Chapter 5: African American English and the communities it influences
2020 Plain Dealer Excellence in Writing Award Winner
English 102, November 2019
Went down to the river, sot me down an’ listened,
Heard de water talkin’ quiet, quiet lak an’ slow:
“Ain’ no need fo’ hurry, take yo’ time, take yo’
time . . .” Heard it sayin’–“Baby, hyeahs de way life go . . .”
–Excerpt from “Riverbank Blue” by Sterling A. Brown
What Dis ‘bout (Abstract)
This essay is an examination of a subset dialect, found within American English, called Ebonics. This essay will focus on a few key points to explain what Ebonics is, how to possibly understand it, and to speak it with native users. I will be examining what Ebonics is and compare it to another dialect, Standard American English, and see what the differences are between them. Secondly, I want to focus on how people perceive those that speak in Ebonics and what they do to either understand or “fix” those that speak it. Lastly, I will examine how the dialect pays a role in communication between persons who speak the dialect, as well as those who do not. I will do so by providing a brief anecdote from my childhood.
I would like to point out that before writing this paper, my knowledge of Ebonics was next to none. I had a very brief idea from brief research for an essay that I wrote before this one on Ebonics and Literacy. Other than that, I was not aware that Ebonics was a dialect. I knew that Ebonics was a way that members in my family and community spoke. I was not aware that what I was accustomed to hearing around me, had an official name. Finding out that Ebonics is a widely research concept is fascinating to me.
Who Dey Is?
The way that people grow up heavily influences who they are as an individual. Children are much more susceptible to the influences of the world around them. They are constantly taking things in, encoding them, and projecting them out to others to see if their mannerisms or words are desirable for the group that they see on a regular basis. For children in urban areas, particularly those apart of a minority group, develop a style that is unique not only to their surroundings, but to who they are as a person. They may walk with a swagger that is confident and strong, yet lax and at ease. They may dress with belts as dark as the night sky, with buckles that shine like diamonds. And these belts occasionally hold up the depressing sag of baggy blue jeans, that give them a penguin like waddle. And they may speak in words that seem cynical and punchy, yet to members of this group, they are funny, sarcastic, and easy to decode. Why do they walk, dress or speak in the way that they do? Simply because they grew up learning from their older counterparts that what they are seeing, is the norm. That is how children from the African American community, and other communities across America, learn about who they are.
Who are they? They are African Americans speaking a dialect that has a history of strong resilient people, who fought their way towards a better way of life. The dialect that they speak is called Ebonics. As described by John R. Rickford in the article “What is Ebonics (African American English)?”, Ebonics is a blend of phonics that is primarily spoken by African Americans. Its origins found primarily from “the nonstandard dialects of English indentured servants and other workers with whom African slaves interacted” (Rickford). When referring to Ebonics, this is the definition that I will be centering this essay around. Rickford’s definition clearly states what Ebonics is and who it could potentially affect. But there is another side to the language coin that Ebonics is most often compared to; Standard English. Standard English generally refers to a “variety of the English language that’s generally used in professional communication in the United States and taught in American schools” (Nordquist). Essentially, it is the most taught dialect of American English because it is the most utilized and standard way of speaking. However, in this essay, the focus will be on African American youth and how communication is executed; with a brief examination at how those that speak Ebonics, not just African Americans, are perceived by those who do not speak in Ebonics. However, in order to eventually reach the point listed above, I want to start at Ebonics’ origins.
Where Dey Come From?
Many linguists believe that Ebonics has had its start in one of two ways. As stated by Rickford, Ebonics could have “English origins, pointing to the fact that most of the vocabulary of Ebonics is from English and that much of its pronunciation and grammar could have come from the nonstandard dialects of English indentured servants and other workers with whom African slaves interacted” (Rickford). The other thought between linguists, that Rickford highlights, is that it could be derived from Caribbean Creole English. Linguists believe this because of the similarities of grammar; especially when speakers are using tenses in speech. If tenses and grammar are the true differences between Ebonics and English, then how does one embark on the journey of learning how to comprehend Ebonics speakers? To understand Ebonics, one has to be able to know what makes Ebonics different from Standard American English.
