I am not prejudice but I do have prejudices. Language prejudice is one. I grew up a minority in a group of minorities, my neighborhood being predominantly African American with a few Vietnamese and Hispanics. While striving earnestly not to develop prejudices, in the end it is inevitable that some will arise. This is not merely and exclusively in regards to Caucasians but to all ethnicities. Growing up, it was very evident that my black classmates could not or would not speak “proper” English. I never chalked it up to them being intellectually inferior, rather deliberately and willfully disobedient and unwilling to be a part of our society. Of course, it does seem reasonable that a race who was subjugated and made to be separate from society might have cause not to assimilate completely into the society that rejected them in the first place. I’ve held the assumption of a willful rejection of society by African Americans by means of their “bad” English (and perhaps there is still some truth in it) for thirty some odd years, but recently am beginning to understand that there is a whole lot more to it. I am now willing to concede that African American Vernacular English is a legitimate form of Standard English and that “There is no causal link between speaking non-standard varieties English—which are spoken by a majority of English speakers in the world—and levels of intelligence or even levels of education” (Olstad).
As stated in Olstad’s article, every language in the world follows a set of rules and AAVE is no exception. Double negatives and g dropping (He don’t know nothin), disregarding the /s/ in the present tense third person (She sing jazz), copula absence (He a pain), the lack of using /s/ in possessive cases (Sula man), and the habitual “be” forms (She be talkin smack). Incidentally, the habitual “be” forms, which imply a continuation, are found in other languages. Two rules I am not as familiar with are the plural absence of /s/ (six bird in that tree) and the remote time been (I been thrown that ax all day). So how can we possibly conceive of AAVE having legitimacy and that speaking AAVE does not correlate to stupidity? There is no finer way than to acquaint oneself with the writing of Maya Angelou.
Thirty six books under her belt, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, three grammys, among her various honorary doctorates and collection of poetry (among so many other amazing accomplishments), Maya Angelou is the epitome of an African American who grew up speaking AAVE as well as being able to speak the standard version. It is through her writing that one can clearly see that AAVE is not merely black people speaking white English bad, but rather a variation of English that grew organically out of circumstances (namely Africans speaking various African languages and being forced to live generation after generation as slaves among white English speakers).
In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the rules that govern AAVE can be seen in Angelou’s writing. The use of the double negative and the contraction ain’t (which is not merely confined to AAVE but definitely associated with it) in the following passage is an illustration of AVVE in action.
“Whew, I was glad to get out of there. The calaboose, and the prisoners screaming they didn’t want no dead nigger in there with them. That he’d stink up the place. They called the white man ‘Boss.’ They said, ‘Boss, surely we ain’t done nothing bad enough for you to put another nigger in here with us, and a dead one at that” (198).
In the following paragraph of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou writes beautifully and clearly (aside from the comma splice) in Standard English. She uses the copula was to link the subject and predicate and also uses the plural /s/.
“Bailey was talking so fast he forgot to stutter, he forgot to scratch his head and clean his fingernails with his teeth. He was away in a mystery, locked in the enigma that young Southern Black boys start to try to unravel, from seven years old to death” (198).
It cannot be mistaken that Maya Angelou clearly has the comprehension of Standard English as well as the ability to communicate via Standard English. She is articulate and holds a very prestigious position in our society, serving on two Presidential committees, all the while possessing at her disposal the ability to speak and write in the African American vernacular. While it would be easy and convenient to dismiss AVVE as “bad, black English”, it would also be unjustified, arrogant, and disrespectful. As Adam J. Banks writes in his book, Digital Griots: African American Rhetoric in a Multimedia Age, “…anyone still attempting to argue that Ebonics is a problem…that it is somehow connected to a lack of intelligence or lack of desire to achieve is about as useful as a Betamax video cassette player, and it’s time for those folks to be retired, be they teachers, administrators, or community leaders…”(2011). Our country is a compilation of various vernaculars that add to the flavor and aroma of our country which is built on diversity. It is time to recognize AAVE as one more spice among many.
Olstad, John. “Did a Key Witness in Trayvon Martin’s Case Talk Funny, or Could We All Use Some Education? –.” Fully Sic Did a Key Witness in Trayvon Martins Case Talk Funny or Could We All Use Some Education Comments. Private Media Party LTD, 22 July 2013. Web. 28 Oct. 2015.
Escalas, Jennifer. “African American Vernacular English in Advertising: A Sociolinguistic Study.” By Jennifer Edson Escalas. Association for Consumer Research, 1994. Web. 28 Oct. 2015.
“01.” Caged Bird Legacy. Web. 1 Nov. 2015.
Banks, Adam. Digital Groits: African American Rhetoric in a Multimedia Age. Sounther Illinois UP, 2011. 208. Print.