Dr. G, The Power of Language, Raciolinguistics and Multilingualism, or: The ‘Mis-education of the Negro’-And You too

at the MCEA/MiCWA 2016 conference this today, i embodied humble awe. i had the distinct honor of being in a room while Dr. Geneva Smitherman infused it with life and powerful truth. following her talk, i had the fortune to sit with her for a while to share how she has influenced some of my work and my overall perspective and even receive a few gems of personal insight into my current lines of thinking and recent events in my classroom [more on this another day].

for now, a handful of voices that Dr. G invoked-ones that i do not wish to forget:

Being able to use the language(s) one has the best command of in any situation is an empowering factor and, conversely, not being able to do so is necessarily disempowering. The self-esteem, self-confidence, potential creativity that come with being able to use the language(s) that has or have shaped one from early childhood … is the foundation of all democratic policies and institutions. To be denied the use of these languages is the very meaning of oppression. -Dr. Neville Alexander, “The Elephant in the Room Looms Large”

Darlene trying to teach me how to talk … Every time I say something the way I say it, she correct me until I say it some other way. Pretty soon it feel like I can’t think. My mind run up on a thought, git confuse, run back and sort of lay down … She bring me a bunch of books, Whitefolks all over them, talking bout apples and dogs. What I care about dogs? … But I let Darlene worry on. Sometimes I think bout the apples and the dogs, sometimes I don’t. Look like to me only a fool would want you to talk in a way that feel peculiar to your mind. -Celie, in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple

The queen [Queen Regent of Basutoland (Lesotho)] took special notice of me and at one point addressed me directly, but she spoke in Sesotho, a language in which I knew few words … She looked at me with incredulity, and then said in English, “What kind of lawyer and leader will you be who cannot speak the language of your own people?’ I had no response. The question embarrassed and sobered me; it made me realise my parochialism and just how unprepared I was for the task of serving my people. -Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom

In the study of language in school, Pupils were made to scoff at the Negro dialect as some peculiar possession of the Negro which they should despise rather than directed to study the background of this language as a broken-down African tongue-in short to understand their own linguistic history, which is certainly more important for them than the study of French Phonetics or Historical Spanish Grammar -Dr. Carter G. Wilson, Mis-education of the Negro

Multilingualism is our ally in ensuring quality education for all, in promoting inclusion and in combating discrimination. -Irina Bokova, “Message for International Mother Language Day”

The language, only the language … It is the thing that black people love so much-the saying of words, holding them on the tongue, experimenting with them, playing with them. It’s a love, a passion. It’s function is like a preacher’s to make you stand up out of your seat, make you lose yourself and hear yourself. The worst of all possible things that could happen would be to lose that language. -Toni Morrison, int. with Thomas LeClaire, The New Republic


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