Book review: Author Examines African-American Language

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Wed Jun 7 12:43:33 UTC 2006

>>From  Tuesday, June 6, 2006

Book Review: Author Examines African-American Language
By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor

If you live anywhere near the inner city or have occasion to have business
there, this may have happened to you. Walking down a street near dusk you
meet a young African-American man, clothes sagging, walking toward you. As
you get closer, you can hear him talking, and, although you cant make out
the words, it seems as if he may be signaling commands to one of his
partners who may be behind you, or else hes crazy and talking to himself.
In either case, it doesnt seem good. You contemplate breaking and running,
but you dont want to embarrass yourself if youre wrong and, besides, what
would be the use (he is, after all, a young black man and he can almost
certainly beat you to the corner, flat out). So you continue to walk,
stomach queasy, heart thumping in your chest. And as you come closer, the
young mans words become clearer, and suddenly, it comes to you.

Oh, snap! you say (or oh, goodness! if you dont happen to be black
yourself). Youve heard this before! Hes not signalling and hes not crazy,
and if hes armed with anything, its with harmony, as Naughty by Nature
used to say. Hes rapping. It happens a thousand times every daymaybe a
hundred thousandyoung African-Americansmen, mostlysitting somewhere or
walking down the street, practicing their raps. There have been at least
three great fusions of African and European cultures during the four
centuries of the American experiment: music and dance, sports, and

In football and basketball especially, it is widely acknowledged and
accepted that African-American athletes have virtually revolutionized the
way games are played. The fusion of what was thought to be the
incompatable African and European music scales on the Southern slaverytime
plantationsthe creation of the bended so-called blue notesled to the sound
explosion that gave birth to both blues and jazz and most modern American
music. The same is true for dance, where it is difficult to imagine what
American dance forms would be like without African infusion. In each of
these areas, black performers and performance are universally accepted and

Only in the area of language is there still considerable controversy, even
though listening to the young rappers roaming the inner city streets,
studios, and stages, you are immediately struck by their complex rhythm
patterns and the sometimes mind-numbing, warp-speed blending of rhyme and
word-sound and cultural context. To succeed in this game clearly takes
intelligence. Moreover, rap is only the latest in a long line of
African-American mastery of English wordforms while bending and blending
it to their own particular ends, from black preaching to Brother Rabbit
storytelling. Why, then, does so-called Black English get such a bad rap?

In his newly-published book The Sociology of African American Language
(Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), Berkeley linguist Charles DeBose attributes
that to the stigma that European American slavemasters imposed upon their
African captives. When a particular language, or way of speaking the
common language of a society, is associated with persons of elite status,
he writes, the ability to speak the language, and to speak it correctly,
may serve a legitimating function. That is, the superior position of the
dominant group is justified by their proper speech; and the subordinate
position of marginalized groups is legitimated by the characterization of
their language in such pejorative terms as poor, slovenly, broken,
bastardized, and corrupt.  In slave society, hegemony was exercised
through the power of words like savage, primitive and heathen, used in
conjunction with the presupposition that being civilized is a prerequisite
to full participation in American democracy.  In the present Post Civil
Rights era, the stigmatization of Blackness as a rationale for denial of
full and equal status in American democracy has outlived its purpose.

Nevertheless, the idea that African American language is tantamount to Bad
English remains embedded in the hearts and minds of the public. Instead,
DeBose argues that there is no such thing as bad English or broken English
that deviates from the norm, but rather that American Englishas all
languageis divided into distinct dialects, each of which has its own set
of complexand within itself correctrules of grammar. In the world of
linguists, all of us speak dialects. The stigma against Black English, he
says, is not an objective linguistic formation, but is the last residue of
the system designed to keep people in slavery by convincing them of their
own inferiority.

Nowhere was that stigma more apparent than in the 1996 political firestorm
over the Oakland Unified School Districts ebonics controversy. Citing the
continued poor educational performance of African-American students in its
area schools, this reporter wrote at the time, 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.

DeBose devotes a full chapter to the Oakland Unified ebonics issue,
explaining both the positives and the pitfalls of Oaklands approach from a
linguists point of view, with an emphasis on analyzing it as what he calls
a case study of language planning. DeBose uses the controversy to advance
his contention that what he describes as the surface differences between
what is commonly known as Standard English and the dialect that most
African-American children speak at home and among their peers are [not] of
a sufficient magnitude to constitute a barrier to teaching and learning in
and of themselves.  Instead, DeBose advances the argument that whatever
language barrier might exist consists mainly of teacher attitudes.  [T]he
teachers lack of knowledge of the linguistic nature of Black English
causes them to react to it in the speech of students in ways that are
detrimental to the learning process.

In other words, he says, the fundamental Oakland Unified ebonics proposal
that training programs for teachers [be set up] 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 was fundamentally correct. But the Oakland ebonics
contoversy, as important as it continues to be in the discussion of Black
English, is only a small portion of DeBoses book, where he presents a
history of African American language, breaks down its peculiar grammar and
structure in a chapter engagingly and appropriately entitled We Be
Following Rules, and closes with a detailed invitation to readers to join
him in an imaginary journey from the status quo of American educational
policy to a possible future in which African American language is seen by
the average person asi it is presently seen by linguists: as an instance
of normal language.

The Sociology Of African American language is an academic book, and
readers not familiar with that style of writing will find the going a
little dense. But as DeBose argues, the put-down of black language is part
of the stigmitation of Black American identity [that] has functioned
historically to exclude persons of African descent from full participation
in American life. The stimatization in question is so deeply embedded in
the fabric of American society that its full significance has tended to
escape the attention of scholars of African American language. In this
book, DeBose attempts to help correct that oversight, so that in advancing
the acceptance of black speech by the linguistic academic community, the
advancement of Black America itself will eventually be enhanced.

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