Redeeming the Redheaded Child of Black Culture

Image found on Google images

Image found on Google images

Redeeming the Redheaded Child of Black Culture

(creatively presenting theory, practice, & views through a fictional tale)

The estate lies behind iron gates and pointed pine trees. In the dining hall, the cadence of the tarp-covered drums collides with the harp.  Each instrument forces each other’s notes inside its staffs. The contact yields a composition of cacophony. It produces pidgin notes that later evolve into creoles, a living language raising the ire of the majority, yet validating the other.

If only the harp would invoke Clotho to spin a thread of life for the wayward drum-child to coexist, Lachesis to measure enough string to accommodate, and Atropos to angle away her shears.

If only the Fates could determine the destiny of Black English, the redheaded stepchild of Black culture hidden in the estate’s basement.

Instead, the bastard child of the English language is the centerpiece of the family’s conversation.

One side declares that Black English, aka BE, overturns the building blocks of “proper” language into a disarray of incomprehensible slang and butchered sentences.

Her speech must function as a silk slip and conceal her underlying background. She is pure gibberish that should be locked up. Her language isolates her in the classroom, drawing the focus on how she speaks instead of what she has to say.

Grandpère James Baldwin taps out ashes to a jazz tune that only he hears. He laments how his ma chérie cannot be free.  Her syllables expose truth. Her grandmère, Barbara Christian, cautions that literature has allowed BE to play in Hurston’s yard. She flits around her characters and collects colloquialisms like butterflies. BE is a narrative of survival and a lens for meaning-making. Her identity should not be dictated by a group of critics.

One of the guests, Shelly Ellis, author of the Gibbons Gold Digger series, suggests that Hurston’s sole literary purpose for BE is to authenticate the region in which her characters reside.  Hurston keeps her literary yard neat with all of the writing elements in their rightful places.

Diamond Drake, author of Love’s Fool, worries about how others may misunderstand BE.  When international fans read her novel, the stepchild causes them to miss some of its meaning.  She welcomes BE, only when the storyline and the characters demand it.

Keisha Rogers-Rucker, a poet and photographer, believes BE should come out when friends clink wine glasses around plates of shrimp kabobs–not when she enters the cubicles of the corporate world. The problem is not if BE can master the standards of English; the problem is if people want to understand who she is.

The other side makes a decision.  If writers can invite Black English into their worlds, then she can exist in certain social contexts. She is an intricate part of the culture. BE can serve as a text for language inquiry.  Literature has now redeemed her.

Both sides remain at a standstill as BE hopscotches out of the basement.  Grandpère retreats back to Giovanni’s Room while Grandmère chuckles out loud, “Oh, let the child BE.”

Teaching Implication:

Studying different dialects in the context of literature gives teachers the opportunity to teach inquiry and critical reading.  By examining the use of language in classic & contemporary literature and young adult literature, students can move beyond the surface of a text and learn its deeper shades of meaning. Students can also examine the representation of language in any culture.

Teaching Resources:

Baldwin, James. “If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me What Is? “

Christian, Barbara. “The Race for Theory”  (a suggestion for a way to read literature critically through the social constructs of language, gender, race/culture, class, and power structures instead of traditional literary theory)

5 Components of a Language-

Fecho, Bob.  “Critical Inquiries into Language in an Urban Classroom”

Webquest:  “Cultural Connections:  From Senegal  and West Africa to Your Classroom”

Webquest: “Exploring Dialect”

Wolfram, Walt.  “Social Identity”  PBS segment.

Authors Who Have Used Dialect in Their YAL or Literature for Teens

Sharon Flake

Nikki Grimes

Nini Simone

Kelli London

Mildred Taylor

Walter Dean Myers

Rita Williams-Garcia

Lori Aurelia Williams

Kelli London

Virginia Euwer Wolff

Angela Johnson

Christopher Paul Curtis

Earl Sewell

Coe Booth

Janet McDonald

Kalisha Buckhanon

Learn More about Shelly Ellis & Diamond Drake:

Shelly Ellis

Diamond Drake

Let me hear from you!

How do you encourage language inquiry in your classroom? 

Writers, what role does language play in character development and your writing?



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9 responses to “Redeeming the Redheaded Child of Black Culture

  1. Interesting post and I love that you brought in the perspective of so many voices in American literature. I’ll admit that the language used in Their Eyes Were Watching God was frustrating and tiresome to me. I felt bad because I didn’t enjoy the book.

    • Thanks, Reese. There are different perspectives on language and how it is used in social situations and in literature. The language used can make someone less interested in reading Hurston’s book, but I think the narrative would have lost some of its effect if her writing was representative of the region. For me, I had to treat the book like an ongoing conversation instead of a narrative, and I imagined her telling me the story instead. That helped me get into it more. I also like to use the art of a story to teach something anyway. 🙂

  2. Alexandra,
    I cannot express enough how well written this piece is. I hope you expand and make this into a larger piece for discussion. This is also timely given the headlines in the new with the Trayvon Martin case and the testimony of Rachel Jeantel. Much has been said about her vernacular and we as a people have been the hardest in her. I have had several discussions over the last few days about Black English/Ebonics, street talk, mainstream, low-econoimic-social class,code switching. I was distressed to hear Lebron James say after the Heats win, “I ain’t got now worries.” I cringed asking why can’t our athletes be better spoken in public, especially after some sports commentators mocked him. My daughter was quick to let me know that is a part of one of Little Wayne’s song. But while I was reminded that LB has so much money he doesn’t need to speak correctly, what about the millions of young black people who don’;t have his means and are caught in this vicious cycle of mutilating the English language simply because they can do no better. It is who they are. It is what it is.

