AAVE is Tangible and Irrefutable Evidence of Difference

Tomorrow I’m teaching my Taiwanese students about Black English, also known as African American Vernacular English (AAVE), or Ebonics. For this I’m using Chapter 9 of Lippi-Green’s book, English with an Accent, which contains her essay, “The Real Trouble with Black English.”

In re-reading the following passage I found myself thinking about the whole Reverend Jeremiah Wright kerfuffle.

in spite of many years of empirical study which is established AAVE as a normally functioning spoken human language, its very existence is often doubted and denied by African and European-Americans alike. The real trouble with black English is not the verbal aspect system which distinguishes it from other varieties of US English, or the rhetorical strategies which draw such a vivid contrast, it is simply this: AAVE is tangible and irrefutable evidence that there is a distinct, healthy, functioning African-American culture which is not white and which does not want to be white. This is a state of affairs which is unacceptable to many. James Baldwin who wrote and spoke so eloquently on the issues at the heart of the racial divide in this country, put it quite simply: “the value [of] a black man is proven by one thing only – his devotion to white people”

23 thoughts on “AAVE is Tangible and Irrefutable Evidence of Difference

  1. Sorry, but that citation is supposed to be a proof of what? That people don’t want to be something or other? Wouldn’t that mean that the existence of British working class sociolects also is proof that these people don’t want to be rich, to work their asses off and yet live on a subsistence level their entire life?

  2. @Johannes,

    I was making an argument which is specific to the history of ethnic formation in the US and I don’t see it being generalizable in the way you are suggesting. There is not, for instance, the same vision of the UK as a “melting pot.” Also, there have been articles recently about how working class sociolects in the UK are being preserved even as people do move up the economic ladder … However, it might be relevant to point out that the author goes on to critique those who suggest that it is AAVE which is holding people back from economic success, as if speaking the standard language would somehow magically erase all the socio-economic barriers faced by African Americans.

  3. The author of the passage seems to be saying that because AAVE exists, it means that there are people who don’t want to confirm to white culture. Those people may very well exist, but if you take it as evidence, then there must also be theoretical a situation in which your hypothesis could be disproved. In this case I take that to be the hypothetical case in which AAVE doesn’t exist. An underlying that idea is the premise that somehow people can freely choose whether they have a socio/dialect or not. And that must be a general idea, about all people at all times, must it not? Or why would African Americans somehow be different from all other people in the world?
    Now in all countries I know around the world there are socio/dialects. Except for a small academic elite, these people don’t choose the way they talk. They just talk. That they have a self-interest or desire to for the group they share their mode of speaking with to exist or for themselves to be part of it, is not given at all.
    As for the melting pot: I don’t know whoever would take it seriously that the US works as a melting pot. Upbringing and education is so much more privatized/conducted within the realm of the family than most other places I have seen, that I could not really imagine how anyone is going to melt into anyone in this particular country.

  4. @Johannes: We don’t make choices outside of history and outside of ideology. For these reasons I’m not particularly interested in playing such hypothetical games. Also, the reference I made to the US as a “melting pot” is a reference to an ideology, not a statement of fact (as should be fairly clear from the blog post above).

  5. Easy, breasy! Well, if comparison is forbidden, and only the particular cultural formation is what has to be looked at in isolation, then yes, you can always say “things are the way they are”. And you’ll always be right. Then you can start inventing all kinds of causal explanations for the current state of affairs, and no-one can disprove you.
    I could also say “People speak AAVE because the earth is round.” If you then try to tell em that well, there are other places on the planet where it doesn’t exist, or there are other people in the States, who don’t speak that way, I can just brush it of, saying that “We don’t make choices outside of history and outside of ideology.” And that would be the end of it.
    I don’t really think that the US as a melting pot exists anywhere outside 12th grade US history classes in some of the most backwards areas of the US. And that’s just because people are willing to be inconsistent with ideology and there on life there.
    Just on my most recent journey, overland from Portland Oregon via LA to Miami, FL, the feature I most clearly saw in most explanations was that somehow their precise area wasn’t _really_ like the US, and they didn’t _really_ have all the negative aspects that so many agree on the rest of the country has.
    Britain is not much better, but I doubt that there is this distinction that makes all comparison impossible, that you seem to take for granted.

