Testifying While Black, African American Vernacular English (AAVE) and Code Switching
Commentary by Black Kos Editor Denise Oliver Velez
We are all aware of the long list of things (getting longer everyday) that are posted under the hashtag #WhileBlack on social media.
Breathing, driving, walking, shopping, swimming, barbecuing, lawn mowing, taking out the trash, can all be deadly or hazardous to your health if you are a black person in the U.S.
I recently became aware of one that I hadn’t thought of — testifying while Black.
African American English often misunderstood in court
Statistics such as these bring into sharp focus the importance of a new study that finds that court reporters, whose transcriptions constitute official court records, fall significantly below their required levels of accuracy when recording speakers of African American English.
The study, published in the journal Language, and titled “Testifying while black: An experimental study of court reporter accuracy in transcription of African American English”, found that the court reporters tested were only able to transcribe 82.9% of words accurately when asked to record everyday sentences in African American English, although they are required to be certified at 95% accuracy.
The US criminal justice system rests on the idea that every criminal defendant has the right to a speedy and fair trial – guaranteed under the sixth amendment of the US Constitution – note the study’s authors, led by Taylor Jones from the University of Pennsylvania. Their report states every trial must be recorded by a highly trained court reporter so that a verbatim official record will be available.
“But what happens when the verbatim official record is not so verbatim?” the authors ask.
“What happens to the right to a fair trial when the words of the defendant, or the witnesses, are misunderstood and inaccurately inscribed in the official court record?”
The article links to this blog post by Taylor Jones, (co-authored with Jessica Kalbfeld) “Testifying while Black”
For the last four years I've been working on a large-scale project distinct from writing my dissertation that my family and friends know I refer to as my "shadow dissertation." It's a co-authored paper, with Jessica Kalbfeld (Sociology, NYU), Ryan Hancock (Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity, WWDLaw), and my advisor, Robin Clark (Linguistics, University of Pennsylvania), and we just received word that it has been accepted for publication in Language. Many of my other projects, including my work on the verb of quotation talkin' 'bout, on first person use of a nigga, and on the spoken reduction of even to "eem", among others, were all in service of this project.
Simply put: court reporters do not accurately transcribe the speech of people who speak African American English at the level of their industry standards. They are certified as 95% accurate, but when you evaluate sentence-by-sentence only 59.5% of the transcribed sentences are accurate, and when you evaluate word-by-word, they are 82.9% accurate. The transcriptions changed the who, what, when, or where 31% of the time. And 77% of the time, they couldn't accurately paraphrase what they had heard.
Let me be clear: I am not saying that all court reporters mistranscribe AAE. However, the situation is dire. For this project, we had access to 27 court transcriptionists who currently work in the Philadelphia courts -- fully a third of the official court reporter pool. All are required to be certified at 95% accuracy, however the certification is based primarily on the speech of lawyers and judges, and they are tested for speed, accuracy, and technical jargon.
What is AAVE
AAVE is an acronym for African American Vernacular English. Other terms for it in academia are African American Varieties of English, African American English (AAE), Black English (BE) and Black English Vernacular (BEV). [EDIT: since I wrote this post in 2014, a new term has gained a lot of traction with academics: African American Language (AAL), as in the Oxford Handbook of African American Language edited by Sonja Lanehart (2015), or the Corpus of Regional African American Language (CORAAL). I now use either AAE or AAL exclusively, unless I’m specifically talking about an informal, vernacular variety, however “AAVE” has gained traction in social media just as AAL replaced it among academics]
In popular culture, it is largely misunderstood, and thought of as "bad English," "ebonics" (originally coined in 1973 by someone with good intentions, from "ebony" and "phonics," but now starting to become a slur), "ghetto talk" (definitely a slur), and the "blaccent" (a portmanteau word of "black" and "accent") that NPR seems to like using.
Why do I say it's misunderstood? Because it is emphatically not bad English. It is a full-fledged dialect of English, just like, say, British English. It is entirely rule-bound -- meaning it has a very clear grammar which can be (and has been) described in great detail. It is not simply 'ungrammatical'. If you do not conform to the grammar of AAVE, the result is ungrammatical sentences in AAVE.
