July 28, 2007
Robin R. Means Coleman; Jack L. Daniel
Journal of Black Studies
I chose this article on Ebonics because it relates to Cultural Anthropology and the subfield of Linguistic Anthropology. I also chose this article to learn how language can play an important role in defining one’s culture, and/or cultural image. I chose Ebonics to learn more about the origins of African American culture and how language (specifically Ebonics) has played a part in shaping it. Even with my own personal experience in growing up on the west coast of the United States (U.S.), Ebonics differs from that of the eastern and southern regions of the U.S. By definition, Ebonics describes certain linguistic patterns and codes that house a distinguishable and distinctive grammatical and lexicological base employed by some African Americans. The book, Cultural Anthropology The Human Challenge states, “Ultimately, language is what allows people to preserve and transmit their culture from generation to generation…the relationship between language and culture” (Haviland 13).
The main points of the article Mediating Ebonics, consist of giving some background and history to the origins of a part of African American language, and also how the media has further distorted the image of African Americans by showcasing Ebonics as a form of cognitive inferiority. Robin R. Means Coleman and Jack L. Daniel start the article by considering the historical background of Africans’ linguistic heritage in America.
The beginning of the African American culture starts with slavery. “Slave holders used various forms of physical and psychological oppression by attempting to sever Africans’ linguistic roots and by exploiting the links between language and human status. The slave holders were concerned with facts that slaves would rebel, so they employed divisive tactics such as, (a) mixing slaves from different linguistic-cultural regions of Africa to impede communication; (b) forbidding Africans from speaking their indigenous languages, or passing it along to others; (c) at birth, separating children from their mothers; and (d) making it illegal for slaves to be taught to read or write the English language” (77). From the beginning, African culture and their ability to speak Standard American English was crippled by the severe limitations imposed by the slave holders.
The other main point highlighted in this article is how the media has further distorted the image of African Americans by showcasing Ebonics in a negative light. This article states, “The mass media ’mind strangers’ (Schiller, 1973) opted to mediate Ebonics as a manifestation of the worst in African Americans. More specifically, the intellectual inferiority of African Americans…” (78).
Coleman and Daniel also write how the media tried defining Ebonics to the public by asking people who were not scholars in the field of linguistics: “Times reporters turned to 16-year old high school sophomores who had never heard of Black English [Ebonics] and who were incapable of distinguishing it from slang to (a) define Ebonics, (b) provide (inaccurate) examples of the linguistic pattern, and (c) address the notion that they were somehow suddenly bilingual” (79).
One final point Coleman and Daniel use to show how the media has distorted the image of African Americans, is with radio and television. “For example, early radio (1926) offered a peak into African American life through the ‘Black voice’ of ‘Sam ‘n’ Henry’ (later ‘Amos ‘n’ Andy’). Mocking the great migration of African Americans in search of employment who moved from the south to the north” (83).
Robin R. Means Coleman and Jack L. Daniel chose to write this article on Mediating Ebonics because, “Reducing African Americans, their life, culture, and language to the depths of the ridiculous has a long history in mass media” (83). I believe they wanted to give some history on the origin and handicaps placed on African American language, and also to dispel myths created by the media; that Ebonics equates inferiority.
There are many sub-cultures within the U.S., and African American culture is one them. In the U.S., African Americans have their own shared and socially transmitted ideas, values and perceptions. This culture was birthed to make sense of their new found “slave” experience; which generated behaviors, one being the language of Ebonics.
The way that rhetoric relates to Mediating Ebonics is through “Language and Communication”. There are many aspects on how language relates to rhetoric. There is everything from morphemes, to body language and kinesics. Without language there could be no culture. In the face of adversity, the Africans had to create their own language, not only to communicate, but to have an identity in their new found world….to survive.
Social identity can relate to group personality, as African Americans who speak Ebonics can be stereotyped as non-intellectuals. In this article Coleman and Daniel gave supporting evidence on how the media has generalized the African American “cultural personality”. The reality is that within a society we should not expect to find a uniformity of personalities, but each individual develops certain personality characteristics that, from common experience, resemble those of other people. Ebonics may be linked to a particular culture (since culture is learned), but it should not define an individual in that culture.
Phonetics: The systematic identification and discretion of distinctive speech sounds in language. Ebonics gets its name from the two words, ebony (meaning black) and Phonics (the science of sound). Phonetics is what sets Ebonics apart from Standard English. Ebonics is still apart of the English language, it just contains different speech sounds and cultural origins.
Linguistic relativity: The proposition that language plays a fundamental role in shaping the way members of a society think and behave. This article gave some history on the African American language of Ebonics, and some harsh stipulations that were place on Africans and language. Starting with the African slaves, they were oppressed by having their native tongues stripped from them, and even more so, oppressed by not being taught how to speak their new found language. In order to stay submissive to their slave masters, the slaves behaved in such a way that they adopted their own form of English, “less grammatically correct” (the birth of Ebonics).
Ethics: The rules or standards governing the conduct of a person or the members of a profession. “In the case of research on an ethnic minority whose values or life ways [speaking non-standard English] may be at odds with dominant mainstream society, will governmental or corporate interests use anthropological data to suppress that group?” (24). Ethics is a major underlying theme in this article when it comes to the portrayal of African Americans, their language, and their culture. The media has a moral responsibility to do accurate research and to portray an accurate image of the facts (i.e. Ebonics doesn’t equate intellectual inferiority).
Globalization: Worldwide interconnectedness, evidenced in global movements of natural resources, trade goods, human labor, finance capital, information, and infectious diseases. Globalization is expressed throughout this article with the role of the media. The media uses newspapers, radio and television to reach the world globally. In the case of Ebonics, the media has used their tools to create negative stereotypes about African Americans and their cultural language of Ebonics.
Ethnocentrism: The belief that the ways of one’s own culture are the only proper ones. Looking at this article with an anthropological eye, I believe the major problem that the media and others have with Ebonics is that is doesn’t fit into mainstream America, or what is considered normal/correct. Unfortunately the theory is, things that are not the norm are looked down upon, belittled, and seem inferior; as does Ebonics relating to the African American culture.
My personal reaction to this paper is of an eye opening experience. I really never took the time to discover how Ebonics was birthed, or why it is a part of my African American culture. I, myself, sometimes held a preconceived perception of the language and culture of Ebonics. But the media has done a great job in showcasing Ebonics as something negative and below standards. I have learned that Ebonics is cultural, and can differ from region to region in each African American community. I have learned how anthropology can give culture a deeper meaning, and thereby give those within a culture a stronger identity. Anthropology can be used to dispel myths and bridge cultural gaps.