Of Improper Grammar-tology:

Justifying African American Vernacular English Through Deconstruction

What Be ‘Ebonics’?

external image Ebonics-cartoon.jpgThe Nitty-Gritty

Jeopardy! superchamp Ken Jennings spurred surprisingly little controversy when he answered in the form of a question using the word 'Ebonics' by employing the rules of the vernacular: "What be Ebonics?" he threw at a stunned Alex Trebek, as the sophisticated Jeopardy! audience laughed nervously. Although it will be rephrased, for the introductory purposes of this essay, however, his question is a good one: just what is Ebonics—this thing that everyone knows enough to mock but no one knows, or really tries, to defend?

“African American Vernacular English (AAVE) ranks among the most widely documented varieties in the sociolinguistic literature,” writes lingual scientist Shana Poplack, “yet its structure and status remain most controversial” (1)—likely because while most languages thrive on formality and almost-bureaucratic syntax, “our language [is] a mark of personal style and creativity” (Smitherman 2006, 64). Also called Black or African American Language (BL or AAL), AAVE remains a point of contention in modern Anglophone society because it celebrates and showcases the “Black flava” some Americans, typically those of African descent, inject into Standard English—the “Africanized semantic, grammatical, pronunciation, and rhetorical patterns” forged in the realities of enslavement and discrimination (Smitherman 2006, 3). Because of its negative connotations, Ebonics as a term is employed far more often in a colloquial sense than a professional or scientific sense today.

According to author Geneva Smitherman, Professor of English and Director of the African American Language and Literacy Program at Michigan State University, AAVE is no different from any other language in the sense that it “is a tool for ordering the chaos of human experience” and a way “to define and control reality … to impose an orderly explanation upon a disorderly world” (2006, 64). Where AAVE differs from other dialects, she says—differs indeed from most languages in general—is its paradoxical use of havoc to create harmony. “Black folk are masters of linguistic improvisation and manipulation of the Word,” (2006, 64). AAVE's way of extemporaneously handling Standard English is what makes it so worthy of examination through deconstruction.

First introduced by French thinker Jacques Derrida in Of Grammatology (1967), deconstruction holds that by reducing anything to its individual parts, there are bound to be parts that conflict with the others, that are mutually exclusive, that reveal more about the overall freedom or character of the structure as a whole. While this would hold true for any language or dialect, both black English and Standard English—and grammatology specifically seeks to undo logocentrism, or the idea that language is the fundamental means for expressing thoughts on reality—as it relates to this discussion, it suggests AAVE is a colleague of Standard English, not simply a subordinate to be mocked and criticized by majority white culture. Concerned with the interconnectedness and implication of concepts like centrality and linearity, Derrida believes that nonlinear writing preceded linear writing in the chronology of human history. This too lends credence to the theory that AAVE, far more than for which it is given credit, is a more natural state of communication than the kind proffered by Standard English.

Swagger or Stagger

Ebonics as a lexeme first emerged in 1973, when psychologist Robert Williams, a Professor Emeritus of Psychology and African and Afro-American Studies at the Washington University in St. Louis, coined it while presenting at a conference entitled “Cognitive and Language Development of the Black Child.” It is a portmanteau of the words "ebony" and "phonics" or "phonetics," ebony having long been used by both whites and blacks to positively signify blackness, and "phonics" being defined by Merriam Webster as “a method of teaching … to read and pronounce words.” While Wikipedia lists forty-six American English language dialects—seven cultural, e.g., New York Latino English, and thirty-nine regional, e.g., Baltimorese—only AAVE is often unofficially also considered a language. This point, however, is highly contentious. Most memorably the debate has been evidenced by the 1996 ruling by the Oakland school board that AAVE “is not a black dialect or any dialect of English,” to quote its policy statement, but “the official language of twenty-eight thousand African American students who attend public schools in that district” (Baugh 1999, 57). More recently, media outlets even reported in 2010 that the Drug Enforcement Agency was “seeking speakers of Ebonics who can do translation work for its agents in the Southeast.” It's also difficult to imagine that any scene from any film that depicts clashing vernaculars and a resultant lack of understanding has risen to the status of cultural meme in quite the way the famous "Jive Lady" scene from Airplane! (1980) has. In it, Barbara Billingsley of television's Leave It to Beaver fame, a white woman, communicates (and spars) with two slang-slingin' black men with surprising ease and effectiveness.

