Sunday, May 8, 2011

Contextualizing Ebonics and Academic Speech Acts

Alex Edelstein

Inherent within the Oakland Ebonics controversy is the debate surrounding AAVE’s legitimacy as an educationally viable linguistic practice. From our class discussions and readings we see that there is a three-pronged debate about this issue, with each side appealing to a combination of linguistic practices and sociocultural stereotypes. Beyond the practical linguistic discussion of whether or not Ebonics is somehow an improper or substandard dialect of English is the cultural discourse surrounding the community of speakers who employ Ebonics in a variety of contexts. By positioning Ebonics in an academic space, the Oakland Unified School District effectively sought to remove present stigma surrounding the linguistic practices of a minority group. However, I will argue, that there is real danger in trying to appropriate a linguistic practice tied to the ‘streets’, as rappers like Big L suggest (to be addressed later with the use of his song, “Ebonics”), in the context of a standardized academic setting. What is at stake in this debate is the potential for AAVE to lose its standing as a counter discourse to standard modes of linguistic representation, in the sense that context is immensely important in understanding Ebonics and its potential for representing identity. In changing this context, it is possible that Ebonics will lose its ability to voice a particular sociolinguistic identity, rendering it useless at the hands of white, dominant hegemony.

Looking at ways in which Ebonics is used in non-academic environments is useful for investigating its potential for constructing and voicing non-normative identities. Ebonics’ relationship to hip-hop is well-documented, considering the national discourse surrounding hip-hop lyrics and the use of AAVE slang. Extrapolating this relationship one step further, we can see the close ties that Ebonics has to street culture (through the medium of hip-hop music). Thus, it is important to take note of the necessarily non-academic contexts in which AAVE is often employed. When trying to understanding why so many African-Americans opposed to the Oakland School District’s proposed legislation, Theresa Perry realized that the ambivalence went beyond a sense of shared cultural shame towards AAVE:
I began to understand that besides being bothered by the equation of Black Language with one of its most informal varieties, these individuals were also concerned about the implication that Black Language doesn’t have multiple varieties, oral and written, formal and informal, vernacular and literary, as well as the excision from the public conversation of the notion that for African Americans, language use is fundamentally and exquisitely contextual (Perry).

For a concrete example of Ebonics being employed to convey a level of street authenticity, we can look at rapper Big L’s hit track, “Ebonics”. The composition serves s a de facto dictionary, translating hip-hop colloquialisms from Ebonics to Standard English. Further, Big L is not interested in translating medical terminology or academically relevant texts, but rather elucidating its value to the streets. With lyrics explicating street phrases such as “My weed smoke is my la/A ki of coke is a pie/When I’m lifted I’m high/With new clothes on, I’m fly”, L makes it clear that he is in fact, speaking “criminal slang”, and not the language of the academic world. 

This distinction in what contexts the language is intended for is particularly significant for the debate surrounding Ebonics and education, as there occurs a shift in meaning when the contexts change. As we’ve discussed previously, individuals are constantly code-switching depending on contexts, and it seems inappropriate to assume that those who use AAVE don’t also exhibit those same tendencies. As a result, it is important to consider the ways in which individuals utilize AAVE, and how that usage shifts when in an academic context. Based on our understanding of linguistic identities as necessarily tied to context, it would follow that the AAVE used in the classroom would be infinitely different from that of the streets. In this sense, bringing AAVE into the classroom does little to acknowledge the value of non-normative types of linguistic identities, as the AAVE of the streets is still positioned as non-academic, or non-standard.

The problem of trying to standardize AAVE is not necessarily tied to legitimizing it in the sense of academia, but in looking at the sociocultural circumstances that cause it to be devalued in the first place. To make mandates like the OUSD does, using only sociolinguistic evidence to substantiate claims, ignores the cultural inequities that led to this situation to begin with. In doing so, the school district is in effect only addressing the symptoms of a larger sociocultural issue, rather than developing solutions to prevent the rise of such structural inequities. We see in cultural phenomena, like hip-hop, the ways in which language depends on construct, as well as how language shifts meaning when those contexts change. As such, it seems more prudent to address the circumstances outside of the classroom that create an academic context of inequality surrounding those who employ AAVE. Rather than focus on an isolated context in which AAVE is used, we could do more by looking at how and why AAVE is demeaned on a larger level, and see the resulting changes in more specific contexts like the classroom. 

No comments:

Post a Comment