Over the weekend my wife and I watched a PBS special titled, Talking Black in America. It dealt with the untold number of African American dialects spoken in America and how it all came to be. I was especially impressed with how important language is in black history and culture and how versatile many are in switching back and forth between standard-English and African American English.
It reminded me of a time I was in a fast food line near the Mexican border and how the clerk had was so adept at switching between English and Spanish. My brain has never been that flexible.
I’ve always enjoyed dialects but understanding them doesn’t come easily to me. As a kid, I spent several summers with family in South Carolina and most of the neighborhood residents around my uncle’s grocery were poor blacks who spoke a very thick vernacular dialect. One of my playmates was a black girl my age and while she could speak standard English she could just as quickly switch to the local black dialect and leave me in Greece.
In studying the history of blues music I’ve encountered similar problems. The fathers of the blues worked on the delta plantations or were sharecroppers. One of the few things they could take pride in was their guitar skills and their command of the people’s language. I was older and more experienced when I discovered the blues so it came easier to me.
Understanding the myriad of urban dialects found in hip hop and rap music is a much different thing for me. Much of the PBS show focused on the importance of dialect in urban black culture and how its command was used as a means to obtain status. Young people engaged in what I see as verbal shootouts using words and phrases as bullets. While it’s exciting my ears just can’t keep up the pace. One young lady who billed herself as, Deborah the Poet, spoke so fast if there wasn’t saliva on her tongue her mouth would have burst into flame.
At one point in the program, the subject turned to the debate in education and political circles over the value of permitting black English to be used or taught in the public schools. I don’t know the current status of the question but in the 1990s there was an intense discussion in school districts and in both state and national legislatures about the propriety of permitting what was called ebonics. It seemed to be a hot issue for mostly white conservative politicians who argued we should all be speaking a sanitized version of the King’s English. Much like today’s argument over people speaking Spanish as their first language.
What I got out of the debate was that the crackers lost and ebonics came out on top. The popularity of hip hop is universal and along with it has come linguistic freedom.
While I still maintain that language is a major adhesive holding our society together I have to admit there is plenty of room for diversity. The spokespersons of Talking Black in America were as fluently ambidextrous in language as Michael Jordan was in making lay-up shots. I’m just glad I never had to teach in one of those extremely diverse urban schools where two dozen languages were spoken as the first language. I got to teach in a school where we all spoke hill jack Southern Ohioese.
A final note. In the footage of people engaged in the Ebonics debate, there was a young Maxine Waters making the case for ebonics. She was then, as she is now, more than capable of arguing her case and being prepared to take the Trumps of the world to the woodshed for a verbal ass whipping.