Les’ Talk Fo’ A Bit
The differences between Ebonics and Standard American English makes itself known when speakers use different grammar and tenses than those present in English. For example, the following text is an excerpt from The Ebology O Blato: Sockradees Defense, which is used as an example for grammar, syntax and tense of Ebonics by Maggie Ronkin and Helen E. Karn in their article “Mock Ebonics: Linguistic racism in parodies of Ebonics on the Internet” (Ronkin, M., & Karn, H. E. (2002).
“How ya’ gots felt, O dudes o’ Athens, at hearin’ de speeches o’ mah accusers, , Ah cannot tell; but Ah know dat deir persuasive words mos’ made me forget who Ah wuz- such wuz de effect o’ dem;” (Ronkin 364).
After reading the excerpt, were you able to understand what the speaker is trying to say? The entirety of the text is spoken and written in Ebonics; the bolded words are where those words make their first appearance. By adding the apostrophe on the ends of the words, it shows the omission of the letters that would normally be present in Standard American English. Ya’ refers to the word you; O’ equates to of; Ah is the identifying pronoun I: and mos’ is used in reference to the word Almost. The original text, “The Apology of Plato: Socrates’ Defense”, is written in Standard American English, and is as follows.
“How you have felt, O men of Athens, at hearing the speeches of my accusers, I cannot tell; but I know that their persuasive words almost made me forget who I was– such was the effect of them;” (Jowett).
Despite the pronunciation and grammatical differences, the authors point is still able to come across. By having the character speak in Ebonics, the author of h The Ebology O Blato: Sockradees Defense, is adding a type of flavor to a serious matter, as opposed to its Standard English counterpart. Now that there is an understanding of what Ebonics looks and sounds like, I want to draw your attention to a current debate regarding Ebonics; which is how educators can take an Ebonics speaker’s primary discourse and teach them to speak in a secondary discourse.
Dey Tryna’ Teach Me Wat?
Discourses are a main part of daily life and literacy. As described by James Gee, who is a Mary Lou Fulton Presidential Professor of Literacy at Arizona State University, in his article “What is Literacy?”, he explains what a primary and secondary discourse is when he uses the term “discourse”. He states that in general, when referring to discourses, he is saying that a discourse is a “socially accepted association among ways of using language, of thinking, and of acting that can be used to identify oneself as a member of a socially meaningful group” (Gee 51). Discourses aid members in certain groups, in finding others that may be a part of their group simply by the way in which they may speak or act. This would be what Gee calls a Primary discourse; which are mannerisms and speech that originate from the home. It is the things that people learn from observation, from when they were children. Secondary discourses are learned outside of one’s group that may better fit social standards. With an understanding of discourses, educators use this knowledge to figure out a way to teach Ebonics speakers how to speak in Standard American English, which is something that educators are trying to accomplish.
The debate surrounding Ebonics is in regard to how educators teach its’ speakers who use Ebonics as their primary discourse, and instead teach them how to speak Standard American English. Educators want to help students perform what William Brennan, a writer for The Atlantic, highlights from Julie Washington, observations of what she calls “code-switching” (Brennan). The “code-switch” that Washington notices is the result of students switching from their primary discourse to their secondary discourse. This observation assisted Washington in the understanding of how African American youth, who primarily speak in Ebonics, could go about understanding Standard American English. If all it takes is for them to understand when it is appropriate for which discourse needs to take center stage, then Washington, and other educators, believe that these students can have a better grasp on Standard American English. It is important to note that Washington and other educators end goal is not to eradicate Ebonics from youth and force them to only speak in Standard American English. Their goal is to teach youth how to speak in a way that would help them for future acquisitions. They want youth to have effective communication with future employers and coworkers. They are not trying to discredit the way in which they speak, but instead highlight it, and show youth how to “code-switch” when necessary.
For example, I want to draw attention to the Oakland School board controversy; which is one of the very first instances that the term Ebonics was heard in the general population. In the article, “The Ebonics Controversy” by Robert L. Williams, which was published in the Journal of Black Phsychology Vol. 23 No. 3, Williams states many myths that surrounded the Oakland school board’s decision to recognize Ebonics as a language. The school board’s reason for doing this was so that educators and students would have a bridge that would help educators teach Standard American English, and for students to better grasp Standard American English. Williams states:
“The basic goal of the Oakland School District is to find better methods to instruct African American children in Standard English and reading. The fundamental issue here is not whether Ebonics is a separate language or it the board is lowering standards. The real issue is that far too many African American children are not acquiring proficiency in Standard English and reading to facilitate academic success and career mobility. Thus, the question that needs to be raised is “Can we provide a world-class quality education for these children?” (Williams 209).
