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Pahrump Mirror
Pahrump, Nevada
January 30, 1997     Pahrump Mirror
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January 30, 1997

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10 Thursday, January 30, 1997 Pahrump Valley Gazette Editorial II Ill I Ebonics - a purely personal perspective By Robert Lowes Ebonics-- The nationwide furor over the teaching of Ebonics, or so-called Black English, in our urban class- rooms erupted innocently enough over an ill-advised reso- lution by the Oakland, Calif. school board, which has been backpedaling ever since its mid-December decision. When the inevitable boomerang of backlash hit the proverbial fan, the beleaguered board was forced by public opinion to retreat to a more politically correct position that it never really had any intention to teach this version of ghetto slang in the classroom. However, in effect, by their resolution the trustees instructed the local superintendent to prepare a program of instruction for African-American students in their "native language." For those of us who have chosen not to live in an urban environment a proper explanation of the word Ebonies is in order. According to Random House, it is defined as a "distinct dialect of a variety of language distinguished fiom other varieties by features of phonology, grammar and vocabulary, and by its use by Speakers set off from others geographically or socially." In mid-January, national editions of both the Washington Post Weekly and USA TODAY carried features on the controversial subject. Among those interviewed was a Molefi Alfi. Identified as a Temple University profes- sor who organized the nation's first known graduate course in Ebonics in 1987. Of black children, he was quoted as saying: "The language they bring into the classroom is a legitimate language and in my judgment, the most beautiful, euphonic, rhythmic colorful and precise language I know." Asked if class time should be spent to preserve Ebonies, he replied, "Yes, I do. I believe that Ebonies should be taught just like Spanish, French or German." But what about all the unique dialects of those languages which have been spoken for years in geographically and socially separated sections of various countries, including our own. To any student of language, it would seem apparent that Ebonies, or Black English, is noth- ing more or less than the most recent to be recognized dialect of American English. Com- pare it with English Cockney, Gullah or the patois of the Louisiana Cajuns. It's the differ-* ence between pure Castillian Spanish or border town Mexican. It's interesting in the usage of all-purpose subjunctive, the dropped terminal consonants, the variant pronunciations of common words - all these add up to, I goin' t'morra nessen I hear diffunt." So what's so new about this Ebonies stuff? Seems to me it might have had its roots in a somewhat familiar ring to every schoolboy. Doesn't it sound strangely like something that would have been said in a fictional conversation that Tom and Huck might have held with their friend, Jim, the runaway slave, in Mark Twain's "Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckelberry Finn?" And none of 'dem done larn'd 'der early ebonomic dialects from any book. Their language was, like the Ebonies of today, merely a form of communication. It was a language of their rural regions of yesteryear. It may have had certain cultural subtleties that the rest of us don't fully comprehend, but that's no reason it should be added to the required curricula. In any event, shouldn't it be the role of public education to teach students of all backgrounds by raising the level of standard English, rather than lowering it down to a form of by R.P.L ethnic slang? I harbor no personal objection to a school system teaching its student body about Ebonics, particularly if teaching them about the dialectal usage will help black children to master standard English, which appears t o be a major problem in the public schools in Oakland where black students average D-minus grades by the district's own statistics. That's a pretty sad admission from a school board with a record where one out Ebonics 999 of five doesn't graduate and reading scores are more than 20 points below those of white students. When I lived and worked there for the late Sen. Bill Knowland at the Oakland Tribune in the sixties, between the conflict in Korea and the war in Vietnam, the integration of the local school system was a primary editorial concern at the paper. At the time, I vividly recall, the objective was to get the schools to provide equal educational opportunities for all students regardless of the neighborhoods in which they happened to live. This was during the days of the so-called "White Flight" to the suburbs of Orinda, Walnut Creek and Contra Costa County. I remember writing a series of stories dealing with some of the early efforts to reverse this trend. One in particular stands out in my memory, an award-winning experiment at Lincoln High School. This had been an urban school in a formerly all-White neighborhood that had turned predominantly minority as a result of a mass white exodus from the central city to the suburbs. In an attempt to reverse the growing trend, the Oakland School District contracted with the neighboring University of California at Berkeley to staff the school with student teachers to upgrade, not downgrade the quality of education being offered at the all-black school. Once results from the' upgraded experimental school became known, an unusual integration of the student body took place. Envious parents from traditionally lily-white neighbor- hoods up high in the Oakland Hills began to enroll their children in the experimental school. In addition to achiev- ing the desired integration, the level of the educational experience for all races was substantially improved, not diminished by the mixture. And they didn't need to include Ebonies to the required curriculum. The current "Ebonies plague," as some scholars, both black and white are calling it, forces the door open to the widespread problems of urban poverty and the sad state of education in inner city public schools. It doesn't matter whether they are located in Oakland, Newark, Detroit, Harlem or Watts, the problems are much the same, and the teaching of Ebonies is not going to magically cure them. Its very discussion strikes deeply into issues of racism, cultural identity and the even the long-held vision of America as a melting pot with equal opportunity for all. It's not fair for us to lay all the blame on poor old Oakland and its ill-advised school board. As long :is I can remember - which these days covers a good span of time - the home town of both of my children, has suffered from a somewhat serious inferiority. problem, living in the shadow of the more famous city across the bay. All things considered, wouldn't you? It's been that way since the town was established as a west coast transportation and trading center and on the eastern side of the big bay although it pro- vided a temporary haven and shelter for many of their San Francisco neighbors displaced by the Great Earthquake and Fire of 1907. Even some of Oakland's more famous sons and daughters have either knowingly or unknowingly contributed to this unwarranted negative image. For example, I had always believed the noted author Gertrude Stein must have been a little ashamed of her own home town when she wrote that famous line about, "there not being any there, there." However, as I subsequently learned many years later, her frequently quoted comment, made during a nostalgic visit to her birthplace, was only meant to deicribe the fact that the house in which she was born had since been torn down and no longer stood where she had remembered it. And, in truth, this was perhaps how her seemingly demeaning quotation was at- tributed to Oakland's negative image. The Land of Rachel... # / I i # ! I | !