For many modern black Americans AAVE is a source of pride. Contemporary black entertainers draw plentifully from the dialectical well, demonstrating not only an awareness of their cultural past, but also a fondness or emotional veneration of it. Music and narrative in the black community seem particularly linked in this sense, perhaps because “[s]poken language and song alike have rhythm, pitch, volume, vibrato, syncopation, inflection, and an ability to transcend the linearity of written music and the written word through the power of sound or voice” (Frever). For example, in her acclaimed 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, black folklorist Zora Neale Hurston writes musical lyrics for a character named Muck-Boy: “Yo’ mama don’t wear no draws / Ah seen her when she took ‘em off / She soaked ‘em in alcohol / She sold ‘em tuh de Santy claus / He told her ‘twas against de law / To wear dem dirty draws.” Fast-forward sixty years—from the Harlem Renaissance to the adolescence of hip hop in the U.S.—and rapper Method Man busts the following rhymes in his 1994 song “Biscuits”: “Yo’ mama don’t wear no drawers! I saw her when she took them off! Standin’ on the welfare line, eatin’ swine, Tryin’ to look fine, with her stank behind” (Smitherman 2006, 95). A similar lyrical link can be drawn between the theme song of popular television show "The Jeffersons" (1975-1985) and the hook of rapper Nelly's 2000 song "Batter Up," whose music video incidentally features Sherman Hemsley, the actor who played George Jefferson. Both sitcom and song proudly proclaim that "Fish don't fry in the kitchen / Beans don't burn on the grill"—a reference, albeit a somewhat nonsensical one, to "soul food," as black Americans typically call their own cuisine.

Hard to be proud of the culture if this is how it's perceived.
Hard to be proud of the culture if this is how it's perceived.
Paradoxically, however, the black community is also prone to demonstrating embarrassment at the level to which it is associated with AAVE by White America and other cultural groups. This shame stems from the almost universal desire of subcultural groups within a majority culture to both maintain their unique heritage and prove they have the ability to assimilate or conform. Naturally, these desires often conflict. John Baugh, Professor of Education at Stanford University, equates the black community's at times anguished confusion over AAVE's value to the concession made by "white immigrants who changed their names" in order "to conceal their heritage"—immigrants who, probably correctly, surmised "that discrimination and prejudice were so prevalent [it was worth it to] discourage their children from speaking the language of 'the old country'" (2000, 34). While the widest, clearest window into the core identity of a people is the language or dialect they speak, it must not be forgotten that all groups of people desire the respect and admiration of other groups; something that cannot be achieved if stereotypes about dearth of intelligence, standardness or refinement endure. In other words, many black Americans are unsure whether to accept or reject AAVE because the decision is somewhat akin to choosing between preservation of authentic history and perseverance toward a brighter future. "On the one hand, Blacks have believed that the price of the ticket for Black education and survival and succes in White America is eradication of Black Talk," Smitherman writes; but "[o]n the other hand, Blacks also recognize that language is bound with Black identity and culture," and therefore cannot be simply cast aside as though meaningless (2006, 129).

Evidence of this simultaneous pride and shame in the vernacular, which Smitherman calls "linguistic push-pull," is prevalent in modern pop culture. Animated series The Boondocks, for example, which regularly tackles thorny racial issues, in one episode has big-brained, big-haired protagonist Huey Freeman watch nothing but programming on Black Entertainment Television for a week as part of a self-imposed social experiment. The result, implied as negative by the show, is that Huey becomes as poor a speaker of Standard English as his younger brother, Riley, who gleefully accepts hip hop culture and revels in being identified as a "thug" by others. While BET markets itself in real life as a channel designed by black Americans for the benefit of black Americans with the goal of building a stronger collective identity, clearly a network owned and operated by black people and the writer of The Boondocks, black man Aaron McGruder, have polemical views on the value of AAVE. On a level more personal than the small screen, many black Americans who fluently speak Standard English are frequently both confronted by fellow black people for "trying to talk white" and commended for their intelligence. Baugh himself recalls such a quandary: raised by "well-educated parents" but "surrounded by friends and neighbors who did not exhibit or prize these linguistic virtues" (2000, 4), in class he felt "superior" to the same "black peers [who] sensed immediately" that whenever he used Standard English in addressing a white teacher, he was mocking both Standard English and white people (2000, 9).

