“to speak . . . means to assume a culture . . .every dialect is a way of thinking.”
–Frantz Fanon (1967)
In Geneva Smitherman’s Word from the Mother, Smitherman speaks with maternal authority and explores the push-pull relationship that both African and White America have with African American Language. Through an overview of AAL debates past and present, Smitherman demonstrates that while White and African America are still undecided on how they feel about Black people and their culture, there is nothing ambivalent about AAL; it has roots, consistent rules and continues to have a recognizable impact on mainstream America and the language of wider communication, “standardized” American English. Smitherman also makes the case that because of this we should broaden the concept of AAL beyond the notion that it is only for and used by young Hiphoppas, but that AAL should be included in writing pedagogy at all levels, as well as, a national bi/multilingual policy for all U.S. citizens.
Smitherman asserts that AAL is rooted in the West African languages that enslaved Africans brought to the United States over 400 years ago.
“AAL comes out of the experience of the U.S. slave descendants. This shared experience has resulted in common speaking styles, systematic patterns of grammar, and common language practices in the Black community.” (3)
Smitherman points to similarities in words of West African origin and AAL to demonstrate the connection between the two languages. For example, she compares the “tote” as in tote bag and “tota” meaning to carry in Kikongo. Smitherman uses these similarities and research to disprove the notion that AAL is random and an indication of genetic inferiority. “Linguists then and now are united in our overwhelming rejection of assertions that AAL is illogical or evidence of some kind of intellectual shortcoming in Blacks.” (11)
Although many still deny AAL’s legitimacy and value as a language form, Smitherman presents undeniable evidence of the linguistic crossover of terms that were at one point exclusively Black and are now enjoyed by all. The “high five” previously known as giving and getting skin/ five has its roots in West Africa.
There are several West African language sources, including Mandingo, I golo don m bolo, meaning literally “put your skin in my hand” as an expression of agreement and solidarity. Practiced on the down low in Black America for most of the entire twentieth century, “put your skin in my hand” morphed into the “high five” around 1990 . . . one can observe its use not only among White males, but also among elite White women on the golf course as well as among elderly White females confined to nursing homes (113).
If this text had been written after the 2008 presidential campaign, I’m sure Smitherman would have also addressed the closed fist variation used by then Black Presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama and his wife, which later became known to White America as the popular “fist bump” only after they were assured there was no terrorist affiliation indicated by it.
The bottom line in Word from the Mother is that AAL or Negro Dialect as it was once called should not be seen as a hindrance to African American progress. In chapter 7, Smitherman debunks the argument put forward by Gordon C. Green in 1963 that Negro Dialect would be the last barrier to integration. At that time, Green argued that within the next generation all signs of segregation and overt racism would be eliminated and that Black folk needed to lose their dialect in order to reap the benefits of the societal about-face. Smitherman points out that the de-facto segregation that is still present forty years after Green’s plea has nothing to do with AAL. “Indeed, the irony of Green’s four-decades-old argument is that in the U.S., the “Negro Dialect” has been integrated, but the “Negro people” have not.” (122)
Smitherman argues against simplistic approaches to AAL and attempts to move the conversation to higher ground by discussing possible uses in education. She explores language awareness programs in elementary and secondary school that serve to develop and reaffirm positive attitudes toward AAL. “Education about language diversity has to start early on – with all children” (138). She also cites Gwendolyn Pough’s use of Hip-hop pedagogy in her college courses as “a vehicle for critical thinking and social change” (141).
However, the broader issue, Smitherman concludes, is what kind of stance we will take as a nation concerning acquisition of language. Smitherman suggests a bi/multilingual national policy where AAL would be one of several languages that students could select. Students would also study the respective cultures of the languages offered and therefore be prepared to enter the adult world as bi/multilinguals with global perspectives (141). Smitherman argues that this is a better strategic position than the current monolingual policy and practice encouraged by No Child Left Behind. “While the twenty-first-century world is moving in a common direction of multilingualism, the U.S. remains stagnated in a backward monolingualism” (144).
Regardless of the continued linguistic push-pull relationship White and African America have with African American Language it has stood the test of time for over 400 years and it is here to stay.
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