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Double Talk

Portrait of Betty Carter by Bruni, courtesty of Old Town Gallery, Los Gatos.

Untangling the roots of African-American speech is no easy feat, but Oakland School Board felt it was worth a try. How ebonics fell from grace, under a white-hot torrent of prejudice into a well of black pain.

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor

FANS OF LATE NIGHT horror shows might be tempted to conclude that the Oakland School Board walked into the Ebonics controversy like a crowd of monster movie teenagers spending the weekend at a deserted cabin. I mean, shouldn't the Oakland folks have known better? If it really were a movie, the audience would have been up and screaming, "Get back in the car, idiots! Jason's in there!" But the Oakland School Board stumbled on in anyway, ignoring the obvious danger in '90s American politics of mixing race with requests for "more money, more money, more money." So late last year, citing the continued poor educational performance of African-American students in its area schools, the Oakland Board passed a resolution that: (1) the primary language of a majority of African-American students is not English, but a heretofore little-known language called Ebonics; (2) Ebonics is "genetically based" in Africa; and (3) the Oakland Public Schools would be directed to set up training programs for teachers so that they could instruct African-American students using the language of Ebonics, both to maintain "the richness and legitimacy" of Ebonics itself and to help the students learn English. Finally, and perhaps most provocatively, the Oakland board suggested that funding for the Ebonics program could come from federal education "second language" funds earmarked for students whose primary language is not English.

For a while after that it was hard to sort everything out, what with all the hollering and the blood and the hum of the chainsaws.

In a fierce-hot reaction that rolled over the country and back with interwarp speed, Oakland's Ebonics policy was both ridiculed and denounced on talk shows and op-ed pages and in newsgroups everywhere.

A spokesperson for California Governor Pete Wilson called it a "ridiculous theory" and a "dubious plan." At a hearing of the U.S. Senate subcommittee that oversees education spending, North Carolina Senator Lauch Faircloth called the use of Ebonics as a public teaching tool "absurd. ... It's teaching down to people."

While introducing a bill to the California State Senate that would ban the use of Ebonics for any purpose whatsoever in California schools, State Senator Ray Haynes of Riverside accused the Oakland board of "want[ing] to institutionalize bad speech patterns."

But certainly the most damaging blows to the Oakland plan came from national African-American leaders who have long fought to uplift the education of African-American students. Though he later backed and filled on his position, Jesse Jackson initially called the Ebonics proposal "an unacceptable surrender borderlining on disgrace."

Poet-educator Maya Angelou was quoted as saying she was "incensed" by the plan, and NAACP President Kweisi Mfume called it "a cruel joke."

Freed of major-league political pressure from the black side, U.S. Education Secretary Richard Riley ruled out any special second-language funding for Ebonics programs from the federal government even before he'd received a request.

And although the victim twitched for a while afterward, it appears awfully clear that, denied a transfusion of federal money, the Oakland Ebonics plan will be left hanging in the cabin closet with the rest of Jason's victims. Or is it Jarvis' victims? I sometimes get the two confused, since the results are so often the same.


Despite experience with second language programs and obvious need, area schools go mum on the issue.


SO WHAT WAS IT, exactly that got the American public opinion monster all stirred up, anyway? Without a doubt, two buzz phrases in the Oakland Ebonics proposal caught the most heat: that Ebonics was a separate language and that this language was genetically based. The use of the term "genetically based" can probably explain a good deal of the emotional African-American opposition to the plan. Even before the word genetics was born in the early 19th century, slavetraders and slaveholders were justifying their system of human bondage by claiming that Africans and their descendants were somehow inferior to Europeans. Early American Christian ministers declared that the enslavement of Africans was God's will, preaching that black people were the descendants of Noah's son Ham and therefore cursed forever to be "drawers of water and hewers of wood" because Ham's terrible misdeeds. Even many of slavery's greatest opponents, President Abraham Lincoln included, held to the view of a certain degree of African inferiority.

In the four generations since Emancipation, the "genetically based" black inferiority argument has been used repeatedly to justify the lack of black equality in the American system, most recently by Stanford physicist William Shockley in his 1970s resurrection of the "eugenics" theory and by Herrnstein and Murrayby Herrnstien and Murray in The Bell Curve (1994), which tried to advance the point that blacks were just plain dumber than whites. Thus, genetics is a loaded word in the black community, understandably guaranteed to raise the hackles of African-Americans in the same way that the word quotas can provoke a quick-hot response among Jews. Therefore, when the Oakland School Board stated that Ebonics was "genetically based," it appeared as if the program's authors were saying that African-Americans were biologically incapable of mastering English, an anti-black absurdity and an idea that African-American leaders immediately attacked.