Eager to disprove the perceived opinion by White America that they are incapable of speaking Standard English, many black Americans, however, miss the point—at least, that's what deconstructionists might say. In his seminal work Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964), theorist Marshall McLuhan equates the book to a "private confessional" that shows the author's point of view, and the media to a "group confessional" that requires and encourages "communal participation." Human interest drives media, he says, which juxtaposes various events to give them meaning and to present them in a way that lets people absorb them together. In a way, then, AAVE is media to Standard English's book—while the long-standing oral tradition of certain words and phrases communally endure in the black consciousness and are meant to be transmitted, experienced, re-experienced and re-defined communally, Standard English is written by a single "author"—the majority culture, and within that culture an inconceivably smaller contingent of academics, lexicographers, dictionary committee members, et al., who control linguistic development. While Standard English evolves with the freedom of liquid flowing into a container of a defined shape, AAVE evolves in the manner of liquid emptying into a vast lake—the addition counts, and the new particles interact with the old particles in an unpredictable and untamable variety of ways. In fact, the very orality of AAVE makes it media to Standard English's book; for while media can of course come in many different forms, from the photographical to the televisual to the oral to the written, the power of Standard English lies in the formality of its written nature, as an entirely correct piece of writing does not betray dialect, race, creed, or any other subcultural maker that could diverge from the majority culture.

In Of Grammatology, Derrida equates the book with linear writing and therefore to linear thought in general: "the process of thesaurization, capitalization, sedentarization, hierarchization, of the formation of ideology by the class that writes or rather commands the scribes." As stated, white majority culture is the ruling figure in the current environment of hostility directed toward AAVE, as it stands in protection of the sanctity and linearity of Standard English. But as Derrida notes, AAVE does not "interrupt this structural solidarity; quite the contrary." Rather, "it transforms its nature profoundly." "The end of linear writing is the indeed the end of the book," Derrida writes. "That is why, beginning to write without the line, one begins also to reread past writing according to a different organization. ... Because we are beginning to write differently, we must reread differently." This thought summarizes the case that many scholars make to the long-lasting legacy of criticism against AAVE on the part of White America: their contempt, AAVE scholars say, is rooted in an understanding that if they are to confront the realities of AAVE's existence—namely, that it was born out of necessity by immigrants in a land of intolerance—it will force the entire power structure to turn an eye on itself and re-examine its foundation.

Indeed, if there is one thing we know about Derrida, it was that he believed deconstruction was vital to the end of the reign of linearity and the cultural exclusion, isolation or narrow-mindedness that often accompanies it. In Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of Human Sciences (1966), Derrida indicates his strong dislike for structure and order and linearity, and calls on deconstruction to expose the multiple meanings inherent in all texts. In being a nonstandard version of Standard English, AAVE is one of the many "meanings" of Standard English, the master text.

In Structure, Sign and Play, Derrida expresses that he feels a shift—what he calls a "rupture" or "break"—occurring in Western philosophy, as if it is slowly becoming aware of the purposeful subjective construction, and thus, the total objective meaninglessness, of its own auspices. For the first time, he says, Western thought is reflecting on itself, realizing that even though all things are based upon structure, structure itself is manmade and not an always-existing natural truth. Even structure has structure, comprised of a "center" which is the glue connecting all of the concepts and elements that go into making something what it is. "And even today the notion of a structure lacking any center represents the unthinkable itself," he writes. "Nevertheless, the center also closes off the freeplay it opens up and makes possible. Qua center, it is the point at which the substitution of contents, elements, or terms is no longer possible. At the center, the permutation or the transformation of elements ... is forbidden." Naturally, every human-made system has a center: AAVE has one, and Standard English has one. The key difference, however, is in the breadth and depth of exploration available at each system's center, the strictness to protocol present. While Standard English derives its power in the formalization and bureaucratization of language-making with grammar and syntax rules that are often deemed by non-native speakers among the hardest to grasp in the world, AAVE's center, as Smitherman says, is based on "improvisation and manipulation."

What Set You From?

According to Poplack, the “key question” embedded in the social and cultural anxieties that surround AAVE deals with its origin: is it descended from “an earlier widespread creole which has since decreolized,” or is it a vestigial remnant of the struggles that black slaves had with English upon their sudden immersion in American society (1)? The possibilities of its origin are so contentious because the scenarios signify an even greater question—is AAVE a dialect or a language? While this research refers exclusively to it as a vernacular or dialect unless quoted otherwise, the debate rages. "How one defines Ebonics is more than mere semantic quibbling," says Baugh, who points out that AAVE's supporters deem it a language, while its detractors are the first to "equate it with 'slang,' 'broken inner-city English,' 'bad English,' or worse" (2000, 20). Indeed, as observed by Smitherman, "[t]he question of whether Black speech is a language is a logical and important one" not only because education-based court cases would benefit from linguists who had an official stance from which to preach, but because the public consciousness has become a part of the argument. "In the minds of everyday people, languages have high status," Smitherman writes, "but dialects do not" (2006, 15).

