Chapter 5: African American English and the communities it influences
English 102, December 2020
I ain’t een gotta say nothing. All I gotta do is hit em wit dat look and dey already know what it is. Dey’ll pull up and it go down, on sight, and that’s on life.
Did you struggle reading the above sentences? While you were reading it, did you start to form biases or pass negative judgement in your head? If you answered “yes” to either of those questions, chances are you are just as uneducated about African American Vernacular English as a good majority of the people in our country. I wish I could lie to you and say that there is no harm in your lack of knowledge or in the biases and judgement that went through your head while you were reading the above sentences, but I cannot. I cannot do this because those biases are exactly what keeps this language and the people who use it lower on the totem pole. By looking at the sentences, you can already infer that this language is deemed “wrong” because of all the red lines that you can see under certain words. This is a subtle way of saying “you need to correct this.” Whether it is done subtly, passive-aggressively, aggressively, or passively, this is a language that fails to be nationally recognized as a legitimate language. The irony of it all is that it is a language that everyone has used, will use, or has appreciated in certain contexts. For a language that is deemed to not be legitimate, how does it have such a big impact in our country? Who deemed this language illegitimate and why? Why is it only accepted in certain contexts? All these questions will be answered as I explain to you why Black English is consistently used, yet consistently stepped on.
Before we can dive into how the language is treated, we must first define what Black English is and what it is not. After all, some people do not even consider this to be a language. However, a language, by definition, is “a system of communication used by a particular country or community” (“language”, Cambridge Dictionary). This can be done through words, writing, and gestures. Black English (or African American Vernacular English, African American English, or Ebonics) is often referred to as slang. According to Reves in “What is Slang? A Survey of Opinion”, slang is defined as a changing vocabulary of a conversation. It is something where words have a different meaning that is often figurative, and those words can be popular for a brief period. After that time is up, the words usually die off and are forgotten about, or they are considered legitimate (Reves 216). This term, “slang”, was created in the 1800s and was always changing in definition since its birth. However, throughout the majority of the 1800s, the term was constantly being redefined. No matter how it was spun, the term was always reflected in a way that portrayed that it was a way of speaking that was illegitimate, low, vulgar, unauthorized, tainted, abusive, and something that was only for thieves and other low class citizens (Reves 216). To put it simply, it was viewed as a “language of street humor, of fast, high, and low life” (Reves 217). When we look back to the 1800s and the people who were of lower class, the majority was the Black population, a fact that unfortunately has not changed much since. It was not until the 1800s were coming to a close that slang started to something that was considered “a vivid way of saying something” and that the vulgarities associated with slang would soon disappear (Reves 220). Fast forwarding to present day, can we say that the vulgarities with slang has disappeared after 200+ years? If it did disappear, then that would mean that when people refer to Black English as slang, it would imply that it is a colorful expression of communication, but that is not the case. The use of this “slang” still implies that it is something that only the lower class or uneducated people use to communicate. Now if we look back to how Reves defined slang (a changing vocabulary of language where words have figurative meanings that eventually disappear or become legitimate), I believe that we can say that slang is something that is used in all languages (Standard English, Black English, Spanish, French) thus, making slang instead part of all languages. For example, in Standard English, the word “figurative” is an antonym to the word “literal,” yet we have all used the word “literally” to express something that is figurative. Therefore, Standard English can be referred to as a language that incorporates slang. The issue with Black English and Standard English is that to someone who does not have Black English as a primary or secondary discourse, this language just sounds like “broken” Standard English, so it is easy to categorize it as slang or illegitimate. However, we have already defined “language” as “a system of communication used by a particular country or community” (“Language”, Cambridge Dictionary). This means that a lot of people (often White) who do not have Black English as their discourse are assuming that this language is a part of their community and they do not accept it because it is wrong, even though this language has its own set of rules like any other language.
