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Senator Byrd and Lingering Messages to African Americans

July 2, 2010

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.

Senator Robert C. Byrd

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.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Anonymous permalink*
    July 2, 2010 2:08 pm

    Well, judging from his ideology, he must have had an interesting time serving under our current President.

    Here’s another interesting detail that appeared in the NY Times:
    “He went on to vote for civil rights legislation in 1957 and 1960, but when the more sweeping Civil Rights Act was before Congress in 1964, he filibustered for an entire night against it, saying the measure was an infringement on states’ rights. He backed civil rights legislation consistently only after becoming a party leader in the Senate.”

    Excellent post!

  2. Carolyn Klier permalink
    December 8, 2013 3:46 pm

    One of the reasons AAE is so interesting to me is because of the unique fact that it is so closely tied to race. The discourse around the language is so multifaceted and begs so many questions to be considered. Although it has been stated many times that black is not equivalent AAE – not all speakers of AAE are black and not all black people in the United States speak AAE, there is still so much to be said about the complexities of creating a culture that is able to understand this difference while still being aware of how they are not mutually exclusive. The study of AAE would be completely different than a similar situation of language where speakers of both had the same skin color. Even the fact that the KKK which, explicitly, is about race is being featured on a blog about the African American language highlights the complicated relationship. It is easily understandable that the social perceptions of being black in America are linked to the perceptions of the language and how a devaluing of the language could reflect. I wonder what the future of this relationship will be, if there will be a point in the future where they approach a more separate connotation or if they will continue to be tightly linked.

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