Black lives ain’t never gon’ matter in the classroom until Black English does

An English teacher explains why fostering multiple dialects in the classroom matters.

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Photo by Khamkéo Vilaysing on Unsplash

By Dillin Randolph

My mother was my first teacher. One of her first lessons was how to “play the game” of speaking “proper English.” She taught me, as her father taught her, that knowledge is power and if one presents themselves as knowledgeable, they will be perceived as capable. Since Black people are often seen as incapable, we weren’t allowed to plant that doubt or change anyone’s mind about our abilities. When I was younger, this double consciousness of linguistic patterns was hard to maintain in school. 

While in class, I would want to say to my teachers something like, “I’m finna axe you a question,” but I would self-correct and say, “I’m about to ask you a question.” In this instance, I needed to recode my natural dialect to one more mainstream—all to avoid ridicule and to avoid being a detriment to my race.

This type of language adjustment is known as “code-switching,” which has long been a part of Black people’s blueprint for surviving and for navigating interracial interactions. School communities should address the deep-rooted, anti-Black racism toward Black English (BE). But many in our education system are still reluctant to acknowledge the reality and validity of BE as its own language and its importance to the Black community.

According to the National Council of Teachers of English’s (NCTE) 1974 statement Students’ Right to Their Own Language, students have the right to “their own patterns and varieties of language—the dialects of their nurture or whatever dialects in which they find their own identity and style.”

When students use language, they do so as individuals with social histories. BE has been used to connect Black people to one another and to identify who we were since enslaved Africans created it on the remnants of West African mother tongues. Language is the most vivid and crucial key to identity—merely speaking is to put one’s business out in the street, revealing one’s parents, culture, and livelihood.

By that logic, an attack on one’s language is an attack on their identity. When a teacher would correct my language use, I would develop an abrasive attitude toward them because I felt the need to defend my identity. At times, I viewed the requirement to adapt to Mainstream American English (MAE) and to assimilate into the mainstream culture as a rejection of my identity.

As a result, as a 9th and 10th grade English teacher, I focus on not perpetuating this racist status quo. I allow my students free use of any variation of English dialect on all formative assignments and assessments. 

Here’s why:

Educators should be cognizant of the merits of using both a student’s home language and MAE in the classroom as well as striving to expand students’ ability to become multiliterate. If educators can consider multiliteracy as a pedagogical practice, then we can engage with more students by including them in a range of linguistic abilities. This practice would provide multiple options for students in different multimodal assignments, including written works, projects, videos, and performances.

For example, if a student needs to write in MAE for a summative analysis essay, perhaps we could allow them to write their outline in their natural language. We could encourage students to do so with other creative or narrative written works as well. Multimodal assignments adapt to certain needs of students and allow students to practice and engage in multiple literacies, especially in traditional writing.

I asked my entire class to write their answers to discussion questions based on Amy Tan’s “Mother Tongue” in a shared Google Slides. If their responses answered the question, there was no need to police their language. And while my students come from extremely diverse backgrounds and no answer looks the same, they may all be correct. 

In the slideshow, I asked the question, “Why does Amy Tan not like it when she refers to her mother’s English as ‘broken’ or ‘fractured?’ ” 

One student wrote, in MAE, “It suggests that there is something wrong with the way her mother speaks, and there isn’t.”

Another replied in a language variation similar to Amy Tan’s mother, “Amy Tan not like it when she say her mom English is broken because if she understand her mom, then there is nothing wrong with how she talk.”

One more student wrote in BE, “She (Amy Tan) felt bad because wasn’t nothing wrong with how her mom talks. She and other Chinese people could understand her mom. Even I could, and I ain’t even Chinese.”

All students answered in their own language style, and all students’ answers were correct. We need to nurture our students’ language skills and not police them. This is especially true of our Black students. Language is how students communicate mastery of concepts. We should not focus on how they communicate that mastery, but on whether or not they’ve mastered the concept or content. 

I understand the desire to teach MAE. Not utilizing two codes of language would handicap my diverse student body’s chances of success in a professional or academic environment where writing or speaking in MAE is the expectation. But I also realize that upholding MAE as the norm systematically denounces BE as a legitimate language variety.

So, what can educators and school districts do?

Here are some recommendations:

  • Educators need to arm themselves with knowledge and teach their students the historical, social, and cultural context around BE and MAE. Even code-switching in the classroom could demonstrate students’ acceptance of other linguistic styles.
  • Educators should also develop a Black English Consciousness (a phrase coined by Michigan State professor April Baker-Bell), where we lose the “deficit” mindset and educate others on how to unlearn White supremacist language standards and unravel anti-Black linguistic racism.
  • Those in power need to know that BE is not broken English and need to give our students room to speak and write freely. While this is a tall task, school districts must be intentional with this work; it’s difficult when educators often fold to the pressures and ease of White supremacist thinking.
  • School communities should also address this deep-rooted, anti-black racism toward BE.

How do we compel educators to adopt a new view of BE in academics? Do we simply teach students to “play the game?” Or do we openly challenge the multiple, institutional structures of anti-Black racism that shape language politics? To all district-level administrators, principals, department chairs, and all the way down to my fellow teachers: Don’t get it twisted. Black lives ain’t never gon’ matter in the classroom until Black English does. For real, for real. 


Dillin Randolph teaches 9th and 10th grade honors English at Niles West High School in Skokie, Illinois. He is a 2020-2021 Teach Plus Illinois Policy Fellow. Follow him on Twitter.