African American Vernacular English in the High School English Classroom

In a high school English classroom, students are often left thinking that there is a correct way to speak; that Although the literary canon is ever expanding historically, this cannon is dominated by straight white males, thus posing a significant problem when teaching a high school English class. Avoiding diverse material allows for biases to continue to dwell within and inhibit the voice of students. This problem extends into the linguistic prejudices that degrade African American Vernacular English (AAVE) and discriminates against Blackness in general.  As a future English teacher, one of my goals is to help students feel confident about the way they speak, and teach students to be accepting of the way others speak.

Current culture maintains a preference for “standard” white English, especially in light of a white majority, thus discounting ideas communicated in AAVE as less intelligent or professional.  A study conducted by Jose I. Rodriguez, Aaron Castelan Cargile, and Marc D. Rich found that a vast majority of people viewed AAVE as “less attractive and less status-possessing.” (Rodriguez 411) These findings indicate a prejudice against speakers of AAVE for the sake of their English dialect and its connection to Blackness. The study found, however, that those that spoke AAVE tended to rate its speakers more highly, thus revealing that people are generally more accepting of what they consider “standard” (412). This prejudice became apparent within the education system when Oakland, California attempted to describe AAVE as its own language rather than a dialect of English. This would allow students who spoke in AAVE to be treated as an ESL student (Hopkins 53). While the intentions of giving students the linguistic attention they need is noble, the classification of AAVE  as another language implies two problematic ideas. First, that students who speak AAVE are incapable of understanding and learning standard English on their own despite the clear similarities between the two dialects (Hopkins 53-54). Second, that AAEV, because of its association with Blackness, is so far from the White American standard that it cannot even be considered English. In this case, the education system proved the prejudice that Rodriguez, Cargile, and Rich found in their study: AAVE is largely viewed as inferior to standard English. Even in schools, where the intention should be allowing every student to access full potential, there is a prejudice against AAVE.

Recognizing AAVE as an equally legitimate English dialect in a direct way within the classroom can alter the system which classifies white English as standard and AAVE as a lesser form of the English language. Rodriguez, Cargile, and Rich’s study emphasized the fact that familiarity with a dialect makes one more accepting of that dialect (412). If students are exposed to a variety of English dialects in their English classes, they will be more likely to accept dialects beyond standard English. Students who speak in standard English will have a greater understanding of AAVE and be less likely to pass unreasonable judgments of a AAVE speaker’s intelligence or status. Students who speak AAVE will feel empowered by hearing voices similar to their own within the classroom. Effective recognition of AAVE will legitimize the words that students speak regardless of their dialect. This can be done in a direct way through dialect. According to Amanda Godly and Angela Minnici, “if students are not given space within the classroom to discuss the workings of language and power, then they cannot begin to contest and ultimately change the very systems that oppress them” (323). Simply pointing out language that varies from standard English and neglecting to discuss it in terms of culture’s attitude towards Blackness does nothing to impact student’s attitudes towards Blackness.

Ultimately, AAVE is considered lesser because of negative connotations with Blackness and promotion of  AAVE within the classroom can help to relieve the issue. However the most effective way for a teacher to eliminate this linguistic bias is to attack the bias it stems from: the bias against Blackness. This requires stepping out of an echo chamber of diverse texts and examining the potentially problematic texts that are traditionally canonized. In order to fully understand linguistic bias against AAVE, it is vital that students understand the concept of racial bias. Conversations about racial bias When teaching texts by straight white men, teacher should discuss them in relation to issues such as race and gender, especially emphasizing the bias that appears in these texts.While a diverse focus in the classroom is necessary, it is counterproductive to eliminate straight white men from the reading list all together. When teaching Othello, there is an opportunity to focus on the concept of racial bias in the very general sense. Throughout the play, Othello’s status as a moor gathers a significant amount of prejudice and, according to some interpretations, ultimately becomes his demise. According to Sidney Li, emphasising historical context in a text such as this can alleviate some of the pressure that comes from talking about racial bias (11). However, I do not intend to leave discussion of racial bias in historical context. In order for students to understand the nature of racial bias in Have students work in small groups, each group reading a different News story regarding race. Students will then discuss the following questions: what biases does this news story present? What impressions do you get of the people involved in the views story? Compare the biases in the News story to the racial bias Iago approaches Othello with? Students should walk away from this activity with a strong understanding of racial bias that will open them up to a greater understanding of linguistic racial bias.

This examination of bias can extend into the realm of derogatory language by critically analyzing texts such as Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, which is controversial because of its racially charged language, can open up a discussion of race based on discriminatory language. It’s easy for students to write off the use of the n-word in Huckleberry Finn as either deeply racist, or simply a reflection of the times without engaging in any actual dialogue regarding the topic. When teaching Huckleberry Finn in her junior English class Karen Keeley confronted controversial language head on with a writing assignment she titled “Dangerous Words.” For this assignment she had students select a derogatory term of some sort and write a personal, research based paper on the ways in which these words can appropriately and inappropriately be used. This paper required both the linguistic history of the chosen word and a personal reaction to the word’s usage (55-57). Accompanying this assignment with open discussion on Twain’s use of the n-word  would allow students to understand the complexity that comes with the usage of such language. In order to create a comfortable environment as a teacher, I would have students complete an exit ticket answering the following questions: “What is your emotional response to Twain’s use of the n-word?” and “What was your emotional response to today’s discussion of Twain’s use of the n-word?” In discussing the bias that can extend from language such as the n-word, this opens the students minds to the bias that exists towards Blackness in general, thus opening the discussion of AAVE to a stronger understanding of linguistic bias.