  6. @Johannes,

    Except (as I said) there is not a one-to-one relationship between sociolect and class in contemporary Britain, where many people from working class backgrounds now hold on to their speech as a form of identity. So perhaps you could rephrase your question?

  7. Ok, well that applies as well to AAVE: there is always the Eminem out there, and parts of AAVE are used by large parts of American youths.
    There really is no question on my part. I am just pointing out, that the existence of AAVE is no evidence for the intentions of people. It’s quite simple: AAVE exists, yes, but we can’t use that as proof for “that there is a distinct, healthy, functioning African-American culture which is not white and which does not want to be white.” Just like in the case of British working class sociolects, that exist in spite of those speaking it usually wouldn’t mind being rich instead, the fact that a certain part of the population speaks AAVE doesn’t mean that they wouldn’t like to exchange that for elite status and greater access to resources… or wouldn’t like to have the same skin color as the majority of the population.

    I understand that many would like it to be the case, but scientifically speaking, there is simply no connection between the two. I’m also not saying that there are people who would prefer to have various other skin colors, but the existence of AAVE just isn’t proof for that.

  8. I am from Baltimore. There are many self-identified white working-class people in Baltimore who speak AAVE-not just incidentally or in imitation of black entertainers, etc, but who use it in an unmarked way, more or less as everyday speech. This may be an instance of ‘healthy functioning african-american culture’ but the question of being ‘not white and not wanting to be white’ is not the same thing for these people as it is for Jeremiah Wright.

    I wonder if we aren’t trying to collapse racial categories into sociocultural categories here. I doubt that this can work. In particular, race has been enforced by all kinds of biological and legal definitions in a manner that class has not (there are exceptions to this, such as the PRC) and attempts to culturalize it have generally failed. I don’t think that these enforcements can be reduced to a class logic.

    PS-this is a political question, but is there a recognized ‘national’ variant of AAVE parallel to SAE? I ask this because Black English in Baltimore is also, generally speaking, Baltimore Black English.

  9. @Johannes,

    Lippi-Greene is not making a scientific claim here. Her main point is to explain the negative reactions to AAVE, so this statement should be read as an interpretation of those reactions rather than as a statement of the author’s own views. In other words – the people who deny that AAVE is a legitimate way of speaking (asserting, for instance, that it is just “bad English), do so because they wish to deny the failures of integration. She later states that there is remarkably little evidence of people choosing to speak standard English as a political stance. (Although I should point out that Labov has shown that continued racial segregation is partially responsible for the continuation of AAVE.) Sorry if that was not clear in my presentation, but because I’d just read the whole article I wasn’t aware how this quote appeared taken out of context.

  10. Kerim-

    Thanks for the clarification. Of course, for some of those who would like to see everybody in the US speaking SAE, the distinction between ‘blacks’ and ‘whites’ speaking AAVE may be the distinction between bad and worse, between arrogance and horror.

    And a general request-does anyone know of in-depth studies in anthropology which have been done on representations of the correction of dialect/accent? I know of a lot of abstract discussions (the shibboleth, etc.) but not any concrete studies.

  11. Ok, ok, that makes more sense.
    I think we were all aware of the politics of Fox News, but it would also be very odd if one TV station would manage to do away with the dialect of a sizable percentage of the population of a country within a few years. Not that they seriously seem to be trying to do s;, the target audience for this stuff is likely not the average African American household.

