By Verdelle, A. J.
The Nation , Vol. 264, No. 3
Lately, when we use black vernacular in conversation, we punctuate with a joke: "That's ebonics." Ebonics, as a pedagogical position (recently making news when the Oakland School Board suggested that black English be treated as a separate language), encourages teachers to help African-American students translate from the vernacular(s) they speak to the official, more standardized language of this nation. By making fun of this concept, we level serious doubt. This is one of the primary functions of black English, to reference multiple meanings when we say what we do. Multiple meanings and improvisations, in fact, are key aspects of black vernacular(s), and a large part of the reason black English survives.
Ebonics and its geographical siblings from California, the affirmative action retractions, give further evidence that written doctrine is beginning to betray us again. However benevolent or well-intentioned the effort, we have to assess whether ebonics returns us to a sorry place in history -- whether African-American ignorance is again being written into plan. The ebonics sentiment equates, in my estimation, with the language of the Dred Scott decision: that the Negro should be "reduced for his own benefit." My fear is that ebonics will not create language skills for a productive future but that it incorporates barely shadowed sentiments from the past. First, there is no one vernacular. (American English is considered a vernacular by some.) Second, ebonic's proponents do not seem to understand, really, the dialect they endeavor to name.
For those of us who have learned "standard" English and who use it, black English is often used for emphasis, like punctuation, like an exclamation point. Black vernacular is represented in part by syntactical rearrangement, intentional grammatical error, saying one thing to mean two or three: Get outta my face. That's black vernacular? Well, it means I'm angry, what you're saying is absurd and, possibly, I want you to leave now. I ain't asking nobody! That too is vernacular? It means I'm making my own decision and, further, I believe this choice is mine. The word "Mah'Dear" (spelling uncertain) was submitted as an example of ebonics vocabulary: Depending on whom you ask, it means "Mother dear" or "My Dear" -- an apostrophe perhaps, a term of endearment certainly.
Using black vernacular(s) can pack a punch in black communities: The ability, and willingness, to "speak in code" can get you accepted, admitted, heard. (Using standard English can get the ordinary citizen a job, a life, an opportunity or two. …