English is Not our Language

aave empty speech bubble w im dope.png

We All We Got

“You have to code-switch in America in order to survive.  I don’t like it, but I do  it.”

– Darryl Washington

Growing up in Harlem during the 1990s was a blessing. I was immersed in what felt like a Black mecca, a place rich in Afro-American culture and history.  No matter your living conditions or education, you wore your Blackness. I was surrounded  by images and monologues that embraced and helped establish what it meant to be Black and proud of it. I admired my parents’ normalization of  jargon and nuanced demeanors—I had tough acts to follow.  My father is a Black educator who has always reminded me to be proud of where we’re from. We have to embrace our roots, he’d say, because to put it quite simply, “We all we got.”  My father walked through the halls of P.S. 30 like a king, and when the students screamed out, “Hey! Wassup, Mr. Washington?” he  responded with the same passion, “Wassup boy! How you doin’?” Students found someone to relate to in my father. He was born and raised in Harlem, just like they were. He didn’t eschew basketball for academia, and he continued to embrace the neighborhood language within the classroom setting.  If a student wasn’t reading clearly or loudly enough in English class, my father wouldn’t reiterate his instructions in Standard English. He spoke to the students like his momma spoke to him:

“Speak up when you read!  Ain’t you proud to be reading aloud?”

It was unsurprising that  my father was the most popular teacher in school. He taught because he cared for the local kids and he wanted to pass on the knowledge he’d obtained. As he taught all-Black classes, his goal was not only to instill discipline and teach skill, but to inspire appreciation and understanding. When  my father told his class that “Malcolm X was one of the dopest and most intelligent men to come out of Harlem!”, his students knew it was true, and my father’s words encouraged them to be interested in learning more about this “dope” individual. As much as my father embraced and embellished his black pride with his students and Black peers, I always noticed the difference between those exchanges and the manner in  which he spoke to his white colleagues. He would never say, “Wassup” or “What’s good?” to white colleagues, and it seemed that he’d reduce his enthusiasm when he spoke. It was implied that my father suffered from the conditioned fearful and submissive psyche with which most American Blacks could identify. However, considering  his pride in being Black, that was certainly not the case.  The main linguistic concern of many Black professionals and students can be summarized  using one question: “Does my use of vernacular negate my intellect when I am communicating with a non-Black person?”  

If a Black professional were to use adjectives such as, “ill,” “dope,” “wack,” or the more up-to-date “on fleek,” in the workplace, this  professional would be risking  losing their colleagues’ esteem and being perceived as having an inferior intellect. My father, along with many other African Americans, code-switches in these settings for this exact reason.   

 

Get with the Program

“English is not our language…Our language has more rhythmic tones.  To some people, ‘She be

going’ just flows. It’s a natural thing.”

– Takiyah Hudson

African American Vernacular English (AAVE), also known as Ebonics, is considered to be its own  dialect, a variation of American English.  AAVE includes but is not limited to statements like these:

AAVE: "Ah 'on know what homey be doin." (SE: I don't know what my friend is usually doing.)

AAVE: "Can't nobody think de way he do." (SE: Nobody can think the way he does.)

Renowned linguist Dr. Geoffrey K. Pullum suggests that “The majority of English speakers think that AAVE is just English with two added factors: some special slang terms and a lot of grammatical mistakes. They are simply wrong about this...AAVE gets a lot of criticism from institutions of learning and the workforce in America because of biased opinions,” AAVE remains an inferior dialect in America, one that Blacks must suppress in interactions outside of our community.  

In 1994, Takiyah Hudson, then a 17-year-old high school senior from Harlem, was interviewed by the New York Times  and offered her take on the dialect.  She believed English was not her language because her “unique” speech was not unacceptable at school or in the workforce. “It's like going to France and speaking English and getting mad at them,” she said, “Such and such corporation isn't going to hire me. That's realistic thinking."  African Americans have grown accustomed to the concept of AAVE being considered an inferior dialect, as AAVE has yet to be acknowledged as a derivative of English. Instead, AAVE is the bad stepchild in the English language family that no one accepts because it can’t be disciplined. But why does AAVE have such a bad reputation? “What makes AAVE so dramatically different as a political issue from, say Spanish, is its close relation to another language of much higher prestige,” suggests Pullum.  “Most speakers of standard English think that AAVE is just a badly spoken version of their language…or worse than that, an unimportant and mostly abusive repertoire of street slang used by an ignorant urban underclass.”

AAVE is considered inferior because its speakers are thought of in a like manner.  Therefore, to escape being perceived as linguistically inferior at work or in school, Blacks resort to code-switching, changing the language variety that they use depending upon the context of a conversation .  In interactions with others outside their community, a Black professional or Black student must make it a routine to switch dialects. The use of AAVE in a professional or educational atmosphere  only exacerbates  the stigma that Black people  are ill-educated and incapable of engaging in intelligent discourse. Code-switching is merely a survival tactic, one that is is nothing more than a response to White America’s authority over the English language and American society.  

The societal demand that Blacks must code-switch from AAVE to Standard English when speaking to non-Blacks is a form of prejudice and discrimination.  What makes this issue so complex is the hidden nature of the idea.  According to the unspoken rule,  I speak and behave “properly” and leave the “ghetto talk” at home, I will succeed in securing my future. Though many in society believe that racial equality is secure in the United States, African Americans’ attempts to attain  mainstream success continue to be hindered by unrelenting demands for conformity and cultural erasure.

