In the LMWP Institute, we read books about teaching writing and drafted reviews for each other. Here’s my review of one of the books I chose to read this summer, focusing particularly on the concluding, “so what” chapter. Our discussion of this text threatened to divide our otherwise warm community, so I offer this as one turn of talk in an ongoing conversation. I’m a White professor listening closely to the research of two Black scholars.
Alim, H. S., & Smitherman, G. (2012). Articulate while black: Barack Obama, language, and race in the U.S. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Should students’ Black Language be accepted in school? Should we correct sentences that don’t follow the rules of standard English when students are talking to us, talking to each other, writing first drafts, or editing final drafts? Alim and Smitherman tackle this question head on. In their last chapter, they even use the verb “should” to speak directly to educators: “Rather than interpreting Black language behavior through the lens of Black inferiority, ignorance, or violence, these creative language practices should be utilized for educational purposes” (177). Are they advocating that students be encouraged to express themselves using the very strongest “creative language practices” that their home languages have to offer? Sometimes, but not all the time. They insist that students of all backgrounds be taught the rules of Standard Written English, and we all know that good teaching involves lots of practice. What Alim and Smitherman want is for students to “be fluent in multiple language varieties, including Black Language and ‘standard English’” (168), and they lament that “schools continue to fail in their teaching of ‘standard English’ to Black students” (168).
What accounts for this failure? Alim and Smitherman argue that “many youth can learn ‘standard English’ grammar, [but] they resist the constant and unrelenting imposition of White linguistic norms by their teachers.” They continue, “It’s one thing to learn grammar rules but quite another to be rewarded for ‘sounding White’ (as if there is something inherently wrong with ‘sounding Black’)” (175). As a White teacher, I was convicted by Toni Morrison’s words that open chapter six:
The language, only the language….It is the thing that black people love so much–the saying of words, holding them on the tongue, experimenting with them, playing with them. It’s a love, a passion….The worst of all possible things that could happen would be to lose that language….It’s terrible to think that a child with five different present tenses comes to school to be faced with books that are less than his own language. And then to be told things about his language, which is him, that are sometimes permanently damaging….This is a really cruel fallout of racism. (The New Republic, March 1981)
What are the se “five different present tenses” that Morrison references? I don’t know exactly, and that’s part of the problem. I know a lot about the rules of Standard Written English, but not so many of the rules that make Black Language so resonant, so poetic. Alim and Smitherman outline some of the linguistic strengths of Black language in this chapter, not only explaining twelve rules of the Black language syntactic system (copula absence, use of equatives, and negative inversion, for example) but also artistic and creative cultural modes of discourse.
So what teaching practices does this suggest, exactly? How do we teach the rules of Standard Written English while honoring the strengths of Black language? Teach them both. Teach a critical awareness of the two dialects side by side–all of the dialects, actually, that circulate in students’ subcultures. Teachers, they suggest, need to educate ourselves, not only about what standard verb tenses are (what is the present perfect tense again?) but also about the rules that govern the dialects that our students speak–because there are rules (see the examples above). We do not need to pretend to be experts of any of it, but to model a meta-linguistic curiosity for our students; model being sleuths of language variety in our world. Alim and Smitherman argue that this stance of humble curiosity and attentive study of the grammar rules not just of White English but also Black Language can have an influence for good in our society weakened by social inequity: “The critical linguistic perspective that we adopt in this book should be taught in schools in order to bring about social change” (169).