Black Language Matters: How High School Students Taught Me about My Black Language Use

I learned about my own language use from my high school students circa 1996.  I no longer remember what we were reading or what we were discussing, something about language politics.  One student, let’s call him Shakim, remarked loudly: yeah, Ms. K., that’s what you do.  I had no clue what he meant.  According to the class, I use four different types of English and since they had names for each type and seemed to have practiced it all out, I guess these were common understandings, commonly understood by all except me.

Screen Shot 2014-10-21 at 8.39.57 PMMy first English had many names that, out of deference to those who might be reading here, I will simply collate and say: THE PLACE OF RACE.  This is a kind of English that I use with folk who I think are racist.  My words are very annunciated and deliberate (and I don’t blink much but I may squint).  I am as “proper,” if you will, as I will get.  Basically, it means that I do not like your stank behind and believe, like Public Enemy said in “Can’t Truss It…no, no, no, no”, that years ago you would have been my ship’s captain (and by SHIP, I mean slaveship, not the Love Boat or Princess Cruise Line). Here are the relevant lines (weblinks take you to Rap Genius’s explanation):

Look here comes the judge, watch it here he come now
(Don’t sentence me judge, I ain’t did nothin’ to nobody)
I can only guess what’s happenin’
Years ago he woulda been the ship’s captain
Gettin’ me bruised on a cruise, what I got to lose
Lost all contact, got me layin’ on my back…
427 to the year, do you understand
That’s why it’s hard for the black to love the land

billie holiday's strange fruit

PLACE OF RACE language means I want nothing to do with you and I make sure I keep a FAR distance.  I had never told these students who I didn’t like at the school and who I thought was racist but they listed them off like a readymade grocery list based on their own interactions and my strategy of public address.  I assured them that they were right and that I thought these folk had some strange fruit hanging from their family trees… the students knew EXACTLY what I meant with that sentence. We all had a good laugh because these were exactly the folk who constantly corrected students’ language, telling them to switch like me… never guessing that the switch they got from me was solely to mark them as white supremacists (this includes sell-out folk of color).

ebonicsMy next English was something my students loosely called SISTA-GURL.  I’m not sure if we said sista-gurl back then, but SISTA was in their phrasing.  This is a cross-cultural communication style with a sista-vibe.  It’s basically an equal-opportunity version of Ebonics that I use with people who I like. It cuts across race, gender, culture, sexuality, class.  I assume my interlocutor understands my language and I talk freely with them, even if that person is not an Ebonics speaker.  This means here that I assume this person has the ability to hear black people as intelligent and worthy and so I talk as a black person, not as a clone of a local/world- news anchor(white)man.

My next English was called G.W.A and that I remember distinctly: GRANDDAUGHTER WITH ATTITUDE. My students knew that my paternal grandmother and family were from Alabama so they told me that a southern accent (perhaps, Midwest/UpSouth/Kuntry might be more apt) sometimes shows itself in my speech.  This was especially true for them when they heard me talk to older black women.  They thought that I talked to them in the same way that I might talk to my grandmother. To them, the sounds of my words even changed. I am still raunchy, but I show deference at the same time.   There were many older black women working in the cafeteria, in the main office, etc so they claimed they heard me in G.W.A. style a lot. The G.W.A. part, a riff off of N.W.A., might make more sense when you hear about my last English (I also did my undergraduate degree at Stanford so any California joke/reference that students could throw up in the mix always came with FULL FORCE).

My final English was what they called STR8-UP GANGSTA.  I had no idea what that meant.  Apparently, this is what I use when I talk to my closest, closest friends, all of whom, at the time, were deeply enmeshed with Hip Hop.  I wave my arms, I bop my head to the side, and I cuss up a storm, dropping the F-bomb as much as I possibly can, even sprinkled with a lot of: “I wish a muthafucka would.” I gasped when the students told me this because this is all actually quite true.  I do all that…with some folk.  What made me gasp was my shock that my students heard me cuss.  I do not curse in my classroom but outside, well, now that’s a whole different story.  On many occasions, my friends would visit my classrooms or go on field trips with us.  Here’s how it went down: my students read my lips and watched me on the opposite subway platform when we would depart from one another.  SCAN-DA-LOUS (or rather skan’less if you want to spell it phonologically)!  I was stunned that they were watching so closely but then I remember something: on more than one occasion, some teacher or administrator warned students that Hip Hop would hold them back; and in those cases, all they ever had to do was point to one of my “Hip Hop friends” and their potpourri of degrees from the “top” colleges in the country.  Of course, they were paying attention!

TTI_LOGOI remembered all of this as I was reading Chike Akua’s message on his email listserv from The Teacher Transformation Institute today.  In that email, Mr. Akua shares “7 Cultural Assets of Urban Students” from his book Education for Transformation: The Keys to Releasing the Genius of African American Students. He reminds us to see the cultural assets of urban students.  Yes, I said, cultural assets!  One of these cultural assets that especially impacted me today involves urban students’ intuition: “urban students can tell whether you want to be there teaching them, whether you like them, and whether you think they can excel and achieve.  They are very intuitive.  The attitude, spirit and energy that the teacher walks in is critical.”  All of the 7 Cultural Assets that Mr. Akua explains resonated deeply with me. Naming one of these assets as INTUITION is brilliant. Just think about the intuition (and knowledge of language use) that my high school students had in order to clarify, for me, what my black language is and does based on the safety and humanity of my context.

It’s been difficult in these past few weeks to re-charge and get back to things that mean the most to me, to bypass an incessant institutional discourse about how “our” students cannot write (i.e., don’t have language), to ignore the lament of yesteryears when “we” had those good immigrants of Western European descent as students, to sidestep the insistence that negative student evaluations or policing of rampant plagiarism means that one has “high standards,” to move past the beliefs that those students at that “good school” over there can do those things but not these students right here.  These institutional discourses do not match the CULTURAL ASSETS Mr. Akua reminds us about and that hardly seems a coincidence. Mr. Akua’s inspiration came at exactly the right time for me today.  Recognizing my students’ intuition (and my OWN) as a cultural asset is a strength I intend to never forget, overlook, or underestimate.