The Burden Of Ebonics

I received the most fascinating note in the mail this morning:

Dear Mr. Coates,

Recently I heard you in an interview and finally found a comparison which explains to me why I object to your use of language. I come from a country where children speaking dialect have had a hard time in school, first because German orthography is pretty close to the spoken word and second for being discriminated against because they are considered to come from uneducated backgrounds

Having said that even though I love dialects for their often much more colorful way of expressing things than would be impossible in High (sic) German (i.e. standard German) there are some heavily accented German speakers I object to and others I do not - I keep asking myself, where's the difference and differences keep popping into my mind all the time - basically it all comes to it somehow does not match or sounds rebellious in a counter-productive way - when I saw that video of that poor black kid from Selma? who blew something, I forgot what, I realized how detrimental it must be for people like him if that kind of language is promoted by role models, people like you who have made it to a decent way of life.

It's funny, I never thought of my accent as particularly thick, but I get this quite a bit. I don't post this to take offense, but to highlight a point of view that's often shared with me. I don't get the notion that a kid listening to me talk about my book, would decide that the primary message is to never learn standard English. I've never met a kid that stupid. But I guess they're out there. Somewhere.

Anyway, this idea that one should learn standard English in order to not be discriminated against is, from my perspective, poisonous. I think about my own kid, and I want him to learn standard English for the same reasons I'd want him to learn any language--because language is way of looking at the world, because it's a way of expressing yourself, because it builds bridges to people who aren't like you, and ultimately, because, put simply, it's good to be curious.

Therein lies the irony--the desire to patrol someone else's accent strikes me as deeply incurious. It is intelligence as artifice, a knowledge garnered to, at best, kowtow to equally incurious people or, at worst, preen over others who aren't as fortunate. Hmm, maybe I do take offense. Not because of anything said about me, but because I deeply resent ignorance that dresses itself up as wisdom.

My siblings, for the most part, came up like me. They mostly talk like me. But all of them also have--like a lot of black people--a kind of second voice, a rather nonthreatening, standardized style of speak. It's key to remove about a third of all bass. I don't dis that second voice--it is the language of their professional world and it should be recognized, and respected. The only reason I never developed one, was because my field never required it. In fact, in my work, it may good to be thought of as less intelligent. The proof, at the end of the day, is in the product.