Queen's English

Article excerpt

[Gary Dauphin]: So Black English is for secret stuff?

Reesie: It's not secret secret. But it's private.

- "Schoolyard Sages: New York City School Kids Weigh In on Ebonics," The Village Voice

Returning this winter to Chicago from Bombay with the sweet singsong of my native Bombay Bazaar English still sounding in my ears, I'm confronted with the latest American cultural brouhaha - the Ebonic plague. Like my friend and quasi-compatriot Mr. Rushdie, I am now quite convinced that writing about something can actually make it happen - to you. So there I am, Ms. Respected Reader, Dear Madam, as we are politely saying always in Bombay. So I'm trying too too hard to speak without mistake, sounding totally like polite, proper BBC English, not yankee crude, "ya" this, "gonna" that, always opening bigmouth and talking through nose. No, I'm trying for pure Westminster-Oxford-Waterloo English when I'm dispatched to write about Ebonics! Ebonic-bubonic plague, I thought, OOOOhhhh, my good god, why I should write and spoil more my English - nothing be cool or phat in dat. Out damn spot! If something wrotten (or written) in state of Oakland, why drag that damn disease here? So I picked up only one lovely lovely bombay poetry, to forget all this hopeless culture wars and culture whores, and calmly read:

Friends, our dear sister is departing for foreign in two three days, and we are meeting today to wish her bon voyage.

You are all knowing, friends, what sweetness is in Miss Pushpa. I don't mean only external sweetness but internal sweetness. Miss Pushpa is smiling and smiling even for no reason but simply because she is feeling.

Whenever I asked her to do anything, she was saying, "Just now only I will do it." That is showing good spirit. I am always appreciating the good spirit. Pushpa Miss is never saying no. Whatever I or anybody is asking she is always saying yes, and today she is going to improve her prospect, and we are wishing her bon voyage.

(Nissim Ezekiel, "Good-bye Party for Miss Pushpa T, S." From Collected Poems, 1952-1988, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1989. Reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press.)

Reesie Otulana, nine, from Cambria Heights, Queens, New York, and Miss Pushpa T. S., nineteen, of Laburnum Buildings, Hanuman Vihar, Bombay, are hardly soul sisters. They come from vastly different cultural backgrounds: their social worlds are equally strange to one another. Reesie (as we have been repeatedly reminded by the ethnographers of Ebonics) is the descendant of West African slaves, suspended in the lower depths of urban American society. She is in danger of becoming just another percentage point in a deadening survey of the growing body of semi-literate and underemployed youth that come out of underfunded public schools located in areas of economic attrition. ("One half of all African-American youth are born into poverty": Jesse Jackson, The New York Times, Dec. 31, 1996; "71 percent of Oakland's 28,000 blacks are in special education classes. . . [the] average grade point-, on a 4.0 system is 1.8": Courtland Milloy, Washington Post, Dec. 22, 1996.) Reesie may well turn out to be "Baad!" in the nonstandard, "black English" sense of the word. Miss Pushpa, on the other hand, is undeniably good. As a clerical cog in the archaic wheel of Bombay's Byzantine bureaucracy, her "low" economic status has kept her from an improving, Westernized "convent" education. Her cute and creaky English has been picked up at a deeply disciplinary state school through the rote repetition of cliches, commonplace idioms, and readings out of Victorian-style "self-help" primers. Infantalized and exploited both at home and work, she is poised to escape this pervasive patriarchy, to better her prospects, by being "diasporized," going "to foreign" where, as a Non-Resident Indian in the United States or the Gulf States, she will, of course, be the good daughter and continue obediently to support her family back home. …