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Sista, Speak!

Sista, Speak!
Black Women Kinfolk Talk about Language and Literacy

How this valorization of "proper" English has affected the language, literacy, educational achievements, and self-image of five African American women—the author's grandmother, mother, aunt, sister, and herself.

June 2002
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264 pages | 6 x 9 |

The demand of white, affluent society that all Americans should speak, read, and write "proper" English causes many people who are not white and/or middle class to attempt to "talk in a way that feel peculiar to [their] mind," as a character in Alice Walker's The Color Purple puts it. In this book, Sonja Lanehart explores how this valorization of "proper" English has affected the language, literacy, educational achievements, and self-image of five African American women—her grandmother, mother, aunt, sister, and herself.

Through interviews and written statements by each woman, Lanehart draws out the life stories of these women and their attitudes toward and use of language. Making comparisons and contrasts among them, she shows how, even within a single family, differences in age, educational opportunities, and social circumstances can lead to widely different abilities and comfort in using language to navigate daily life. Her research also adds a new dimension to our understanding of African American English, which has been little studied in relation to women.


Honorable Mention, 2003 Myers Outstanding Book Award
The Gustavus Myers Center for the Study of Bigotry and Human Rights in North America

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Part One. The Narratives: Peculiar to Your Mind
    • Our Languages, Our Selves
    • Maya: It Doesn't Bother Me
    • Grace: I Always Wondered If My Life Would Have Been Different If
    • Reia: Searching for My Place
    • Deidra: A Mother's Love Is the Greatest Love of All
    • Sonja: I Had to Do What I Wanted to Do
  • Part Two. The Analyses: Surreality
    • Maya: I'm Comfortable Like I Am:
    • Grace: If I Could've Gotten into a Trade School
    • Reia: I Am Proud of Myself
    • Deidra: I Was Hiding. I Didn't Know. I Was Scared
    • Sonja: I Had a Positive Experience
    • The Rest of the Story
  • Appendix 1. Participants' Possible Selves Data
  • Appendix 2. Participants' Speech Samples Data
  • Appendix 3. Participants' Language and Literacy Ideologies Data
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Sonja Lanehart is Assistant Professor of English Language Studies and Linguistics at the University of Georgia.


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From the very beginning I saw myself as writing . . . for those who would care about . . . women not only because of their unique individualities, but also because of what they represent: black women/writers struggling against unfavorable odds to create their personalities and artistic selves.

—Gloria T. Hull, in Johnson, Proud Sisters

Stories to Be Told and Not Forgotten

Maya, Grace, Reia, Deidra, Sonja: all African American women in one family—my family—whose stories have spoken to me for as long as I can remember. They were purposely chosen for this study because I want to share their stories with others, who I know have mothers, grandmothers, sisters, and daughters just like mine. As sociolinguist Gwendolyn Etter-Lewis notes, "The notion that African American women are an invisible group on the sidelines that easily can be combined with other groups is a convenient fiction that conceals their power and importance. They have played major roles in all of American culture and continue to do so in spite of resistance and a variety of formidable barriers" (My Soul Is My Own, p. xvii). So, although these African American women do not speak for all African American women, they can certainly speak to many of them as well as to other people.

I present their stories as narratives. Their narratives are important because they are stories to be told and not forgotten. That, of course, is the way I see them, because these are women who are mothers, sisters, daughters—others—whose stories are too often untold and unreflected upon. The narratives allow you to see each woman as she wants you to see her. The women tell their own stories because the stories are theirs to tell. They appear independently of one another, but, as you know, all of our stories are interdependent. That interdependence resonates with a clear voice because we are not alone. It is important for us to realize that if we do not already, and Sista, Speak! should help to solidify that message.

As Etter-Lewis notes, African American women are conspicuously absent from major studies in most disciplines. Additionally, as scholar Paula Giddings notes, despite the range and significance of the history of African American women, we are often perceived as token women in Black texts and as token Blacks in feminist ones. We need our own texts, because the paucity of investigations of African American women's speech demands that we be rendered visible in our own right, as scholar Margaret Andersen notes, instead of invisible in the various studies that concentrate only on the experiences and perspectives of dominant groups to the detriment of the recognition of African American women's contributions and worth to society.

