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Politics and Activism


The Discourse of Language


Ebonics has always been a stylistic form of language that attracts negative connotations. It has been widely popularized as an African American Vernacular English, and, at a literal level, can mean "black speech". When most people hear Ebonics for the first time, they associate it as a form of slang. In his book Tough Boy Sonatas, a collection of poems that focus on the minority community in Gary, Indiana, Curtis Crisler critiques the negative stigma that people ascribe to Ebonics in his poem "Ebonics". He includes the everyday experiences of those who use Ebonics. His poem shows how language can be used to construct a hegemonic discourse. In her essay on Ebonics, Monica Heller states:

Hegemonic discourses about language itself are often seen as ways of producing or reproducing relations of power; they naturalize inequities which go far beyond who gets to define what counts as legitimate language, since the definition of legitimate language is a means of regulating the distribution of control over and access to many other symbolic and material domains. (261)

This discourse of language that is viewed as a way of producing or reproducing relations of power is evident in Crisler’s “Ebonics”. The poem states, “There’s another voice/ held in your mouth, the one taught to you/ by grade school teacher. She fills up space/ in head with great ways of white provider/ and how to dream white dreams and all/ chambers connected with it” (68).

Ebonics is seen as an inferior language, and the language taught in schools is seen as superior because of its white construct. This language has buying power, and formulates white supremacy ideologies. Language is seen as a means of control according to Heller, and this is evident in the poem. It states, “If you handle second language correctly, with vibrancy, teachers will label you different, call you mimic, special” (69). This shows that when one speaks accordingly to the language that is taught you are labeled. Crisler also shows how language that is deemed inappropriate can be suppressed. The author states, “The voices, exchangeable-the gauge you trust remains a non-speaking role slaves never performed, masters never heard” (69), showing that there is a systemic language that is deemed dominant and others are viewed as inferior, which establishes a hegemonic discourse within language.

Language is an important element in Crisler’s Tough Boy Sonatas. The author uses the art of code-switching to alternate between a colloquial language and a standard formal language in his poems. These transitions is evident throughout various poems, and is highlighted more through his poem “Ebonics”. “Ebonics” shows the systemic structure of language and how it can be used as a form of oppression.

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