The Politics of Ebonics: The Intersection of Voice, Language, Culture and Identity






Qualification Paper




July  2000






Kathy Emery




Table of Contents



Definition of Voice  .       .       .       .       .       .       .       6



Loss of Voice .       .       .       .       .       .       .       .       7



Ebonics .         .       .       .       .       .       .       .       .       .       9



Language, Culture and Identity .      .       .       .       .       .       14



Oppositional Culture       .       .       .       .       .       .       .       22



Instructional Strategies    .       .       .       .       .       .       .       31



Conclusion      .       .       .       .       .       .       .       .       .       37



Appendix A: Brief Reply to Daniel Hibbs Morrow.       .       .       .       40



Appendix B: Classroom Interaction and the

Acquisition of Literacy         .       .       .       .       .       41



References     .       .       .       .       .       .       .       .       .       43



I have yet to read criticism that understands my work or is prepared to understand it.  I don’t care if the critic likes or dislikes it.  I would just like to feel less isolated.  It’s like having a linguist who doesn’t understand your language tell you what you’re saying.

                                                         (Toni Morrison,  LeClair, 1981; p. 29)

Despite more than a quarter century of concentrated work on [Ebonics], only a handful of African American faculty of any specialization exist in linguistics.  Geoff Pullum claimed a few years ago that not a single US-born African American faculty member was employed in a Department of Linguistics anywhere in the US; and although I was upset by the claim, I couldn’t

challenge it.

                                                         (John Rickford, 1999; p. 298)


Serious tensions continue to exist within an educational system based upon a standardized curriculum within a society that celebrates the concept of the individual.  In this paper, I have attempted to look at some specific manifestations of this tension as they emerge in the teaching of speaking and writing.  I have examined a wide range of research of speakers of Ebonics in order to suggest that the obstacles to teaching writing to students of a variety of cultures are influenced by features of the wider society beyond the schools.  These features must be taken into account in the construction of any strategy that hopes to successfully support the individual in her development as a writer and speaker.


On December 18, 1996, the Oakland, California school board announced a system wide expansion of a policy to train its teachers in the very techniques suggested by 30 years of research in the field.  It was because of this that the Linguistic Society of America passed a resolution praising the Oakland School Board’s “decision to recognize the vernacular of African American students in teaching them Standard English [which] is linguistically and pedagogically sound.”  (quoted in Jackson, 1997; p. 23) [my emphasis].   On December 19th, however,  the San Francisco Chronicle characterized the policy as one that “recognizes Ebonics, or Black English, as a primary language of its African-American students, making it the first school district in the United States with such a system-wide approach.” 

The day after Oakland approved expansion of its teacher training program, the Chronicle  editors denounced the plan as “academically unproven”.   An article about the plan in the same paper quoted Geneva Smitherman as ecstatic about the plan and Shelby Steele condemning Ebonics as “slang”.  Delaine Eastin, state superintendent of schools, was quoted as stating that “We are not aware of any research which indicates that this kind of program will help address the language and achievement problems of African American students.”  An African American senior at Balboa High School in San Francisco was quoted as saying that the Oakland policy  “was stupid…the last time I checked, black people just speak English.” For the next month, the Oakland decision became the topic of national news (2500 articles, opinion pieces and editorials) as opinions were expressed on shows such as Meet the Press and 60 Minutes.  National figures such as Jesse Jackson, Maya Angelou and Kwame Mfumi as well as linguists from MIT to Stanford were asked for comment by the national media.  Two board members and an Oakland high school student ended up explaining the program before a subcommittee of the United States Senate.

U.S Secretary of Education Richard Riley’s response to Oakland’s plan to expand its Standard English Proficiency program, as quoted in the Chronicle, manifested the federal government’s hostility to the existence of Ebonics.  The Chronicle, on January 24, 1997,  reported that Riley

extended an olive branch to the Oakland school board yesterday, calling its revision of policy on black English “a move in the right direction.” 


In his first extended comments on the Ebonics controversy, Riley [said that] Oakland had made a valuable contribution in “centering the nation’s attention on language skills and the importance of standard English.”  Riley pledged to work with the district to help African American students overcome language difficulties, but he said he would fight any measures that run the risk of lowering educational standards.


. . . Riley’s only previous comment on Ebonics had been a one-paragraph statement last month denouncing the district’s resolution “elevating” black English to the status of a language called Ebonics.  He said no school district would be allowed to use federal bilingual education funds to teach African American children in black English, as had been implied in the Oakland resolution.


Riley said yesterday that he had not changed his earlier position.  “Anything that reduces standards or accepts in any fashion nonstandard English we think is the wrong way to go,” he said.  [my emphasis]


At the same time, he said, he recognizes that a “crisis” exists in the Oakland schools and that the use of nonstandard English is a problem that needs to be addressed more directly. [my emphasis]


“In the past, a person who spoke nonstandard English could go to work in a textile mill or an assembly line and before that on a farm.”  he said.  “But in this information era, speaking nonstandard English is an anchor that would hold a person down.” . . . “All of us-- teachers, parents, Sunday school teachers -- anyone who has a connection with the child is not getting the message across that it is very important to speak, write and use standard English.”  he said.


Riley said that President Clinton’s emphasis on raising standards, as well as his national initiative to make sure that all children can read by the end of the third grade would go a long way to addressing the problems of nonstandard English.


Almost a year later, the national public criticism of the policy subsided.  The attack by the national media succeeded in delaying the implementation of the program for a year and forced the school board to expend precious resources by compelling them to respond to prolonged national attention.  In the end, the “Standard English Proficiency” program was extended to all K-3, 6th and 9th grade teachers  - a compromise between the Oakland school board and the United States government, the California Department of Education and national media.

          The conflict played out in Oakland from 1996 through 1997 is part of an ongoing debate over language, culture and identity.  It is a debate that now places educational researchers (e.g., the Linguistic Society of America ) in opposition to non-local educational policy makers (e.g. the California and United States Departments of Education).  At issue is how to teach students to speak and write in Standard Classroom English (SCE).   Rickford (1999) and Labov (1995) have summarized the research of the last thirty years which has resulted in the development of successful programs using the “vernacular” to teach Ebonics-speaking African Americans to write and speak in SCE.  Terry and Delpit (1998) have put together an anthology  (The Real Ebonics Debate ) documenting both the research and the successful practice of California’s Standard English Proficiency program as implemented by the Oakland Unified School District, a program that promotes the use of the “vernacular” in teaching SCE.  Delaine Eastin was correct in her assertion that there have been no “long term studies” showing the success of using the “vernacular” in teaching SCE.  But, what was not reported by the Chronicle was that such programs have always been cancelled shortly after their implementation. 

As limited or short lived as these programs have been, they have, nevertheless, based their claims of success on scores from standardized reading or writing tests.  Such tests, however, cannot account for the quantification-resistant relationship between an individual’s language and his or her identity, a crucial element in the understanding of why and how language is learned.  One manifestation of this relationship shows up in a person’s writing as “voice” which is the writer’s “presence in the text”.  Most SCE writing instruction in the public schools focus on the “mechanics” at the expense of “voice”.  Several researchers believe that such a focus on the rules of grammar, syntax and spelling inhibits the development of “voice” even in writers whose speech patterns closely conform to SCE (Sperling, 1987; Emig, 1971, Bartolomae, 1984;  Perl, 1980; Shaugnessy).  This is a concern to many since “voice” is recognized as an important element “in the composing process” (Yancey, 1994; p. x). One’s “presence in the text”, however, differs in its expression depending upon one’s culture.  Donald Graves (1989) believes voice to be “the imprint of ourselves in our writing” (qtd in Yancey, 1994; p. viii).  While “Westerners” can agree “that there may be some variety of one-to-one correspondence between voice and the individual,” the non-Western writer’s voice seems to manifest a different relationship between individual and language. 

Gwendolyn Gong and John Powers, for instance, talk about how in Asian cultures voice isn’t related so much to the individual as to that writers’ “ethos” – composed of character and culture – from which “voices are evoked” . . . “instead of the ‘self’ telling the audience what he or she wants, the speaker uses indirect communication . . .”  Ethos demands that the self be screened (Yancey, 1994; p. xvii).


          Language, of which voice is an important element, is necessarily affected by one’s culture.  The development of a child’s language structure develops out of interactions with one’s parents, siblings, relatives and neighbors.  Through these linguistic interactions, cognitive processes develop that are culture specific as well as universal. (Anderson, 1988; Ash, 1986; Cole, 1974; Cole, 1981; Gee, 1996; Gumperz, 1984; Heath, 1983 and 1993; Lacan, 1977; Nelson, 1996; Rickford, 1999; Smith, 1998; Villenueva, 1993).  That language is both a marker of identity (insofar as one’s identity emerges out of one’s cultural context) and a means to express that identity  allows one to understand why Ebonics-speaking African Americans lose their “voice” when they learn to write in SCE (Balester, 1993 ; Campbell, 1997 ; Evans, 1997 ; Chaplin, 1988 ; Farr and Janda, 1985 ; Garcia and Pearson, 1991; Troutman, 1997 ; Smitherman and Wright, 1984).  SCE is the “linguistic manifestation” of a culture that is not only different from but also at odds with the culture of Ebonics speakers.  Systematic discrimination against African Americans has led to the development of Ebonics as a marker of identity as well as a means of expression in opposition to a dominant culture.  Writing and speaking SCE for many Ebonics speakers is experienced as a process of abandoning one’s identity for the very unlikely prospects of economic and social “success” (Weiss, 1985; Villenueva, 1995 and 1993; Taylor, 1988; Taggert, 1998; Smitherman, 1997 and 1996; Rickford, 1999; Ogbu, 1995; Morgan, 1998; Michaels, 1984; Martin, 1996; LeClair, 1981; Labov, 1995, 1986 and 1980; Fordham, 1986; Fine, 1995 and 1993; Cazden, 1985; Ball, 1992 and 1993; Baldwin, 1997).   Consequently, instructional strategies that are intended to teach SCE but require Ebonics speakers to abandon their language cannot be effective.  Instructional strategies that use Ebonics to teach SCE will continue to be limited in use as long as state educational policy promotes standardized testing in a culture of segregated schools, tracking, competitive study and individual achievement.

          In a New York Times  article in 1979, James Baldwin pointed to the cultural as well as the political dimensions of a language debate that once again emerged recently in Oakland. 

The argument concerning the use, or the status, or the reality, of black English is rooted in American history and has absolutely nothing to do with the question the argument supposes itself to be posing.  The argument has nothing to do with language itself but with the role of language.  Language, incontestably, reveals the speaker.  Language, also, far more dubiously, is meant to define the other – and in this case, the other is refusing to be defined by a language that has never been able to recognize him. . . Language . . . reveals the private identity, and connects one with, or divorces one from, the larger, public, or community identity (1997; p. 5).


Baldwin concluded that the pressure to replace Ebonics with SCE is really a focus on denying the experience of African American children, an experience that may challenge the standards by which the dominant culture judges success and failure.


It is not the black child’s language that is in question, it is not his language that is despised: It is his experience. . .A child cannot be taught by anyone whose demand, essentially, is that the child repudiate his experience, and all that gives him sustenance, and enter a limbo in which he will no longer be black, and in which he knows that he can never become white.  Black people have lost too many black children that way. . .

. . . in a country with standards so untrustworthy, a country that makes heroes of so many criminal mediocrities, a country unable to face why so many of the non-white are in prison, or on the needle, or standing, futureless, in the streets – it may very well be that both the child and his elder, have concluded that they have nothing whatever to learn from the people of a country that has managed to learn so little (1997, p. 6).


