Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Media's Mass Misinterpretations

by Ellen Walsh

Last week’s articles and discussions covered the Oakland School Board Resolution regarding Ebonics education.  The public schools in Oakland, California proposed to introduce a dual language program to help improve their academic standing by maintaining AAVE and using it to facilitate standard English learning.  The proposition was faced with much opposition because of misrepresentations as well as questioning the legitimacy of AAVE as a language.  
Everyone is familiar with AAVE.  It is portrayed in the media and is a part of popular culture.  What the Oakland Ebonics Resolution advocates is “an understanding of and appreciation for the linguistic integrity of African American Vernacular English in the process of teaching another dialect” (Wolfram 116). But when put in the context of education, it is hard for people to view it as an educational tool.  When I was reading the articles and thinking about the issue at hand, I thought about the ways in which AAVE is used in the media and when it is the appropriate time to use it.  Opposers to the resolution believed that school is not the appropriate environment to use AAVE.  Is AAVE ever portrayed as being appropriate?  The debate on whether or not AAVE can be considered a legitimate language is evident in our media and popular culture.
In Wes Anderson’s film The Royal Tenenbaums, a disconnected father, Royal (Gene Hackman), is trying to reconnect with his family.  His wife, Etheline (Anjelica Huston), is now engaged to Henry Sherman (Danny Glover).  Royal is trying to get back together with Etheline and wants to remove Henry from the picture.  In this scene, Royal confronts Henry:
Royal confronts Henry and tries to act tough by speaking with AAVE.  He uses AAVE terms and phrases (e.g. woman, talkin’ jive), refers to Henry as “Coltrane,” and even speaks with a slight AAVE inflection.  It is a humorous scene because Royal, a middle-aged white male, is trying to speak in a non-standard form of English and he does this rather poorly.  What is interesting about this scene is that Henry is an educated accountant who we have never heard speak in AAVE in the rest of the film.  Henry is a serious, respectable character in the film.  Royal tries to get him upset by “talkin’ jive” with him.  Only in this situation where he is confronting, bantering, and harassing him does AAVE come up in his speech repertoire.  However funny or humorous this scene is, it does comment on others’ perceptions of when it is appropriate or typical to use AAVE.  It is not seen as something respectable but is used in a more aggressive connotation. 
Newscasters have a very specific way of speaking.  For broadcasting, the newscasters need to lose their regional dialect and speak in a neutral dialect so that they can be moved around to different cities and places.   In this next clip, we see a newscaster telling a news story and the drastic change in the way he speaks after a bug flies into his mouth.

In the beginning of the clip he is describing a story while keeping a regionless dialect, but this is broken when a bug flying in his mouth flusters him.  He goes from speaking a standard form of English to AAVE in a matter of seconds (e.g., “da fuck is that?”, “country ass”).  It is obviously not appropriate to be swearing on air, but this video has been seen as humorous because the guy “goes ghetto so fast.”  Broadcast speech is very limiting in the first place, but this shows how completely unacceptable AAVE is as a legitimate language.  He reverts to this way of speak after getting angry and frustrated.  This video feeds the image of AAVE in the media and the popular belief that AAVE is not a legitimate language.  There are negative attitudes toward the language, especially as it popularly perceived as only slang.  This video clip demonstrates this common belief of AAVE as being illegitimate and wrong; its use in the media is only seen as totally inappropriate. 
The problem with the Oakland Resolution was that it really was dealing with a quite serious issue.  53 percent of the student body was African-American, 80 percent of the children suspended from academics were African-American, and 71 percent of the African-American student population was classified as special needs (Perry 1).  The average grade point average for the African American student population was a D+.  The African American student body was in serious need of an educational reform.  It would be completely unjust to ignore the problems that were happening in the school system.  The Oakland Resolution proposed to fix these problems, allowing “equal opportunities for all of its students” (Oakland Ebonics Resolution).              
The main problem with the Resolution was that it led to different interpretations of the text, leading to misinterpretations and miscommunication.  The public misread some of the vocabulary used in the resolution when linguists meant something completely different.  The Oakland School Board of Education did re-write the proposal to fix the linguistic differences, but the media portrayal of the proposal was completely misinterpreted.  The proposal aimed to “help teachers figure out how to use the rich and varied linguistic abilities of African-American children to help them become fluent readers and writers” (Perry 1).  Media stories covered the resolution in a much harsher light, attacking it by saying it is “a decision by the school board to abandon the teaching of Standard English and in its stead to teach black Language/Ebonics” (Perry 2).  This media portrayal reminded me of the comedian George Carlin’s “Ebonics Lesson.”

I feel like Carlin’s lesson on Ebonics is how the media and public perceived the proposal.  I imagine that when they thought they were going to speak only Ebonics instead of using it as an educational tool that was intended by the proposal, this is how they might imagine the schooling to go.  It is completely ridiculous and hilarious.  The narrator—who sounds much like one who would narrate a movie trailer—gives a phrase to translate into Ebonics.  One example is “Let me borrow some money.”  This is followed by an African-American speaking with AAVE vocabulary and inflection, saying “Hey lemme hold some m’s I’ll hit you back on the first brotha,” which precedes a direct reading of the same phrase by the narrator in standard English: “Hey, let me hold some M’s I will hit you back on the first, my brother.” 
Carlin mocks the idea of teaching Ebonics, but Ebonics is not what they are trying to “teach” in the Oakland resolution.  It is a dual-language program just like a bilingual program: it would be used to improve proficiency in Standard English while also acknowledging the legitimacy and cultural significance of the language.    

No comments:

Post a Comment