Tuesday, August 24, 2010

To Be or Not To Be: Revisiting the Ebonics Controversy

Please understand that we realize that all these hebe's, shebe's and webe's
Can cause, for connoisseurs of speech, to get the heebeegeebees
But after all, if you don't be and they don't be... who do?
So allow us to personify and conjugate the verb, "to be"---for you
We're the Human Being band!

"WeB. Doinit",  Quincy Jones, Back on the Block

I love you, Quincy! This is one of my all-time favorite albums!

I promise you that I don't set out to create controversy. I really don't. So, what had happened was... Jamelle Bouie (@jbouie) tweeted the link to her excellent, intelligent response here in The American Prospect, to what was apparently yet another dumb, journalistic response (this time, Frank James) posting yet another dumb response to an issue of Black culture in the mainstream media. While grabbing the link to Jamelle's post for this blog, I discovered Adam Serwer's smart and succinct Ebonics Primer as well. Please read it.

Now, this Frank Jame's post intimated that he found it rather dubious that the DEA would ask for someone who might be able to translate Ebonics (African American Vernacular English), thus he posted this picture on his brief, snarky blog:

...to show the irony of something as serious as the DEA needing something as "silly" as Ebonics, right? His post reflects that he does not think Ebonics is real or should have any degree of legitimacy in being listed with the other languages outline in the DEA's request, which showed up on The Smoking Gun (yet another example that it should be interpreted as a joke) under the title, "Justice Department Seeks Ebonics Experts: DEA to hire nine 'Black English' linguists" here:

That red arrow is just screaming, "Can you believe this? Ebonics?! EBONICS???!!! BWAAAAHHH".

But that's just ignorance. And The Smoking Gun knows it, too, which is why they went so far as to look it up, undoubtedly with incredulous looks on the writers' faces.

And if there is one thing we must learn, as a people, as Americans or as the last collective of intelligence on the planet (that means you, if you're reading this), we cannot and should not define ourselves based on racist or otherwise ignorant, mean-spirited or just dumb assertions of who we are.

There are pieces of the truth in all stereotypes. It does not mean we need to be defined by them, nor do we need to deny the truth upon which some of them are based. Case in point: Black people like fried chicken and watermelon. And? Perhaps if you fried more of your chicken, you wouldn't be catching salmonella, feel me?

I kid, I kid. But really, watermelon is one of the best fruits on the planet. Be ye not ashamed.

Having said that, my retweet of The American Prospect article led to a flurry of inquiries, debates, assumptions, denials and downright hilarity regarding the legitimacy, purpose and/or use of Ebonics.

The debate led to my swiftly pulling down my (autographed copy, thankyouverymuch) of John R. Rickford and Russell John Rickford's text, Spoken Soul: The Story of Black English (2000). It's a faboulous book, in which I found some great quotes.
Regarding the importance of mastering Standard English, the Rickfords' quote from a Frederick Douglass speech that clearly exemplifies mastery of the English language and insist:
By bequeathing to us such eloquence, Douglass commands us not only to master Standard English but also to learn it in its highest form. And we must. For in the academies and courthouses and legislatures and business places where policies are made and implemented, it is as graceful a weapon as can be found against injustice, poverty, and discrimination...
We must learn to use it, too for enjoyment and mastery of literature, philosophy, science, math, and the wide variety of subjects that are conducted and taught in Standard English, in the United States, and, increasingly, in the world. We must teach our children to do so as well. This, as you know, is no mean feat. It requires time, money and other resources, patience, discipline and understanding, all of which tend to be tragically in short supply in schools with large black populations.
But treating Spoken Soul like a disease is no way to add Standard English to their repertoire. On the contrary, building on Spoken Soul through contrast and comparison with Standard English, is likely to meet with less resistance from students who are hostile to "acting white". It is also likely to generate greater interest and motivation, and as experiments have shown...to yield greater success, more quickly.
 Teach, Rickfords, TEACH!

Still, this did not convince some of the naysayers and disbelievers in Ebonics to convert to the true wisdom of the universe. I even asked "the white man" for help and he verified it:
Tell 'em, white man! LOL! RT @StrandedWind: FYI my background in languages tells me Ebonics IS a real language, a new sort of Patois.
Teach 'em! LOL! RT @StrandedWind: I mean that outside the racist way it's used, programmers know a lot about language syntax & semantics

THIS! RT @StrandedWind: it's ridiculous - can't talk facts due to concerns over racism.
But it wasn't enough. Plus, he was white so you know… the *side eye* ensues...

