Linguist, lexicographer, radio host, public speaker

Two characters I thought were something other than white

I read a lot of books way beyond my age level when I was a kid. One side effect, besides learning words I couldn’t pronounce (a quirk shared by many people; I’m not the the only one who thought hors d’oeuvres was pronounced “horz dee-vores.”), was that I often missed details or let my own brain take over to color the picture as I wanted rather than submitting to the tyranny of the author.

Particularly problematic were the descriptions of people. I either glossed over them or they didn’t stick; that is, I may have read them, but without very plain use of adjectives I didn’t get it. Writers trying to avoid “His hair was light brown” by writing “His somber mop recalled the drought-stricken African savannahs” meant I might not be able to make a coherent mental image. A ten-year-old brain is not a finished machine, you know?

Which is why, I’m abashed to admit, that I thought Huck Finn was a Black American and Adam Dalgliesh was from South Asia, most likely Indian. The latter image of the character persisted well past my teens until I read some later P.D. James novels and had his true ethnicity straightened out for me.

My mistreatment of poetry was more intentional. I hated the sing-songy voice that classmates would use when reading rhyming poetry aloud in class. It seemed too pat, too perfect, too predictable. The rhyming seemed to inhibit comprehension. So when it was my turn to read poetry aloud, I’d read it like prose. Completely ignored the line breaks. I made the most of the internal rhymes thus created and I’d give full vocal sway to punctuation and capitalization. I’d read it with a touch of drama, sometimes, or with a tone appropriate to the subject matter. Poe would be creaky and hesitant when I was reading about the raven—because what kind of ignoramus would reel off that beauty like a trite rope-skipping song? Dunderheads.

My readings would irritate a certain type of prissy hand-waving classmate and draw “you must be stupid” stares from unimaginative teachers but this is a habit I still have, and which I have no intention of changing. Tyranny of imposed form is to be resisted.

As much as I hate that sing-songy style of reading poetry, I am equally as irritated by the style and tone used in poetry readings. You know, that poetry slam style. I. cannot. stand. it. MAKES ME want to blow out my brains. The false, dragged out, trying to sound cool, think I can bring the beatniks back to life—YEAH—random words strung hung plung bung…hole rhymed mimed slimed crimed. Together. Jill Scott is an example. Ooof. When the Jill Scott music comes on, it’s time to leave.

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Grant Barrett