So, the school board was not trying to teach the children who spoke in Ebonics that they way that they speak is incorrect. Rather, they were trying to find an effective way to teach these children another way to speak that could help them in the future. The school board’s goal was to help the students excel in school and in their daily lives. Despite this being their goal, the school board was forced to shut down the program because of backlash from many parents. But what the school board tried to do raises a question that made me extremely curious of its answer. How do people view those that speak in Ebonics?
Dey See Me How?
Perceptions are often the root of problems that individuals or groups face in their day to day lives. The perception surrounding speech, I think, is the strongest perception of them all. Speech is one of the ways that people draw conclusions about things that are mostly superficial rather than deep. These superficial things such as how much money someone has, where they live, or what their level of education is. They ignore the things that give people character and pave a path towards the deep. Dr. Geneva Napoleon Smitherman, who is a linguist and professor of African American Language, and a director of the Literacy Program at Michigan State University. She recounts what she describes as her “first taste of linguistic pedagogy” when her “European American elementary school teachers attacked her Ebonics and demoted her half a year”. She talks about how by being demoted, it “effectively silenced” her and from that experience, she “learned to negotiate success in the educational system by keeping her mouth shut” (Smitherman 139).
I find this to be very unfortunate because from such an early age, Dr. Smitherman had a negative connotation associated with a way that she communicated with others around her. I find it even more unfortunate because they demoted her because they essentially thought that she was incompetent to some degree. As a result of remaining quiet from an early age, it affected her later on when she went to university. She inserts another anecdote in which she had to take a speech test for college, and she failed it due to her not being able to develop her oral code-switching skills. Her and several other students, that she notes were mostly African American, had to take a speech therapy class as a result of failing the speech test (Smitherman 139). Below is an excerpt from her article “Dat teacher be hollin at us”, in which she further explains what happened in the speech therapy class.
“The speech therapist (a young woman studying for her PhD in the field) did not know what to do with any of us because nobody was dyslexic, nor were any of us aphasic-in fact, there was not even a stutterer amongst us! Frustrate by this absence of the language deficiencies she was being trained to cure, the speech therapist ended up teaching us to memorize the standard middle-class, U.S. midwestern pronunciation of the words on the speech test. Thus, the second time around, we all passed the test” (Smitherman 139).
Dr. Smitherman, and those students, had to go through a class simply because they were thought to have a speech impediment that they needed assistance correcting. They were perceived as individuals who did not know how to speak in a correct way or have effective conversations. When in reality, they were able to communicate with others; just not in a way that was deemed acceptable by the educators that they encountered. Dr. Smitherman’s experience made me think of my own life, but more specifically the life of my mother and her relationship with Ebonics.
Why You Talk dat Way?
I do not think that it comes as a shock to you, the reader, that I am a young African American girl. Most of the things that I have researched and questions that I have been looking to answer stem from personal experiences. Especially experiences that I have in common with my mom. To start, I would like to shed a light on where I grew up, and what my home life was like.
I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio in a little sub-development for low income families, run by a governmental entity called, Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority or for short, CMHA. CMHA’s mission is to create safe, quality, affordable housing opportunities and improve the quality of life for the communities they serve (cmha.net). I could say that they did live out their mission statement, to a certain degree. I felt safe most of the time, but that was partly due to my parents. The slight unease came from the loud popping sounds that would ring throughout the development, that we would always tell ourselves were just fireworks. But fireworks in the middle of March? Sure. But, it was not too bad. I can defiantly say that the people that I encountered, a few friends, and plenty of nosey neighbors, all spoke in a Ebonics. Their words were occasionally weighed with force when spoken, and very rarely spoken quietly. I grew up around that type of environment, used to the heavy base from old supped up cars, and random screaming matches at 2 in the morning.
