Smitherman_GhettoLady - I WAS BORN into a sharecropping...

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Unformatted text preview: I WAS BORN into a sharecropping community1 in rural Tennessee and started school at age four, quickly learning to read under the tutelage I N T R O D U C T I O N of “Miss Earline,” a Black teacher with two years of college who had responded to DuBois’s call to the Talented Tenth.2 As Life would have F RQ M G H ETTO it, Miss Earline was to be the only African American teacher in all my LADY TO CR|T| CAL years of schooling, from “primer” (as we called it) through Graduate School. L| N G U | S T In those years, I was monolingual, speaking the Ebonics of my family, my Traditional Black Church, and my sharecropping community. Miss Earline had deep roots in our community; she understood the language of us kids, and sometimes she even spoke our language. After a few years, my family moved to the “promised land,” first to Southside Chicago, then Black Bottom Detroit. It was here, “up South,” as Malcolm X once called the North, that I had my first taste of linguistic pedagogy for the Great Unwashed. Teachers who didn’t look like me and who didn’t talk like me attacked my language and put me back one grade level. Back then, educators and others attributed “Black Dialect” to the South, although nobody ever satisfactorily accounted for the fact that Black Northerners used linguistic patterns Virtually identical to those of Black Southerners. Thus effectively silenced, I managed to avoid these linguistic attacks and to be successful in school by just keeping my mouth shut - not hard for a ghetto child in those days. I was eventually elevated to my right grade and even advanced three years. My nonverbal strategy worked until one month after my fifteenth birthday. It was at that point in my life that I became a college student and was forced to take a speech test in order to qualify for the teacher preparation program. I flunked the speech test. At that time, many teacher—training programs had such tests, and they were linguistically and culturally biased against all varieties TALKIN THAT TALK of US English other than that spoken by those who, as linguist Charles C. Fries had put it back in 1.940, “carry on the affairs of the English-speaking people.” Although the overwhelming majority of those who failed these tests were People of Color, I recall that there were a couple of whites in my group. I said to myself, “Now, what dem white folk doing up in here?” As it turned out, one of “dem white folk” was a speaker of what we now call “Appalachian English.” The other was from the Bronx in New York City! It wasn’t that young people of Color and whites from working— class backgrounds could not be understood. By this stage in our lives, we had developed adequate enough code—switching skills that we were intelligible to those who “carry on the affairs of the English~speaking people.” Rather, the problem was that there existed a bias against this different—sounding American English emanating from the margins. Yet our sounds were as “American as apple pie,” having been created as a result of the historical processes that went into the making of America — the African Holocaust, the conquest of Native American peoples, the disenfranchisement of Latinos in the Westward Movement and American expansionism, and the exploitation of people for profits. As descendants of those caught up in these forces, we found ourselves in a classroom with a speech therapist who wasn’t sure what to do with us. Nobody was dyslexic. No one was aphasic. There was not even a stutterer among us. I mean, here was this young white girl, a teaching assistant at the university, who was just trying to get her Ph.D., and she was presented with this perplexing problem of people who didn’t have any of the commu- nication disorders she had been trained to deal with. Her solution: she taught us the test. Each of us memorized the pronunciation of the particular sounds that we needed to concentrate on. I recall two of my key areas were the post—vocalic —r sound in words like “four” and “more” (which for me were “foe” and “mow”), and the final -th sound in words like “mouth” and “south” (for me, “mouf” and “souf”). These are patterns that I now know reflect West African language influence dating from the enslavement era. But there I was living in the hood trying to mouth sounds like “more” and “sore” when all my girls was sayin “mow” and “so.” To the extent that such a story can have a happy ending, I can tell you that we all memorized and passed the speech test. I can also report that in the aftermath of the social movements that raged across “America, the beautiful” during the 19603 and 19705, this oppressive language policy — once the requirement to enter the teaching profession in many states — no longer exists. INTRODUCTION 3 Ironically, that speech therapy experience rescued me from the ghetto streets (where, at the time, I was enjoying a high degree of success —— details in my memoirs). It