What does this have to do with the dialect's disputed origination? Essentially, if the former scenario were true, with AAVE having evolved from an "an earlier widespread creole," the vernacular might gain legitimacy: most respected languages cannot help the existence of modern idiosyncrasies that are owed to occurrences too far back in history to be undone, occurrences such as other languages coming into contact or cultural climates shifting. Conversely, if the latter scenario were proven true, even less slack might be given AAVE speakers, as the assumption could gain traction that history is history—and from cotton fields to classrooms, American-born black people should be able to speak Standard English in a society whose enterprises demand it and a world whose economy defers to it.

"It is segregation, not genetics, that allows separate dialects to be perpetuated, and we can dismiss the racial explanation as myth" (Burling 29).
"It is segregation, not genetics, that allows separate dialects to be perpetuated, and we can dismiss the racial explanation as myth" (Burling 29).
In her book The English History of African American English, Poplack suggests the former scenario is true, holding the distinctive dialect is rooted in “an English base” born and perhaps more socially expected in “particular sociohistorical environments” but whose “features [are] no longer attested in Standard English” (1). Baugh holds the latter in his 1999 book Out of the Mouths of Slaves, contending the strength and ubiquity of AAVE throughout American history is owed to the fact that black slaves, like most immigrants in a strange land, “preferr[ed] to speak only with others who share[d] fluency in their mother tongue” (3) and that even after emancipation, the social isolation in ghettos blacks experienced strengthened the dialect – “physical isolation contribut[ing] to linguistic isolation” (4). Smitherman holds a somewhat combinatorial view in her 1977 book Talkin and Testifyin: “African slaves in America initially developed a pidgin, a language of transaction, that was used in communication between themselves and whites,” she states. “Over the years, the pidgin gradually became widespread among slaves and evolved into a creole” (emphasis added) (1977, 5).

In discussions of the legitimacy of AAVE, origin is both relevant and not relevant, despite the fact that, as Smitherman, both linguists and the general public are set to determine opinion on such a basis. The core thing that all origin theories have in common is the idea that AAVE was born in the crucible of cultural fragmentation experienced by Africans imported to America: black persons shipped from all over Africa were specifically paired off by white traders with the goal of separating those who spoke the same language, which cut down on chances of organized revolt but also cut down on chances that slaves would bond over Standard English and not over some alternate version of it cobbled together in the midst of psychological torture. What this means is that the consummate totality of black English was forged by the do-it-yourself cobbling together of linguistic pieces by early black Americans—a theory that harkens to the concept of "bricolage" as proposed by French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. Etymologically, bricolage stems from the French word bricoler, which means "to fiddle or tinker."

According to Levi-Strauss, bricoleurs use odds and ends to make a new whole, in the process turning signified objects into signifying objects, and vice versa. Although bricoleurs stay within the constraints of the civilization to which they belong, "in the continual reconstruction from the same materials, it is always earlier ends which are called upon to play the part of means," he says. Levi-Strauss goes on to say that bricoleurs are good at solving a wide range of problems using only their limited and finite toolset, which are the product of accumulation, and not awarded or found with respect to individual ventures. In other words, bricoleurs are remixers in the digital age sense, the modern sense—they use the items at their disposal to create something both meaningful to them that is functional if not exactly ideally suited to the original cultural or societal environment in which the pre-bricolage items existed. This concept fundamentally encapsulates the development of AAVE in Black America and its largely historically negative reception in White America. Transported to a new land with a strange language, Africans of different tribal languages themselves connected over an iteration of English they created on the fly and as they best could—an iteration that attempted to approximate certain basic elements of the language they heard around them and ignore other elements, hence its imperfect fit for the Anglophone society in which it was used.

