Forum addresses Ebonics issues

Rob Kuznia

It is the ignorance of Ebonics instead of the language itself that has built an immense education barrier, Geneva Smitherman told a crowd of about 500 people Saturday at the Minneapolis Convention Center.
The state’s first official public forum on Ebonics was held to address widespread misconceptions regarding Ebonics and education.
Smitherman, a professor at Michigan State University and the forum’s keynote speaker, said the misunderstandings contribute significantly to the academic plight of black students across the nation and must be addressed.
“In December of 1996, everybody and their mama had something to say about Ebonics, but yet few focused on the poor education rates of black students,” she said.
Smitherman pointed out that the popularity of the language is too great to ignore in the education system.
“Ebonics isn’t just spoken by black people on the street, but by 90 percent of the black population. Those quick to dismiss such a widely used language as slang are simply wrong,” she said. Slang is a small portion of Ebonics, just as slang is a small portion of standard English, but the bulk of Ebonics adheres to concrete grammatical rules, she said.
Smitherman experienced first-hand the repercussions of the language barrier. She said she was held back early on in her schooling and quickly learned that being nonverbal was the only way to achieve. Later on, as a University student, she had to take a speech test in order to qualify for teaching, and failed.
However, Smitherman said growing up with Ebonics as a primary language was not by choice.
Elena Richardson, General College professor and conference co-founder, said whites are not the only group of people opposed to Ebonics sensitivity in the classrooms. There are also a significant portion of blacks opposed to it as well.
Jesse Jackson, for instance, once referred to Ebonics as “garbage talk.” But this is attributed in part to the fact that many people think Ebonics will be taught to students like a foreign language, Richardson said.
“People thought we’re not trying to teach kids standard English, when that’s precisely what we are trying to do,” said Richardson. “The problem is, because teachers can’t understand their students, they’re regarding everything they say as simply wrong. What we need are teachers who can communicate with their students, because where there’s no communication, there’s no learning.”
Local writer Marlene Connor-Lynch said she was aware of the widespread public misconceptions regarding Ebonics, but was still cautious about embracing the notion in full without first thinking critically.
“America fancies itself a young country still in the process of establishing its collective identity, and encouraging its people to speak in different languages might result in more racial division rather than unity,” she said.
Connor herself said she hadn’t yet taken a stance on the issue, but that conferences like this are a necessary step toward a more just society.
Richardson and the other coordinators were surprised about the large turnout, and because of it, will proceed with the conference again next year.