But the use of the word "genetics" has a far different meaning in the area of language than it does in the area of biology, describing not inherited qualities but rather a language's beginnings. In fact, the Oakland board probably drew that part of its resolution directly from some linguist's writings and was merely saying that Ebonics had its origins in Africa rather than in England. A debatable issue, though not one that would get much lather up. But in the frenzy to be the first sound bite on the evening news, such details of truth and accuracy are often lost.

And as for the white conservative opposition? It can probably be boiled down to a single issue: money. The U.S. Department of Education provides some $300 million per year to supplement the instruction of children whose primary language is not English. Declare Ebonics a separate language and you potentially place millions of African-American students in line for federal money. Conservatives knew immediately what was at stake ("our" tax dollars, as they like to say) and jumped on the Ebonics proposal with all four paws.

Another portrait by Bruni, courtesty of Old Town Gallery, Los Gatos.

THE PROTRACTED argument over whether or not Black English is a dialect of English or a separate language has its own special absurdity: Linguists themselves cannot even agree on what constitutes a dialect and what constitutes a language. Other authorities are not much help. The Random House Webster's College Dictionary, for example, defines language as "a body of words and the systems for their use common to a people of the same community or nation, the same geographical area, or the same cultural tradition."

A Dialect, on the other hand, is defined as "a variety of a language distinguished from other varieties by features of phonology, grammar and vocabulary and by its use by a group of speakers set off from others geographically or socially."

Without professional guidance, many of the Ebonics debaters played the Humpty Dumpty card, declaring that a language was whatever they wanted a language to be.

Rhetoric and misunderstanding and private economic agendas aside, what is the truth about the way African-Americans speak?

The difficulty with pinning down the source of the African-American language or dialect, or whatever we choose to call it, is that there is no one known place of origin. Mexicans come to America generally speaking the national language of Mexico: Spanish. Cambodians and Vietnamese usually speak Cambodian or Vietnamese. But there is no national language of Africa because Africa is not a nation. It is a continent filled (like Asia or Europe or South America) with a multitude of language groups. Africans who were captured and brought to America during the slave trade came from many different areas where many languages were spoken. One linguist estimated that in the Georgia/South Carolina area alone, captive Africans were natives of more than nine countries, representing more than 21 distinct languages.

Within a few years of the arrival of the first slave ships on American shores, these captive Africans had baked a new language bread like cooks in the Big House kitchen, kneading the various languages of their African homelands and the various English dialects of their captors into one common way of speaking. Many linguists agree that if there ever was a time when African-Americans spoke a language separate from English, it was in the period when African captives and their immediate descendants still lived. Gullah, it was called, most probably simply a pronunciation of the African word Angola.

This early African-American verbal communication certainly qualified as a separate language, in at least one respect: It was vastly different from all other forms of English spoken in the United States. In the 1940s, newspaper editor and critic H.L. Mencken described the way African-Americans spoke as the only American dialect that stumps a visitor from any other part of the country.

Early white writers resorted to the use of misspelled and apostrophe-shortened words to try to convey the rhythms and accents of this first form of African-American speech to unfamiliar white readers.

"Yer mind dat ar great chicken-pie I made when we guv de dinner to General Knox?" says Uncle Tom's wife, Aunt Chloe, in Harriet Beecher Stowe's 1851 classic, Uncle Tom's Cabin.

"I and Missis, we come pretty near quarrelling about dat ar crust. What does get into ladies sometimes, I don't know; but, sometimes, when a body has de heaviest kind o' 'sponsibility on 'em, as ye may say, and is all kinder 'seris' and taken up, dey takes dat ar time to be hangin' round and kinder interferin'!"

What makes "Missis" sound different from "Mrs." I don't know, but Mrs. (or Missis) Stowe is long dead now, so we can't answer.

But Stowe's transcribed black dialect was hardly different from the way many 19th-century American writers tried to portray any dialect, black or white. In his introduction to Huckleberry Finn Mark Twain wrote: "In this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri negro dialect; the extremest form of the backwoods South-Western dialect; the ordinary 'Pike-County' dialect; and four modified varieties of this last." And so Twain has one of his white characters say: "Like as not we got to be together a blamed long time, on this h'yer raft, Bilgewater, and so what's the use o' your bein' sour? It'll only make things oncomfortable. It ain't my fault I warn't born a duke."

And no one seemed to consider that a demeaning portrayal. "Colorful" is the word that comes to mind.

Harriet Beecher Stowe recognized the dignity of her captive-African subjects. Uncle Tom's Cabin, in fact, was a celebration of the dignity of its captive-African subjects, and the author clearly did not intend her attempts at the phonetic reproduction of African-American speech patterns to reflect on the intelligence of the persons quoted.

