Friday, July 22, 2005

All A-twitter About Mythical Plans to Teach "Ebonics"

I wrote this in response to a diary by a blogger whose talents deserve much love from the masses, PaminDurham on a new, yet already well-launched leftist blog, My Left Wing, but it deserves repeating here. The original news article is noteworthy because it has now been discredited entirety, but it's publication -- and definitely the reactions to it, which can be explained only by the fact that folks didn't read it closely -- still demonstrates handily the unthinking, knee-jerk, racist thinking about the entire subject of the Black venacular this country engages in with regularity. Otherwise, there is no way that in light of the true facts folks would have been running around claiming the predictable claptrap: that a school district was going to be "teaching children something called 'Ebonics' -- "EBONICS" BEING A STANK WORD WHICH IS NOTHING MORE THAN A COLLOQUIAL, ALMOST-DELIBERATELY SILLY, DEFINITELY-USED-AS-INSULTING BY THE MAINSTREAM AND WORTHLESS LABEL for what is properly referred to by anyone only as Black Vernacular English (BVE) or African-American Venacular English (AAVE.)

Anyhoo, here's what I wrote:

I saw the article about this week's resolution by the San Bernadino School District. And the minute, I did, my head started hurting. Much the way it does when we have the Cosby DiscussionTM, the OJ DiscussionTM, the Hip-Hop DiscussionTM and a variety of others relating to The Things Black People Do TM in which folks -- even or especially Black folk -- have their passionate views, know what they are, and proceed accordingly to stand firm against all comers without any serious personal study of the many many MANY highly complex issues involved (but largely assumed away in the discussion.) Today I'm already 4 hours into the work day and it's only 9:45 AM, and I have only a 10 minute break, so for now I can't write as much of a studied, thoughtful response to Pam as she deserves (she's a hell of a writer who I respect unconditionally.) So I guess for now I'll just say: Sister about some of what you say, I wholeheartedly agree with you. But about some things, I wholeheartedly disagree with you, too.

One question: How many have actually read the seminal works about the linguistic, psychological and sociological implications of African-American Vernacular English (what it is really called?) The two that began my own journey of academic (as opposed to political) understanding about the issue came from Rappin' and Stylin' Out: Communication in Urban Black America (Thomas Kochman, 1972) and Black English: Its History and Usage in the United States (J.L. Dillard, 1972).

Those books is where my study of AAVE began, in 1979, as part of my psych training, long long LONG before some idjit in the media refused to call AAVE by its proper name and insisted that it was called "Ebonics" or nothing, and the the rest of us followed like sheep without thinking about *why* suddenly, the proper name for this venacular was no longer being used. While I certainly have not kept up with the literature (since I'm a lawyer, not a linguist,) I can't say what the definitive work is today. But in my mind everything since 1996 has been tainted by the political flap that took place in Oakland.

(You have to admit that one's mindset about the entire matter might be different if the colloquialism "Ebonics" had remained as obscure as it was from 1973 to 1996 and the only thing we knew about was the name actually given to "African-American Vernacular English" or "Black Venacular English" by the only discipline that matters when it comes to deciding what is, or is not, a language/dialect/vernacular- linguistics.)

Frankly, at least as far as the questioned legitimacy of AAVE as worthy of study, I'm going with the linguists on this one:

Linguistics Society of America

Of course, that is only the tip of the iceberg of issues raised by that position, as Pam eloquently discusses. Just wish I had time to discuss it as well for now. But since I don't, I'll hopefully get to post something later. But here's what Wiki has to say on the matter:

African-American Vernacular English

As for me, I'm a code switcher, and damned proud of it (much the way I am when I speak using one dialect of Spanish used in the classroom, another in New York and another in California.) I certainly have been quite successful, SAE being my "second language" notwithstanding. My kids are code switchers too. In fact, so are my parents, who taught me how to do it. And their parents. And frankly millions of Black folks - which is why I wonder why so much flap is being raised over this issue yet again, since if we weren't able to code switch NONE of us would have made it long before anyone had ever HEARD of the word Ebonics. Frankly, I believe that in terms of teaching young Black children how to speak SAE (the dialect known as Standard American English - and if you don't think it's a dialect ask the folks across the pond), teaching SAE as a method of code switching continues to be, at a practical level, the most successful approach to resolving both their needs in mainstream society and their need to preserve their cultural heritage. But since folks are so busy fighting over the least important part of this (whether AAVE is "legitimate") they never get around to just looking at how practically to address a very real issue in education today. And those who do try to address it, like San Bernadino and Oakland before them, end up being the subject of ridicule.

But I'm curious why this issue is such a hornet's nest when we don't find speakers of Spanish, French, German, Chinese or even Swahili fighting over about whether their respective dialects and vernaculars are "legitimate", reflect "laziness" "ignorance" "inability to learn" or the host of other insults labeled at the entire concept of AAVE. One has to, as always, ask why the difference.


At 6:10 PM, Anonymous charlotte said...

Thrilled to find this blog in my independent search and study of AAVE. I teach writing for a nonprofit education and arts org. I do my best to remember to tell my black students that they are not speaking or writing incorrectly and to speak and write how they feel and what they know. We edit and/or translate later and I print their original pieces next to the SAE revised copy. Your blog will give me better ways to communicate to them that they speak just fine and must become better 'code switchers'.

In Gratitude,


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