Talkin That Talk: Language, Culture, and Education in African America

By Geneva Smitherman | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION

FROM GHETTO LADY TO CRITICAL LINGUIST

I WAS BORN into a sharecropping community 1 in rural Tennessee and started school at age four, quickly learning to read under the tutelage of “Miss Earline, ” a Black teacher with two years of college who had responded to DuBois’s call to the Talented Tenth. 2 As Life would have it, Miss Earline was to be the only African American teacher in all my years of schooling, from “primer” (as we called it) through Graduate School. In those years, I was monolingual, speaking the Ebonics of my family, my Traditional Black Church, and my sharecropping community. Miss Earline had deep roots in our community; she understood the language of us kids, and sometimes she even spoke our language. After a few years, my family moved to the “promised land, ” first to Southside Chicago, then Black Bottom Detroit. It was here, “up South, ” as Malcolm X once called the North, that I had my first taste of linguistic pedagogy for the Great Unwashed. Teachers who didn’t look like me and who didn’t talk like me attacked my language and put me back one grade level. Back then, educators and others attributed “Black Dialect” to the South, although nobody ever satisfactorily accounted for the fact that Black Northerners used linguistic patterns virtually identical to those of Black Southerners.

Thus effectively silenced, I managed to avoid these linguistic attacks and to be successful in school by just keeping my mouth shut—not hard for a ghetto child in those days. I was eventually elevated to my right grade and even advanced three years. My nonverbal strategy worked until one month after my fifteenth birthday. It was at that point in my life that I became a college student and was forced to take a speech test in order to qualify for the teacher preparation program. I flunked the speech test.

At that time, many teacher-training programs had such tests, and they were linguistically and culturally biased against all varieties

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