Definition Of Voice


In her review of the literature on voice, Kathleen Yancey (1994) expressed frustration over the lack of agreement among writers as to what voice is and what function it plays in the composing process.   She notes (p. xi) that voice is variously described as an “amalgam of other selves, voices, and experiences” (Joseph Harris, 1987);  as two voices – the “critic” and the one “who wants to write about her feelings” (Jane Tompkins (1987); as two voices, one rooted in the “linguistic community of the United States” and the other in the “local community of the African American extended family” (Alice Walker, 1990);  or as multiple selves of yesterday, today and tomorrow (Joan Didion, 1990).  Yancey notes, however, that “through the metaphor of voice, the expressionists have brought a powerful metaphor into our discourse on composing and the composer. . . they have located something so intuitively obvious that virtually all writing teachers recognize it, even if it is a pre-postmodernist notion: the medium employed by the writer to create his or her presence in text”  (p. x).   Several writers have argued that the development of a personal voice leads to authenticity, a crucial feature of successful discourse (p. ix).  Most writers agreed that “voice and discourse are important” and voice “enables and confers authority” (p. xvii). 

Peter Elbow defines voice as “the main source of power” in one’s writing and Mina Shaughnessy believes that the evidence of voice is a “sign of a writer’s confidence.”  Eugene Hammond (1983) uses these two different definitions of voice to develop his own position.  Hammond concludes that it is only the attainment of an “authentic voice” that determines if one’s writing will be clear, memorable and meaningful.  Hammond points to Boswell’s long admired style as attained through the “breaking of conventions” rather than from any attempts at being distinctive.  Johnstone (1996) takes a slightly different

position on the relationship between conventions[1] and voice.  She believes that her own research reveals that “speakers create distinctive voices by pushing at the boundaries of convention, sometimes breaking through the boundaries.  Each potential determinant of the shape of discourse is thus also a resource in the creation of an individual voice” (p. 28).  Johnstone is convinced that a speaker or writer cannot be “articulate” without employing voice, that is,  using language for the purposes of self-expression (p. 61). 

When the researchers cited below use the following terms: “. . . an independent and spiritual . . .speaking ethos"  which was "tough, funny, intelligent, independent and involved"  revealing “who she is or where she comes from";  “self-expression"; “communicative function”;   “using voice to draw their readers into the writing"; “authentic";   and “sense of self",  they are addressing the issue of voice – the writer’s “presence in the text.”


Loss  Of Voice


The United States Secretary of Education, Richard Riley, asserted that “speaking Non-Standard English is an anchor that would hold a person down. . . . it is very important to speak, write and use Standard English”.  Riley was restating a prevailing assumption that without command of SCE, one cannot get a good job.  While there is no question that Ebonics speakers have the ability to master SCE, cultural and political factors make such a task problematic for most Ebonics speakers.  One manifestation of this problem is found in the research on African American student writing.  Within this body of research emerges an unsettling theme.  When Ebonics speakers are learning to write in SCE, it appears that they often lose their voice. Valerie Balester (1987) conducted an ethnographic study and product analysis of eight Ebonics speaking Afro-American students at the University of Texas at Austin during their first and second years.  Balester noticed that the oral storytelling patterns of Ebonics were fundamental to the "construction of an independent and spiritual ethos."  When using Ebonics oratorical devices and "fancy talk", one student's writing was judged (by six of Balester's colleagues) to "have a strong voice but problems with unity, coherence and development" (p.  81).  But when writing in SCE, the students' "human voices" disappeared.  When assessing the writing of one of her informants, Balester lamented that Shanique dropped the Ebonics forms and simultaneously lost her "speaking ethos".  When telling stories, Shanique was "tough, funny, intelligent, independent and involved."  But her SCE expository prose was " best her ethos is like that of any obedient student conforming to the dictates of any assignment" (p.111).  From this observation, Balester argues that Shanique's "vitality and her intelligence should inform her academic writing as they do her speaking.  If they are lost, we cannot really know who she is or where she comes from" (p. 133).

 Balester’s argument is echoed in other research.  Smitherman and Wright (1984) analyzed the NAEP essays written from 1969 - 1979.  During this period, they found that the majority of Ebonics features decreased in the narratives but the narratives also became shorter.  They hypothesized that those Afro-Americans who had

learned to control the occurrence of [Ebonics] features in their writing may have done so at the expense of self-expression, which was not without its rewards -- they received higher scores.  On the other hand , those students who were less successful at controlling the occurrence of [Ebonics] features in their writing produced longer discourse, which was not without its penalties -- they received lower scores.


Garcia and Pearson (1991) analyzed the successive revisions of an Afro-American woman writing for a college entrance examination. 

On her first attempt, when she was not worried about dialect features, her writing was more fluid and complex, the relationships among her ideas were clearer, and she wrote with “voice” . . . When she proofed her writing on the second and third attempts, she didn’t seem to know what to change and, in the process of eliminating dialect features, turned to cliches and broke her thoughts down into simple sentences.  Granted, the end result was dialect free piece, but it was also choppy and voiceless (p. 9).


Farr and Janda (1985) compared the speaking and written forms of an 18 year old male enrolled in a college basic writing class.  His speech was full of Ebonics features while his writing had no Ebonics features or organizational styles (e.g., his writing was topic-centered[2]).  When analyzing Joseph’s writing, the researchers noticed that

Joseph seems eager to fulfill the form he has been taught, he does not emphasize the communicative function of writing.  Joseph seems to be writing not to convey information or convince a reader but to satisfy certain structural criteria. . . The problem here is not that Joseph’s meaning is obscured by grammatical errors or nonstandard usage; the problem is that Joseph has not created a coherent, elaborated text which provides a convincing vehicle for his [“own intended”] meaning.  (pp. 66-67) 


Chaplin (1988) analyzed 375 essays by blacks and whites.   While arguing that Ebonics was not the source of Afro-American students’ writing problems (since very few Ebonics features appeared in the students’ writing), she also concluded that many of these "students have not mastered the art of using voice to draw their readers into the writing" (p.  26).

Henry Evans (1997) believes that the students in his Afrocentric writing course need to create a "stance" towards learning that leads to "the acquisition of an authentic voice".  Denise Troutman (1997) worked with a college level class of Ebonics speakers who each developed a final paper over a ten week process.  The students wrote, rewrote and conferenced with Troutman.  She concluded that “we must allow these students to use their cultural forms in writing since oral forms promote a sense of self. . .[The use of Ebonics] helps African American students affirm who they are. . .” (p. 38).  She believes, as does Evans, that academia needs to accept the "cultural voice[s]" of all students.  Kermit Campbell (1997) observed that in the writings of his students, the use of signifying[3] "signals a voice that in a way resists the very prose of which it is a part.”




Ebonics was coined in 1973 at a conference on language and the Black child.  In the introduction to the book of conference proceedings, Dr. Robert Williams defined Ebonics as  “the linguistic and paralinguistic features which on a concentric continuum represents the communicative competence of the West African, Caribbean, and United States slave descendants of African origin.  It includes the various idioms, patois, argots, ideolects, and social dialects of black people, especially those who have been forced to adapt to colonial circumstances. . . ”  Somehow or other (somehow?) the concept of a linguistic continuum and the terminology to express that concept, as created by these black scholars, never caught on in the academic world.  After only a few years, William’s book went out of print, and the linguistic-cultural practices of U.S. slave descendants continued to be referred to as “Black English” [BE] or “Black Vernacular English,” [BVE] or updated in the 1990s to “African American English” [AAE] or “African American Vernacular English” [AAVE] (p. 29).


Smitherman’s  rhetorical “somehow?” refers to the political reasons for calling the “communicative competence” of descendents of African slaves in the United States either Ebonics or “Black English” or slang. The term Ebonics refers to the speech patterns used to varying degrees by most African Americans as a language.  Ernie Smith (1998) argues that “African American speech is an African Language System. . . the linguistic continuation of Africa in Black America”  (p.49).   If the English language is defined as a “West German Language of the English (people)” by virtue of grammatical structure, then “Black English” is a separate language.  The grammatical structure


of the so-called ‘Black English’ dialect and the English spoken by the Europeans  and Euro-Americans . . .are not the same.  While there has been extensive borrowing or adoption of English and other European words, the grammar of the language of the descendants of Niger-Congo African slaves follows the grammar rule of the Niger-Congo African languages (p. 52).


Smith makes the political and policy implications of this position explicit. 


It is this African deep structure that causes African-American children to score poorly on standardized scales of English proficiency. . . While being segregated, denied, deprived, and socio-economically disadvantaged certainly has limited the African American’s exposure to and acquisition of Standard English, segregation and poverty is not the “origin” or root cause of the African-American child’s limited English proficiency (p. 55).


To view Ebonics as a dialect of English means to be constantly using SCE as a standard by which to describe African American speech patterns.  As a result, terminology that describes the differences is inherently pejorative. 

For example, the scholars who view African-American speech as a dialect of English describe the absent final consonant clusters as being “lost,” “reduced,” “weakened,” simplified,” “deleted,” or “omitted” consonant phonemes (p. 56).


The Oakland Unified School District adopted a policy that reflected Smith’s position.  Both the California State Department of Education and the Federal Government issued statements denying that Ebonics is a language.  What was at stake were state and federal funds for the Standard English Proficiency program written into the California State Education Code in 1981.  Although California’s Bilingual Education Act was dropped in 1987,  court decisions have required the adoption of English language programs in those districts whose “Limited English Proficient” students reach a certain number.  Those who “need to learn English” receive funding under federal and state Economic Impact Aid and federal Title I and VI categorical aid (EdSource, 1995, p. 5).  Denying Ebonics the status of a “language”, denied limited English proficiency funds to Oakland as well as other school districts.

Rickford (1999) concedes that there is a “conceptual or ideological” component in determining whether to use the terms Ebonics or AAVE (p. xxii).   Yet he still insists that the use of AAVE is not Eurocentric but “neutral” since there are grammatical features of AAVE that “also occur in the colloquial English of Americans from other ethnic groups, especially those from the working class” (p. 11).  Rickford observed that since the 1996 Oakland debate, Ebonics and AAVE “are pretty much the same” as references to “the verbal language of African Americans in the United States” (p. xxiii).

Defining a “speech community” is a difficult task.  Not all African Americans speak Ebonics while some speakers of Ebonics are not African Americans.  Furthermore, among those who are said to speak Ebonics, variations in the use and frequency of the linguistic features of Ebonics are dependent upon “style, age, gender and linguistic environment” (Rickford, 1999; p. 10).  And these variations are constantly in motion.  Language is not static nor is discourse ever linear.  Robert Williams, quoted by Smitherman above, uses the metaphor of a “concentric continuum” in an attempt to recognize the complexity of language variation, that any center of a circle which defines an individual’s or community’s speech patterns moves along a continuum.  The circle which encompasses an individual’s grammar, syntax and discourse styles shifts according to the person’s relationship to their environment.  Smitherman, disingenuously, expresses bafflement at how this concept “never caught on in the academic world.”  But such a flexible concept of language subverts the idea or value of a standardized language, a language fixed by grammar books and dictionaries.

Such attempts at standardization, however, are constantly subverted by children and poets in their attempt to find the means of self-expression.  In reality, words do not have fixed meanings and discourse is never “fixed in time”.  Jacques Lacan (1977) believed that

All our experience runs counter to this linearity, which made me speak once, in one of my seminars on psychosis,  of something more like “anchoring points” as a schema for taking into account the dominance of the letter in the dramatic transformation that dialogue can effect in the subject. . . one has only to listen to poetry. . . for a polyphony to be heard, for it to become clear that all discourse is aligned along the several staves of a score. There is in effect no signifying chain that does not have, as if attached to the punctuation of each of its units, a whole articulation of relevant contexts suspended ‘vertically’, as it were, from that point (p. 154).


