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Sounding like a Stranger

By Marissa J. Joseph
Marissa J. Joseph ’23, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Kirkland House.

My mother speaks a broken English. Her words sail from her lips with misaligned subjects and verbs, mistaken pronunciations, and uncertainty, but while imperfect, they are never whispered. It is from her language, the pages of books partially-read, and the clever comebacks of black girls, that I craft a personal patois: my runway for unashamed flights of discovery, inquiry, and spilling of tea.

Before I carried them to Harvard, nothing ever suggested my words were malnourished. However, in my first weeks around tables in Annenberg, my classmates craved validation by referencing obscure books I had never consumed and using drawn-out words I found to be flavorless. I had always been a chicken-tenders for every meal type of girl, but each syllable was a well-done steak I hated to chew before I swallowed. Their letter counts were obese, every pound a campus-wide indicator of intelligence.

I thought my seat at the table was a mistake. Slowly, my contributions faded to silence. As a child of immigrants, hesitation is a familiar tradition. I have seen my mother’s Creole cross borders and take detours, attempting to decode the unfamiliar bends and turns of tongues in a land unknown. A voice cultivated on American soil was the greatest gift she thought she could give me. However, despite learning my alphabet domestically, the intricate ABCs of Harvard’s campus culture is still foreign and built a wall to keep out my understanding, extinguishing any fire sparked by my creativity.

In a class, the teaching fellow asks about black distrust and my classmates quote essays and manifestos from memory. My lived experience stands small in the shadow of theories by Socrates or Friedman. I don’t share the memories flooded with the smell of tea-tree oil or the tickles of Xpressions braiding hair that always accompany the theories of government conspiracy that my hairdresser shares with me each time I sit in her chair. Her hands cramp from hours of detangling the remnants of false promises and undercover injustice from the scalps of her people, and my tender head fights back tears between gossip and laughs every visit.

My courses harp on the importance of a “scholarly tone.” I wrestle with my keyboard as I struggle to follow the rhythms of scholarship whose sophisticated tongue is attached to a white face. It moves in pointed, rigid, white supremacist motions. I yearn for the circular shimmies and turnt up twists of colloquialisms.

The Queen’s English was never meant to address its subjects. Professors pace back and forth, wandering through dissections of inequality, racism, and all the phobias. I sit restlessly in class, feeling the fully formed braids that tickle my back, and fight to maintain ownership of these stories now camouflaged by language inaccessible to my hairdresser, my mother, and my community. I try to rebirth and redefine our history within the contexts of my books and lectures and to find space within my people’s tradition for a remixed language that is both broken and Harvardesque.

A semester passes and around the tables in Annenberg, the scars in my English have begun to heal. When I return home to touch up the new growth along the edges of my hairline and catch up on my mother’s tales, she hears my new carefully poised words and notes how neatly they fold into my mouth. My growing casual use of words three or more syllables in length leaves my patois unfamiliar to the tongues I so desperately want to protect, but it matriculates effortlessly into the conversations of my new friends who read big books and use a lot of commas. There is no trace of the words my mother once gifted me. As she sits perched on her salon chair throne, proudly boasting about her crimson blessings, she silently wonders if it is worth her child sounding like a stranger.

Marissa J. Joseph ’23, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Kirkland House.

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