So, I highly recommended some consult the texts of the preeminent expert on Black linguistics, Geneva Smitherman: Talkin' and Testifyin': The Language of Black America.

Our discussion led me to observe four pertinent issues/questions that arose from the debate:

1. What is the extent of African culture on the Diaspora (especially in America?)

2. To what extent does mainstream mockery of all things Black/African influence our desire to disassociate from them?

3. Does racial discrimination in education and employment mean we should assimilate, fight or be otherwise ashamed?

4. What parts of slavery or slave culture are actually African culture misunderstood and how do we determine the difference?
And now for the weather. Tiffany?
 That's a True Blood reference, forgive me and don't judge me.

These questions led me back to the Rickfords' text and I found more great gems, including the fact that, in 1972, psychologist Robert L. Williams [not the DEA, not "The Man"] coined the term, "Ebonics" and via his varied testing, demonstrated that:
Many of the terms are not slang...these historically "black" words refer to unique aspects of the black experience, including the physical attributes, social distinctions, and cultural practices and traditions of African Americans.
 Perhaps the funniest example is when he relayed the following:
Many blacks don't realize that their use of many of these words differs from that of other Americans....When a group of African American college students was told recently that ashy in the sense of "dry skin" was not standard English usage---you wouldn't find it with that meaning in standard American dictionaries, much less British ones---they were bowled over.
Hilarious. Cue Ashy Larry.

And enter my restraint from putting up Bossip's relentless teasing of Gary Coleman's near-permanently ashy hands. RIP Gary Coleman. You didn't deserve how your wife treated you. We're peeping you, Ms.-Divorced-but-Power-of-Attorney-Shadiness! Curiously, even Bossip's title to the DEA Ebonics Job Search was, "What the Hell?"

The Rickfords went on to explain that this all came about when the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) was being prepared during the 1970s, they conducted surveys among 2, 777 varied Americans of different classes, ages and educational levels: 
One result was a comprehensive picture of which terms were used among Black speakers...[such as]...ace-boon-coon...bid whist...bubba...bad-eye...bad-mouth...big-eye [and even suck-teeth. And guess what?].....Like suck-teeth, these are translations into English of literal & metaphorical expressions in West African languages (e.g. Mandingo da-jgu & Hausa mugum-baki for bad-mouth, and Igbo ima oso, Yoruba kpose, Hausa tsaki, Efik asiama, Kikongo tsiona & Wolof cipu for suck-teeth sound).
"African. Very African. Come and step into my world and see what's happenin'" --- X-Clan, To the East Blackwards. And they continue:
The mention of African languages raises a larger question about the major sources and domains of black vocabulary. Besides African languages, these include music (shout, Amen corner); sex and love-making (grind, johnson, mack); superstition and conjure (obeah, boodoo, mojo); street life, including prostitution, drugs, gangs, fights, and cars (trick, pimp walk, numbers, cracked out, bus a cap, hog); people (cuz, posse, saddity/seddity, the Man); abbreviations (CP time, HNIC, on the DL); and slang or youth culture (fresh, phat, bustin out).
When it comes to slang, which overlaps to some extent with the other categories (e.g. sex and lovemaking), variation by region and social class is widespread, as is rapid change over time.
Perhaps this is where the ignorance of African culture, the denial and mockery of Black culture and the ridiculousness of mainstream media and law enforcement meet. After all, it is often the poor context in which Black culture is introduced that leads us to such misery, mayhem and foolishness. But the Rickfords advise:
As hip-hop culture and the language, body movements, dress and music that embody it spread among young Americans of virtually every ethnicity and are adopted by teenagers in countries as distant as Russia and Japan, the status of black language and culture at the popular level is rising, and young African Americans of every class proudly claim it as originally and most authentically theirs.

