Mother Tongue: Black English Revisited
By Mumia Abu-Jamal, 8 January 1997
"Every generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it."Frantz Fanon,
Across the United States, controversy rages over the decision of the Oakland School Board to recognize Black English as a distinct language form, and to train its teachers in its structure and usage.
In an age of white allowance of umbrage occasioned by the O.J. [criminal] trial, Oakland's School Board was savaged in ways that were eerily similar to the insults leveled at the Black jurors who acquitted Simpson. California's Gov. Pete Wilson's press spokesman deemed it a "ridiculous theory." U.S. Education Secretary Richard Riley termed Black English a mere "dialect," advising against "elevating Black English to the status of a language." A Newsweek Black columnist hit the School Board for its "stale, silly rhetoric." Time called it "goofy."
Predictably, much of the controversy, energized by the smug assurance that the Oakland School Board didn't know what it was talking about, was as passionate as it was uninformed, with the lamentable result that Black middle-class figures attacked other Black middle-class figures who sought to accurately address what is often a Black lower-class and Black working-class reality--the structure and usage of language, that is markedly distinct from what we like to call standard English--and English radically different from the English of England.
If the white majoritarian media was more concerned with informing people than stirring up controversy, the slant, research and presentation of the story would have been far different (but then, of course, not as many papers would've been sold. Readers would've learned, for example;
1 "Black English" (also know as Ebonics, Black speech, Black language found to be a legitimate language in a federal court case in 1977!
2 In the case, Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School Children v. Ann Arbor School District Board, the court ruled Ann Arbor must "take into account" Black English in the educational process;
3 The court ordered the school district to give special training and orientation to teachers in Black English and its educational implications; In other words, this was "news" - 20 years ago! It's old news now, recycled as fodder for cheap controversy.
Dr. Geneva Smitherman, Ph.D., a professor and then-director of the African American Language and Literacy Program, Dept. of English, Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan was the chief expert witness in the King case, and wrote a number of books and studies on the subject. None of her voluminous works are cited nor referred to in any of the national reports slanted against the very idea of Black English.
Dr. Smitherman tells us that, ". . . the question of Black English clearly reflects the interaction of race and class."
What determines what is a language or a dialect? She cites the words of linguist Max Weinreich: "The difference between a language and a dialect is who's got the army."
Thus, the question becomes a political one, one of power; for only a truly free people can determine their language, and an army of white politicians, who usually stand in silence when the deplorable conditions of Black, urban schools are noted, launched an attack on Oakland's Black educators, allied by a well-meaning, but ill-informed Black bourgeoisie, and a media that delights in Black condemnation.
Is this mere rhetoric?
Then consider the horrors revealed in Jonathan Kozol's Savage Inequalities, where children had to navigate rivers of human waste in their hallways, windows open to raging wind, books of several past generations crumbling and rotting in student hands, and more. Where was the outrage? Where was the outcry?
Where were the headlines?
When one considers the political and media silence and inactivity that ignored Kozol with the vast umbrage that greeted the Oakland School Board, it is clear that the central issue is not the children, but money. Why did all government officials rush to assure white voters that Oakland wouldn't be eligible for funds? Money.
They don't give a damn about the children, in Oakland, Brooklyn, Overtown, Roxbury, or anywhere else Black, Spanish poor children live.
It's not a question of language - but of power.
How can so many white (and Black bourgeois politicians get all amped over Black English, and yet remain silent at the spectacle of schools in poor communities crumbling, while schools in wealthy communities sprout like college campuses?
The Oakland School District should be applauded for their courage and insight, and for meeting the children where they are without stigmatizing them with the national presumption that they are stupid because of the way they utilize language.
Black English, for millions of us in the inner cities, and in the projects, is not street language - but home language, where we communicate our deepest feelings, fears, views and insights.
We needn't be damned for using it, by anyone - especially so-called teachers.