It was late October, and the air was still unnaturally warm. Myself, being only 9, didn’t pay much attention to the weather. I was more interested about the extra recess. While I was jumping rope, someone ended up walking over to me. The question they asked me was one I could never forget.
“Can you speak Jamaican?”
Such a simple question, yet it shook me to my core. Apparently this person was one of those who’ve heard that I was from Jamaica. And just like the rest, they wanted to confirm it for themselves that I was Jamaican. Yet my response is always the same.
“Jamaican? It’s just English.”
Seemingly disappointed, he ran off. I continued to jump rope pretending not to remember that familiar disappointed face every time I told each person that fact.
I was born in Westmoreland, Jamaica where I lived for a total of nine years. In 2010, I migrated from Greater Portmore, Jamaica along with mother. When I moved, my accent followed. It wasn’t hard for people to identify me as a Jamaican. If the question wasn’t “What did you say?” then it was always “Can you speak Jamaican?” Yet I responded with the same line each time. Eventually people gave up on the questions and I was happy.
Until people started to mock the Jamaican accent, that is.
“Hey, mon. How ya doin’ mon.”
“You hungry, mon? Thirsty, mon?”
“Wanna play with us, mon?”
I couldn’t take it anymore. I snapped.
“Not all Jamaicans say mon!!” I screamed at them. What I didn't realize was that my accent showed itself once again in that one sentence. “It speaks itself against our will, in words and thoughts, that intrude, violate even, the inner most private spaces of mind and body.” Bell Hooks once said. You can’t hide who you truly are. Instead of quieting down with the mocking like I had hoped, they laughed. They laughed. They started to mock me even more.
“What was that you said, mon? I didn’t hear you, mon.” I felt my eyes starting to sting with tears. I repeated what I said but it was barely a whisper. I ran away. I ran away from them to the other side of the field. I vowed to myself on that spot that I would hide my accent forever. That I won’t make it show it’s ugly face ever again. I vowed silently as I cried in the corner.
James Baldwin once said, “Language, incontestably, reveals the speaker.” I believe that if I had heard of this quote before I would have understood why I was so upset. Why they were making fun of my language. The reason why I was so upset. If only I had heard of this before I would have understood that because they were making fun of my language, I felt that in some way they were also making fun of me.
From that day forward, I tried to completely get rid of my accent. I tried to learn the American way to say things. I tricked my family into thinking that if I don’t say them this way no one will understand me. I believed I also tricked myself into believing this too. I spoke slower. I knew it worked. How? Well because of a certain exclamation of an old classmate of mine.
“You’re Jamaican!?” She had screamed. I couldn’t blame her. She was Jamaican herself, and didn’t see me as one of her own. I didn’t understand why I felt like a part of myself was missing. Like I had just sold my most prized possession. I didn’t understand.
It was the summer of that year. I was going to Jamaica to visit my family. It was going to be two years since I had seen my siblings. I couldn’t wait. It was only natural to be excited to see your family, I thought to myself. Yet I knew that part of me was excited to go back to the place I called home.
When we moved my mother never told me that we were moving. The entire time I thought we were just visiting my grandmother like we do every year. I didn’t know the reason she decided to move without telling me. I still don’t know. I remember my friend Alexia tried to telling me I was moving yet I didn’t believe her. I regret the day I promised her I’ll come back.
When I arrived at the airport my dad was there waiting for me. My older brother and two older sisters were also there waiting. After a round of hugs I would never forget the conversation that happened next.
“You sound so American like.” My brother had said. Only thing was I couldn’t understand him.
“What did you say?” I had asked him. Everyone looked at me a little strange but my brother shrugged it off and spoke slower as if talking to a toddler. It helped though and I was finally able to understand him.
I didn’t realize right then and there why I had the sudden urge to cry and fought back the tears. My dad however noticed them and asked me what’s wrong. I told him that I got something in my eyes and didn’t want to rub them.
I think my final straw was when we went to visit my cousin and she said the words that made me come to my senses about what I had done to myself.
“You sound so American. Are you really Jamaican?”
“People evolve a language in order to describe and thus control their circumstances, or in order not to be submerged by a reality they cannot articulate” James Baldwin once said. What I think this quote is trying to say is that people try and change their language to fit their own needs. But as Bell Hooks says it doesn’t always work. Your real language will always come back into play.
So that night as I slept in my grand-aunt’s house, I wept silently knowing that I have lost a part of me I can never get back.That trip to Jamaica taught me a lot about my language and I tried to enforce what I learned. I tried to gain back the part that I lost. I wanted it back so much that at home I use my Jamaican slang and a forced accent. I truly wish I never had tried to hide who I was and now I sincerely regret it.