Saturday, April 03, 2010

Ebonics: The Language of Hate

By Nicholas Stix

(Written for commission in 2001, and published in A Different Drummer and Global Politician.)

Which language do you speak—“Ebonics” or the “Language of Wider Communication”? Of which nation are you a citizen—“Amerika” or “Afrika”?

Prior to 1997, most Americans would have been baffled by my opening. But in December, 1996, the board of California’s Oakland Unified School District changed all that. Through a press release, the board announced to the world that black American students were “African people,” who according to “numerous validated scholarly studies” spoke “West and Niger-Congo African Languages,” and that these tongues were “genetically based and not a dialect of English.”


To borrow from Mary McCarthy, every word in the Oakland Ebonics Resolution was a lie, including “and” and “the.”

The story of ebonics is the story of racist hatred, scholarly fraud, and of cowardice on the part of those who know better, but who do and say nothing against the hatred and the fraud. Telling the story requires that we go back in time to the Great Depression.

Ebonics’ Heart of Darkness

The support for so-called ebonics is inseparable from black nationalism. According to sociologist C. Eric Lincoln’s classic work, The Black Muslims in America, during the early 1930s in Detroit, Wallace Fard (?-?) proclaimed that Negroes were “not Americans, and that they owed no allegiance to the American flag.” In anticipation of racial Armageddon, Fard founded the Black Muslims, now known as the Nation of Islam and led by Minister Louis Farrakhan (born Louis Eugene Walcott).

During World War II, the Black Muslims’ leader, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad (born Elijah Pool; 1897-1975), refused to serve his country in the armed forces, and spoke out in support of our Japanese enemy. Muhammad spent 1942-1946 in federal prison for sedition, conspiracy, and draft evasion.

Fard/Muhammad-like notions of non-allegiance to America and of racial Armageddon were incorporated into the 1960s’ Black Power movement, which under the banner of “community control” reintroduced racial segregation in urban public schools.

Various academics, most notably white linguistics professor J.L. Dillard, sought to serve this movement. In his 1972 book, Black English, Dillard conjured up an immaculate pseudo-linguistics emphasizing a direct, unbroken development from West African languages to American black vernacular English.

If one cuts through the bombast of James Baldwin’s celebrated, widely anthologized, 1979 New York Times essay, “If Black English isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What is?,” one realizes that Baldwin was indifferent to linguistic issues. His argument was simply a demand for re-segregating the nation’s schools, with only blacks permitted to black children. So much for Baldwin’s vaunted commitment to civil rights.

It is not the black child’s language that is despised. It is his experience.... A child cannot be taught by anyone whose demand, essentially, is that the child repudiate his experience, and all that gives him sustenance, and enter a limbo in which he will no longer be black, and in which he knows that he can never become white. Black people have lost too many black children that way.

To virtually all whites and blacks alike, the term “ebonics” (“ebony” + “phonics” = “black sounds”) is a euphemism for urban street slang. The ebonics hoax has been perpetrated by a tiny number of well-to-do, influential, mostly black university professors and racist public school teachers and administrators. The hoaxers have broken the first law of lying: plausibility.

Get Your Lies Straight

Having reported on the ebonics hoax since 1995—i.e., pre-Oakland—I feel a bit like “Det. Andy Sipowicz” (Dennis Franz) on the ABC-TV show, NYPD Blue. Sipowicz has been known to inform a criminal whose partner he already has in custody, “Your lies better match up with his lies.”

At least two types of lies, er, arguments, are used to defend ebonics today, each based on the expediency of the audience of the moment.

One position, expressed in the Linguistics Society of America’s (LSA) 1997 “Resolution on Ebonics,” claims that so-called ebonics is a fully functioning “language system.”

The variety known as “Ebonics, African-American vernacular English” “(AAVE),” and “Vernacular Black English,” and by other names is systematic and rule-governed like all natural speech varieties. In fact, all human linguistic systems—spoken, signed, and written—are fundamentally regular.”

The LSA resolution also claimed that the language-dialect distinction could not hold. In other words, the notion that ebonics is a black dialect is untenable, because we can’t say that anything is a “language” or that it is a “dialect.”

Can one then do physics and philosophy in ebonics? Please! And if all “human linguistic systems ... are fundamentally regular,” we can dispense with English teachers, because there is no correct or incorrect usage.

The other argument, made by the Oakland school board in its original, December 1996 resolution, contends that ebonics is an “African language,” genetically passed down among American blacks, all of whom speak it, since Africa. However, in seeking federal, bilingual education funds, the board contradicted itself, in arguing that black Oakland teachers could not understand their own black students, and thus required special training at higher pay.

The resolution thus violated the second and third laws of lying, respectively: Consistency and economy.

The most influential ebonics supporter among professors of linguistics, Stanford University’s Guyanese-born Prof. John Rickford, has similarly made mutually contradictory statements to different audiences. As the unsigned author of the 1997 “LSA Resolution,” Rickford insisted to fellow linguistics professors and the general public that the language-dialect distinction did not hold, thus making moot the question of whether ebonics was a dialect or a language. And yet, on his web postings, Rickford has insisted that ebonics is a “language.” However, in the 1998 anthology, The Real Ebonics Debate: Power, Language, and the Education of African-American Children, he defined ebonics for an interviewer as a “dialect.”