That said, its grammar is different than many other dialects of English. In fact, it can do some really cool things that other varieties of English cannot.
Though I am neither a linguist, or socio-linguist, I am very aware of how dialects of languages are often incorrectly transcribed, since my work as a medical anthropologist led me to doing interviews with people who spoke, or code-switched into AAVE, or Nuyorrican Spanish, and when I would get transcripts back from the agencies we farmed them out to I found numerous errors, simply because the transcription agency wasn’t using native speakers of that specific dialect.
While following some of the tweets and replies about AAVE — I stumbled across this mess from a “black conservative” and a “Becky” who responded:
Okay — I’ll admit I flipped at “our black people” — like WTF?
The whole issue of how AAVE is perceived, and code-switching between AAVE and Standard English is not a new discussion — nor is talk about “speaking white.”
Sorry to Bother You, black Americans and the power and peril of code-switching
When Einar Haugen introduced the term in 1954, he sought to describe the fluid nature with which multilingual people moved between languages. Since then, the term has expanded to capture how individuals adjust all forms of communication and expression based on their audience. Whether you’re a bilingual Puerto Rican seamlessly switching between Spanish and English, or you’re simply addressing your grandparents with added formalities, you’re code-switching. But Sorry to Bother You, a fantastical dystopian satire, paints a darker picture of this natural linguistic technique.
Soon after the main character, Cassius Green, begins a new job as a telemarketer – and fails to make a single sale – a black co-worker offers a radical suggestion: “Let me give you a tip. You wanna make some money here? Use your white voice.” Cassius’s new white voice quickly becomes his greatest asset. Sorry to Bother You then uses Cassius’s surreal code-switching to illustrate the tragedy of assimilation, but the reality of the linguistic act is far more complex. And as a tool for social mobility – or in the case of black people, a tool for survival – it must be examined for both its power and potential peril.
From navigating job interviews to ingratiating oneself with clientele, there are countless reasons people of color code-switch in white spaces. But historically, code-switching has served as a defense against linguistic discrimination: a form of bias that is partially implicit. In one study, the psycholinguist Shiri Lev-Ari determined that we’re “less likely to believe something if it’s said with a foreign accent”. Lev-Ari also found that trust decreases when exposed to non-native languages, meaning our brains are predisposed to unconscious, linguistic discrimination. But even for black people who are native English speakers, dialectic discrimination abounds.
This got me to thinking about a book I haven’t looked at in a while.
Articulate While Black: Barack Obama, Language, and Race in the U.S
by H. Samy Alim, and Geneva Smitherman, foreword by Michael Eric Dyson.
Barack Obama is widely considered one of the most powerful and charismatic speakers of our age. Without missing a beat, he often moves between Washington insider talk and culturally Black ways of speaking--as shown in a famous YouTube clip, where Obama declined the change offered to him by a Black cashier in a Washington, D.C. restaurant with the phrase, "Nah, we straight."
In Articulate While Black, two renowned scholars of Black Language address language and racial politics in the U.S. through an insightful examination of President Barack Obama's language use--and America's response to it. In this eloquently written and powerfully argued book, H. Samy Alim and Geneva Smitherman provide new insights about President Obama and the relationship between language and race in contemporary society. Throughout, they analyze several racially loaded, cultural-linguistic controversies involving the President--from his use of Black Language and his "articulateness" to his "Race Speech," the so-called "fist-bump," and his relationship to Hip Hop Culture.
Using their analysis of Barack Obama as a point of departure, Alim and Smitherman reveal how major debates about language, race, and educational inequality erupt into moments of racial crisis in America. In challenging American ideas about language, race, education, and power, they help take the national dialogue on race to the next level. In much the same way that Cornel West revealed nearly two decades ago that "race matters," Alim and Smitherman in this groundbreaking book show how deeply "language matters" to the national conversation on race--and in our daily lives.
