When it comes to Rachel Jeantel, who’s really on trial here?
When Rachel Jeantel stepped up to to testify at the trial for the shooting death of her childhood friend, Trayvon Martin, lawyers and later the American public had more to say about her language, mannerisms and appearance than her critical testimony. Ms. Jeantel is of Haitian American descent, and to our knowledge, speaks Haitian Creole, Spanish and African American English. In the days since her court appearance there has been such a strong reaction from the public with regard to THE WAY she speaks, we decided it was necessary to provide some links that are helpful in contextualizing her use of language. Make no mistake about it, we at Word. feel that the Rachel Jeantels of the world should not be silenced from speaking their truths, especially when confronted with misplaced ideologies and attitudes about the languages that they speak.
Check out these links for more information:
“For the record, Jeantel, like many working class African Americans, shows asymmetric linguistic competence. She does understand standard English, as she emphasized in an exchange with defense attorney Don West. But she often speaks fluent African American Vernacular English (AAVE), or Ebonics, and the court stenographer, attorneys and jury members may have missed crucial elements in her testimony.”
“Virtually anyone who was born and raised in the United States can speak perfect English without interference from any other language, no matter where their parents came from. The suggestion that Jeantel’s language is peppered with influence from Haitian Creole and Spanish implies that there is something off about her English. There’s nothing wrong with speaking imperfect English, but that doesn’t describe Rachel Jeantel, and to suggest otherwise misses — you might argue even reinforces — the real injustice at the heart of her cross-examination.”
“Yet one problem Jeantel is not having is with English itself. Many are seeing her as speaking under some kind of influence from the Haitian Creole that is her mother’s tongue, but that language has played the same role in her life that Yiddish did in George Gershwin’s – her English is perfect. It’s just that it’s Black English, which has rules as complex as the mainstream English of William F. Buckley. They’re just different rules.”
“She [Jeantel] used a lot of the classic features of African-American English, which you can find spoken especially by working-class African-Americans almost every day. I don’t think most of these caused active problems of understanding in the courtroom, But I think they probably affected the jury’s and the public’s ability to respect and believe her testimony and relate to her. Relatability is very important.”
“The unique quality of her black vernacular speaking style became hypervisible against the backdrop of powerful white men fluently deploying corporate, proper English in ways that she could not do. The way they spoke to her was designed not only to discredit her, but to condescend to and humiliate her. She acknowledged this show of white male power by repeatedly punctuating her responses with a curt but loaded, ‘Yes, Sir.’”
“Judging by the lightening quick critiques of Ms. Jeantel’s quips and gestures, no one had any problems understanding her. However, what many African Americans in our social media communities secretly wanted was for Ms. Jeantel to code switch, remove the vernacular from her vocabulary directly rooted in this young woman’s experience to make her more appealing to Whites, and less ‘embarrassing’ to the guardians of acceptable Blackness.”