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Ebonics by Charles Barron

Featured Article: LET'S GET HOOKED ON "EBONICS"!
Copyright December 1996

Education, and bilingual education in the k-12 classroom.

Many people who I highly respect have disagreed with the recent development regarding "Black English" or "Ebonics". Instead of appplauding the Oakland unified school districts decision to require teachers to learn "Ebonics" they deemed it "foolish" and believe that it is "teaching down" to our African American children.

Many African Americans and others miss the point. Since coming to the shores of America as enslaved Africans our oppressors have placed a negative value judgement upon our African-ness. They said our hair was bad, so we straightened it. They said our skin was too dark, so we lightened it. They said our noses and lips were to broad and thick so we made them thinner. They said we spoke bad or broken English, so we had to learn to speak "proper" or "standard English".

What the Oakland decision says is that we don't speak broken, improper, nor bad English, we speak differently. Once you put a value judgement on speech, that's the beginning of the perpetuation of Black inferiority and white superiority complexes. Speech is neither good nor bad, it's different. Isn't it interesting how some White Americans say we speak bad English and the people of England say that White Americans "messed up the Queen's English". We must understand that standardizing English doesn't mean that it's better or proper. It means that people in power want to impose their language on the masses in order to maintain their control and dominance. I'm not saying don't teach standard English. What I am saying is that we must use Ebonics as the bases for building a bridge for learning standard English. We also want to be clear that when we speak Ebonics, we're talking about a unique way of speaking that has it's roots in Western African languages that have different syntax, phonics, and grammatical structure than standard English. We're not talking about teaching "black slang" but rather acknowledging Ebonics as a separate language, unique to people of African ancestry.

For decades researchers and linguists have validated that Ebonics is the evolution of African languages coming into contact contact with European languages over the centuries. Many linguist trace "Ebonics" back to about 1619. When a Dutch vessel landed with a cargo of twenty Africans in Jamestown Virginia. The slave master forced the Africans, who spoke different West African languages i.e., (Ibo, Yoruba, Hausa) to learn English in order to communicate with the master. The Africans merely substituted English vocabulary for African vocalublary, but maintained the West African phonics, grammar and sentence structure, i.e.,

This table is taken from an article on Black English: It's History and Its Role in Education of Our Children: Talkin and Testifyin: The Language of Black America, by Geneva Smitherman, Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1986. Grammar and Structure rule in West African Language Black English or Ebonics Construction of sentences without the form of the verb to be.

He sick today.

They talkin about school now.

Repitition of noun subject with pronoun My father, he work there.

Question patterns without do What it come to?

Same form of noun for singular and plural one boy; five boy

No tense indicated in verb I know it good when he ask me

Same verb form for all subjects I know; you know;

he know; we know, they know


Sound rule in West African Languages Black English or Ebonics

No consonant pairs jus (for just); men (for mend) Few long vowels or

two-part vowel (dipthongs) rat (for right); tahm (for time)

No /r/ sound mow (for more)

No /th/ sound substitution of /d/ or /f/ for /th/; souf

(for south) and dis (for this)

Language has often been used as a tool of oppression by those who compromise the ruling class in order to continue their subjugation and dominance over people of color in particular and poor people in general. On June 16, 1976 in Soweto South Africa, African students organized an uprising to protest the teaching of "Afrikaans" the oppressor's language in their schools. It was so important that this language be taught, that the Afrikaners, the whites in power, ordered their army to massacre over one thousand African youth. The point being made here is that the South African oppressors who wanted to maintain that racist demonic system of apartheid, forced their language on African youth in order to maintain their dominace for generations to come.

Another case in point is the idea of forcing Puerto Rican people to learn Castellan Spanish. Have you ever wondered why some Puerto Ricans who speak Spanish can easily fail Spanish in school? Well it's because some Puerto Ricans say they are not Spaniards. Spaniards are whites from Spain, a European country. Puerto Ricans are a mixture of Taino natives, Africans, Portugese and Spaniards. Puerto Ricans are not speaking broken nor bad Spanish. They're speaking their own native language that has different historical/cultural influences.

It is the same case for African Americans. We have five major historical/cultural influences on our speech.

1. West African Languages

2. A pidgin dialect that was used during the slave trade

3. The Gullah language used when we were brought to the sea islands of the Carolinas in America. ("Daughters of the Dust" was a film that truly captured the essence of our culture and the evolution of our speech)

4. The speech we created "Up South" in the north when we were crammed into high rise tenements in urban ghettos

5. Standard English.

"Ebonics" is an assertion of our unique experience as African Americans. Ebonics synthesizes our unique African and American cultural/historical experiences and yields a language that authentically represents who we are as a people.

In 1973, Dr. Robert Williams coined the phrase "Ebonics" combining ebony/black with phonics/sound.

White supremacy has reigned supreme in education for centuries. White culture has been unfairly forced upon a multi-cultural nation for far too long now. Ebonics is an extremely important and significant step in the right direction for people of African ancestry. The bottom line is that we speak the way we speak because we are Africans not uneducated African Americans!

As we move ever so swiftly into the twenty-first century, we as an African people here in America must assert our right to self-determination, self-identity and self-definition. We must liberate ourselves from the mental and physical oppression of White supremacy. Having teachers learn Ebonics, means that they must learn the cultural-historical context in which people of African ancestry derived their identity and acquistition of language. Ebonics breaks the psychological boundary of White supremacy.

As a Leadership Scientist and Social Activist, I say, hurry up! Bring on Ebonics so that we can build self-esteem and self-confidence in our children as they learn standard English without degrading the African roots embedded within their speech. Let's embrace the "Ebonics" movement. For it is truly a move in the right direction. Remember the struggle may be long but the victory is certain!

By Charles Barron
Copyright December 1996

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