Tag Archives: Zora Neale Hurston

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? “http://www.nytimes.com/books/98/03/29/specials/baldwin-english.html

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”  http://www.devonfralston.com/eng304b/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/fecho.pdf

Webquest:  “Cultural Connections:  From Senegal  and West Africa to Your Classroom”  http://www.cultureconnections.org/resources/curriculum-artifact-boxes/02-language-policy-literacy/web-quests/language-policy-web-quest.html

Webquest: “Exploring Dialect”  http://zunal.com/webquest.php?w=109776

Wolfram, Walt.  “Social Identity”  PBS segment.  http://www.pbs.org/speak/speech/sociolinguistics/socialbehavior/

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   http://shellyellisbooks.com/

Diamond Drake  http://www.diamonddrakebooks.com/

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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No Color, No Gender, Nothing Can Hold Her Back: Flygirl By Sherri L. Smith

FLYGIRLSmith, Sherri L.  Flygirl.  $7.99.  Penguin Books/Speak: 2008. 978-0-14-241725-6.   Ida is one determined eighteen-year-old.  Tired of living on her family’s farm, collecting silk stockings, and cleaning houses, she feels the open sky calling her.  Flying is in her blood.  Her father flew crop duster planes when he was alive and taught her how to fly.  Her brother was already serving as a WWII medic.  It is her time to shine.  But race and color pose a problem.  Well, not for people like Ida.

Ida’s drive and determination enables her to devise a plan.  She would pass as white and join the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPS) organization.  Ida succeeds and adapts to the culture and expectations of the organization.  But she realizes passing comes with a price.  She alienates herself from her best friend, Jolene.

She strains her relationship with her mother, especially when Ida has to refer to her mother as a housekeeper during a family visit to the field. Ida consistently has to stay in character and wear a mask.  Every part of her charade must be intact because one little slip-up could betray her real identity.  Can you imagine having to hold it together?  The lines from William Butler Yeats’ poem, “The Second Coming,” come to mind http://www.potw.org/archive/potw351.html :

                               Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

In the skies, Ida doesn’t have to worry about the farce.  Her ability to handle a plane is what matters.  The sky symbolizes freedom.  It provides the catalyst for her to be who she really is.

womanlutionpress logo(Clip art designed by Mike Smith)

Middle grade and adolescent readers will constantly wonder if Ida will be discovered as they engage in the storyline.  Through Smith’s deft development and description of Ida’s character, readers will want to emulate this strong teen.

Discovering Its Educational Value

Text-to-Text Connections

Here are just a few classic, contemporary, and young adult novels that could be paired with Flygirl:

  • Product DetailsTsitsi Dangarembga, Nervous Conditions–a postcolonial novel African novel set in Rhodesia that deals with a young girl trying to come of age under the scope of European expectations of beauty and gender. It can be tied into Ida’s ruse of trying to fit in with the WASPs by passing white and how it affects her and her relationships. http://www.wmich.edu/dialogues/texts/nervousconditions.html
  • Product DetailsSharon Flake, Money Hungry— a young adult novel that traces Raspberry’s ambition to earn money any way she can despite her circumstances.  Her drive and determination mirror Ida’s. http://www.sharongflake.com/books/money/

Educational Resources

These resources give additional information that ties into the historical connections within Flygirl:

What other novels, stories, and/or memoirs can you think of that feature women or young teens who have the drive and determination that Ida possesses?


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