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“Is This English?” Race, Language, and Culture in the Classroom

reviewed by Carmen Kynard - 2004

coverTitle: “Is This English?” Race, Language, and Culture in the Classroom
Author(s): Bob Fecho
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807744077, Pages: 173, Year: 2004
Search for book at Amazon.com

In 1979, James Baldwin published the essay, “If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?” When I first heard of Bob Fecho’s book,“Is This English?” Race, Language, and Culture in the Classroom,

Baldwin ’s title reverberated in my head. I was expecting to find a book whose central, guiding question, “Is This English?”, would challenge many current assumptions about the languages, content, and pedagogies appropriate for an English classroom. I was not disappointed when I finally read the book. What is English? According to whom and in what contexts? These questions guide Fecho’s work.

Baldwin closed this seminal 1979 essay raising important issues about the history of race in this country. He argued that conversations about Black children’s language rest intimately inside of White political aims and a repudiation of the specific cultural, social, and psychological experiences of Black children. Given this history, it is no coincidence that Fecho begins his book by situating himself as a white teacher. As soon as he opens the first chapter, he unfolds a no-holds-barred approach to taking on difficult questions surrounding race and whiteness as a teacher working with students of African descent. He also critiques the many mainstream images which unfortunately frame what many people think teaching urban, students of color entails. Oppressively problematic representations of masculinity, poverty, white femininity, Hip Hop culture, and urban neighborhoods get promoted with movies like Dangerous Minds. (I continue to hear entirely too many pre-service and in-service teachers speak of this movie as inspirational.) The dominant motif here relies on Tarzan-teachers who camouflage themselves into new worlds of urban school-jungles where they take center stage as the humanizing agents. Fecho counters such media images as well some of the more subtle, yet equally problematic representations in what Maryann Dickar (2000) has called “the multiple discourses on race that white teachers employ to address difference in the classroom and to understand the educational, cultural, and political work they do as teachers” (p. 167). His curricula and pedagogy rely on different notions of what it means to be a teacher in urban settings. I quote this part in its entirety because it is foundational to understanding Fecho’s politics and, therefore, what he is able to do in the classroom:

This book is not about a white teacher educationally ‘saving’ Black children. Such a concept, so prevalent in mainstream media, is entirely too problematic. First of all, what would I be saving them from? Certainly not their culture. The richness of the working-class Black communities was and remains a wonder to me… Although some of my students spoke of trying to escape the neighborhood, many spoke of trying to find ways to stay in order to continue to enrich their community. And those who did speak of escape weren’t trying to elude their culture; they were tired of the violence and poverty that so much neglect from the mainstream breeds. So if I could, in fact, save students it would be from the indifference of the mainstream culture that continues to allow such inequity to exist… If this book is about anyone being saved, then it is my own salvation as a teacher---largely achieved through teaching in the Black community---that must be noted… Whether being reviled because of what being a white male represented to students who hadn’t come to know me as a person, or being embraced with a depth of trust by those who had, a full range of emotion was always possible, always expected, and eventually, always appreciated (pp. 7-8).

Fecho doesn’t leave it here though. He humbly and candidly admits that when he began teaching, he was hesitant to engage heated social issues with depth (which he acknowledges as “border crossings”). Instead, he would side-straddle his feelings of privilege and isolation as a white teacher in a black school. In an attempt to buffer these crossings, he often would downplay issues of race. Like what happens in many schools today under the guise of diversity, Fecho admits to using only the most anthologized and accessible Black authors, giving students “a fairly narrow band of African American literature and that which tended to touch on universal themes rather than those particular to race and racism” (p. 20). He hadn’t abandoned racial issues all together, but he had domesticated them according to what was most comfortable for him.

When he notices that students seem to be just trying to get by, his mental wanderings lead him to a place where he places this phenomenon in a larger social context. This is very much unlike the themes represented in the Spring 2004 American Federation of Teachers journal, American Educator, which boasts a cover that screams: “It’s Time to Tell the kids: If You Don’t Do Well in High School, You Won’t Do Well in College (or on the job).” His interrogation is much larger than this type of knee-jerk reaction that students simply do not value school success. In Fecho’s context then, he challenges racialized assumptions about students of color and attitudes towards school success (for example, the type of arguments that John Ogbu (2003) makes about middle class Black students in Black American Students in an Affluent Suburb: A Study of Academic Disengagement). Fecho argues:

In essence, although a good deal of verbal attention was paid to the importance of school in the working-class Black community to which I was connected, actual belief in school’s power to alter economic and social conditions for large numbers of Blacks had been eroded by too much anecdotal evidence to the contrary. From my perspective, it’s not so much that the students and their families had lost complete belief in the power of education, after all, many students continued to show up day after day. In fact, education was deeply valued in the families of the students I taught. It was school and the mainstream power structure that weren’t trusted. Their reaction was more agnostic than educational-neutral. Most wouldn’t not believe but, until they saw more hard proof to the contrary, they weren’t about to go on blind faith alone. Given the racist track record of the United States, who could blame them for questioning the litany rather than embracing it?… the harsh realities of racist policies and subtexts in the United States had created a situation where more and more Blacks were completing higher and higher levels of education, but the circumstances of the inner city remained the same. A Black from

North Philadelphia with a high school or even college degree was not in the same position to exploit that degree as a White with the same credentials living in the Philadelphia suburbs (pp. 21-22).

