Of Improper Grammar-tology: Redux

Posted in 2011 The Gnovis Blog  |  Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

In an earlier blog entry (new window), I posited that by viewing “Ebonics”—officially dubbed African American Vernacular English (AAVE) by linguists—through the lens of deconstruction, not only can it be more greatly appreciated, but it can be justified. In Of Grammatology Jacques Derrida outlines points that suggest he and fellow deconstructionists might have praised the black vernacular for its looseness and creativity. Previously I was more concerned with how the outside world, particularly white America, perceived Ebonics: the implications of the Drug Enforcement Agency’s quest to find people who could “translate” it, of June Cleaver’s meme-worthy ability to sling slang with “two black fellas” in Airplane! I wanted a chance, however, to think about how contentious the dialectical issue is within the very community that owns it.

Swagger or Stagger

For many black Americans today, Ebonics is a source of pride. Black musicians and novelists often demonstrate a fondness or emotional veneration of the vernacular, a part their cultural past. Paradoxically, however, the black community also shows embarrassment at the level to which it is associated with Ebonics by white America and other cultural groups. This shame stems from the almost universal desire of subcultural groups within a majority culture to both maintain their unique heritage and prove they have what it takes to assimilate or conform. Naturally, these desires often conflict.

Evidence of this concurrent pride and shame is prevalent in animated series The Boondocks, which regularly tackles thorny racial issues. In one episode, for example, big-brained, big-haired protagonist Huey Freeman watches nothing but programming on Black Entertainment Television for a week as part of a self-imposed social experiment. The result, implied as negative by the show, is that Huey becomes as poor a speaker of Standard English as his younger brother, Riley, who gleefully accepts hip hop culture and revels in being identified as a “thug” by others. In real life, BET markets itself as existing for the benefit of black Americans. Clearly, black man Aaron McGruder, writer of The Boondocks, and a network owned and operated by black people have polemical views on the value of Ebonics.

Malcolm and Martin

Even the famously oil-and-water speaking styles of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X indicate Ebonics’ “linguistic push-pull,” to quote linguist Geneva Smitherman. While the reverend espoused Christian virtues with an orator’s tremolo and in English as pure as the driven snow, Islam’s prodigal son often spoke with the unmistakable cadence and slang of the Harlem streets whence he came. A week before he was assassinated, X addressed a crowd with a relaxed dialect that King, a media darling in comparison, never would have used (skip to 4:00 in the video):

[The black man] thinks that he’s more American than African ‘cause The Man is jivin’ ‘im an’ The Man is brainwashing him everyday, tellin’ him, ‘You an American, you an American.’ Man, how could you think you an American and you haven’t ever had any kind of American tree over here?” X said. Helping and state-of-being verbs like “are” and “have” are absent; certain words, such as “tellin'” and “‘im” (“him”) and “an'” (“and”) are approximated, not enunciated; popular slang terms like “The Man” and “jive” are interjected. Ebonics had and still has more obvious practitioners, but its markers were nonetheless present in X’s speech and absent in King’s. Even the black brass, it seems, were not in agreement on the vernacular’s worth.

What can we take from these examples? With regard to the continued use of Ebonics, it appears black America is undecided—should Ebonics be hidden from the white majority for the ignorance it might imply, or flaunted for its uniqueness? Language is culture. But eventually, all immigrants to America must choose between cultural heritage and mainstream assimilation.