Admittedly, Juno was and is one of my favorite movies of all time (I have a soft spot in my heart for any movie that takes place in a high school). I respected her sassy sense of wit and loved that there was a bad ass girl (minus that whole pregnancy bit) who talked just like I did - full of metaphors, playing with words and their meanings like a like a person juggling knives that are on fire - it was dangerous, some people wouldn’t get it, it could fail miserably, but when it succeeded it was amazing. Sure this is a little exaggerated, but the point still holds; Juno’s wordplay was a great topic of conversation when the film was released. Here is a clip from Juno to illuminate my point:
Again, I talked just like Juno did - clearly a Non Standard form of English. However, my language skills were never reprimanded in high school - they were somewhat celebrated; I think the point made was that I had such a “mastery” of the English language that I could afford to play around with the nuances of word meaning, etc. To be honest, I was pretentious and thought I was smarter than everyone like a typical teenager, which in retrospect I have realized was so untrue (probably like many of my peers did as well once we got a little older) and that certain things I said were incredibly inappropriate, both the context that I used the words in and the words themselves.
It is interesting to me that Juno’s and my grammar and speech patterns were never an issue that needed to be corrected – Diablo Cody (the writer of Juno) was celebrated for being so forward thinking and my use of the language was overlooked, there was never any intervention taken to try to get us on the path of Standard English. Maybe I would have benefitted from some language intervention. Comparing this to the Oakland Ebonics controversy of 1996 in which the School Board did try to intervene on behalf of their under performing students. The Oakland School District proposed using African American Vernacular English as a tool to help under performing African American students achieve proficiency in Standard English to help bridge the education gap between white and black students. The Oakland Ebonics Resolutions state “…The English language acquisition and improvement skills of African-American students are as fundamental as is application of bilingual education principles for others whose primary languages are other than English” (Oakland Ebonics Resolutions) It was rightly believed by the school board that using the home language of AAVE that many students spoke would be a beneficial tool in the education process and extrapolated, that African American students had the right to an equal education and the resources that that equal education entails. Elaine Richardson corroborates in The Anti Ebonics Movement writing “We must find a way to take our knowledge of how language works into the country’s classrooms.” (Richardson, 167) Richardson believes that using languages in an educational setting is a beneficial tool to help students achieve language proficiency e.g. the use of bilingual education to promote greater learning.
There was an incredible outcry on the part of public in response to the Oakland School Board’s decision due to a huge misrepresentation of the by the media. A popular miniseries on VH1 that reminisced and commented on pop culture of decades past during the mid-2000s called I Love the 90’s had a blurb about the Oakland Debate, shown here:
Clearly the actors and comedians hired to analyze this point in history missed the mark on what the issue in Oakland really was about. What is really notable is Alfonso Ribeiro aka Carlton Banks’ strong response to the movement, calling it “the stupidest thing I had ever heard of.” How can Ribeiro feel so strongly against providing additional resources to under performing African American students? I doubt that if he knew the full extent of the issue he would feel the same way. I think you would be hard pressed to find someone who would say no to giving more funds in education to help students achieve at the level they should.
But that’s not really the issue, is it. What the Oakland controversy boils down to is race - language and language education is irrelevant. As was discussed in class, the public outcry has to do with the unsaid feeling that black students do not deserve more funds for their educational process. Viewed from a larger perspective, this public outcry against accommodating underperforming black students can be seen as the dominant white hegemony refusing to accommodate African Americans for fear that one day African Americans become the dominant group in American society. Thus accommodations to balance the educational playing field are scoffed at, or rejected. However there is a catch-22 for educational programs that do get passed, e.g. affirmative action. Minority students that get into elite schools are told that they are only there by affirmative action, i.e. that they did not have the merit to attend such a prestigious school on their own. I saw one such exchange on Facebook a few weeks ago; a Latino friend of mine posted on his status “nyu arts and sciences...nbd” meaning that he had received acceptance to NYU’s College of Arts and Sciences. One of his friends commented on it, saying “its nice to be ethnic isnt it lol.” This second student, jealous of the fact that my friend had gained acceptance to NYU tried to devalue his acceptance there due to his ethnicity, even though he is a model student and incredibly active in the community; in short a college campus’s dream. What is a minority to do – for it seems as if you are dammed if you do and dammed if you don’t.
To end this post on a happier note, I’ll leave you with a funny clip of Steve Harvey doing stand up in the 1990s about the Ebonics dictionary. I appreciate Steve Harvey’s appreciation and funny take of the value of education for Black America.
Also, here is Michael Jackson’s video for Black or White, in a nod to the title of this post.
- Holley Davis