WHY YOU BE all stupid? In the vernacular, that is the general reaction that the Oakland, Calif., school board has received since declaring that its African-American students speak a second language dubbed "Ebonics."
As well intended as the school board may have been, it made a mistake. Still, the vehemence of the response to it, in particular from African Americans typically characterized as liberals, has been somewhat surprising.
The strong reactions are mostly the result of the board's having purposely left vague exactly what its recognition of Ebonics means. Asked to comment on such a radical idea, many have assumed the worst conjecture reported by the news media and decried what they see as a misguided attempt to teach "black English." Subsequent denials by the school board that it is headed in that direction have so far fallen on deaf ears.
It's the board's fault that people have so little faith in it. Its resolution linking Ebonics to "African Language Systems" also says black English is "genetically based." You're not going to get magnificent orators such as Jesse Jackson and Kweisi Mfume or superb writers such as Maya Angelou and Ishmael Reed to sign on to anything that suggests black people are born with an inability to use the English language well.
The Oakland board has since explained it used the word "genetically" to refer to history, not biology. But that weak rationalization came too late and has been muted by the waves of criticism. How disappointing. Had not the Oakland school board raised this issue in such ham-handed fashion, the level of debate concerning it would be significantly better and something positive might have come of its recognition of the special problems with grammar that many African-American students have.
How we speak often has as much to do with how people react to us as how we look. I have always admired Howell Heflin, who is retiring this year from the U.S. Senate. This World War II marine who was chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court has one of the finest legal minds in the country. But he will forever be remembered nationally for the "Colonel Cornpone" drawl that flowed from his lips during the Anita Hill hearings.
Like the people on TV
As a child, I became accustomed to being teased for "talking proper." As an adult, I'm used to being questioned about my lack of a clearly Southern accent. My response has always been that I talk like the people on TV, because I spent more time doing that or reading than playing outside in my tough neighborhood.
But black children watching today's TV shows oriented toward African-American viewers usually hear some black English. Enough for them to relate to the characters being portrayed. I hear real preachers use black English in the pulpit. I hear teachers speak black English in the classroom, in clipped diction that leaves the false impression that they are using proper grammar.
I have heard black English in New York, in San Francisco, in Kansas City, in Atlanta. I once lived for three months in a North Philadelphia ghetto. I was struck by how much the people sounded like black folks back home in Birmingham. Sure, there were some differences due to regional slang and accents. But after a few weeks those were barely noticeable.
Black English exists, though it's not so different from plain English that I would call it a separate language. Growing up where black English is almost all you hear makes it more difficult for a child to learn to read. Difficulty in reading leads to other academic problems. The Oakland board recognized this and wanted to do something special to improve black students' grammar. But the way it has gone about it has been, well, stupid. Happy Kwanzaa!
=1 Harold Jackson writes editorials for The Sun.
Pub Date: 12/28/96