Ironically, it is by deconstructing AAVE that it becomes clear the vernacular worth more than the sum of its parts because its parts come together to form a center far more decentered than that belonging to Standard English. Furthermore, it is by deconstructing AAVE it becomes clear that AAVE in this decentered center represents something much bigger than itself. "Where and how does this decentering, this notion of the structurality of strucure, occur?" Derrida wonders in Structure, Sign and Play. "It would be somewhat naive to refer to an event, a doctrine, or an author in order to designate this occurrence. It is no doubt part of the totality of an era, our own, but still it has already begun to proclaim itself and to work." Indeed, two years prior in Of Grammatology, Derrida had noted the emergence in the Western world of subcultural retreats from linearity that were threatening the "epic model" to question itself. "For over a century," he writes in Of Grammatology, "[the consequent] uneasiness has been evident in philosophy, in science, in literature. All the revolutions in these fields can be interpreted as shocks that are gradually destroying the linear model." Proponents and speakers of AAVE should have swagger, Derrida would likely claim—it is the proponents and speakers of Standard English who are staggering to defend subjective structure in a world newly more inclined to acknowledge the artifice of structure itself.

Talkin' That Talk


Pam Grier as "Foxy Brown" (1974); Don't make her buss a cap.
Pam Grier as "Foxy Brown" (1974); Don't make her buss a cap.
The idea that Ebonics, black English, AAVE
—whatever you want to call it—is ungrammatical is "a popular myth" (Baugh 2000, 18). It is governed byconventions in the same way as any form of human communication, its only characteristic of note its extreme nonstandardness juxtaposed to Standard English. In her 2000 book Black Talk, Smitherman defines nine patterns of AAVE grammar and pronunciation—which she still calls “only a few” of the unwritten rules. Among the patterns she identifies are the deletion of the “r” sound “at the end of a word or after a vowel,” e.g., “Sure, you’re right” becomes “Sho, you right.”; the use of “be” to “indicate continuous action,” e.g., “I be on my school tip.” (“I’m in school.”) or “He be late to every meetin’.”; and the elimination of is and are and their pronoun-verb contractions (Smitherman 2000, 12). An example of this last point, perhaps among the most easily identifiable traits of AAVE, can be found in the 1974 film Foxy Brown, in which the titular character, a huge-Afroed black woman played by blaxploitation superstar Pam Grier, asks a white woman “What he like?” and is met with a condescending chuckle: “You mean what is he like or what does he like?”


Grammaticality aside, there are hundreds of words and phrases found nowhere but in the black American vernacular. A handful of simple terms have entered the public sphere to varying degrees, e.g., “crib” for house, "to bounce" for "to leave," “glock” for “gun," and “bread” or “cheddar” for “money”: an even smaller contingent, e.g., “shades” for “sunglasses,” “nitty gritty” for “essence or core,” “mojo” for “magic,” “TLC” for “tender, loving care,” "bush" for "female pubic hair" and “buzz” for “substance high” (Smitherman 2000), have crossed over, or gained acceptance in white society, likely to the point that few “pink toes” not of a certain age even suspect the etymology. By and large, however, AAVE’s working vocabulary remains unknown to “white whites”—that is, racist white people—and “European Negroes”—blacks who reject their heritage—as most of it is unrelated to dictionary definitions writ in Standard English. It could not be guessed, for example, that “eight rock” signifies a very dark-complexioned black person, or that “to lamp” means “to hang out,” or that “pluck” means “wine,” “zillions” is a hairstyle and “Turkish” is flashy gold jewelry (Smitherman 2000). And this is to say nothing of terminology that is rooted almost exclusively in the black experience: “Sister Rea,” for example, refers to acclaimed soul singer Aretha Franklin, while “conk” signifies the process of straightening curly hair by applying congolene, a lye-based gel endemic to black salons from the 1920s to the 1960s.

A founding member of the Association of Black Psychologists, Robert Williams—coiner of the term Ebonics—had previously been known for his research into the racial bias of standardized tests. Most famously he created the “controversial” Black Intelligence Test of Cultural Homogeneity (BITCH), which “intentionally inverted racial bias in favor of African Americans” by replacing Standard English phrases with their AAVE counterparts—“fixing” for “beginning to”; “in back of” for “behind”; “couch” for “sofa” (Baugh 2000, 16). Black children who had received marginal scores on Standard English tests scored much higher on the exam crafted by Williams, while the opposite held true for white children.


