Black English

After all the early viewings with alarm, the question of "black English" is receiving the thoughtful discussion it deserves.

A constructive tone has been set by Jesse Jackson, who had been one of the first to criticize Oakland, Calif., school officials for a resolution designating the nonstandard English spoken by many of their black students as a language in itself. He went to Oakland and came away praising the "intention" of the officials to understand and respect this expressive vernacular, with rules of its own, as a means of helping students cross the bridge to the standard English required to make the most of themselves in American society. But he lamented, as do we, the language furor as a distraction from the fundamental educational needs of students, including many black children in remedial classes.

One reason for the distraction is the floating of a word, "ebonics" (ebony plus phonics), that makes black English seem like a new discovery. Actually it has long been the subject of scholarship and analysis both in itself and for its importation into "white" English. In Oakland special classes for learning black English have been offered for several years. Black and some white writers, entertainers, and speakers (not excluding Mr. Jackson) have often been masterly in using the best of both worlds. Or in spoofing both worlds, as in Fats Waller's famous line, "One never knows, do one?"

Maybe, Fats, the ebonics debate has something to teach us all.

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