Black English: Steppin Up? Lookin Back

By Beverly Jean Smith

If young people’s reality is shaped by their language, devaluing how they talk is a way of disrespecting who they are.

“I may say honestly and truthfully that my one aim is and has always been, so far as I may, to hold a torch for the children of a group too long exploited and too frequently disparaged in struggling for the light.”

Anna Julia Cooper, teacher, scholar, writer, and activist in Black Women’s Club Movement

In my last 17 years of public school teaching, I taught English at Brookline High School, a suburban high school because of its demographics and location. The student population was 3% Hispanic, 13% Asians, 11% African American and 13% émigre. Fifty to sixty per-cent of the students were from divorced and single-parent households. Over 64 countries were represented and almost every language in the world was spoken by its students. About 45% of the Black students and I lived in Roxbury, a pre-dominantly African-American community of Boston, the adjoining major city. They participated in METCO, a voluntary busing program. During its thirty-five year transition from a nearly all-white school to its present diverse population, Brookline High has sustained its academic program, sending over 70% of each graduating class on to college.

During my tenure, a number of the Black students who resided in Roxbury used the expression step up to describe what they perceived as a disrespectful and challenging act towards them by one of their peers. A student would inform me, “If Wanda steps up to me, Imuh hafta beat her down.” Why? Because being stepped up to is about how we want to be seen, how others see us, and how we see ourselves. Psychologist Susan Harter calls all this “seeing” self-esteem. To her, “self-esteem derives from two sources: how a person views her performance in areas in which success is important to her and how a person believes she is perceived by significant others, such as parents, teachers, or peers” (in Feldman & Elliott, 1990).

Using this cultural context, I identify the negative reactions of those who opposed the resolution passed by the School Board of the Oakland Unified School District as an example of steppin up. If young people’s reality is shaped in part by their language, dismissing or devaluing how they talk is a way of disrespecting, of beginning to erase a part of who they are. As adults, you and I know a major rule that governs how people are expected to speak. If you want to be heard, you are to use your voice in ways the system feels are acceptable and appropriate. Avoid being loud, sound calm, and use Standard English. The unspoken rule, however, is that “appropriate voicing” and speaking Standard English well does not guarantee you will be heard.

My own experience and those of many of my Black friends and acquaintances confirm the latter. From boardrooms and courtrooms to classrooms, we Black Americans are emotionally and psychologically drained. In addition to not being heard, we spend extra energy trying to educate mostly middle-class white people who have minimal contact with Black communities or Black people about a reality different from the one they are living. Occasionally, they appear to understand what we are saying.


If the truth be told, in the work place, many of us fine upstanding mainstream professionals who speak Standard English well and who have spent years negotiating the terrain of a white middle-class norm speak Black English to maintain a sense of sanity, a sense of humor, and a sense of self. For example, my sister Donna, who teaches English in a Los Angeles high school with a predominantly white faculty, admits that sometimes in the middle of committee, department, or faculty meetings, she speaks Black English to extract herself from a discussion where she and everyone else is “using their best words.” The code-switching “keeps me from goin crazy, she explains. It “reconnects [her] to self,” to a Black vernacular that enables her to disrupt the competitive discourse and compels her colleagues to hear her voice. In no uncertain terms, she be tellin them that they been talkin jis to hear themselves talk and ain’t said one thang about the real issue.

Similarly, Rep. Maxine Waters, (D-CA) recalls how Willie Brown and she would code-switch, begin speaking Black English to one another, in the midst of the legislative sessions in Sacramento. By speaking Black English, they were messing with their white colleagues’ minds, reminding them that they still see themselves as being in kinship with the everyday Black folk who they also represent. They have not sold out their “kinfolk” and intend to hold their fellow politicians accountable. While these two politicians and my sister use Black English to encourage white people to do the right thing, Madeline Cartwright — a former principal of Blaine Elementary School — displays the beauty of Black English. She uses narrativizing, signifying, and call-response to elicit the support of the Black adults who were raising her students in a poverty-stricken area of Philadelphia.

On pages 105-106 of her autobiography For the Children, this principal describes her first parents meeting.