As many scholars are quick to note, the particular variety of words and phrases with which one was raised is the variety in which one most easily and naturally thinks, analyzes, scrutinizes and understands. "Many speakers of black English ... value it," writes Baugh. "Their personal and cultural identities are closely linked to the language of their friends, family, and forebears" (1999, 5). In other words, it truly does matter that certain millions of Americans are inculcated with nonstandard, albeit self-sustaining, terminology. "Language is a tie that binds," says Smitherman (2006, 3), while Derrida in Speech and Phenomena "frames the singularly memorable dictum that 'language preserves the difference that preserves language'—which, presenting in positive terms the role of language ... gives us perhaps the best single summary of Derrida's own views on language that we have" (Kates 139). Taken altogether, it thus seems the academy has a strong case in place for the justification of AAVE: not in spite of its nonstandardness, but because of it.

In Structure, Sign and Play, Derrida is not shy about pointing out the fact he may be attempting the impossible by seeking to undo the linearity or structuredness of systems. After all, all systems must be spoken of with the terms defined, created and used by that system, which implies that all systems are inherently self-reflexive to the point of myopia and egoism. Furthermore, he battles the paradox of centrality itself: namely, that the center of a system is both within the system and outside of it, both its reason for being and more important than it completely, as the center is the ultimate source of meaning that unlike the other parts of the system or structure cannot be substituted by other parts. How does this relate to the plight and potential academic rescue of AAVE? Perhaps in the consideration that, if all structures are inevitably guilty of centrality, a juxtaposition to compare extremes reveals that there are looser centers and stricter centers—centers that allow for free play and those that don't, centers that allow for improvisation and those that don't. In this light, between AAVE and Standard English, there is a clear victor per Derrida's deconstructionist criteria. Returning to Levi-Strauss's idea of bricolage, AAVE excels where Standard English fails in the sense that while it might be more difficult to communicate when official syntax, grammar and protocol are not in place, the end-result is communication that "always puts something of [the bricoleur] into it."

Peckawoods Be Sweatin’

Dixie Days

"With his specious claims to scholarship and silly use of big words," he was the biggest joke of all stereotypes (Malcomson 323).
"With his specious claims to scholarship and silly use of big words," he was the biggest joke of all stereotypes (Malcomson 323).
Since its inception, the vernacular has been mocked and criticized by White America—perhaps, as stated, on account of its questionable origin or assumed origin in the mouths of slaves. In the early 19th century, a comic folksong by the name of “Zip Coon” rose to prominence with its anti-black Dixie lyrics set upon a famous Irish fiddle melody called “Turkey in the Straw.” Played in minstrel shows across America, the song parodied the emancipated urban Negro, nominally stereotyped as “Zip Coons” (a take on the name Scipio, then common for black males), for their failed attempts to speak Standard English. Whereas other blackface stereotypes emphasized the rugged stupidity of Negroes as slaves or frontiersmen, Zip Coon was specifically designed to illustrate the dichotomy between how ‘white’ free blacks wanted to be and how white they never could be on account of their innate lingual deficiencies. Wearing blue tails and a lorgnette, Zip Coon “drew meaningful distinctions between ‘nigga’ gentlemen such as himself and ‘common niggas’”—the joke being that “[w]ith his specious claims to scholarship and silly use of big words, he was a more intensely self-deceived type than the rougher types” that white audiences ate up (Malcomson 323).

But while the Days of Dixie are in the past, White America’s discomfort with AAVE has not faded with time. If anything, the contempt has intensified, perhaps aggravated by the fact that “[d]espite numerous educational and social efforts to eradicate [it] … the language has not only survived, it has thrived, adding to and enriching the English language,” states Smitherman (2006, 3), who further contends that “talkin Black [has] perservered in African America because [it] allow[s] for the fullest expression of the mind and the heart” (2006, 64). In line with author Scott Malcomson’s theory that “Zip Coon was the closest of minstrel roles to an actual figure of white apprehension, namely the free urban black” (323), Smitherman suggests the enduring white anxiety that coats evaluations of AAVE is owed to deep-seated fears that Black America can use the language to symbolically if not literally subvert the authority of America’s majority race—fears that, incidentally, are well founded, she claims.