The book opens with this quote from The Audacity of Hope
None of us—black, white, Latino, or Asian—is immune to
the stereotypes that our culture continues to feed us, especially
stereotypes about black criminality, black intelligence, or the black
work ethic. In general, members of every minority group continue
to be measured largely by the degree of our assimilation—
how closely speech patterns, dress, or demeanor conform
to the dominant white culture—and the more that a
minority strays from these external markers,
the more he or she is subject to negative assumptions.
As we are now in a new Democratic presidential election/primary cycle, with three major candidates — Booker, Harris, and Castro who have racial-ethnic code-switching ability, what challenges and pressures will they face from both critics and community to navigate the shifting language and cultural shoals while campaigning?
News round up by dopper0189, Black Kos Managing Editor
A total of nine shots were fired during the Feb. 5 police chase that ended in Anthony Childs' death.
Forensic evidence showed Officer Traveion Brooks fired eight shots and three of the bullets hit 31-year-old Childs. Childs shot one bullet into his own chest. That was the shot that killed him, according to the coroner.
Who fired the first shot, Brooks or Childs, has been a subject of controversy. The coroner said he doesn't know the answer and the first two shots occurred almost simultaneously. Brooks alleged Childs shot himself first, according to Shreveport Police Department's spokeswoman.
In addition to the question as to whether Childs shot himself first or not, people have asked if Brooks was justified in confronting Childs in the first place.
When it was learned Brooks attempted to stop Childs because Childs' pants were below waist level with underwear exposed, many were reminded of the sagging pants ordinance that was passed more than a decade ago. SPD spokeswoman Christina Curtis said 726 people have been issued a summons or have been taken into custody for violating the sagging pants ordinance since it passed in 2007.
City Councilwoman LeVette Fuller and an attorney drafted legislation Wednesday to abolish the sagging pants law. Fuller said stopping people for sagging pants is like police pulling drivers over for a traffic stop because of a broken tail light.
“We are treating people’s bodies like a broken taillight," she said.
For 40 years, Janine Phillips Africa had a technique for coping with being cooped up in a prison cell for a crime she says she did not commit. She would avoid birthdays, Christmas, New Year and any other events that emphasized time passing while she was not free.
“The years are not my focus,” she wrote in a letter to the Guardian. “I keep my mind on my health and the things I need to do day by day.”
On Saturday she could finally begin accepting the passage of time. She and her cellmate and sister in the black liberation struggle, Janet Holloway Africa, were released from SCI Cambridge Springs in Pennsylvania, after a long struggle for parole.
The release of Janine, 63, and Janet, 68, marks a key moment in the history of the Move 9, the group of African American black power and environmental campaigners who were imprisoned after a police siege of their home in August 1978. The pair were the last of four women in the group either to be paroled or to die behind bars.
The saga of Move was one of the most dramatic and surreal of the 1970s black liberation struggle. Along with their peers, the women lived in a communal house in Philadelphia under group founder John Africa, AKA Vincent Leaphart. All members took the last name “Africa” to show they considered themselves a family.
A cross between the Black Panthers and west coast hippies, Move campaigned not only for equal treatment for African Americans but also for respect for animals and nature, caring for 48 stray dogs in the house.
A Southern school voted unanimously to erect a statue in honor of Joseph Vaughn and review its mission and vision with an eye toward inclusivity. Color Lines: Furman University to Honor First Black Student
The board of trustees for Furman University, in Greenville, South Carolina, unanimously approved recommendations made by the board’s Special Committee on Slavery and Justice to create “a statue and day of celebration to honor the late Joseph Vaughn, the university’s first African-American student,” the university said in a statement released Wednesday (May 22).
The statue of Vaughn, who enrolled at Furman in 1965, will live in a prominent place on campus and the university is working to create an annual Joseph Vaughn commemorative day and celebration. The first Black women to enroll, Lillian Brock-Flemming and Sarah Reese, will also be celebrated on campus.
The board also approved the renaming of the school’s lakeside housing area to the Clark Murphy Housing Complex, “in honor of Clark Murphy, an African-American who worked for decades as a groundskeeper at the Greenville Woman’s College, which later merged with Furman University.”
Additionally, the university pledged to review the institution’s mission, values, vision and motto with an eye toward more inclusive updates and to add plaques and markers around the campus that acknowledge the full scope of its history and the people who shaped it.
