MAXWELL:  “Judged by the English he speaks’

12/29/1996 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Gloria Bonaparte scared us to death.

By “us” I mean the approximately 150 students at all-black Middleton High School in Crescent City when I was a student there in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Miss Bonaparte was our English teacher.

Miss Bonaparte was well-read and could “talk trash” and slang in one breath and impeccable English in the next. She also spoke French. She demanded _ no, commanded _ that we speak and write properly. She accepted few excuses. If we did not complete our homework, we were severely punished in front of everyone.

If Miss Bonaparte were alive today, she would ask _ no, command _ the School Board of Oakland, Calif., to reverse its foolish acceptance of Black English, or Ebonics, as a distinct language with its own syntax, usage and vocabulary.

Supporters argue that Ebonics (a combination of ebony and phonics) will not be taught in class. Instead, it will be offered to teachers so that they can become more effective in training many of the district’s 28,000 black students how to “decode,” or translate, Ebonics into standard English.

Still, why elevate Black English to the status of a language? Toni Cook, a member of the Oakland School Board, expresses that group’s muddled thinking: “Whatever we are using now is not working. In my day, they would teach you how to talk like the white folks. Because someone says “I be’ does not mean someone is intellectually deficient.”

Indeed, the use of “I be” does not necessarily mean that the speaker is a dunce. But its continued use _ particularly in the workplace where everyone is expected to “talk like white folks” _ will almost guarantee wrecked dreams. Therefore, I refer Cook and others to the sign that was taped to the front of Miss Bonaparte’s desk: “As a person is judged by the company he keeps, so he is judged by the English he speaks.”

Today, my classmates and I know that Miss Bonaparte loved us. She wanted us to succeed. Why else did she attack our “bad” English like Don Quixote attacking windmills? Instead of a lance, her weapons were spontaneity, confrontation and embarrassment.

Poor Robert Kite, how well I remember his travails in 10th grade. One day, Miss Bonaparte spotted him harassing a girl and ordered him to her desk.

Busted, Robert whined, “What I did?”

“You know what you did, you rascal,” she said. “If you keep murdering the English language like that, you’ll be the death of the Negro race.”

For the rest of the period, Robert stood at the blackboard writing “What I did?” on one line and “What did I do?” on the next. After that day, Robert never again asked, “What I did?” He did, however, get caught a few weeks later saying, “I done done it.” Back to the blackboard he went. From that day to this, I seriously doubt that any living creature ever heard him say “I done done it” again.

Witnessing Robert’s pain made the rest of us acutely aware of speaking properly. We did not want to take the death march to the blackboard.

This was how Miss Bonaparte weaned her students, many of us migrant farm workers, off Ebonics. She was not an anomaly. Most black English teachers during the separate-but-equal era were the same, fearsome icons who believed that the ability to diagram sentences, like facility with numbers, is a sure sign of intelligence.

These teachers, who themselves were seen as second-class professionals in a white world, would not tolerate “bad” English. And our parents fully backed them, which forced the overwhelming majority of us to learn to speak and write correctly.

We did not want to speak Black English. We wanted to unlearn it. We knew that it would hold us back, that standard English is the way of the world. Sure, we used slang, we “talked jive” and we “played the dozens” (insulting a person’s mother) among ourselves. But we dropped such speech in the company of outsiders.

A sense of appropriateness had been drilled into us.

Toni Cook of the Oakland School Board is dismayed that their methods of teaching standard English to black students are failing. Oakland, like many other districts nationwide, is failing in part because grown-ups there lack the courage to call Ebonics what it is: a bastardization that has few redeeming elements.

Ebonics is acceptable in rap, poetry and fiction. But it has precious few redeeming qualities in the real world and, therefore, must be avoided in public.

Today’s black children have greater opportunities to learn than those of my generation and earlier. They are immersed in a world teeming with sophisticated sound and print. They hear proper speech on television, on radio and in most public places outside their neighborhoods. They have computers, the Internet, newspapers and magazines published exclusively for them.

So let us not fool ourselves. Black children can learn standard English. They have all of the tools, including the intelligence. Where black children lack the will to learn, we need courageous parents, teachers, administrators and politicians who demand _ no, command _ excellence. We need teachers who, like Miss Bonaparte, require their students to speak and write standard English.

And above all, black people themselves must reject a culture that condemns black children who speak properly. We must stop ostracizing these youngsters for what we call “acting white.”