What It Do: Revisiting the Ebonics Issue

Posted on December 2, 2009 by


If you were awake in 1996, you probably remember the uproar surrounding the Oakland School Board’s proposal to use African American English (known as AAE or Ebonics) in the Oakland School system. For those of you not in the know, here’s a Quick Break-Down:

The OSB passed a resolution that recognized the legitimacy of Ebonics as a distinct language (as opposed to “bad” English, dialectic English, or slang), and suggested that it could be used in the public school system as a way to teach those students who spoke it regularly in the home. However, the resolution included the phrase “genetically based,” which was widely misunderstood to mean that African Americans were biologically predisposed to speak a certain language, when the phrase in fact was using the term “genetics” in the linguistic sense. A national debate erupted, with argument topics raging from the validity of Ebonics as a language (and whether schools using it were eligible for bilingual-education funding) to racial disparities in education to successful teaching techniques in public schools. The OSB later amended and passed the resolution, but had strong opposition from high-profile figures like then Secretary of Education William Bennett, Senator Joe Lieberman, and Rev. Jesse Jackson (before he later reversed his position).

The argument for including it in the school curriculum was that the poor academic performance of Black children could be due (in part) to the fact that they were not being taught in their “first language,” and so were at a disadvantage. The thought was that by training teachers in the history, structure, and use of AAE, they could more effectively teach both SAE and other subjects. Opponents argued that this encouraged the “miseducation” of children, would contribute to the “unemployability” of these students, and, essentially, exacerbated racial division.

Patricia J. Williams, a law professor at Colombia University, also had an interesting position against the use of Ebonics in this way. While she agreed that Ebonics should be recognized as a distinct culture language, she worried about the OSB’s intention to instruct teachers on how to use it. She writes, “Imagine having teachers who speak standard classroom English flailing about in some really bad version of a standardized black English. If they end up speaking Ebonics as badly as teachers who learn a little ”professional Spanish,” I cringe to think of the consequences: pidgin versions of Talking to Tonto. Ugh. And I do mean ugh in the most classical sense.”

Now, I don’t speak Ebonics and I don’t claim Black culture as my own, so I approach this discussion (humbly) as someone interested in African American history and culture, and fascinated by the fluid nature of language and the impact it can have.

And it’s not difficult to see why some people would oppose Ebonics use within the public school system; the general public regards AAE as “poor” SAE, slang, or a dialect. However, it’s actually a systematic language variety, with patterns of pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary, and usage that extend far beyond slang. The Linguistic Society of America (LSA) adopted a resolution that says as much, and a number of linguistic experts have weighed in on the topic. Because Ebonics has a set of rules distinct from those of SAE, characterizations of Ebonics as “bad” English are misinformed; Ebonics speakers do not fail to speak SAE, but succeed in speaking AAE.

I have a good friend who teaches at a mostly-black public elementary school in low-income San Francisco, and he explained it to me thusly: When a student was once late for class, his friend explained it by saying, “Shawn be late.” Said in this way, the student meant that Shawn was chronically late, not just late that one time. If it had been an isolated tardiness episode, he would have phrased it a different way.

As a teacher, my friend views Ebonics as a valuable teaching tool for him and something of a “native language” for his students. He believes that teachers have to recognize and appreciate this language, which is spoken in the household, amongst friends, and at community gatherings (i.e., everywhere except school), as part of a student’s culture, background, and identity. In doing so, it can be used to a teacher’s (and student’s) advantage. Language skills are directly linked to both academic and professional success, and unfortunately, American academic and professional society is dominated by “white, SAE. It’s an issue of “speaking one’s language”; I certainly would never be able to learn the literary value of William Faulkner if it had been taught to me in Spanish.

In his classroom, my friend utilizes a “switch-out” method, where if a student answers a question using Ebonics, he asks that student to “switch it out” for an answer spoken in SAE. In doing so, he validates the use of Ebonics as legitimate, and perfectly reasonable to use in informal settings. However, he encourages students to be able to “switch out” Ebonics for SAE in formal situations, such as at school or in job interviews. It’s essentially arming these kids with a tool or life skill, much like my teachers taught me how to cite papers correctly; I’d never cite a source in an email to a friend, but if I’m trying to get something published, I sure as hell have a kickin’ bibliography.

And really, the grand opposition to Ebonics’ legitimacy smacks of discrimination to me. It’s like Scarface once said about the use of Ebonics in his rhymes:

“It’s a code of communication, too… we can understand each other when we’re rapping. You know, if I’m saying, (in a nasal, mocking voice) ‘Well, my friend, I saw this guy who shot this other guy and….’ I break that shit down for you and you say, ‘Goddamn, man! Them muthafuckas is going crazy out where this dude’s from.’ You know what I’m saying? It’s just totally different. It’s just a code of communication to me. I’m letting my partner know what’s going on. And anything White America can’t control they call ‘gangster.’ SHIT! I get real.”

It’s easier to dismiss Ebonics as “inappropriate” or “diluted” than to acknowledge it as a valid language that should be recognized, studied, and utilized. An easy parallel would be the idea that immigrants must adopt American language, culture, and heritage before they can become citizens, or that students “caught” speaking Spanish at school should be suspended. For me, these are simple denials of diverse cultural backgrounds, and essentially set the stage for a homogenous, boring–ass United States of America.

Big L. Ebonics.

Granted, I don’t know nearly enough about linguistics, educational politics, or pedagogical techniques to comment authoritatively on this issue. And I can’t claim to have first-hand knowledge of Ebonics and its role in Black culture. I don’t know if learning trigonometry in AAE vs. SAE would make any sort of difference in the intellectual development of a child raised in an Ebonic-speaking household.

But it intuitively makes sense to me. Cultural competency plays a huge role everything  from marketing to healthcare to retail to diplomacy, and an essential element of cultural competency is language. Why wouldn’t the same apply in the extremely formative years of primary school education? And, even separate from that, Ebonics is a creative, vivid form of expression that I think should be celebrated, not stifiled.

Obviously, this issue has particular relevance within the Hip Hop Nation; I’ll be discussing that sometime in the near future. In the meantime, look into the debate. – Here’s a good place to start.