According to Smitherman, it is intentional that the syntax and slang of AAVE are so difficult for outsiders to decipher. “The roots of African American speech lie in the counter language, the resistance discourse, that was created as a communication system unintelligible to speakers of the dominant master class,” she writes. “Enslaved Africans and their descendants assigned alternate and sometimes oppositional semantics to English words, like Miss Ann and Mr. Charlie, coded derisive terms for White woman and White man” (2006, 3). Desire by White America to eliminate AAVE is thus arguably attributable to a desire to ensure or protect civic unity by encouraging assimilation, achieved by killing a language of dissension. Even Derrida observes that linearity is oppressive and inhibitive, unable to see the failings of linearity because it is focused myopically upon continued dominance with "its eyes open on the interior of its own history." Linearity, represented by the formality and written tradition inherent to Western thought and its standardized languages, "is not loss or absence of pluri-dimensional thought," Derrida states in Of Grammatology, "but the repression" of it. Perceptively, Derrida attributes the challenges confronting those who do not walk the line or abide its protocols to manifestations of the structured centers described in Structure, Sign and Play, these centers exerting control over dissenters through the various social and cultural institutions traditionally dependent upon and operated by linearity, such as the economy.

Modern Days

With this knowledge it is interesting to note that, in recent cultural memory, many of the most lambasted prominent figures have been those that spoke to American blacks in the language of their ancestors—oftentimes despite the presence of similar figures, colleagues even, who did not use AAVE. A good example of this phenomenon would be the psychological but respectful war undertaken by black leaders Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X in the fourth estate throughout the 1960s, as awareness of racial inequality reached fever pitch in the United States. As white policemen unleashed canines, fire hoses and more on unarmed black civilians, and as greater White America watched from their living rooms in detached horror, King and X divergently dealt with the race problem: while the reverend espoused Christian virtues with an orator’s tremolo and in English as pure as the driven snow, Islam’s prodigal son, learned though he was after years spent in prison transcribing words from dictionaries, often spoke with the unmistakable cadence and slang of the Harlem streets whence he came.

Subtly but unmistakably, X appealed to black folk in the vernacular in which a great deal of them had been raised, a vernacular shunned by the liberal white media that painted X as a preacher of violence and hatred when, more accurately, he called for self-defense and self-edification.
Speaker of honor at the First Annual Dignity Projection and Scholarship Award Ceremony in Detroit, Michigan on Valentine’s Day 1965, just one week before he was assassinated, X addressed a room of Motowners with a relaxed vernacular that King, a media darling in comparison, never would have used: "[The black man] thinks that he’s more American than African ‘cause The Man is jivin’ ‘im an’ The Man is brainwashing him everyday, tellin’ him, ‘You an American, you an American.’ Man, how could you think you an American and you haven’t ever had any kind of American tree over here?" X said in his last public address. "Just because you in this country doesn’t make you an American. Naw, you got to go farther than that before you can become an American." Helping and state-of-being verbs like "are" and "have" are absent; certain words, such as "tellin'" and "'im" ("him") and "an'" ("and") and "naw" ("no") are casually approximated instead of clearly enunciated; popular slang terms like "The Man" and "jive" are interjected.

While AAVE had (and still has) many more obvious practitioners, X regularly spoke in a way that overflowed with the nuanced markers of "resistance discourse," as described by Smitherman. Indeed, as author Robbins Burling indicates in his 1973 book English in Black and White, blatant violations of Standard English aren't necessary: "They may be unable to explains the clues that give away a man's race, but the clues are there. Something seems to be distinctive and different about black speech and white speech," he writes. "Most Americans suppose that they need only hear a voice over the telephone to know whether they are talking to a white or to a black speaker" (29). X understood the importance of communicating with people on the terms they understood best: "You can't ever reach a man if you don't speak his language," he said during the address. "If a man speaks French, you can't speak to him in German. If he speaks Swahili, you can't communicate with him in Chinese. You have to find out, "What does this man speak?" And once you know his language, learn how to speak his language." This understanding is likely the reason X chose to speak to black congregations the way that he did.

It is an irony, as Baugh notes, that in myriad ways the very existence of AAVE is a case of chickens coming home to roost for White America, the majority culture entrenched in linear and central linguistic narrative and thought. AAVE's disputed points of origin aside, once in America, persons shipped from all over Africa were specifically paired off by white traders with the goal of separating those who spoke the same language, which cut down on chances of organized revolt but also cut down on chances that slaves would properly learn the language of their oppressors and not invent a subversive communication of what Derrida calls "freeplay." In condemning the vernacular in modern times, Baugh asserts, White America should further take care to remember its historic illegalization of teaching enslaved persons to read and write, as well as its centuries-long commitment to a "separate but equal" doctrine that no doubt affected quality of education in the black community. "It is segregation, not genetics, that allows separate dialects to be perpetuated, and we can dismiss the racial explanation as myth" (Burling 29).

