Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education, Community Development and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)

1996

Ebonics officially recognized by school board as native language of African-American children

 

"Yo! What's up?
That low-top fade on your head is played out, G. 
Why you all up in my grill, I'm jus’ rolling with my homies?! 
Get to steppin' cuz I'm fixin' to pep ya! 
We outta here 5000, G”*

In the mid-‘90s, the style of speech of African American children at schools in Oakland, California was so dramatically different from standard English, that teachers were not able to comprehend what they were saying. Since these children were performing poorly in school, they failed to acquire the methods of speaking required to succeed in the world outside their neighborhoods.

Traditionally schools have treated this kind of speech by children as wrong or sloppy, without acknowledging skills, creativity and knowledge the children can build on.  Their form of speech, known as “Ebonics”, was considered a type of Black English. 

Although the roots of these dialects can be historically traced from African-Americans, through jive or jazz language and spoken word poetry, the invention of rap music in the late ‘70s and its subsequent growth in popularity meant that by the mid-1990’s, hip hop culture became the musical vehicle by which Ebonics traveled.  Rap acts like Public Enemy, N.W.A., Tupac Shakur, Nas, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five and even Puffy Combs were influencing speech patterns everywhere because of their pop cultural presence on MTV and in the media.   Many African-Americans built on the language twists of rap music and Ebonics “dialects” to express themselves. (1)

In 1996 The Oakland Unified School District Board of Education assessed a task force which studied problems in Oakland schools in general and also to find out why African-American students were scoring low on standardized tests and had low grades, in comparison to other racial or ethnic groups. (2)

Recommendations from the Board’s panel were published in the Oakland Resolution in 1996, which called for changes in schools but also declared  “Ebonics” African Language Systems as the native language of African-American children, genetically based and not a dialect of American English.  The Oakland board trustees unanimously voted for what became America’s first education policy recognizing ebonics as the primary language of many students, comparing their language needs with those of immigrant children.  Teachers were then required to understand the characteristics of their students’ speech so that they could assist children in learning standard English by encouraging them to compare it with the Ebonics speech.

The American media focused on the fact that Oakland was making Ebonics its official language, and misreported that the teaching of English would be replaced by Ebonics.  The uproar and backlash from this media angle was immense.  Many debated the racial implications of the Oakland school board’s vote to declare Black English a separate language. Some African American leaders like Jesse Jackson and Maya Angelou said they believed the Oakland decision “insults the intelligence of African American children”.  Others called it a cynical effort to get federal money for bilingual education. (3)  Some people argued that Ebonics was an imperfectly learned approximation to real English, while linguists claimed it was a dialect of American English, related to Southern speech with its history of African slaves and language twists to hide meaning from white slave owners who insisted on “English” being spoken. 

Example: "Sayin' 1555 how I'm livin'" (Public Enemy lyric) where 1555 refers to the year the first slaveships arrived in America (4)

Following the world-wide debate it had sparked, the Oakland school board published a revised resolution on January 15, 1997, to stress that it was only trying to underline the need to use second language learning techniques to help Oakland’s black students make the transition from Ebonics to standard English.  (5) Other school boards have since debated whether or not to acknowledge Ebonics as a legitimate language to be taught in classes across America.

According to the Oakland amendment, “Whereas, standardized tests and grade scores will be remedied by  application of a program that teachers and instructional assistants, who are certified in the methodology of African Language Systems principles used to transition students from the language patterns they bring to school to English. The certified teachers of these students will be provided incentives including, but not limited to salary differentials.  (6)  As Puff Daddy would say, “It’s all about the Benjamins” (money, referring to the portrait on American bills) While financial reward was given as an incentive for teachers to understand the culturally-unique dialect of the African-American student, it would seem that this policy was still mired in racism.

Meanwhile, the public continues to debate the merits and roots of Ebonics.   Linguist Geneva Smitherman has argued "main structural components" of Black Vernacular English are "based on African language rules." She noted a number of rules of usage that are shared by West African languages and Black Vernacular English, including the repetition of noun subject with pronoun: “my father, he work there”, the use of the same form of noun for singular and plural: “one boy; five boy”, and the use of the same verb form for all subjects: “I know; you know; he know; we be; they be”   (7)

In 1998 a journalism fellow at the U.S. Heritage Foundation, stated the following:

“Elevating bad grammar and street slang to the status of a language is not the way to raise standards of achievement for our children. . . . There’s nothing worse that a school board could do to ruin a child’s self-esteem than to create a special language for blacks. . . . I mean, it’s one thing to ‘get black’ with friends and family members in private and quite another to try to elevate a form of bad English, regardless of its origin, to the level of a language.”(8)

The question remains as to whether or not this “Ebonics” language usage is justifiable and valuable outside of African-American circles.  Inside schools, it remains up to the teachers to educate themselves about the culture and language of their students in order to promote learning and racial understanding.
“Peace out.”
  

* Hey you, what’s happening?
Your hairstyle is no longer fashionable, guy.
Why are you in my teeth (or face) being aggressive with me, I’m just hanging out with my homeboys (close friends).
Get out of here because I’m going to BEAT you up!
We’re disappearing as fast as an Audi 5000 car, gangster.
 

(from http://www.memfrica.com/ebonics.html)

ENDNOTES:

1. http://www.nyu.edu/classes/crisis/ebonics.html

2. http://www.rethinkingschools.org/Archives/12_01/ebguest.htm

3. Paul Shukovsky, "Stanford says no to Ebonics push here", Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 27, 1996, C1 ;  http://www.edbriefs.com/wa96-97/wa01.06.97.html#b

4. http://www.memfrica.com/ebonics.html

5. http://www.emich.edu/~linguist/topics/ebonics/ebonics-res2.html

6. http://fsweb.berry.edu/academic/hass/ejohnson/eb/amende~1.txl Original Oakland amendment.

7. Talkin and Testifyin (1986) “ from http://www.africana.com/Utilities/Content.html?&../cgi-bin/banner.pl?banner=Education&../Articles/tt_262.htm

8. James Clyde Sellman, “Black Vernacular English or Ebonics”, http://www.africana.com/Utilities/Content.html?&../cgi-bin/banner.pl?banner=Education&../Articles/tt_262.htm

Prepared by Larissa Gulka (OISE/UT)

Citation: Gulka, Larissa (2002). 1996: Ebonics officially recognized by school board as native language of African-American children. In Daniel Schugurensky (Ed.), History of Education: Selected Moments of the 20th Century [online]. Available:  http://fcis.oise.utoronto.ca/~daniel_schugurensky/assignment1/1996ebonics.html  (date accessed).

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