Lacan’s use of the metaphor “anchoring points” echoes William’s “concentric continuum”.  The “letter” (“signifier”), or word or sentence, may be “anchored” by one definition (“signified”) but it is also informed by many other associations.  The nature of such informing is determined by context - the “several staves of a score.”  This metaphor conjures up the chord that each note implies when written on a stave.  One note can imply several different chords depending on the aesthetic sensibility of the audience as well as the notes which proceed and follow.  Meaning in speech, like notes in a polyphony, can move horizontally but also vertically, determined by the social and psychological context of the speakers and listeners involved.  Lacan has been accused of being impenetrable, but Lacanian devotees insist that such impenetrability is not obfuscatory but allows for a richness in interpretation or a deeper, more meaningful understanding of “discourse” (Saari, 1999).  From this perspective, the dullness and forgettable quality of explicit and voiceless textbook prose comes from its attempts to limit and confine interpretation – prevent a “signifying chain” reaction.  Such attempts lead to the kind of writing typical of a “user’s manual” for any appliance.  Any one who has tried to read one of these might agree that its very dryness (voicelessness) inhibits comprehension.

          In considering such social/psychological complexities, Rickford has concluded that language study must be holistic and not fragmented.  It must be researched from the point of view of its functions, not its features.   Language use is much more than the sum of its parts and to study its parts would be like one of the proverbial blind men groping for an understanding of the elephant of which they feel only a part.   Rickford insists that to understand language use, one must understand that 

even at its most vernacular, [communication] does not consist simply of stringing together features. . . what these lists [of features] fail to convey is the way skilled speakers use those features, together with distinctive words, prosodies and rhetorical/expressive styles, to inform, persuade, attract, praise, celebrate, chastise, entertain, educate, get over, set apart, mark identity, reflect, refute, brag, and do all the varied things for which human beings use language (Rickford, 1999; p. 12).


Keeping in mind that language is neither static, linear nor reducible to parts of a whole, I have, nevertheless, summarized some of the features of Ebonics which researchers have characterized in their attempts to “anchor” the following domains. 


Phonological Patterns:

For example, “There’s”, “It’s”, “That’s” are all pronounced as “das”.  “There is the dog”, “It is a dog”, and “That is a dog” could all be said as “Das dawg”.


Syntactic features (Ball, 1999; p. 231):

…         Many do not use 3rd person singular, present tense inflection [s] as in “He say”.   The [s]  is frequently used with all persons.  For example,  “I walks, they walks” indicates present tense. 

…         “Doug be trying to tell.  If this sentence is using the habitual “be”, then the meaning is “Doug is often trying to tell.”  If the sentence is using the invariant “be”, then the meaning is“Doug be intent on trying to tell.” 

…         The copula or inflected “be” verb is often implicit ; e.g.,   “He tall.”

…         Multiple negation is non-emphatic and required; e.g.,  “The man don’t do or say nothing.”


Semantic patterns: 

…         Broadened interpretive meanings:  e.g., “dogging”  can mean either to degenerate morally or physically or to have an unhappy or harassed existence (Ball, 1999; p. 233).

…         In-group terms:  “terms used that are appropriately used by African American  to refer to other African American . . . use of such terms by most European American would be inappropriate and considered an act of over-familiarity”  (Ball, 1999; p. 234).   


Stylistic patterns

…         Boasting or bragging which would be negatively viewed if about personal abilities one doesn’t have, positively if one does have, or negatively if about personal possessions, social achievement of one’s children, regardless of their truth  (Ball, 1999: p. 234-235).   


…         Balester (1993) notes that signifying, an indirect way to deal with a superior without directly challenging them, was a particularly important stylistic pattern used by her informants when speaking (p.157).



Modes of Discourse:

…         Performance mode: Using the techniques of rhythm, patterns of repetition and variation, expressive sounds, and phenomena encouraging participative sense-making like dialogue, tropes, hyperbole and call and response patterns within the text (Dyson, 1991).


…         Morgan (1998) identifies “signifying or sounding”, “adolescent instigating”, adult conversational signifying”, “reading a person”, and “reading dialect” as “verbal and discourse genres” which “constitute the African-American speech community” (p. 251).


Organizational Patterns:

…         Topic associated:  “ ‘Narrative fragments’ that may seem anecdotal in character, linked implicitly to a particular topical event or theme, but with no explicit statement of an overall theme or point’; shift foci often; leave relationships between foci unexplained; offer no recognizable ‘end’ and thus do not seem to have a point; and seem to go longer and not be concise” (Michaels, qtd in Taylor and Matsuda, 1988; 214).  By way of contrast, the term “topic-centered” denotes narration which is tightly focused on a single event at one time or place.


…         Rhapsodizing: A series of anecdotes identifying an underlying point rather than an explicit, analytical statement (Erikson, 1984).   Ball (1992) has redefined rhapsodizing and topic-associated patterns as “narrative interspersion”, “circumlocution patterns” and “the recursion pattern.”



Language, Culture And Identity


The relationships among the development of language, culture and identity offers an explanation as to why Ebonics speakers seem to lose their “presence” when writing in SCE. Young children learn language from natural or informal interactions between themselves and their parents, between themselves and their siblings/peers as well as between themselves and other adults in their social circle.[4]  In learning language, children are simultaneously developing both basic, “evolutionary” cognitive processes like memory, perception, and reasoning as well as cognitive styles or ways of viewing and interpreting the world around them.  The development of a child’s language structure occurs simultaneously with the development of the cognitive style of the child.  That the language itself is used in the development of cognitive models and styles creates a powerful cycle which is not easily influenced by classroom interventions.  Looking at language development in this way argues for cognitive styles being embedded in culture.  An individual’s identity emerges out of one’s culture, therefore establishing a relationship between cognitive styles and identity. In the following sections of this paper I hope to develop this argument more fully.

Nelson (1996) argues that the communicative/cognitive interactions a child and adolescent have with family, peer groups, one’s neighborhood and community create a dynamic between mental models (e.g. memory)  and cognitive styles (e.g. story telling schema)  of which language is both a manifestation and a tool.  From her own research, Nelson (1996) provides a specific example of the relationship between language and culture.  

Some of the specific characteristics of the paradigmatic style include naming and a focus on object characteristics, whereas characteristics of the narrative style include the perspectives of time, intentionality, causality, and evaluation.  Narrative mothers more frequently related what was on view to the child’s own experience.  Children of narrative mothers remembered significantly more than children of paradigmatic mothers, and most intriguing, no child remembered anything from the experience that had not been talked about between mother and child (p. 169). . . These findings strongly suggest that style is a characteristic passed from mother to child and resistant to the efforts of an interlocutor to elicit a different style through a different mode of questioning (p. 170).


In this way, the organizational structure of language “represents”  or is a linguistic manifestation of socially constructed cognitive styles.  A specific example of this relationship between language and social context or culture is provided by researchers of Ebonics speakers who have made a distinction between topic-associated and topic-centered narrative styles.  In the context of Nelson’s research, these narrative styles can be seen as “the language representational system” of different cognitive styles which are “resistant to the efforts of an interlocutor” – the role a teacher is asked to play.[5]  Michaels (1981) defines topic-centered style as a narration which is tightly focused on a single event at one time or place where “orientation” precedes “elaboration”.  Topic-associated style, on the other hand, describes a narration which contains a series of stories which shift in time and place several times but are nevertheless connected by an implicit theme (pp. 423-42).

Taylor and Matsuda (1988) in their review of the research on topic-centered and topic-associated narrative styles note that  “the degree to which the teacher and the child share the same underlying story schema [narrative style] . . .is related to[whether] . . . teachers can ‘teach’ some children and not others how to tell stories (p. 209).  Topic associated narrative style, while “episodic” (shifting time and place several times) are, nonetheless, preferred by many working class African American children and understood by other children as well (Cazden, Michaels, Tabor, 1985).  Yet, “topic-centered style is not only the preferred style in the classroom but the expected style” (p. 213), making “academic” success problematic (“resistant to the efforts of an interlocutor [teacher]”) for those children who developed topic-associated narrative styles before coming to school.   Michaels and Collins (1984) observed 50 sharing sessions of an integrated first grade classroom.  With children whose story schemas were topic-centered (white students), the teacher “was highly successful in identifying the child’s topic and expanding it through her questions and comments. . . [and] generally stimulated more explicit, focused talk on the subject.”  With African American students, the teacher “had difficulty discerning the topic of discourse and predicting where the talk was going.  Her questions were often mistimed and stopped the child in mid-clause . . interrupting his or her train of thought” (p. 225; see Appendix B for a more detailed summary of their analysis).

Erikson’s (1984) analysis of the discourse patterns of ten adolescent African Americans (of whom three were females) in Chicago over a period of eight weeks reveals the nature of the semantic ties that provide the cohesion and persuasive force for topic-associated stories.  Erikson defined the patterns of the “anecdotal narration” that dominated the informal discourse of these adolescents as “rhapsodizing”.  The stories that these adolescents told each other consisted of a series of anecdotes whose underlying point was never stated explicitly and whose persuasive power rested in “shared knowledge of commonplaces between speaker and audience” (p. 94).  SCE normally requires (as in this paper) framing statements that precede and follow anecdotes or other kinds of evidenciary material.  Erikson found that these ten adolescents dispensed with such framing, instead using metaphors as “semantic hinge points” between “commonplace topics”. 

Commonplace facts of recent history were used as metaphors for the helplessness of ghetto residents.  The lack of garbage collection led to rats in the alley.  Knowledge of this commonplace fact allowed one to mention the notoriously unreasonable rat bill recently passed in the legislature.  The rat bill topic thus functioned as a metaphorical hinge between the discussion of city services and the discussion of state law making.  After the bad rat bill was mentioned, a good rat bill that was defeated was mentioned, heightening the irony. It was thus established that the legislature was unresponsive to the conditions faced by ghetto residents.  The section concluded with Ed’s mention of the state representative who lived down the street.  Then the next section began with Jim’s mention of another individual, the precinct captain who tried to force them to display a Mayor Daley sign in their window.  Both the legislator and the precinct captain worked for the Daley machine, and so the juxtaposition of these anecdotes could function as a hinge between connected sets of topics.  The precinct captain topic opened up the opportunity for discussion of another commonplace, vote fraud, which then could be followed by another hinge topic, voting age and teenage rights.  These were all commonplace topics, experienced as shared history by the speakers (p. 131).


Erikson argues that in order to persuade, the speaker needed to “invoke a symbolic solidarity with the audience” as well as emphasize not only concrete detail but “personal knowledge of detail”.  To state the point of the story explicitly would not be acceptable. 

One could take the prosographic, anecdotal narration and infer propositions that could be stated in standard literate form: white society is the main cause of ghetto conditions, the political process is corrupt, police are corrupt.  But this would be a misleading reinterpretation, as if one were to rewrite the Javanese shadow play in the manner of Aeschylus or Homer.  Such reinterpretation would also be reductionist.  In the conversation, concrete anecdotes cannot simply be reduced to an underlying abstract point.  Because of the persuasive force of concrete detail, there is, for this set of speakers and audience, an empirical status entailed in the particulars of an anecdote that no abstraction can accurately recover.  To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, the particular corrupt cop is a corrupt cop is a corrupt cop.  Speakers became more and more concrete and specific during the recitation of an anecdote, rather than more and more abstract (p. 96).  


