the right way to speak

The first time my brother says ain't my mother
pulls a branch from the willow tree growing down
the hill at the edge
of our backyard.
As she slips her closed hand over it,
removes the leaves,
my brother begins to cry
because the branch is a switch now

no longer beautifully weeping at the bottom of the hill.
It whirs as my mother whips it
through the air and down
against my brother's legs.

You will never, my mother says,
say ain't in this house.
You will never
say ain't anywhere.

Each switching is a warning to us
our words are to remain
crisp and clear.
We are never to say huh?
ain't or y'all
git or gonna.
Never ma'am—just yes, with eyes
meeting eyes enough
to show respect.
Don't ever ma'am anyone!
The word too painful
a memory for my mother
of not-so-long-ago
southern subservient days . . .

The list of what not to say
goes on and on . . .

You are from the North, our mother says.
You know the right way to speak.

As the switch raises dark welts on my brother's legs
Dell and I look on
afraid to open our mouths. Fearing the South
will slip out or
into them.

Jacqueline Woodson, "the right way to speak"  from Brown Girl Dreaming. Copyright © 2014 by Jacqueline Woodson.  Used by permission of Nancy Paulsen Books, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.
Source: Brown Girl Dreaming (Nancy Paulsen Books, 2014)
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