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Letter to the Editor of Teachers College Record

by Keffrelyn D. Brown & Adrienne D. Dixson - March 09, 2016

In this letter we respond to the decision made by TCR to publish Hannibal Johnson's commentary, Word Play: How "Black English" Coarsens Culture, on December 10, 2015.

Dear TCR Editorial Team:

As members of the Editorial Board we write to express our dismay and outrage at a commentary written by Hannibal B. Johnson (December 10, 2015). The expressed purpose of the TCR commentary section is “to move the conversation around education further into the future while reframing and evaluating scholarship of the past.” Johnson’s commentary failed this mission in its gross neglect of key scholarship that would both amplify and clarify the issues he addresses. It also does not move us to the future, but rather takes us back to a deeply problematic history of language, culture, and the legacy of anti-black rhetoric that denigrates African American language and culture in the U.S.

In the piece, Word Play: How ‘Black English’ Coarsens Culture, the author expresses his anger at his niece whom he overheard expressing dislike of a peer because she spoke, “too proper.” Johnson read this exchange as indicative of his niece conflating speaking “correctly” and Whiteness. For the author, this dubious pairing accompanies a larger trend that he views as Black people undermining Black culture, academic achievement, and personal advancement.


Our concern with this piece centers on the author’s lack of acknowledgement of the expansive body of research and scholarship directly related to the issue he raises. In particular we would point to the well-respected body of work that goes back to at least the 1960s, validating African American Language (AAL) as a legitimate, rich variant of the English language. These scholars reflect a list of world-renowned researchers and new leaders in the field including: William Labov, John Baugh, Geneva Smitherman, Carol D. Lee, Elaine Richardson, Keith Gilyard, Arnetha Ball, Sonja Lanehart, Adam Banks, and Vershawn Young, to name just a few of the scholars who have contributed significantly to this body of literature.  Further, the author fails to place his argument within the context of power—with the recognition that the phrase “correct English” only exists when considering English from a dominant perspective that privileges a variant of English that is accepted in U.S. society. Yet, there is nothing inherently “correct” about it, nor “incorrect” about other varieties of English. Rather than offering an insightful analysis of how youth wrestle with issues of identity through their creative uses of language, Johnson appears to confuse their use of slang with AAL.

At a time when Black people and Black cultural practices are under heavy assault in the broader U.S. society and schools, to publish this piece is further insult to many Black children and youth who participate in a rich linguistic tradition that is creatively (even if sometimes coarsely), deployed. Indeed, as the protests on a number of college campuses demonstrate, affirming our youth, while helping them to read and make connections to the multiple worlds they do and will inhabit and traverse across their lifetimes is not only timely, it is also necessary for their survival. This, however, must not come at the expense of their identities and self-worth. Johnson’s piece not only ignores established research and scholarship but further demeans and dismisses young people. In essence, we find that his piece is a personal rant against Black youth that is more appropriate for a blog than a learned scholarly journal such as TC Record.

Given the increasing wealth gap, residential segregation, and racial segregation in schools, schools of education face challenges in preparing a mostly White and middle class teaching force to teach all students effectively. For the most underserved students in schools—generally students of color—there is a need to provide an education that is engaging, rigorous, and culturally relevant. This is not possible when the adults working with these students fail to affirm whom they are, where they come from, and encourage and facilitate opportunities for them to flourish intellectually. Indeed, this important goal is recognized in the historic Martin Luther King Junior Elementary School Children et al., v. Ann Arbor School District case that established legal precedent for recognizing the legitimacy of AAL and taking account of it in the teaching process. Given the reputation and expansive influence of TCR, we fear that rather than opening up the possibilities for transformative teaching and schooling, Johnson’s commentary contributes to the pervasive anti-black rhetoric that we view is pervasive in far too many schools.

We are greatly disappointed in the decision to publish this piece in TCR. We find that this piece fails to even meet the scholarly and editorial mission of the journal. Moreover, it is offensive and alienates not only us as African American scholars and members of the editorial board, but other African American scholars who have agreed to be signatories on this letter. Thus, as a community of African American scholars, we demand that the journal honor its scholarly and editorial mission by publishing an invited rejoinder from a solicited commentator who is an expert in the area of AAL and education. We have provided a list of potential contributors.


Keffrelyn D. Brown, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Cultural Studies in Education

The University of Texas at Austin

Adrienne D. Dixson, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Education Policy, Organization and Leadership

University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

Carl A. Grant, Ph.D., Hoefs-Bascom Professor of Education

University of Wisconsin-Madison

Adam Banks, Ph.D., Professor and Director, Program in Writing and Rhetoric

Anthony L. Brown, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Social Studies Education

The University of Texas at Austin

Vivian Gadsden, Ph.D., William T. Carter Professor of Child Development and Education

Graduate School of Education, University of Pennsylvania

Keith Gilyard, Ph.D., Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of English and African American Studies
Pennsylvania State University

Gloria Ladson-Billings, Ph.D., Kellner Family Chair in Urban Education

University of Wisconsin-Madison

Carol Lee, Ph.D., Edwina S. Tarry Professor of Education and Social Policy
Northwestern University

Gwendolyn Pough, Ph.D., Director of Graduate Studies

Associate Professor, Department of Women's & Gender Studies

Syracuse University

Elaine Richardson, Ph.D., Professor of Literacy Studies

The Ohio State University

Arnetha Ball, Ph.D., Professor of Education

Stanford University

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: March 09, 2016
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 19564, Date Accessed: 5/19/2022 11:32:47 PM

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About the Author
  • Keffrelyn Brown
    University of Texas at Austin
    E-mail Author
    KEFFRELYN BROWN is an Associate Professor of Cultural Studies in Education at the University of Texas at Austin.
  • Adrienne Dixson
    University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
    E-mail Author
    ADRIENNE DIXSON is an Associate Professor of Education Policy, Organization and Leadership at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
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