He then sets these issues in the context of domesticity that Jean Anyon’s work highlights and uses Michele Fine to analyze the ways that the lack of a relevant and challenging curriculum pushes working class students of color into dropping out, rather than their lack of skills or motivation (p. 16).

One of the issues I found most valuable about this book is that Fecho avoids a kind of racelessness in educational theory that would assert that simple, good teaching models (progressive or traditional) are what mostly count, across the board, for all populations (even while those populations are not represented in the teaching force or at the schools of education that establish and promote these models). Theresa Perry (2003) essentially argues these points in her new book written with Claude Steele and Asa Hilliard, III, Young, Gifted, and Black: Promoting High Achievement Among African American Students:

The focus on the specificity of the task of achievement for African Americans... [undermines] the liberal notion that progressive educational practices are color-blind….indeed, there are generalizable competencies required of and embedded in the learning tasks students are asked to perform in school. But since learning is fundamentally contextual, I would argue that there are extra social, emotional, cognitive, and political competencies required of African American youth, precisely because they are African-American…the task of academic achievement for African Americans in the context of school in the United States of America is distinctive. (p. 4)

While Fecho is not immersing himself (and does not need to) in the literature and theories pertaining to achievement studies, Perry’s point connects to Fecho’s project. He does not make an argument about any set of writing pedagogies and practices that will liberate all teachers in the ways they can work with their African American students; nor does he explicate a formula-style teacher’s handbook of a set of practices that will match the culture and uniqueness of his students. There are no such simple recipes for critical literacy and so things are never this simple in his book. Yet, it is the “distinctiveness,” to use Perry’s argument, of his work with African American students that calls for a type of sophistication about the race, language, and culture in the classroom, as the subheading of Fecho’s book exclaims: the way that race has shaped education in the U.S. and how this shaping materializes in the learning lives of Black children; African languages and literacies (in the plural, as Elaine Richardson (2003) advocates in her book, African American Literacies); and Black culture as a central organizing principle in Black intellectual, political, and social life. This is far beyond a politics that would suggest simple good teaching methods will suffice.

Although Fecho does not provide the “anecdotal evidence” of “the harsh realities of racist policies and subtexts in the

United States ” and how it pertains to education, it is surely readily available. Recent work on the aftermath of Brown v. Board Education by the Harvard Civil Rights Project (www.civilrightsproject.harvard.edu) provides a clear picture and set of “data” of what one of the most brilliant historians and cultural critics of our era, Robin Kelley (1997), has called today’s “Invisible Jim Crow.” It is this socioeconomic environment in which ideas about schooling, race, and possibility are formed about urban, African American students. Fecho, thus, sees teaching in this context as:

a marathon and not a sprint. It is about using the inequities of the system not as an excuse for leaving, but as a condition against which you set your purpose everyday. (p. 3)

What I found also valuable then is that Fecho never sweeps under the rug the very real Jim Crow politics of today that organize urban schools in the

U.S. Again and again, from the most “progressive” educational leaders and their conferences to the most “rigorous” research engines, I hear a certain type of rhetoric deployed when face-to-face with an unrelenting, political critique of the racism and degradation working class students of color face in urban schools. It usually goes something like this: things are getting better, some/many of us are doing really good work, be patient, things are changing slowly, can’t you tell? (These become the moments when I understand most clearly the audience that Martin Luther King was addressing in his now infamous “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” where he explained why some simply cannot wait or hold back with such critiques, analyses, and activism.)

It is because Fecho does not join that audience sitting on the outside of that

Birmingham jail (and the system that got MLK there) that he understands how to have a transformative role inside of the Jim Crow politics that frame urban classrooms. His work then is very much like that tradition of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities that have always worked against the most repressive codes of white supremacy and education, a central argument in the work of Perry cited earlier. Critical inquiry is the mechanism through which Fecho achieves this, but it has not been a smooth path getting there. Fecho describes his earlier teaching as “fragmented” where critical inquiry was for that one day of the week; the rest of the week was for test preparation, formulaic writing instruction, and paragraphing exercises. Yet those approaches simply cannot coexist happily and do not lead to a cohesive thinking and learning approach. Fecho realized this when students improved their test scores and could write formulaic paragraphs better, but “their writing and reading in practice remained immature and static” (p. 32). He called his inquiry practice then as having an “on-and-off status.” Turning it completely “on” shined a new light on race, language, and culture. This book then is about classrooms and the Black students he met there on that critical literacy approach: their intellectual and creative power; the possibilities they reveal to the world through what they write, what they say, what they do, what they dream, and what they theorize as their own experiences and perspectives.

