McWhorter: Don’t sleep: Linguistically, Black Americans can walk and chew gum at the same time

Of interest:

In March, at the annual Conference on College Composition and Communication, one panel presentation was of particular interest: It concerned requirements in first-year college composition classes and discussed the idea that for students whose home dialect is Black English, or another nonstandard dialect, requiring them to write in standard English is a potentially unjust, if not flatly racist imposition, forcing some students to suppress their true selves in favor of a hegemonic artificiality. This school of thought holds that writing instructors should allow — encourage — such freshmen to write either purely in their home dialect or to engage in “code-meshing,” mixing the home dialect and the standard.

It’s an approach that accomplishes the feat of both underserving Black English speakers and diminishing Blackness.

During the panel’s Q. and A., an attendee presented this question: “What do we do when the resistance to code-meshing, for example, in our writing classrooms, comes from our BIPOC students? I ask because, of my attempts to encourage students to use their home dialects in writing, Black students in particular often resist those practices as setting them up for failure. Which only reflects how ingrained they are in a system that is inherently racist.”

The question and the panelists’ answers were quite revealing, including one from Asao Inoue, a rhetoric and composition professor at Arizona State University, who responded that when he hears that kind of objection from a student, he asks himself:

Is it that I have to say, or I have to create a classroom, and a learning experience, that demeans the linguistic history of that student in order for that student to go into the world and go into unfair racist, white supremacist systems and succeed? … Because if that student says, “You’re setting me up for failure,” what they’re saying is, “I want to succeed in that unfair system. I want to game that system.”

But, Inoue continued:

You’re always still going to be Black, or you’re always still going to be Latinx, or you’re always still going to be something else. … you can mouth the words that are white, but they’re coming from a body that’s something else, and you may be read that way. And so, for me, my goal as an educator is to change the system.

Because, he said:

What they’ve been exposed to is capitalist-inflected [expletive] about education being the way in which we, you, become a nice little cog in the system and you get skills. So you can go out in the world and make Microsoft more money.

While not all writing professors would go that far, in terms of appending a critique of capitalist reality to teaching freshman composition, just the notion that standard English is exterior to Black students’ real selves requires a closer look, because it tracks with worrisome currents in the way we are encouraged to think about race, especially lately.

Few familiar with today’s academic world will find Inoue’s opinions especially surprising. The idea in education circles that standard English functions as an unjust “gatekeeper,” holding back students of color, has been around for a long time. Related has been the idea that at the grade-school level, Black students whose home dialect is Black English should be taught as bilinguals of a sort. Adherents of this philosophy don’t say standard English should be withheld but suggest that standard English and Black English should be presented as different languages, as it were. Recall the “Ebonics” debate that gained national attention in the 1990s.

In 1993, English Leadership Quarterly, a publication of the National Council of Teachers of English, published a piece by two Indiana University of Pennsylvania English professors, Donald A. McAndrew and C. Mark Hurlbert, arguing that:

Writers should be encouraged to make intentional errors in standard form and usage. Attacking the demand for standard English is the only way to end its oppression of linguistic minorities and learning writers. We believe this frontal assault is necessary for two reasons: (1) it affords experienced writers, who can choose or not choose to write standard English, a chance to publicly demonstrate against its tyranny and (2) if enough writers do it regularly, our culture’s view of what is standard and acceptable may widen just enough to include a more diverse surface representation of language, creating a more equitable distribution not only of the power in language and literacy but also, ultimately, of the power in economics and politics that language and literacy allow.

Later, as The Washington Times reported in 1995, the N.C.T.E. discussed eliminating “English” from its name. That year, a delegate to its annual convention said, “If we are to offer diversity, there can be a conversation about language arts, but not about English.”

But in the same way that the idea of eliminating references to “English” strikes most as overboard, the idea that for Black people standard English is something wholly apart is simply inaccurate. For most Black Americans, both Black and standard English are part of who we are; our English is, in this sense, larger than many white people’s. In “The Souls of Black Folk,” W.E.B. Du Bois wrote, “I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not … I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension.” On a less exalted level, a great many Black people toggle endlessly between standard and Black English, day in and day out — we code-switch. I always liked how Gloria Naylor was able to get this across, as in this scene from her novel “Mama Day”:

“We ain’t staying long,” Ruby says, pulling up a chair. “But I thought it would be nice for us to meet Cocoa’s new husband.”“It’s a pleasure,” George says.“Doubly mine,” says Ruby. “And this here is my new husband, Junior Lee.”“Pleasssurre.” Junior Lee manages a nod. “Hear you a big railroad man.”“No, I’m an engineer.”

In that exchange, the characters aren’t dipping in and out of what they think of as a cold, alien dialect. They are sounding subtly different notes according to which dialect they render each thought or gesture in. Standard English forms are as much theirs as Black English ones.

Communicating in this way, Black Americans are doing what other people do worldwide, living between two varieties of a language. Swiss people’s formal Hoch Deutsch is almost a different language from the Swiss German they speak informally. The Arabic speaker typically controls both the Modern Standard Arabic derived from the language of the Qur’an and used in formal settings and a local dialect used for real life, like Egyptian or Moroccan.

People in these countries and beyond would find familiar Maya Angelou’s observation in “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” couched as completely unremarkable:

In the classroom we all learned past participles, but in the streets and in our homes the Blacks learned to drop s’s from plurals and suffixes from past-tense verbs. We were alert to the gap separating the written word from the colloquial. We learned to slide out of one language and into another without being conscious of the effort. At school, in a given situation, we might respond with “That’s not unusual.” But in the street, meeting the same situation, we easily said, “It be’s like that sometimes.”

To give some credence to those freshman-comp panelists, we might say that Angelou could have turned away from the “That’s not unusual” and that Du Bois could have considered that in real life Shakespeare, Aristotle and Marcus Aurelius might have looked down on him as some kind of “Aethiope.”

But subordinated and even despised people can, over time, with full awareness of the unjustness of racism, embrace even a foreign language, as opposed to a dialect, that is initially forced upon them. They can come to process it as a part of who they are, as people existing at a particular time, amid a dynamic synergy between the then and the now, the us and the them, the imposition and the resilience.

Many Indians, for instance, cherish English as one facet of the expression of modern Indianness, despite its imposition under colonial rule. Not long ago, I took in Netflix’s Bollywood romantic comedy “Love Per Square Foot,” in which the characters speak “Hinglish,” a neat blend of English and Hindi, a common linguistic phenomenon among many people in India and throughout the Indian diaspora. In the movie, there is nary a suggestion that the English feels to the characters like a spritz of cold water on every second sentence from a mustachioed British imperialist. In the same way, Congolese people go back and forth between French, their African lingua francas such as Lingala (memorably featured in, for example, the documentary “When We Were Kings”) and local indigenous languages few have heard of beyond where they are used.

Too often, what we’re presented with as authentically Black is a kind of essentialization. The idea that people’s authenticity stops at their home dialect does not reflect how people operate linguistically or their experience. Foisted on Black Americans, this idea of the standard dialect as a quiet menace, whatever its progressive intentions, is limiting. Even if the idea is not to ban the standard from a curriculum, if standard English is presented with an eye roll as the province of The Man, this is based in a conception of Blackness needlessly smaller than the reality of it.

Linguistically, Black Americans can and do walk and chew gum at the same time, like countless people around the world — and like it.

Source: McWhorter: Don’t sleep: Linguistically, Black Americans can walk and chew gum at the same time

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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