Ebonics is a masterpiece of bad politics and worse linguistics.
"Ebonics" became a cause célèbre last December, when Americans were informed that the Oakland Unified School District had resolved to recognize Ebonics as a separate, "African" language (a.k.a. "Pan-African Communication Behaviors"), asserted that Ebonics was “genetically based" and not a dialect of English, and declared its intention to pay teachers bonuses to teach in Ebonics.
The board responded to the ensuing firestorm of protest by calling its critics liars. It now claimed that the resolution had not called for children to be taught in Ebonics, but rather for teachers to be taught to understand, recognize, and respect their students' language; that the school district had not been seeking federal money for "bilingual education" in Ebonics; and that the modifier "genetically" had been inexplicably misrepresented as having to do with - genetics. White racist politicians and journalists were simply seeking to discredit a reasonable and scientifically supported new curriculum.
As it turns out, however, mainstream media accounts had, if anything, gone out of their way to conceal the radical nature of the Oakland scheme. In the New York Times' first report on the Oakland resolution, for example, Peter Applebome reported that "[u]nlike standard bilingual programs, courses would not be taught in black English" - and this erroneous assertion by our newspaper of record was, inevitably, to have a tremendous influence on the subsequent debate.
A craftier switch was pulled by Time magazine columnist Jack E. White, who claimed that the whole controversy stemmed from poor communication; board members had "the right idea after all"; they were merely trying "to help teachers understand that youngsters from underclass neighborhoods speak differently from other Americans." Too bad their "Afrocentric jargon and educationspeak" had led people to conclude, mistakenly, that "the board was trying to dumb down the curriculum by teaching bad grammar and syntax." It was all a big misunderstanding.
If there is a misunderstanding here, however, it is one fostered by both Applebome and White. The first resolution clearly states that black American kids speak an "African language," rather than English, and that they should be taught in both. In the resolution, the board "officially recognizes the existence ... of West and Niger-Congo African Language Systems ... as the predominantly primary language of African-American students"; Oakland schools are to provide "instruction to African-American students in their primary language."
And a spokeswoman for the board, Sherri Willis, recently confirmed that Oakland schools will be teaching in Ebonics. Willis added that she has received calls from educators across the country who are interested in developing programs similar to Oakland's.
Some observers see the Oakland resolution as just another way to snatch a little more federal pork. After all, the movement for Ebonics – formerly known as "Black English" was born and raised on the federal dole, which routinely finances nationalistic counter-institutions. But whether you call it "Black English" or "Ebonics," here bureaucracy and government money are clearly in the service of racism - and the movement for Ebonics is just one division of the movement for "bilingual education," in which we see the partnership of the welfare state and racism in making the world safe for illiteracy.
Gotta Be This Or That
The claim that black Americans speak a different language than white Americans requires denial of easily corroborated facts as well as waffling on linguistic theory. One must deny that black Americans speak many different dialects and often have trouble understanding each another. One must deny the standard definition of a dialect as a "relatively consistent variation or deviation in speech from the norm or standard of a particular country, region, class, or profession." Finally, one must deny that Ebonics activists invariably speak and write in the language they identify as white English and not just when they are dealing with whites - and that they often cannot understand,
The assertion that whites and blacks speak different languages is not so much an empirical claim as an exhortation to refuse to cooperate with white teachers.
let alone speak, "Black English." Linguists who support Ebonics must throw their usual standards out the window.
Most linguists seem to be willing to do just this. The January 5, 1997 Newsday carried a Los Angeles Times wire service dispatch on the Linguistic Society of America's (LSA) Chicago meeting, which began, "The largest U.S. society of linguistics scholars strongly supported Friday the Oakland, Calif., School Board's recognition of Ebonics, as the black speech pattern is becoming known. Geoffrey Ward, a. Northwestern University linguist, insisted the school board's reasoning is not PC [politically correct]; it's scientific fact.'"
