The other day I made do with a lazy post on the DEA seeking translators fluent in Ebonics. One of the commenters was kind enough to link to this editorial on the subject from The Washington Informer. I’ll be the first to admit flippant remarks and glib goofs about jive are the easy way to take on the Ebonics debate. To that end, how about we give this topic some serious (well, seriousish, I’ve got to be me…) thought?
Since I hate fisking I’m going to toss together some excerpts from the Informer below and go from there.
Ebonics a Language? Thanks for Confirming That
Seems like the DEA needs people who are fluent in Ebonics so that they can figure out what suspected drug dealers are saying during wiretapped conversations. The problem is Ebonics isn’t a language that is covered by Rosetta Stone. It’s the language of the streets; a combination of English and African language structure that we sort of make up as we go along.
Ebonics is a language that evokes the ire of many educators and English-only purists who insist that it isn’t real. Apparently, the DEA doesn’t agree.
Obviously, speaking Ebonics won’t do much to get a black person a job, a spot in most colleges or a seat in the boardroom. But understanding Ebonics and being able to use it as a bridge to help black children master standard English always made sense to me – especially since black children begin school knowing far fewer words and being far more deficient in language skills than white children.
One of the reasons that black children – particularly those who are being reared in impoverished, socially isolated communities – struggle in school is because they have low confidence and low self-esteem. Many don’t have books in the home, so they are unable to compare the language that is spoken around them to the words they might see in a book.
On top of that, many come to school conflicted. They want to excel academically, but they believe that they can’t or if they do, it amounts to them rejecting their culture.
It’s possible that Ebonics could help to counteract that. Because while proficiency in it obviously won’t help black children pass standardized reading tests or college entrance exams, it shouldn’t be seen as something that should be shunned at all times. It’s a legitimate part of our culture, and it’s time that schools – especially schools that are supposed to be educating black children – acknowledged that.
But what’s sad and ironic here is that while Ebonics continues to be vilified and ridiculed, the drug trade and criminality has forced the DEA to see it as a legitimate language. And I can’t help but think that if more school systems had done that years ago, many of the suspected black drug dealers that the DEA now needs to be able to understand to put in prison might not have chosen that route.
They might have picked a different career – if their way of speaking had been used as a tool to educate, rather than ridicule them.
I hope that’s not too big of a slice as to cross the fair usage Rubicon but it’s a meaty subject.
First off, Ebonics isn’t a language at all. It’s a dialect of English. And there isn’t a single African language structure, there are hundreds (I’m guessing) of languages spoken in Africa. I doubt there’s a straight line connection between Ebonics and any of the languages spoken in Africa as strong as the connection to the dialect spoken in the pre-Civil War/ reconstruction era rural South. So if anything it’s a cultural artifact of slavery.
I’ve spoken with a lot of folks who immigrated to the US from Africa and they all had an accent but didn’t speak in anything resembling an Ebonic dialect. Maybe that’s non-typical since the folks with whom I speak are generally engineers and therefore very well educated compared to the vast majority of Africans.
Now I’m not a cultural warrior and, while I’d be a lot happier if I didn’t have to press 1 for English, I don’t really care what language or dialect someone wants to pass down to their children. They’re not my kids and it’s no skin off my ass if their parents are limiting their future education and earning potential by choosing to speak in an “authentic” representation of their “culture”.
I do feel sorry for the kids, though. You don’t get to choose your parent(s). As the editorial itself emphasizes, these kids are stuck with a decision by their parent(s). They’re choosing to handicap their children compared to their non-Ebonic speaking peers when it comes to a job, a spot in college, a seat in the boardroom. As the editorial says, they’re choosing instead to steep them in the language of “the drug trade and criminality”.
When you’re celebrating the recognition of Ebonics as a language by the DEA with an editorial lamenting it as the language of criminals and pointing out many black children feel doing well in school is a rejection of their culture maybe it’s time to think about changing that culture. That starts with adults – parents, community leaders, editorial writers, and politicians.
Harry Reid once opined that Barack Obama spoke “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.” Of course everyone exploded over this perceived insult without considering why Obama would, for certain audiences, want to speak with a Negro dialect. So he could seem authentically black? This product of exclusive private schools and the Ivy League when placed in front of a black audience is embarrassed to speak proper English.
What a bastion of courage. He’s the freaking President of the United States – the first black President of the United States – and if you put him in front of a group of blacks tomorrow he’d start speaking in his Negro dialect. Is it any wonder blacks opt for Ebonics when the single most powerful black man in the history of our nation feels compelled to “speak their language” when he addresses them?
Compare that to Bill Cosby’s comments to the NAACP in 2004. Bill endured a shitstorm of invective for daring to speak against black liberal orthodoxy. All because he genuinely wants to see the black community do better rather than merely exploiting them for personal and/or political gain.
I know this is a thorny issue and if there were easy answers we wouldn’t still be having this debate. White folks like me aren’t permitted to comment because we’re just racist bastards or we don’t understand or we don’t have to live with the constant specter of racism. Black people who don’t regurgitate the black liberal orthodoxy are Uncle Toms and black people like Obama are so imbued in black liberal orthodoxy they naturally slip into a Negro dialect when speaking to other blacks.
In retrospect I feel pretty bad about cracking wise on the subject of Ebonics. We’ve got a couple of generations of blacks who are doomed to poorer lives by a culture that, according to the Washington Insider editorial board, celebrates ignorance, illiteracy, illegitimacy, and criminality. Obviously blacks don’t have a monopoly on dysfunction. Whites have their share of dysfunction. The difference is that whites don’t have a committed cadre of community leaders and politicians excusing their dysfunction as some inescapable part of their culture.
Worse still, blacks now have to compete for political relevance with a much more rapidly increasing Hispanic demographic. Which means black leaders will have to beat the drum of racism ever louder and excuse ever worse behavior in their quest to remain “Most Oppressed People, Ever.”
Children are the future, and sadly that future looks pretty bleak for many black kids.