Ebonic Plague: The New Black Death

Posted: Dec 03, 2007 12:00 AM

Bertis English, an Assistant Professor of History at Alabama State University is displeased with my recent column, “Hooked on Ebonics.” He wrote the following to me just a few days ago:

Professor Adams, I just read your piece “Hooked on Ebonics” at Townhall.com, which I receive daily. Though I am, of course, familiar with the general platform of the site, as well as its contributors and readership, I was, frankly, taken aback by the seeming ignorance, rambling et cetera of you—a purported academician— in the referenced piece. One, are you familiar with the development of so-called Ebony Phonics, or Ebonics, particularly its 1970s roots and the acidic issues that were debates among certain Oakland school officials during the 1990s? Two, are you truly serious about having your inquiries answered?

Please, Sir, do the academic world a favor: let the tabloid writers, bigots, supremacists (of any “ethnicity”, nationality, religious denomination, “race”) handle the bias; concentrate on intellectual ideas. I am confident that your students and perhaps some University of North Carolina Wilmington faculty and administrators will be better served by the latter course of action.

Some people who read my humorous columns fail to see their humor. Others do but fail to see their seriousness. Professor English is one of those rare readers appearing to be both humorless and wholly unable to grasp the serious theme behind my sarcastic attack on the notion of ebonics scholarships. I’ve written this column today to Professor English (in English) in an effort to elaborate on the point he seems to have missed.

I begin with an example.

Years ago, in my department, there was a black secretary who simply could not write coherent letters. Of course, as a secretary she would have to write letters to parents, job applicants, and others – all on official university stationery. There were so many misspellings and other grammatical errors in her letters that we had to eventually try to get rid of her. We simply had no use for a semi-literate secretary.

But trying to fire a black secretary is about a hard as getting a gay activist to admit that impersonal sodomy contributes to the spread of AIDS. In fact, come to think of it, the Gay Plague of the 1980s and the Ebonic Plague of the 1990s both relied on enablers masquerading as civil rights leaders. But that’s probably another column altogether.

Our department’s lone enabler of the semi-literate secretary happened to be a white social worker. When asked how he could justify keeping the secretary on our staff he said that her grammar was simply a reflection of her culture and, hence, should not be used against her in making an employment decision.

In other words, she couldn’t do any better because she was black. Or, perhaps, the “liberal” social worker was thinking “That’s just how those people talk.”

It is difficult to hear such a comment coming from a white social worker and not cynically believe that he wants various social problems (like illiteracy or semi-literacy) to remain unsolved. Social workers need social problems because they need jobs. That is why they are so often opposed to simple, common sense solutions.

But it is also difficult to hear such a comment coming from a white man and believe that he is not a racist. I won’t complain if people give him the benefit of the doubt. After all, I used to think Elton John was straight.

Put simply, racism is the main reason why whites refuse to criticize the obvious absurdity of Ebonics.

There is another, and very different, reason why blacks take Ebonics seriously. I proceed with another example.

The other day I was at the gun range zeroing in a 30-06 in preparation for a hunting trip. Apparently, I had bumped the scope and it was firing about a half-inch high and two inches to the right. So I took out a flathead screwdriver, made the necessary adjustments and put three shots into the center of the target in a nice one-inch group – good enough at 100 yards at an outdoor shooting range.

Next, I took out a .40 caliber handgun and started firing at a silhouette target. My shots were consistently pulling just to the right of the ten-ring. Later, I got on the phone and called a friend and he offered a suggestion. The next weekend when he was in town, we went back to the range and I made a minor adjustment and watched a hole grow larger in the target where the ten-ring used to be.

In both cases, it would have been easier to change the rules of the game than it would have been to make adjustments in my own behavior. For example, in the case of the .40 caliber, I could have simply taken down the target and changed the numbers to put the ten-ring in a different location. In other words, I could have simply changed the rules in the middle of the contest.

If you think about it that is what is happening with the concept of Ebonics. Blacks who are performing poorly in the use of the English language – by making systematic errors – are simply announcing a new set of rules, which will require no change in their behavior. “’Dat’ is just like ‘That’” is the same kind of rationalization as “The five-ring is where the ten-ring is supposed to be.”

Put simply, laziness is the main reason why blacks refuse to criticize the obvious absurdity of Ebonics.

Of course, many people will say that it is not politically correct to suggest that some blacks are lazy. But the existence of a stereotype in no way proves the non-existence of cases conforming to the stereotype. There really are gay hairdressers, you know.

I hope Professor Bertis English will take some time to actually respond to the substance of my column. And I hope he is just being lazy and not being racist in his apparent refusal to criticize Ebonics. But his Anglo sounding last name has me a little worried.

On December 6th, Dr. Adams will speak at the University of Georgia, Athens, GA. 7 p.m. in Room 248 of the Student Learning Center.