The Demise Of Standard English
By JANE GILVARY, For The Bulletin
Sunday, February 28, 2010Frederick Douglass was an American slave whose master forbade his white mistress to teach him to read and write, which was something that left a deep impression on him. In his autobiographical book Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Douglass explains that “from that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom.” That pathway was literacy. While a slave in Baltimore, Douglass became literate with the clandestine help of his white mistress and a few of his unwitting white boyhood companions.
It wasn’t easy by any means because as Douglass explains, “It is an almost unpardonable offense to teach slaves to read.” Douglass discovered that literacy equaled freedom and sought the precious skills of reading and writing with a dogged intent: “During this time, my copy-book was the board fence, brick wall, and pavement; my pen and ink was a lump of chalk. With these I learned mainly how to write.”
Of course, Douglass went on to become one of the most gifted orators in American history, as well as an equally talented writer, publishing his own anti-slavery paper The North Star and writing his critically acclaimed aforementioned autobiography. His skills and talents even caught the attention of President Lincoln to whom Douglass became a close advisor during the Civil War.
Douglass’ oratorical and writing skills were the gateway to his enormously successful campaign to guarantee voting rights and civil liberties for blacks in America. His 1867 “Appeal to Congress for Impartial Suffrage” published in The Atlantic is a rhetorical masterpiece, an inarguable and flawless petition to Congress for black equality in America.
So Douglass would probably be disturbed to learn that teacher colleges such as those at University of North Carolina at Wilmington (UNC-W) and Penn State University have abandoned the time tested, proven methods for teaching literacy — such as insisting that all students master standard English — for the newer methods of Ebonics, hip-hop literacy, and black English. At UNC-W, education professor Maurice Martinez teaches his future educators in “Teacher, School and Society” what he terms “black English” and cites that “there are rules in black English, and there are rules in Standard English.” Fundamental to the professor’s course is that future educators become literate in black English.
Professor Martinez hopes to educate others on how to communicate with people who use slang in the everyday speech, claiming it as part of black cultural roots. But aren’t schools supposed to be empowering students by teaching standard english instead of encouraging a type of slang that perpetuates oppression and subjugation?
Penn State’s School of Graduate Professional Studies recently offered a workshop that boasts using “Hip-hop as a cultural centerpiece to develop a student’s ability to effectively read, write, speak, and listen.” I sure hope they didn’t use lyrics from an Eminem song. Remember when education included teachers’ undying efforts to rid our language of slang? Now they’re apparently encouraging it. Were Douglass still alive, he’d probably write an eloquent lament about the demise of the Queen’s English at the hands of Young Jeezy, Lil’ Wayne, and the Beastie Boys.
Black columnist Dr. Walter E. Williams, the John M. Olin Distinguished Professor of Economics at George Mason University since 1980 rails against this kind of teaching in a recent syndicated column entitled “Black Opportunity Destruction.” He refutes the idea that black english or Ebonics are part of black cultural roots. Mr. Williams, a former resident of North Philly’s Richard Allen Housing Project during the 1940s and 50s (along with comedian Bill Cosby) says that during that time “no one spoke black English,” and that the difference between proper and improper speech “has nothing to do with cultural roots of black people” and everything to do with teachers being “politically correct and lazy.”
Ask other successful black Americans such as Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, former Oklahoma Congressman J.C. Watts, Republican Party Chairman Michael Steele, or former Secretary of Education Rod Paige, and I’m sure they’d testify that a great part of their success in life was due to their ability to read, write, and speak well.
As a long-time English teacher I would concur with Professor Williams’ assertion that teachers who endorse any kind of slang in their classrooms, including hip-hop lyrics, do their students a great disservice and only sustain illiteracy. There’s an undercurrent to hip-hop slang and Ebonics that oppresses the people who use them to communicate — black or white.
Orators like Douglass went to great lengths to speak clearly and in a refined manner in order to have the greatest rhetorical appeal; hip-hop slang and the culture attached to it undoes all of that in a three minute song that glorifies violence, soft porn, gang life, objectification of women, and crime. It’s ironic that the hip-hop culture itself was so attracted to candidate Obama’s articulate and refined manner of speaking that its enthusiasts came out in record numbers to vote for him. Douglass hit the mark when he said that “A little learning, indeed, may be a dangerous thing, but the want of learning is a calamity to any people.” Especially the want of learning standard English.
Jane Gilvary is a red, white, and blue American from the City of Brotherly Love. She loves Jesus, Johnny Cash, and the U.S. Constitution.
Dated: 4:00 AM