African American Vernacular English: Different but equal

I’ve been lauded for my speaking abilities since I was a child. I delivered a commencement speech at a local school when I was just in the 8th grade. I may have been in more speech competitions than I can actually remember, but I know that I’ve never lost one. Mastery of Standard American English and the associated behavioral cues have always been my strength. It has fared me well.

I didn’t grow up speaking African American Vernacular English. At least not initially. My family is known for its elevated lexicon, its crisp diction. No splitting verbs. Enunciate words. My mother could butcher slang like no other, always putting it in a headlock and forcing it to be grammatically correct according to Standard American English. “Nooo, Momma. It’s not ‘All OF that’. It’s just ‘all that’. This outfit is ALL THAT.” Now, don’t get me wrong, when she speaks, you unquestionably know a Black woman is speaking to you. She’s got that Barbara Jordan flavor. With a touch of rowdy. But her speech is hopelessly standard and amusingly-to-me does not convert to African American Vernacular English easily.

Nevertheless, my sister and I were Black girls growing up in an area so densely populated with Black folks, there were probably only two non-Black students at my high school. We also were growing up in the Atlanta metropolitan area, an area that for many Black children often carries with it a thick, heavy dialect—a twang of dropped final consonant sounds and chained words most familiar to anyone who’s ever listened to the Ying Yang Twins, Ghetto Mafia or Outkast (though Andre 3000, Big Boi and Katt have somewhat lighter accents than the first two groups).

I moved to Atlanta from Michigan when I was in the second grade. It was like moving to a foreign country. I couldn’t understand what most of the kids were saying to me. The dialect and accent was so unfamiliar to my midwestern Standard American English ears. Nevertheless, I adapted. And like most Black people in America, I learned to code-switch.

Code-switching is the linguistic behavior of switching back and forth between two or more dialects of a language, that switch often dictated by the social and linguistic environment of the speaker in any given moment. For me as a child, that meant Standard American English when speaking to the teacher or my mother and African American Vernacular English when speaking to my Black friends.

Black people don’t all possess the ability to code-switch with ease (or sometimes at all) for various reasons. But for most code-switching Black folks, we instinctively know when and where to speak what. We do it without even thinking. We don’t usually speak the wrong one in the wrong place…not as Black people living in a white supremacist society where social, educational and financial opportunities are gatekept by institutions that resoundingly declare in policy and practice “the whiter, the righter.” For many Black people who colorfully and effortlessly move between “isn’t” and “ain’t,” “about to” and “finna,” “sure is” and “shol is,” “threatening me is not advisable” and “run up and get done up.” code-switching is not a matter of shame for one’s own cultural dialect or racial identity. It’s a matter of survival.

That being said, and being raised fluent in the politics of how to move in and out of white spaces as successfully as possible, I don’t usually make the “mistake” of speaking African American Vernacular English in front of who my college friend used to call “the cousins” (i.e., white people). To do so is, indeed, ingrained in most of us to be quite the noir faux pas.

But one day I found myself submerged in that casually anti-Black cesspool that is graduate school. The relentless onslaught of microaggressions, covert acts of racism and class “discussion” attacks. One class after another. One week after another. One semester after another. And for the first time in my life, my code-switcher malfunctioned. Chronically.

Well, what had had happened was my subconscious accessed my dialectal and lexical repertoire for a way, any way, to push back against the white supremacy that was threatening to break my spirit—that was declaring every day that my blackness didn’t belong there even in spite of possessing social, educational and professional white societal markers of achievement that they couldn’t even dream of obtaining. That code-switching malfunction? I sincerely believe it was my mind’s way of asserting the equality of what they were trying to denigrate, of who I am—Black—by making that small (but not so small) cultural indicator take up space in an environment that does not welcome its presence.

And thus it goes; you’ll notice in my writing, in many of my tweets or articles, that I often move back and forth between African American Vernacular English and Standard American English. I realize now that when I do this, I do this as a form of resistance. As a rejection of the white supremacist rule of custom that dictates what words, what language, what forms of speech and communication are worthy, deemed acceptable, a reflection of intelligence. This didn’t begin as a conscious decision on my part. In fact, it began as an unconscious act of self-preservation.

African American Vernacular English (AAVE) is not just “slang.” It isn’t an accent, though both slang and a regional accent are generally to some extent part and parcel of AAVE. It’s not Standard American English with mistakes. Rather, AAVE is considered a dialect of Standard American English (SAE), and some even argue that it is a derivative language unto itself.

