Another feature of teaching SE in the schools I have failed to convey properly is language maintenance. In this way, a young person will speak as those in his community speak. If there is a significance difference between teacher speak and this community variety, the teacher speak will not serve as a model, i.e. it will not be followed. Some individuals, if they see status to be gained or other advantages in using teacher speak, will change but will maintain the community language, too. My wife is one of those people. She would never abandon her native Black English; no one in his right mind would. If I may be permitted a value judgment on my own blog, I would label Black English creative and expressive, and the Language of Wider Communication as bland and lackluster. There’s a reason, as the late George Carlin so humorously illustrated in a stand-up bit, that White kids pick up Black speech on the court but it doesn’t go the other way. (Note: in the last 20 years or so lots of Black kids are being raised in White neighborhoods and are indeed speaking either SE or at least the LWC, language of wider communication)
In order to get a feel for the dynamics of Black speech, it is just so easy to swing over to music, that quintessential cultural accomplishment of Black America. To see it and hear it, go to the Oprah Legends Ball Part 1 where they are outside (ignore the typical “racist” reactions from people who know nothing about Black culture) and watch it. I happened to have landed on the spot where she was describing the reaction of the White folk and Maria Shriver was saying, “I hope the cameras don’t come near us”. Why? Well, I’ve sat through some hundreds of Black church services and if you have not picked up the culture, it’s like joining in an animated conversation in a language in which you are still using your Berlitz phrase book. This is all visible in the video. Don’t let the big names in Black music (Dionne Warwick, Patti LaBelle, Diana Ross, Della Reese, Tina Turner) and gospel (Shirley Caesar) fool you, just look at all the people who are not professional singers. They were chiming right in. The reason? They were all African-Americans and had close ties to that central element of the culture, the Black church. (If you think racism is dead in this country, click on Oprah Legends Ball Racist and listen to the commentators and read the comments). Let me give you an example of how “excluded” Whites are in this sort of cultural milieu: the tiny church in East Texas my wife was baptized in is still up and running and we visited. This church affords a look at the white-heat heart of the genesis of Black music: tambourines stacked high, almost to the ceiling (a low ceiling, but still….), guitars, piano, drume kit (2, I think). A small church, Pentecostal, that must rock on Sunday and most nights. The music director (yes, even tiny churches have music directors and I’ll bet in the South the White churches do, too) is a White guy. He knows the music and that’s what counts.
So as you watch the video, imagine this same cauldron of melodies and handclapping packed into a hot little church and someone testifying happens to hit on just the right song and everyone begins moving to it. Movin’ and groovin’ works here because there is a tight fitting-together of all these parts that is overpowering. Imagine, if you are not as old as I am and can remember them, a huge steam locomotive with that chug-a-chug rhythm accompanied by the clickety-clack of the wheels of the cars in tow, picking up steam and acomin’ down the track. You’d better get on board! (that is an altar call, telling you to get saved, to get right with the Lord, etc.) One of my wife’s favorite gospel songs is one that has a train in it and is it powerful.
Black speech is like that. As I write this, I was moved by the sense of community I was reading about in the book, Authority in Language, but stupidly clicking on the racist link, I heard the painful other side of all this: the immense hatred toward African-Americans that still rules this country in many ways.
By the way, this event was held in 2006 and one of the guests was a dark-haired Senator Barack Obama. I guess the thought in some quarters is that his election did away with all that bile I heard.