  12. Sorry, this is long: I use AAVE as a useful ethnographic example when I teach in urban colleges and universities, particularly in an arts and media school and a predominantly Black university. Looking at the history and the sociolinguistics of AAVE is a great way to talk about issues of the broader system in which agency takes place.
    My observations are that in fact there are people who don’t want to conform to White culture and their use of AAVE can be a very conscious statement of that. That’s not a rejection of economic advancement, it’s a rejection of the terms of economic advancement, which have historically been closed to much of this population. What we, as anthropologists, can do is look at what AAVE does in a range of social relationships. People can’t always freely choose their dialect, but they can choose to code switch when that’s socially possible. We need to look at who code switches or not, why, when (in what setting, with whom).
    For instance, many of my Black students and friends are very emphatically opposed to AAVE, which they term Ebonics or, more often, ‘slang.’ And yet in their most vigorous defenses of Standard English, you can hear them segue into the phonetics of AAVE, for instance, /aks/ for /ask/. To understand this, I think we need to look at the separate parts of language, some of which are very conscious and some of which are so deeply embedded into our cognition and language that it’s nearly unconscious. Phonetics tends to be deeply embedded; studies of language socialization show that infants can recognize the sounds of their parents’ native language (the one spoken to the infant) within a days of their birth. The human mouth is capable of making 100s of sounds, but most languages use only a small number of those possible sounds (see, for instance, the chapter on language in Nanda & Warms, Cultural Anthropology). There is a linguistic community of AAVE speakers in urban America, and this becomes the ‘natal’ language of their children.
    AAVE is also maintained by the existence of ethnic enclaves. Clearly this is due in large part to historical and present-day segregation. On the level of sociolinguistics, there are social costs to a Black person who chooses to speak Standard English. They are labeled “mama’s girl” or “acting White” and seen as rejecting their social peers. A great example of this can be seen in the film “American Tongues” (produced and directed by Louis Alvarez and Andrew Kolker, 1988).
    We are active agents within our own system. African-Americans who speak AAVE are no more automatons in the face of structure and system than we are on this list and there is evidence of their intentions. I have attended Trinity Universal Church of Christ; many of my students are members of the congregation and employees of Trinity; and I have in-laws who are African Nationalists. They absolutely reject the hegemony of White culture. That does not mean that they reject economic advancement. They seek, rather, to build the economic base of their own community. I think this is inherently impossible as the economic security of their community must ultimately be built on inflows from the mainstream culture, but that is their ideology. And there are unintended consequences to these choices due to institutionalized racism in American culture, for instance, the assumption that someone speaking AAVE is uneducated, lazy, unemployed, working class, criminal, dangerous, “not one of us.”
    There is evidence of people choosing to speak Standard English as a political (or class) stance; note the forceful acceptance of the correctness of Standard English by the upper classes of African-Americans (the “talented tenth,” W.E.B. DuBois). Rejection of AAVE is a clear class mobility strategy (we can debate how successful it is).
    When I teach this, I also place this discussion in the context of the English Only movement in the United States, and here we return to Kerim’s initial post. Think of the huge outcry against “Ebonics” in the late 1990s. Why did people care so much and why is it still talked about today? We need to understand this controversy in terms of the ways in which speaking SE is a marker of membership of the community of American citizens, so that speaking a different dialect of English is seen as a rejection of the rights and obligations of citizenship.
    I also place the discussion of AAVE within the context of positive cultural values of AAVE. It is a language that gives free form to certain kinds of metaphor and story-telling. Here, I use studies of “The Signifying Monkey” and “Shine on the Titanic” to illustrate traditions of story-telling that extended up through Dolomite (a comedian who is sometimes referred to as “the godfather of rap”) and on to hip-hop. I usually also discuss “signifying” or “playing the dozens,” linguistic forms of competitive insult that are highly positively marked in segments of the African-American community (particularly men, particularly working class men, but by no means confined to this segment).
    BTW, to answer Max B.’s question, Labov and Rickford argue that in fact there’s a national AAVE that show remarkable coherence over time and region; and that the numbers of AAVE speakers have increased with the end of segregation as more urban poor are left behind in the cities.
    I’ve lots of references, but here’s a few:
    Rickford and Rickford, Spoken Soul: The Story of Black English, 2000
    Labov, William, “Can Reading Failure be Reversed: A Linguistic Approach to the Question,” in Literacy Among African-American Youth, 1995
    See also William Labov’s 1997 Testimony to Congress on Ebonics and the Bridge Program

  13. @Kate: When you say: “That’s not a rejection of economic advancement, it’s a rejection of the terms of economic advancement, which have historically been closed to much of this population.” That is likely not so different in British (or even more so Norwegian) working class. at least a part of them, and especially those who have left their original class by studying higher degree studies, insist that they’re still “working class”, that they haven’t “forgotten where [they] came from” and language is part of that; they work actively to maintain an accent that is associated with the working class. Others just speak that way, and can’t really help it. Different is of course the aspect that you really can’t see any difference skin color wise. It exists, yes, but the existence of the language itself is no proof/evidence thereof.
    Amongst Norwegian radicals there has since the 1960s even been a movement of “self-proletarization” — people with higher university degrees seeking jobs at factories, trying to imitate the accents they hear there. Others have tied to turn themselves into peasant farmers, which i find a bit ridiculous, as there aren’t really much of any “real” peasant farmers left in a country like Norway.
    But I think the clarification of Keirm earlier today showed that we really don’t disagree so much on that subject.