became a symbol of the social and historical forces confronting my community. It aroused the fighting spirit in me, sent me off into critical linguistics, and I even— tually entered the lists of the language wars. However, for every African American student like me, who wasn’t driven back to the streets, and who survived, not just to enter the System, but to come into the System and call the Question — for every Geneva Napoleon Smitherman, there are many thousands gone. Some of them was my girls that I used to kick it Wit on the corner of 47th and Wabash in Chicago, one of whom was killed While out there hustlin on Chicago’s Southside. Among the others who have fallen was the Brothas me and my girls sang doo—wap background for in the songs that was gon help them escape the broken—down front porches of Joseph Campau Street in Detroit. Intellectual insight into this early experience with language oppression came fiom my baptism in the fire of the Black Intellectual Tradition. (There was no Critical Linguistics way back then when I was in that speech therapy class; it had yet to be named and codified.) Reading the works of the intellectually versatile W. E. B. DuBois, historian Carter G. Woodson, educator Horace Mann Bond, linguist Lorenzo Turner, psychiatrist Frantz Fanon, and — finally, a Sistal — linguist Beryl Bailey — reading the works of these Elders and then later discussing their work in study groups with other African Americans, I began to gain an understanding of language and power. DuBois made me confront the question, “Whither the Black intellectual?” In his essay by that title, and in his turn—of—the—century book, The Souls of Black Folk, he argued that the Talented Tenth should commit itself to using its knowledge, research, and scholar— ship for the uplifiment of the entire Black group. DuBois taught me that the role of the intellectual — any intellectual, not just the Blade intellectual — is not just to understand the world but to change it. Because he well understood the far—reaching ramifications of the production of knowledge, DuBois taught that one should work like a scientist but write like a writer. On the language front, DuBois had proposed Mother Tongue instruction as long ago as 1933 when he laid out his pedagogical philosophy in “The Field and Function of the Negro College”: the American Negro problem is and must be the center of the Negro university . . . A French university is founded in France; it uses the French language and assumes a knowledge of French history In the same way, TALKIN THAT TALK a Negro university in the United States of America begins with Negroes. It uses that variety of the English idiom which they understand; and above all, it . .. should be founded on a knowledge of the history of their people in Africa and in the United States, and their present condition. (P. 93) It was Carter G. Woodson who gave me an understanding of the critical significance of history. In 1926, Woodson, an avowed race man, established Negro History Week, which has evolved into African American History Month. His critique of the post—Emancipation education of Blacks in America blasted the ahistorical, Eurocentric focus of this education. It had become a blueprint for maintain— ing the “back door” status of Blacks. He decried the pathological consequences of this education, which was away firom, rather than toward the culture of Afi'icans in America. Reading and studying Woodson’s Mrs-education of the Negro (1933) alerted me to the origin of those linguistic patterns that had landed me in speech therapy back in the day — a therapy that was not designed to help me discover the wellspring of those linguistic patterns, nor, obviously to celebrate them. Rather, the therapy was a linguistic eradication program, designed around what white linguist james Sledd has called “the linguistics of white supremacy” (1969). Commenting on the matter of language in Mrs-education, Woodson noted that In the study of language in school pupils were made to scoff at the Negro dialect as some peculiar possession of the Negro which they should despise rather than directed to study the background of this language as a broken down African tongue — in short to understand their own linguistic history, which is certainly more important for them than the study of French Phonetics or Historical Spanish Grammar. (p. 203) Revolutionary psychiatrist Frantz Fanon introduced me to the psychological aspects of race and racism. His studies of the colonized personality clarified the deep wounds to the Black psyche that had been caused by colonialism and enslavement. Like DuBois, he articulated the problem of the dual dimension of the Black personality, and as a psychiatrist devoted himself to understanding the source of this duality. As a healer, he sought ways to bring a wholeness to the divided Black self that imitated things European and attributed inferiority to Black Culture. Although the “subjects” of his clinical research were mainly Africans colonized by the French, he was cognizant that