Sista, Speak! tells the stories of five African American women in the same family across three generations. The stories illustrate the themes of language, literacy, identity, ideologies, education, and sociohistorical context—issues that touch all of our lives. They reaffirm what I know to be true—that African American English is not "bad" English, and, as pointed out by linguist Rosina Lippi-Green, that there is no such thing as "standard" English. This is a powerful myth that most Americans believe is as right and as real as rain, but it is no less a myth. Its partner in crime is the literacy myth, coined and explicated by literacy scholar Harvey Graff.

In probing these mythical concepts, I found no less than three intersections between the rhetorical ideologies of literacy and "standard" English. I call those three intersections the "Ideology of Opportunity," the "Ideology of Progress," and the "Ideology of Emancipation." I discuss these ideologies in more detail below because they affect these women's lives (and those of others) in different but significant ways. Their stories are laced with references to these ideologies and show the power they have on individual lives and across generations of a family.

Who Has the Army and the Navy?: Myths, Mayhem, and Metaphors

Good poetry and successful revolution change our lives. And you cannot compose a good poem or wage a revolution without changing consciousness. And you cannot alter consciousness unless you attack the language that you share with your enemies and invent a language that you share with your allies.

—June Jordan, in Johnson, Proud Sisters

What came first—language or grammars? Okay, that's easy. Language came first. Since humans verbally communicated long before grammars were first written, it is an unavoidable conclusion that the grammatical structures of a language develop at a time when there are no grammarians. Okay, now a harder question. What came first: schooling (i.e., an institutional entity) or literacy? I propose that literacy came first. Literacy and "standard" English can be used as a means of control—they are political. Both tend to belong to those in power and to those who are able to determine what is acceptable. In their view (i.e., that of those who have power), it is dangerous to have the masses constructing society. It is safer and more suitable for those in power to direct how society is to be structured, which thus insures that those in power will stay in power. One can control who gets in and who stays out by controlling who reads, what they read, and how they read as well as how one talks—all by establishing the rules in favor of the elites.

Proponents of the Ideology of Opportunity espouse the societal benefits of literacy and "standard" English through opportunity—in other words, opportunities galore knock at the door of the literate and "standard" English speaker but not of those who adhere to neither. This ideology purports: (1) better educational opportunities; (2) greater success in school; (3) diminished social barriers because of conformity to the prestigious norm (White, middle-class, Eurocentric, etc.); and (4) better job opportunities because one fits the "cookie cutter" pattern of the presentable employee. This ideology is problematic because it does not account for all the other things that make the possibility of being gainfully employed at one's skill level more complex than that—like race, ethnicity, and gender.

Linguist James Sledd acknowledges in his polemical essay "Bi-Dialectism: The Linguistics of White Supremacy" (p. 320) that since linguistic prejudice can keep one from moving up, it is taught that people who want to be decision-makers had better talk and write like the people who make decisions. Our society does not quite work that way. As scholar J. Elspeth Stuckey indicates, "Lives are defined by language if language is a tool of oppression.... What Volosinov knew of language is surely true of literacy: the society that fixes the worth of speakers fixes the worth of their words also" (The Violence of Literacy, p. 92). Hence, the rules would only change and the people would still be the same. I am not going to deny that in a literate society being literate can be advantageous. According to Stuckey, the achievement of literacy is made important in such a society not only because it is a social construction but also because it is a social restriction and a system of oppression for those who are not literate. However, being literate or speaking "standard" English does not necessarily deliver on all the promises the ideology declares.

