The Colorization of Writing

History has shown that writing by black and white people are not perceive the same, even if both writings are grammatically correct.

An early example of this is Phillis Wheatley. She was an African American slave who published her own poetry. She wrote her poetry so it was grammatically correct and would be read easily and be indistinguishable from white writing. But Thomas Jefferson read her work and said she did not write it because she was black; no black person could ever write poetry that well.

Grammar Tree

Sentence. Noun Phrase: Determiner – The, Noun – man. Verb Phrase: Verb – bit, Noun Phrase: Determiner – the, Noun – dog.

That got me thinking. Aside from Wheatley’s race, what was it about her writing that made Jefferson think she didn’t write it? Her writing followed grammatical rules and was written in a

way to appease white people, so why did he not accept it? Has this judgement regarding overall literacy of African Americans gotten better? Not entirely.

One major discrimination today against African American literacy is African American vernacular, or African American language (AAL). Standard American English (SAE) is what is taught in schools. It is tested on placement tests like the ACT and SAT, but it is not everyone’s primary form of English. In an educational setting, any other form of English is “incorrect.”

In “‘wuz good wit u bro’: Patterns of Digital African American Language Use in Two Modes of Communication,” Cunningham studies the use of AAL. He finds that AAL Follows predictable patterns that a language needs:

Both DAAL text messages and SNS posts served the function of creating brief or concise messages that are visually different from SAE while also approximating the phonological patterns of AAL. Pedagogically, these consistencies of composition and function speak to the literacy practices of DAAL interlocutors, demonstrating their ability to use multiple linguistic varieties, which, if valued, utilized, and examined in the classroom, can be an asset rather than a detriment to rhetorical knowledge, literacy skills, and composing ability. Overall, this research illuminates the multiple linguistic repertoires necessary when composing DAAL and the consistency of linguistic and paralinguistic patterns and functions between the two corpora further suggest the ways in which DAAL is a valuable, pragmatic hybrid literacy.

If AAL is the common form of English for African Americans, it should be accepted in schools. A prior blog post discusses in more detail the change that needs to happen in schools.

Using SAE furthers the stereotype and belief that African American’s can’t write or speak well when they can. Criticism that Wheatley faced is still common in schools today; it just has taken a new form. And it needs to be discussed.

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