Lynda Markham provides some examples of these rules in the article “‘De Dog and De Cat De Dog and De Cat’: Assisting Speakers of Black English as They Begin to Write Young Children” explaining how the verb “to be” can be deleted in sentences, while the verb can also be used to give an expression of time, or how the “s” or “z” sounds are not always used when talking in third person singular, or how the “f” sound is often used in place of the “th” sound (17). Although the way Black people use this language is forever evolving, the origins can be traced back to Niger-Congo roots. Michael Ndemanu dives into these roots in the article “Ebonics, to Be or Not to Be? A legacy of Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade” as he explains how our use of double negatives, verb conjugations, nouns, pronouns, pronunciations, and adjectives all came from Niger-Congo influence (Ndemanu 35—38). Perhaps the first step to removing the negative connotations associated with Black English is to recognize that it is not something that was made in or for a White community. Here is the thing: we, as humans, are always ascribing value and giving opinions on things we know about, and even more opinions toward things we do not know about. We can call this human nature because humans desire to categorize things, but what we may not always take into consideration is what this categorizing can do to the group being categorized. We will now look at the impact that this categorizing and failure to acknowledge Black English as legitimate has had on the Black community.
Confusion. If I had to summarize the impact that failure to accept this language has had in one word, it would be confusion. James Gee in the article “What is Literacy?” says, “discourses are resistant to internal criticism and self-scrutiny since uttering viewpoints that seriously undermine them defines one as being outside them” (19). When observing the Black community, does this still apply? Gee also tells us that when it comes to discourses, power and social hierarchy are positively correlated (19). In other words, to have a discourse that is considered dominant over other discourses means that those who speak that discourse (usually as their primary) will also have more power and higher social hierarchy, which also means more influence. As a person of color, I was raised with Black English being my primary discourse. However, for as long as I can remember, I had to switch my language depending on where I was or who was around me. A better term for this is “code switching.”
Taryn Kiana Myers in “Can You Hear Me Now? An Autoethnographic Analysis of Code-Switching” explains code switching as a sociolinguistic technique that Black people use so that they can be accepted by their Black community and gain acceptance from the White community (113). I lived this experience for most of my life and did not realize it/accept it until halfway through 2019. I grew up speaking to my Black friends in one manner, but whenever I was around my teachers or anyone White, my language was always “corrected.” I never paid much attention to it until I read the book White Fragility and that was when everything changed. I assimilated so far into White culture that I even adapted some of their opinions toward Black people, MY people, and quite frankly, me. However, I was always told that those negative opinions never applied to me because I was “different,” which I now know means I was just “well spoken.”
I spent the majority of my life hanging around more of my White friends because surrounding myself with people who were just as smart or smarter than me would deal me a greater hand in the card game of life. I remember staying inside of my home doing homework while my Black friends (who I knew longer than my White friends) were outside playing basketball. I stayed inside when it got dark out even though my Black friends would be out there talking, joking, and having a good time. I somehow became convinced that by spending time with my Black friends, I would be losing my intelligence and increasing my risk of getting into trouble. However, these guys were my friends, and I could not allow myself to abandon them, so I stayed friends with them, but I was very selective in the time I spent with them. It felt like I was living in two worlds, and I was trying my best to keep them apart while I seamlessly transitioned from one world into the other. Everything was working great until I started dating a White woman. Now, this is something that my Black friends were used to me doing already, and it did not come without opinions. I was often called a sellout or someone who was racist against my own kind (more so by the parents of my friends). At first, it got to me a little bit, but I soon shook it off as I started dating White women throughout my high school career and, to this day, I have a White girlfriend. It never occurred to me that one day my two worlds would have to come together. I got a taste of how that would be when I finally brought my White girlfriend around my Black friends for a friendly outdoor cookout.
I nearly had an identity crisis. The way I was code-switching from Black English to Standard English, often in the same breath, was exhausting. Being in a predominately Black space, I felt like it was my job to make my White girlfriend comfortable because of all the negative connotations that I adapted about Black people over the years. As my girlfriend and I were driving home, we talked about her experience, and it was clear that she had a hard time following the conversations because she could not understand what we were saying. Was I offended by this? In the moment, I was not. Why would I be? I spent so much of my time in White culture that I did not see a need for her to learn the language. After all, what would she do with it?