We shouldn't let this mention of teenagers delude us into thinking, as many do, that Spoken Soul figures in the identities of young people only. Black adults of all ages talk the vernacular, and it functions to express their black identity, too. While it is true that African Americans with less education and earning power use the grammatical features of Spoken Soul more extensively than do those with more education and earning power, the vernacular is often wrongly associated with ignorance. The use, enjoyment and endorsement of the vernacular by blacks who are well educated and hold good jobs reveal that much more is going on.
Hence, finally, one of the quotes I particularly enjoyed was found in the chapter, quite appropriately entitled, "The Crucible of Identity":
One of the most frequent explanations that the parents gave for wanting to retain the vernacular was its role in the preservation of their distinctive history, worldview, and culture---their soul. The sentiment is not unique to African Americans. As T.S. Eliot observed some fifty years ago: "For the transmission of a culture---a peculiar way of thinking, feeling and behaving---and for its maintenance, there is no safeguard more reliable than language."
In other words, talk that talk, talk that smack and fight the power! Or, as I concluded, I just want some of you all to:
1. Understand that code switching is important

2. Language / Cultural retention is all we have

3. Be Ye Not Ashamed
Enjoy a small snippet of the engagement and hilarity from my Twitter Timeline (largely out of order and highly excerpted, with deepest apologies to anyone omitted). For those unaccustomed to Twitter, any words that appear before the first "@" or "RT" sign or after "@drgoddess" are likely to be mine.:

With words to live by:

RT @TheRealJayMills: @thepbg we determine the difference by discovering our African roots and overstanding our bloodline

RT @HoneyBuzzz: the danger is not that we speak our own language- it is that we do not acknowledge that it is in fact, a language, HENCE..

RT @LDaialogue: Black Amers' linguistic duality is not respected in a sense. Latinos has Spanglish & others have their own patois of sorts

Yes! RT @bmockaveli: Yes! And many Afr languages don't conjugate infinitives -- so we be talking like dat, 'cause dey be talkin like dis :)

DIS!! --->>RT @kozmic_kid: #ebonics is a afrikanization & personalization of something foreign. a healthy hybrid.. but yea.. speak both!

THIS!! -->>RT @kozmic_kid: speaking #ebonics is a link back to our ancestral energy.. speech is an expression of mental+spiritual energy.

And my absolute favorite of the day:

THIS!!! ---->>> RT @laurenriot: BEV/Ebonics is not ignorance or bastardized english (chitterlings), it is an heirloom.

And more from the Discussion and Debate:

@FrenchieGlobal @drgoddess @balancedmp but my mom made it clear to us that she didn't escape Duvalier Haiti so her kids cld act/speak like stereotypes in US

@1SunRisen We are not born into miseducation. We are born into culture. Ebonics is not miseducation. Miseducation is miseducation.

@BLAKOBEN Many of us do African cultural things all day, everyday and would be appalled by the knowledge of it, actually...

@BLAKOBEN I agree with that but being aware of one's culture is not a requirement for practicing it, doing it. Case in point...

@TheNewsHawk Yes, I think the DEA wanted Black thug codes, slang AND pronunciation but used #Ebonics to make their request less embarrassing

@BLAKOBEN: You never answered my question.. HOW YOU DOING? Thats important to me. Your conclusions on this #ebonics topic I CANT & WONT!!

THIS! RT @Amesoeur: @FrenchieGlobal the disadvantage comes in if people don't code switch or never learned to speak standard English.

RT @Jazzzyone: Why the hell are you on Twitter if you can't fathom the possibility that your opinions/facts could be misguided or incorrect?

RT @FrenchieGlobal: RT ..should understand #Ebonics, it's recent immigrants < we understand the futility of it as something that typecasts u

I am here crying laughing. RT @kiarapesante: @OwlAsylum you just kept saying "I don't agree with @drgoddess" and I kept asking "why?!" Lol

RT @Jazzzyone: I'm talking to YOU AND ALL OF THE PEOPLE who keep putting @drgoddess's patient ass in #twitterjail w/stupidity.

@FrenchieGlobal If anyone should understand #Ebonics, it's recent immigrants. They tend 2 speak standard Eng at work & native lang at home.

So can I. It's called "code switching". RT @OwlAsylum: All blacks don't have the same speech patterns. I can say, "TH" quite easily!!

RT @kiarapesante: I'm proof lol RT Yes they do RT @OwlAsylum Black children that don't grow up in impoverished/all black communities don't speak it

Yes, Maam RT @prettypoodle09: #Ebonics as an expression of Black identity? Really? RT"...it functions to express their black identity, too."

LMAO! RT @GQMJoy: Tell it! I joke about how I have to get My head and mouth back to "mainstream" after a solid week with My family.

LOL!! RT @OwlAsylum: @kiarapesante Meaning I dont support the notions that @drgoddess is presenting with regard to the concept of "ebonics".

