African American students bring a language to the classroom that, although accepted in many schools, can be criticized as simply “poor” or “lazy” English. Though belittled and denied, it lives on authentically in homes, schools, churches, and streets. Most black children know this as the language of their family members
Imagine, for a moment, that a child and his friends are casually talking about something exciting that recently happened. Although this is a typical conversation, to anyone outside of the African American community, this dialogue might seem invalid or incorrect. This is because the children are speaking a form of English called Ebonics. Now imagine that after using this form of English all their lives, a teacher tells the children it is wrong. The English they use every day of their lives to communicate with friends and family is simply wrong? Most Linguists strongly disagree.
The term Ebonics combines ebony and phonics. In other words, “language of blacks”(Landrum 1). It is usually described as a free-style or simpler form of English, which includes the elimination of “to be” verb and the use of double negatives. This language originated in the African slave community. Although those who were enslaved learned English, many accidentally eliminated words, or added unnecessary ones. Of course, the slaves taught this to their children who, in turn, taught it to their children, and so on (Hart 3). Today African Americans still actively use this “shuffling speech of slavery”(Landrum 6). “Dismissing Ebonics as ‘fool talk’ or ‘ninny speech’ hurts our pride. This language carries our history!”(qtd. in Fox 11). There is standard, formal, casual, and custom English. Most Blacks say “why not Black English?”
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Some unnamed members of the Board of Education say the language should not be accepted in schools because African American students who speak it are falling by the wayside in America’s educational system. They’re saying that the majority of Black English speaking students have simply forgotten how to speak Standard English, which accounts for low SAT scores (Russel 5). However, Board member, Tony Cook, say’s “There is a huge issue of Ebonics portrayal in the media. Just because someone says ‘I be’ doesn’t mean they are intellectually deficient.” He goes on to explain that Blacks tend to live in impoverished areas with poor educational systems. Thus poor education is the reason for low SAT scores, not Ebonics ( qtd. in Rickford 12). In addition to his point, I.Q. tests results are essentially the same as all other ethnic groups, proving again that the use of
Black English does not affect intelligence. So why shouldn’t Ebonics be treated as any other language spoken by an ethnic group? The form of English which includes Yiddish, for example, is not at all ridiculed or treated with disdain. It is simply regarded as another form of English casually used by the Jewish community. This can make one question if this is a race issue, as many very well believe. Because there is the stereotype that whites are generally smarter than blacks, the language might not be as widely accepted because Ebonics is a black language. Therefore it is regarded as a very ignorant form of English.
Oakland school systems have developed a plan to help change the way Ebonics is viewed by teachers and students. Teachers are required to go through a program that helps them understand Black English on many different levels. They learn the origin of the language, how it is used, and how to be patient with those who use it. One of the first things educators learn in the program is that Ebonics speakers are no less intelligent than Standard English speakers. Many parents of Oakland school children were upset to learn that the teachers were going through this program, in fear of them accepting the language as Standard English. Yet the principle reassured them that the program was to have teachers understand Ebonics, not teach it. In the highly popular book Black English: its role in our children’s education (pg.17) by Joyce Hart, Board member Cook states, “By treating Black English as any other separate language, it allows teachers to demand Standard English in the classroom without damaging students’ self-esteem.” Many teachers in Oakland now say that the program has been very successful and makes it easier for them to teach. The students at Oakland’s public school won’t be told that double negatives are poor English. It will just simply be translated into Customary English like one would do for a foreign student unsure of an English term.
“Most African Americans still invoke “spoken Soul” as we have for hundreds of years, to laugh, cry, preach or praise!” says John Russel proudly, author of Spoken Soul: The Story of Black English. Ebonics has been spoken in this country, as Russel said, for hundreds of years. It has been passed down through generations and it is rare to find an African American who doesn’t know how to use it. Most will agree that Ebonics has an advantage over Standard English. One can say with Black English in a few short words, what others have to say in an entire sentence with Customary English. For Example “I went to the store with Stacy, Tracy, and her brother” can be easily said in Ebonics as “I went to da sto’ wit Stacy ‘nem.” In his book Claiming Earth (pg 32), Haki R. Madhubuti proudly states, “That which is most unique about us besides our variety of facial expressions and skin shading, is the musical quality of our utterances. We
speak in magical voices. Our language carries our history. Its memories being vocalized. All cultures have this. Blacks in this country have been negatively categorized and put down by others, mainly whites, who are ignorant of the value and beauty of linguistic differences.” Black English is not only a powerful language, but as Dr. Madhubuti stated, it carries Black history!
Every culture has something unique about it, whether it is physical appearance, foods, music, form of dance, linguistic differences, or all of the above.
Sweet potato pie, Blues and Rock n’ Roll music are all acknowledged as a part of African American as well as American culture. If White America claims most of the Black foods, dances, and music, then why not Black English? Maybe because this language goes far back into slavery and America has a hard time being reminded of that. On the other hand, perhaps White America will never fully understand all the terms of Black English since it relates to the cultural experience of Black people. It’s time for America to start accepting all of Black culture, not just the part with which it is comfortable. In conclusion, Ebonics is certainly worthy of being recognized as an alternative language in schools.
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