Academic journal article Women and Language

Multiple Perspectives: African American Women Conceive Their Talk

Academic journal article Women and Language

Multiple Perspectives: African American Women Conceive Their Talk

Article excerpt

Abstract: The African American feminist concepts "multiple jeopardy" and "multiple consciousness" indicate the heterogeneity of African American women's lived experiences. The heterogeneity of their communicative experiences is reflected in three contrasting perspectives offered in free descriptions of "black women's talk" written by 134 black middle-class professional women and college students. A surprising number of respondents evaded the task of offering a gendered ethnic description of their talk; others described black women as style-switching to accommodate the demands of African American and dominant cultural settings; but most celebrated black women's talk as expressing wisdom, fortitude, and caring. I suggest that each of these perspectives reflects the African American woman's struggle to positively construct her voice in the midst of a discourse environment that continues to disparage speech and speakers marked as black and woman.

"Double jeopardy" (Beale, 1970) is often considered the fundamental insight into the lived experiences of African American women. African American feminist thinkers, from nineteenth-century orator Maria Stewart to contemporary cultural critic bell hooks, have pointed out that African American womanhood is experienced holistically. Black [1] women experience womanhood in the context of blackness; they do not experience their gender and ethnic identities as separate "parts" of who they are (Collins, 1990; Davis, 1981; hooks, 1981; 1984). The outcome of being African American and woman in a social order rife with both racism and sexism is that black women's experiences of womanhood may overlap with those of both white women and other women of color, but will also differ from them in important ways; and their experience of blackness may overlap with those of African American men, but will significantly differ from them as well. When the fundamental insight of "double jeopardy" is extended to other aspects of Afr ican American women's identities (e.g., socio-economic class, sexual orientation) the "multiple jeopardy" and "multiple consciousness" [2] that characterize African American womanhood become apparent (King, 1988).

For individual African American women, these twin concepts suggest both the risks of many sorts of disadvantage and marginalization and the possibilities of simultaneous, multiple, self- and group-affirming ways of seeing every aspect of human social life. For African American women as a social group, "multiple jeopardy" and "multiple consciousness" suggest a heterogeneity of social relationships, experiences, and outlooks that preclude essentializing black womanhood.

Any explanation of African American women's communication must, in some way, account for the heterogeneity of black women's lived experiences suggested by multiple jeopardy and multiple consciousness. In this essay, I endeavor to account for that heterogeneity by exploring three contrasting perspectives taken by African American women in response to my request that they write free descriptions of "black women's talk." One-hundred thirty-four middle-class professional women and aspiring middle class women (college students) responded to this request. This is not a report of the responses they gave, but an interpretation of the ways they approached the question, that is, the ways they conceived "black women's talk" as a distinct communication style or repertoire of styles. Some women evaded the idea of "black women's talk;" others saw style-switching as its central feature, but most celebrated one or more of three dimensions of black women's interpersonal style: wisdom, fortitude, and caring.

Hecht, Ribeau and Alberts (1989) suggest that cultural speaking perspectives are ways of thinking about and talking about talk that reveal the discursive forms a cultural group regards as ideal and perceives as typical of particular speakers and situations. Perspectives also reveal the personal qualities and types of interpersonal relationships that are valued by the group. …

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