While obtaining my degree in speech and language pathology from Northwestern University, I remember writing a research paper on the similarities of African American Vernacular English-Standard American English bidialectal speakers and their functional linguistic similarities to Standard American English-Spanish bilinguals. I know that’s a mouthful. Here’s the takeaway: The most amazing thing I learned in that process was that the code-switching behavior done by Black people when switching between AAVE and SAE is linguistically almost identical to when a bilingual person switches between two totally different languages. And get this: Research suggests that the same way bilingualism strengthens certain areas of cognitive functioning, AAVE-SAE bidialectalism can, too.

So, why is this? Well, AAVE is a dialect governed by language rules, and it has real functional social purpose. That’s why Black people can always tell when “others” are imitating us or for whom the dialect is not natural or native. You can’t fake this funk. There is a wrong way to speak it. It is a legitimate spoken language.

When working with children in the capacity of a speech-language therapist, I never “correct” them if the speech used is AAVE. The speech and language of the dialect is not wrong. It’s different. I always explain this distinction to my students. I tell them, “It’s a good thing that you speak AAVE. It’s not wrong. So, what I’m going to teach you is not the “right” way to speak. I’m going to teach you another way to say the same thing, so you can meet the expectations of other environments. But hold on to the way that you speak, okay? It would probably be strange if all of a sudden you started speaking this other way in certain areas in your neighborhood or with certain friends. So, I’m gonna help you do both.”

Then, I usually show them I can speak both ways, too.

So, when all of a sudden, their high-end education-having, distinguished-sounding, SAE-speaking instructor busts out with, “Look here, we ain’t gon’ be havin’ no pro’lems outta nobody. Y’all gon’ be chill, and it’s all love, y’feel me?” Then, they be lookin’ at me like, “Bet. Let’s learn.”

But please don’t misinterpret that anecdote. It’s not necessary that students’ educators speak AAVE. What is necessary is that adults respect AAVE-speaking children when they do. Don’t impose SAE on children (or anyone for that matter) when it isn’t necessary. If they’re speaking to each other in class, leave ‘em alone. (And you for dang sure bet’ not mock their speech, ‘cause that would be monumentally ignorant on your part and racist as all get-out.)

This is where teachers of all races get their attitude and actions all WRONG in terms of shaping children’s speech into the standard. The way they speak is valid. And speech is a part of CULTURE.

They can’t receive from teachers trying to exterminate one of the most critical, basic tenets of any culture—their language/dialect—telling them a part of who they are is wrong; an error. Because it’s not. There’s something in the soul that will resist that. Even when I’ve had academic sessions with all Hispanic students, I have them start each session teaching me a word in Spanish. I take the time to pronounce it and ask if I’m saying it correctly. I keep saying it, submitting it to them for their approval until I get it right. That’s how I get them to buy-in to learning from me: humbling myself by becoming the student, validating their experience and their culture in just that small gesture.

I’ve heard one Speech-Language Pathologist comment that she describes this dialectal difference to her students as “neighborhood talking” versus “school talking”. I personally would not use this language to describe AAVE. One, because to call it “neighborhood talking” trivializes a dialect formed over the course of hundreds of years across the United States. Two, it ignores the fact that AAVE is culturally bound, recognized and spoken by Black people the world over, everywhere American Black culture has been exported. Three, everyone’s neighborhood is different and very well may contain people of various cultures, including white and other non-Black people who likely don’t speak or put forth the effort to understand African American Vernacular English. And four, to distinguish AAVE as “neighborhood talking” and SAE as “school talking” is to reinforce colonialized school curricula and the white supremacist position that Black culture is inferior to the “standard”, and by extension, that neither Black culture nor Black children belong in the educational setting.

Further, there are, indeed, countless occasions or situations in any AAVE-speaking Black child’s neighborhood where it could be advantageous or even socially demanded that they speak Standard American English. Police stops immediately come to mind…

Nevertheless, Standard American English is no more valid than African American English.

As mentioned in the “Mouthing Off” episode of the television series, How The States Got Their Shapes, before the advent of national telephone, radio and television service, not even white Americans realized the full breadth of the accents or variations of American English. It was when technological advancements made it possible for White Bob in Wisconsin to hear White Suzy in New York speak right in his own living room that the general [White] American public became aware in a widespread way that everyone didn’t sound the same. (Keep in mind, there was no internet and traveling cross country was not as easy or accessible for everyone as it is now.) Most people of any race don’t speak “proper” English. What is considered “proper” (wrong term, by the way) or “standard” is completely arbitrary and a function of white power. From “Kill the Indian in him, and save the man” Native American forced assimilation through White schooling to the present.

To remove or inferiorate the language, the cultural vehicle, for communication of a people is cultural genocide. And it behooves educators, the general public and Black folks that love to swim in the pool of respectability to remember that.

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