In their review of the research on rhapsodizing, topic-associated story schemas as well as other features of Ebonics, Farr and Daniels (1986) concluded that

 cultural differences in language practices that are a part of very different ways of viewing and operating in the world must be taken very seriously indeed.  They can be both extensive and deeply ingrained . . . As such, they no doubt provide substantial explanation for the difficulties inherent in the teaching of writing to non-standard-dialect-speaking students (p. 32).  


Heath (1983) captured the kind of “talk between parent and child” that leads to “very different ways of viewing and operating in the world”.  The development of distinctive cognitive styles with its concomitant and distinctive language structure makes problematic the translation of one’s voice into the linguistic representation of another cognitive style.  For example, parents of the children in Trackton (an African American working class community) developed holistic “ways of viewing and operating in the world” by not talking “about the bits and pieces of the world” (p. 108).  As a result,

Trackton children never volunteer to list the attributes which are similar in two objects and add up to make one thing like another .  They seem, instead, to have a gestalt, a highly contextualized view, of objects which they compare without sorting out the particular single features of the object itself….if  asked why or how one thing is like another, they do not answer; similarly, they do not respond appropriately to tasks in which they are asked to distinguish one thing as different from another.   (p. 108)


This “highly contextualized view” is also “situational”.

. . .  the same form of language – or anything else – is not expected to carry the same meaning at all times . . . [they] have to continually draw analogies from one situational context to another…the context gives the form its particular meaning at that point  (Heath,  p. 105). 


This particular cultural style finds its linguistic manifestation in the semantic pattern of “broad interpretation of meaning” noted by Ball (1992).   Villanueva (1995) is specific as to the contribution “broad interpretation of meanings” plays in the development  of a linguistic continuum which echoes Lacan’s “polyphonic” relationships of signifier and signified.

The bilingual or the bi-dialectal speaker is a rhetorical power player.  He knows language isn’t fixed, has a relativistic perception of language, knows that words take on hues of meaning when colored by cognates; and for the bilingual there are words seeming the same in both languages, derived from the same sources, but nevertheless having undergone change through time and place.  A relativistic notion of language is bound to be a problem for the standardized test-taker.  (p.69)


Church “readings” are among the “habitual activities” of  Trackton parents which “enter as major constituents of a child’s model” which then become manifest in the structure and patterns of the language (Nelson, 1996; p. 5).  Heath observed a Trackton teacher giving a “reading” in church one day.  The teacher had written a bible passage down on an index card which she brought with her to the podium.  As the teacher began to speak, she used the passage written on her index card only periodically.  Instead of reading the passage, as Heath expected her to do, the teacher took phrases from the writing on the card and elaborated upon them extemporaneously in the context of a synergistic exchange with the audience.  Heath found other instances of activities which had cognitive and linguistic effects.  She described these experiences as a “constant pattern of using a formulaic phrase [e.g. the bible passage] which expresses an essential idea but then building on the phrase creatively” which results in “meanings that are in constant flux” (Heath  p.  211). 

An “habitual activity” which contributed to an affective  cognitive (“feel to know”) style among Trackton children was “raising hymns.”  Heath asked those in the church, in spite of their formal training in music or graduate level training in education, how they had learned to “raise hymns”:

A:  well, you just begin by singing and the others join in.

Q:  but how do they know when and what to sing?

A:  well, they sing the words

Q:  which words?

A:  the ones they hear and the ones that belong

Q:  but when?

A:  when they feel it’s right  [my emphasis] 

 (p. 208)


The affective “constituent” to the  “model” being developed by  such “habitual activities” was mediated by discourse patterns in which Trackton children did not expect adults to ask them questions.   “Feeling to know” took the place of being “information-givers or question-answerers”  (Heath, p. 104).

Annie Mae: [about her grandchild Teegie]  He gotta learn to know ‘bout dis world, can’t nobody tell’im.  Now just how crazy is dat?  White folks uh hear dey kids say sump’n, dey say it back to ‘em, dey aks ‘em ‘gain ‘n ‘gain ‘bout things, like they ‘posed to be born knowin’.  You think I kin tell Teegie all he gotta know to get along?  He just gotta be keen, keep his eyes open, don’t he be sorry.  Gotta watch hisself by watchin’  other folks.  Ain’t no use me tellin’ ‘im: ‘Learn dis, learn dat.  What’s dis?  What’s dat?  He just gotta learn, gotta know; he see one thing one place one time, he know how it go, see sump’n like it again, maybe it be de same, maybe it won’t.  He hafta try it out.  If he don’t he be in trouble; he get lef’ out.  Gotta keep yo’ eyes open, gotta feel to know [my emphasis] (Heath, p. 84).


The children “from a very early age, must de-center themselves in their communicative responses [including] constant sizing up and judging of nonverbal postures and gestures. . .” (pp. 81-82).  The emphasis on “feeling to know” seems to lead to the kinds of linguistic patterns of Ebonics that Ball (1992) labels as “boasting or bragging”.  “When they told stories, they would elaborate upon real life events, giving an exaggerated version with free expression of their feelings about the story’s events” (Heath, p. 171).

Heath contrasted the development of language skills among Trackton inhabitants with those of the “townspeople”:

[Parents in town] teach children how to decontexualize referents or labels [i.e., they are not linked to specific dated events or situations]. . .  through focused language,  adults make the potential stimuli in the child’s environment stand still for a cooperative examination and narration between parent and child.  The child learns to focus attention on a pre-selected referent, masters the relationships between signifier and the signified, develops turn-taking skills in a focused conversation on the referent, and is subsequently expected to listen to, benefit from and eventually to create narratives placing the referent in different contextual situations (p. 351).


This discourse mode is a manifestation of an “analytical” cognitive style as well as a means of producing it.  Heath’s (1983) observations seem to suggest the interdependence of the patterns and structure of language with the “ways of viewing and being in the world.”

The inextricable connections among language, cognitive styles and one’s development as an interaction with the environment is part of the explanation of why language functions as a marker of one’s identity.  How “Teegie” learns about the world and his place in it is fundamental to his identity formation.   This connection between language, cognitive style and identity informs our understanding of why writing in someone else’s language can result in the loss of one’s voice.  In the debate over differences between Ebonics and SCE, we need to keep in mind that we are talking about a speech continuum along which people fall, and the existence of categorical differences represent “anchoring points” along this continuum to which groups of individuals are attached.  While SCE grammar books, dictionaries, manuals of style and the print media prevent the anchoring point of SCE from moving as quickly as Ebonics and other non-standard languages, SCE moves nonetheless.   One source of the change is children.  “If a language loses the ability to draw a certain contrast, and it seems to be an important one from the perspective humans take on the world, children may well replace it” (Gee, 1996; p. 10).

Children invent distinctions that they (unconsciously) think should be in the language.  Some linguists believe this invention is based on a biologically specified view of what the optimal design of human language ought to be . . . Other linguists believe this sort of invention is based on children’s social and cognitive development, their ways of thinking about the world that they gain through their early interactions with the world and people in it.


Linguists disagree about exactly how to phrase the matter, though they do not disagree about the creativity of children as language acquirers or on the important role of children in language change (Gee, 1996; p. 9).


Where one lies on the linguistic continuum is as difficult to define as the point at which the individual’s values depart from his or her community’s mores.  While, theoretically, individuals “individuate” from a group or cultural norm, societies are made up of groups within groups within groups.  Several ethnographic studies seem to paint a picture of a macro-group process as well as a micro-group processes at work in the development of identity among inner city youth. Fine and Mechling (1993) capture the development of gang-like or adolescent peer-group identity by calling upon the concept of “idioculture”  which they define as the “traditions and customs [that] serve not only to establish and maintain relationships within the group but to exclude outsiders” (p. 135).  The formation of a distinct adolescent culture or cultures seems to provide an important and healthy  “means of resistance against the dominance of the adult leaders’ definitions of the organization . . . giving the young people the sense that they are equal participants in and, accordingly, have an equal stake in the culture of the group” (p. 137).

Whether gang members or boy scouts, adolescent boys, and presumably girls, experience their relationship to a group within a group as part of the development of their identity.  Heath and Mcglaughlin, (1993a) agree that  “a youth’s sense of personhood, self and future results from the interplay of multiple contexts [family, neighborhood, schools, community organization, streets, local economic realities, churches] which give multiple dimensions – son, latino, gangbanger, student, catholic, immigrant, father – and situate meaning” (p. 6).  To complicate the picture of identity formation further,  Heath and McGlaughlin (1993b) argue that “race and ethnicity vary considerably in the extent to which they figure as a core feature of young people’s sense of themselves and others (p. 58) . . .  ethnic pride enables youth to make positive connections to the broader, culturally diverse society . . . [and] allows for a reconciliation of individual identity with larger social diversity” (p.  60).  To support such assertions, Heath and McGlaughlin (1993a) found in their study of youth in three inner city neighborhoods that relationships counted more than an ethnic label in terms of sense of self.  But the ethnic and gender labels meant something later on within a host of already embedded identities (p. 6).

Language develops in order to express identity as well as to form it.  For Ebonics speakers, Ebonics becomes “part of the identifying of identity-reinforcing characteristics of ethnic differences” (Rickford, 1999; p. 106).  The variation within Ebonics (the different points along the linguistic continuum) is a result of individuals altering the language to create their own, distinctive voices.  Johnstone (1996) observes that “sociolinguists are increasingly coming to see [language] variability as a resource for the expression of an individual’s identity” (p. 16). 


Oppositional Culture


Part of the environment eventually confronted by Ebonics speakers in the development of their identity and language is the dominant culture.  It is the nature of this interaction with the dominant culture that explains the persistence of Ebonics as a categorically distinct “anchoring point” along the English linguistic continuum.  The persistence of the differences between Ebonics and SCE are rooted in significant differences in cultures in which one is privileged over the other. Despite the different origins of Ebonics and SCE (West Africa and England), “there is no inherent reason” why a person from a West African tradition should acquire Ebonics or be restricted to it (Rickford,1999; pp. 101-2).


So, why or how do such language differences persist?


In comparing one “White” and one “Black” speaker on an isolated South Carolina sea island, Rickford (1999) determined that the respective speech was phonologically similar but morpho-syntactically different.  Given the context of the research in “this relatively new tradition”, Rickford concluded that “the limited availability of opportunity and motivation for adopting the patterns of other ethnic groups besides one’s own loom largest in the maintenance of inter-ethnic linguistic differences” [my emphasis] (p. 108).  

Those Ebonics speakers whose identities are embedded in an “oppositional culture” have little “motivation” to learn SCE regardless of their opportunity to do so.  The boundaries that define this culture are marked by “language since those are most frequently and explicitly discussed during ethnographic studies of minorities” (Ogbu, 1995; p. 279).  It is this identification of language with cultural (and thus individual) identity that offers an explanation for the persistence of speech differences in this country.    Speech differences reflect the social and political realities of ethnicity and class (and gender) in this country.  These realities, the “commonplaces” of Erikson’s study,  consistently deny the possibility of “positive connections to the broader, culturally diverse society.”  Systematic racism does not “allow for a reconciliation of individual identity with larger social diversity” (Heath and McGlaughlin, cited above).  Villenueva (1993) refers to Signithia Fordham’s explanation of “the black collective identity system as a response to whites seeing all blacks the same.”  This is the process by which African Americans  “invert stereotypes, endorse them with positive attributes thereby transforming white assumptions of black homogeneity into a collective identity system” (Villenueva, p.  42).  The development and maintenance of an “oppositional culture” has its linguistic manifestation in Ebonics.