his work applied to Africans elsewhere around the globe, and in fact, as he put it, to “every race that has been subjected to colonization.” Fanon ascribed a fundamental significance INTRODUCTION 5 to language. He viewed it as basic in deconstructing and healing the wounded complexity of the Black psyche. In “The Negro and Language,” Fanon argued that: Every colonized people — in other words, every people in whose soul an inferiority complex has been created by the death and burial of its local cultural originality — finds itself face to face with the language of the civi- lizing nation; that is, with the culture of the mother country . . . The Negro of the Antilles will be proportionately whiter in direct ratio to his mastery of the French language . . . the fact that the newly returned Negro [i.e., from school in France] adopts a language different from that of the group into which he was born is evidence of a dislocation, a separation The middle class in the Antilles never speak Creole except to their servants. In school the children are taught to scorn the dialect Some families completely forbid the use of Creole . . . The educated Negro adopts such a position with respect to European languages because he wants to emphasize the rupture that has now occurred. (I967, pp. l8ff.) Lorenzo Dow Turner’s Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect (1949) brought the history and the language together for me. Gullah (also Geechee) is the language spoken by rural and urban Blacks who live in the areas along the Atlantic coastal region of South Carolina and Georgia. Years ago I had the rare opportunity of meeting Mrs. Turner at an Atlanta University conference organized by linguist Richard Long in honor of her husband. According to Mrs. Turner, the Gullah study took Lorenzo Turner nearly twenty years, during which he also spent time learning West African languages. He felt that knowledge of these languages was absolutely essential to under- standing the origin of and countering the myths about the Gullah form of US Ebonics. Mrs. Turner also spoke about the technical problems involved in collecting speech samples in those early years, a problem Lorenzo Turner solved by making his own phonograph recordings of Gullah speakers. Tumer’s work located the history of Gullah in the languages of West Africa and created the intellectual space to examine the African linguistic history of African American speech communi— ties outside the Gullah areas. It was while studying Turner that I learned the names of African languages — like Yoruba, Ibo, Fula, and others, which are now almost as familiar to me as my own name, but which I had never heard of or been exposed to in my entire (mis)education. Turner opened his pioneering work with these words: The distinctiveness of Gullah . . . has provoked comment from writers for many years. The assumption has been that the peculiarities of the 6 TALKIN THAT TALK dialect are traceable almost entirely to the British dialects of the seven- teenth and eighteenth centuries and to a form of baby-talk adopted by masters of the slaves to facilitate oral communication between themselves and the slaves . . . The present study, by revealing the very considerable influence of several West African languages upon Gullah, will, it is hoped, remove much of the mystery and confusion surrounding this dialect [. . .] These survivals are most numerous in the vocabulary of the dialect but can be observed also in its sounds, syntax, morphology, and intonation; and there are many striking similarities between Gullah and the African languages in the methods used to form words. (I949, Preface, xiii) I came to understand language and power through the work of linguist Beryl Bailey, whom I had the special fortune to meet in my youth before her untimely death stilled the voice of a great scholar and cut short the contributions she was beginning to make to Black Language and Black education. It was this Sista — who doesn’t get her props — who led the 19605 explosion of research on Ebonics with her ground—breaking article, “Toward a New Perspective in Negro English Dialectology” (1965), which reflected several years of research and teaching. Bailey analyzed the systematic syntax of her native Jamaican Creole —- which surely would have landed her in speech therapy too had she done her teacher training in the US. She turned her Columbia University dissertation into a book, Jamaican Creole Syntax (1966), making it the first full description of a Creole syntax in scholarly literature. In doing this work, she became attuned to the linkage between her native Jamaican tongue and the Black speech she heard on the streets of New York where she taught in the Black and Puerto Rican Studies Department at Hunter College. In fact, it was Bailey who reintroduced the concept of a linguistic continuum from Africa to the Caribbean and North America in the Diaspora. (I say “reintroduced” because Turner’s work had gone out of print amid attacks on the concept of African survivals in Black