Chapter 5: African American English and the communities it influences
English 102, October 2020
Each article I discuss in this essay attempts to define Black English (African American Vernacular English), highlights the impact that the language has had in America and the world, discusses how the language still goes unappreciated, and discovers more about the people group who created and continue to use this language. Before diving into the three articles that talk about the subject at hand, it is critical to learn some things from James Gee’s “What is Literacy?”
In Gee’s article, he discusses the value of different discourses and how they are learned. By discourses, Gee explains that this is the way a particular group communicates, thinks, and acts. These things make up the identity of the discourse (18). Our first discourse is acquired by being a part of the community we grow up in. All of us have acquired our first discourse, but we all must learn secondary discourses. The difference between acquiring and learning is that acquiring comes from experience and trial and error and often is learned on a subconscious level, while learning is conscious, and it involves an analytical approach (20). Gee also mentions that “discourses are intimately related to the distribution of social power and hierarchal structure in society” (19), and this brings us to the next article.
In the first chapter of Talkin’ that Talk titled “So Good Its Bad,” Geneva Smitherman gives insight into Black English by providing the readers with stories written in Black English and by weaving in and out of Black English when there are no stories, while simultaneously talking about the love-hate relationship that White and Black people have with Black English. Despite the amount of backlash that this language has received in the past, is currently receiving, and will most likely continue to receive in the future, Smitherman makes it very clear that this language is not going anywhere (19). In addition to this, Smitherman defines Black English and dives into what makes this language its own discourse and the role Black English plays in America, which is adding to the English language while also not being accepted as a valid language (3). In this article, Smitherman calls Black English, or African American Vernacular English, African American Language (AAL). She says AAL adds black flavor to the English language, which is done via Africanized semantics, rhetorical patterns, grammar, and pronunciation (3). Like Gee mentioned in his article, Smitherman touches on the fact that those who speak African American Language, no matter what part of the world they are in, are provided with a sense of personal identity (3). AAL comes with its own set of rules and sometimes the use of one word, or a lack thereof, changes the entire meaning of the sentence, and that can come off wrong to people who have acquired standard English as their first discourse and haven’t learned African American Language.
The peculiar thing about AAL is that it is also considered unintelligent. Why is this? It could be because this language was created by slaves who were already deemed lesser than by the master class, or white class. Like Gee says, the discourses are intimately related to the distribution of hierarchal structure in society, so it is likely that anything created by a class that is deemed” lesser than” can only create things that are lesser than, according to the hierarchal structure. This thought is reinforced in Smitherman’s words when she describes that the instructional program, Search for Elevation, Education, and Knowledge (also known as SEEK) was quickly dismissed because, while this program sought to increase knowledge by contrasting the differences between AAL and standard English, AAL was viewed as the language of the uneducated or undereducated (6). Another perspective is that Black Language is just baby talk (9). Yet, African American Language has provided English with words that are so commonly used today, such as “okay” and “tote.” (3) This is a primary example of how Black English is being consistently used and stepped on in the White community.
However, with so much criticism toward Black Language by discourses that are higher up on the social hierarchy ladder, it is only natural that some of that criticism trickled into people who grew up with AAL being a part of their primary discourse. Linguistic push-pull, which Smitherman refers to as black people loving and hating the language at the same time (6) is most likely the result of the criticism coming from the higher rung on the ladder. Smitherman quotes Bill Cosby’s remarks about Black English, and Cosby does not favor the language at all. The irony of his distaste is that Cosby has made lump sums of money from his show Fat Albert, a show that has two characters by the names of Dumb Donald and Mush Mouth, who both speak Black English (8). This shows that it is also the Black community that will use our own language while simultaneously stepping on it. Another reason that this language (and the people who use it) is considered unintelligent could be because there is trouble deciphering whether Black Language is a language of its own or if it is just dialect of English. This is still a tough question to answer because we would have to consider what the differences are. Firstly, languages are recognized as languages because it sounds totally different from another language. Dialects are viewed as derivatives of a given language (16). With Black Language sounding so like standard English, you could argue that it is a dialect. However, there are words or expressions created within Black Language that cannot be translated, word for word, into standard English which is a trait of a language being recognized as a language (17). If Black Language was widely recognized as a language, there would be no questions surrounding the rules and the use of it, but since this continues to be debated, the legitimacy of this language, or speech, continues to be questioned. Regardless of how often it is questioned and criticized, there is still a desire to use some of the language that comes from Black English.
