As a student, I read a lot. Out of all the books assigned for this week, one book especially stood out. It is not only a great read, but a crucial voice in the conversation about race in America. The book is Spoken Soul: The Story of Black English, written by John Russell Rickford and Russell John Rickford. Rickford and Rickford are father and son and together they present a text that draws forth facets of the black experience, the black identity and the black legacy through language. The authors, in their linguistic break down of Black English, which they also call African American Vernacular English (note the book was published in 2000), bring to life the language through narration of speech in every day contexts and through the testimony of black musicians, comedians, poets, writers, preachers and families. In this way, the text is more than just a linguistic guide, but also a guide to the lived and experienced history, struggle and resistance of being black in America.
Two themes the authors touched upon that I found particularly interesting was the use of quotations from various black people about Spoken Soul and its use, as well as the stout resistance the text itself has on the importance of Black English and its separation from “Standard English”.
First, it is really hard to write any kind of piece that generalizes across entire races or societies. Take Feminism. The term itself is contested and means different things to different people, a debate that is unlikely to end and is enriched by its negotiation. Rickford and Rickford, while obviously unable to speak for everyone, do a really good job at representing the perspective of various people across black society. This is expressed by the constant quotations of black leaders, as well as passages dedicated to the history and experiences of those leaders AND everyday people. Some of my favorite quotations are:
Queens of the Universe”
i saw it to
My own eyes.
i mean like i
got on this bus
this cracker wuz
driving saw him look/
sniff a certain
turn his head in disgust.
that queen of sheba
smell that it
it ain’t delicate/ stuff
when u put it on
u be knowing it on….
– Sonia Sanchez (1971)
Whereas black writers most certainly revise texts in the Western tradition, they often seek to do so “authentically,” with a black difference, a compelling sense of difference based on the black vernacular. – Henry Louis Gates Jr. (1988)
You might win some but you really lost one/
You just lost one, it so silly how come
When it’s all done did you rally gain from
What you done done, it so silly how come – Lauryn Hill
I [was] supposed to go on tour with Run DMC? Tol’ my father, say, ‘Dad, I’m goin’ on tour with Run DMC – they gon let me open up for dem, make a lot o’ money!’
‘Dem boys ign’ant [ignorant]! Dem boys are ign’ant! Why dey got dem hats on dey head? Day ain’t Jewish! An’ what’s that thing around dey neck?’
‘A rope chain, dad.’
‘I tol’ you dem boys ign’ant! What nigger in his right mid wants a rope aroun’ his neck?!’
…Father was nuts, man. – Chris Rock
One ever feels his two-ness – an American, a Negro: Two souls, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body…The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife – this longing…to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging, he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. – W. E. B Du Bois (1903)”
The second theme I really enjoyed was the resistance this book itself and how it personifies, as a PHYSICAL object, the manifestation of the black identity and experience through language. America is a society that is heavily vested in dominating narratives; in a country that is supposed to be free, it is extremely limiting in terms of acknowledgement, access and acceptance. This book by Rickford and Rickford boldly puts forth the declaration that black people have a story and a legacy that has deep roots not only in the past, but also in the future.
All in all, I highly recommend this book! Other awesome dicusions in the text are on education practices and the proposal of an “Ebonics” Language Bridge program in Oakland and the perception of Black English across the past few decades. Please let me know what you think of the text and if there are other books out there that you enjoyed regarding language or the black identity, do post about it!
Rickford, John Russell and Russell John Rickford. (2000). Spoken Soul: The Story of Black English. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.: New York, NY.