Say It Ain’t So, Joe

Vice President Biden, choosing the vernacular

In which I cogitate on the ways in which racial language enters the 2012 presidential campaigns through a side door and note the prevailing color patterns and relations in popular media.

Cooking recently for a dinner party and listening to NPR, I heard several times Joe Biden make his now-famous “chains” remark.  The vice president, speaking in Danville, Va., said Governor Romney had indicated that he would unleash the big banks and “unchain Wall Street”; doing that, said Joe Biden, would put the audience and, implicitly, much of the rest of the country, “back in chains.”

I listened distractedly—party rhetoric, but Joe’s voice did sound a little odd. As I was stirring the risotto I heard the sound bite again, followed this time by some outraged Republican “campaign shouting” (in Chuck Berry’s phrase) about divisiveness or something like that—and only then the NPR reporter mentioned that Joe had been speaking to an audience with lots of black members. Chains. Oh. Check. And as the risotto began to thicken, I realized why Joe had sounded weird—he’d addressed the crowd as an awkwardly enunciated mash-up of “you all” and “y’all.”

The correct plural form of the second person, you, is “you.” I can inquire, Where are you from? and be addressing a single visitor or a tour group. I learned this in grade school. Spoken English, though, has its varieties. As I was learning my pronouns, I also observed that my classmates, rather many of whom were black, used “y’all” when addressing a group. We lived in Dayton, Ohio, in a lower-class neighborhood; my schoolmates were the children of people from the South.  So was I, but my parents had been to college, had even spent time (in the impossible 1940s) studying at historically white institutions. Later I realized how remarkable this was and how incredibly brave my mother and father had been. At my house, the second-person plural was “you,” except when the need arose to be emphatic, at which point it was “you all.”

There being a second-person plural makes sense. When I left home and went to school in New York, I met city people who inquired about “youse” guys. In central Pennsylvania, where I taught for many years, the storied plural was “you’ans”—pronounced in a single syllable, “yuns”—but it was a word used by country white people, and it took many forays out into the ridges and valleys before I heard it spoken without irony. has much to say about “y’all.”  It leads with “contraction for you-all” (929 thumbs-up votes, 151 thumbs down) and includes, among the subsequent entries, these two—“[W]hen a black person says it, it’s ghetto/ when a white person says it, it’s country”; and “Most people who use the expression ‘y’all’ are either rednecks or African-Americans. … This word is the epitome of ignorance” (15 thumbs up, nine down on the former; 38 up and 70 down on the latter).

So into that fray stepped Joe Biden. “I was country when country wasn’t cool,” sang Barbara Mandrell, but Joe was never country. Back in the day, he described Senator Obama as “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” “Articulate” is a word that every black academic knows—we’re often praised by well-meaning whites for being that word, articulate, and the praise is always served with a side dish of polite surprise. Let me be the first to praise Mitt Romney as fairly bright, certainly nice-looking—“clean favored and imperially slim,” like E.A. Robinson’s “Richard Cory“). Tragic poem, but wealth has its advantages.

Joe’s advantage is that he got to talk publicly to black people like an insider, no matter how awkwardly he actually spoke.  In a contest in which race is huge but gentlemen must not say so, Joe can’t pass, but he gets a pass. Our boy Paul Ryan, our hope and dream, can’t do that, grumble the Republicans.

But there’s something deeply amiss here. If Paul Ryan is Robin, the Boy Wonder, to Mitt Romney’s dour Batman, then Joe Biden is the Ricky Minor (or Kevin Eubanks or Branford Marsalis) to Obama’s Jay Leno, the Tonto to Obama’s Lone Ranger, the Birmingham Brown to Obama’s Charlie Chan. Where’s the idea of order here? Normalcy, like that little lamb in the wood, loses its way in the analogies. You-all get my drift?

Yahoo News now trumpets this headline: “Biden to crash Republican convention.”  Y’all Republicans—lock your car doors!

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