February 12, 2007

More thoughts on "articulate"

I caught a segment of "The O'Reilly Factor" the other night dealing with first, Joe Biden's use of, among other terms, "articulate" when describing Barack Obama; second, President Bush using the exact same term to describe the exact same guy (Obama). Both of O'Reilly's guests (both of whom were black) agreed that the term "articulate" is condescending when used to describe blacks. When I jibed Biden in this post, I made fun of him for his "cultural unawareness." After the O'Reilly segment however, I began thinking about this more, especially when host Bill offered to his guests that white Americans -- many -- see no problem with "articulate." They see it as a compliment.

Why would many white Americans see "articulate" as a compliment? For starters, does anyone recall the controversial "Ebonics" debate when the Oakland School Board wanted to utilize Ebonics instruction in the classroom? Even Jesse Jackson, never at a loss for a cause African-American (perceived or otherwise), thought the idea was silly. However, many scholars feel that Ebonics (or "African-American Vernacular English") is a legitimate dialect of Standard [American] English, or even its own separate language. So, if even some of these opinions are to be taken as legitimate, then Ebonics (AAVE) is clearly different from Standard American English. (Standard American English being what the vast majority of Americans, hence majority of white Americans included, speak.)

If AAVE is clearly different from SAE and is indeed a legitimate dialect or even separate language, then the question arises: Why do African-Americans consider it condescending when whites use the term "articulate" when a black American utilizes Standard American English ... and utilizes it well?

Unbelievably, I feel Jesse Jackson has it pretty much correct. (Don't think I'd ever say that.) AAVE is not the same as, say, Jamaican English. In Jamaica, that is the form of speaking among [the vast majority black] population. Here in the US, African-Americans comprise approximately 11-12% of the population. As Jackson states,

"While we are ... fighting to teach our children so they become more qualified for jobs, in Oakland some madness has erupted over making slang talk a second language. You don't have to go to school to learn to talk garbage."

And isn't that the bottom line, after all? Don't we want to teach [African-American] children the means by which to be most successful and productive when they're out in the working world? How would giving ... "legitimacy" to Ebonics as a separate language assist these children in the job market?

Linguist Charles J. Fillmore has a different take on this:

The way some African American children speak when they show up in Oakland's schools is so different from standard English that teachers often can't understand what they are saying. Such children perform poorly in school and typically fail to acquire the ways of speaking that they'll need in order to succeed in the world outside their neighborhoods. Schools have traditionally treated the speech of these children as simply sloppy and wrong, not as evidencing skills and knowledge the children can build on. The proposed new instructional plan would assist children in learning standard English by encouraging them to compare the way they speak with what they need to learn in school, and this cannot be accomplished in a calm and reasoned way unless their teachers treat what they already have, linguistically, as a worthy possession rather than as evidence of carelessness and ignorance.

This certainly makes sense from an educational perspective. It would be harsh to belittle a student who comes to school speaking Ebonics or something akin to it, instead of carefully and tactfully educating him/her on Standard English usage. Historically, when Africans were first brought to [North] America, they weren't permitted an education, and this obviously contributed to the formation of AAVE as the enslaved essentially "did what they could" with their new adopted language. But slavery has been extinct for a century and a half, and black Americans have been the recipients of formal, standardized education for some time now. It is certainly reasonable to expect African-Americans to maintain some (much?) of the AAVE that has been cultivated over the centuries. But, again, being a distinct minority in the United States has even greater disadvantages if there is a refusal to accommodate -- and adopt -- the main tongue of the country.

Fillmore notes that the state Superintendent of Public Instruction of California, Delaine Eastin, "worr[ied] that the decision to 'recognize' AAVE could lead students to believe 'that they could prosper with it as their primary language outside the home.' " This would be my fear as well, as it certainly seems to jibe with what Jesse Jackson was worried about. After all, in California, the decades-old controversy over bilingual education recently led to state ballot initiatives for English-only classes as many believed current bilingual programs in schools only served to perpetuate students' native language usage instead of mastering English -- the supposed intent of bilingual instruction. Many educationists believe that English-only classroom instruction is "destructive" to immigrant students' culture and self-esteem. The more radical of these educationists tie in English-only proposals to "white supremacy" and "white privilege"; however, I've not seen a call by the advocates of English-only instruction in [public] schools for immigrants to speak English outside of school, like in their own homes and such. That would be ludicrous.

I would worry that the teaching of Ebonics could lead to something like the curriculum of Afrocentrism that has been introduced into numerous schools across the country over the last couple of decades. Why is this worrisome? Just the fact that such a curriculum does little to prepare students for what they will face here in the United States -- our political system, laws, and especially economics. (Refreshingly, several years ago a black educator-turned consultant ran a workshop at our school and he denounced Afrocentrism in the strongest possible terms. I say "refreshingly" because public schools are usually prone to promoting theories that are on the polar opposite side of the philosophical spectrum than what this gentleman had delivered to us.)

In conclusion, back to the initial query: Is the use of "articulate" really a negative stereotype against African-Americans? I still believe that it is, given myriad other cultural factors other than just the legitimacy given to concepts like Ebonics. But certainly educationist-type ... "movements" like those praising Ebonics (and/or aspects of Afrocentrism) inadvertantly give a degree of seemliness to the interrogative and/or statement of "articulate" since they are "at odds" with the national standard (Standard American English). My "solution," for lack of a better term, is for everyone to just lighten up! We're becoming a nation of the aggrieved and of hurt feelings, and in this age where video camera-phones and such are everywhere, the unreasonable expectation that people's speech be "correct" in every and all instances is not only silly, but will lead to one bland -- and politically correct -- citizenry.

Posted by Hube at February 12, 2007 06:59 PM | TrackBack

Comments  (We reserve the right to edit and/or delete any comments. If your comment is blocked or won't post, e-mail us and we'll post it for you.)

Nicely put.

I remember when the whole Ebonics kerfuffle was unfolding, and it only made me shake my head. I had done a paper about ESL for a Spanish class I was taking, which recounted the inadequacy of ESL classrooms, and how they were only perpetuating the need for more ESL classes. Students weren't learning English in ESL, which their parents wanted them to have so they could succeed.

Posted by: Bronwen at February 12, 2007 07:11 PM

I am not sure what you mean by "jamaican english" but for your edification, jamaicans are taught and tested using a british standard. If you are referring to patois, know that it is not the standard accepted language on the island. It is left for informal conversations and to some extent could be regarded as ebonics.

Posted by: Jcan at February 15, 2007 12:45 PM