Can you help me to interpret the poem "On Being Told I Don't Speak Like a Black Person" by Allison Joseph?  Let us speak. Let us talkwith the sounds of our mothersand fathers still reverberatingin...

Can you help me to interpret the poem "On Being Told I Don't Speak Like a Black Person" by Allison Joseph?


Let us speak. Let us talk
with the sounds of our mothers
and fathers still reverberating
in our minds, wherever our mothers
or fathers come from: Arkansas, Belize, Alabama,
Brazil, Aruba, Arizona.
Let us simply speak
to one another,
listen and prize the inflections,
differences, never assuming
how any person will sound
until her mouth opens,
until his mouth opens,
greetings familiar
in any language.

Expert Answers
jameadows eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Allison Joseph's poem is about how personal each person's way of speaking is, and how people's speech comes about from their experiences and their parents' experiences. Therefore, there is no one right way for anyone to speak, and stating that someone should speak a certain way because of their race or what Joseph calls their "natural tan" is simplistic.

Joseph starts with the story of her mother, who grew up with a charming Jamaican accent, though her school teachers tried to get her to speak English with a British accent. This story has some irony in it, as later, when her mother came to the United States, everyone loved her accent and asked Joseph why she didn't have the same accent. Her mother's story shows how arbitrary people's feelings about accents and speech patterns are. The poet also shows that accents can be faked or manufactured, such as the "fastidious British mannerisms" that her father put on to sell people things. In college, Joseph was asked why she didn't speak "like a Black American," and she questioned people who asked what exactly that meant. In the end, she realizes "there's nothing more personal than speech." People speak in idiosyncratic ways because of the way their parents spoke and the way they were raised, and they should be allowed to express themselves freely without other people making assumptions about them. This is the richness that comes from appreciating the vastness of individual experience. 

lsumner eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This poem is stating that it is okay to speak the way your mother or father taught you to speak. The poet is offended when others ask her about her speech sounds or dialect. Joseph considers it rude to negatively judge the way someone speaks.

The poet states that we should prize differences in speaking habits. We should appreciate differences. We should not judge people by the way they speak. We should never assume anything, but we should be open-minded enough to recognize distinctions in speech as delightful sounds. We should feel comfortable enough to speak the way we speak and to speak with pride. We should be deliberate in our speech habits. Dialectal differences should be admired by all.