The Oakland Ebonics Resolution speaks vaguely of unnamed “research” as “demonstrating” the existence of so-called ebonics, its African roots, and its value as a teaching tool. No such research exists, and there is no connection to Africa. As a black student of mine at the City University of New York’s (CUNY) Baruch College, Karen Thompson, has pointed out, “There is no ebonics! It’s bad English!”

Afrocentrists such as Prof. Keith Gilyard, director of Syracuse University’s Writing Program, insist that research carried out by Stanford University Profs. John and Angela Rickford showed that children taught via ebonics dialect readers more readily learned English than those using standard English (SE) readers. In fact, the Rickford’s own, unpublicized research (which, however, Gilyard had access to) showed that black children always did better when they learned from SE readers, even when they had only half as much reading time as peers using ebonics dialect readers.

“The Real Ebonics Debate”

The Real Ebonics Debate consists of 26, exclusively Afrocentric pieces. So much for debate.

Consider the token white contributor, Wayne O’Neill. Ebonics’ most influential white supporter, O’Neill is the chairman of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Department of Linguistics and Philosophy. O’Neill has done no research on black vernaculars, yet he presents himself as an authority on the matter. In his article, O’Neill misrepresented the media coverage of the debate as having been “ill-informed,” attacking black columnist William Raspberry’s “uninformed characterization of [ebonics]: ‘no right or wrong expressions, no consistent spellings or pronunciations and no discernible rules.’“

But Raspberry had hit the nail on the head!

While insisting that “ebonics is not street slang,” as Wayne O’Neill repeatedly has, ebonics enthusiasts usually refuse to give examples of “ebonics” phrases, and then damn any examples their critics give as inauthentic. But as my students, black, Hispanic, and otherwise point out, ebonics is slang, and nothing else.

As some of my American-born, Hispanic students have pointed out, and as I have observed of American-born Chinese students, non-blacks also speak ebonics. Meanwhile, many of my black college students have asserted that the dialect called ebonics is not distinctively racial, but generational. They maintain that urban youngsters, black and non-black alike, constantly invent new slang, so that their parents will not understand them.

When John and Angela Rickford undertook an experiment using ebonics basal readers (most children learn how to read through basal readers) for school children—black and non-black alike—in East Palo Alto, California—many black children said their parents were opposed to the dialect, which they identified as “gang talk.” The Rickfords’ article, “Dialect Readers Revisited,” provides a rare example of “ebonics,” the text of which follows in its entirety.

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.”

Note that the preceding text, which would be unacceptable material for students of any age, was meant for seventh graders!

Although the Oakland Ebonics Resolution was withdrawn, in The Real Ebonics Debate, some Oakland teachers bragged of their continuing, routine use of “ebonics”—substandard English—in the classroom, and of imposing it on black and non-black students alike.

The Real Source of Ebonics

The coining of the term “ebonics” is generally credited to Washington University psychology professor, Robert Williams, in 1972. Twenty-five years later, at a pro-ebonics rally at CUNY’s Afrocentric, Medgar Evers College, Williams complained of the “disrespect” involved in white teachers publicly correcting the grammar of black children.

That was odd. A teacher gets paid to correct his students’ mistakes. And to refuse to correct students of a particular race is to engage in blatant racism. Oddest of all, was the attack on white teachers. The apartheid movement that began in the 1960s, when it was known variously as “Black Power” and “community control,” has run white teachers out of most ghetto schools, and replaced them with incompetent blacks.

What is today called “ebonics” is the direct result of such tactics. Subjected to teachers who are incompetent, hateful, and often functionally illiterate, poor children grow into illiterate, hateful adults. Many of them go to college, and themselves become teachers. Meanwhile, with white racism fading away, black parents who care about their children’s future have fled such areas, or scrimped and saved, and pulled their children out of the public schools. In New York City, over 90 percent of black parents support school vouchers.

In New York, one may teach without having passed the state teacher certification exam. The exam is not rocket science. And yet, one-third of all active New York City public school teachers have flunked the certification exam at least three times, which is grounds for automatic dismissal. But in 1998, when the city Board of Education sought to fire the incompetents, they cried “racism!” and the Board backed down.

As a result of race politics, since the 1960s, the language stock in black urban neighborhoods has been in free fall. “Ebonics” is merely the name we give to this particular form of barbarism.

Middle and upper-middle-class ebonics hustlers see in poor black youth a standing army of riot and revolution, which they can exploit, in order to wring additional wealth, power, and privilege for themselves from craven, white elites. By the way, the ebonics hustlers can enjoy the spectacle of murder and mayhem that they feel sure will never touch them.


Unknown said...
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Anonymous said...

PS- Please read more about the issue.

Melyssa421 said...

I am currently taking a racism course at a CUNY college (it is required that we take a Black Studies or Latin American Studies course before we graduate). My class is currently discussing Ebonics and I came upon this article while researching. It was important that I did my own research as my professor provided us with one article that declared Ebonics a language. My professor also prefaced the debate by saying it was a "clear-cut issue," that it was not a debate whether or not Ebonics was a language, it is! Needless to say, I was happy when I came across this article because it gave me a lot of strong arguments against this "clear-cut issue." Thank you for writing the truth!

Nicholas said...

Glad to be of service, ma'am.

Best of luck in your endeavors.