Reesie: It's not secret secret. But it's private.
- "Schoolyard Sages: New York City School Kids Weigh In on Ebonics," The Village Voice
Returning this winter to Chicago from Bombay with the sweet singsong of my native Bombay Bazaar English still sounding in my ears, I'm confronted with the latest American cultural brouhaha - the Ebonic plague. Like my friend and quasi-compatriot Mr. Rushdie, I am now quite convinced that writing about something can actually make it happen - to you. So there I am, Ms. Respected Reader, Dear Madam, as we are politely saying always in Bombay. So I'm trying too too hard to speak without mistake, sounding totally like polite, proper BBC English, not yankee crude, "ya" this, "gonna" that, always opening bigmouth and talking through nose. No, I'm trying for pure Westminster-Oxford-Waterloo English when I'm dispatched to write about Ebonics! Ebonic-bubonic plague, I thought, OOOOhhhh, my good god, why I should write and spoil more my English - nothing be cool or phat in dat. Out damn spot! If something wrotten (or written) in state of Oakland, why drag that damn disease here? So I picked up only one lovely lovely bombay poetry, to forget all this hopeless culture wars and culture whores, and calmly read:
Friends, our dear sister is departing for foreign in two three days, and we are meeting today to wish her bon voyage.
You are all knowing, friends, what sweetness is in Miss Pushpa. I don't mean only external sweetness but internal sweetness. Miss Pushpa is smiling and smiling even for no reason but simply because she is feeling.
Whenever I asked her to do anything, she was saying, "Just now only I will do it." That is showing good spirit. I am always appreciating the good spirit. Pushpa Miss is never saying no. Whatever I or anybody is asking she is always saying yes, and today she is going to improve her prospect, and we are wishing her bon voyage.
(Nissim Ezekiel, "Good-bye Party for Miss Pushpa T, S." From Collected Poems, 1952-1988, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1989. Reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press.)
Reesie Otulana, nine, from Cambria Heights, Queens, New York, and Miss Pushpa T. S., nineteen, of Laburnum Buildings, Hanuman Vihar, Bombay, are hardly soul sisters. They come from vastly different cultural backgrounds: their social worlds are equally strange to one another. Reesie (as we have been repeatedly reminded by the ethnographers of Ebonics) is the descendant of West African slaves, suspended in the lower depths of urban American society. She is in danger of becoming just another percentage point in a deadening survey of the growing body of semi-literate and underemployed youth that come out of underfunded public schools located in areas of economic attrition. ("One half of all African-American youth are born into poverty": Jesse Jackson, The New York Times, Dec. 31, 1996; "71 percent of Oakland's 28,000 blacks are in special education classes. . . [the] average grade point-, on a 4.0 system is 1.8": Courtland Milloy, Washington Post, Dec. 22, 1996.) Reesie may well turn out to be "Baad!" in the nonstandard, "black English" sense of the word. Miss Pushpa, on the other hand, is undeniably good. As a clerical cog in the archaic wheel of Bombay's Byzantine bureaucracy, her "low" economic status has kept her from an improving, Westernized "convent" education. Her cute and creaky English has been picked up at a deeply disciplinary state school through the rote repetition of cliches, commonplace idioms, and readings out of Victorian-style "self-help" primers. Infantalized and exploited both at home and work, she is poised to escape this pervasive patriarchy, to better her prospects, by being "diasporized," going "to foreign" where, as a Non-Resident Indian in the United States or the Gulf States, she will, of course, be the good daughter and continue obediently to support her family back home. Miss Pushpa T. S. Is "internal sweetness itself!" in Bombay Bazaar English - as the poet says, "Pushpa Miss is never saying no."
