What Was The Fuss With Ebonics?

My solution to the Ebonics question is simplicity itself. As far as I’m concerned its proponents can take a flying phucllddyrhc (a Greco-Welsh patois learned at my mother’s knee and other low joints), but I am fascinated by the psychodynamics surrounding the controversy.

Jesse says, “No!”

The moment the media reported that the president of the school board had called black English “genetically based,” honchos of color heretofore famed for their support of any and all things African launched such a swift and unequivocal attack on Ebonics that they sounded like H. L. Mencken. Jesse Jackson called it “an unacceptable surrender bordering on disgrace” and predicted Oakland would become “the laughingstock of the nation.” “The very idea,” Maya Angelou huffed, was “threatening,” and NAACP president Kweisi Mfume contemptuously dismissed it as “a cruel joke.”

This unexpected switch from the excellence of self-esteem to the esteem of the excellent self took white America, and particularly white punditry, by surprise. Among the latter the chief reaction was intense relief, the kind of relief that makes people giddy. While blacks were sounding like Mencken hurling thunderbolts, pundits were sounding like someone who just found his lost wallet and discovered that all his money was still there.

Whimsy and gaiety ruled. Before congratulating Jesse Jackson (“Bravo, Jesse”), Mona Charen confided that she loves the black-English song, “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby?” Mary McGrory went on a My Fair Lady kick, rattling merrily on about ‘Enry ‘Iggins, Eliza the “squashed cabbage,” and Alfred P. Doolittle doing the old soft shoe to “A Little Bit of Luck.” Clearly ready to burst into song herself, she called on Education Secretary Richard Riley to get “an emergency company” to perform the musical in Oakland. “Who knows,” said she gulpily, “everybody might do a little laughing and singing and open up to the idea that learning can be fun. . . . Give them My Fair Lady, send AmeriCorps to the rescue, and they’ll be all right.”

Be still, my heart. I find no cause for relief in the furious black opposition to Ebonics. Quite the contrary. When a people who have demanded separate congressional districts, separate government contracts, separate admissions policies, separate IQ tests, separate history, and separate justice suddenly recoil from a separate language, my first instinct is to look for an exposed nerve.

Afrocentrism flatters blacks and affirmative action mollifies them, but telling them that English is their second language makes them feel like the one thing they have never had to worry about being: foreigners. Throughout our history, whenever nativists and immigrants have squared off, blacks could savor the satisfactions of being on the entrenched side for a change. The tacit pleasure they took in being on a genealogical par with the most jurassically credentialed members of Colonial Dames and First Families was finally spelled out in Roots.

Ebonics threatens this cachet by putting blacks on a par with Hispanics, whom they resent and whose numerical encroachment is much on their minds. When I combine what every white Southerner knows about black snobbery with the Menckenesque quality of the broadsides hurled by the leadership, I am persuaded that the exposed nerve is, if you will, “black nativism.”

But who cares about my theory now that Jesse Jackson has changed his mind? He just attended a public forum in Oakland to lead his new chant — “Limited-English proficient funds!” — even as Mary McGrory was clicking her computer mouse to simulate a castanet accompaniment for her solo about the rain in Spain. Now all of the formerly relieved white pundits are up the creek and everybody’s wallet is missing again.

As with every racial controversy, the repositioning, backpedaling, and caving have begun. The clippings promise to be a bonanza for anyone who writes “GOD!” in margins, so to save time I’m using the new rubber stamp I just had made. Herewith a couple of already sanctified items:

“If I was Hispanic and spoke no English, you would communicate with me in Spanish and help me make the transition to English,” said Robert Williams, who invented the word “Ebonics.” This was quoted by the Washington Post, which tactfully ignored the missed subjunctive: If I were.

Stanford linguist Merritt Ruhlen: “If history had gone differently and Africans had come over and founded America and raided Europe and brought white slaves over, and this country ended up with a 10-per-cent white minority that was kept in ghettos and spoke white English, you’d find the same problems in reverse. People would be saying, ‘Why can’t whites learn good black English?’ We spend all our time in school learning ‘good’ and ‘bad’ grammar and can’t see that it’s an historical accident that white English is called the best.” (So help me, I copied that right.)

IT’S not generally known, but an Ebonics glossary was compiled in the 1920s by an amateur linguist who later became famous as “J.R.M.” Ring a bell? Hint: His initials have appeared in print more times than any other set of initials in the history of mankind, second only to “I.N.R.I.,” always with the word “To” in front of them. Now can you guess his identity?

Okay, I’ll tell you. J.R.M. was John Robert Marsh, and his initials appear on the dedication page of his wife’s book, Gone with the Wind. He got into Ebonics when Margaret Mitchell needed to differentiate between the speech of house servants and the speech of field hands. Marsh drove all over Georgia talking to blacks and taking notes until he had a glossary that enabled his wife to write her precision dialect scenes. You can read about it in a 1993 book I reviewed, Margaret Mitchell and John Marsh: The Love Story behind Gone with the Wind, by Marianne Walker, who located the glossary. I offer this as a belated Kwanzaa present to the Oakland school board.


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One comment on “What Was The Fuss With Ebonics?
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