She certainly could not take the language into a job interview and expect to be hired because to use Black English makes you less intelligent, and this is why I question Gee’s statements about discourses and cultural clout. I started internally criticizing and self-scrutinizing my own language. I wish I were an exception to the dual consciousness that I have struggled with and am still struggling with to this day. Dual consciousness is a term that was made famous by W.E.B Du Bois. He defines it as the inner “twoness” that African Americans experience when navigating back and forth between the Black and White communities (Pittman). The fact that this is a term that was coined in the early 1900s means that I am surely not the only Black person to experience this double consciousness. In fact, Myers dives into this concept a little more with her personal story, which has some overlap with mine. In addition to defining what code switching is, she explains some of the ways this is practiced, such as the way Black people will raise the natural pitch of our voices, the change in our tone and inflection, and the way we will often enunciate each word, when we usually relax word the word endings and play with the usage of verb tenses within the Black community. This adoption of a double set of standards is all so that we can gain acceptance into the White community (Myers 113). Myers was often corrected in the way she spoke by her parents. She was taught at a young age to speak as if Standard English was her primary discourse, and she did this quite well. It was not until one of her enemies in elementary school called her out for sounding “white” that she became aware of her use of code switching and the double consciousness that came with trying to please her teachers, principal, and parents (who had assimilated to White culture), while trying to keep her black authenticity (116). At twelve years of age, Myers was already developing a negative opinion toward Black people who did not code switch. In other words, there was a disdain toward Black people who only used Black English no matter who was around (117). This runs deeper than the personal stories of Myers and me. For many middle and upper-class Black professionals, Black English is considered to mean a lack of education, unpolished, a reflection of our ignorance, and an all-around substandard language (117). In “Beyond the Ebonics Debate: Attitudes About Black and Standard American English,” Andrew Billings noted that there are multiple studies that show that speakers who use Black English instead of Standard English are viewed as less credible, and African American teachers assign negative characteristics toward their students who use Black English (68). So, again, are Gee’s thoughts on discourses accurate? Does the fact that a lot of Black people who have learned Black English as their primary discourse and end up abandoning it as they learn Standard English mean that they are no longer a part of the community from which they learned their primary discourse from?
Despite the negative connotations surrounding Black English, we would all be remiss if we believed that it does not have an impact on America today. One of the ways Black English has had an influence on America is entertainment. Elvis Presley, Amy Winehouse, Steely Dan, Michael McDonald, Annie Lennox, George Michael, Chris Stapleton, David Bowie, Judy Garland, Fred Astaire, Bruno Mars, and the father of American music, Stephen Foster—what do they have in common? Everything they have done has Black origin attached to it, and it can be traced as far back as the Jim Crow Era. In “The Birth of American Music,” an episode of a podcast titled 1619, the host, Nikole Hannah-Jones, has her guest Wesley Morris dive into this a little further. Throughout the podcast, Morris reveals that the Jim Crow Era was born because a man, just trying to make ends meet, by the name of Thomas Dartmouth Rice happened to walk past a slave who was working on a plantation owned by a white man by the name of Crow. This older slave worker was doing nothing except entertaining himself with a little song and dance while he did his work. Captivated, Thomas studied the sound and the movement of this slave, got up on a stage where he slated his face black and mimicked what he saw the slave doing. The result? An absolute success. After all, the only thing America had as far as entertainment was brought over from Europe, which is ironically the place the white Americans wanted to get away from. Thomas named the character he was portraying on stage Jim Crow, and this marked the birth of an art form that Americans could finally consider “theirs.” This new form of entertainment exploded, and soon, every American entertainer was using blackface (which means white people performing with dark skin tones, creating a caricature of Black people) and implementing this look, style, song, and dance, of Jim Crow. In other words, minstrel shows. Did anyone give credit to the Black slave? Of course not. Instead, this further perpetuated how Blacks were viewed in America as this caricature later to films where people in blackface were often robbers, help, maniacs, rapists, and all-around criminals, even though these thoughts and ideas were just imaginations.