The LSA resolution argued four points:
a. "Ebonics" . . . is systematic and rule-governed like all natural speech varieties. In fact, all human linguistic systems - spoken, signed and written - are fundamentally regular.... Characterizations of Ebonics as 'slang,' 'mutant,' 'lazy,' 'defective,' 'ungrammatical,' or 'broken English' are incorrect and demeaning.
b. The distinction between 'languages' and 'dialects' is usually made more on social and political grounds than on purely linguistic ones. For example, different varieties of Chinese are popularly regarded as 'dialects,' though their speakers cannot understand each other, but speakers of Swedish and Norwegian, which are regarded as separate 'languages,' generally understand each other.
c. [T]here are individual and group benefits to maintaining vernacular speech varieties and there are scientific and human advantages to linguistic diversity. For those living in the United States there are also benefits in acquiring Standard English and resources should be made available to all who aspire to mastery of Standard English.
d. There is evidence from Sweden, the U.S., and other countries that speakers of other varieties can be aided in their learning of the standard variety by pedagogical approaches which recognize the legitimacy of the other varieties of a language. From this perspective, the Oakland School Board's decision to recognize the vernacular of African American students in teaching them Standard English is linguistically and pedagogically sound.
The LSA officially supports the resolution (though a few individual linguists are critical). One professor who backs it unquestioningly is Wayne O'Neill, chairman of MIT's Linguistics Department. In late February, O'Neill told me he also backed both of the Oakland School Board's resolutions: "I compared both resolutions, and they were almost identical." By "genetic," O'Neill added, the board "meant in the sense of languages being genetically [developed], in the sense of being historical." O'Neill explained that "genetic" was a perfectly legitimate term in linguistics.
Linguists may well use the jargon term "genetic" in a non-biological, historical sense. The Oakland Unified School Board, however, is composed not of linguists, but of Afrocentrists who use "genetic" in a biological sense. And O'Neill's inventions notwithstanding, the board never stated it had used the term in a linguistic sense; its spin was confined to the following disclaimer (make of it what you will):
"The term genetically based is used according to the standard dictionary definition of has its origins in. It is not used to refer to human biology."
Professor O'Neill is sure that the Oakland board's intentions are aimed simply at producing more capable youngsters. "Seventy-one percent of African American kids in the Oakland School district are in special ed," he told me. "It can't be that 71% of African American kids need special ed. They're trying to lay a basis for providing them with a better education."
O'Neill mentioned a Black English reading curriculum called the "Bridge" program, which, he said, had shown some promise ten or 15 years earlier.
But O'Neill's grasp of black students' problems may be as deficient as his remedy. The actual statistic is that 71 percent of the children in Oakland special ed are black, a completely different matter. And though the Bridge curriculum has been repeatedly cited by linguists as offering support for teaching in Black English, recent research attempting to replicate pro-Bridge findings actually indicates that Ebonics is a miserable failure in the classroom.
Bridges to Nowhere
John and Angela Rickford presented the results of their research on the Bridge program in "Dialect Readers Revisited," published in 1995 in the obscure journal Linguistics and Education. John Rickford, a Stanford professor of linguistics and education, is the author of the LSA resolution cited above.)
Ebonics activists invariably speak and write in the language they identify as white English; they often cannot understand, let alone speak, "Black English."
Although the Rickfords' article argues that using Ebonics helps kids learn English, their own research actually shows that students using stories written in Ebonics ("dialect readers") scored only 46.3% correct on a reading comprehension test, whereas students tested with standard English equivalents scored 90% correct. Even the best result for the Bridge materials showed only 70% comprehension in Ebonics, compared to 76% for standard English.
The developers of the Bridge program, Simpkins and Simpkins, had performed one study showing that it worked well with students in a remedial reading program. The Rickfords were trying to replicate a follow-up "mini-study" performed by some of John Rickford's students at Stanford. This was important, because the only other study supposedly supporting the Bridge curriculum – the Leverton study - appears to have been experimentally flawed.* The main thing that emerges from all this is that research on Ebonics in the classroom is sketchy at best, and that even the pro-Ebonics Rickfords' recent effort to examine its effectiveness showed negative results.
But whatever the actual results of the Rickfords' study, it is cited repeatedly as evidence for the superiority of Ebonics as a teaching tool – most recently by the director of the Syracuse University writing program, Keith Gilyard, writing in Insight magazine. Gilyard, of course, may simply be assuming that John Rickford and the linguists who supported the LSA's resolution are intellectually honest and know what they are talking about. In Rickford's case, however, intellectual honesty seems lacking. In various statements supporting Ebonics in the classroom, for example, he has consistently mixed up experiments that used Ebonics as the language of instruction, a la the Bridge curriculum, with other, genuinely effective techniques that use "contrastive analysis" and pattern practice drills. But in contrastive analysis, Black English dialect patterns are explicitly compared to their standard English equivalents, with the goal of teaching the students to use the standard English pattern. This can scarcely be compared with a teacher's using Ebonics to instruct her students in the basics of reading and writing - a procedure that seems likely both to weaken their grasp of standard English and to
*According to the Rickfords' paper, Leverton gave one group of students both the
Black English version and the 1/school talk" - standard,English - version of a story,
and another group of students only the school talk version. The students who used
both did somewhat better, a finding that Leverton seems to view, apparently without justification, as stemming from the advantages of Black English rather than twice as much teaching time. The results of Leverton's promised follow-up study were mysteriously never published.