I then went to a Cleveland Public school called Clara E. Westropp, which is not too far from where I lived at the time. The people who attended the school were mostly from my neighborhood, and those surrounding it. Every student spoke in Ebonics. Children asking other children, “What happen’ to yo daddy? He gon’? Where?” or something along those lines. They were often words that were picked up from ease dropping on what my family would call “grown folk conversations”. The memory that is most vivid to me is when I was in the cafeteria at school. I do not recall what grade I was in, but I remember being quite young; no older than 9 years old. I was talking to a group of friends, and when I finished talking, one of the girls asked, “Why you talk like that?” I remember thinking to myself, “Talk like what?” Up until that point, no one ever commented on the way that I talked. And to be honest, I had no idea what she was talking about; so, I asked her. “Talk like what? What do I sound like?” She looked at me and said, “You sound white.” I never heard that before. I never knew that a black person, could “sound white”. For context, the majority of the students in the school were African American, with a handful of students split between being Hispanic, or white.
I remember when my mom picked me up from school, and she was asking me about my day. I asked her if I sounded white. She was curious as to where I had gotten that idea from, and I told her about what happened. To sum it up, she told me that they way that I talk is perfectly fine. When she was younger, people used to ask her the same thing. She told me that she used to say “What? Talk properly?”
So, now that I am older, and still get asked that question, I think about what it means. It means that my primary discourse is mostly Standard English. It has to do with the fact that my mom speaks in a “proper” way, and I picked up on it. But she also still speaks in Ebonics sometimes; which makes me wonder if she is unconsciously code-switching.
Where we Goin’?
The main thing that I want you, the reader, to know is that Ebonics is just another form of communication. Those who speak it are not incompetent, and neither do they have a speech problem. Ebonics speakers have a way of speaking that allows them to express themselves in creative, cynical, sarcastic unique ways. So, when you retreat into the real world, do me a favor, when you hear someone speak in Ebonics, try and see if you can guess what they are talking about. It may not be as difficult as you think it is. For practice, read the excerpt from Sterling A. Brown, that I left at the beginning of this essay. See if you can understand what he is trying to convey to readers.
You may also be curious as to why I titled this essay, “Ebonics: Superficial vs. Deep”. I want to provide some insight into what Ebonics really is. Synonymous with a baby being born and being bestowed a name by their parents, Ebonics speakers also need a name for how they communicate. My goal was to open your eyes to a variety of speech that is present in America. My goal is to showcase what the superficial aspect of Ebonics is; the language/dialect. It is how people who use it speak to each other and it is also what non-speakers hear in passing. However, the most important aspect of Ebonics is the deep part. When I say deep, I mean the centuries of people who spoke in Ebonics. The way that some of Ebonics speakers had to learn a new language, while others had to teach. The countless decades of fights for basic human rights such as; education, peace, and freedom. Ebonics embodies its speakers. Ebonics is in itself, a way to of expression to others who can understand it. So, the next time you hear someone speaking in Ebonics, it is okay to think superficially, but I implore you to think deep.
Where it Came From (Bibliography)
Brennan, W. (2018, March 12). Julie Washington’s Quest to Get Schools to Respect African-American English. Retrieved November 26, 2019, from https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/04/the-code-switcher/554099/.
Gee, J. P. (1998). What is Literacy. Negotiating Academic Literacies: Teaching and Learning across Languages and Cultures, 51–59.
Jowett, B. (Trans.). (2009). The Internet Classics Archive: Apology by Plato. Retrieved November 21, 2019, from http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/apology.html.
Nordquist, R. (2019, July 3). What Is Standard American English? Retrieved November 26, 2019, from https://www.thoughtco.com/standard-american-english-1692134.
Rickford, J. R. (2019). What is Ebonics (African American English)? Retrieved November 26, 2019, from https://www.linguisticsociety.org/content/what-ebonics-african-american-english.
Riverbank Blues by Sterling A. Brown – Poems | Academy of American Poets. (n.d.). Retrieved November 26, 2019, from https://poets.org/poem/riverbank-blues.
Ronkin, M., & Karn, H. E. (2002). Mock Ebonics: Linguistic racism in parodies of Ebonics on the Internet. Journal of Sociolinguistics, 3(3), 360–380. doi: 10.1111/1467-9481.00083
Smitherman, G. N. (1998). “Dat Teacher Be Hollin at Us”: What Is Ebonics? TESOL Quarterly, 32(1), 139. doi: 10.2307/3587911
Williams, R. L. (1997). The Ebonics Controversy. Journal of Black Psychology, 23(3), 208–214. doi: 10.1177/00957984970233002