Beyond Ebonics: Why 'Black English' Matters

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Illustration by Jonathan Bouw

The Oakland, Calif., school board's decision to view "ebonics," or "black English," as a distinct language has precipitated a rhetorical game of political tetherball that has the unfortunate feel of being played most vociferously on the schoolyard rather than in the schoolhouse. Some appalled writers have characterized the Oakland decision as a form of surrender or self-hatred or inverted racism. Others have applauded the Oakland decision but have perhaps gone too far in trying to chisel a high place in the classroom for playground slang. ("'Ebonics' Vote Puts Oakland in Maelstrom," Jan. 15, and "Oakland Board Revises 'Ebonics' Resolution," Jan. 22, 1997.)

In an effort to move the issue from the schoolyard to the schoolhouse, we should begin to explore the connection between "black English" and the education of African-American children in school systems that have enshrined the following premises in their mission statements:

  • Schools must do everything within their power to provide all students with a challenging, high-level, mainstream American education--including helping them acquire proficiency in mainstream American English.
Communication can backfire when a child lacks understanding of the structure of mainstream American English and the teacher lacks understanding of the structure of 'black English.'
  • Teachers must believe that all their students, irrespective of race or ethnicity, can perform at the highest academic levels.
  • Teachers must respect the cultural and linguistic backgrounds of all students who enter their classrooms.

To help deflate the hype surrounding the Oakland debate, it should be noted that Oakland is not the first urban district to view black English as a second language. In 1989, for example, the Los Angeles Unified School District published a major report, "The Children Can No Longer Wait," which concluded in part that many African-American children and their families speak a language that differs structurally from mainstream American English. This report--the culmination of deliberations involving a broad spectrum of district administrators, educators, parents, and community members--asserted that this African-American language has its own system of rules, sounds, and meaning. It recommended that the language be recognized and valued, just as any other foreign language would be. In response to the report, the Los Angeles school system implemented something called the Language Development Program for African-American Students, known as LDPAAS. Its primary goal is to improve instructional strategies for teaching African-American students mainstream English by taking into account the language and culture many of them bring to school. What is different about the Los Angeles program is that it validates the home language of African-American students, a perspective that challenges many educators to change how they view language, how they view culture, and, in fact, how they view individuals who speak "black English."

Having attended several of the training conferences convened annually by LDPAAS, I know that what this program views as black English (or African-American language) differs markedly from what most writers and commentators are saying in relation to the Oakland case. In order to clarify what the L.A. program and ones similar to it define as black English, I offer some revealing examples from three different sources.

Because of the separatism that continues to shut out many blacks from the mainstream, the structure of African languages continues to dominate the language spoken in their homes.

In a forthcoming book, Noma LeMoine, the director of Los Angeles' language-development program for African-American students, relives a day years ago when she worked as a speech and language pathologist for the district. While sitting in an office waiting to be escorted to a classroom, she observed a white teacher entering the room with an African-American child. It appeared the teacher wanted to telephone the child's parents.

"Bobby, what does your mother do?" the teacher asked.

"She be at home," Bobby replied.

"You mean she is at home," the teacher said.

"No she ain't," Bobby offered, " 'cause she took my grandmother to the hospital this morning."

The teacher snapped. "You know what I meant. You aren't supposed to say, 'She be at home.' You say, 'She is at home.'"

But Bobby, incredulous, could only reply, "Why you trying to make me lie? She ain't at home."

Linguistic confusion arose for this child when the teacher said, "She is at home." He interpreted this to mean that his mother was at home at that moment, which was not true. When he had said, "She be at home," in answer to a question about what his mother did, he had meant that it was her habit to be home on a day-to-day basis.

This example illustrates how communication can backfire when a child lacks understanding of the structure of mainstream American English and the teacher lacks understanding of the structure of "black English." While the well-meaning teacher took advantage of a teachable grammar moment, unfortunately her instruction relied on a faulty interpretation of Bobby's language.

The second example comes from the book Black Communications: Breaking Down the Barriers, in which Evelyn Dandy illustrates the frailty of teachers' attempts to "correct" the language spoken by African-American children. Ms. Dandy recounts the story of a young African-American boy, Joey, who was assigned to the highest reading group in his 3rd grade classroom. On his turn in the reading circle, Joey eagerly began reading.

"Maxie lived in three small rooms on the top floor of an old brownstone house on Orange Skreet," he read.

"Not skreet, Joey," said the teacher. "Say street."

"Skreet," Joey repeated.

The teacher asked Joey to read the sentence once more--and again he said "skreet" instead of street.

"You're not pronouncing the word correctly. I'll read it for you," the teacher said, and then prompted Joey to continue reading.

