Chicago Tribune EBONICS: OPINION
LINGUISTIC APARTHEID? THE USES AND ABUSES OF 'BLACK' ENGLISH
By Clarence Page
Originally published: Wednesday, December 25, 1996
Web-posted: Tuesday, January 14, 1997
If the Oakland, Calif., school board wanted to bring attention to itself, it found a brilliant way to do it. All it had to do was make itself the first urban school board to officially recognize black English, or "Ebonics," as a second language.
The Oakland board ratcheted the long-standing black English controversy up a notch last week by upgrading "Ebonics" to the same level as Spanish and other foreign languages. Ebonics is a label some black linguists constructed from "Ebony" and "phonics" in the 1970s to describe the way Americans of African descent imposed English words on the structure of West African tongues.
Some hope Oakland's move will qualify African-American students for the same federal aid that now goes to help immigrant students who are learning English as a second language. That's not likely in today's conservative Washington. Spending for English-as-a-second-language instruction is headed down, not up.
Instead, the board's intention to teach the distinct structure and nuances of black English to teachers has been widely misinterpreted as an intention to teach black English to students.
For example, on NBC's "Meet the Press" last Sunday, host Tim Russert asked the Rev. Jesse Jackson for his reaction to the Oakland board's decision "that black English, Ebonics, should be taught as an official language?"
Hearing the question put that way, Rev. Jackson responded quite sensibly and forcefully that the board should emphasize standards of excellence, not the street.
"I understand their attempt to reach out to those children, but this is an unacceptable surrender borderlining on disgrace," he said, adding a new verb to conventional English.
"(Black students) cannot get into the University of California," he said. "They cannot get a job at NBC or CBS or ABC unless they can master that language. I tell you, they can master it if they're challenged to do so."
Actually, that's precisely what board spokesmen say they are trying to do. Alan Young, director of state and federal programs for the Oakland School District, explains to his many callers that the ability of teachers to help students make the transition to standard English is hampered if teachers presume black English to be a sign of low intelligence.
He makes a good point. Language isolation is particularly tragic for low-income black children who remain isolated not only from the white mainstream but also from the upwardly mobile black middle class that has emerged since the 1960s.
One black linguistics professor who rejects the notion of Ebonics as a separate language is the University of Chicago's Salikoko Mufwene, who learned French as his second language in Zaire. He calls Ebonics a dialect because it is so similar to the dialects spoken by many low-income whites and others. Also, he notes, "every African-American I know who speaks African-American English says he speaks English, not Ebonics. It is not up to linguists to say what is English and what is not."
Nevertheless, Mufwene supports the use of black English as a teaching tool, if only to help some youths bridge the gap to standard English. He cautions that teachers should not presume that all black students speak black English. Learning English "should not be presented as an ethnic problem," he said. "It is a social class problem."
Indeed it is. I take this story deeply to heart. Black English is useful as long as it only used as a transition to standard English. Like most other African-Americans of my generation, I was raised in a household and neighborhood where Ebonics in its many forms was the norm.
We called it "English," but we also recognized that there was a difference between "talkin' proper" and "talkin' colored folks talk." (We were still "colored" in those days.)
In my neighborhood, I learned to conjugate the verb "to be" as "I be, you be, he/she be, we be, you ALL be, they be's."
Today most other upwardly mobile black professionals I know had similar experiences. Among ourselves, we easily slip back into "down home" dialects. For certain points, it conveys meanings with the rich flow, rhythm and nuances of a Muddy Waters blues poem or a John Coltrane jazz melody. Nevertheless, there can be no mistaking the distinct purposes of these two ways of talking.
My proper-speaking schoolteacher grandmother used to say that the way you talk is like the way you dress; To present your best image, you use what's appropriate for the occasion and leave the rest in the closet.
That's a pretty good lesson for today's teachers to pass along.