Labov’s New York City study in 1965 suggests such a connection between language and identity formation as it relates to a group (in this case a gang).  In a school in Harlem,  Labov determined that the reading scores of a minority of students who did not belong to any gang increased from year to year, the reading scores of gang members hit a ceiling at the grade level of 4.9 (Labov, 1995; p. 40).  Arnetha Ball (1995) also calls attention to another manifestation of language as a means to maintain boundaries (and thus identity).  When white society adopts Ebonics vocabulary, “Ebonics speakers sharply decrease their use of the term” and replaced it with another (p. 234).  Ball’s (1992) study of the growing preference among high school Ebonics speakers for non-standard cultural/cognitive organizational and rhetorical styles speaks to the development of resistance by Ebonics speakers to a language and culture that doesn’t “recognize” them (Baldwin, 1997).[6]  

Many Ebonics speakers believe that they can “learn SCE” but only at the price of not being able to “speak like other black people in their community” (Ogbu, 1995; p. 283).  This not only speaks to the power of the relationship between an individual’s identity and his or her community but also of the power of the concomitant relationship between identity and language.  For an Ebonics speaker to speak and write in SCE is simultaneously a cultural as well as a cognitive challenge in the present political context.  Achievement of any degree of bi-dialectical ability is done so at a price. The political and social elevation of SCE over Ebonics and other non-standard forms not only explains the persistence in differences in speech patterns but also explains why the difference is experienced as traumatic.   

Villenueva  (1995) argues:

that no matter how standard the language of the writer of color, there is always a conflict.  And I mean that for all writers of color:  from the fourth grade writer of color to the professional writer of color.  A standard literary language is in constant conflict with the language that carries a nation’s languages, dialects, cultures (p. 69).


This conflict exists because Ebonics reflects the cognitive style of a distinct cultural group as well as the identities of the individuals who make up that group.  Teaching SCE to Ebonics speakers is to demand that they abandon a fundamental marker of their identification with the group.   Keith Gilyard(1991) describes how he experienced such a demand.

. . . At times the tug of school was greater, therefore the 90.2 average.  On other occasions the streets were a more powerful lure, thus the heroin and the 40 in English and a brief visit to the Adolescent Remand Shelter. . . I saw no middle ground or, more accurately, no total ground on which anomalies like me could gather.  I tried to be a hip schoolboy, but it was impossible to achieve that persona.  In the group I most loved, to be fully hip meant to repudiate a school system in which African-American consciousness was undervalued or ignored; in which, in spite of the many nightmares around us, I was urged to keep my mind on the Dream, to play the fortunate token, to keep my head straight down in my books and "make it."  And I pumped more and more dope into my arms.  It was a nearly fatal response, but an almost inevitable one.


Several recent and popular books can be used to shed further light on my predicament.  In fact, Hunger of Memory by Richard Rodriquez (1983) helped motivate me to produce this present work.  Rodriquez, a Mexican-American, reveals the storm of torment he has weathered in order to assimilate into the culture of mainstream America.  He has chased the middle-class dream and caught it, but the psychic costs have been enormous, as he himself well knows.  He has suffered alienation to the point of feeling apart from his own family, has virtually given up his native tongue, has zealously pursued the ideals of his upper-middle-class companions, has endured the caustic rebuttals of opponents who dislike his anti-affirmative action and anti-bilingual education views. and he has felt that all the pain has been worth it.  Whether it has indeed been worth it is something only Rodriquez can decide, in fact, must decide, but he is mistaken to advocate an educational policy under which his type of pain is to be justified rather than prevented. . .(p. 160).


The tension that Gilyard and Villenueva attest to appears in various forms in other research.[7]  Most African Americans usually don’t find it easy to get rid of black behavior and speech; even after special coaching they still sound black and behave black when they are not on guard (Ogbu, 1995: p. 284).  Garner and Rubin’s study of African American attorneys found that they spoke and wrote in SCE but dissociated SCE from cultural identification with white America.  These attorneys viewed SCE as “correct, educated” speech.  They accepted features of Ebonics as “bad grammar” but did admit that Ebonics could be useful in being expressive and agreed that it also could be beautiful (Balester, 1993; p. 11).  In Weiss’ study (1985), an Ebonics speaking informant lamented:

In the black community [attending an urban college] is an attempt to identify with another group of people and do what we call ‘hang’ – you know, ‘be in’.  [But the black community] puts a lot of pressure on you.  By going back to school, believe me, I have lost friends in the community (p. 19). 


Those who become bi-dialectical to the extent that they are able to express their voice in their writing do so after a long and often painful apprenticeship (not formal training) in both Ebonics and SCE.  And even then, as Toni Morrison has observed, “There are certain


things I cannot say without recourse to my language” (LeClair, 1981; p. 27).[8]   Villenueva (1993) laments that in mastering SCE, he has lost the ability to truly express himself: “I no longer speak with a blackness, not without the affected quality of white folks trying to sound black, but it resounds more of ‘home’ within me nevertheless” (p. 29).

In his autobiography, Arthur Ashe (1981) revealed his frustration with the competing demands of the all white tennis professional circuit and “the black community”, demands that had linguistic/identity implications.

If I had the luxury of being able to devote all my time to tennis instead of being diverted every once in a while into Black causes, I would have been a better player.  There’s no question in my mind.  There is little Swedish or Nordic peer pressure for Bjorn Borg to get involved with the plight of oppressed Swedes. . . at some point you have to face up to your place in American society.  To find out what that place is, you have to determine how far you can walk out on the plank without feeling uncomfortable by yourself (p. 60).


In having to choose between solidarity with his speech community and a tennis career in a white world, Ashe chose to walk pretty far out on that plank.  Ashe chose to say very little during his tennis career except when far away from the United States (he traveled to South Africa and spoke against apartheid there).  The social distance was manifested in his voice, his speech as well as his stance towards Ebonics.  Ashe wrote in his autobiography that he was frequently asked “Should Black English be taught in schools?”  His response reflects a deep ambivalence.

I have no interest in learning how to be a master of Black English.  I understand it because I’ve heard it all my life, but I have no interest in getting a masters degree in Black English.  What good is it going to do me?  It’s colorful, but if anyone were to publish a dictionary of Black English, it would be a very thin one.  You won’t progress very far if you only know Black English unless you are a poet.  And I never succumbed to the notion that I should be ashamed of the way I talk because I learned to speak the English language very well.  However, school teachers of inner-city black children would do well to acquaint themselves with Black English (Ashe, 1981; p. 44).


How each Ebonics speaker responds to confronting the challenge of SCE depends on the relationship to his or her culture.   One’s voice - one’s presence in one’s writing - is at stake in this confrontation because language is a marker of identity.  Identity, while considered highly individualistic by white middle class culture is, nevertheless, dependent on one’s relationships with the group(s) out of which one emerges, and it hinges on the nature of one’s relationship to the various groups one belongs to.  All young people must negotiate through an individuation process.  But for African Americans that process is profoundly affected by their membership in a systematically disadvantaged race and class.  

Tatum (1992) confirmed William Cross’ five-stage model of “Black identity development” as part of her ethnographic research exploring the causes for the various emotional responses of college students when race is introduced as a topic for discussion.  In the first stage, African Americans “internalize negative Black stereotypes”.  The second stage, “typically precipitated by an event . . . forces the individual to acknowledge the impact of racism in one’s life.”  This is accompanied by the need to “focus on his or her identity as a member of a group targeted by racism.” The third “stage is characterized by the simultaneous desire to surround oneself with visible symbols of one’s racial identity and an active avoidance of symbols of Whiteness” of which SCE is one.  The fourth and fifth stages involve a process by which the individual becomes secure enough in one’s identity that any “personal sense of lackness” is transformed into a “plan of action or general sense of commitment  to the concerns of Blacks as a group” (pp. 9-12). 

The increasing linguistic differences between Ebonics and SCE speakers in Philadelphia in the early 1980s seems to provide a linguistic manifestation of Cross’ “stage three”.  Labov and Harris (1986) argue that the increasing housing segregation of the last twenty years as well as social and economic discrimination has had a linguistic manifestation.  In their sociolinguistic study of two groups – European American SCE speakers and African American Ebonic speakers in Philadelphia, they determined that

the [SCE] local vowel system is an important symbol of the claim to local rights and privileges, which blacks are not prepared to make.  As the white sound system evolves, the net result is a further widening of the linguistic distance between the two groups (p. 20).


Weiss’ ethnographic study (1985) provides insight as to why “blacks are not prepared to . . . claim local rights and privileges.”  Weiss describes how “the kind of literacy being offered [students of an urban community college] demands separation from the collective, the source of one’s survival up to that point” (p. 148).  The problems generated by the larger economic and social environment, exacerbated by unenlightened instructional strategies, makes it almost impossible for an African American student to move beyond the “third stage” of identity formation and its concomitant linguistic manifestations .  Weiss explains why this demand for separation threatens the survival of many of the students.  The

employment available to those hopeful of breaking out of poverty consists of low paying seasonal and temporary jobs.  In response to this, the urban poor form extensive networks of kin and friends who support and reinforce each other . . . the poor know they must depend on one another and any attempt to break out of these networks is made only after careful consideration of one’s chances (Weiss, p. 111, summarizing Carol Stack’s All Our Kin). . . [A]t Urban College there is evidence of this cooperative spirit, [ e.g.]. . . when [African American] female students bring their children to class, it is only the white students who object (p.  112).


Furthermore,  given the present economic system and racism in American society

the community college degree in and of itself would do very little for most black students.  [The oppositional culture created by the African American students], then, represents an understanding of the fact that education at this level not only doesn’t work for the group, but also means less for individual blacks than whites (p. 144)  [my emphasis].


Those African Americans who are poor “know that school success doesn’t guarantee economic success – they are at the bottom of the ethnic hierarchy, the ones held out as examples to other minorities of what will happen if they don’t shape up”  (Ogbu, 1995; p. 284).  It is middle class (overwhelmingly white) denial of this experience that Baldwin believed explained the stubborn hostility towards Ebonics as a legitimate form of communication.  Richard Riley asserts part of the “ameliorative ideology of education” (Apple, 1995) when he insists that learning SCE is crucial to getting a well paying job.  But the job market is increasingly polarized into a small number of high paying and a large number of low paying jobs.  The myth of individual academic success as the road to individual economic success is an ideology that justifies continued economic and social injustice in this country.  

The “kind of literacy” that Weiss observed being “offered” at “Urban College” necessarily manifested and imposed specific values and assumptions on several levels.  There seemed to be very little of the “meaningful, face to face interaction” that Labov , Myhill and Ash (1986) have discovered to be a potentially significant variable in mediating the oppositional culture of many speakers of Ebonics[9].  One of Weiss’ male informants explained his lack of opportunity in the following manner:

INF: see, what it is, that, for one thing, the instructor – he doesn’t present the class to make anyone feel comfortable.  He could be a much more influential force in the class if he would emphasize certain things and de-emphasize things that he emphasizes right now.  As far as participation, don’t be so sarcastic because people that are hesitant to get up in class right now are afraid more so of him than they are of the class . . . they are afraid of his critical judgment on them as a human being and  an individual and a student, instead of him using his influence to make these people feel comfortable.

 LW:  could you elaborate?

 INF: he would, I imagine, have a much better class, a greater attendance record and fewer drop out if he would put himself in the position to realize that the students don’t have confidence within themselves yet, and a little more personal understanding . . . It’s a monotone, monotonous type of class, no fluent conversation, no fluent inter-relationship between the instructor and the

student (p. 29).


In addition to impersonal relationships between instructors and students, the focus of the composition course seemed to be on SCE grammar divorced from context and ignoring the more fundamental “language resources our students enjoy outside school”  (Ball, 1996; p. 27).  Another informant confided to Weiss that

the college composition course is one of the most difficult ones to pass.  If there’s a sentence fragment or a comma splice or a run-on sentence in  a paper, they fail, because we feel the mechanics are important, especially if you look at it from the point of view of that big white  world outside…..students need to learn to become language chameleons…using language depending on the situation…much more able to make it  (Weiss, p. 121).