Reesle, the great-granddaughter of slaves; Pushpa T. S., the stepchild of the postcolonial state: What do they have in common? As their divergent "colonial" histories - of American slavery and British imperialism - circumnavigate the globe in opposite directions, they meet on the margins of nonstandard "vernaculars" or hybridized orders of speech. These are twisted versions of the language of the master, alienating the syntactical "eloquence" and intonational "elegance" through which "standard" English naturalizes itself as a national cultural norm. Whether or not these hybrid speech genres are a species of African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) or something like Bombay Bazaar Hindi-English (BBHE), whether the grammatical structure of "Ain't nobody sing like Chaka Khan" comes from the Niger-Congo Basin, or the rhetorical particularity of "Miss Pushpa is smiling and smiling/ even for no reason" can be traced back to Hindi speech patterns common to Bombay's Bhindi Bazaar, the world of these utterances cannot be reduced to the description of speech as an "object" of linguistic study or a functionalist form of verbal communication without doing violence to the living tongue.
The sociolinguistic descriptions and definitions of vernacularization certainly have an important pedagogical contribution to make. Who could deny that a knowledge of the deep structure of black English would not assist teachers in their attempts to assess performance and to elicit the best results from those who are educationally disadvantaged? In The Village Voice's "Schoolyard Sages: New York City School Kids Weigh in on Ebonics," sixteen-year-old Keith Meyers, also from Cambria Heights, put it succinctly: "Teachers could make some room for different ways of speaking. Not teach it, but at least understand what we're saying." But rather than draw wide and increasingly general circles around the "academic" issue of what is black English, I want to deal with its more demotic address: What are Keith and Reesie and their friends doing when they act cool and "be all like, 'Yo, what's up?'"
These communal forms of utterance resemble what Roland Barthes describes as an "idiolect" in his influential early work Elements of Semiology. Ingeniously broadening the notion beyond its customary focus on an individual's given linguistic repertoire, Barthes defines the idiolect as the whole set of speech habits of a linguistic community that reflect "the need for a speech which Is already institutionalized but not yet radically open to formalization, as the language is." The idiolect - as an Intermediate practice between speech and language - resists "formalization," as Barthes put it, because its ability to confer a shared totemic identity on those who "miss-peak," those who are phat, is a process of cultural performance rooted in the passing, transitory moment of utterance itself. The idiolect is, quite literally, informal because it depends for its communal effect on rhythm, slang, gesture, dress - signs that express its particularity. Black talk certainly fits this description, but as the speech act of a minority, its particularity further connotes its sense of peripherality - of the eagerly guarded "privacy" that Reesie and her friends talk about. Listen, for instance, to Keith:
"We all have our individual way of speaking. It doesn't hurt anybody most of the time. You can do what you want on your personal time, but when you're getting paid to do something, you want to speak properly. . . . The slang comes in when you talk with your friends."
Keith's ventriloquism, the act of switching between "proper English" and "black English," redraws the public/private distinction through the medium of language, making both audible and visible the ways in which minorities are positioned as, at once, insiders and outsiders within the society of their belonging. "Privacy," in this context, is not the essential liberal virtue of having "a room of one's own," in Virginia Woolf's felicitous phrase, a sign of the sovereignty of self-hood, a place for meditation and reflection. This much more communal "privacy" - lived out, ironically, in public - is a way of establishing a kind of cultural intimacy, even indegeneity, for a minority group that is too often in the public eye for its lack of commercial success, its educational failure, its high ratings in the crime statistics. Surveyed and punished, measured and mapped, the desire for privacy on the part of the kids of Cambria Heights is a way of claiming a linguistic territory that is playful, rude, riffy, ironic, and, above all, their very own. For Keith and his teenage friends, however, the division between the private and public spheres seems, at this stage, to be as fluid and pliable as the passage between the playground and the schoolroom. But as legal theorist Patricia J. Williams reminds us on the December 29, 1996 Op-Ed page of The New York Times, such ventriloquism, a verbal practice common to us all, exacts a special price in a racialized cultural context. The real argument, she writes, is not the genteel one about the structure and origin of a language. It is the ambivalent and antagonistic ways in which the vernacular comes to be socially valued within the ideological structure of mainstream culture that constitutes a major class - and race - contradiction. "Perhaps the real argument is not about whether ebonics is a language or not. Rather, the tension is revealed in the contradiction of black speech simultaneously being understood yet not understood. . . . Colorfully comprehensible. . . in sports and entertainment, yet deemed so utterly incapable of effective communication when it comes to finding a job."