“I’m a farmer,” he said, buzzing his motorcycle between freshly plowed fields on a recent afternoon. “Here, that’s an embarrassment.”
In some parts of the world, farmers are viewed with respect and cultivating the land is seen as an honorable trade. But in a region where most agriculture is still for subsistence — relying on cutlass, hoe and a hope for rain — farming is a synonym for poverty.
But Mr. Azumah is among a growing number of young, college-educated Africans fighting the stigma by seeking to professionalize farming. They are applying scientific approaches and data-crunching apps not just to increase yields, but to show that agriculture can be profitable.
They call themselves “agripreneurs.”
It’s a steep challenge. Undeveloped distribution networks, poor roads and fickle water supplies are difficult hurdles for even the most competent farmer, and many of these would-be farmers have little training or experience.
However, these agricultural entrepreneurs hope both to make money and to tackle the confounding calculus of a continent that holds about 65 percent of the world’s most arable uncultivated land, but which imports over $35 billion in food a year, according to a report by the African Development Bank.
In Ghana, they’ve been bolstered by the government, which is in the midst of an ambitious national rollout to increase agricultural capacity and entice young people back to the farm. As in much of the rest of the continent, Ghana’s farmers are aging, even as young people pour into cities in search of jobs amid skyrocketing youth unemployment.
On Saturday French-Senegalese director Mati Diop became the first black female director to win an award in the Cannes Film Festival’s 72-year history. She also was the first black woman to ever have a film accepted for competition at the festival.
Diop, 36, took home the Grand Prix award, which is the equivalent of a silver/ third place prize, for her film Atlantics. The movie is a Senegalese-set drama that combines social consciousness with the supernatural in a tale of sexual politics among young migrants.
“That film touched us in our hearts,” said juror Elle Fanning in the post-awards press conference. “It deals with issues, but it also felt quite personal and vulnerable and very emotional and just quite precious.”
Interestingly, the idea of the ‘precious’ nature of Diop’s film was a cause of anxiety for the filmmaker. In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter earlier this month, Diop reveals, “I began to ask some questions like, was my film really being accepted for what it was? Was it being heard for what it had to say? Or was the fact that I’m a woman filmmaker also a factor that played in this process?”
Voices and Soul
Black Kos Poetry Editor
The paternalistic structures of compliance were well established long before the first slave patrols rode, long before the auction block and the first lash slashed the first black back, back in the day. When you’ve been beat down for a couple hundred years, you almost expect it to be normal, that the sharp bite of a whip on the backside is as normal as the rising of the sun and the laying down of the law. Hate the sin, not the sinner, they say, but they never say anything about the original sin that made sinners of a people against their own people. They never say how muscular hate can be, how a hate reared in childhood might gallop one day at full speed.. They never do.
Muscular as a stallion in fact —
but I have no horse in this race of people against people.
It was made certain I wouldn’t, that I’d inherit nothing
except a whipping of my hindquarters as a form of correction,
in the cadence of I love you, tar baby, I love you.
This is not unlike how my parents were raised, to comply,
and their parents before them, and theirs before them and so forth
as far back as anyone cared to speak of what they lived
through, the preposterous preposition of it all.
Therefore and thereafter, whenever I hear the word pedigree,
I think of the blank check I don’t have behind my name,
and then I think of saddles and stirrups, and then
the soreness of my lower back, and then the source of that.
How a boss can ride you: of this I am personally familiar,
plus know by blood drawn from two lines of family men
forced to cut out their own tongues to keep food on the table
they could no longer taste or even stand to.
Their tongues grew back, yes, after some time and with
sharpness I’m told, needing to cut against something,
anything, to be purposeful given their new forms.
Woe! Woe! Woe! How a man rides his wife, his children,
how he’d ride a horse he’ll never have, could never give them
unless said horse is immaterial, hence not a horse at all —
just muscular, as a stallion is, as a word is that’s denied
striving families horsepower, any engine beyond their
fragile bodies to propel them forward; the whole race:
forward, even if it pits people against a people,
even if it means rearing a rear end tender and raw.
I love you, tar baby, I love you
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