Weiss observed that the students responded to their college experience by creating an oppositional culture.

The students create a cultural form that unmasks an ideology which offers everyone an opportunity to attain elite status  while simultaneously justifying an unequal distribution of rewards . . .  students unconsciously understand that the community college works fundamentally to divert attention from underlying questions of distributive justice – questions that have provided the central focus for the black struggle in the U. S.  . . . student cultural form makes a discernment of the difference between individual and group logics . . . while the individual may succeed in the college and may ultimately escape the urban underclass, the group can never follow. The college cannot possibly work for blacks as a collectivity . . . in the case of the urban poor, the collective enables survival, and it offers literally the only form of security the urban poor have . . . it is only the community that has enabled black Americans to live with some decency in the face of a white nation which would deny them this right….it is not a community from which the individual separates easily (p. 136)  [my emphasis].


Michelle Fine (1995), after having spent a career studying public high school drop-outs and push-outs, agrees that the “kinds of literacies” offered in these schools challenge the collective identity of Ebonics speakers.  

. . . public schools . . . effectively paper over power asymmetries in the broader culture. Social problems are justified or taught through primarily individualistic explanations[10] . . . these schools limit the kinds of literacies that young people can attain from official schooling practices.  Discourses on individualism and meritocracy inhibit students’ questions and writing. . . critical consciousness suffocated when voiced – forcing those at the bottom to develop a “double consciousness” (p. 201-2).


Fine’s interpretation of her research supports the need to see every language system not only as a cultural manifestation but as a tool used with political intent.

To explain the pattern of Ebonics speakers losing their voice when writing in SCE necessitates that one look not only at the relationship of identity to culture and identity to language structure, but also at the role language plays in defining the position of individuals in our society.  When speaking of the “range of accents” in England, Baldwin (1997, p. 6) explains these complex relationships:  “To open your mouth in England is (if I may use black English) to ‘put your business on the street’: You have confessed your parentage, your youth, your school, your salary, your self-esteem, and, alas, your future.”

In this context, the research tradition of oral or “dialect interference” studies (Sternglass, 1974; Wolfram and Whiteman, 1971; Whiteman, 1981; Kirschener and Poteet, 1973; Morrow, 1985) defends SCE as the standard to which all writing needs to conform and do not take into consideration that writing, speaking and identity are interrelated.  This body of research has attempted to find the degree and kind of correlation between the grammar, spelling and syntax of a person’s speech and that of his or her writing.  It seems that if such a correlation can be found then teachers can adopt direct instruction methods to prevent the grammar and organization of ones talk from being used in one’s writing.  Farr and Janda (1985) attempted to “determine if aspects of orality or literacy help to explain why students in basic writing classes have difficulty in writing effectively” by analysing the speaking and writing of an Ebonics speaker who had been placed in a remedial college writing course.  They concluded that it was “clear” that the appearance of the student’s speaking patterns (Ebonics) in his writing did not “entirely” justify his placement in a remedial writing course. 

This is not to say that [Ebonics] features do not account for some of his problems at the sentence level;  they do, and some instruction in standard English grammatical patterns is appropriate for Joseph.  However, other more significant problems in his writing seem to have nothing to do with his nonstandard dialect.  Nor can these problems be accounted for by reference to already-defined characteristics of oralilty and literacy  [Tannen, 1982a, 1982b; Chafe, 1982; Farr and Whiteman, 1981; and Heath, 1983]  (p. 80).


Given the opacity of such a conclusion it is not surprising that Farr and Janda called for further research to determine how typical Joseph is of college remedial readers.  But such research is in danger of becoming the kind of  search medieval Biblicists made for the number of angels that could fit on the head of a pin (see Appendix A for an example of the kind of debate such research generates).  Farr implicitly admitted this in her and Daniels’ review (1986) of the literature on language diversity and writing instruction.  In citing Labov (1969), they pointed out that even within dialects there is variation and that

the role of the inherent variability . . . is unclear. . . [T]he reasons for using either the standard or the nonstandard variant of a particular feature are not as simple as they might appear.  Students’ ‘corrections’ of nonstandard forms [when reading their work aloud (Perl, 1980; Bartholomae, 1984; Hartwell, 1985)] may only be indications of deeply conditioned language variation, of the sort amply documented in sociolinquistic studies of various dialects (p. 24).


But if the “variable rules” are expressions of individual identity formation while the “categorical rules” defining dialects are cultural or sub-cultural manifestations then there are no “rules” governing the use of language that can be isolated from the influences affecting the developing of the individual.   Farr and Daniels seem on the verge of admitting this when they concede that

For those involved in literacy instruction, knowing the actual details of one variable rule or another is not as important as understanding the concept of inherent variability, and especially how this concept illustrates the complexity of linguistic competence for all speakers (p. 23).


Johnstone (1996) is less vague.  She insists that no two people speak the same way since “linguistic idiosyncrasy is a cultural and psychological requirement for many speakers” (p. 19).


Instructional Strategies


“Dialect interference” studies assume that the presence of non SCE features in writing are “errors”.   However, when Ebonics speakers attain “academic success” through the elimination of these “errors”, they end up losing their voice.  To prevent this from occurring, those researchers who acknowledge the connections of culture, identity and language argue for more fundamental instructional strategies.  Some of the suggested strategies reveal a consideration of the importance of content, process and the interrelationship of reading, writing and speaking in the development of bi-dialect or code-switching abilities.


…         Gilyard (1991) argues for inclusion of African American writers, especially those who use Ebonics features and patterns in their writing, as part of the curriculum and then allow the students to “choose  which language varieties they will speak”  [his emphasis] (p 114).


…         Villenueva (1993) suggests that books such as Child of the Dark by Carolina Maria de Jesus be taught.  Students can be critical of her language use (since de Jesus was barely literate) and thus develop confidence in their own abilities (p. 93).   At the same time, however, Villenueva warns that these students need to be taught critical consciousness so one can learn “cultural literacy” (as advocated by E.D. Hirsch) without being consumed by it (p. 95).   One way to do this would be to have the students, in elementary and middle schools, read different versions of Cinderella.  In high school, add to these different versions the research on different interpretations of the myth in order to discuss and question commonly accepted narratives (p. 97).


…         Ball (1999) believes that a variety of styles need to be explicitly taught.  She argues for a three stage process in developing student writing using “authentic assignments”:  (1)  accept and celebrate the texts produced (2) teach, expect and celebrate range of styles  (3) expect a range of styles  (pp.  243-4).   Crucial tactics that facilitate movement from one stage to the next is the development of shared knowledge (Erikson’s “commonplaces”) between student and teacher as well as explicit instruction about the differences between SCE and Ebonics features and patterns.


…         Evans (1997) agrees with Fine (1995) that it is important to show students the differences in the world views that each language reflects as well as the socio-political implications of these differences in US education.


…        Ball and Heath (1993) discovered that theater workshops which were interdisciplinary and self-consciously bi-dialectical were effective at providing the “meaningful interaction” variable that Labov, Myhill and Ash (1986) believe are crucial to mitigating the causes which produce an oppositional culture.  A particularly successful experience involved the development of a script for a performance that was video-taped.  Both Ebonics and SCE were used in writing a scenario that was based on the students’ experience of a recent random shooting of an 11yr old.  The plot included the shooting, news accounts of it as well as the funeral scene.  Both Ebonics and SCE were used.  In rehearsing for the dramatization, the differences of structure and function between Ebonics and SCE were analysed.   This experience allowed African American students to develop code switching abilities (pp. 75-78)


Other suggested strategies reveal the importance of stressing function over form:


…         Instructors “ought to be broadly rhetorical, stressing voice, audience, and purpose, rather than narrowly grammatical, stressing surface detail and its presumed connection with a spoken standard” (Hartwell, 1980; pp 108-9 cited by Morrow,1985; p.170).


…         There is a need for free writing to gain fluency (Fowler,1985 qtd in Scott and Rogers, 1996; p. 326).


…         Encourage first drafts to be holistic, explain and validate distinctions along continuum among styles, demonstrate practical necessity of revising to an analytical style (Evans, 1997).


…         Teaching voice explicitly through reading aloud, free writing, and properly marked digressions.  The bogeyman of “unity” should not be allowed to suppress voice.  Have the students write for each other.  In that way, they can develop expertise and voice can be used as a leverage to teach skills - students care whether writing is good or bad.  Be careful of falsely important voice which is a compensation for real confidence  (Hammond, 1983).


Another theme that emerges from suggested strategies is the need to approach students as individuals as well as members of a cultural group:


…         No one program works for everyone (Sternglass,1974 qtd in Scott and Rogers, 1996; p. 327).


…         There is no consistent pattern of Ebonics use in writing so the writing of any one person needs to be analysed as a potentially unique system (Scott and Rogers, 1996; Morrow, 1985).


…         Present instruction strategies in conjunction with the “nine cultural aspects that permeate African American life” (the Center for Applied Cultural Studies and Educational Achievement at San Francisco State University offers professional development programs for teachers of African American students)  (Street, 1998; p. 80)


Nevertheless, suggesting instructional strategies will not solve the problems of “poor writing” among non-standard speakers or loss of voice when these speakers develop the ability to write in SCE.  Johnstone (1996) argues that

Efforts to bestow articulateness[11] on the socially inarticulate – to give speakers of non-standard varieties “a right to their language” in writing classes, for example, or to include the literature of the socially oppressed with the traditional Greats in English curricula – often founder because they do not address the inequities of power that give rise to this inarticulateness in the first place (p. 60).


Teachers and policy makers do not operate independently of a social and political context.  Teachers are not free to adopt the suggested strategies above when the curriculum and forms of assessment are standardized at the state level.   Mountford (1999) begins to address these issues when she argues that assessment needs to change; otherwise all this research is of limited use.  Portfolios need to be used as well as a variety of kinds of writing(p. 384).   As Villenueva pointed out (cited previously), standardized tests do not allow for a broad or varied interpretation of words based on context.  Hoover (1998) points to reading comprehension sections on standardized tests that are even more problematic for non-dominant culture students than vocabulary sections, since the “correct” answer “heavily relies on culture bound rules of inference” (p. 129). 

So much research has accumulated on this issue that the American Psychological Association in 1993 put in its testing guidelines the need for "qualitative ecological assessments of students from diverse cultures in settings outside of the school" in order to

"accurately assess these students' true cognitive achievement and potential."   The research of Sharon-ann Gopaul-McNicol, Grace Reid, and Cecilia Wisdom (1998) at Howard University provides a case study to illustrate this point:

Background: Aisha (a pseudonym) is a 14 year old African American girl in the eight grade who speaks Ebonics and Standard English alternately.  Her teacher's records indicated that Aisha was functioning at a fourth-grade level in mathematics and a third-grade level in reading.  The teacher felt that a special education program would better address Aisha's academic delays, so she referred Aisha to a psycho-educational evaluator to ascertain which program would be appropriate.


[results of the WISC - III indicated that Aisha had "moderate retardation" and was "eligible for a full-time special education program"]


Ecological Assessment results: . . . In her natural setting, she utilized words such as "dangerous" which she had been unable to define on the written IQ test.  Whereas Aisha had been unable to recall as many as seven numbers on the Digit Span sub-test of the Wechsler scales, she could remember all the items on a 10-item grocery list with ease.  Equally notable was her ability to perform calculations in basic addition and subtraction in the grocery store, even though she demonstrated no such mathematical aptitude on the WISC -III. . . when she was not penalized for speaking in and filtering her language comprehension through Ebonics, evidence of mental retardation for this child was unfounded (1998; p. 20).


