Senator Byrd and Lingering Messages to African Americans
What does the death of Robert C. Byrd (1917-2010), the longest serving senator in the history of the United States Congress, have to do with African American English? Much.
Today, Senator Byrd is being memorialized. In attendance is his democratic colleague and leader, President Barack Obama. And while Senator Byrd is being remembered for all the great contributions he has made to the nation, he never was able to completely live down his earlier regrettable activities as a member of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK).
At the age of 27 (although no longer a KKK member), he still wrote to then senator Bilbo,
I shall never fight in the armed forces with a Negro by my side… Rather I should die a thousand times, and see Old Glory trampled in the dirt never to rise again, than to see this beloved land of ours become degraded by race mongrels, a throwback to the blackest specimen from the wilds.
Some have said that his KKK activities and related ideologies are just a small blemish on an impressive record of service, and the goal of this blog is not to dispute his good work. But this blog is written as a reminder that words matter. And they matter regarding what we think about African Americans…and their language.
Thus, to talk about African American English is not only to talk about language per se, but also one’s ideologies and the the communication of those ideologies. What are the messages that have been and continue to be sent to African Americans about who some people think they are at their core?
Senator Byrd was a man of note and what he thought and said mattered to great numbers of people. What we know is that closely tied to peoples’ attitudes about African American English are their attitudes about the people who speak it.
May Senator Byrd rest in peace.