But ridicule was one powerful way in which the slave traders justified the existence of their system. Make fun of the way blacks talked and you could quickly undercut any attempt by African descendants to be taken seriously in their freedom struggle. One of the favorite debating tricks of the pro-slavists was to smack their lips and break out in "darky talk" in order to make the point of black inferiority. "If ah had mah feedoms, ah'd be just lak a frog, an' woodun't do nuttin' but sit on de lily-pad all day, an' if a fly woodun't come by, I woodun't care." It was a tactic guaranteed to break up most white audiences into derisive laughter, a tonic, perhaps, to soothe the consciences of those who supported the holding of human captives.

Black ridicule was also a device that outlasted the slavery debates and slavery itself, becoming a staple of American entertainment. In the tradition of the old 19th-century minstrel shows, Al Jolson made a career of smearing black makeup on his face and singing whole songs in "darky talk." Many still consider him the greatest entertainer ever. In his long run on the old Tonight Show, Johnny Carson used to roll his eyes and effect a Stepin Fetchit drawl when he wanted to stretch out a funny moment, and it damn sure always got a laugh. Like using the term voodoo to denounce some idea or other as crazy, "darky talk" is still a socially acceptable form of American anti-black bigotry.

AND THEN THERE IS the Internet. Within days after the Ebonics dbate began, there was an explosion of "humorous" Websites providing so-called Ebonics translations of "standard English" texts or speeches. "Space--da ultimate 'hood," reads one such "translation" of the Star Trek opening. "Dese da voyages o' da starship Enterpri. What we gonna do fo five years: check out strange new world, look fo new life and new 'hoods, and get all up in where no bruthahs got all up in befo." Not even original; television has something called Homeboys In Outer Space that is even worse, if that's possible.

My editor forwarded me a note about one discovered email address: "If you send a message to this email address," it explained, "it writes back within a minute, with a translation of your message in 'ebonics.' Try it out. Any message will do, even a forwarded copy of this note." I did, and got back the following: "If ya' t'row some message t'dis email address, it scribbles back widin about a minute, wid some translashun uh yo' message in 'ebonics.' Try it out. Any message gots'ta do, even some fo'warded copy uh ainte. What it is, Mama!"

It was as if a monster had long been shackled within the breast of America and was suddenly freed and without restraint. Anti-black jokes, banned from public places during and after the civil rights years, were back in fashion.

That all of this "clever" activity was demeaning an entire race of people seemed not to matter to its authors; or maybe, at least for some of them, that was the intent.

Today, American writers have generally ceased using apostrophes and misspellings to try to recreate American speech, with one exception, the speech of African-Americans. It is still acceptable--some seem to think it mandatory--to portray black speech in that manner. Michael Guinzburg, in a wholly forgettable 1993 novel, Beam Me Up, Scotty, has one of his drug-dealing African-American characters say such things as "Yo, homeboy. Wha'sappenin'?" and "I axed you how many you need," and "Whatchoo walkin' here, you don't be needin' nothin'?" and "How mafockin' brave you be, homeslice?" while allowing his white characters to go apostrophe-free. You are free, as always, to provide your own interpretation as to why African-Americans get singled out in this manner.

The problem with the discussion of Ebonics, like most discussions about African-Americans, is that it is long on emotion and stereotype and short on facts and study. What is commonly described as Black English is actually two distinct though sometimes overlapping forms: a separate black language and an English dialect. In the recent Ebonics debate, advocates, detractors and commentators all to almost always hopelessly confused the two. And we won't even talk about black slang.

I HEARD MY FIRST WORDS of a separate Black language when I moved to Charleston, South Carolina, in the sweltering spring of 1969. Springs and summers on the Carolina coast are like camping out near the vent-hole of a steamroom. My first task was to find a room and rent it. My second task was to get the room's lone window unstuck and open in hopes that a stray breeze might feel sorry for me and stop in for a second. I was struggling with the window when I heard a tapping at my room door.

It was a white-whiskered, elderly African-American gentleman in a frayed black coat and wide-brimmed hat. I assumed he was another tenant, which he was. He pointed at the window with a livewood walking stick and said something I could not understand. The only word I could make out was "kit," and only that because he repeated it a couple of times. "Sir?" I said. He rattled on again. Well, I thought, what we've got here is a case of senility or, perhaps, a misplaced denture bridge. I shook my head and went back to my work on the window, but the old man rapped on the door with a whack, and that got my attention again. He jabbed the walking stick like a soldier's sabre and said it again, "Kit!" He seemed awfully agitated. Kit? Tool kit? "No thank you, sir," I said. "I can get it open myself." He muttered something to himself and walked down the hall.

I got the window open, finally, but I wish to hell I hadn't. That night, all night, on and on 'til the break of dawn, the mosquitoes came to my room in great nations and sang sweet songs of Southern love and war and blood-lust in my ear, and I had no more power to stop them than Lee had to halt the Federals at Appomattox Courthouse. In my earlier determination, I had jammed the unscreened window open.

In the morning I came down to the front porch, my arms and face a shortcake of red welts. The old gentleman was there, and he pointed to the bumps on my arm. "Kit," he said, "inna?"

