So I'm teaching Frederick Douglas in WLIT II, his autobiography. Those of you who have read it the text know it's a highly literate work, deliberately so: Douglas set out, among other things, to establish that a black man was capable of advanced rhetorical discourse. And Yikes, does he pull it off.
So much so that my students, sophomores in Pork Smith, are frequently lost as he employs rhetorical moves and 19th century literary flourishes, not to mention employing words like obdurate and exculpate. He also does a nice job of documenting the abuses of slavery along the way, but I thought it might be interesting to give them a look at texts that employed a different sort of discourse.
So I linked them to five pages off of this site:
Which is the WPA site, the one that has scanned in interviews with ex-slaves. I picked narratives I particularly like, including my favorite, Heywood Ford tells a story,
(drrr...I can't get my link to work -- but Vance in comments has one! Go use his!)
trying to give a certain amount of balance (that is, I included, as much I didn't want to, one narrative from the many slaves who say things like "my marster was really good to me," and "things were better when we were slaves" -- you'd be surprised how many of these there are. Well, I'm surprised. There aren't really that many of them. I'm surprised that there are any of them. I knew if I gave the students even one of these narratives, half the class would seize on that narrative to claim that slavery was not a bad thing -- see? EVIDENCE! -- so I didn't want to give those narratives to them. On the other hand, if I excluded those narratives, wasn't I suppressing evidence? So finally I gave them one that was sort of positive, so that that side was represented, and four that weren't. Of course you can guess what happened.)
Anyway. Here's what I want to blog about: what surprised me about the exercise: the large number of my students -- I'd say about a dozen, out of a class of 33 -- who claimed they "could not read" this assignment, because it was in "ebonics."
"What do you mean?" I asked, puzzled. I mean, yes, it's not standard English. But it's not fucking Latin.
They claimed they couldn't read "that stuff." That they literally could not understand it.
I looked at the page. I looked at them. "You're messing, right?" I asked, with some doubt. Because, you know, it said "ain't." It had an occasional double negative, and it dropped a g here and there. (Most of them, may I add? speak the same way) It said dat instead of that. Nothing anyone with any sense would have any trouble figuring out.
"I don't read ebonics," one kid said.
"Oh," I said, grasping the problem.
BLACK English, don't you see. I get it now.
17 hours ago