Ebonics is trending on Twitter right now and I stuck my head in real quick to see what the fuss was about. I ended up writing a little thread about it because, when I was growing up, I remember “Ebonics” as a term, and then it just sort of disappeared. Now everybody says AAVE (African American Vernacular English) and Ebonics is almost a bad word. Black people don’t use it. Linguists don’t use it. But what happened to it?
If you have a negative reaction to the word “Ebonics,” you’re not alone. A lot of people, especially those who were paying attention to the news in the mid-1990s, have the same reaction, but let’s go back to the 70s.
Robert Williams, a Black psychologist, came up with the term “Ebonics” in 1973 as a combination of ebony and phonics to give a new name for the way many Black Americans speak. Before that, the most widely used term was “nonstandard Negro English” which sounds like Black people took English and messed it up. It’s nonstandard communication. It’s wrong because it’s not regular English. Ebonics, on the other hand, is its own word with no relation to “English” as a term.
Researchers and educators have put a lot of effort into studying the racial achievement gap for decades, but especially since the integration of schools. There are a lot of factors that contribute to this educational environment where Black kids don’t succeed at the same rate as white kids, and most of them are roadblocks stemming from racism in America — poverty, school funding, class size, over-disciplining, etc. Ebonics was thought to be another factor. The language white children hear at home is the language they hear in schools and the language on standardized testing. Black children hear Ebonics at home, and when they come to school, they’re just told the way they speak is wrong, without any context for why or how to code-switch.
It’s like Black kids grow up learning to make waffles, but white kids grow up learning to make pancakes, and school is IHOP — they know exactly how to do it when they get there, but Black kids will have to make an adjustment. The theory was proven in experiments where white kids were given standardized tests sprinkled with Ebonics, but with the same subject matter as before. Suddenly, white kids did terribly and Black kids excelled — white kids didn’t know how to make waffles.
Perhaps more important, the teachers didn’t know how to make waffles either, and the American education system would rather punish than instruct. The research started to come to a head in the late 80s and early 90s when teachers started to realize (notice?) that there was a disproportionate number of Black kids in special ed classes and classes for “bad” kids, but they were no less intelligent than their white counterparts. Teachers saw Ebonics as incorrect or broken English, and Black kids were punished for it.
Now we take a detour to…Norway!
There are a lot of Norwegian dialects and there’s not necessarily a standard spoken version the way we have standard American English or standard British English. In school, you learn a standard written version, but when kids come in with their own dialect, they’re not told that it’s wrong and punished for it. They’re taught to relate their dialect to the standard. You make waffles at home, and this is how we will modify that to make pancakes.
Oakland decided to try out a Norwegian model when Black kids came to school speaking Ebonics. Instead of telling them they were wrong, they proposed a more instructive approach where they can relate it to English. Instead of punishing Black kids for making waffles, Oakland wanted their teachers to know how to make waffles so they could help the kids turn their waffles into pancakes. Waffles aren’t bad, but you’ll have to know how to make pancakes.
That’s an important point. Part of the reason Black kids would do poorly on certain tests is the fault of the teachers misunderstanding what the kids themselves were conveying, because the teachers didn’t know the rules of Ebonics.
This was the goal:
“At home, you might say she scared but here we don’t drop the verb “to be” so it’s She is scared.
This had been the standard before:
“She scared…what? What did she scare? Nothing – we are talking about her being scared of something so She IS scared and you are wrong,” without any explanation why.
Oakland had a sound proposal backed by research, but White America lost their proverbial **** over it. Thousands and thousands of news articles were written about Oakland wanting to teach Ebonics to the kids, and Liberals and Conservatives alike agreed that was a terrible idea. Famous Black people weighed in and agreed it was a terrible idea. And you know what? It’s not a great idea. Why teach something in school that will put you at a disadvantage later in life?
But that wasn’t the idea! No one in Oakland was proposing that at all. Why would they need to teach kids Ebonics when the kids already know Ebonics? The goal was to use the language they know — the rules and syntax of language they’re fluent in — as a foundation to build upon.
Oakland is saying They already know how to make waffles, so we can alter that to help them make pancakes.
White America heard Everybody has to make waffles now and they were enraged. The issue made it all the way to Congress where they ended up passing legislation to strip federal funding for schools that tried to implement any recognition of Ebonics in the classroom. The “fear” of Ebonics was so great, The New York Times famously ran this ad (for free) from a head start organization:
Note: That’s not even correct Ebonics because that subject/verb doesn’t agree in any pattern of how we speak. This is clearly another instance of white people outside of their lane in a weak attempt to make a point.
Ebonics became a bad word, Oakland gave up on their very reasonable proposal, and no school district since has ever tried to implement recognition of Ebonics as a valid form of communication. As with so many things in the US, White America had a knee-jerk reaction to another perceived threat to white supremacy, this time in the form of Black people having our own language recognized and validated in an attempt to give our kids greater code-switching tools.
And now many of us still cringe when we hear the term “Ebonics” because white people pitched a fit in 1996 and we’re still dealing with it. So we say “AAVE” now.
Take this Jim Crow era literacy test for Black people.
I have a master’s degree, and I failed on the first question.
I know what a literacy test is, but sadly, I’d never looked one up to see what the questions were like. During Jim Crow, they were used to keep Black people from voting. Some poor and illiterate whites got caught in the net as well, and that makes sense for a country who, when founded, only gave voting rights to landowning whites, but the purpose was to keep Black people from being heard. Former congressional candidate Gary Chambers Jr. posted a literacy test today, and you can’t pass it. I can’t pass it. No one can pass it.