"Every morning, Maxie's large orange cat jumped onto the middle window sill and skretched out," he read.

"No, Joey. You're doing it again. Say stretched."

"Skretched," Joey offered. To which the teacher simply said, "Go ahead."

Had this teacher understood the phonetic structure of the language employed by Joey, she would have viewed "skreet" and "skretched" as predictable pronunciations of "street" and "stretched." Instead, she disparaged him at length before his classmates. He felt embarrassed and hurt. The teacher had turned one child off to reading aloud.

The third example comes from the book Twice As Less: Does Black English Stand Between Black Students and Success in Math and Science?, in which Eleanor Wilson Orr provides numerous illustrations of the impact language differences have on student-teacher communication and, thus, on student learning. Ms. Orr traces the experiences of a group of teachers at a private high school in the District of Columbia (the Hawthorne School) who were accustomed to success until they encountered a group of African-American teenagers who had transferred from the public schools of inner city Washington as part of a special program. Although these students were treated the same as the school's well-to-do students from Washington's Maryland and Virginia suburbs, by the end of the first year Hawthorne's teachers felt they had encountered "misunderstandings and nonunderstandings so apparently intractable and so strikingly different from any they had previously known that they were at a loss," Ms. Orr writes. Indeed, the teachers gave failing grades to more than 80 percent of the inner city students, who were first-time takers of Hawthorne's mathematics courses.

Why did the teachers at Hawthorne initially view as "intractable" the apparent obstacles these students encountered in learning math? I will summarize one of the many interesting cases documented by Eleanor Orr:

Students in a geometry class were asked to explain as part of a longer proof why the distances between two locations were equal. An African-American student from inner city Washington--let's call him Jason--stated the following: If you subtract half the distance from Washington to Cleveland that distance will equal Aurora.

While Jason's sentence employs common English terms and syntax, I suspect that most U.S. teachers would have been so hard pressed to decipher its meaning that they would have succumbed to the faulty conclusion that Jason did not (and perhaps could not) understand geometry.

Fortunately, Ms. Orr and her colleagues noted that many of the students who constructed sentences in the way Jason did were quite bright and performed well in other subjects. So there had to be another explanation. In-depth probing led to the discovery that many of these students did not perceive or interpret language the way their teachers did. Eventually, Hawthorne's teachers unraveled the meaning of Jason's statement, which they translated as follows: If you subtract half the distance from Washington to Cleveland from the total distance from Washington to Cleveland, that distance will equal the distance from Washington to Aurora.

I believe the Oakland board wants what's best for its students.

Given the complexity of this and other examples described in Twice As Less, I suspect that Ms. Orr and the other teachers at Hawthorne struggled mightily to decipher the language employed by a large proportion of their African-American students. Had they not believed resolutely in their ability to teach mathematics to any child, I doubt they would have dug deeply enough to uncover the profound language differences that stymied their efforts to effectively communicate with African-American students like Jason.

The language dynamics described by Ms. LeMoine and Ms. Dandy, and those that the teachers at the Hawthorne School came upon serendipitously, have been studied by linguists for many years. While "black English" employs an English lexicon, there is general agreement that its underlying structure traces back to the native languages spoken by the Africans who suffered the ignominy of American slavery. Because of the deeply ingrained separatism that continues to shut out many blacks from the American mainstream, the deep structure of these (largely West) African languages continues to dominate the language spoken in most African-American homes. Whatever the label accorded this language--ebonics, pidgin English, African-American language, or black English--school districts should be encouraged to take incisive steps to systematically and relentlessly address linguistic differences that limit the ability of many teachers to effectively educate African-American children.

At the risk of leaving the schoolhouse and getting caught up in the game of schoolyard tetherball, let me return to Oakland. I believe the Oakland board wants what's best for its students as reflected in the three premises I listed at the beginning of this essay. Given the work of educators such as Noma LeMoine, Evelyn Dandy, and Eleanor Wilson Orr, Oakland's board should, therefore, do what is linguistically necessary to insure that black children become proficient in mainstream American English--orally, in writing, and in thought. If the job takes formal adoption of the position that the language employed by most African-American children in that district differs systematically from mainstream American English, then so be it.

Vol. 16, Issue 18, Pages 31, 48

Published in Print: January 29, 1997, as Beyond Ebonics: Why 'Black English' Matters
Related Stories
Web Resources
  • Read an update from the Oakland Unified School District, as well as the full text of the revised resolution on the education of African-American students.
  • Read a series of stories in The New York Times related to The Debate Over Black English. (The site requires free registration.)
  • AFT President Albert Shanker's "Where We Stand" column from Jan. 5, 1997, argues that the Oakland school board has a worthwhile goal, but should pursue it without introducing an issue that will only make it harder for them to succeed.

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