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

By Geneva Smitherman | Go to book overview

7

ENGLISH TEACHER, WHY YOU BE DOING THE THANGS YOU DON’T DO? [1972]


& then it was hip—it was hip
to walk, talk & act a certain
neighborhoodway,
we wore 24 hr sunglasses & called our
woman baby, our woman,
we wished her something else,
& she became that wish,
she developed into what we wanted,
she not only reflected her, but reflected
us,
was a mirror of our death-desires,
we failed to protect or respect her
& no one else would,
& we didn’t understand, we didn’t
understand,
why,
she be doing the things she don’t do. 1

LET ME SAY right from the bell, this piece is not to be taken as an indictment of ALL English teachers in inner-city Black schools, for there are, to be sure, a few brave, enlightened souls who are doing an excellent job in the ghetto. To them, I say: just keep on keepin’ on. But to those others, that whole heap of English teachers who be castigating Black students for using a “nonstandard” dialect—I got to say: the question in the title is directed to you, and if the shoe fit, put it on.

In all fairness, I suppose, one must credit many such correctionist English teachers for the misguided notion that they are readying Black students for the world (read: white America). The rationale is that this world is one in which Black kids must master the prestige dialect if they are to partake of that socioeconomic mobility for which America is world renowned—an argument which linguist James Sledd, for one, has completely devastated. 2 And so the student who submits a paper with frequent “I be’s” and multiple negatives is forced to “correct, ” write and rewrite towards the end of achieving a grammatically flawless piece. In this painstaking and almost always useless and insignificant process, little else is stressed. (Besides, as the overworked, underpaid English teacher knows only too well, it’s a lot simpler and easier to correct the Black English of a theme than to read

-123-

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