aggravate some students' already intense hostility to what they think of as "Oreo" talk. Rickford's endorsement of the Oakland program also contradicts his own, far more cautious conclusion in the study cited above: "[One] lesson is that we should start small ... and experiment with dialect readers on a larger scale only if and when we can demonstrate their success on a more modest scale." Apparently, Rickford now considers a school district with tens of thousands of disadvantaged children an appropriately "modest
The bilingual education movement operates a political patronage machine that churns out illiterates at a cost from ten to forty percent higher than conventional methods.
scale" for experiments.
Walt Wolfram, a professor of linguistics at the University of North Carolina who has devoted over thirty years to the study of black American dialects, commented that "we don't have very good longitudinal data on the effect of dialect readers because it's so controversial that it's always getting shut down." Wolfram is right at least about the controversy - and dialect reader programs are controversial precisely because of the opposition of black parents; as one youth quoted in the Rickfords' study commented, "I don't talk [Black English] 'round my mom, 'cause I get in big trouble, ‘cause she thinks that's gang language."
Bilingual Education: Estados Unidos or Hispanic Nation?
The ineffectiveness of Ebonics in the classroom, as exemplified by the Rickfords' study, is part of a larger pattern well-documented in an anthology edited by Jorge Amselle, communications director at the Center for Equal Opportunity. In The Failure of Bilingual Education (1996), Amselle reprinted the results of a study conducted from 1990 to 1994 by the pro-bilingual New York City Board of Education. The study compared the effectiveness of the English as a Second Language (ESL) method to "bilingual education." (ESL immerses students in English, whereas bilingual education tries to build a bridge from the old language to the new one.) The study showed that after three years, "limited English proficiency" children taught via ESL were far more likely to graduate to mainstream classes than those taught by the "bilingual" method - 54% more likely for those who entered in kindergarten, 212.6% for those who entered in grade two, and 373.9% more likely for those who entered in grade six.
But despite this and other evidence for the overwhelming superiority of English as a Second Language, American public schools get enormous amounts of government funds for bilingual instruction: $160 million (in 1996-1997) from the federal government, and $12 billion (in 1994-1995) from state and local governments.
The Bilingual Machine
The bilingual education movement operates a political patronage machine that churns out illiterates at a cost from ten to forty percent higher than conventional methods (And that doesn't count the cost of college ESL and remedial skills classes for bilingual education graduates.) In New York City, all but a few bilingually educated high school graduates exhaust their financial-aid eligibility without earning a college degree.
Bilingual education programs are usually fiefdoms of "Hispanic Nation" separatists who use them to "redistribute income" from "monolinguals" (white non-Hispanics) to "bilinguals" (Hispanics), in the words of an anonymous essay that one professor distributed to City University of New York (CUNY) colleagues. CUNY advocates of bilingual education have tenaciously fought programs aimed at accelerating students' mastery of English: Thus, Professor Sue Dicker, the director of ESL placement at Hostos Community College, writes of the need to defend "language-minority" cultural islands against the encroachment of "language-majority" groups. Despite her job title, Dicker sees ESL programs as an insidious attempt to wipe out students' knowledge of their native tongue.
Not all advocates of bilingual education are as radical as Dicker, of course, but all try to conceal its failures- and expensive failures at that. In a memo to New York Schools Chancellor Ramon Cortines, for example, Leonard Hellenbrand reported that in fiscal year 1994, 41.5% more per capita was spent on limited English proficiency high school students than on high school students considered fluent in English. And considering the vastly greater English skills of ESL students, bilingualism is even more expensive than it appears.
Bilingual education is presented to the public as a transitional method, to be used until students can be "mainstreamed" into normal classes. But for most of them, that never happens. As retired Brooklyn assistant principal Edwin Selzer writes in The Failure of Bilingual Education:
I attempted many times to withdraw students from the bilingual education program when I thought that they no longer needed to be in all-Spanish classes.... I was never once successful at withdrawing a student from a bilingual education program. In my experience, once a child was in a bilingual education program, he remained in such a program and was never mainstreamed into regular English-speaking classes.