Yes! RT @Orig_Glamazon: or as specific 2 the language used by ur fam unit. Toni Morrison is a master of the many idiolects of black ppl #IMO

Yes, minus the "minority". Every culture has language. RT @Call_Me_Liz: so it its simply a venacular pronunciation in a minority dialect?

Yes! RT @rw_ny: Shouldn't it be pointed out that Ebonics has been a part of US English for [a pretty long time]? (Louis Armstrong, anyone?)

Cultural retention, communication... RT @FrenchieGlobal: also, what is the utility of ebonics if you cant get a job speaking in that way?

Word, keep it up! RT @thepbg: See, i know some stuff, but i don't comment much cuz #Pegroes don't respect well-read ppl. Only degreed ppl.

Teach! RT @bmockaveli: but chitlins are food. kept slaves alive RT Not true! RT @_Basiyr_: Ebonics is language as chitlins to food

@OwlAsylum Ebonics is a CLEAR demonstration of the RETENTION of our African culture even w/in colonial rule & slavery.

RT @FrenchieGlobal: but there is no standard "ebonics" I barely understand what Too Short& the CA peeps are saying in comp to Southern slang

No.. RT @OwlAsylum: One of my issues is that the similarities aren't based on our African roots, they are based on colonial rule & slavery.

YES! @TheFreedomTweet just said that. GREAT example bcuz retention of African language is stronger. RT @aquababie: or the Gullah language

No, no, No, not true! RT @_Basiyr_: @aisha1908 @1SunRisen Ebonics is to language as chitterlings is to food

@NaijaCandy Sarah Palin speak is just her slang, regional accent or otherwise... #youbetcha

"TH" is not a common African phoneme. RT @Call_Me_Liz: @soulrebelJ re: etymology of 'dem', could u plz explain? It was a Lil over my head...

Yes! RT @thepbg: i learned abt in in a Public Speaking class. Black professor. Black school. She said it was important that we know. *shrug*

Teach! RT @saitonne: not just with ebonics but even on the continent, urban youth are less likely to know their mother tongue.

YES! RT @izabellaspoppa: @drgoddess has said much of what needs to be said. 4 those who are having a hard time grasping the diff betw slang & ebonics look at how Jamaicans speak english; it's a perfect example of African speech patterns being applied 2 the english language

@prettypoodle09 It may seem odd but one day, somebody on twitter came on w/ "chall tambout?" (what are yall talking about?) & I *DIED*!!!!

Yes! & more! RT @prettypoodle09: so when the DEA says they want an Ebonics expert, u think they want some1 2 translate "dem", "dis", "dare"?

RT @CoachMalikCCSF: I'm glad drgoddess has distinguished slang and ebonics! Nothing irritates me more when the 2 are mixed up....nice going!

Perhaps one of the best dignified examples of Ebonics & our culture lies within ALL of Zora Neale Hurston's novels. Right, @jonubian?

Peep da thrill RT @jonubian: YASS!! I can't think of any1 who captured our dialect better than Zora & partly b/c of her ethnography studies.

This RT @jonubian: I also love Zora cause she showed our complex systems of belief, folklore & philosophy in such a simple way & w/OUR words

TY! RT @schomj: Of possible interest 2 ur readers "Spoken Soul: The Story of Black English" by J.R. Rickford amazon.com/gp/product/047… via @amazon

Interesting! RT @ShantaFabulous: it makes me think of gil scott heron's "ghetto code"

Yes! ----> RT @bmockaveli: drgoddess is playing the post on #Ebonics; @bmockaveli playing the wing

Hilarious Responses:

RT @Jazzzyone: LOL! Cc: RT @candicecd: @Jazzzyone http://bit.ly/bG1DHU

MT @dannahbear: @drgoddess has SO much patience. I wlda told yall to READ A BOOK, READ A BOOK, READ A M'F'ING BOOK 

Shout Outs to Dr. Robert L. Williams, Dr. John R. & Russell R. Rickford and Dr. Geneva Smitherman

@DivaliciousMoni @drgoddess I feel u.. I got spoken soul too... Its been years since i looked at it! LOL

@ Negrointellect @drgoddess Small world...Dr. Williams was one of my mentors at MU...just talked to him last week. Much respect for him.

@quincee [I love all her books] @drgoddess Perhaps Geneva Smitherman's "Talk that Talk:The Language of Black America" will suit your fancy?

RT @izabellaspoppa: that's my SH*T!!!! RT Perhaps Geneva Smitherman's "Talk that Talk: The Language of Black America" will suit your fancy?