This particular test from Louisiana in 1964 was to be administered to anyone who could not prove they had finished 5th grade or higher, which would overwhelmingly apply to more Black people. We had less access to education and were more likely to quit school in order to work the land and help our parents keep a meager roof over the family’s head back when so many Black people were sharecroppers.
And there’s no uniform key for this test. The white registrar reads the answers and decides whether you answered correctly or not. I’m sure this test, on the rare occasion it was given to white people at all, was graded more leniently when the hand turning it in wasn’t colored.
So. Take it and see if you would be able to vote in Louisiana in 1964, less than 60 years ago.
Ten minutes to complete 30 questions is about twenty seconds per question, and you have to get every single one correct. If this was an actual literacy test, I would pass with flying colors, because I can read well enough to know that some of these questions are unanswerable, but it’s not about literacy. It’s about creating a standard that no one can meet and then applying it unfairly to Black people. It’s giving Black people additional burdens to be perfect that white people don’t have. It’s disparaging Michelle Obama for showing her arms in her White House portrait even though Melania has nude photoshoots online. It’s arresting Black people for marijuana at 3 times the rate of white people, even though the same percentage of Black people smoke weed as white people. (x) It’s Black college students being just as likely to find employment as white people who didn’t even finish high school. (x) It’s cops shooting unarmed Black people and taking a white mass shooter to Burger King. (x)
A lot of Black kids heard this refrain from our parents growing up: You have to be twice as good as the white folks to get half as far. However. When the judge and jury of your achievement is White America, you can still fail the test they never even have to take.
A moment for Gwen Berry
It’s so funny to me that Conservatives think we care what they have to say about Gwen Berry being unpatriotic when those same people don’t care that the Capitol was stormed and vandalized.
One of these is a protest.
The other is a crime.
**Black lady turns away from the flag.**
WHAT A DISGRACE TO AMERICA!
**White people break into the Capitol and erect a gallows to hang elected officials.**
awwww economic anxiety
France is giving the United States another Statue of Liberty.
Another symbol of liberty to a country that’s still oppressing its people.
NYC has another Statue of Liberty on the way. France is sending us a smaller version to be placed on Ellis Island just across the water from Liberty Island where the original stands as a beacon to freedom…or something.
This new bronze statue, nicknamed the “little sister,” is one-sixteenth the size of the world-famous one that stands on Liberty Island.
“The statue symbolizes freedom and the light around all the world,” said Olivier Faron, general administrator of the CNAM [National Museum of Arts and Crafts]. “We want to send a very simple message: Our friendship with the United States is very important, particularly at this moment. We have to conserve and defend our friendship.”
If you want to put a symbol of “freedom and light” anywhere, it shouldn’t be in the United States.
If you want to give the Statue of Liberty to the United States all over again anyway, give it in the spirit with which it was originally intended in the first place — as a gift to celebrate Black Americans.
I grew up with the Statue of Liberty as a symbol of hope and freedom for immigrants. “Give us your tired, your poor…” and all that, but Lady Liberty had been there for twenty years before those lines by Emma Lazarus were inscribed onto a plaque and installed at the pedestal. The Statue of Liberty is a symbol of immigration (the voluntary kind, not the shackled and chained way most Black people got here) for two reasons. One, immigrants latched onto the massive sculpture, which is understandable because she was the first image of New York for most European immigrants arriving by boat on the way to be processed at nearby Ellis Island. Two, the creator, Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi, pitched the idea to raise funding from Americans in the most general terms of “liberty” without specifically referencing Black Americans. His plan worked since the United States did indeed agree to pay for the pedestal if France paid for the actual statue, but it was a pivot away from the original idea.
Édouard de Laboulaye was a French abolitionist and it was he, along with his social circle of abolitionists, who conceived of a massive gift to present to the United States after the Civil War — once slavery was outlawed. The proposal of Lady Liberty initially held broken and shackles to signify the broken chains of slavery instead of the tablet she holds today. The chains eventually made their way into the final version down around her feet, the original significance lost to most people and barely noticed.
The years immediately following the Civil War were filled with promise for Black Americans and de Laboulaye wanted to recognize that. We made great strides in education, civic engagement, and politics, but the South regained its footing and struck a compromise in the 1876 Presidential Election that saw federal troops removed from the Old Confederacy. Black people were back in chains, invisible shackles placed on our communities through coalitions built between lawmakers and law enforcement, private businesses and private citizens. When Bartholdi finished Lady Liberty, there was no way to “sell” the idea to the United States as a celebration of slavery’s end. Black America hated the idea, because we were being oppressed, terrorized, and murdered, and White America would’ve scoffed, because they were doing the terrorizing. She was pitched as a symbol of liberty, immigrants saw her as the first welcoming image of the United States, and then the government solidified that feeling by using words from Emma Lazarus.
Today, it’s more important than ever to remember why the Statue of Liberty was conceived in the first place, not a symbol of general liberty and freedom, but as a symbol of Black liberty and freedom. We are still fighting to have our history accurately taught in schools. We are still fighting to be the country de Laboulaye thought we were becoming when slavery ended. And we are still fighting to live up to the promise Lady Liberty has symbolized to millions of immigrants. This little sister will probably be all over the news as we get closer to July 4th, so whenever you see her, make sure you remind somebody that the Statue of Liberty was supposed to be a gift to celebrate the end of slavery, but the US put Black people back in chains too quickly for her to actually symbolize liberty and freedom for us.
Simone Biles and the Twisties.
Adventures in rehab.
99% of COVID deaths in the US are unvaccinated.
Take this Jim Crow era literacy test for Black people.
99% of COVID deaths in the US are unvaccinated.
A long weekend.
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