Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Ebonic Plague

-Jessica Colaizzi

          First off, I would like to make clear that the title of this post does in no way, shape, or form necessarily reflect my attitudes toward the debate over legitimizing African American Vernacular English in American culture. The reference of ebonics as a “contagious disease” is out of humor, guided by the rapid movement that this form of speech has led. With that said, let’s take a look at how ebonics has evolved from a simple term used to reference African American Vernacular English to a term that has stirred up major controversy among people in the United States. 
          In recent years, many people across the nation have protested the practice of ebonics. I think it is important to address the concerns of many Americans who support and go against the use of “Black English” in public and private establishments and to also confront the recognition of ebonics as a separate language in this country. I shall begin with an informal definition of Ebonics, created and voiced by people of this generation on a website appropriately called Take a look at the snapshot I got of the most popular entry and highly ranked definition on the page (6395 thumbs up).
          Although the source from which this definition originates is not the most reliable one, I still feel that it holds certain significance because it is a term that is interpreted by people of today’s culture. Here we see ebonics being described in a negative way, a form of speech seen as the result of failing to meet basic English practices and generally seen as unfavorable. The “ebonic plague” references an ultimate decline in society, stemming from the continued unwelcomed use of ebonics in everyday speech. However, even though many feel like ebonics is detrimental to the prosperity of a society, people on the Oakland School Board feel as though the use of ebonics in the classroom will facilitate the process of students learning Standard English. In the Oakland Resolutions on Ebonics, administrators and concerned members of society advocated the use of African American Vernacular English in academic environments to assist children in communicating and acquiring knowledge of basic Standard English. The proposed system of using ebonics in schools called for proper public funding meant to train teachers how to speak AAVE in order to strategically teach people how to master the skills of Standard English. Members of the Oakland board in California also desired to have ebonics declared as an official language or dialect in order to maintain its legitimacy. But this controversy lies in the hands of one question: what exactly defines a language? Many opponents of the Oakland Resolutions dispute the argument of what actually qualifies a form of speech to become an official language. They viewed ebonics to be a dysfunctional form of English, something that should not be legitimized or given power in the United States. In “The Anti-Ebonics Movement”, Richardson proposes that when it comes to education systems in the United States, students of the African American backgrounds are “illegitimate” mainly because of the language they use. She, like many others, is in opposition to the proposal for the use of AAVE in academic settings simply because ebonics is not considered to be correct.
          Moving on from where the use of ebonics stands in an academic setting, we can also see how it is portrayed in the media. Here is an interview between news anchors Kyra Phillips and TJ Holmes from CNN during the beginning of President Barack Obama’s administration.

          For starters, the clip immediately begins with M.I.A.’s hit, “Swagga Like Us” – an introduction to support the ways in which Obama has shown “swag” during his first 100 days as President of the United States. Immediately following the song, we have Kyra Phillips who seems a bit overexcited on reporting about “swagger” and makes a comment about the cameraman being white and “trying to swagga” with “a little more flav-a”. She continues with an excessive use of the term “swagga” which is a term often associated with “Black English”. Not going to lie, Phillips’s emphasis on “swagga” and dropping the ends of other words in her sentences to sound more “black” seems kind of offensive and inappropriate. Moving on to her co-anchor, it is said that Holmes is concerned that they will not be politically correct as they assess Obama’s “swagga”. This automatically implies that the use of black speech is not politically correct, especially when reported on the news. At the same time we can think to ourselves “well, what makes a language politically incorrect or accepted as a cultural norm?”. Phillips then insists that previous presidents of the United States had no “swagga”, imposing that they were “stuffy and uptight” (as opposed to how Obama is as the first black president). Holmes goes on to say that qualities of “swagga” are most often associated to black men by the general public (clearly tying language to race). I think that an important point is made in Perry’s essay, “I’on Know Why They Be Trippin”. Here, Perry outlines ways in which the media commonly portrays ebonics as a negative aspect of society and a linguistic concern. Although the news anchors did not explicitly condemn the use of AAVE, it seems as though they were poking fun at it in relation to Obama’s black status. Just like how Perry insists that media delineates ebonics as slang in her writing, we can see in this YouTube video how “swagger” among other words, is seen as an informal way of communicating because of its overemphasis.
          On a lighter note, we can also see how ebonics can infiltrate the world of comedy. I think that many people find the uncontrolled use of ebonics to be funny due to the fact that it is both common and unfamiliar at the same time. What I mean by this is that AAVE is not something out of the ordinary for people living in the United States – we hear and see it everywhere. But at the same time, ebonics is has become so dissimilar to Standard English that it’s almost unfamiliar and unrecognizable.

          In this MadTV comedy sketch, there are contestants playing a game that involves describing and guess words in ebonics. There is one character that does not make any correct guesses because he seems to be the only one unfamiliar with this type of speech. With that said, he makes the comment “...and that differs from Standard English exactly how?” after being unable to say the word “Birthday” as “Berf-Day”. He is baffled by the distinction between the two forms, for he barely recognizes how they are different, yet both mean the same thing. Even though the segment is composed of comedians ridiculing the use of ebonics, it is important to remember that the use of AAVE is common among a large percent of this country’s population and plays a big role in both linguistic and social practices.

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