These researchers concluded that


the testing industry as a whole must reconsider some of its major assumptions about standardized testing . . . test developers need to create – and evaluators need to employ - a broader menu of assessment options to enable them to better recognize the many varieties of human talent that exist in our society . . .[12]


and “teacher educators must be clear about both the importance and role of Ebonics in the lives of those who speak it” (p. 22).   But while teachers can be crystal clear about what the “research” suggests, their hands are tied by state tests and frameworks.

Yet the situation is even more complicated.  Policy or legal requirements[13] do not guarantee the implementation of ecological or portfolio assessment nor do they guarantee the implementation of such complex and individualistic instructional strategies as suggested above.  As long as the teaching force is 77 percent middle class, white and female, a cultural bias is built into the teaching of literacy practices.  Patricia Williams (1997) expresses one of many reasons such a cultural bias is problematic.  Williams argues that without the influx of Ebonics speaking teachers, the adoption of strategies that are based on using Ebonics as well as SCE to develop an individual’s literate voice and style will turn into another form of “minstrelsy”:

Imagine having teachers who speak standard classroom English flailing about in some really bad version of a standardized black English.  It they end up speaking Ebonics as badly as teachers who learn a little “professional Spanish,” I cringe to think of the consequences: pidgin versions of Talking to Tonto.  Ugh.


. . There are enough Standard English speakers who just love to “talk black,” who at the drop of a hat break out in “basketball” - now there’s an official language - and who, encountering any black person, start “dude”-ing and “I be” -ing up a storm, high- and low-fiving to beat the band.  This phenomenon is part minstrelsy, part presumptuousness and, most complicated of all, part of the mainstream’s assimilation of black speech patterns that, once incorporated, are promptly forgotten as such.


I worry a bit that this natural and overlapping fluidity of American vernacular and its regionalism will be rendered all the more invisible by falsely turning teachers into linguistic anthropologists, adventurers into  the “foreign” terrain of alien verbiage (p. 8).


Feagans (1996) sees the middle class bias of teachers (both European and African American) reflected in their continued practice of placing African Americans in “low-ability groups” regardless of their perceived “linguistic competence”.   Feagans presided over a long

term research project in which three groups of children were closely followed from preschool through grade three.  Two of the groups were working class African Americans (one being the intervention group and the other the control) and the third group were middle class European American.  The researchers developed a “language rich” preschool curriculum intended to emphasize the development of SCE language discourse skills for the intervention group.  Feagans and her associates found significant effects for the intervention group during their preschool years but also discovered that these effects were “washed out” during these children’s public school experiences from grades one through three.  The gap between scores/evaluations of middle class white students and working class African American students (both intervention and control) widened as the students proceeded from grade to grade. 

Their ethnographic study revealed to the researchers why this may have happened.   The teachers of all three groups consistently divided up their classroom into small “ability” groups.  Invariably, the African American children were placed in the “lower” ability groups in spite of the teachers’ admissions that they perceived the pre-school intervention children as more “linguistically competent” than the non-intervention group.[14]  The teachers (20 percent were African American) were not aware that they taught each ability group differently.

In both the high- and low-ability groups the teacher was clearly in control of the conversation and did most of the talking, but the quality of talk in the two kinds of groups differed. . . [In the high ability group] the style of instruction was very conversational. . . reminiscent of some of the conversations heard in the home or neighborhood setting.  This kind of dialogue was extremely rare in the low-ability group.

Example 2 from a high-ability group was a more formal learning situation but . . . it evolved into a rhyming game that required fairly good phonemic skills. . . We never saw such instructional rhyming games used with the low-ability groups, yet this was the type of activity we had just seen in the neighborhoods of the [African American] children . . . It was unfortunate that these teachers did not have the opportunity to observe [these] children in their home community as we did (p. 156).

The historical legacy of tracking and racism has continued to infuse United States middle class culture with assumptions about the linguistic competencies of the lower classes, assumptions unaffected by the research of the last thirty years (Ball, 1999 ; Delpit, 1998 ; Balester, 1993 ; Fordham, 1986 ; Garcia, 1991 ; Heath, 1983 ; Labov, 1995 ; Michaels, 1984 ; Ogbu, 1995 ; Rickford, 1999 ; Smitherman, 1997 ; Vernon-Feagans, 1996 ; Villenueva, 1995 ; Weiss, 1985).




The research on the reading and writing limitations and capabilities of Ebonics speakers has focused on how to use the “vernacular” to teach SCE.  Some of these researchers, in the

process, have noticed that “academically successful” Ebonics speakers lose their voice when they write.  One way to explain this phenomenon is to look at the relationships among language, identity, and culture.  But in doing so, one confronts the even larger political and economic context influencing the dynamics of those relationships.  From this larger perspective, “academic success” and SCE are part of a middle class (dominant) culture.  The values, beliefs and “ways of seeing and being in the world” of this culture form the standard to which all others are expected to conform without any guarantee of gaining the economic privileges of the middle class.  It is only those who successfully conform to and thus have a stake in this culture who become teachers, researchers and policy makers.   Those who are economically rewarded for being “academically successful” have little incentive to change the system that maintains their privilege regardless of how unfair or exploitative they perceive it to be.  As long as the gatekeeping function of “academic success” (including mastery of SCE) is defended as a legitimate way to rationalize the growing economic and political inequality in this country, instructional strategies that will allow Ebonics speakers to develop and nourish their voice in their writing will not be adopted.  The status quo will continue to be maintained and SCE will continue to play a key role in that maintenance along with the structures of schools (the curriculum, tracking, the testing system, etc.) and the recruitment and socialization process of the teaching force (the unwitting or reluctant foot soldiers in the reproduction of the system). Cooper and Holtzman (1989) argue that

The concept of discourse community is like the concepts of Standard English and cultural literacy, which despite their descriptive potential and the often liberal intentions of those who use them are concepts that serve extremely well to exclude certain sorts of people from positions of power (p. 205). . . Tradition, as Saussure noted, is essential to language and, by extension, to discourse.  But there is a difference between seeing it as somehow prior to and impervious to discourse and seeing it as a force within discourse (p. 211) . . . [T]he foundational belief that true knowledge and right action must be grounded in standards external to the immediate situation directs attention away from the question of how these standards are used by particular interests in the immediate situation (p. 210) [my emphasis].


  Heath’s experience (1983) in the Carolina piedmont region in the 1970s seems to support the need to see language research and instruction in the larger historical/political context.   Heath worked with teachers helping them to become teacher researchers, modeling ethnographic research, helping to analyse their field notes, familiarizing them with Labov’s Logic of Nonstandard English  (originally published in 1969) and other similar works.  Many teachers were able to use the student’s culture as a bridge towards “academic success” (“reading at higher levels”, however, does not guarantee retention of “voice”).  Nevertheless, when Heath returned and interviewed these teachers (those that still remained) in 1981, they had all abandoned their new techniques.  The teachers pointed to the demoralizing attacks on public schools, increased bureaucratization and use of standardized tests as the reason for abandoning the strategies developed in the previous decade.  The teachers told Heath that there no longer was the sense of urgency that had existed before, urgency brought on by the then, newly de-segregated schools (and, in general, the Civil Rights movement).  They also said that Heath’s absense was a factor as well.  During periods when there is no “sense of urgency” brought on by larger historical forces and there is increasingly less freedom from standard assessment practices, the need for researchers and teachers to become activists is particularly pressing.  Without a political commitment to the “linguistic competencies” that non-Standard English speakers bring to the classroom, the ideology of the “bell curve” and its effects will continue to prevail. 

The language, only the language . . . It is the thing that black people love so much – the saying of words, holding them on the tongue, experimenting with them, playing with them.  It’s a love, a passion.  Its function is like a preacher’s: to make you stand up out of your seat, make you lose yourself and hear yourself.  The worst of all possible things that could happen would be to lose that language.  There are certain things I cannot say without recourse to my language.  It’s terrible to think that a child with five different present tenses comes to school to be faced with those books that are less than his own language.  And then to be told things about his language, which is him, that are sometimes permanently damaging.  He may never know the etymology of Africanisms in his language, not even know that “hip” is a real word or that “the dozens” meant something.  This is a really cruel fallout of racism.  I know the standard English.  I want to use it to help restore the other language, the lingua franca  [my emphasis] (Toni Morrison’s interview with LeClair, 1981; pp. 27-28).



Appendix A

From a Brief Reply to Daniel Hibbs Morrow

 by Patrick Hartwell (1985)


“. . . we reject as ‘trivial’ Hartwell’s claim that print literacy is not a dialect, but rather a complex cultural code -- no, I’m sorry, we say it ‘may be trivial’ (but don’t tell Hartwell -- tell Barthes, 1953/68; Derrida, 1967/1976; Miles, 1963/1976; Sledd, 1976, 1984; Vygotsky 1935/1978); we offer some suggestive remarks on what we call ‘inter-dialects’ (usually, in the ESL literature, ‘interlanguage’ -- Selinker, 1972); we prefer Bartholomae’s explanation of error, whatever that may be, to Hartwell’s explanation of error, whatever that may be (but, aha, Hartwell has a new explanation of error: 1984, 1985), . . we call for further research (oh, isn’t it fun?) and for passionate attention to surface detail -- but now, of course, in conference rather than in class.


“But those who want to find ‘dialect interference in writing’ will always go out and find it (Cronnell, 1984; Epes, in press) -- well, almost always (Scott, 1981; Wolfram, Christian, Leap and Potter, 1979).  And those of us who look for complex cultural codes will find those, too (Hartwell & Lopresti, in press; Heath, 1983; Rose, in press; Thompson, in press).


“I wish Morrow had placed some emphasis on the reading/writing connection: I don’t think we’re going to get any fix on speaking/writing correlations unless we control for reading level.  Morrow’s remarks on speech training and on grammar instruction mark him as what Emig (1980) would call a ‘magical thinker’ -- students will learn only what we teach and only because we teach. . .”


Appendix B


Summary of Michaels and Collins (1984), Classroom Interaction and the Acquisition of Literacy


Michaels and Collins spent one year conducting an ethnographic study of an urban first grade classroom focusing on an analysis of a “key” speech event called Sharing Time.  This was a periodic event “opened and closed formulaically by the teacher”.  Analysis of the discourse between students and teacher during Sharing Time revealed to the researchers that the teacher

had an underlying schema of what constituted good sharing and that this schema had an implicit literate bias. . . The teacher seemed to expect a literate-style, decontextualized account centering on a single topic, whereby:


1.       objects were to be named and described, even when in plain sight;

2.       talk was to be explicitly grounded temporaly and spatially;

3.       minimal shared background knowledge or context was to be assumed on the part of the audience;

4.      thematic ties needed to be lexicalized [framed explicitly with words?] if topic shifts were to be seen as motivated and relevant (p 223).


The white students in the class “tended” to be topic-centered; it “closely matched” the teacher’s schema.  The “black children, and particularly some of the black girls were far more likely to use . . .  topic-associating style” (p.224).

          The teacher easily identified and helped elaborate the topic of those children with topic-centered styles while interrupting and disconcerting those children who attempted to “tell something important” in a topic-associating” style.  The following transcript is one example of the latter.  Deena, a six-year-old African American is telling about her new coat.  (I have removed the transcription notations that are used to identify prosodic and paralinguisitc cues, otherwise known as intonation and body-language and substituted my own punctuation.)


Teacher:  Deena, I want you to share some one thing that’s very important.  One thing.  From where you are.  Is that where you were?

Deena: No.