I am often reminded of Sledd's comment in 1972, still true today, about the futility of learning "standard" English for those who are not the ones making the decisions about what "standard" English is:

In the U.S.A., we are being told, everybody wants approval—not approval for doing anything worth approving, but approval for doing whatever happens to be approved. Because approval goes to upward mobility, everybody should be upwardly mobile; and because upward mobility is impossible for underdogs who have not learned middle-dog barking, we must teach it to them for use in their excursions into the middle-dog world. There is no possibility either that the present middle class can be brought to tolerate lower-class English or that upward mobility, as a national aspiration, will be questioned. Those are the pillars on which the state is built. (p. 325)

We must stop blaming those whose language is different and start looking at the people and the system that criticize them for being different. It is not acceptable to say that corporate America wants people who can write and speak "standard" English or to say that success comes only to those who speak "standard" English. We need to break out of the mindset that says that because that is the way things are we have to go along to get along. Tradition does not make something right. If it is broken, it should be fixed. If the social or economic structure is unjust and perpetuates exclusion based on language, race, gender, or social status, then the structure has to change, not the people who have done nothing wrong except to physically and culturally exist as different from a supposed norm.

Literacy researchers such as Graff and Carl Kaestle and his associates have shown that one does not necessarily have better educational opportunities, better success in society, diminished social barriers, or better job opportunities just because one is literate. There is not a causal relationship between literacy and opportunity. It is more likely that race, gender, ethnicity, social status (or class), and religious background are better determinants of opportunity than literacy. For example, in Graff's study of nineteenth-century Canada, being Black or Irish Catholic and literate did not mean nearly as much as being White, English Protestant, and illiterate. In fact, for those who were oppressed and the targets of the schooling and literacy campaigns at the time, schooling and literacy mostly served to further oppress those already being oppressed and to further heighten social and economic stratification. The situation was and is similar to that of the United States. There are many instances today among the oppressed and disempowered in which they are in school but not of it. In other words, they are allowed into schools because of state laws, but they are not really part of schools that are based on middle-class (and mostly Eurocentric) life.

According to scholar Katherine Bassard, in her essay "Gender and Genre: Black Women's Autobiography and the Ideology of Literacy," literacy, equated with freedom and economic advancement, is an ideological construct and thus a product of culture and social formation. The middle class will not tolerate nonstandard English or differing cultures and their values and beliefs (or alternative conceptions) about literacy. Hence, as Sledd notes, even "compassionate, liberal educators, knowing the ways of society, will change the color of a student's vowels because they cannot change the color of their students' skins" (p. 325).

The Ideology of Progress claims that those who are literate or those who speak "standard" English will: (1) overcome the adversities and shortcomings of a deprived or deficient culture that does not use "standard" English or value literacy, and (2) develop greater cognitive and logical abilities that will facilitate abstract thought. The Ideology of Progress is firmly entrenched in our society. It concerns me because of its cultural and racial biases as well as the lack of insight into what language means to its users and what literacy is and is not.

The Ideology of Progress is seen to be ethnocentric and racist when the research and reasons for the research are probed. Psychologists Martin Deutsch, Irwin Katz, and Arthur Jensen were clearly in search of a way to distinguish intellectually between races (yet another social construction). Literacy scholars Jack Goody and Ian Watt unduly privilege the alphabet over other forms of writing as well as privileging the mental capacities of those who are "alphabetically" literate. Educator Eleanor Wilson Orr believes that "for students whose first language is BEV [Black English Vernacular, now referred to most often as African American Vernacular English], then, language can be a barrier to success in mathematics and science" (Twice as Less, p. 9). She also believes the grammar of "standard" English has been shaped by what is true mathematically. Orr concludes then that linguistic systems like African American English are inferior because they are not capable of certain abstract and logical functions inherent in "standard" English. As a result, African Americans who speak African American English will perform poorly in math and science. Linguist John Baugh, in his review of Orr's book, states, "Her conclusions regarding linguistic differences between BEV and standard English, as well as the cognitive assertions that grow out of her linguistic impressions, tend to be uninformed and somewhat naive" (p. 395).

Linguist William Labov has shown in his seminal studies of urban Black youths in the 1960s and 1970s that nonstandard English (which is typically spoken by people of color and those of lower socioeconomic status groups) is just as logical and just as viable a means of communication as "standard" English. Labov has shown that the problem does not lie with the speakers of nonstandard English, but with the failure of educational institutions to recognize and build on the existing verbal abilities, linguistic systems, and cultures of those who speak nonstandard English and with the bias against such varieties of English in the social system. The language of the child did not then (i.e., at the time of Labov's research) and does not now need to be replaced; it needs to be acknowledged in a positive way.