"Oh, I see, mosquitoes," I answered, a far more attentive listener than I had been the afternoon before. "I been done try for told you," he said, and that one came out pretty plain. I had heard and understood my first words in Gullah.

WHEN ADVOCATES of the use of Ebonics make the point that African-American English is a language separate from standard American English, it is generally the language of Gullah to which they refer, that synthesis of African and English which exists only between the shores of this country.

The speaking of Gullah was strongest among captive Africans along the coastlines of South Carolina and Georgia, where the African population of the plantations was high and the white population was low, and where Africans retained their ancestral cultural traditions to a larger degree than in any other part of the country. The golden age of the Gullah language lasted from the first days of the slave trade until around the 1930s, when the paving of highways and the building of bridges to the South Carolina and Georgia sea islands finally broke down the isolation that allowed Gullah to exist. Though many sea islanders still speak it and preservationists have tried to extend its use, Gullah is slowly going out of existence as a living language.

But Gullah, and its African linguistic predecessors, left a deep legacy in the patterns of African-American speech. There is the commonly practiced (and widely ridiculed) use of the verb "to be" in conjunction with other verbs, such as in the phrase "I be going now." Or the use of the words "been" or "done" for past-tense conjugation. Or the use of double and even triple negatives: "I ain't never going back down there no more." Or the dropping of consonant clusters (two consonants appearing together) at the end of words, so that words like "respect" and "lift" are pronounced "respeck" and "liff.' Or the inability to pronounce the "th" sound, so that we have the infamous "de" for "the" or "bref" and "teef" in the place of "breath" and "teeth."

To speak in this manner might be considered bad English, but it is very good Gullah. Or good Fante or Wolof, two of the African languages from which Gullah is derived. How one judges depends upon one's frame of reference.

Gullah is distinct from English not only in that it stirs a generous gumbo of African words into the European, and that it employs many distinctly non-English rules of grammar. Spanish uses non-English words and grammar, and yet the average English-speaking person can listen to a Spanish conversation with a sense of familiarity--a feeling that the same lingual road is being followed, just with different street signs to mark the way. What separates Gullah from English is its completely distinct rhythm pattern, as different from Latin- or German-based language as jazz is from chamber music.

I lived among the South Carolina Gullah speakers for 20 years, and listened and learned. Once, visiting my sister in New York, I told her that it was OK for an old California family friend of ours to have a boyfriend because "her husband, he done dead." I misunderstood the look of shock on my sister's face, wondering, perhaps, if she thought that our friend had taken on a new man before the dirt had settled on her husband's grave. It's OK," I said, "he been done dead." My sister, who is a writer by trade and who taught me how to read and probably how to speak as well, was horrified. I was "talking bad," a breach of our family tradition.

TWENTY-EIGHT YEARS later, researching the Ebonics issue, I discovered that my Gullah grammar was perfect, just not in a language my sister was used to hearing. Or respecting. "Done dead" was the Gullah (and African language) past-tense conjugation of the verb "to die," no more unreasonable or uncouth than if I had said, "He died." The "been" in "been done dead" is a Gullah conjugation that indicates the far-past tense. English has no such conjugation. To express the same idea in English I would have had to add several more modifying words, such as saying that the husband died "a long time ago." Some would say this makes English a little less sophisticated and more unwieldy than Gullah. But let's just call it even and say that both languages have different ways of coming to the same thought. Not bad ways, or good ways. Just different.

Away from the Southeastern coast, in the areas of the country where the captive Africans were more dispersed among the white population, a separate Black language was never developed. Instead, the majority of African-Americans spoke a black dialect, still using many of the grammatical rules of African language but closer by far to English than Gullah ever was. We still do--speak a black dialect, that is--though most white Americans are probably not aware of it.

Most African-Americans speak standard English in a business or school setting, or when they are around white people they do not know, and then slip into some form of Black English among the home folks. The transition is so fluid and unthinking that many African-Americans may not even know it's happening, just as Mexicans can flow back and forth between Spanish and English within the same conversation. Most African-Americans are bilingual (or bidialectical, depending upon one's point of view on the language question). And why should that be such a remarkable thing, anyway? It only seems to be when we are talking about African-Americans.

The problem with many of the underachieving African-American students in inner-city schools is that too often they rely on only one mode of speaking: black dialect. Either they have not yet learned how to keep the door open that allows them to go to standard English and back, or they have not yet learned that it is important to do so. Maybe they've watched one too many Nike commercials and have been led to believe that Black English is the valued lingua franca of American business. It is, but only for the split-second those kids are putting down $157 for those shoes.

When one stops looking at Black English with value-judgmental eyes, the means to teaching these underachieving African-American students tend to come easily enough.

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From the February 27-March 5, 1997 issue of Metro

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