"Island by Island We Must Go Across":
Challenges from Language and
Culture among African Americans
Shirley Brice Heath
In 1987, the poet William Meredith wrote a curious set of five verses under the title "Do not embrace your mind's new Negro friend." He urges "atonement first" for those who claim new friendship and are convinced in their minds that they have the "right story" about the history of "Jews or Negroes or some dark thing." Though deceptively simple on the surface, the poem savagely pierces abundant late twentieth- century liberal claims of having no prejudice or having "on good authority" understandings about what is right and good for others. Meredith condemns patronizing claims of brotherhood and urges intense self-examination of motives as well as relentless recovery of stories not told and connections never acknowledged. He calls such a program of self-scrutiny and search for new lessons a "friendless struggle" that will be long, laborious, and painful, but "island by island we must go across."
This chapter represents a small beginning of such crossings. The traveler-as-author here acknowledges a position that carries the label of "outsider." However, even for those who carry the identity of "insider" in studies or approaches they see as centered with an ethnic, national, or racial label, thinking along the lines of Meredith's caution is worthwhile. Examination of motives and degrees of thoroughness in determining stories and not merely the "right story" helps ensure for any ethnic-centered work that it does not fall into patterns of ethnocentrism that have so long marked Eurocentric research and policy.
The broad ranges of music, literature, and religious and political oratory produced by descendants of those who came from Africa have been noted for their influence and creativity throughout American history. Yet the language uses and structures that constitute these cultural forms have been studied and described in selective and insular ways. This chapter urges every educator, and especially those working with African American children, to learn more about the broadly diverse