Sunday, January 14, 2024

Whose Words Matter?

Recently, teacher Twitter flamed into uproar over a list of words compiled by a teacher who penalizes students for using them in their class. Aside from the truly draconian nature of the rule - students have to write an essay if they even slip and use one of the slang words in class - most people noticed that the list of slang words seemed decidedly focused on one culture. Every word on the list originates with Black slang or some form of AAVE.

The idea of Black students being penalized in the classroom or other academic and professional spaces is nothing new, and not even limited to the classroom. Around the same time that the list of banned words was lighting little fires all over Twitter, another grammar warrior went after Congresswoman Jasmine Crockett.

His contention was that she used the word "y'all," and that she may have mixed up the past and present at some point. If you follow the thread (at your own risk, of course, I certainly don't suggest it), you'll see he's got a lot to say about Congresswoman Crockett's speech patterns. Why he's chosen her as an example of poor speaking skills in a political body that includes Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert is anyone's guess, but he certainly seems passionate about scouring videos of Ms. Crockett's speeches with a focus on, in his words, diction.

Now, I don't have a bachelor's degree in psychology like Eric does, so I might lack the credentials to speak on politics, vaccines, and American history. However, I do have a graduate degree in English, several published works, and over twenty-five years of experience teaching the language, so I consider myself something of an expert on its usage. In my opinion, Ms. Crockett is a powerful speaker who clearly knows how to leverage formal academic language in her argument, as well as punctuating and emphasizing her points with more colloquial language. Her use of language is extremely effective, and a technique that older, white, male representatives and senators use all the time - that combination of formal language mixed with folksy aphorisms and word choices that sets up the speaker as both knowledgable and a person of the people. 

It's called code switching, and we all do it, just not for the same reasons.

Personally, I have about five or six English dialects that I use, both in and out of the classroom. They range in formality from highly academic to nearly "broken" English. As surprising as it seems, I don't whisper into my wife's ear with the same diction and syntax that I use to project across a room full of colleagues when I give a seminar. My students generally get a mixture of the academic and the deeply personal, the language of the critic infused with the language of a real reader with real feelings and sensibilities responding to the text. I use code switching in class because my job is to teach my students to use the full range of language, to abide by the rules when required or necessary, but then to bend and even break them when doing so is more effective.

But some of my students code switch for other reasons. Some of them code switch because their careers or even their lives may depend on other's perceptions of them. In a society where even their name can get their resume deleted out of a slush pile if it's too Black-coded, the risk of letting any verbal Blackness show can have negative repercussions. See, if a Congresswoman with a doctorate level law degree can be openly challenged on her speaking abilities by a guy with a BS in Psychology, and a high school teacher can ban any language that smacks of Blackness from her classroom, it's not the language itself that's under attack.

In fact, this open attack on Black slang raises some very important questions I'd love to ask the creator of that list, if anyone knew who they were. What sorts of texts do their students read? Is all informal dialect banned from their classroom, or just the ones coded Black? If the students are allowed to read Mark Twain, are they allowed to read Zora Neale Hurston as well? Or are both of them too "improper" and "inappropriate" for the academic setting. In my experience, teachers and professors with such strict policies about slang and appropriate language have always found arguments for including Shakespeare and Twain in the canon, but never Hurston or James Baldwin. The white authors get their praise for "innovative use of language" and "playfulness with conventions," but the Black writers never seem to get the same benefit of the doubt.

This is what's so wrong about the list. This teacher will never give their Black students the benefit of the doubt. Their critiques, responses, and feelings will be disregarded as invalid and "inappropriate" if they aren't worded in a way that's coded "academic," which seems to skew too much to the white.

On the other hand, I'd also ask the creator of the list whether some of those slang words and phrases couldn't be acceptable, or even perfectly suited, for a discussion about literature. Instead of blank stares or fearful, timid, safe half-responses, I would die of joy if a student, any student, would comment on a text like Frankenstein or Mexican Gothic with something like "It's giving me Edgar Allen Poe." Heck, I would even take a response to Poe like "It's giving Wednesday vibes." 

Rizz might just be the most precise word to describe Richard's seduction of Anne in Shakspeare's Richard III. Richard literally has nothing else going for him - not looks, not power, not even really wealth - and yet somehow gets this woman to fall for him, and that after killing her father-in-law. Are there more academic ways to make the point? Perhaps, but a high school student might not have the vocabulary for that argument, and even so, some of the more formal words might not have the exactness for the occasion that rizz does. If I have to choose between staring at an oil painting of a class groping for some elusive formal vocabulary and some kid saying, "that guy is the rizz master," my response will definitely be, "Yes, he certainly has mastered the art of rizz. Let's unpack that response."

"That's cap" could be an insightful response to Iago's "Put money in thy purse" speech, which uses a fair amount of slang itself. In fact, when you consider the sheer tonnage of slang that Shakespeare produced, and how much of it has passed into common, even formal usage, the whole argument against slang falls apart.

Louise Bennett said it best in her poem "Bans a Killin." In response to the same tirade against "dialec," she points out that nobody is suggesting a ban on English dialect and slang, only Jamaican. Towards the end of her poem, she says that if you really want to "kill" all dialect, "Yuh wi haffi get de Oxford Book / A English Verse, an tear / Out Chaucer, Burns, Lady Grizelle / An plenty a Shakespeare! / When yuh done kill 'wit' an 'humour', / When yuh kill 'variety', / Yuh wi haffi fine a way fi kill / Originality!" The truth is that English is a language that has always relied on dialect and slang, even thrived on it. Ever since the Anglo-Saxons created kennings to both add lyrical color and name things they didn't have words for, English has only known progression through transgression. How else does the creator of this list expect their students to write with any variety, creativity, or, as Bennett puts it, originality.

Lastly, Bennett's point highlights what makes the war on (Black) slang even worse. The very language that's considered informal or slang today, if it catches on enough and gets validation from white folks, usually ends up passing into the common vernacular. Once a single academic decides that the phrase is okay (and not merely acceptable), all the same teachers so up in arms about other people's slang will be using it freely in class.