Ebonics According to Buckwheat

A new furor over Black English provokes some stereotypical thinking

I COULDN'T MAKE UP MY MIND ABOUT THE OAKLAND, California, school board's decision last month to certify Ebonics as an official language for black folks, so I decided to consult the experts. I put in a call to the Home for Retired Racial Stereotypes in a black section of Hollywood. The Kingfish answered. "Holy mack'rul dere, Andy somebody wants to talk 'bout dis 'ere Ebonics. Could you or Tonto tell Buckwheat come to da phone? He de resident l expert."

"Here I is," squeaked the famous Our Gang character a few moments later, before dropping into a baritone so deep I thought it was James Earl Jones. "Farina, Stymie and I only spoke that way in the movies because white people wrote the scripts," Buckwheat explained. "Our parents and teachers would never let us get away with speaking anything but proper English when we weren't working. The Kingfish usually speaks properly too, but he's hoping that since Black English is back in vogue, he can make a comeback."

Trying to conceal my amazement, I asked what Buckwheat thought of Ebonics. "In my opinion," he replied, "the entire controversy could have been avoided easily if the Oakland school board knew how to speak better English. They had the right idea, after all. It makes perfect sense to help teachers understand that youngsters from underclass neighborhoods speak differently from other Americans and that their distinctive speech patterns don't mean the kids are stupid." He continued, "In fact, school systems in California and other states have been using this idea since the 1970s, when some scholars concluded that Black English is a distinct language with its own grammatical rules. Since more than half the black students in Oakland drop out before they finish high school, officials have to do something. If you can't hook them on phonics, it's certainly worth trying to hook them on Ebonics."

He paused briefly to gather his thoughts. "But that common-sense message got lost because the school board wrapped it up in so much Afrocentric jargon and educationspeak that people thought the board was trying to dumb down the curriculum by teaching bad grammar and syntax. There was enough mangled phraseology in its resolution to make 16 episodes of Martin. But wait, let me get the Kingfish in on this. He's an expert on malapropisms."

The Kingfish came back on the line. "Dat's right Brother White. When I perused the resolution from de school board, I thought somebody had made a typgirraffical error. Take dis 'ere sentence, which I quotes verbitim: 'Studies have also demonstrated that African Language Systems are genetically based and not a dialect of English.' Up on Lennox Avenue, dat means dat black children can't speak properly because of dere heredity. It sound like one of my schemes for trickin' Andy out of his money."

"Quite so," Buckwheat chimed in. "Why would anyone throw around highfalutin' phrases like 'Pan African Communications Behaviors' unless they were trying to bamboozle the government into financing a bilingual education program for ghetto kids?"

"But somebody done peeped dere hole card," said the Kingfish. "The Clinton Administration said no way dey would fund a bilingual Ebonics program, and Maya Angelou and Jesse Jackson got all bent out of shape too. So the school board issued a statement sayin' dey wasn't settin' up a bilingual program, jist trying to ' he'p the kids learn standard English. But den dey puts in a paragirraffe dat convinced me dat the school board needs some he'p with its own English." He read, "'In the clause African Language Systems are genetically based and not a dialect of English, the term genetically based is used according to the standard dictionary definition of has its origins in. It is not used to refer to human biology.' Say what? Next thing you know, dese folks be claimin' your IQ goes up if you has more melanin."

"You're right, but don't paint all Afrocentrics with the same brush," Buckwheat cautioned. "Some of them make the sensible point that black speech patterns are, to a degree, influenced by our African roots. That never stopped orators like Frederick Douglas, Martin Luther King Jr. and even some of the young rappers from speaking English far better than most white folks do. And don't forget that American English has been enriched by words with African origins, like gumbo, banjo, zombie and jazz. " "Dis 'ere fuss reminds me of one of dose words," said Kingfish. "Mumbo jumbo."

Jack E. White

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Source: Time, January 13, 1997