School officials consistently ignored requests that students be removed from bilingual education classes, whether those requests were made by Selzer, by parents, or by students themselves. Selzer also attests that "even the Spanish skills of students in bilingual programs were poor – and many students graduating from Eastern District High School were illiterate in both English and Spanish."
It's Not a Language, It's a Language System
But is Ebonics a language or not? In keeping with the LSA resolution, Wolfram insisted that "we're not talking about a dialect of English but a 'linguistic system.'"
I commented that Afrocentrists have claimed all along that Ebonics is a separate language. Wolfram countered, "Actually, the dialect-language issue is somewhat of a false issue. As it turns out, linguists don't have a clear definition of when a language is a language, and when a dialect is a dialect. The issue is often political."
In speaking of Ebonics as a "language system," as opposed to a "language," did the LSA really say so much? Wolfram thinks so. "Actually, they said a whole lot, because a lot of people base their pedagogical ideas on false linguistic information. I debate people all the time who say Ebonics is just corrupted English - that it's not a language system. That's equivalent to a physicist saying the Earth is flat."
I pointed out that Afrocentric Ebonics proponents - including the Oakland School Board - have argued all along that Ebonics is a separate language, and not a dialect.
"The problem for African American students," Hale claims, "is that there is no
place on school tests for rap skills."
The media did not make up this claim, they merely reported it. And whatever justification there is for calling Ebonics a language could be applied equally to American English dialects influenced by European languages. Wolfram conceded the point. "I grew up speaking a Philadelphia dialect influenced by German. It's not a separate language, and I don't think Ebonics is a separate language."
Everyone Talks Real Good
Recall the first section of the LSA resolution - that "all human linguistic systems -spoken, signed and written - are fundamentally regular." Since it connotes complexity, elegance, and precision, "regularity" is a standard of value. And since all languages – and dialects - are "regular," they are all equal. In this world, there is no work for teachers of English, or for teachers of any other language, or for editors.
So why bother teaching standard English at all? The resolution's third section says there are "certain benefits" to learning standard English. I suppose. But if LSA members can justify, on educational grounds, using "Ebonics" as a teaching tool, then they must accept using any and all other dialects - "linguistic systems" - as teaching tools: e.g., Appalachian, Cajun, Brooklynese, and the various geographical varieties of Spanglish. And indeed, Wolfram told me that he "would support using those as well."
In his essay, "If Black English Isn't a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?" James Baldwin insisted that American blacks were entitled to see their speech patterns as a separate "language" as a reparation for centuries of oppression. He didn't waste the reader's time with tortured logic or inconsistent linguistics. For whatever we may say of Ebonics and Afrocentrism, they most certainly are not "out of Africa."
Nevertheless, linguistic separatism is integral to Afrocentrism. A leading theorist of Afrocentrism, psychiatrist Frances Cress Welsing, maintains that "colored peoples" are pitted in a war of annihilation against biologically, culturally, and morally inferior "white-skinned peoples" ("an albinism or variant").
Welsing, the favorite "scientific" authority of Afrocentric educators, has been quoted approvingly by the president of the National Association of Black Social Workers.
The assertion that whites and blacks speak different languages is not so much an empirical claim as an exhortation to refuse to cooperate with whites. A subculture of black authority figures encourages young blacks to disrespect white teachers and professors, and to refuse to obey white police officers. This subculture is at the root of the increasing frequency of racial hoaxes in which "witnesses" claim that white teachers, police officers, or waiters called black victims "niggers." A white public school teacher in Queens was the target of such a campaign during the 1995-96 school year. (One of the teacher's tormentors, the Reverend Charles Norris, told Newsday reporter Merle English that he didn't actually care whether the charge that the teacher had called a student "a fat nigger" was true or not.)
Wayne State University education professor Janice Hale realizes the importance of teaching hate early and often. In the 1986 edition of her book, Black Children: Their Roots, Culture, and Learning Styles, Hale (then Hale-Benson) maintains that the number one component "for a curriculum for Black children" is "political/cultural (ideology)."
Education for struggle has a consciousness-raising function for Black people, instructing them concerning the following realities:
• who they are
• who the enemy is
• what the enemy is doing to them
• what to struggle for
• what form the struggle must take.
Hale's proposals were for educating pre-schoolers.
