In 1996, the Oakland Public School System decided to instate some changes in order to help the underachieving African American students in their schools. They came up with a resolution that made Black Language/Ebonics “a legitimate, rule-based, systematic language” that was going to be used in classrooms in order to help the children transition from nonstandard English to standard English. Since many of the African- American children were falling behind where the “average grade point average was a D +”, there needed to be some change. With change, however, came controversy.
According to Thersea Perry’s piece, I ’on Know why They be Trippin, the media represented the Oakland resolution in a bad light: “ [The] mainstream media presented the Oakland resolution as a decision by the school board to abandon the teaching of Standard English and in its stead to teach Black Language/Ebonics.” Statements such as these were far from the truth because the school board had no intentions of taking away Standard English from the African American children: " Even after the spokespeople for the Oakland School Board, the superintendent, and the members of the school board had asserted over and over again that the school system was not abandoning the teaching of Standard English, TV news accounts continued to lead with this claim." The school board just wanted to use Ebonics to aid the children with a transition from the non-standard English spoken at home to the standard English spoken in schools.
In the following video clip, one can see how the media and commentators misinterpreted what the Oakland School Board was trying to do.
In the VH1’s “I love the ‘90s!” we see clips of how the media misrepresented the purpose of the resolution and how the critics viewed the situation. When the compared the different words such as “Hand” to “Han” , they misinterpreted what the school board was trying to do. The teachers were teaching the students how to convert words from non-standard to standard, not the other way around.
Even though I could not agree with what the majority of the uneducated commentators said, they pointed out an interesting word: “Ivorybonics”, referring to slang or non-Standard English spoken by the Caucasian population.
Why is there no controversy on how the Caucasian people use slang? Using words such as “rad” and “squirt” would have no place in a professional world; so, why is it that the African Americans are the ones that are picked on?
Around the time of the Oakland Public School resolution, BET (Black Entertainment Television) aired a special called Ebonics on Our Voices, which consisted of African American intellectuals who came together to discuss the popular topic.
Toni Cook, a member of the Oakland School Board said that their goal for the resolution was to bridge the gap between the language spoken at home and the language spoken in school. According to her, the resolution is an expansion of the 1981 Standard English Proficiency Program that was aimed toward African American children. This program was based on the same principles as that of a bilingual education, whose final goal is to make children literate in standard English. It is very interesting to see how similar the Oakland School Board resolution is to bilingual education. In past readings in this class, we have noticed a pattern with government funds and protest against programs such as these. Is it possible that those in power cut resources in order to suppress the most needy?
According to Cook, the resolution has been used in twenty-six schools. In three of those schools, children are performing above grade level. What does it say about the resolution? It worked!! If there is proof that it works, why are there so many debates against them?
In the same BET special, Joe Clark and Faye Vaugh- Cooke, a professor of Language and Communication at the University of Howard, emphasized the hypocrisy behind the entire movement against the resolution. According to Clark, the people who are refusing to accept that Black people have their own language seem to think that their language is better and “marking African Americans as intellectually incompetent to them.” In Perry’s article, she states a similar conclusion: “the Oakland resolution would precipitate a national conversation about race, specifically about the mental and moral capacities of Black people.” It seems like Clark and Perry believe that this movement is about representing Ebonics in a negative light because it has to do with African Americans, one of the most historically oppressed people in the history of the United States of America. Vaugh-Cooke does not understand why it is such a big deal that Oakland wants to help the African American youth learn standard English and concludes that the topic deals with something deeper than just language and more about race and social progress.
In the “What Wasn’t Said” section of Perry’s article, she emphasizes the importance of language to the African American community. Leaders such as Oprah, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Skip Griffin were fluent in Standard English and could use it when speaking to crowds to make a difference in the community. In the mist of the controversy, Perry mentions that “the most significant omission in discussions about Black Language/Ebonics…was the failure to examine the meaning and function of the literacy acts…the failure to see these literacy acts as distinct, interconnected, and interdependent moments that are most powerful when they function for freedom, for racial uplift, leadership, citizenship.” When the media misrepresented what the purpose of the Oakland resolution was, they never included why or how important it was for African American children to learn standard English in order to benefit themselves and their community.
I think that topics such as social progress and community empowerment are topics that the media and those in charge of imposing their negative views on the topic want to avoid. Why would they want the African American community, a group that has been picked on for years to finally become empowered and educated? If there is a program that gives African Americans the tools to progress, after sometime, one would see more educated African Americans appearing in high offices and continuing the legacy of those great leaders. This is exactly what those in power want to avoid.
According to David Roediger, “whiteness is that complex admixture of longing and hate that white people have for African Americans, their cultural formations, and their cultural products.” The resolution was about race and language, but more about White Americans wanting to keep their place in society without any additional competition: “ It underconceptualizes what occurred to simply label the discourse of the mainstream media about the Oakland resolution as racist. The media’s reaction to the Oakland resolution provides us with a powerful, contemporary example of how whiteness function in the American society…White Americans are attracted to, embrace, at least superficially, African Americans who would not be the kinds of writers dramatists or scholars they are if they were not rooted in and operating out of African American linguistic traditions.” The “superficial” relationship Terry speaks of can easily be seen in today’s media and representation of African Americans with: Tracy Morgan and Tyler Perry.
Morgan and Tyler Perry use Ebonics in their works, but not in a way that empowers the community. They use it to portray African Americans in a negative light to those who watch the movies. Whether their work is good or not, they are receiving awards and nominations for it. Could they be receiving these praises in order to continue on representing the African American community in that way? Are they being motivated to shine a negative light on the community by giving the children bad examples on ways they should be acting in the world? Why is there no movement against the types of movies that shine a bad light on the community, but a movement against teaching African American children how to speak in a way that would advance their social status in today's society?
In conclusion, the Oakland Public School Resolution controversy was less about the teaching of standard English to African American children and more about maintaining the current standing of the majority of African Americans in the social ladder in this society. It is illogical to take away a program that could help African American children progress in this competitive world, where the use of standard English is important. I think that the Oakland Public School system had a great idea to help these children, but it was unfortunate that they received so much opposition due to the misrepresentation in the media and the rigid social constructs in society