 

You Betta Recognize!

“Wheeler and Swords also urge teachers to ignore race when teaching and discussing code

switching…My first response to this blatant contradiction is: “Huh? What tha…?! Code-

switching is nothing if it ain’t about race!”

– Vershawn Ashanti Young

My first memory of being shunned for my speech takes place  in a college classroom.  Previously, I’d had the luxury of my father’s protection, because I’d always gone to  schools at which he taught.  If I’d challenged components of the lesson with statements such as  “Columbus ain’t discover America” or “Why we gotta read about Thomas Jefferson and not Muhammad Ali?”, I was sheltered from admonishment because my father was an authority figure at school, and my early signs of rebellion and Black pride pleased him. But in college, many of my peers had never been  afforded this  luxury, and my new teachers refused to accept my pride in speaking my native tongue.

During my freshman year of college, my course load consisted mostly of communications classes.  My intercultural communications  course exposed  me to heated debates about  international politics. Many of the Asian, Latino, and  Middle Eastern students in the class were proud to be  bilingual; these students were proficient in English and on track to accomplish  the American Dream that was unattainable for their ancestors.  My professor, Professor Vincent (Tzu-Wen) Cheng, was himself similar to these students; he’d migrated to the United States from Taiwan to study at NYU, receiving his Ph.D. in communications and his law degree from the university and going  on to teach communications courses at the Borough of Manhattan Community College and NYU.  

What was fascinating, yet disturbing, about my experience in the Intercultural Communications course was the unanimous belief  of  the international students that AAVE is improper and a major impediment to the success of African Americans. In one class discussion, when I suggested that Spanish business owners ought to learn to speak some English to better communicate with non-Spanish-speaking customers, many of the bilingual students were affronted . They stressed their belief that Black people’s refusal to speak was an impediment to Black progress, contrasting the proud usage of AAVE with their intensive efforts to  master  two languages.  There  was no compassion for the defense of my community’s dialect.  Yet even worse was a class period during which we were discussing the war against Al-Qaeda. I commented “America betta’ recognize they can’t just punk third world nations into submitting to their democracy.”  My professor looked confused and said, “Now, Deja, that’s just ghetto talk!” I was stunned.   The rest of the students giggled, and in the hopes of  saving face, I giggled as well.  My giggle implied that I knew better and it was a silly offense, but I hadn’t actually “known better.”  The instillation with my father’s pride imparted during  my early years of schooling was shattered with that one statement from Professor Cheng.  Suddenly, I didn’t feel like I was an intelligent student using my  native tongue to give her perspective on politics; instead,I was the ghetto girl who  hadn’t yet developed the essential double consciousness that would have prevented the embarrassing moment from happening.  

 

The Ethics of Code Switching

 

W.E.B. DuBois’ theory that “double consciousness” is the result of the psychological

impact of American society’s judgment of Blacks. DuBois  states, “The doubling of one’s racial self-consciousness is produced…from having to always look at one’s self through the eyes of others, from being recognized as an American citizen while simultaneously being denied the rights of citizenship, from trying to reconcile how one’s racial heritage justifies legal and social subordination not only to whites but to non-citizens residing in the United States.” W.E.B. DuBois proposes  that double consciousness is a crisis of racial identity that entails the constant battle of Blacks’ yearning  to unify their separate  American and Black identities. Herein lies the issue of African American code-switching.  Having constantly to remind oneself that one must develop two separate personalities and dialects because it is demanded by society  inevitably impedes such a goal.  The “inferior” dialect will either gradually disappear or return unannounced despite efforts to contain it.   

In 1937, Richard Wright examined the ethics of Jim Crow in his essay, “The Ethics of Jim Crow,” to illustrate  the horrid routine required of Blacks during interactions with  whites. “Here my Jim Crow education assumed quite a different form,” writes Wright, “It was no longer brutally cruel, but subtly cruel. Here I learned to lie, to steal, to dissemble. I learned to play that dual role which every Negro must play if he wants to eat and live.” Jim Crow laws weren’t just about schools, neighborhoods, and public spaces being separate. Jim Crow laws made it legal to establish and reinforce mannerisms that would become embedded into the sub-consciousness of Blacks for extended periods of time. Code-switching aims to do the same thing. If AAVE is accepted and recognized in institutions of learning, the mythical superiority of Standard English may begin to lose its significance.

 


By Deja Washington

Cover Art by Goldie Gross

Works Cited

  • Wright, Richard. The Ethics of Living Jim Crow: An Autobiographical Sketch. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.

  • Young, Vershawn Ashanti. ""Nah, We Straight": An Argument Against Code Switching." JAC29.1/2 (2009): 49-76. JSTOR. Web. 22 May 2017.

  • Pullum, George K. "African American Vernacular English: Phonology." The Americas and the Caribbean (2008): n. pag. Web.

  • Lee, Felicia R. "Lingering Conflict in the Schools: Black Dialect vs. Standard Speech." New York Times, 5 Jan. 1994. Web.

  • John Rickford. Ebonics Notes and Discussion. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 June 2017.