Lest the reader conclude that I am deliberately using examples from the lunatic fringe, I should add that Hale's books have been published by Johns Hopkins University Press, and she is a tenured professor at one of Michigan's largest public universities. From 1985 to 1992, the Cleveland Foundation funded a demonstration school implementing her ideas.
Hale insists that black American children are "African," and are being miseducated by schools that refuse to recognize their African roots and uniquely African-American culture.
Laying much of the blame for black educational failure at the feet of white teachers, she argues both for separatism and for a radical egalitarianism. In her book Unbank the Fire, she argues that "[w]hen we study ways of closing the achievement gap between African American and white children, we must focus on devising curriculum and instructional strategies that will produce equal educational outcomes for all children." Apparently this is to be achieved not so much by improving, say, math education, as by adding curriculum in lumpen black culture. Thus, some of Hale's expressions of support for black children sound like something a white racist might say, with a snicker: "The problem for African American students is that there is no place on school tests for rap skills."
Echoing another oft-repeated but unsupported myth - that educational testing is culturally biased against black children - Hale insists that education be changed to reflect the culture that black children bring to school. Focusing on the contrast between middle class white children and poor black kids, she ignores formal education's fundamental opposition to the culture most poor children bring to school, whatever their color. Poor students typically start school with substandard English skills; a competent teacher will correct them, correct them, and then correct them some more. With any luck, they will eventually be able to correct themselves. Ebonics activists seem to see such corrections as shows of disrespect. But a conscientious teacher must explicitly criticize students' language. In the classroom, either Ebonics is right, or standard English is right. And even if a teacher who lavishly praises her students regardless of performance does temporarily build up their self-esteem, it will be at the expense of their cognitive development.
The Real Deal
Reading great black scholars of the past, one finds no arguments for African cultural continuity; these were asserted only after Africa had faded into the distant past. Indeed, in his 1933 work, The Miseducation of the Negro, black nationalist scholar Carter G. Woodson (1875-1950) attributed the shortcomings of black religion and morality to their basis in white southern culture; the native culture of black slaves had been destroyed by their overlords, and there was no getting it back.
Dialect Readers": Judge for Yourself
The two passages that follow are drawn from the readers used in the Rickfords' experiment referred to above. For extra credit, guess the grade level of the students. (Answer appears below.)
This here little Sister name Mae was most definitely untogether. I mean, like she didn't act together. She didn't look together. She was just an untogether Sister.
Her teacher was always sounding on her 'bout day dreaming in class. I mean, like, just 'bout every day the teacher would be getting on her case. But it didn't seem to bother her none. She just kept on keeping on. Like, I guess daydreaming was her
groove. And you know what they say: "don't knock your Sister's groove." But a whole lotta people did knock it. But like I say, she just kept on keeping on.
One day Mae was taking [sic] to herself in the lunch room. She was having this righteous old conversation with herself. She say, "I wanna be a princess with long golden hair." Now can you get ready for that? Long golden hair!
Well, anyway, Mae say, "If I can't be a princess I'll settle for some long golden hair. If I could just have me some long golden hair, everything would be all right with me. Lord, if I could just have me some long golden hair.”
"What is the capital of California, Mae?" asked Miss Carter.
Mae shook her head, trying to wake up. She was off in another world. She shook her head again and said, "I don't know."
"Dreaming again, Mae?" asked Miss Carter.
"Yes, I ... " But before she could finish what she was saying, she was dreaming again. She dreamed that she was a beautiful princess with golden hair. Men came from miles around to admire her beauty.
Ring! It was time for recess. The boys and girls ran outside to eat their snacks and talk and play ball. Mae began unwrapping her peanut butter sandwich. It was the fourth time she'd had peanut butter this week. She took one bite and dropped the
rest into the garbage can. "I don't need it anyway. I've got my dreams."
Two girls ran by chanting, "Dreamy Mae! Dreamy Mae!" Mae didn't hear them. She was dreaming that she was a princess with beautiful golden hair.
(Answer to grade level question above: The students were in the sixth grade, although the “Bridge” materials were “designed for the seventh grade.”)
In seeking to give Ebonics a scientific patina, however, some of its supporters have
claimed that black American speech patterns have roots in West African languages. But advocates of Ebonics have never managed to go beyond vague generalities here - they have merely offered a pseudo-linguistics that invokes vague resemblances between arbitrarily chosen aspects of black English and certain aspects of black English
Afrocentric psychiatristFrances Cress Welsing maintains that "colored peoples" are pitted in a war of annihilation against biologically, culturally, and morally inferior "white-skinned peoples."
and certain African languages. This reflects the general thrust of Afrocentrism, whereby a vague, "African" culture and religion is conjured up to bind black Americans to the homeland.