Teacher: Okay.  (chuckles)

Deena: um . . .in the summer …I mean . . . when I go back to school

     I go back to school . . . in September  . . . I’ma have a new coat

And I already got it . . . and . . . it’s . . .um . . . . got a lot of brown in it . . and . . when . . um . . and I got it yesterday . . and when I got it . . my mother was going some . . . where

When my . . . when I saw it . . on the couch and I shoed my sister

And I was readin’ somethin’ out on . . . on the bag

And my big sister said, Deena, you have to keep that away from Keisha

‘cause that’s my baby sister, and I said no . . . and I said the plastic bag

. . .because . . . um . . when. . um sh-when the um . . she was um, with me, wait a minute, . . my cousin and her—

Teacher:                                                        -- wait a minute, you stick with your coat now.   I said you could tell one thing.  That’s fair.

Deena: This was about my coat -

Teacher:                                     - Okay, alright, go on.

Deena:                                            -this was –

       And today, and yesterday when I . . got my coat, my cousin ran outside, and he . . ran to tried to get him and he, he, he start. . . an when he get in, when he got in my house . . .he layed on the floor, and I told him to get up because he was cryin

Teacher: mmm     what’s that have to do with your coat?

Deena: h-he . . becau- he wanted to go outside, but we. . couldn’t (exasperated)

Teacher: why?

Deena: cause my mother s-wanted us to stay in the house

Teacher: what does that have to do with your coat?

Deena: be- it um . .

Deena: because . . . . I don’t know

Teacher: (chuckles)  Thank you very much, Deena



The researchers played the tape back to Deena and asked her what she was trying to say.  Deena explained that the link between her cousin and her coat was her cousin being “a bad little boy, and when he came back in the house he started to put his hands on my coat, and his hands was dirty!”   Deena was also trying to explain that her mother had told her to keep the plastic bag away from her little sister, Keisha, who would try to put it over her head.  Deena interpreted the teacher’s question  (“what’s that got to do with your coat?) literally, thinking that the teacher wished to know more about Deena’s cousin, “like did he do something to it [the coat], or what?”


Thus, it appears that the two were working at cross purposes : [the teacher] was looking [unconsciously] for topic-centered discourse . . . whereas Deena was building up a topic-associating narrative account whereby the overall point had to be inferred from a series of sub-anecdotes without any overt statement of the topic.  Each was working within her own sharing time schema, but without a shared sense of topic and activity goal (pp. 229-30).




            Anderson, J. (1988). Cognitive Styles and Multiculutural Populations. Journal of Teacher Education, Jan - Feb, 2 - 9.

            Anderson, J. D. (1995). Literacy and Education in the African American Experience. In V. L. Gadsden & D. A. Wagner (Eds.), Literacy Among African American Youth (pp. 19-37). Cresskill, New Jersey: Hampton Press.

            Apple, M. (1995). Education and Power. New York: Routledge.

            Ash, S., & Myhill, J. (1986). Linguistics Correlates of Inter-ethnic Contact. In D. Sankoff (Ed.), Diversity and Diachrony (pp. 33-44). Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

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[1] The term “conventions”, I am guessing, refers to prevailing notions of grammatical, spelling and syntactic “rules”.  Johnstone is more flexible than Hammond in defining “conventions” in that she believes them to be those resources or constraints that allow one to predict the way in which a certain person will speak based on their gender, ethnicity, class and audience. 

[2] Farr and Janda cite Michaels (1981) to define topic-centered as more explicit and de-contextualized than topic-associated narrative style.  This will be elaborated further under the subheading, “Organizational Patterns,” in the next section, “Ebonics”.

[3] Smitherman (1997; p. 30) defines the term signifying as a “rhetorical and semantic strategy, which can be spoken with or without the phonological and morpho-syntactical patterns of Ebonics, the speaker deploys exaggeration, irony, and indirection.  Signification is a way of saying something on two different levels at once [this is another manifestation of Ebonics that falls under the characteristic of broad interpretation of meaning that will be addressed later in the paper].  It is often used to send a message of social critique, a bit of social commentary on the actions or statements of someone, who is in need of a wake-up call.  When signifyin’ is done with verbal dexterity, it avoids the creation of social distance between speaker and audience [another culturally based manifestation as described later] because the rich humor makes you laugh to keep you from crying.”

[4] Labov and Harris (1986) point to the importance of such a “social history” in their study of speech communities in Philadelphia.  Their research confirmed “four general principles that have emerged from research in the speech community over the past twenty years.”  One of those “four principles” is that “social networks have little explanatory value for individual differences in linguistic systems.  It is the social history of the speakers that must be taken into account: the kinds of social experience they have had in dealing with members of other groups, the way they have used language in their life” (p. 21) [my emphasis].

[5] In the context of both Lacan’s and Rickford’s argument that the parts or features of a language are inextricably connected, one might wish to consider at this point that grammatical and syntactical features are embedded in organizational and discourse styles of which narration is a specific form.

[6] Ball (1992) asked one hundred and two ethnically diverse students from five working class urban classrooms to rank organizational patterns in the order of their preferences for both conversational and written style.  Fifty-five of the students were female, 67 intermediate students (5th/6th grades) and 35 high school students.  Results: “All students, regardless of ethnicity or grade level, reported a preference for using the vernacular-based organizational style [circumlocution, narrative interspersion] when completing conversational tasks. . . Academic expository patterns [List, Topical Net, Matrix, Hierarchy]were much less popular for conversational tasks. . . Looking at students’ preferred patterns for organizing academic writing tasks according to ethnicity and grade level, however, shows that the preferences reported by African-American high school students were distinct from other groups.  One hundred percent of the African-American high school students [compared to 43 percent of African American intermediate students] reported a preference for using vernacular-based patterns for academic writing” (p. 517).  Analysis of variance of preferences for writing tasks between African Americans and non-African Americans was significant.

[7] Delpit (1995e) agrees that “discourses may embody conflicting values” but insists that such conflicts can be overcome by Ebonics speakers (p. 155).  Delpit argues that Gilyard’s problem was that he “rejected literacy”, that he was “choosing not to learn”.   If Gilyard had had the proper instruction (using Ebonics to teach SCE and the acknowledgement of the gate-keeping function of SCE) then he would not have experienced such pain (p. 158-60).  Delpit also believes an individual teacher needs to aspire to a gatekeeping position and then ensure that all her students qualify to pass the gate (Delpit, 1995b; p. 40).  Those Ebonics speakers who learn SCE can then provide “one more voice” and “turn the sorting system on its head” (Delpit 1995e; p.163).  Voices such as hers, Morrison, Baldwin, Gilyard, and Villenueva are necessary.  Nevertheless, I believe that such voices will not be allowed to reach critical mass, numbers in sufficient quantity to allow for the implementation of the kinds of instructional strategies (defined later in this paper) that are recommended by the research.  The fate of the SEP program in Oakland is a case in point.  Other examples are all those for whom successful acquisition of the “codes of power” failed to gain them access to status and wealth.  They competed skillfully and in good faith only to find that the powerful changed or ignored the rules in order to cheat them out of victory.  The political economy of race, class and gender in this country will not be altered by individual  teachers in their classrooms nor solved by individual students’ efforts on their own.  Gilyard and others were not solely “rejecting literacy because they felt that literate discourses reject them” as Delpit simply puts it.  Weiss (1985) captures the highly complex nature of the rejection in her study.  Part of the problem in finding solutions to social and economic inequality lies in the insistence of individual solutions imposed by middle class culture of which SCE is only a part .  The dominant culture’s cult of individualism plays a significant role in confronting people with false dichotomies and limited choices making the status quo seem inevitable. 

[8] Morrison believes that what makes her writing “good” is her use of language.  One example she gives is when she “get[s] the sound without some mechanics that would direct the reader’s attention to the sound.  One way is not to use adverbs to describe how someone says something.  I try to work the dialogue down so the reader has to hear it.  When Eva in Sula sets her son on fire, her daughter runs upstairs to tell her, and Eva says “Is?” you can hear every grandmother say “Is?” and you know a) she knows what she’s been told; b)she is not going to do anything about it; and c) she will not have any more conversation.  That sound is important to me.”  When LeClair pointed out to Morrison that “not all readers are going to catch that,” Morrison replied, “ There is a level of appreciation that might be available only to people who understand the context of the language.  The analogy that occurs to me is jazz [remember Lacan’s “several staves of a score”]: it is open on the one hand and both complicated and inaccessible on the other.  I never asked Tolstoy to write for me, a little colored girl in Lorain, Ohio. . . And I don’t know why I should be asked to explain your life to you . . It is that business of being universal, a word hopelessly stripped of meaning for me. . . If I tried to write a universal novel, it would be water.”

[9] Research in the early 1980s of African Americans, Puerto-Rican Americans and European Americans in Philadelphia (Myhill and Harris, 1986; Ash and Myhill, 1986; Labov and Harris, 1986) reveal divergence in two groups.   For the vast majority who had no contact with speakers of other dialects, there was an increase of Ebonic surface features (e.g., phonology) and the appearance of new features.  In the speech of a minority of Ebonic speakers who exhibited the same superficial features of Ebonics as the majority, there also existed the more fundamental grammatical patterns (morpho-syntactic) of other dialects.  The differences between the two groups seemed to be explained by the latter’s distinction of having “frequent, face to face dealings with whites on an equal basis”  (Labov,  1995: p. 63).


[10] This also applies to presenting the solution to educational problems as “instructional strategies” to be implemented by individual teachers in each of their individual classrooms.

[11] Johnstone’s definition of “articulate” includes “easy, fluent delivery, syntax carefully planned and written sounding, distinct enunciation, logical organization, clarity in showing how ideas are related, [and] being able to get one’s ideas across without seeming overly obstrusive.”  Accomplishing all these things does not, however, result in “articulateness”.   Her discourse analysis “shows how the expression of a distinct individual voice crucially enters into the process of being articulate” (p. 61).

[12] Surprisingly, on the basis of such assumptions, Frisby (1993) doubts the existence of Black/White cultural differences.  That is, if such differences can’t be measured, they cannot be said to exist.  Cultural differences cannot be measured because these differences resist standardized definitions.  “Flabby” concepts are used like “culture” which have “different meanings in different contexts”.  “Flabby” concepts “generate value-laden philosophical or ideological debates, which have a tendency to resist resolution” (p. 541).

[13] Hoover (1998) points out that one of the legal requirements of Title VII stipulated that a connection be established between test scores and on-the-job performance.  She notes, however, that not only has no such connection been established, but empirical studies have shown, like in Aisha’s case,  that the same students who perform poorly on tests perform well in practical situations dealing with the same material.  Issac Taggert (1998) remembers how surprised he was to discover an unimplemented policy.  Oakland’s Standard English Proficiency program had been part of California’s Education Code since 1981 yet had never received either categorical or general funding.  Labov (1995) laments the decision by Houghten-Mifflin in 1977 to stop publication of the “Bridge Program” in spite of the policy to use the “vernacular” in the teaching of SCE.  The program had successfully used the home language of Ebonics speakers to increase their reading scores on SCE standardized tests.  The publisher bowed to pressure by parents and teachers who objected to using Ebonics in the classroom.

[14] Feagans periodically expresses her ambivalence towards the term “linguistically competent”.  For example, when describing the performance on a specific narrative task, she observes that the “Mainstream” white children and the intervention group “performed better on this narrative task than the nonintervention group” (better = paraphrasing the critical elements of the story read to them).   Yet, Feagans then suggests that “the reason for this large gap may have been the better storytelling ability of the [African American] children. . . especially the non-intervention children, [who] tended to add and embellish the vignettes when asked to paraphrase.  By doing so they frequently ended up creating a different, but often more interesting, vignette” (p. 198).