The Trap of Black English

October 06, 1994|By OLIVIA ABRAHAM

PHILADELPHIA — Philadelphia. -- The assumption was, and still is made by many educators, that African-Americans could not acquire standard English-language skills. It was advisable to leave black children alone and let them keep their language.

I saw this then, and still see it today as self-serving to the mainstream. Self-serving as an attempt to assuage their guilt for the destruction of the black race in this country, which began with slavery.

By others, I see it as an attempt to sabotage the efforts of the black community to succeed in society by encouraging a language that impedes assimilation. This sabotaging also takes the form of condoning, explaining away and tolerating bad and even violent behavior that whites would never tolerate among their own. After all, as one white teen-ager said to another while taunting me on the street, ''those [epithet] just don't know much''.

To allow anti-social behavior and to encourage poor language skills (including Black English), out of guilt or as a way to keep African-Americans out of the mainstream of America is a murder of the mind. Most black children can be nurtured, encouraged and exposed to the world and succeed. To assume that we ''don't know much,'' and can't learn, is not being benevolent and Christian, but racist and suicidal. Racist because whites often assume that African-Americans do not have the mental equipment to learn, and suicidal because we can now see the fallout in drugs, teen-age pregnancy, AIDS and crime of increasingly separate societies.

But there is a flip side to the low expectations the mainstream has for blacks. African-Americans are put down for not speaking the King's English, but when we have been well-educated and are articulate, we are treated as if we are from outer space.

''You speak so well for a black person. Did you take lessons?'' asked one white secretary at Drexel University where I was attending graduate school. It seems to be impossible for many whites to realize that there are 49 other states where blacks come from and that we have regional speech patterns just like everyone else. (I am from Kansas City.)

I sense a growing gap between blacks and the mainstream. I am becoming increasingly disheartened and insulted by suggestions that I must be Jamaican or African because I speak in clear, complete sentences and I have worked on a graduate degree. The assumptions that African-Americans could never possibly excel in the ways I have tried to excel leave me amazed and shocked. I feel that whatever accomplishments I have achieved are normal, considering the effort and sacrifices I have made to achieve them.

''I thought you were African, educated in Great Britain, who came to Drexel to get your Ph.D.,'' one white fellow classmate told me. I was dismayed at the energy he put into his fantasy of where I must have come from because I did not fit his stereotype of what a black person should be. African-Americans are seen as being inferior even to blacks from other countries.

I remember Vice-President Spiro Agnew years ago say publicly that black Americans could benefit by being more like black Africans. It never occurred to him or to others like him, then and now, that the affluent African blacks who come to this country are leaving behind literally tens of thousands of fellow brothers and sisters in poverty and other abominable social conditions.

The fact is, we are in this country now for better or worse. Consequently I feel that we, as African-Americans and those of other minority groups trying to succeed, should realize that if we live in this country, we should speak the language. African-Americans should save the jive for our close circle of friends and family, if we have to use it at all.

The way I speak and write is the only way I know how. I do not feel I have to prove my blackness or prove how much I care about what is happening to my people. I do not have to wear my hair kinky or wear special jewelry to prove how black I am. I know it inside and every day as I am reminded of my skin color: the hard looks on the street, the job that was suddenly filled when I appeared for the interview, and the occasional epithet.

I am part of the struggle, and frankly I want to be as I try to bridge both worlds and maintain my cross-cultural friendships and activities.

Whatever happened to black English? It was, for the most part, a well intentioned but misdirected attempt to understand and accommodate blacks, but it isolated us even more.

Olivia Abraham is a free-lance writer.

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