Once students have a strong understanding of bias, a teacher can begin to address AAVE directly and effectively in the classroom by including a diverse breadth of reading and having students interact with the language of these books. The bias towards a “standard” white  vernacular can be attacked in the classroom by having students read books that employ African American Vernacular in a meaningful way, such as Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. With guidance, Students will see the value that lies in what is generally considered a less acceptable way of speech. Walker addresses this issue in regard to the image of a white male God. Students can discuss how the linguistics of the Bible, which are associated with whiteness, alienate Celie and affect her sense of agency. The book illustrates existing constructed connection between whiteness and God and the power this has over Celie in her solidarity, despite an intuitive knowledge of an internal God of justice. These views towards God and the patriarchal racism associated with Him, logically would have forced Celie into a hardened separation from God, however Shug offers a theological solution,

Here’s the thing, say Shug. The thing I believe. God is inside you and inside everybody else. You come into the world with God. But only them that search for it inside find it. And sometimes it just manifest itself even if you not looking, or don’t know what you looking for. Trouble do it for most folks, I think. Sorrow, lord. Feeling like shit. (196)

the linguistic presence of Shug Avery’s AAVE only enhances the importance of the context of her spiritual ideas. It re enforces the exclusion that the black women in this novel have felt from a traditionally white God. A teacher could have students summarize Shug’s spiritual claims in standard English and compare their summaries to the original text.  When looking at the texts side by side, they should find that AAVE fuels the power of this particular quote, thus pointing to the legitimacy of voices that deviate from what is considered culturally acceptable.

When attempting to have students increase acceptance  of marginalized dialects of English such as AAVE, it’s important that the study of the Black voice in class extends beyond the written word and into audible voices. A teacher could do this by introducing students to slam poetry. This genre is dominated by diversity, is easily accessible, and tends to appeal to high school students. A teacher could have their students watch the documentary, Louder than a Bomb, which chronicles a diverse group of high-school students who participate in a national slam poetry competition. The film takes time to explore the backgrounds of the students, track their work process as they prepare for competition, and, perhaps most importantly, features their performances in competition. The film provides perspective from students with a variety of English dialects, but a large percentage of the students speak in some form of AAVE. As students watch the documentary they  should answer the following questions: Which student’s story or performance did you find the most impactful and why? What did you notice about the way that student spoke during their performance? How does the way they speak affect their poetry? A teacher should end this slam poetry unit by allowing students to experiment with their own voice. This is especially important in a diverse classroom. Students should compose their own slam poems, centered around their own life experiences, in whatever dialect they feel most comfortable writing in. The students can then spend a day putting on their own poetry slam. In listening to their classmates stories and individual voices, students will be able to understand the vast array of voices and dialects within their own social sphere and hopefully ally it to their lives outside the classroom.

Racial bias is a huge problem that extends far beyond bias towards African Americans. I am only one person and I cannot expect that  compiling a list of books to teach my students and some strategies by which to make them more aware of racial bias will solve that problem. But as this essay has established, a person’s language can have a big impact. My goal in my socially conscious classroom is not to eliminate racism as a whole. I realize that I am too small for that. My goal is not even to empower my students, It is to give my students the education necessary to empower themselves. Students’ voices matters, and the voices of the people around them matter, regardless of whether they speak in AAVE, standard English, or any other dialect. If students learn this than they can empower themselves to make a greater change in the world.

Works Cited

Godley, Amanda, Minnici, Angela. “Critical Language Pedagogy in an Urban English Class,” Urban Education vol. 43 no.3. pp. 319-346

Hopkins, Carolyn E. “What’s All The Fuss About Ebonics? Lessons Learned From The Origins And Controversies Of Black English Vernacular.” Virginia English Bulletin 58.2 (2008): 51-55.

Li, Sidney C. “Advancing Multicultural Education: New Historicism In The High School English Classroom.” High School Journal 99.1 (2015): 4-26. Education Research Complete. Web. 5 Dec. 2016.

Louder than a Bomb. Directed by Jon Siskel and Greg Jacobs, Siskel/Jacobs Productions, 2010.

Keely, Karen A. “Dangerous Words: Recognizing the Power of Language by Researching Derogatory Terms.” The English Journal, vol. 100, no. 4, 2011, pp. 55–60.

Rodriguez, José I., Cargile, Aaron Castelan , and Marc D. Rich. “Reactions To African-American Vernacular English: Do More Phonological Features Matter?.” Western Journal Of Black Studies 28.3 (2004): 407-414.

 

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