Adjusting to new social and educational realities
Scholar Perspective
By | Willam Anderson

The US experience with the COVID-19 pandemic (itself resulting in the loss of more than 210,000 lives) has come with a laundry list of other challenges: economic and employment catastrophe, social isolation, schools in disarray, and a restructuring of all that seemed normal only eight months ago. The voices of community members throughout the Denver metro area, represented in Allan Tellis’ writing, indicate that another challenge also has emerged, one that maintains the status quo even in these turbulent times.

In a time when the voices of the people most impacted by this virus (disproportionately Black and Brown people) should be as important as ever, linguistic barriers are still being erected, effectively shutting out the voices of the most vulnerable among us. What I mean by shutting out of voices is the taking away of opportunities for groups of people to be able to communicate their reality in their own terms. For many residents throughout the Denver region, especially those who may lack material or fiscal resources to leverage in order to be heard, their voices represent an important resource that should produce individual and collective power. These voices are an intrinsic and human resource that can lead efforts to improve our social community and collective condition; when we fail to hear these voices, we lose the opportunity to improve. When municipal and educational leaders silence or fail to acknowledge the resource of community voice, the result is another example of disenfranchisement.

As oppressed and marginalized people are fighting daily for legal justice, economic justice, and health care justice, the fight for what Dr. April Baker-Bell calls “linguistic justice” wages on (2020). This fight for linguistic justice is a fight against, “white mainstream English…how white ways of speaking become the invisible— or better, inaudible—norm” (pg.3). This norm has kept the voices of those that do not choose to speak in white mainstream English out of the conversations about their health, their employment, and their overall experience during these all-but-normal times.

BEV (Black English Vernacular) (also see AAVE, BE as recognized forms of Black speech) is my first and home language, and I can speak best to the silencing of Black voices that use varieties of this home language best. Historically the variations of the English language that Black people use has and continues to be under scrutiny (Hopson, 2003). This scrutiny comes in many forms, from the mocking and over exaggeration of the language in minstrel shows in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, to the what Baker-Bell describes as the “Anti-Black linguistic racism” that has been a
ubiquitous practice in public education since Blacks were allowed to participate (Baker-Bell, 2020). According to a growing body of research, anti-black linguistic racism gets at the root of this current dilemma: “anti-black linguistic racism describes the linguistic violence, persecution, dehumanization, and marginalization that Black Language-speakers experience in school and in everyday life” (Baker-Bell, 2020 pg. 11).
Throughout this pandemic era, Black folks all over the country have been crying out about the ills the pandemic has caused (and illuminated). Unfortunately, these voices are only heard in the immediate context of the people who exercise them. Generally, we do not see the raw and unfiltered voices of Black folks on the news, in the newspaper, or on news websites. But there is much to be learned.

Absent from our public view are the voices saying: “dis Rona is some bulllsh*t”, and “why da hell can’t dese folk get it together and find a way to fix all dis?”.

Are these the normal speak print (digital) media share or examples of Black folks using white mainstream English? No. Does it make their truth any less significant or true? No. The deliberate absence of Black voice in Black vernacular silences a people that are being disproportionately impacted by a global crisis. These voices being excluded overlooks the reality behind the statistics of Black people’s circumstances, and as leaders and educators work towards solutions to reopening or keeping schools closed, this exclusion has kept the voices of the students regulated to the echo chambers of their homes and digital classrooms.

Schools and society at large have already embedded toxic language correction practices in education and day to day interaction. Common school practices include disallowing and habitually correcting Black students’ use of their home BEV languages, substituting them with “academic language.” Such corrections happen often, not because students are using English wrongly, but rather, “despite the vitality of Black
Language, teachers continue hearing what’s not said and
missing what is (Alim & Smitherman, 2020 pg. 175). To prepare their children for their time outside of home and school, the oh-too-common “talk” Black parents give their children on how they should sound when talking with the police, or going on a job interview are subtle and not so subtle reminders that the way they are heard could cost them their lives and livelihood. These versions of speech correction are wrong during a non-pandemic time, but most definitely prove to be evermore insidious when telling a young person to correct their articulation of a global crisis, and its impact on them and those they care for. This lost educational opportunity affects teachers and students, and it affects our larger society.

I have yet to come across a news article on any platform that has given Black students the opportunity to speak their thoughts and ideas about returning to school using their home language. I have asked students about returning to school, and they have provided me insight that is powerful. When asked should we go back to school physically, a Black female senior responded, “S**t, if it’s safe. Y’all can’t have us back in the school if we only gonna have to come back home in a week.” Another student, also Black and female, responded to the same question saying, “I don’t care, I jus have to get out dis house. Y’all don’t understand, I have been stuck in here since March and I just need to get away. Get outta dis space, get outta my head. I jus have ta get out. Its some bull. All I’ve known since March is work and home and I’m tired of both dem places. I’m like, if I can go to work, I should be able to go to school.” A Black male student offered additional thoughts: “if we don’t know what the best thing to do is, why are we making all these plans that are going to have to change? We’re wasting time, and y’all messin up people’s lives, cuz dey don’t know what dey doin. Get’n our hopes all up, just to say, nah”. As stated in the main article of this journal, when a high school students speaks to the social and emotional toll online school is having on his life, “I feel really disconnected from people, I’m not a people person, I’m a go outside and talk with trees person, but I like being around people sometimes, it just feels really wrong I guess… seeing people doesn’t make them feel real and I don’t feel connected to community.”

These voices and voices like them in other home languages, whatever they may be, deserve to be heard at this time, especially in schools. While the main article here in this journal issue captures these voices, it should not be unusual. All people deserve the opportunity to articulate their truth in whatever language forms allow them to express it the best, especially those who are often ignored. “People evolve a language in order to describe and thus control their circumstances, or in order not to be submerged by a reality that they cannot articulate” (Baldwin, pg. 1, 1979). Space for our students and their communities to articulate their realities must be made, if we are interested in participating in improving those realities.

Alim, S., & Smitherman, G. (2012). Articulate while black. Oxford.

Baker-Bell, A. (2020). Dismantling anti-black linguistic racism in English language arts classrooms: Toward an anti-racist black language pedagogy. Theory into Practice, 59(1), 8-21.

Baldwin, J. (1979, July 29). If black english isn’t a language, then tell me, what is? New York Times.

Hopson, R. (2003). The problem of the language line:
Cultural social reproduction of hegemonic linguistic structures for learners of african descent in the USA. Race Ethnicity and Education,6(3), 227-245.

A Colorado native that attended
Metropolitan State University for his Bachelor’s degree, the University of
Phoenix for his Master’s degree in
education, and is currently a doctoral student at the University of Colorado Denver studying education. He works at The Manual High School in Denver, Colorado as a social studies teacher,
teacher-leader, and is an adjunct professor for Colorado College in the Education department. He was a member of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Teacher Advisory Council from 2014-2016, and is currently a member of the National Geographic Teacher Advisory Council. He is a dream chaser, reader, runner, lover of history, music, and
junk food. A quote that sums up his teaching philosophy is: “Of all of our studies, History is best qualified for our research” (Malcolm X).