ngcukaitobi’s rhetoric and arguments in court, you discover that he has a good head on his shoulders.
However before this “hype” around him and his brains and newly found “sex appeal”, I wonder how he was treated by those who were thrown aback by his accent. What happened when he set up an appointment to see a private doctor in Sandton, or when he spoke to a property agent to inquire about buying a house? Did they treat him with the respect he deserved or was he dismissed?
As neo-soul musician India Arie puts it in her famous song “I am not my hair”, as black people we are also not our accents. Black womxn’s fight against the constant policing of our hair in professional spaces is the same battle we are fighting for our African accents to be accepted.
If you wear your hair in dreadlocks, an afro, or cornrowed, it’s deemed unprofessional. Our black hair once had to constantly be manipulated into a texture it is not, and straightened with extensive and damaging heat from chemicals and hair straighteners. Yet we have managed to push back and unapologetically throw middle fingers to the corporate world and tell it to accept us as we are or not at all.
Black people are beginning to start their own businesses, and hire black professionals purely for their credentials. We are also fortunate to now find ourselves working in environments where potential employers are not deciding against hiring us because we have “unrestrictive hair” or because we have certain accents.
But still, 20 odd years after having overthrown the old dispensation and four democratically-elected black presidents later, we are still told that one’s careers ill fits our accents.
Just in 2017 a group of disgruntled black girls, led by the brave Zuluikha Patel at Pretoria Girls high, protested against a primitive and exclusionary policy, dictating how black girls should wear their hair.
I remember how livid I was, as a junior reporter in the newsroom, when the story broke. It’s a sheer wonder how so much power has been given to white people for them to govern how we look and how we speak. I remember feeling gooseflesh when the 13-year-old Patel held up her fist to challenge a horrid system.
I actually feel embarrassed for those dishing out such regressive worldviews – and not for us black people who are on the constant receiving end of all of this backward way of thinking.
In her book Americanah Nigerian author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, brings into sharp focus the politics of an African accent, through the protagonist, Ifemelu. She goes to the US and for the first time has to consciously live as a black person. She has to mind how she speaks and how she presents herself as a black foreign womxn, which proves to be a challenge for her.
She finds herself being forced to mould her tongue so she does not give away that she is Nigerian. She admits to the challenges of having to twist her lips and curl her tongue so as to have her words come out in a more acceptable manner. She admits to existing painfully in America, in the hopes of coming across more professional to white people living in this foreign country she has found herself in.
Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks tackles the impact colonisation has had on the black person’s psychology and how we end up adopting the Master Narrative, as a result of an inferior complex we develop due to being trapped in the system. As black people we find ourselves between a rock and a hard place and end up thinking we have no other choice. But to join them because we can’t beat them, we therefore adopt their so-called Master Narrative.
When we find ourselves bowing down to the remnants of colonial power, it is important for us to interrogate further why we spend much of our lives breaking our backs trying to sound a certain way in order to satisfy people who have no appetite to even out the playing field, but instead expect us to force ourselves into ill-fitting moulds.