So, how does one go about learning Black English? One of the ways people can go about it is by indulging in some of the things that are predominately Black. For example, in “African American Vernacular English, Hip-Hop, and ‘Keepin’ is real,’” Dovchin examines the translingual social media Englishes formed by university students in Magnolia. The article provides data that indicates hip-hop oriented sources played a significant role in enabling translingual English practices among American hip-hop fans in Magnolia. Dovchin says, “Rap song lyrics are ‘easily detachable and transportable from one context to another’” (35). In other words, while the languages may be different, different cultural groups can relate to similar experiences and this became the catalyst for people in Australia to learn more about the American hip-hop culture, which involved the use of Black English. One of the people in the study is Otgon. Otgon became such a fan of American hip-hop that Black English became something that he picked up and incorporated into his lifestyle. Basically, Otgon learned a second discourse. He did this by listening to American artists like Eminem, Jay-Z, and 2Pac and translating the lyrics (40). Otgon recognizes that learning Black English as a secondary discourse does not mean that he is unauthentic in his primary discourse because the values of the primary and secondary discourse share the same value which is keepin’ it real (40). How is it that a culture in a different country can appreciate and incorporate Black English, while America still struggles to accept this as a valid language?
A possible reason is that people in Magnolia sought to learn more about Black English, while people in America, after 400 years, remain uneducated. In “The Whig Party Don’t Exist In My Hood” by Sammy Alim, the goal is to not only create understanding of Black English and culture by teaching students within schools about the discourse of Black English through hip-hop but to also educate the students on standard English by using hip-hop and Black English as tools to learn. The desire of this came about because Black students were failing at alarming rates compared to the white students within the same school. The reason why there was so much failure was because it was all a part of the plan to keep Black people down. The school systems were set up in a way that was designed to teach Black kids nothing about themselves but learn everything about people that did not look like them. To make matters worse, there is the language barrier: standard English versus Black English. Black students must learn a new language while learning about people groups that are not them (18). This creates a disinterest that results in teachers believing that these students do not know how to read, write, or think critically. It was quickly realized by Alim that the problem was that the curriculum was disconnected from the community and culture of the Black students (20). Adapting the curriculum to fit the community and culture of the Black students resulted in knowledge that the Black students are more than capable of reading, writing, and critical thinking. It was concluded that if change is to be made, then education must be given through the lens of the cultural-linguistic reality, instead of what is deemed culturally appropriate because it will only result in devalued view of the language and culture of Black English (28). Unfortunately, while it is proven that relating curriculum to the culture and community of Black students produces higher competency within the Black students, it is still something that is not adopted as a practice everywhere else.
In conclusion, we must remember, like Alim says, that a difference in language does not equate to deficiency (16). The fact that Black English is something that is being consistently used and stepped on at the same time is just an echo of history. According to Alim’s friend Bankie, Black people would have never been tricked into coming into this country if the White people thought of Black people as uncivilized. White people saw everything that was created by Black people such as pyramids, palaces, technology, and more, and they tricked Black people into doing it the same thing for them, in promise of more money (19). Instead, Black people became their slaves which allowed White people to step on the backs and shoulders of Black people to claim everything as their own.
I enjoyed reading these articles and learning about each author’s perspective on Black English. Although it was not mentioned in this essay, I like that a couple of authors explained some of the rules that surround Black English because it is something that is acquired by the people who use this discourse. I love that all the authors, in one way or another, explain the importance of taking the time to learn the language that is increasingly becoming a part of and contributing to the standard English language.
Alim, H. Samy. “The Whig Party don’t exist in my hood”: Knowledge, reality, and education in the Hip
Hop Nation.” Talkin Black talk: Language, education, and social change (2007): 15-29.
Dovchin, Sender. “African American Vernacular English, Hip-Hop and ‘Keepin’It Real’.” Language, Social
Media and Ideologies. Springer, Cham, 2020. 35-42.
Gee, James Paul. “What is literacy.” Negotiating academic literacies: Teaching and learning across
languages and cultures (1998): 51-59.
Smitherman, Geneva. Talkin that talk: Language, culture and education in African America. Routledge,