Picture it. It’s 1607; America and the slave ships have just come ashore. Hundreds of slaves disembark the Middle Passage ships they have been on for months. They step off onto an unfamiliar land. They cannot communicate with the white people that brought them there because they cannot speak English. They cannot communicate with each other because they come from various African tribes and have their own languages. So, they are forced to learn to create an informal way to communicate.
Slavery continued for 400 years and slaves were not allowed to attend school. They did not receive a formal education that included reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic. Those that attempted to learn from the few whites who believed that slavery was extremely inhumane were beaten for their natural thirst for knowledge.
After slavery ended, we entered the age of Black Codes, Jim Crow Laws and severe segregation! Blacks may have had access to education, but it did not appear to reflect the decision of the United States Supreme Court’s unprecedented ruling in Plessy-v-Ferguson of “Separate but Equal.” Blacks were definitely separate but damned sure not equal. Dilapidated school buildings, antiquated books, and a tremendous lack of resources continued to plague a population of people that had the will but no way to make their situation in America better.
Oh yes, but then came the Supreme Court Case Brown-v-The Board of Education, and Blacks rejoiced at the opportunity for integration. Finally, we would have innovative school buildings, current books, and an overwhelming access to resources. Instead, what we got were Federal Marshall escorts to schools wherein white women and men lined the streets with children-sized caskets, shouting obscenities protesting our arrival. What we got were white teachers who outwardly rejected our presence in their schools with their pristine, non-animalistic children and negated to teach our contributions to our country, our power, and our triumph! What we got was bullied, called nigger, and made to feel less than by school-aged children that didn’t take the time to find out how AMAZING we were because they were taught otherwise.
Then, comes the precipice of the Civil Rights Movement. “We Shall Overcome” plays in the background as Dr. King marches on Washington. Rosa Parks’ loud strength quietly exudes, becoming the face of the Alabama Bus Boycott. All the while, Black adults and children sacrifice their lives in peaceful protests that end in immense police brutality. When the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, Blacks felt victorious, but we didn’t understand the name of the bill didn’t truly reflect what we needed.
It didn’t stop blatant racism or discriminatory practices. We still weren’t welcomed to use the same public facilities. The glares, the comments were all still present. So as all of this was going on, please tell me when was time to teach Black kids how to speak correctly? When would we have learned that a preposition should NEVER end a sentence? When were we supposed to learn how to articulate both verbally and written? I’m not really sure!
The way I see it…my Granny’s, Granny’s, Granny’s, Granny’s, Granny spoke broken English because she was one generation removed from the plantation. She had no formal education. She did not know how to read or write, and she communicated the best she could. This is why we add the word be in a sentence where whites think it doesn’t belong. This is where the evolution of Ebonics begins. This is why it is difficult to understand most black dialects because we had to create a language and a way to communicate when NO ONE WOULD TEACH US! And for some strange reason, you feel that we have been given the tools to eradicate the stifling systemic techniques used to prevent our educational growth.
As a teacher, I know there have been books written and conferences created to ensure that English Language Learners (ELLs) from other countries have strategies created to ensure their academic success. I have employed those amazing strategies, and I have attended those innovative trainings. I have seen my ELLs perform and grow at unexpected lengths. But, I see the achievement gap consistently grow for my Black students, not just against their White counterparts but their Hispanic peers as well.
We must realize that Black kids are ELLs too. They need teachers in the classroom dedicating those same linguistic approaches used for their peers as they build an extensive repertoire of words. They need concerted vocabulary acquisition. They need pictures that provide examples of what the word means. If we made a concerted effort to teach our “native-born ELLs” through engaging best practices, we would begin the true eradication of the achievement gap.
It is imperative that we acknowledge the pain of the past, not for pity but for promise. America’s promise is that your start does not have to determine your finish. That promise has been prevalent for every group except Blacks. Black children want to be smart. They want to thrive in educational environments. They want to become critical thinkers with the abilities to synthesize and apply information. And, they can, once we realize Black kids are ELLs too…because they are! Yep, I ended my sentence with are…DEAL WITH IT!
Shareefah Mason is a Distinguished History Teacher in the Dallas Independent School District. Throughout her 13-year tenure, she has earned numerous awards, receiving recognition from national and state organizations. Her innovation in the classroom and unprecedented gains in impoverished schools contributed to the success of Dallas ISD’s trailblazing transformation initiative Accelerating Campus Excellence. Currently, Shareefah is a dedicated Senior Policy Fellow in the prestigious Teach Plus Policy Fellowship, lending her urban education expertise to nationwide impact projects and the authoring of state legislative bills.