Some elements of black "underclass" culture, from the worlds of sport and entertainment, are readily transformed into "style" via the yuppie collaboration with the culture industry (MTV, Rupert Murdoch's Fox Broadcasting Company, Time Warner, Inc.) and commodity fetishes (mile-high Nikes, low-slung Levis, "prison style" laceless boots). Then, suddenly, just as the melting pot or "tossed salad" models of cultural assimilation seem to be yielding to the apparently mixed (read Integrated) metaphors of the pulled-pork "po' boy," the running buffet of bicultural (read multi-cultural) options and choices suddenly dries up. In an ambivalent reversal, those very icons of incorporation become the barriers to a creative cultural hybridization when the unlaced rapping classes come off the video screen or the vinyl track to claim their place within those market institutions that control the conditions of economic and cultural "choice," while shaping the menu of social mores. What you see or hear is not what you get.
Nobody could be more foreign to this world of diss and dat than the sweet child that is Miss Pushpa T. S. Except, of course, that she is about to leave for "foreign" where, as a migrant belonging to a minority culture, her own idiolect will, no doubt, be open to all kinds of symbolic readings and status responses. If one of the marks of "Ebonics" is the use of the "habitual be" - she be reading - then such a sense of the ongoing nature of actions or states is curiously close to Pushpa's present continuous: Whatever I or anybody is asking/she is always saying yes. But her connection with Reesie is, I believe, best seen on home territory, in the vernacular world of Bombay's low-paid clerical workers and the hybrid languages that the public world of business and bureaucracy demands of them.
The poet's ironic mode of address frames Bombay Bazaar English (BBC, uh, E) and reveals its contradictory cultural connotations. Miss Pushpa hardly speaks in the poem, except in parentheses ("Just now only/I will do it"). Ever compliant, she lets both her employer and the poet speak for her. And it is because she is "spoken for" while in fact becoming the only realized persona in the poem that the language actually seems to circulate around her - as her speech - although she is not the speaker. Framed in this way, Miss Pushpa's idiolect is open to two forms of irony. First, in the very foregrounding of BBE, the well-versed "English" poet inscribes the bazaar vernacular as a figure of fun and irony - a little cruel, no doubt, but sufficiently part of the repertoire of Bombay "in" jokes to count as the irony of an insider, something like the equivalent of Jewish humor. But, beyond that, there is a more reflective, sadder irony involved in this portraiture of a group of speakers whose working lives demand that they speak a language in which they always come off like awkward "poreigners," as they would say, with the aspirated p sound of BBE, always already diasporic without even leaving home. Such an irony is compounded by a poignant reality: the vernacular that enables Pushpa and her class to survive economically is what severely limits her prospects for social advancement. She is going "to foreign" to "improve her prospect" and to improve her English, too. To the extent that Reesie's black talk is a sign of the informality of the "private" in the world of the minority, Pushpa's Bazaar English is the other side of the same coin: the official language of a public sphere that is, in part, "poreign." Her idiolect's vernacular culture - an awkwardly blended Hindi-English milieu - is part of a wider public ambivalence through which strategies of inclusion and exclusion, opportunity and discrimination, are set in motion. If there is a deeper, mocking laugh buried in the poem's lines, it is aimed at the arrogant and restricted vision that often accompanies social and linguistic propriety outside the schoolhouse. Are we to be blind to the sincerity and solidarity, the playfulness and privacy, through which people build their lives and words under conditions of duress, just because the poem got the grammar wrong?
Homi K. Bhabha is Chester D. Tripp Chair in the Humanities at the University of Chicago.
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|Title Annotation:||Ebonics, nonstandard vernacular or hybridized order of speech|
|Author:||Bhabha, Homi K.|
|Date:||Mar 1, 1997|
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