Public Comment

Commentary: Sources of African-American Culture a Conundrum

By Jean Damu
Friday June 09, 2006

Thank you for Mr. Allen-Taylor’s stimulating review of Charles DeBose’s The Sociology of African-American Language. Not long ago I submitted a book review to a left leaning, youth oriented newspaper in San Francisco but was informed they don’t print book reviews. So thank you for encouraging us all to put our thinking caps on. 

The issues of African-American language and by extension all black culture in the U.S. and its relative dominance when counterposed to other cultures is one that has long fascinated me. I was never one to simply believe the vast differences in African-American and white cultures were simply reflections of race. These beliefs were reinforced more than thirty years ago when I traveled to Cuba for the first of many subsequent trips. In 1974 I was astounded to see and hear black and white Cubans dancing, singing and speaking exactly the same. If you closed your eyes or listened to the radio it was impossible then, as it is today, to know if you’re listening or watching an Afro-Cuban or white Cuban. “How is this possible?” was a question I asked myself for many years. 

These kinds of observations and issues, in my opinion, lie at the heart of the great conundrum in this country over African-American language and culture. Why is black culture so different from white culture and why do whites so often mimic black culture? For instance, why do so many white singers always try to sound like Mary J. Blige but you never hear any black singers trying to sound like Frank Sinatra? 

It is not clear to me, from reading Allen-Taylor’s review that DeBose addresses these questions. Framing the peculiarities of Ebonics as simply a reaction to the oppressor is not a full-fledged response. Allen-Taylor’s anecdote about being in the inner city and hearing young black males practicing their rap is accurate but not nearly as interesting to me as being in the inner city and hearing white youth, Philipino, Cambodian and Viet Namese youth talking exactly as if they are black. To me that condition dramatizes exactly what is America. 

Consider that in the late eighteenth century English tourists in America often wrote home and complained that Americans were debasing themselves and losing the ability to speak English. “They speak just like the slaves!” was a complaint often heard then. Therefore the development of African-American language has long been in existence and its influence on whites as well as other cultural aspects is without question. Why was this never the case in Cuba and other place like Cuba? Why is it so apparently unique here? 

I have come to believe, and my understanding has been facilitated by the critical race theory movement, that the answers to these long unanswered question lie in the way in which slavery was administered. 

In most of the colonies that became the United States, Europeans significantly outnumbered Africans. Therefore, in order for the elite Europeans to maintain control and power the definition of who was considered white was constricted. Anyone with one drop of African blood was deemed black. Originally the Irish and Italians were not considered white. However, in order that the various groups of Europeans become considered white, European culture atrophied in the cause of creating white solidarity. 

For the Africans the situation was reversed. In the face of brutal, white oppression racial solidarity made it necessary for the various African nationalities to become black, or negro or colored. For the Africans, culture—language dance, music—became the tool of racial solidarity. In almost mathematical terms, to the degree the the blacks were oppressed, to the same degree the culture was fortified. For instance it is often said the Blues, considered by many the bedrock of all modern music, was a response to the federally endorsed campaign of lynchings of African-Americans.  

Likewise, on the other side of the coin so to speak, in the late 1950s white DJs across America were vilified and subjected to political and economic sanctions for their part in the so-called payola scandal, accepting money and gifts for playing pre-selected records on the radio. What the DJs were really being castigated for, however, was nothing more than playing black music for white audiences, or enhancing the africanization of American culture, a process that really began in 1619, when it is claimed, the first Africans were brought here from Angola and continues to this day, most recently with the Hyphy movement. 

Time and space do not allow a close look at Cuba and her assimilated sisters Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela etc., except to say they are mirror images of the United States in that anyone with one drop of white blood is considered white, the precise opposite of here. In those countries assimilation has been used to keep blacks on the bottom and whites on top, thereby giving the lie to those who promote multiculturalism and colorblind policies here. Ward Connerly, do I have your attention? I didn’t think so. 

The great Ebonics brouhaha of the mid-1950s was a progressive and right-headed attempt, I think, to recognize the real conditions of African-American students and use it to their advantage, namely to recognize Ebonics as a tool and use it to teach standard English. The great irony in that situation, however, was that the proposal that was submitted to the Oakland Board of Education was poorly written and caused confusion that allowed many to reject and ridicule the movement. Too bad, it would have been a huge step forward. 

The issue of African-American language is an important issue, especially when reviewed in context of the African American condition. I’m looking forward to reading DeBose’s book. My hope is that through the study of our language he begins to confront the real reasons why African-Americans have always, forever and continue to be marginalized in America.