The way the inner-city students spoke and used English stood out from the day we met. For the poor white students I simply thought “southern dialect.” For the black students, “bad English.”
Weeks passed before my thoughts righted themselves. I moved from “They speak bad English” to “They don’t speak good English” to “They don’t speak as I do” to “That means there’s only one way to speak English.”
That became the turning point: There’s only one way to speak English—Dee Ready’s way. She knows all the rules. The grammar. The usage. The syntax. She’s the standard by which to measure good English. Ah! Ha! And double Ah! Ha!
I began to listen closely to the language of the students—both white and black. The idioms used by those white children amazed me. They had colorful ways of describing everything. They used words I hadn’t heard before.
I don’t mean four-letter words. I mean what they called the step that led to a front door—the one on which a person could sit. What they called an ice-cream drink from a soda fountain. How they pronounced roof. So many terms and pronunciations different from those with which I was familiar. This to me was a southern dialect.
Then I began to truly listen to the language of the black students. The language I’d labeled “bad English.” Slowly, I became aware that all the black students used a similar syntax. Their usage was the same. Intrigued, I listened carefully when they spoke. In a notebook, I wrote down their sentences. Their response to questions. The way they asked questions.
The set of rules that emerged excited me. It seemed as ingrained as mine. Perhaps what I was hearing was Black English. Why shouldn’t people who could trace their background to the South and to Africa speak English differently from me?
When I’m puzzled, I research. I started reading dictionary definitions and etymologies, encyclopedias, and books on linguistics. There I encountered the words standard and nonstandard English—or substandard.
This riled me. These students weren’t “nonstandard” or “substandard.” Their language did not, as some sociologists suggested, prove they were not as inherently smart as “white” people. Daily I taught these students. I’d come to know their capabilities.
Some sociologists proposed that the way blacks spoke proved they were innately inferior. No, their language showed only that they spoke differently from those sociologists. Not worse. Not better. Just differently.
These ruminations led me to apply to the University of Minnesota to obtain a Master’s Degree in American Studies. I wanted to understand the poverty of these inner-city students and its implications, the politics that lead to poverty, the history and literature of the South, the culture of a country that embraced racism, the reasons the students’ families had come north. I wanted to discover if there truly was something called “Black English.” To be an effective teacher, I needed to know more.
My mind teemed with questions. Perhaps professors, books, and experiences at the university held some answers for me.
(Continued on Saturday . . . )
This series, in which I’ve shared my quiet activism, began with “Call Me Stubborn” in January. On Saturday, I’ll take you with me to the University of Minnesota for the next adventure.
Photo of haze by Dan on freedigitalphotos.net
Photo of rainbow by Dr. Joseph Valks on freedigitalphotos.net