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Decode This: Happy Holidays from Word!

December 24, 2010

We at Word. want to wish all of you a happy holiday. Thanks for reading our blog and showing us love in 2010. As we enter 2011, we want to offer our holiday reading list (very last minute stocking stuffer). The readings we have chosen are accessible to many. It’s nice to see that we can suggest books that help us to educate ourselves about African American English (AAE), and the political, social and educational issues surrounding those who speak it.

1. Up first on our list is Decoded by Jay-Z. According to Jay-Z,

“The book is packed with the stories from my life that are the foundation of my lyrics… But it always comes back to the rhymes. There’s poetry in hip-hop lyrics–not just mine, but in the work of all the great hip-hop artists, from KRS-One and Rakim to Biggie and Pac to a hundred emcees on a hundred corners all over the world that you’ve never heard of. The magic of rap is in the way it can take the most specific experience, from individual lives in unlikely places, and turn them into art that can be embraced by the whole world.” When you open this dense manuscript you may not know where to begin. We at Word. suggest that you start with the book’s yellow pages which include Jay-Z’s songs, where he will direct you to his footnotes. Here, you will enter his world, his sharp mind, his lyrics, his experience and African American language and expression at its highest form. Then start at the beginning of the book. You will get a new perspective on a lived black experience.

2. To fully appreciate Decoded, check out the #2 book on our list, Spoken Soul: The Story of Black English, by John Russell Rickford and Russell John Rickford. This is the quintessential book on African American English. This book was awarded the 2000 American Book Award. If you or your loved ones don’t believe Ebonics (or Black English, or AAE) exists, this book is a must read. Spoken Soul has the power to change minds. It empowers readers by giving them an in-depth understanding of the structure of AAE. We learn about the history of this dialect of English and how it originated. We are also introduced to how AAE is skillfully used within the African American community by writers, comedians, actors, and in the church. We all have heard Ebonics jokes. This book puts those jokes in perspective in terms of the how the language is portrayed by the media and the educational consequences for our nation’s young African Americans.

3. At #3 is John Baugh’s Out of the Mouths of Slaves: African American Language and Educational Malpractice. It is a great follow-up to #2. What better way to bring in the new year than thinking about equity and justice. This book does just that by dispelling myths about African American English and educating educators and the public about the origins of African American English and its place in American history and society. Baugh couches his discussion of AAE in the context of cross-cultural communication and shows how many African Americans are systematically discriminated against because of the language they speak. We come to understand the debates around African Americans English within the U.S. educational system. Hopefully, by the end of this book, readers will have a fuller appreciation of the dialect of English many of the nation’s children bring to school, which has strong historical roots.

4. Rickford’s in the house! This time at #4 is I Can Fly: Teaching Narratives and Reading Comprehension to African American and other Ethnic Minority Students by Angela Rickford. Research has shown that African American students, unlike their white counterparts, do progressively worse the longer they stay in school. This book is timeless in its argument that for all students to fly and soar in an academic setting we must expose them to reading that is culturally relevant and meaningful. Furthermore, teachers can connect to their students and provide a nurturing learning environment by accessing the students’ cultural backgrounds. We at Word. were most struck by two lessons that Rickford gives to educators of our children. The first is that students excel most when given more challenging reading. She reminds us that

Poor readers are not de facto poor listeners or poor understanders, and even though it might be reasonable to assume that they need manageable materials for reading on their own, it does not follow that they should be deprived of the challenges and cognitive journeys that more sophisticated texts afford whenever reading is required.

Rickford’s second critical lesson is that ethnic minority students come to school with already well-developed contextualizing and creative imagination skills. However, these same students are tested in reading comprehension with techniques that are decontextualized and require only literal and factual recall. For Rickford, “higher-order” kinds of questions should be part of the curriculum and testing procedure. Finally, in Rickford’s research she used ethnic narratives that featured African and African American characters, but the other ethnic minority students connected to them based on cultural similarities.  This speaks the power of inter-ethnic exposure and appreciation, which is also important in creating a environment in which students can achieve even more.

5. We started this post with Jay-Z, an individual hip-hop artist and we end at #5 with hip-hop again, this time with an organization. At # 5, Marcyliena Morgan, founder and director of the Hiphop Archive brings us The Real Hiphop: Battling for Knowledge, Power, and Respect in the LA Underground. Morgan gives us an in-depth look at the individuals who make up Project Blowed, a strong network of young men and women in a Los Angles underground hiphop community. According to Morgan,

“Hiphop does not simply answer questions about language, discourse, and society on a regular basis but it tests, teases, manhandles, and critiques those questions in order to display and analyze the social, cultural and political reality of the local and social world as  seen by the MC.”

The  words, rhymes, lyrics, thoughts and expressions of MCs or “Masters of Ceremonies” in the LA hip-hop scene are exposed for us to view. Morgan shines a light on these youth that allows for an appreciation of their art, skills and knowledge.

Happy holidays from Word. The Online Journal on African American English!

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