Linda Christensen’s essay in the Fall 2003 issue of Rethinking Schools, “The Politics of Correction,” provides many felicitous insights and suggestions for writing teachers whose students are in constant motion between two or more language systems.
One of Christensen’s great insights is that English teachers, by “studying and honoring” the use of a student’s home language in literary works, can create a classroom environment in which their everyday language is validated-its logic, patterns, and rules exposed on the printed page. By teaching literature that depends on specific vernacular traditions, such as the African American (Ebonics), the Caribbean (Patois), or the Latino (Spanglish), writing teachers show their students that their home languages have value. This is crucially important, because few of our students realize that their home language is actually the source of a lot of great literature.
I would like to suggest a few texts that function well in my classrooms toward achieving the goals Christensen advances in her essay.
- Not Without Laughter , by Langston Hughes. The interest that Hughes’ novel holds for the writing teacher is two-fold: (1) the lyrical brilliance of his prose, much of which is expressed through African American Vernacular English (AAVE); and (2) the blues. In 1981, the Caribbean poet and literary scholar Kamau Brathwaite introduced to students and teachers of language and literature the important concept of “nation language.” In his essay, “History of the Voice,” Brathwaite focused on the English-speaking Caribbean, but his concept could be easily applied to black America. Here, he wrote, “is an English that is not the standard, imported, educated English, but that of the submerged, surrealist experience and sensibility.” But nation language must not be confused with dialect, he argues. Rather it is “the submerged area of that dialect that is much more closely allied to the African aspect of experience in the Caribbean.” Moreover, nation language “may be in English, but it is an English which is like a howl, or a shout, or a machine-gun, or the wind, or a wave. It is also like the blues.” Hughes puts this concept into practice from beginning to end. But what is a “blues experience”? Hughes says that it’s “laughing to keep from crying.” Hence, one of the reasons to teach Not Without Laughter is to stress how many universal experiences, such as the African-American blues experience, are best rendered in an “imperfect,” poetic language. The complexity of blues language is that it is simultaneously formal and informal, colloquial and official, underground and mainstream, improper and proper. It is a great language to study and honor because it is essentially how everyone thinks and feels-how everyone begins to shape their ideas and feelings into coherent and explainable wholes.
- “How to Eat a Guava,” by Esmeralda Santiago (from her novel When I Was Puerto Rican ). This short piece, which opens her novel, is a meditation on the relations between home language (or nation language) and official language. It is rich in metaphors, and asks students to ponder the fruits (literally, in the case of her favorite fruit, the guava) of home language and how they are often replaced by inferior substitutes as one advances toward mainstream acceptability and “competence.” The strength of the piece is that it evokes memories of the agonizing transition from home to school, from security and comfort to alienation and oppression. It’s a tragic story, but also inspiring and realistic.
- No Saco Nada en la Escuela ( I Don’t Learn Nothing in School ), by Luis Valdez. This great Chicano writer brings to the fore all the major issues of English language learning through a wickedly funny play. The characters are grade school kids in Los Angeles who represent multicultural America to the fullest, and whose home languages are in constant conflict with the English teacher’s standard one. Acting the play out in class is often cathartic for many students struggling with the language of power.
- “Hands,” by Alice Childress ( from her collection of stories Like One of the Family ). This story is a dialogue between two black women workers who discuss the importance of laboring hands. Here the language shifts between AAVE and standard American English, as one of the women, Mildred, positions herself between her boss and her fellow workers to make an argument for a worker’s union at her job. Thus, her language does exactly what Christensen encourages her students to work on: learning a command of the language of power in order to better express and preserve the vitality of their home language.
One of the valuable lessons Christensen teaches us is that we should never underestimate the power of our students’ words, and never forget where these words came from. For when we look at the origin of their words, we’re doing precisely what the greatest writers have always done.