in progress edited by Daniel
Department of Adult Education, Community Development and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)
"Yo! What's up?
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.
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
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
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.
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”
In 1998 a journalism fellow at
the U.S. Heritage Foundation, stated the following:
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.
“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)
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#b4. http://www.memfrica.com/ebonics.html
6. http://fsweb.berry.edu/academic/hass/ejohnson/eb/amende~1.txl Original Oakland amendment.
7. “Talkin and Testifyin (1986) “ from
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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