Sunday, September 17, 2006

I Ain't Read That

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.


A White Bear said...

I was just writing about the same thing over at my place, the complete inability of undergrads to understand anything in English that uses sentence structures that differ in any way from, like, Steinbeck's. They're completely stymied from the outset. Too hard! Too easy! Too black! Too female! Too old! Too new! Too metaphorical! Too literal! Sometimes I feel like asking them if the only prose they understand is their own, which, ironically, is the only prose I can't understand. (Did that sound bitter?)

Vance Maverick said...

I'm pretty sure I get your implication at the end there, and I guess I have to agree. The Ford story (here is the URL that works for me) is great, well polished (one imagines) by years of retelling, entertaining and powerful at once. The language, while not the same as the "Black English" I hear around me now, is as you say only a bit off Standard English, and it reminds me (or perhaps it's the system of transcription that reminds me) of black speech in 19th-century lit, e.g., Uncle Remus. To refuse to understand it can only be, well, political.

zelda1 said...

Okay, I watched the slave narratives read by famous AFrican American actors and they spoke the slave dialect and really it is very similar to the way many folks around here speak. You did remind them of that and the reason why they speak like that? Oh and the ex slaves who said they were treated good by their massas, well, sociologists have theories: one they might have been sharecroppers on the very land of the very massa or his chilluns and to speak badly of him could and probably did cause problems for them, and second, some of these folks were not over and could never get over being treated like livestock and so they often spoke highly of their massas the same reason an abused child will not betray their parent who is abusing them. And thirdly, my opinion, they didn't trust the folks taking the information, why should they? And they lied, they lied to keep their hide or to not have anyone come back and terrorize their households. It is a sad thing that your students refuse to read a dialect that they are familiar with and I think, if I were one of the other students, I would have said, get over it, you like rap, you like rock and roll, and if you can dig that, well hell, you can read this, it's not, after all like you said, Latin. Geeze.