@girlybap @drgoddess I have that Spoken Soul book. It's a good read.

@odell_jackson @drgoddess I had never heard of John Rickford before today. Just bought Spoken Soul on Amazon. Thank you!

@areefuhstanklin RT @drgoddess: FYI, Robert L. Williams, a psychologist, coined the term "Ebonics" in 1972 (MY PSYCH PROFESSOR IN COLLEGE! HE'S AWESOME!)

Shout outs to Dr. Goddess (I thanks ya kindly!):

Thank u, Sweetie! Humbling. I'm just tweeting. RT @thepbg: I'm so glad i put u in my TwitterFaves group. I never miss ur awesome Tweetage.

RT @CeeTheTruthy: Yes! I love me some @drgoddess! Can't join in due to work but lovin it! Ibo folks in SC & GA is a great example too! #bye

RT @Marvelous1908: Thank you to drgoddess for presenting a different point of view on Ebonics and for making me think.

@janico44 @SocialLifeAvl Check out @drgoddess' timeline for some Ebonics knowledge. I learned a WHOLE lot from her today. (This is why I love Twitter)

@aaw1976 @Jazzzyone @drgoddess Dr. Goddess girl you need to get yourself a twitter jail account. that way you can continue to debate the raggedy

@TheFreedomTweet @drgoddess been in meetings all afternoon & couldn't jump into the thread. Tonight it's a cup-o-coffee & your timeline!:-)

@angiewrites I ♥ @drgoddess . Follow her and learn ya something... Amazingly she never (publicly) tires of teaching!

(Special thanks to my Twitter family for your stellar contributions, RTing the blog and adding to a great discussion. Follow the hashtag: #Ebonics)


k. Lysha said...

I appreciate the discussion you provided on this topic. I've had this conversation with "educated black folks" before and it never fails, Black people are quick to denounce our language as something inferior instead of recognizing the value in retaining something that ties us directly back to our African roots.

ESP said...

Superb post as always.. Rethinking Schools also put out a good book called _The Real Ebonics Debate_.


I love to say "aks" in class so students will ask me to clarify -- then I can hit 'em with the quote from Futurama where Leela clarifies Fry's use of "outdated vernacular" of "Christmas" instead of "X-Mas" .. "Like when you ask 'ask' instead of 'ask'." I follow it up with: "That's how everyone will say it in the year 3000.. I'm just getting a head start. 8D

As for the X-Clan quote: Vanglorious! (If anyone has not heard the 2007 album _Return from Mecca_, you're sleeping!)


Anonymous said...

you summarized it all pretty well but,as I @FrenchieGlobal, said yesterday, I dont see the utility of pushing for Ebonics or any African roots in it. the example of the TH sound verse the D sound are not as poignant since many African immigrants have no issue pronouncing the TH in English words. my true concern is that currently, Ebonics is good for nothing more than making you a DEA snitch at a time when a report just came out saying how the education system is failing young black boys. What is there to gain from pursuing a linguistic misnomer that would give you no long term professional/personal benefits and actually set you back in school?

there was a point when you refered to ppl who posed this argument as apologist or wanting to assimilate, I believe. However, I think it's the most realistic thing to consider when discussing Ebonics:what good is going to come out of it for the black community

Kristen said...

I don't really know where to start. My context, is as a caucasian person. Yet, I grew up on Marion Street, right next to the Hill. I grew up as a 3rd gen American, with family members who spoke in Eng/Italian pidgin. I grew up with friends of all ethnicities. Most immigrants want nothing but to assimilate into the dominant white culture in the US. It is the Yiddish, Cajun, and African-American patois, that show us what retaining our cultural signifiers can mean. It is a language, a family, an identity, and it is a fierce refusal to bow down and conform. I admire that. There's a richness in the retention of culture, that America seems determined to drive out of us. I really appreciate seeing a point of view that is neither a racist denigration of culture, (the word Ebonics itself, being a prime ex.,) nor a wall blocking understanding. It probably says something unusual about my upbringing, that I've always known what, "Ashy," means, and I lotion up regularly myself. "Axe," being both the correct pronunciation/spelling, at the time many slaves were first stolen from their homelands, also makes sense. In fact, in Appalachia, you'll hear it used by white folks, too. Which is also a cultural signifier. I also think that this post points out something of overarching importance: In the US, we know very little of the history of our own language. Adding it to the list of subjects we need in schools, along with civics. :) Thank you for writing this.