The African Holocaust, the institution of slavery, was dehumanizing. But other than names and traditions, perhaps the most essential aspect of African culture that was stripped was language.
Since families and tribes were broken up, it became harder to communicate. Attempting to read and write was forbidden in the South, but even so, blacks knew language was a critical instrument of cohesion. Africans sought alternate methods of communication such as chants, folk songs, drums and spirituals. Embedded within many of these methods were codes and double meanings used as instructions for meeting places or times to escape. “Negro spirituals such as ‘Wade in the Water,’ ‘The Gospel Train’ and ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ directly refer to the Underground Railroad,” according to www.negrospirituals.com.
Over time, blacks have perpetuated an alternate underground language. From jive to slang, blacks created a different language that defied English’s grammatical rules.
But this altered language was not only reserved for speaking, but it also filtered into black literature, poetry and music. What would be later classified as “black dialect” made its way into works by authors such as Zora Neale Hurston, poets such as Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks and musicians such as Fats Waller.
However, as rebellious and cohesive as this language was, there were always people who rebuked such a practice, and encouraged their children to steer away from slang, because it supposedly sounded uneducated. Children are told to “use proper English” and “talk right.” But what does it mean to sound “uneducated?” Can education be judged solely on word choice if the content and context demonstrates profound ideas?
On Dec.19, 1997, the School Board in Oakland, Calif. made a crucial decision. It decided to respect and view ebonics, or black English, as a standard language that is different, not wrong. “Linguists recognize that ebonics has origins in the West and Niger-Congo and it was spoken by slaves. It has distinct grammar and syntax patterns tied to those roots, such as the absence of forms of the verb ‘to be.”
The Oakland Unified School district became the first school district in the United States to implement a system-wide decision regarding black English. The board’s decision was unanimous, but there was national controversy in terms of funding for such programs and the use of the word ebonics that carried over into the following year. Eventually the issue was dropped; however, it remains alive all across the nation.
With language comes power, unity and identity. In a sense, losing language means losing aspects of those values.
In “Afrocentricity,” Molefi K. Asante said, “It becomes impossible for us to direct our future until we control our language.”
As we incorporate the remnants of our history into our daily journey, it is our duty to talk the talk.
Russell Nichols is a junior magazine production student from Richmond, Calif. He is the deputy lifestyles editor for The Famuan. Contact him at email@example.com.