Moreover, as Derrida explains in Of Grammatology, it is inevitable that different cultures and anthropological groups will unite under different techniques of communication. In fact, Derrida believes, nonlinear writing in the timeline of human history preceded linear writing, which "defeated" nonlinear writing only as civilizations began to desire more linguistic security "in a dangerous and anguishing world." More implicated than not, therefore, is that a dialect, a vernacular, a language—again, this essay is not attempting to determine a verdict—with improvisational syntax, with ever-changing slang known only by those descended from those who needed to know is closer to the natural order of human communication than is a system that employs polemical tactics. Words cannot be forced upon Derrida or his colleagues—however, to continue with the above example, it seems more likely than not that deconstructionists would applaud Malcolm X's preferred method of communication to his black audiences.


Western philosophy is steeped in a legacy of building off the work of others in such a way as to create an understandable, straight-shot narrative for and of itself and for its followers, who in the Western world comprise the majority culture. In Of Grammatology, Derrida suggests that certain paradigm shifts must occur in order for anything operated by a non-linear model to gain traction or acceptance in Western philosophy. This is ostensibly true when the viewing the case of African American Vernacular English, also known as black English or Ebonics, which seemingly since the first human beings imported from Africa stepped foot on American soil has been a form of communication frowned upon by greater white society, proponents of Standard English. Criticism of AAVE seems rooted in deep-seated sociocultural fears and anxities had by White America concerning two things: the rise of the educated black person, as symbolized by blackface stereotype Zip Coon, and the rise of black people in general, united in a language whose origins are partially muddled but whose historic purpose is clear—confuse and subvert The Man through lingual exclusion. Although technically AAVE is no different from any other American subcultural dialect or vernacular—or language, depending on whom you ask—it is clear through certain incidents and works of fiction that still burn clear in pop cultural memory that something about AAVE in particular is contentious, enduring and attention-grabbing.

Understandably, black people themselves are conflicted over the value of AAVE. Contemporary black power shows such as The Boondocks undermine it as a byproduct of ignorant hip hop culture, while one of Black America's most powerful orators seems to have deliberately used elements of it when addressing congregations of his people. The authors cited paint a clear picture: while language is culture, it is a challenging predicament for immigrants to decide which is worth more—cultural heritage or mainstream assimilation. Clearly, with regard to the continued usage of AAVE, black Americans are still in this immigrant mindset, undecided on its worth, undecided if it should be hidden from the white cultural majority for the shame of ignorance it implies, or flaunted for all to see due to the real-life oppression that it was centuries ago forged in.

This essay has attempted to prove that by viewing AAVE through the lens of deconstruction as proposed by Jacques Derrida, not only can it be more greatly appreciated, but it can be justified for its merits. As Derrida sensed in Of Grammatology that the Western world was beginning to reexamine the linearity of its own philosophy, he outlines again and again points that indicate he and contemporaneous like-minded scholars likely would have praised the black vernacular for its looseness and creativity, its more decentered center in comparison to the rigidity of protocol underpinning Standard English. The key joy of deconstruction for Derrida was that it allowed infinite and random interactions and substitutions between all pieces of a system except its center—Standard English does not allow for this, but AAVE does. Deconstruction asks systems to accept the polysemy of life and to forgo dependance upon the formality of written communication—Standard English allows for this to a much smaller degree than does AAVE, which is founded upon unconventional, flexible syntax, slang that is ever-changing, phrases whose meanings are unknown except to the descendants of those who had reason to know (and even then are often inexplicable). Admittedly, Derrida acknowledges the foolishness of seeking to find a system that has no center. All things have structure—even structure itself. Moreover, AAVE is only nonstandard in the sense that is being compared to something, in this case Standard English, which is in turn only standard in the presence of other subversive iterations. But if the center of a system could be said to be the glue that connects its pieces, then the goal, as Derrida says, is essentially to find adhesive as strong as it is accommodating. Variety and unpredictability are the key to the best centers, and thus the key to the best systems, according to the deconstructionist view of the universe. How fitting then, as Smitherman points out, that "improvisation and manipulation" is what makes Ebonics go 'round.


Works Cited

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Baugh, John. Out of the Mouths of Slaves: African American Language and Educational Malpractice. Austin: University of Texas, 1999. Print.
Burling, Robbins. English in Black and White. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1973. Print.
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