It even got to a point where White entertainers began adapting Black English into their songs by saying “de” instead of “the” or “gwine” instead of “going.” The more this blew up, the more it became essentially necessary for any entertainer to participate in a minstrel show if they wanted any chance of becoming a star. The influence of Black English continued into the 1900s when Black musicians, such as Muddy Waters began to create and perfect what we know and love as the blues. The capturing of the experiences of possibility, struggle, strife, humor, sex, and confidence created by Duke Ellington, Motown, and other Black Artists and groups over the years, has become everything that is copied in American music today. To make things more ironic, the mimicking of those experiences comes from White people who had to steal the depictions of these experiences form Black people, who were denied these things for decades. The way that some White artists play with their voices to adopt that rasp or the grittiness to express the pain, struggle, and longing for something came from Black people, and you hear can hear it all in today’s music (Morris). Have Black people since received credit for this? If you ask me, the answer is no, and part of that is because if you Google search “number one rapper” you will be told that it is Eminem. The other reason being that “24k Magic,” an album by Bruno Mars, had the influence of Black music, and consequently Black English, written all over it (so much so that he was accused of cultural appropriation), and he did not give any credit to Black culture.
I have attempted to write this essay in such a way that clearly separates the different impacts Black English has had on Black people, White people, and American culture, but the truth of the matter is that they are all intertwined. By tugging on the string of yarn that is music, you find that it is connected to Black English, slavery, oppression, perpetuation, White acceptance, code switching, double consciousness, and so much more. For example, when it comes to films, a lot of us have seen or heard of the movie The Blind Side. For those who may not know the film, it is a true story based on the life of Michael Oher, an African American football player for the Baltimore Ravens. While it is true that Michael Oher came from a broken home, the media heavily sprinkled in some underlying themes and some false details to perpetuate the Black stereotypes. Robin DiAngelo picks this film apart in her chapter “Anti-Blackness” in her book White Fragility. She breaks down in the film that Michael Oher is portrayed as this “childlike gentle giant” (96). When I think of a childlike gentle giant, my head immediately references Lennie from John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Anyone who knows that book knows that Lennie was not the sharpest tack in the box, and neither was Michael Oher in the film. The IQ of Oher (in the film) was in the bottom percentile in his ability to learn, yet his IQ was in the top percentile when it came to his protective instincts, which is ridiculous because what professional test is available to test someone’s IQ when it comes to protective instincts (97)? On top of this, sprinkled into the film is his mother who happens to be addicted to drugs and has multiple children from unknown fathers and gang members in a crime infested neighborhood.
Oher’s life does not get any better until White people swoop in to save him, and this gets reinforced in the scene where Oher returns to his neighborhood, gets into trouble with a gang, and is literally “saved” as his White mother (who is played by Sandra Bullock) confronts the gang and returns Oher back to White suburbia (DiAngelo 96-97). The icing on the cake is that, according to the film, Oher struggles to learn the game of football, but he suddenly becomes unstoppable on the field when his White mother tells him to pretend as if his opponents are going to hurt his new White family (97). The result of this film? Sandra Bullock wins an academy award, while Black stereotypes are further pushed into American culture. This film is basically the modernized version of “White hope” or “White savior,” which sounds eerily similar to Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The White Man’s Burden” which is this idea that Black people are unable to get anywhere in life without a handout from White people.
Although done comically, Black-ish addresses this as well. In an episode titled “justakidfromcompton,” a Black, middle school student by the name of Kyra is exceling in Science and has the opportunity to go to a more prestigious school. Andre, her cousin who happens to also be her current caretaker, wants this for her, but he is concerned about her inability to code switch. Andre gives Kyra a crash course on code switching and pulls out a book by the name Things White People Like, so she could better assimilate into White culture, which would increase her chances of nailing the interview to get into the school. Kyra gets accepted into the school only to quickly become publicly viewed as the school’s charity case because they were giving a young, Black girl from Compton a chance at something greater (“justakidfromcompton”). The overlap of Black English as it relates to everything else discussed thus far is uncanny. You could infer from these two media examples that Whites expect Blacks to act a certain way for their own personal gains. Myers also touches on this concept. Someone who was able to get as far as she is in life because of her ability to assimilate to White culture struggled to land a role as a voice-over actress because the White director wanted her to sound a little more ghetto (Myers 119).