I am so happy to be here with you. I knew you were going to come so we could show our children that we are together, so you could know their principal and you could know their teachers. I am here to make this school serve the children. Now, I came from the same place as you. I told them about my childhood, about being the thirteenth of thirteen children, about living in a house with no beds, about sleeping on the floor, about moving into the projects when we left the country, about how we didn’t have any shoes. I told them about my daddy chopping off those high heels [and making my brothers, sisters, and me wear them to school as flats]. They laughed so loud at that story I had to stop for a minute.

Then I said, I’m not from the Main Line. I liveon the Main Line, but I’ve come up through the ranks. I have survived and beaten the odds to be standing up here tonight. Now, you must give me credit. I must have more sense than some of you, because I made it out and some of you are still here.

They loved that. They were laughing and nudging each other and having a good time, a comfortable time. I was dressed up, looking like new money, everything matching.

See these clothes? I bought this outfit yesterday for the show tonight. I’m not going to say to you that I’m ashamed I have this fancy outfit. I have ten more just like it at home. I am sorry that you don’t have one. I wish you had one, too. But I have mine, and it looks goooood, doesn’t it?

The room went wild, just bursting with laughter and cheers.

…Then, I went down into the crowd like a country preacher at a revival, pacing up and down the aisle, really putting on a show. Our teachers need to be respected. They must feel good about themselves too. Go home and tell your child that his teacher looked good tonight. Don’t they look good? They may not look as good as Ido , but they do look good, don’t they?

By this time the teachers were laughing and clapping right along with the parents.

I want to be successful. But in order for me to be successful, the children must be successful. Success for any of us is success for all of us. The same with failure.

I love children, I really love children. But I need my paycheck, too. I get paid every two weeks if I keep this job, and the only way I will keep this job is if your children—our children— do well.

That Cadillac you saw parked out front, that belongs to me. It costs me two hundred and sixty-five dollars a month to keep it, and I can’t pay for it without you. Will you help me pay for that car?”

The room burst into an ovation.

Are you telling me that I will be able to keep it?

The cheers and applause got even louder.

And that was it.

Amidst cheering and applause, I walked down the center aisle and into the foyer to personally greet my new congregation, who assured me that we were together—parents, teachers, and I— to serve the children. They told me how happy they were that I was their new principal. One tiny, elderly lady made her way over and took me aside.

‘Honey,’ she said, patting me on the arm, ‘now don’t you worry about a thing. We’re going to help you to payfor that Cadillac.”

(Cartwright and D’Orso, 1993)

Enough said.

Outside of the work place, we Black Americans gather, eat, “shoot the breeze,” listen to music, play twist. Our words begin to sound like the language in the Black communities in which we were raised, which include Chicago, St. Louis, St. Augustine, Oakland, New York, and Boston. “I’ll take a little of dis and a little of dat.” “Must tis cuz must tain’t don’t sound right tuh me.” I marvel at how Black English enables Black folks of my generation to be in relationship with each other, as a collective, in our birth, work, and adopted communities.

In retrospect, Black English abounds in the working-class Black communities in St. Louis and then, St. Charles, MO where I grew up. Like many other Black baby boomers born between 1940 and 1950, I attended a segregated elementary school where Standard English ruled. We had spelling bees, conjugated verbs, and diagrammed sentences. Enunciation mattered. But, in the absence of teachers, Black English thrived. When the teacher stepped out of the room for a minute, we fifth-graders quieted ourselves in order to hear the males play the dozens, the first type of signify in defined by Smitherman (see article page 7). I loved these outrageously creative one-on-one word duels.

First male: “Yo momma wear combat boots and concrete drawhs.”

Second male: “Yo momma so ugly, she scare the white offuh rice.”

First male: “Yo momma so ugly, when she run a bath, the water goes back up the faucet.”

The second type of signifyin “aimed at a person … for corrective criticism” (Smitherman, see article page 8), I heard at recess or when we were walkin home from school. Two classic retorts, “If, you feel like froggy, JUMP on ovuhheruh” and “You bettuh-stop talkin sooomuch trash,” advise individuals to start speaking or acting differently unless they want to end up in a fight. While we children used the second type, the adults in numerous Black communities raised such speech acts to an art form.


