Here is an example of powerlessness. In 1996, December, the Oakland School Board enunciated a policy in regards to educating their teachers in the language the majority of students came to school with in Oakland. As the students were experiencing difficulty in learning to read Standard English, the Board researched what linguists had to say about this and determined that if teachers knew more about their students’ home language, they might be able to better teach them. Two words were used, one from standard linguistic terminology and one from a legitimate but little recognized source: the first word was “genetic” and the second “Ebonics”.
To rid ourselves of the nonsense that grew up around this latter word, we must know that a linguist formed this word from ebony and phonics to label the phonetic patterns found in the English spoken by many African-Americans (ebony is commonly used as an alternative for black in referring to African-Americans). There was nothing wrong with this except that it never caught on from 1973, when Dr. Williams invented it, to 1996 when it burst suddenly on the scene and gave a handy purchase for the media and others to pillory the Board from for daring to champion the rights of minority children to have their language and culture recognized. Here, I will quote from a post sent to a listserv I am on to give you an idea of the received attitudes toward this language, this perfectly legitimate dialect of English, on the part of some teachers.
“I stopped engaging Pat years ago when I realized he wears blinders about learning any language outside of the ghetto, but since [personal matter] I just don’t give a flying rat’s patooty anymore…)
What’s wrong with rules put in place in the 18th century, Pat? Hell, most of the rules we live by every day in dozens of domains were created about that time. Are you sure you want to toss them all out just because you’re a self appointed defender of rural, black, inner-city, blah blah blah patois?
I’m fine with trying to standardize language. Nebrija wrote a bunch of rules in 1492 for “Spanish” and quite frankly, those rules are why the spanish language is mutually intelligible around the world in the 21st century
I communicate just fine with my brother (a factory worker in Arkansas) and my neighbor (a Vermonter born in the house he still occupies 50+ years later). Neither of them is ever going to get a job outside of a factory or the local McDonald’s. If you’re so proud of the rural, black, inner-city, blah blah blah patois you seem to promote constantly, are you also suggesting that no one should ever rise above their socio-economic birth right and be able to navigate different registers in different situations?
I can ignore you most of the time, Pat. But when you set up your rural, black, inner-city, blah blah blah patois straw man and then knock him down when anyone on the list ever suggests that knowing “PROPER” language for the particular situation in question is appropriate, it really chaps my backside. I’ve seen you accuse people left handedly of all kinds of racism and classism over the years for the work that they do. I teach in a rural Vermont school where 80% of the kids are on free or reduced lunch. These kids CAN become more than the next generation of occupants of the rented trailers in which they were born, but they cannot do so if they are never taught register and how to navigate it.
I apologize to everyone on the list I may have offended by the above (except for Pat–I don’t care if he’s offended or if his blood pressure is high–I have much more important things on my plate than worrying about him).”
The vitriol in this is patent. This came to a listserv devoted to teaching foreign languages and frequently the issue of teaching students what teachers consider proper grammar would come up. I would point out that teaching the baseless shibboleths of prescriptivism has not contributed much to introducing students to Standard English and we should consider teaching the standard in a different way. This particular member was not the only one to totally get backwards what I was saying. The reason I inserted this here is to show two things: the contempt for language other than the standard and the inability to grasp that we need to teach students Standard English in an effective way, not just put red marks on their papers and expect them to change their way of speaking and writing. This latter point goes to the heart of the so-called Ebonics Controversy.
What was done to me in that post I quoted was nothing compared to what the press and politicians did to the Oakland School Board. Cartoons, pronouncements by literary people who know nothing of how varieties of language interact in a society, many indignant Black spokespersons like Jesse Jackson labeling it a manifestations of a racist attitude that Black students cannot speak the standard, and just a general jumping on the bandwagon ensued. It was very ugly, but my point in bringing it up is to show how defenseless this predominantly Black (and Cambodian) school district was. Had there been a body of African-Americans, including linguists, who stood ready to provide a political and public relations infrastructure for the Board, that body could have sorted things out and warned the Board ahead of time that most Americans would understand the word “genetic” to mean that Black children speak Black English because they are Black. In fact, the Board was asserting that some aspects of Black English do indeed have origins in the languages their ancestors spoke – after all, when Africans arrived here they did not speak English and have had precious little opportunity to interact with Standard English speakers so their foreign accents were transmuted into a dialect of English, a very natural process – but the word genetic predisposed uninformed persons to assume the Board meant that language is in the DNA. They meant nothing of the kind.
Without support, any of us can make errors of tone and judgment. However, with support, we can make a course correction and move on. Unfortunately, the Oakland School Board became a laughing stock and Ebonics flowed into the language as just one more word people could use to disparage African-Americans. Sadly, African-Americans continue to seek support from the bulk of society on an individual basis, sure that if they “do the right thing”, they will be accepted. Donald Trump has shown how far that has got us.