In 1971 a resolution was brought to the Linguistic Society of America that called to public attention the linguistic evidence against Deutsch's, Katz's, and Jensen's point of view, stating that no natural language has been shown to be superior to another for the expression of logical thought. The referendum was passed and was endorsed again at the annual meeting two years later. As linguists James and Lesley Milroy indicate in Authority in Language, though middle-class language is seen as superior in every respect—as more abstract, and more flexible, detailed, and subtle—this is clearly not the case. Each child's language has quantity, quality, and potential for use in intellectual contexts despite its differences from "standard" English or the ingrained expectations that the language of an African American child, or other nonnative speaker of "standard" English, is deprived or deficient. In Ralph Wiley's Why Black People Tend to Shout, which contains his signifyin piece, "Why Black People Have No Culture," he states: "Black people have no culture because most of it is out on loan to white people. With no interest" (quoted in Geneva Smitherman's Black Talk, pp. 21-22).

Psychologists Sylvia Scribner and Michael Cole, in The Psychology of Literacy, also countered the Ideology of Progress with their research on the Vai in Liberia. The Vai have three different literacy environments: English literacy, which is taught in a formal school setting; Vai script literacy (a syllabic system), which is taught informally among peers and family; and Arabic literacy, which is taught in a formal, disciplined setting. A Vai may practice from none to all the literacies. Scribner and Cole found that neither Vai script literacy nor Arabic alphabetic literacy was associated with "higher order intellectual skills" as measured by typical school-based tests, nor did either enhance the use of taxonomic skills or contribute to syllogistic reasoning. English literacy was associated with certain types of decontextualization and abstract reasoning; however, this was not a lasting attribute. The residue of English literacy was seen in verbal explanation tasks (i.e., talking about tasks). Hence, English literacy taught in formal school settings served the needs of English literacy in formal school settings. The alphabet has no special power despite those who stand behind its tyranny.

The Ideology of Emancipation purports: (1) autonomy; (2) empowerment due to the development of critical thinking; and (3) emancipation (real or symbolic) because of the control one will be able to achieve as a shareholder in what can constitute or lead to real power. In this view, literacy is empowering, transformative, emancipatory, and self-enlightening. It inspires confidence. It is emancipatory through revolution. This ideological perspective intrigues me the most because it seems to require a transactional view between the individual (or group) and society. To accept this view of literacy is to define literacy beyond the ability to read and write on some arbitrary hierarchical level, unlike the Ideologies of Opportunity and Progress.

My concern with this ideology is the claim that critical literacy makes everything right with the individual and the world. As Stuckey notes, it paints a romanticized or spiritualized view of literacy. If everyone were critically literate, the world would be a much better place for all humankind, as noted by literacy scholar Johan Galtung in "Literacy, Education, and Schooling—For What?":

What would happen if the whole world became literate? Answer: not so very much, for the world is by and large structured in such a way that it is capable of absorbing the impact. But if the whole world consisted of literate, autonomous, critical, constructive people, capable of translating ideas into action, individually or collectively—the world would change. (p. 93)

This ideology sees the good in literacy and the possibility that literacy really is the key to all that is better. But, as Stuckey notes, literacy is more than self-fulfillment. Literacy is also social and political and economic in nature. Society wields its literacy more powerfully than does the individual, and a fight against the literate bureaucracy is more than, say, a fight against City Hall. Literacy neither imprisons nor frees people; it merely embodies the enormous complexities of how and why some people live comfortably and others do not.