  14. @Johannes – you say that people “just speak that way, and can’t really help it. Different is of course the aspect that you really can’t see any difference skin color wise. It exists, yes, but the existence of the language itself is no proof/evidence thereof.”

    It seems to me that you are equating language with something that’s ‘natural’ or even ‘in the blood.’

    To me, it’s a social/cultural phenomenon and is always evidence of something; it is constructed, not natural. Therefore, it is always evidence of something.

  15. @Kate: Oh, I’m sorry if it came across as such. No I didn’t mean that. I just meant that most people lack the resources and time (and often don’t see any reason to prioritize) to systematically change the way they speak. If radicals with long university experience who have had just this time and resources therefore talk about it, their own perspective might not be exactly as that of “people in general”.
    Of course, I’m generalizing, and I happen to come from an area myself where it happens to be the case that also working class people can choose to go for one rather than the other language. But that seems to be rather exceptional, at least compared to most other place I’ve been.

  16. @Kate: Oh yeah, and coming from Europe, where you have another language group every couple of kilometers, no I don’t think that any language or mode of speaking is more natural than any other.

  17. It seems the question of what it means to “want” (as in “want to be white”) is basic to some of the disagreements above. Anthropologists have a nice analytical vocabulary for linguistic performances and abilities these days (as Kate G. demonstrated above), but when it comes to mental states we mostly rely on folk terms, and they don’t always serve us very well. When Lippi-Green says that people do not “want” to be white, or when Johannes incredulously considers the possibility that poor people might not “want” to be rich, what do they mean?

    Are we talking about willingness to respond “yes” to the question, “do you want to be white/rich?” Are we talking about deep unconscious desires that people themselves never admit to or even recognize in themselves? Are we talking about the kind of conscious but unvoiced feeling that comes to a person in moments of deep frustration or despair, like when the ugly girl in movies gazes longingly at the pretty girl and envy is written all over her face? Conversely, would “not wanting to be” something mean that it has never occurred to you to want to change positions (the way many men can be said not to want to be women), or that you have come to consciously value your own position (the way many women have come not to want be men)?

    The problem, as every freshmen philosophy major knows, is that we don’t have direct access to other people’s feelings. On the other hand, the deep question in all socio- and anthro-linguistic research (including Lippi-Green’s claim about AAVE) is, of course, what the complex and contextual features of linguistic performance (such as conscious and unconscious code-switching or phenomena like “overcorrection”) say about people’s feelings, which is to say the meanings of their performances—what it means to them to code-switch. But perhaps answering these questions entails being just as careful in the way we describe these feelings as we are in the way we describe linguistic performances.

  18. Great post, lily. Set me to thinking about what it would mean to be “just as careful in the way we describe these feelings.” But I can’t help noticing that you seem to assume that feelings are internal and not directly accessible to observers.

    That reminds me of one of the findings described by Pat Sunderland and Rita Denny in _Doing Anthropology in Consumer Research_. They are describing a study of the ways in which young people in the U.S., U.K., and Australia articulate the feelings they perceive in the same set of ads. They notice that the U.S. group consistently treats feelings as you do, as something internal, to be exposed only when people let go and, as it were, let it all hang out. In contrast, the U.K. group treats feelings as a property of situated interactions, appropriate or not depending on the situation.

    That send me down memory lane to Radcliffe-Brown describing social structure as composed of jural rules, ritualized behavior and, last but not least, conventional sentiments. Makes me wonder if this way of approaching the problem wasn’t characteristically British.

  19. @Johannes Wilm
    “Just like in the case of British working class sociolects, that exist in spite of those speaking it usually wouldn’t mind being rich instead”

    In many cases they wouldn’t mind being rich, but they _would_ mind being middle class! Rich isn’t middle-class. Many would insist that even when rich they were still ‘working class’. These categories are interpreted culturally as well as economically, after all.

    I mean, it clearly varies _hugely_ depending on exactly which part of the working class, which region of the country, etc, but its hardly uncommon for a working class person to actively reject what they see as ‘middle class’ values.

    There was, after all, back when there was still a meaningful trade-union movement, the expression ‘rise with your class not from your class’.

    Heck, I’m lower-middle-class and I feel no great desire to be upper-middle-class!

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