Freire and Ebonics
Freire and Ebonics
Two friends came to me outraged last week about a heated discussion regarding the use of Ebonics in the classroom and whether or not it should be fostered, or tolerated in schools. A white male student blatantly said that Standard American English is the only acceptable form of English in the United States. I am not here to say whether I agree or disagree with his stance on the topic, but rather to provide a series of images related to it. What was difficult about hearing the man speak was not the words he was saying, but the position from which he spoke, he was white, privileged, and conservative, and one could infer that his main contact with African American Vernacular comes from Hip Hop, or the words that have somehow made their way into the vocabularies of the young white and privileged. He is speaking as someone who has only had to master one language his whole life and fully understands the privilege in that.
As children of color, we have an early understanding that there are two different English’s in America. When we go to the banks, the Laundromats, interviews, or even restaurants with our mothers we hear that voice. It is often raised past her normal pitch, has a friendly overtone and is tangled between pleases and thank you’s. This voice is made most obvious following a stern scolding or even a belt to backside, saved by the ring of a telephone. When we are young our exposure to English is either in the form of discipline, command, warning, cooing, and pride, spoken by our parents with accents and Ebonics. When our mothers are speaking on the phone, they are speaking to him, the white man who has had his whole life to grasp Standard English.
This being the first language we learn, we bring it to school with us along with our lunchables, Capri suns and fruit by the foot and carry it like our Staples bought back packs. Upon entering the classroom and hanging up our coats, bags, and lunch boxes, the time comes to find a spot on the rug. In many ways, the rug of my kindergarten classroom was my first introduction the way society works – I just didn’t know it yet. I learned to stay in one place, stay seated, wait until I was recognized to speak my mind, and do well to achieve awards. When we dispersed and went to our activities, is when children of color receive their next hidden lesson: that there is such a thing as “good English”.
Most children have had the experience of drawing a picture in the early years of their schooling, and telling the teacher what it is about. I had ran to the store to get a popsicle. And at that time, we are too young to read what the teacher has scribed : I was running to the store to get a popsicle. We are dubbed before we even know how to write.
Friere articulates this educative practice which I contextualize in language by discussing standpoint ideology “from the standpoint of such an ideology, only one road is open as far as educative practice is concerned: adapt the student to what is inevitable, to what cannot be changed. In this view, what is essential is technical training, so that the student can adapt and, therefore, survive.” (Friere 7) In the case of myself and every other child in an education system, Standard English is a must; it is essential to success as a member of North American society.
What is specifically inevitable- to people of color, and also working class people of all races and ages- is the struggle of adaptation to Standard English. The standpoint ideology Friere is referring to is fatalism which he describes the most common form to be neo liberalism. From my personal standpoint every way in which the world makes sense to me is coming from a place of being black, female, middle class, and a student. When I apply the meaning of neo liberalism to Ebonics and my childhood as well children all over the country I interpret Friere’s use of the neo liberalism in terms of language as currency and see the emphasis on Standard American English and the destruction of English based in an enslaved past.
From my field placement I learned that being a teacher of color who is the same race as your students presents the possibility that you speak their language, making the distinction between what language is appropriate in public and in private difficult. As a young black woman in the classroom I have responded to children’s questions without realizing they were not phrased properly because I know the language and understood what the students were saying instantly due to a shared culture. The process of introducing children to written English takes a certain level of awareness from the teacher. In order to teach Standard English to students, the teacher requires literacy in Ebonics, and slang present in Black and Latino communities.
For me, West Indian, African American, and Latino teachers have been the driving forces behind my success because they have been in my shoes. They know what it is like to learn how to write a formal paper in one writing style and verbally get a point across in another. They understand how much courage it takes to speak out in a college classroom after hearing a number of white students convey their ideas clearly and concisely with a vocabulary that is foreign to me. Friere says “…in the context of true learning, the learners will be engaged in a continuous transformation through which they become authentic subjects of the construction and reconstruction of what is being taught, side by side with the teacher, who is equally subject to the same project.” Which relates to the way writing English shapes students, teachers over time. In cases where I have been in a classroom with a dominant white voice and a teacher of color, I have been transformed the most. What is honest is that a colored authority figure is often what it takes for me to be reminded that I belong.
I find that after being dubbed as children, writing a fair share of applications and enduring the reading and comprehension of standardized testing, I have been constructed.
After so much conditioning to get to a school such as Bryn Mawr, I found myself embarrassed this week. I was given the opportunity to read the work of Zora Neale Hurston, out loud and I found it physically impossible. I was presented with the opportunity to read Their Eyes Were Watching God, A recovered feminist text with the vernacular of southern black folks in one the classroom of one of the most prestigious schools in the country, and I, a young black woman with southern ties, could only trip and fall over the words. This experience was the result of a larger system that finds Black English worthless. While the use of code switching has real value and Ebonics in the public sphere has its own perception-based implications, I cannot deny the irony of the situation.
Furthermore I cannot deny how much of this country is excluded by the notion that there is only one legitimate form of the language when they go on to read an author who has decided to take the novel into their own hands, and cannot their audience cannot read it. My fear is that like myself, a person will one day find their tongue is uncomfortable in their own mouth, as they try to speak the Ebonics they once knew. There are words used to depict Black life that don’t exist in standard English, because its’ originators have not lived a Black experience. This is the root of the limitations that Standard English places on young people of color, a struggle to communicate with white America by telling their stories in another language.