“i’m is talking right”: how the stigma around black language holds us back from liberation

January 17, 2018
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By Jae Nichelle / Black Youth Project*, AFROPUNK Contributor

There has been a language division among Black Americans for decades: African American Vernacular English (AAVE) vs. Standard American English (SAE). AAVE is a dialect used by Black people in social settings that pervades hip-hop culture, while SAE is the dialect generally taught in schools.

Most people across racial lines do not speak Standard American English, yet AAVE is the most stigmatized alternative—and the most debated.

This division has always been about class. SAE was created based on the speech of the old American elite, and this elitism has since trickled down. After the Civil Rights movement, many upper/middle class Blacks denounced the use of AAVE, calling it “improper” and “uneducated” while working class Blacks called the users of SAE assimilationists. This has hardly changed.

I was raised in a middle class (ish) lifestyle. My parents spoke to me primarily in SAE, and I spoke that way too. I do not know how I learned this—maybe from TV and school—but I grew up thinking that AAVE was an inferior English. I remember being told repeatedly that no adult would take me seriously if I spoke it, and the infamous day that my Black English teacher told my class that “‘ain’t’ ain’t a word.”

At the same time, I was teased by my Black peers for “talking white” because I spoke so “properly.” Stuck between these conflicting ideals, I remember thinking, “well… what am I supposed to do?”

Many people have (historically and presently) considered AAVE to be bad English. It is not. Nor is it slang. In fact, many studies done from the 1970’s to the present have classified AAVE as a dialect of English or its own language resulting from a combination of English words and Niger-Congo rooted grammar. AAVE has its own words, syntax, and rules. More importantly, it is part of a rich Black culture.

But even though AAVE can be used to express ideas of any level of thought, the language is still ridiculed in education and in the workplace, despite being widely accepted in pop culture.

At a summer camp for Black youth, I told one of the children I was instructing to sit down and pay attention. She responded, “I’m is!” Almost immediately, she was scolded by another Black counselor who told her that her response was wrong. When the child was asked what she should have said, she answered “I am.”

The funny thing is that this child, no older than 7, clearly already knew the SAE version of what she wanted to say and still chose to use her version instead. By the exasperated look on her face when she was corrected, it was also clear that she was tired of being told how to speak. We should all be that tired.

Almost four decades ago, a federal court case in Ann Arbor Michigan ruled that schools must take Black students’ home language (AAVE) into account when teaching them. The case came about after barriers between the teachers’ language vs. the students language were discovered to affect the students’ learning. Unfortunately, not much changed.

This is only one of the many examples of how very intentionally ignored speakers of AAVE have been, even we we take our issues to the legal system. For users of AAVE, how often did you have an educator who told you that the way you speak is perfectly fine? We are taught to code-switch in or out of our speech from a young age. This is how you can speak at home, this is how you speak at school, this is how you speak at work.

Instead of teaching Black kids to leave their identity at home, we should be pushing for more teachers who understand them.

“A common language, which we possess, is one

of the defining characteristics of a nation.”

— Dr. Geneva Smitherman.

The stigma against AAVE is reiterated even by influential Black people like  Jesse Jackson, who once opposed a 1996 proposal to teach “Black English” in schools. Rev. Jackson called it unnecessary, arguing “you don’t have to go to school to learn to talk garbage.”

This stigma is also used as a tool for Black comedians. It drenches education. But we should be fed up with letting people tell us how to speak and with telling each other how to speak.

AAVE is a language that is distinctly ours, and we should push for it to be recognized as such. Linguist Geneva Smitherman suggests a tri-lingual approach for Black people: SAE, AAVE, and the knowledge of another foreign language. I agree with this approach.

Although AAVE is a language that we need to preserve and fight for, we are way passed the days where speaking Standard English is “a white thing” or a marker of assimilation. Now that I am in higher education and am studying writing and linguistics in more depth, I see a very reverential use of AAVE amongst Black scholars and writers. The upside is that the use of AAVE in intellectual spaces subverts the idea that it cannot be a language of scholarship. The downside: AAVE becomes associated with authentic Blackness, pressuring some people to adopt it to feel “Blacker.”

While AAVE is a product and reservoir of Black culture, speaking AAVE is not what makes you Black.

Some Black people use AAVE. Some Black people use SAE. Some Black people use neither or both.

Language is an important tool in liberation. In all instances of colonization, the colonizer began by taking away the language of the colonized. They banned native tongues, they called them inferior, and they opened schools where those languages were not taught.

This history can and should be applied to AAVE. The attempts to take away our differing speech have only served to make us bilingual. We can use both sides of the coin to our advantage. Black people speak a range of languages and dialects, and the sooner we can embrace them all, the closer we’ll be to liberation.

Suggested Reading:

Language and Liberation” by Geneva Smitherman (1983)

Appropriating Blackness by E. Patrick Johnson (2003)

You’re Black, So Why Do You Talk White?” by Christopher “Flood the Drummer” Norris (2017)

*This post originally appeared on Black Youth Project

Jae Nichelle is a spoken word artist working towards a B.S. in Linguistics at Tulane University. Her work can be found on Blavity, Vinyl Poetry and Prose, and other literary magazines.