Tracey Weldon (University of South Carolina)
March 4, 2022
9:00 am

Tracey Weldon (University of South Carolina)

"Talking Black/Sounding Black: Middle Class African American English and the State of the Black Union" 

Dr. Tracey Weldon, Professor in English Language and Literature at the University of South Carolina

Friday, March 4 2022, 9-10:30 am, via Zoom.

While “African American English” remains a relatively unfamiliar term outside of linguistic circles, metalinguistic commentary regarding “talkingBlack” and/or “sounding Black” is both pervasive and longstanding. Studies such as Baugh (1996), Purnell et al. (1999) and others have demonstrated that listeners are able to identify the racial and/or ethnic background of speakers, often with only minimal acoustic cues (seealso Buck 1968; Abrams 1973; Lass et al. 1979; Foreman 2000; Wolfram 2001a; Thomas & Reaser 2004) and are even sensitive to the variable patterns of constraint that govern them (Labov et al. 2011).

Beyond racial and ethnic identification, however, the concept of “talking/sounding Black” also speaks to perceptions of racial and ethnic identities (cf. Holliday 2016). Consistent with Smitherman's (1977, 2006) concept of linguistic push-pull, there are often conflicting attitudes associated with this concept. Such references often connote a lack of education or sophistication (cf. "bad English") and can even allude to minstrel-like behavior and other negative racial stereotyping. And yet there remains a keen sense of its significance as a means of constructing an African American identity and signaling affinity to the African American speech community (see Hoover 1978). The concept of“talking/sounding Black” often stands in opposition to that of "talking/sounding White" (also referred to as "talking/sounding Proper"), which tends to connote a certain level of education, sophistication, or "correctness" (cf. "good English"). And yet, African American speakers who are perceived as "talking/sounding White" are often ridiculed and ostracized by members of the African American speech community (see e.g., Mitchell-Kernan 1971).

In this talk, Dr. Weldon examines some of the linguistic underpinnings of what it means to “talk/sound Black” among middle-class AfricanAmericans, for whom such competing linguistic norms and expectations are often encountered at the intersections of racial and socioeconomic continua. Drawing on the linguistic performances of a group of panelists at Tavis Smiley’s “State of the Black Union”symposium and the results of a perception study that she conducted among college students in the southeast, she explores what it means to“talk/sound Black” among middle-class speakers and the significance of its role in signaling solidarity with the African American speech community.

For additional information, please contact Karen Miller ( or Frances Blanchette (