By now, it should be clear just how intertwined Black English is when it comes to American culture, Black and White people, history, and a plethora of other subjects. Therefore, it is impossible to only address one subject without addressing the other subjects. In fact, failure to acknowledge the rest of the yarn that is attached to Black English may result in further perpetuating the stereotypes associated with this language. You might be able to say that you are a supporter of Black English, but are you aware of everything else you are saying? By saying this, you are also expressing that you accept Black people for who they are, you see Black people as equal, and you believe that Black people should have as equal of a chance at anything that are often dominated by the White race. By saying this, you are also saying that you do not assign negative connotations whenever you hear Black people use Black English. Can you say that is true? Can you honestly say that you do not question the intelligence of a Black person when they fail to code switch? What internal work can you do, as a White person or as a person of color, to make sure that Black people get the credit that is long overdue, instead of constantly plagiarizing our culture while simultaneously oppressing it?
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English.” Journal of Black Studies 36.1 (2005): 68-81.
DiAngelo, Robin. “Anti-Blackness.” White fragility: Why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism,
Beacon Press, 2018, 89—99.
“Episode 3: The Birth of American Music.” 1619 from The New York Times. 6 Sept. 2019,
Fullilove, Mindy. “Redlining Trauma.” Race, Poverty & the Environment 21.2 (2017): 84-86.
This article provides a brief definition and history of redlining. It also discusses the impact
redlining has had on Black communities as well as Latino communities. I will be using this article
to show the mistreatment America gives to Black communities as well as highlighting the impact
the treatment has had on the black community and how redlining is one of the many methods
used to create and reinforce negative connotations associated with Black people and Black
Gee, James Paul. “What is literacy.” Negotiating academic literacies: Teaching and learning across
languages and cultures (1998): 51-59.
“justakidfromcompton.” Black-ish, written by Kenya Barris and Lisa Muse Bryant (Teleplay) and Robb
Chavis (Story), directed by Millicent Shelton Anthony Anderson, Wilmore Films, Artists First, and Cinema Gypsy Productions, 2019.
Markham, Lynda R. “” De Dog and De Cat”: Assisting Speakers of Black English as They Begin to
Write.” Young Children (1984): 15-24.
Marcyliena, Morgan and Dionne Bennett. “Hip-hop & the global imprint of a black cultural
form.” Daedalus 140.2 (2011): 176-196.
This article discusses the impact that hip-hop has had not just on American culture, but also
globally. As it discusses the origins of hip-hop, it also drills into how hip-hop has influenced each
area of this globe. I will not be using this article to explain the impact hip-hop and Black English
has influenced the world, but I will use this article to explore the impact it has had on America to
support the claim that Black English is used and sometimes appreciated, but the appreciation of the individuals falls short.
Myers, Taryn Kiana. “Can you hear me now? An autoethnographic analysis of code-switching.” Cultural
Studies↔ Critical Methodologies 20.2 (2020): 113-123.
Ndemanu, Michael Takafor. “Ebonics, to be or not to be? A legacy of trans-Atlantic slave trade.” Journal
of Black Studies46.1 (2015): 23-43.
Pittman, John P., “Double Consciousness.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N.
Zalta, Center for the Study of Language and Information, 2020.
Reves, Haviland Ferguson. “What is Slang?: A Survey of Opinion.” American Speech 1.4 (1926): 216-220.
Smitherman, Geneva. “African American Language: So Good It’s Bad.” Talkin’ that talk: Language,
Culture and education in African America, Routledge, 1999, 1—19. Smitherman.
Whitney, Jessica. “Five easy pieces: Steps toward integrating AAVE into the classroom.” English
Journal (2005): 64-69.