On grounds of just straight communicability, Black English (BE hereafter) is considered: substandard, inferior, unsophisticated, a cop out, lazy, improper, bad, as denoting criminality, retrograde, reinforcing stigmas and stereotypes, hard, inappropriate, and: “the speech lingo of criminals, drug dealers, pushers, teenage hoodlums, and various sundry hustlers who speak in ‘mafuckers’ and ‘pussy-coppin raps’,” to quote Rosina Lippi-Green of 2012.
Nonetheless, though, nothing new. And especially not in the context of how to educate students for whom acquisition of the deemed-acceptable way to communicate is a near impossibility. A riddle, almost. Straight bugged.
Considered this way, Standard Language acquisition is not just a problem for blacks, but for any group of people for whom the language practices, or practiced, in the home is not the standard. And even so, it still gets the overappreciation it fails to show back, like when parents enlist their kids into the rigmarole of standard (English) language acquisition to become first generation dual-language/dialect havers. It’s not uncommon either, in these rites of passages for parents to encourage–and unsurprisingly sometimes through force–a good old ass whupping was what it was for me–their children to stave off portraying a non-English fluency for fear of being distinguished as “inferior” when vying for employment, or something. Entry into a discourse of power.
But writing as a black for whom BE language practices did not personally manifest until middle school, for whom BE was considered by and large literally by every person within the immediacy of my bubble unacceptable and to be reserved for when in congress with my homies–or my niggas–and for whom the research of has earned him just one ride-or-die kindred spirit in this fight. The reality of language discrimination as it relates to viability and visibility is limited to and located within BE-speak.
Indeed, this about linguistic politics: rules that govern who gets to say what, and how; rules that for very long been reinforcing a “white is right” dogma in terms of how things are said, should be said, and what things get said. Yet just another system of control and hegemony and homogeneity designed to pit tongues against one another so as to demonstrate which is superior and isn’t. This’s classically done by way of code switching speech and writing instruction: the idea that certain rhetorical sites call for certain rhetorical acts. And while some educators and promoters–groupies–of code switching be claiming that code switching is not a form of racism–“It is what it is,” as they say–it “be messing writers and readers all the way up, cuz we all been taught to respect the dominant way to write, even if we don’t, can’t, or won’t ever write that way ourselves,” as my man Dr Vay (Vershawn A Young) be saying. “That be hegemony. Internalized oppression. Linguistic self-hate.”
You see, for Young and others like him–others like moi–other like we who does this–championship for an overhaul of linguistic politics in terms of how and who gets to say whatever it is they want to say or needs to be said calls for a reckoning with difference, whether racial, sexual, religious, and on.
Ironically, code switching as most folks out here know it to be and mean is a misnomer; it don’t even mean what people think it mean, I kid you not.
Linguistically-speaking, codeswitching is actually the accommodation of multiple language varieties in a single speech act; not the substitution of one language for another depending on the rhetorical situation. “Spanglish, the simultaneous linguistic production of Spanish and English in the same discourse is an example of this kind of codeswitching” (Young, “Nah”). Black English is another. But translating one language into a more acceptable one technically is not what code switching is; it never was.
Hence: code meshing: a neologism coined by my man Vay himself, who I’ll reinvoke for what it stands for: “Codemeshing is the new codeswitching; it’s multidialectalism and pluralingualism in one speech act, in one paper.” It be what we all be doing when we open our mouths, says Vay: “[blending] dialects, [int’l] languages, local idioms, chat-room lingo, and the rhetorical styles of various ethnic and cultural groups in both formal and informal speech acts” (Young, “Should” italics mine) And I know what y’all gone say, or probably is (or are) already saying.
I’m bugging, right? I’m bugging. I bet y’all thinking, Yo, Dre be tripping not only wit promotin this code meshed mess he talking about–“tambout”–but by employin it hisself like no one watching, like no one gonna judge him. “Yo, Dre setting us back something 50 years with this mess he pulling,” I bet is what y’all probably saying. My favorite line from my favorite book Slaughterhouse-Five is not “So it goes,” but “I know, I know. I know,” says Billy Pilgrim.
And I know. Your Boy ain on that stuff or nothing, though. Let’s just say he dope, but just not like that, aight? Rather: this’s a clarion call almost, for a reckoning with difference qua rhetorical and compositional performances. (And can I just say: re Vay: who mind you, I’ve never actually met in the flesh: how I’ve literally dreamt of him grinding the top of my crown or grabbing onto my nape on some Little Brother-Big Brother stuff as if to say, “Good job, li’l bro,” as if to tap my shoulders with a scepter and dub me Prince of a Breath of Linguistic Fresh-Air, but I digress.) It’s like Vay say in the spirit of Victor Villanueva, a Puerto Rican scholar: “The blended form is our dues” (“Should”) making it so that a standardized form is not a requisite for demonstrating the nonstandard. Echoes really, of what a one late and great James Baldwin said about Black English.
Jame Baldwin: Scribing from St Paul de Vence, France 29 July 1979, asks the question: If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then, Tell Me, What Is?, writing: “The brutal truth is that the bulk of white people in America never had any interest in educating black people, as this could serve white purposes. It is not the black child’s language that is […] despised: It is his experience.” In other words: “The blended form is our dues,” to reinvoke Villanueva.
