Remembering a black substitute teacher who taught us about Black English Vernacular

I don’t remember the scholar’s name, but she was a black woman who substitute taught at our school (the Mabel E. O’Farrell School of Creative and Performing Arts in Southeast San Diego, which was a black neighborhood) one day in AP English in 1985. Although her last name escapes me, I remember when she introduced herself she said she was “Doctor [so-and-so]” because she had earned her doctorate studying what she called Black English Vernacular (BEV). Funny the things I remember from 35 years ago!

I recall how she explained that there was no voiced th (eth) sound in the African languages the slaves spoke, so that is why they said “dem” and “dey” and why black people still do to this day— or at least still did in 1985, when she gave us her marvelous lecture. She also explained that if a girl says “When my daddy come home, he be tired,” the girl is using the verb to be in its habitual aspect, which slaves learned from their white enslavers in the 15- and 1600s. She also explained how “I done been sick” means “I have been sick in the past but I am no longer” and “I been sick” means “I have been sick lately and I still am.” What she told us is that BEV is not English without rules; in fact, its grammar — influenced by that of the English, Dutch, and Scottish white settlers and slaveholders — has even more rules, including some tenses it might be nice if present-day English had. Funny thing is, all these decades later, the “[pronoun] be like [refer to picture]” meme is all over the Internet to be appreciated by — and proliferated by — not just black people but everyone.

I may have forgotten Doctor lady’s name, but I have never forgotten her pride in her studies and her culture, and her generosity and motivation in sharing them with us so that we could appreciate more about our own language and that of the people we live with. This is my last-minute, leap day Black History Month recognition of a scholar who taught me a lesson I have never forgotten.

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Readership distribution map

Would like to hear from people who read my thesis

In the four years since my master’s thesis was published by Western Oregon University on Digital Commons, it has been downloaded 2,036 times. Oddly, though, I have not heard from readers or seen it cited. What strange times we live in! If you read my thesis, please email or leave a comment to let me know how you used it in your research and/or practice. Thanks!

Readership distribution map
World map showing all the times my thesis was downloaded in different parts of the world in the four years since it was published online

Of course there are dialects of ASL. Why wouldn’t there be?

Someone on Google+ today asked me what I thought of the article All Things Linguistic — Dialects of Sign Language: Black ASL. I responded with the following comment, which I felt should be shared here:

Yes, I’m familiar with this. The segregation of black Deaf children in black Deaf schools, and the segregation of black and white people in general, led to a distinct variety of ASL. The cultural and linguistic heritage of that dialect endures today.

When I was a video relay service (VRS) interpreter, I saw Deaf people call in from all over the US, and I learned a lot of different signs I had never seen before, since there are so many regional varieties. I saw difference in pace, rhythm, signing space, syntax, words that were fingerspelled instead of signed, and vice versa.

I wish this would not come as a surprise to hearing people who know nothing of ASL, because they should understand that ASL is as varied as spoken language, and emerges and evolves organically among language communities. Instead, it seems most hearing people assume that ASL is a fixed system invented by hearing people and taught to Deaf people all over the world. They also seem to assume that Deaf people take what is “given” to them without question or alteration. Of course they don’t realize they assume this, but the way they talk about it, they do. For example, when I tell them I am an ASL interpreter, they assume I teach ASL to Deaf people, as if Deaf people needed a hearing person to teach them how to communicate. They also say things like “why isn’t it universal? It should be!” I ask them “why isn’t English universal?” They seem to take for granted that hearing people have the sovereignty to create and use their own languages, yet they think Deaf people don’t create their own ways of communicating, and should be made to communicate the same way all over the world.

I’ll leave you with the video that inspired the original article: