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.
Grand–père 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 grand–mère, 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. Grand–père retreats back to Giovanni’s Room while Grand–mère chuckles out loud, “Oh, let the child BE.”
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.
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
Walter Dean Myers
Lori Aurelia Williams
Virginia Euwer Wolff
Christopher Paul Curtis
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?