    I live in Oakland, California where in 1997 or 1998, the Ebonics issue made news and I have resisted and took offense as Oakland taking the forefront of this issue. Even after I worked for a number of years for the county welfare system and met clients who were born and raised in California speaking broken English; speaking in a vernacular that my southern relatives did not.use. I was raised by parents who constantly corrected our English, who having graduated from a historicaI ly black college valued education and stressed to put your best self out there. just did not want to accept that Ebonics had a place in American language. Hadn’t we got past this and aren’t we supposed to moving forward. I remember attending an event in another state and introducing myself and someone muttered, “Oh, you’re from Oakland where they talk Ebonics.” I cringed. What could I say. Black teachers were asking that it be taught as ESL.That the students need to be told there was nothing wrong with the way they spoke and that it be incorporated into the curriculum. It was one controbversy after another.

    Funny, I had no problem with the vernacular in literature. I loved reading Langston Hughes’ stories and the poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar. I initially had trouble reading the dialect but quickly caught on and it became second nature and loved the book. Their Eyes Were Watching God remains my all-time favorite novel for the analogies of life and hope it entails.But still I always viewed my enjoyment of “slave talk, vernacular, dialect, as a way of our past and therefore could appreciate it as an artistic expression.

    Fast forward to the present. I realize was a hypocrite and how elitist I must have seemed. It took Rachel Jeantel to tear down my resistance. I felt so bad for this young woman and asked myself how dare you judge her; how dare you expect her to be like the young people you know who know when and where to use their language, but know the semantics of code switching.. Of how they are capable of going on a job interview and presenting themselves to speak proper English and leave the slang to their friends or leave family dialect at home, Why do we have so many young people who do not know better? Working in curriculum at a community college I see so many young folks trying to turn their lives around, who come from families where they have had to struggle to survive and they do all they can to get there. There by the grace of God…
    I have to admit I’m rethinking this whole Ebonics thing lately. I so appreciate what you brought here and the resources. This is an excellent piece that should be syndicated,
    (Sorry for the rambling; I’;m sure you understand as a writer, one can quickly jump on the soap box.)

    • Thank you so much for your comments and sharing your personal views on the issue, Dera. No problem about the rambling. Sometimes we all need to get on the soapbox. I have done doctoral research on African American Vernacular English ( I do not really like the term Ebonics because of the negative connotations associated with it through the 1996-97 media controversy, but I believe Fasold was the one who coined the term in the 1970s with a different connotation) and how white and black linguistssuch as William Labov, Walt Wolfram, Elaine Richardson, Geneva Smitherman, John Rickford, John Baugh, and etc. have really done sociolinguistic and ethnographic research to dismantle the view of AAVE as “broken English.”
      I planned to communicate this knowledge and the various views in upcoming creative works, but your comments have convinced me to explore the possibility of more stories like Redheaded Stepchild to share this information. So there may be more coming soon on my blog.

      I taught in middle, high school, community college, university, and HBCU settings. I have seen what you have described on your community college campus. I think the key thing is just teaching students that there is a time and place to use the language in which you are accustomed to using. Now I am getting off my soapbox. 🙂

  3. First, holy moley you are an amazing writer. I agree with the above comment that you really need to publish this piece. I love your writing. I know I tell you this all the time, but you are truly one of the few blogs I visit that I just stop, savor and am amazed at your skills.

    That being said, this was a very educational piece for me to read, as were the comments. I have never given much thought to the use of language within a culture, assuming that if I were in a different culture, I would speak in a way that reflected my surroundings. In literature, language that reflects the people and their lives authenticates the story for me.

    I worked for years at a college learning center, however, and saw how this could backfire for a student so that their writing and speaking skills interfered with the message of what they were saying. People often can’t get past the language to hear the meaning.

    Just wow, Alexandra.

    • Thanks for commenting, Julie. 🙂 I agree with you that language authenticates the story and helps you to represent the people/setting. However, when writing for academic purposes or in the workplace, you have to use the language representative of that purpose or workplace. Again, it is just knowing the appropriate time and place for language use.

      Language is an intimate thing that is intricately tied to a person’s identity. Not everyone, even those who share cultural ties with that person, will connect to the language like he or she does.

  4. Lovely writing, as always, Alexandra!

  5. Some comments about language that showcase different views:

    Language, incontestably, reveals the speaker. Language, also, far more dubiously, is meant to define the other—and in this case, the other is refusing to be defined by a language that has never been able to recognize him. –James Baldwin, “If Black Language Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is? (1979)

    Perhaps the proper measure of a writer’s talent is skill in rendering everyday speech. . .as well as the ability to tap, to exploit, the beauty, poetry and wisdom it contains.
    –Paule Marshall, “From the Poets of the Kitchen” (1983)

    A language comes into existence by means of brutal necessity, and the rules of the language are dictated by what the language must convey. –James Baldwin, “If Black Language Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is? (1979)

    It is not the black child’s language that is in question, it is not his language that is despised: It is his experience. –James Baldwin, “If Black Language Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is? (1979)

    I consider it presumptuous of me to invent a theory of how we ought to read. Instead, I think we need to read the works of our writers in our various ways and remain open to the intricacies of the intersection of language, class, race, and gender in the literature. –Barbara Christian, “A Race for Theory” (1988)

    …literature is not an occasion for discourse among critics but is necessary nourishment for their people and one way by which they come to understand their lives better. –Barbara Christian, “A Race for Theory” (1988)

    But Ebonics is a second language for a second-class life.–Ellen Goodman, “Ebonics: A Second Language for a Second Class Future”

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