In the 1991 edition of his distinctly unmusical The Spirituals and the Blues, for example, James H. Cone attempts to place "rap" in an unbroken succession of black music. He fails. But he does succeed in underscoring the decline of black culture. Thirty years ago, black adults where I grew up spoke an English that ranged from the utilitarian to the beautiful. Though some of them couldn't read or write, theirs was a grand oral tradition fusing the poetry of the King James Bible, southern dialects they had shared with whites, black slang, the music of gospel, the blues and jazz, and the results of the cultural collision that occurred when southern blacks undertaking "the Great Migration" struggled to communicate with black and white Northerners. Now black folk culture is dying with its bearers, swept away by urbanism, TV and videotape, government welfare programs, integration, affirmative action, self-esteem pedagogy, and the telephone. Since the 1970s, parallel cottage industries have celebrated obsolete black idioms and Yiddish. Just as Jewish arrivistes wistfully recall, from the comfort of padded Broadway seats, the hardscrabble shtetl (or increasingly, the Lower East Side or Brooklyn) that their forebears left without looking back, black arrivistes down the street at an August Wilson show celebrate an oppressive culture that their grandparents had prayed to escape.
The difference is that Afrocentrists militantly resist the passing of the world they celebrate, but neither share nor understand. In Talkin and Testifyin, for example, classically trained Michigan State University English professor Geneva Smitherman revels in quaint archaisms like "It bees dat way sometime," but gives incorrect interpretations of phrases such as “gittin ovuh” (translated by her as "surviving"), whose meaning in New York at the time of the 1986 edition of her book was – as it is now -"conning people."
The Conspiracy to Destroy Black Children
Since 1967, the New York City school system has been in the strangle-hold of "community control" activists, who oppose allowing whites to teach black children (though they show more tolerance for black teachers of white children). And without school choice, poor black children have become virtual prisoners in failing schools. Some of New York's most vicious racists - e.g., convicted kidnapper Robert "Sonny" Carson and former Ocean Hill-Brownsville school administrator Rhody McCoy – have used community control as a pretext to run white educators out of schools. Ignoring due process, McCoy in 1968 fired 18 experienced white teachers and administrators and one black teacher. (McCoy later rescinded the black teacher's dismissal.) This mass dismissal eventually ignited the longest teachers' strike in New York City history. Prior to the strike, Sonny Carson and his street soldiers helped McCoy by harassing white teachers, most of whom eventually left.
In the classrooms of the "culturally sensitive" illiterates who replaced them, bullies have been known to get away with harassing well-spoken black (and increasingly, Hispanic) children for "talkin' white." (A mixed-race high school senior I spoke to denied that students get beaten, as opposed to "criticized," for speaking proper English - "except when they try to be somethin' they're not.") Brooklyn teacher (now principal) Michael Johnson saw such abuse first hand. He had developed an innovative science program that met before school began in the morning. In The Closest of Strangers, Johnson told Jim Sleeper of having to defend his students from assault by those who resented their getting an education.
In the 1980s I was a case worker for abused and neglected children. Once, in 1989, while accompanying eight-year-old Latoya back to her foster home in East New York, she spied her third-grade teacher in the same subway car. The charming, clever child tried to introduce us, but the woman would only glare at me with hate-filled eyes. A few weeks later I found an old spelling bee, in which the teacher had given Latoya an "A" for spelling nineteen out of twenty words correctly. Unfortunately, the child had spelled only thirteen words correctly, which should have earned her a "D."
Great black scholars of the past made no arguments for African cultural continuity; these were asserted only after Africa had faded into the distant past.
In telling Latoya everything was copacetic, the teacher had robbed the child of the chance to learn from her mistakes, and fulfill her potential. In 1995, I recounted Latoya's story to a CUNY professor who had spent twenty years in the New York City Board of Education's testing and evaluation branch. Had the teacher let students grade each other's papers without double-checking their spelling, or ignored students' errors in the misguided belief that she was building up their self-esteem - or was she herself illiterate? "Anything's possible," she replied.
If Latoya fails college or employment tests, Ebonics proponents will tell her that she is a victim of white racism. How can I explain to her that she was a subject in a trillion-dollar experiment in "self-definition" and nation-building?