These Black folks way of signifyin taught me at least three lessons. One, I am accountable for my own behavior. Professing that my runnin buddies (gloss: friends) made me commit a particular act fell on deaf ears. “I know you know right from wrong.” Two, I am always in relationship with my immediate and extend-

ed family/community. “You ain’t grown, yet” served as a reminder that I was not free to do as I pleased, especially if I was still livin under their roof (gloss: in a family member’s home). Adults in hearing distance thought nothing of put’n me or my friends in check (gloss: letting us know they disapproved of our behavior so correct it). All they needed to say is “I know, I didn’t hear, what I thought I heard, cumin outta yo mouf.” Black folks in the community and who taught us in school took for granted that we Black children had good home training. So, if our behavior reflected otherwise, with conviction our school teachers proclaimed, “I know your mother taught you better.” The community expected us to honor what we had been taught.

The third lesson was, read between the lines, exercise reason and, if the opportunity exists to save yourself, do so. My mother’s signifyin taught my older sister Donna and me this profound lesson. Using soft, calm, and measured speech, our mother would tell us, “This is the last time I’m gown to talk to you about this. You understand me.” Or, she would implore us, “Please, don’t y’all make me haveta git up and cum in there.” And although I heard my mother say a many a time, “I’m bout two seconds offa yo behind,” I only remember my mother hitting me twice.

These were never idle threats but her way of giving us an opportunity to stop all that foolishness and redeem ourselves. We realized that our actions influenced how we would be treated by her and ultimately others. Her faith in us to start acting like we had good sense compelled us to think about the consequences if we

continued doing whatever we might be doing. Though my mother certainly did signify, she never ever hollered at us. We felt respected and valued. With youth, my mother and other Black grown-ups used the second type of signifyin as a language of development. They used it to convey community and family expectations rather than to humiliate or guilt. They used it to freeze frame or cause us to pause in a way that invited us to monitor our own behavior.

Looking back has made me realize, in 23 years of teaching mostly white adolesents from middle and upper-middle class families, how much my own classroom practice and interactions with all of my students were informed by a mindset Black English helped shape. I always gave my students a chance to correct their own behavior. If they didn’t, I might say one of the following: “I know you know bettuh.” “Don’t make me act ugly.” “People, you’re pressin your luck.” “I don’t miss nothin that goes on in this classroom.I ’m jis givin you a chance to straigten up.” After awhile, my students commented that I used “funny expressions.” They were right and I rarely had major discipline problems.

I try never to step up to youth. Whether I teach, spend time with them, or simply pass youth on the street, I try to make expectations clear and let them know I respect and value them. For example, a neighbor’s son and his friend pulled up in front of our building. The son left the car running and ran inside. A hip hop song containing profanity began blaring out of the car. I look at his friend, whom I had never met, and said, “Sweetheart, please turn the music down. This is a public street.” He replied, “No, problem,” and reduced the volume. This is the legacy left to me by the Black adults in my family and community, whose use of Black English cultivated a way of being.

In mainstream society, stepping up has a positive connotation. It means to emerge as a leader, to fill a void in a positive way. The School Board of the Oakland Unified School District stepped up, big time. It put forth a resolution to heighten awareness, to serve notice that Black English is not the problem but a possible resource. Other school systems and schools of education need to follow Oakland’s lead. Teachers need resources and knowledge that will help them better understand the structure and characteristics of Black English so they can show students who speak it and do not know how to code-switch how to do so. The latter should enable students to be more facile with Standard English, access knowledge, have choices and achieve some measure of success. The School Board of the Oakland Unified School District seems to understand that providing an equitable educational environment for students who our schools presently underserve is serious bizness that demands bold strides, rather than half-steppin. ■

Beverly Jean Smith, a published poet, is assistant professor of education at Lesley College in Boston and a former chairperson of the Harvard Educational Review. She would like to acknowledge the contributions of her sister Donna and the friends who have informed her writing.