Culture, an attack led, unfortunately, by Black sociologist E. Franklin Frazier in the 19505.) Bailey’s work gave me the idea of tapping into the Black literary tradition to recover the authentic linguistic nuances reproduced by our writers crafting works of art in the Black Tradition. In the 1965 article, she had utilized the language of the novel, The Cool World, to argue that African American Language was an indepen- dent linguistic system and needed to be considered as such. Not only did Bailey do linguistic research, she immediately began to apply her theoretical knowledge to issues involved in language and literacy instruction for speakers of Ebonics, both at public school INTRODUCTION N and college levels. She sought to explode myths and misconcep— tions that teachers had about Black children’s abilities and called for revisions of the language arts curriculum and Black Language— speciflc instructional strategies for Black children (see, for example, Bailey 1968; 1969). In her own quiet, firm, determined way, this Sista was bout it, bout it — the use of education for the empow— erment of Africans in America. Armed with this intellectual background from the Black Tradition, I readily embraced Critical Linguistics when it arrived upon the scene in the late 19705. Arriving, though, from Europe, not America. In Language and Control, British linguists Fowler and Kress called for a Critical Linguistics in this way: [Linguistics] has been neutralized .. . [there is need for a] critical linguistics . . . aware of the assumptions on which it is based . . . and prepared to reflect critically about the underlying causes of the phenomena it studies, and the nature of the society whose language it is. (I979, l86) I believe with Fairclough that the interconnections of language and society “may be distorted out of vision,” and therefore a critical approach to language study will “make Visible the interconnections of things” (1985). More recently, I found a kindred spirit in Austrian linguist, Wodak — winner of the million~dollar Wittgenstein Award. She calls not only for Critical Linguistics (CL), but also Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA). The “critical” nature of this line of inquiry into language demands that one go beyond the immediacy of the linguistic text to consider matters of socio—political and economic subordina— tion and language, the perpetuation of inequality through language, and the historical backdrop against which these linguistic power—plays are enacted. Addressing the reaction against “Labovian quantitative linguistics,” Wodak argues that we have to go beyond quantifying and counting. She states: CL and CDA may be defined as fundamentally interested in analyzing opaque as well as transparent structural relationships of dominance, discrimination, power and control as manifested in language. In other words, CDA aims to investigate critically social inequality as it is expressed, signalled, constituted, legitimized, etc., by language use (or in discourse) Consequently, three concepts figure indispensably in all CDA: the concept of power, the concept of history, and the concept of ideology. (“Critical Linguistics and Critical Discourse," I995) Being a critical linguist means seeking not only to describe language and its socio—cultural rules, but doing so within a paradigm TALKIN THAT TALK of language for social transformation. Recognizing the limita— tions of the quantitative paradigm and number crunching does not mean abandoning research. By no means. For research expands our knowledge base, and without knowledge there is no power and no prospect for change. Being a critical linguist means recognizing that all research is about power — who has it, who doesn’t — and the use of power to shape reality based on research. Which is to say that all research is political and derives from a certain ideological stance. After all, even the position that asserts that research should be “objective” is itself an ideological position. Speaking from the vantage point of an “octogenarian questioner” about the teaching of social grammatical rules (e.g., don’t use “ain’t,” avoid double nega— tives), linguist James Sledd, surely deserving of membership in the contemporary Critical Linguistics camp, has argued that: Since the blood, sweat, and tears of generations have neither eradicated aint nor taught journalists either to forget whom or at least to use it in the proper places, teachers must ask not just the surface questions of what rules to teach and when and how to teach and test them but the deeper questions of the nature and right purpose of the whole undertaking . . . This article makes the obviously debatable suggestion that the best way to enable the teaching of grammar usage is first to learn and teach some harsh ways of the world we live in, so that eventually, political action may just possibly create the preconditions for more successful teaching. (“Grammar for Social Awareness in Time of Cl...
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