See, for Baldwin, BE implicates America in a positive feedback loop–i.e., a seemingly ecumenical code switching pedagogy that draws from the language/experience of minorities in order to craft a more deemed-palatable language form–and a vicious cycle of a subjugation by acculturation and assimilation on the part of the blacks. A slavery-driven economy. It was in this new found predicament that African slaves established communication lines–a language come by means of brutal necessity, the rules of the language dictated by what the language must convey, Baldwin says–amongst themselves. “If two black people,” Baldwin says, “…had been able to speak to each other, the institution of chattel slavery could never had lasted as long as it did.”
Calling it a “mighty achievement”–with Toni Morrison in the background crying “sheer intelligence”–BE as Baldwin sees it is hardly dialectal, for “if this absolutely unprecedented journey does not indicate that black English is not a language, I’m curious to know what definition of language is to be trusted.” And language definitions vary just so you know. Or rather, they don’t, just different folks have different qualifiers for what denotes a language. Baldwin: “Language incontestably reveals the speaker” while it is “meant to define the other” who is “refusing to be defined by a language that has never been able to recognize him.”
Vay would say this a no-brainer seeing as how codeswitching is connected to a pernicious “separate but equal” ideology whose ideologues, albeit well-meaning (insofar as much as wanting their students to succeed) are channeling Jim Crow. “Yet…to teach students that the two language varieties cannot mix and must remain apart belies the claim of linguistic equality and replicates the same phony logic of Jim Crow legislation–that held that the law recognized the equality of the races yet demanded their separation” (“Nah”). And quoting Gerald Graff: “Linguistic integration is better than linguistic separation.” Which is a hard capsule for some out here to imbibe, understanding that Standard (White) English more or less was the X factor in making their economic/academic/platonic/romantic dreams come true. And while I’m inclined to say this is, or could be, true, I’m a pachycephhlosaurus.
In the realm of American society, subscription to and appeal to the sensibilities of the dominant consensus has afforded and still affords many the American Dream-like photo finishes. Problem is though that many, for example, “dont, cant, or wont write that way ourselves.” Which is to say that not everyone going to be able to employ Standard English, appeal to the dominant like that, and/or even wants to. The response to this, though, en masse, in toto, seems to be: “It is what it is.”
Or: “I know, I know.”
Or: “So it goes.”
And: I know. No state or nat’l test gone check for proficiency in BE the same way it not going to check for mastery of Spanglish the same it’s not going to check to see how tight someone’s code switching is. Prescription of the standard doesn’t take into account the linguistic reality of a test takers, standard-speaking or not, in measuring their proficiency. But peep game, because I’m not about to leave y’all in the dark.
Enter Allen Smith: “no body of men and no computer, can survey, analyze and synthesize the speaking and writing of over 2000 million delightfully varied American Citizen” (as qtd in Young’s “Nah”) Smith: “[there is] no textbook or grammar which does in fact offer the definitive and comprehensive standard to apply in each and every individual choice of expression.”….
Hard to think now, though, that those very folks, ones we celebrate and consider heroes today for their bravery in the face of a literal monolith such as slavery, discrimination, segregation–a whole system of inequality–at the time of their hair brain scheming, were considered criminals in the eyes of the law. Indeed: Ta-Nehisi Coates, correspondent for The Atlantic journal and author of the freshly published Between the World and Me, writes: “Black criminality is literally written into the American Constitution,” e.g., “The Fugitive Slave Clause declared that ‘Any Person held to Service or Labour’ who escaped from one state to another could be ‘delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.” The aforementioned quotables are, granted, extracted from Coates’ investigative analysis of black people–or the eponymous Negro Family: the Case for Nat’l Action–in an age of mass incarceration. “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration” explores a half-baked, zero-sum game plan to address the “deficit of unemployed black men of strong character,” said a one Patrick D Moynihan, the cynosure of which is the epicenter for Coates’. And: for Moynihan: collapse of the black family in America could be located in the patriarchy not displayed or substantiated or exemplified, or any of those at the time it was written, in black fathers. Moynihan: “That the Negro American has survived at all is extraordinary–a less people [might’ve] simple died out, as indeed others have…But it may not be supposed that the Negro American community has not paid a fearful price for the incredible mistreatment to which it has been subjected over the past three centuries.” To reinvade Lippi-Green of Standard Language ideology: “a bias toward an abstracted, idealized, homogeneous spoken language which is imposed and maintained by the dominant bloc institutions and which names as its model the written language, but which is drawn primarily from the spoken language of the upper middle class.” “A child cannot be taught by anyone who’s demand, essentially, is that the child repudiate his experience, and all that gives him sustenance, and enter a limbo in which he will no longer be black, and in which he knows that he can never be white.” Inherent in this concept that Baldwin brings up is one of DuBoisian double consciousness, the idea that the blacks is constantly measuring his blackness against that of his very own blackness that of the predominating white monolithic patriarchal world system. Interestingly, this concept of staving off culture, or in this blackness, is connected to a famously practiced linguistic strategy and writing instruction strategy across America: code switching: the idea that certain languages are employed to meet the specs of a certain rhetorical sites. That, say, you speak one way with your homies, maybe, and another to your, say, public servants, e.g. teachers, the HR-person interviewing you for a job, a police officers, judge, teachers, you get it. The idea is that the absence of the “speech lingo of criminals” automatically, somehow, qualifies one to whom the language is associated to access to power, or discourses of power. Find it unsurprising then that in 2010 Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid would attribute now-POTUS Barack Obama’s mass appeal to the fact that he practiced no “negro dialect,” which may or may not be linked to his (Obama’s) practiced code switching performance: the widely popular, and practiced–and accepted–idea that certain rhetorical sites call for certain rhetorical performances. That you, say, speak and act one way with your homies and another at your J O B.