When I was about 7 years old, I remember answering a question at the Kingdom Hall, and at the end of the meeting, a visitor, a black American woman, complimented me on my participation.
“I love your accent,” she added.
“Mama, she knew I was American!”
I ran to my mama, all excited that this random woman was able to uncover my nationality. My father is American, and I hold dual citizenship, being born in Little Rock, Arkansas and moving to Bermuda when I was a year old.
“What makes you say that?” my mama asked.
“She said she loved my accent.”
My mama laughed. “She meant your Bermudian accent.”
Puzzled, I responded. “But Bermudians don’t have accents.”
I don’t remember when I first began to switch off my accent in the presence of white people, or was in a more formal setting, which is generally the only time I spoke to white people.
[Of course this didn’t include Portuguese people, who attended my church, lived in my neighborhood, and spoke with the same island lilt I did. They also weren’t yet considered ‘white’, still having to tick a separate box.]
But it was in my 20s that switching up my accent became second nature. No one ever sat me down and told me not to have a strong Bermudian accent, but as someone new to the workforce, I assimilated. Nobody else around the table had one. Not the black people, not the white people.
The ability to wipe a bit of my accent away led to a side hustle doing radio commercials; producers liked my voice because it didn’t sound ‘too Bermudian’. The only time I’d be asked to pull out a Bermudian accent was for comedic purposes.
And I did.
People are so excited to point out to me that white Bermudians, especially older ones, have Bermudian accents too, that it is not the ‘cultural property’ of black people.
I been said that in ‘Dark n’ Stormy'.
But there is a complicated relationship with the accent for black Bermudians that I have been trying to explain, apparently unsuccessfully judging from the inboxes and comments. I have written and re-written this post, straining to be even more kind and gentle. I added in my little fun personal anecdotes. I had bulleted points, then wished I was proficient with flow charts (Remember Visio? Is that still a thing?), thinking maybe a Venn diagram or two could add a bit of clarity to this whole conversation.
I then deleted most of it because it felt like I was over-justifying my lived experiences.
How hard is it to accept that what was once thought of as innocent is actually an insensitive mockery, and in some cases, downright appropriation of the Bermudian accent and slang?
And that now recognizing how it has been dragged through the mud, belittled, dismissed and asked to reappear only for our own entertainment, and how I was complicit, that these writings have been my way of shedding light on why I, and so many others, owe an apology to our dialect.
This is part 1 of the third and final essay in my reaction to the Jeremy Frith and Friends event.
Essay 1: ... and Friends.
Essay 2: White Gombey - An Unyielding Review