From Ebonics, I know a little bit, though it isn't my native tongue. Personally, I was raised on Yiddishonics, which is a variation on Polishonics and Italonics and, for that matter, the newly controversial Ebonics. It's a simple enough translation. You take the juiciest bits of your own people's dialect, and you mix touches of it with standard English, and from this you get the thing we've always called America.
In Yiddishonics, generations of Jews rooted in eastern Europe led with the verb ("Make the window shut, it's cold outside"), then threw in a little Yiddish ("Nu, and if I shut the window, it'll be warm outside?"), and over time, and with the various blending of cultures in the schools and the workplace and so forth, you get a Gregory Kane casually using "meshuga" this very newspaper or a white guy like Elvis Presley taking a song that was originally intended for a black woman, Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton, which was written by a Jew named Jerry Leiber who absorbed everything he could growing up in mostly black West Baltimore and called his little tune "Hound Dog."
This is the way language, and America, work at their best. We borrow the tastiest morsels from one another and constantly enrich the one language that binds us. What seems to trouble many in the country now, though, is the plan of school officials in Oakland, Calif., to teach this Ebonics, a fancy name for black jargon. Instead of the traditional linguistic snatches slipping into the overall English chorus, we get a jargon setting up its own branch office and calling itself a language.
Such hollering, you never heard in your life. It comes from white people who wonder if the teaching of Ebonics is another in a series of troubling late-century black separatist gestures, and it comes from black people who went to school and learned traditional English the way whites did and used it as their ticket to a mainstream, middle-class American life -- the same goal that seems so elusive to so many blacks today that they've become the outsized percentage of the nation's permanent underclass.
The idea of teaching Ebonics seems to signal some turn in the road. But the signal's still tough to read. One day we're told Ebonics is only meant as a bridge, a new route to standardized English for black kids who feel uncomfortable with the old avenues of learning.
That has the ring of reasonableness to it. If the old methods have failed, maybe a new method makes sense. We see results of the old methods every time there's a standardized test released in Maryland. Baltimore's schools, 80 percent black, lag behind the rest of the state's, which are mostly white.
Then we get yesterday's news that some city schools seem to have cheated even to reach those lowly achievements -- accompanied by State Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller saying, "That $254 million in state aid the city schools are counting on? Not likely to happen."
So, OK, if Ebonics gets kids more easily to mainstream English, then maybe it's worth a shot in Oakland, or even Baltimore.
But there's a simultaneous, and still unanswered, concern: Is Ebonics an end in itself? Is street jargon getting an implicit academic blessing? Will it now be considered valid in the formative learning years to ask, "Ain't you be the person ?" and not, "Aren't you the person ?"
Also, do you teach ebonics only to black kids? What happens in racially integrated classrooms? Or have we given up thinking in such terms?
And, if we have, does it surprise anyone that white legislators in a place like Annapolis, already hearing separatist outcries around the country, look at a place like Oakland, and compare it to Baltimore, and say, "Why should we send money to support their schools? They don't want anything to do with us."
The mix, the blending of various cultures, is what makes us Americans. To black people, who have justifiably felt marginalized by mainstream (white) America, and see themselves pushed ever farther to the outskirts of economic prospects, of safe neighborhoods, of productive schools, of all manner of opportunity, does the validation of Ebonics tend to isolate them even more?
In other words, how does a young black person earn a living when his diploma has been earned speaking a language rejected by most prospective employers, who happen, in America, to be white?
And, in a time when other kids -- white, Asian, whoever -- are immersing themselves in computers, in the latest in science and technology, why are black educators now reaching back to the language of the streets instead of getting black children a share of the new forces changing all of our lives, which involves the use of mainstream English?
On the other hand, maybe it's all just the sad end product of four decades of whites abandoning public schools, and blacks finally saying, You don't want to use these schools? OK, then we'll run them the way we want to run them.
Pub Date: 1/09/97