But there are and have been other limits to the literacy-as-freedom ideology, as Bassard calls it in her 1992 essay:

Their [i.e., nineteenth-century African American women autobiographers'] views about themselves as writers and the purposes of their written texts reflect a broad range of positions vis-à-vis literacy, and even language itself. These women are keenly aware of the limits of the literacy-as-freedom ideology, due to their multiply marginalized position in the social order, and they express everything from mild tension to outright suspicion of the power of the Written Word to provide freedom, economic security, and a restructuring of social formations of power....Though literacy was often used as a means to freedom, it could not entirely constitute freedom. (p. 120)

The same power is espoused to language standardization. All will be right with the individual and the world if the standard variety of a language is the only one there is. The United States is guilty of pandering a mythology of a standard language and all the goodies that come with it. Reality and the limits of the possibilities are lacking.

We (i.e., those not born into the mainstream and not easily accepted into it) have been told that if we acquire a second dialect, we will have two linguistic systems to call upon in oral or written communication. However, Labov and his associates (i.e., Wendell Harris, Sharon Ash, and John Myhill) have shown that "underlying grammatical patterns of standard English are apparently learned through 'meaning' and intensive interaction with those who already use standard English grammar, not simply by exposure in the mass media or in schools" (Labov and Harris 1983, p. 22). Consequently, "blacks who move in white circles show a major shift in their grammar in the direction of the white norm, but the same is not true for whites who move in black circles" (Ash and Myhill 1983, p. 16). According to literacy scholar Marcia Farr in her essay "Language, Culture, and Writing," "although such whites can learn to 'sound black' by using black pronunciation and vocabulary, they do not acquire BEV [Black English Vernacular] grammar. Such asymmetry is not surprising, of course, considering the social, political, and economic value of standard English, as opposed to BEV, in the mainstream society" (p. 212). A similar statement could be made about the differing uses of literacy in African American communities and the importance of the "Oral Tradition" in those communities when compared with the views of mainstream communities about the "efficacy" of those differing uses and the value of anything "oral."

A slightly altered Ideology of Emancipation, one without the godlike qualities, still conveys the belief that literacy does not involve simply the ability to read and/or write. Literacy is a social construction. As literacy scholar Carolyn Marvin indicates, while literacy may be said to begin with the introduction of writing systems, it is not the same thing as writing. If a person is able only to read the words on a page or write letters on a page that form words, that person is not literate. Just as reading is not holding a text and writing is not moving a pencil or punching a keyboard, literacy is not simply the ability to read and write. For this ideology, literacy is more than the sum of its parts.

Each of these three ideologies is problematic, though certainly the Ideology of Emancipation, especially with the amendment I suggest above, is not as problematic as the other two because it is essentially free of bias based on differences from a supposed norm (e.g., that writing is better than speech or "standard" English is better than nonstandard English). However, the three overlap to some extent, and, in this case, there is still the implication for the Ideology of Emancipation that some people (the literate) are better or better off than others (the nonliterate). Although that may be true to some extent in the First World, I am not convinced that it is intrinsically so. Though I cannot deny that being literate in a society that values literacy or that speaking "standard" English in a society that values "standard" English (even though it has yet to determine what "standard" English is) can be beneficial, none of the ideologies can deliver on all the promises proclaimed. Society is too complex to allow us to believe that all one has to do is be literate and speak "standard" English and all will be well.

The Lay of the Land

Guided by my heritage of a love of beauty and a respect for strength—in search of my mother's garden I found my own.

—Alice Walker, in Johnson, Proud Sisters

As you have probably noticed by now, my name is among those of the five women examined in this book. My decision to include my story with the others, to make this a self-study of sorts, was based not only on the reasons given at the beginning of this introduction, but also on the fact that it could not have been any other way. This book arose from my desire to answer questions that have bothered me since I was a child. I had noticed things about language, about literacy, about African Americans, about women—about being in this world in all those ways and more—that I needed, was compelled, to know more about. I also wanted to understand, accept, reveal, and share the existence and experience of these women because I knew I was not alone and because these experiences are not unique. I knew I could not do their lives justice without including myself because I was very much a part of them. I knew that even though I did not randomly choose the people I wanted to study, I did not need to. I have seen my story and that of these women acted out in other people's lives. Our stories are not unique, but I think isolation can make us think they are. You are getting the chance to look at me looking at my life and that of the women who have had the greatest impact on it. As such, you also get to see me and my role in the lives of others. That view was truly eye-opening for me because I saw I was not always the person I thought I was even though I knew I was not the person I used to be.

