A compact, lively defense of the grammatical legitimacy of “Black English.”
McWhorter (Linguistics, Music History, American Studies/Columbia Univ.; Words on the Move: Why English Won't—and Can't—Sit Still, 2016, etc.) has been involved in the controversies surrounding African-American Vernacular English for 20 years, when the news of Oakland, California’s schools' consideration of an Ebonics curriculum provided him “fifteen minutes of modest media notoriety [as a] black linguist.” Although the debate on Ebonics faded, McWhorter concluded, “racism is hardly the only thing standing between how linguists see Black English and how the public sees it.” Thus, his approach focuses equally on discerning intricate grammatical principles within AAVE and on the larger mysteries of how shared culture affects seemingly individualized traits like speech patterns. He gradually expands his perspective over the book’s five essays, first defusing the question of whether African-Americans can be said to “sound black.” He notes that the issue’s sensitivity may be “because Black English is so often associated with stupidity that one can’t help wanting to disidentify from it.” Meanwhile, even well-meaning white people are reluctant to explore their own assumptions for fear of appearing racist. Similarly, many black and white Americans cannot accept the legitimacy of Black English due to its apparent inappropriateness for certain social or professional situations, despite the fact that “no Black English advocate is calling for Black English to be allowed in [job] interviews.” McWhorter notes that black Americans today are necessarily experts in code-switching, or utilizing both Standard and Black English in different contexts. “The two things do not cancel each other out: They coexist,” he argues. Still, the enduring taint of minstrel culture continues to quash intellectual inquiry into black linguistics, as many are convinced “that a black way to talk has something to do with white racist caricature.” The author confidently untangles these issues, writing in an accessible and wry yet precise style.
A vibrant separation of an African-American vernacular tradition from the thickets of contemporary racial debate.