In reading this book you will see a blueprint for what I think we all need to do at some point in our lives. We need to study ourselves, get a good look at ourselves, in order to unmask who we are within ourselves and in the context of our interactions with those who help to make us who we are. I know some could say that I am too close to the subject to see it objectively. They might be right if there were such a thing as objectivity. Who we are and how we come to be influences how we do what we do and why we see what we think we see. We cannot separate ourselves from our sociocultural and sociohistorical contexts. Though this approach—collecting data about myself, performing the same tasks as the other participants did, and analyzing and reporting on my own data—may be unique in this type of study and not without its critics, I think both you and I see the participants and my analysis of them without pretense. We are our mothers' daughters, warts and all.

Part One begins with an introductory narrative that presents how I came to do this study (see the notes section for a detailed discussion about the methodology for the study) and why it was important to me. Each subsequent narrative in Part One is that of one of the five participants. The narratives are arranged in the same sequence: background, education, language, literacy, and goals and possible selves. The analyses of the narratives in Part Two proceed for the most part in reverse order: goals, possible selves (with respect to literacy and language), language, literacy, ideologies (with respect to language and uses of literacy), and education, with background integrated in each. As such, there is a familiarity in the structure of each narrative though each is distinctly individual. Also, keep in mind that these areas overlap in meaningful ways, especially with respect to attitudes, ideologies, and behavior.

To explore these issues of language and uses of literacy as integral parts of identity and culture, I present the data from the five participants in the form of self-narratives, a unique and valuable format for sociolinguistic research since much of the data is presented as the text as opposed to subordinate to analysis or methodology. All the words of the narratives are by the participants except those enclosed by square brackets and in the same font as the rest of the text. The contrasting font always represents the actual speech or writing of the participants except names of people and places that might further compromise confidentiality.

In part because of this construction, some editing was necessary to maintain the integrity of ideas while providing a coherent narrative. Since each narrative is pieced from transcriptions of the subject's speech and writings, there may seem to be inconsistencies in punctuation and spelling. This is partly due to the speech transcriptions' being limited by a punctuation system meant for writing and not speech as well as a spelling system that does not necessarily reflect the way words are really said. So, how you hear the narratives in your mind may not be how they were produced. However, I did alter the spelling of some words transcribed from speech to make an alternate representation of the word appropriate (e.g., "achieveded" instead of "achieved" to show reduplication of the past tense -ed marker). Moreover, some inconsistencies in punctuation and spelling occur because I wanted to faithfully reflect the actual writing of the participants, which includes lack of any punctuation in some places as well as lack of capitalization or inappropriate punctuation. In those cases where such might be problematic, I included appropriate punctuation. Otherwise, the mechanics represented reflect that of the participants (of course that will not always be easy to determine since their speech and writing are intermixed throughout the narratives; however, misspelled words and problematic punctuation are good signs that the source of the narrative was writing). Despite these modifications, I do hope the essence of each person's voice is heard and that there is little if any cognitive dissonance because of the construction of the narratives.

The analyses in Part Two fill in the gaps and details, and further connect components of the women's language and literacy identities. Part Two concludes with an update on the lives of the women and a discussion of the significance of the narratives and data and what they have to tell us. The combination of the narratives and the analyses implicitly illustrates the relationship between the participants' beliefs and behavior by its context. What the participants chose to share depicts what they considered important to include as a necessary locus for understanding the relationship between language and literacy, beliefs and behavior, and identity in their sociocultural and historical contexts or ecological spheres. The better you understand where each woman has come from, the better you understand why those overlaps are meaningful and in what ways they contribute to how and who each woman is.

Things like that gave me my first glimmering of the universal female gospel that all good traits and leanings come from the mother's side.

—Zora Neale Hurston, in Johnson, Proud Sisters



“This book is a major achievement by one of the brightest young scholars in the field.”
Geneva Smitherman, author of Talkin That Talk: Language, Culture, and Education in African America


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