Fecho’s descriptions of his students are the most delightful parts of the book, the parts that I could never fully capture here. As Fecho himself argues, it is the larger picture of many students that moves the book forward:

Taken collectively, these profiles gives us a larger image of the range of perspectives about language evident among theses students and their peers, and the ways the same assignment evoked ranges of responses, connection, and involvement (p. 57). (emphasis, mine)

You just have to read the book for yourself and meet the people who come alive on the page: the conflicts that Nora Jenks struggles through as she negotiates Caribbean American, Black urban, and Standard American Englishes; the call by Robert Turner for whites learn to understand and accept “Black Linguistics” (to borrow from the new book entitled such, Makoni, Ball, and Spears, 2003) as this is intimately connected to Black cultural spheres; the role that Cria Henderson assumes as a “theorizer” of language when she investigates the ways a standardized code of English currently acts to devalue and exclude variation; the ambivalences expressed by Betty and Lavonya when they use their writing to admit confusion and pain around the multiple, ethnic perspectives of the charged racial conflicts in Crown Heights in 1991; the negotiations that April, a brilliant, young Muslim, orthodox woman, must make with gender politics in the curriculum, classroom discussions, and public presentations; the story of Aaron Green who is using literacy to shape a range of identities, voices, and political perspectives as well as that of his teachers; the unwillingness of Rashaad to simply “go along” with the dominant rhetoric around test-taking for high school students; the seeming, outward compliance of David and Daniel who, nonetheless, still resist the new testing regime by not valuing the classroom experiences that focus solely on passing a test; discussions between Aaron and Mark that propel the way Fecho understood his teaching and himself as not “one of those, tight, spandex” teachers but not someone who would let you just “run off the mouth” either (pp. 128, 131).

We are not offered short tidbits of student prose or classroom events divorced form the larger context in which they were produced. There is no outside researcher from the university who does all of the thinking work, still not fully capturing the interior dialogues that are shaping the teacher’s transactions. This is what Anne Berthoff (1987) warns against in her essay, “The Teacher as Researcher,” where she critiques the traditional paradigm of the academy: university scholars hand down theory to teachers who have to then figure out how to work it into their practice; schools of education do all of the research on teachers, and classrooms are “data.” Like Berthoff, Fecho claims throughout the book that theory and practice are not separable in any aspect of our human lives, especially in our teaching lives (pp. 43-4). Thus, this book is as much about the issues of race, language, and culture in the classroom as it is about how to research and write about all of that.

When Fecho’s book ends, I am left with an opening and invitation. It is a call for us who embrace critical literacy to imagine the ways that ethnic rhetoric can also inform our work. I have in mind here the latest scholarship, including: Michelle Hall Kells, Valerie Balester, and Victor Villanueva’s Latino/a Discourses: On Language, Identity, and Literacy Education, Keith Gilyard and Vorris Nunley’s Rhetoric and Ethnicity, Ronald Jackson and Elaine Richardson’s Understanding African American Rhetoric: Classical Origins to Contemporary Innovations. While these examples are all current titles, it is the kind of work that scholars of color have been doing for quite a while; people like Arnetha Ball (1992), Theresa Redd (1995), and Geneva Smitherman (2003) have continually looked at the ways that African American rhetoric shapes students’ texts. There are also scholars such as Gwendolyn Pough who work out of this same tradition where in “Empowering Rhetoric: Black Students Writing Black Panthers” she looked at how Black students shape their public discourses in the ways that organizations such as the Black Panthers did. Without this type of context, we will continue to miss important political work when students like Aaron Green define and write themselves as “Black vernacular intellectuals” (to borrow from the title of the newest book titled such, Farred, 2003). Fecho’s definitions of Aaron Greene’s writing identities as “provocateur, mainstream writer, and outsider” are not complicated enough and ignore the culture and rhetorical traditions that the student draws from (p. 95). In the end, this is not an interrogation of African American culture and the African Diaspora in its many identities, histories, and articulations. Such delineations of Aaron’s writings make the mainstream the central organizing principle, a different kind of project. Surely, the very distinctive African American rhetorics in Aaron Green’s textual representations intersect with the mainstream, but oftentimes they do not, and this is the cultural story that we do not hear. If we are going to talk about race, language, and culture in the classroom for African American students, then the object of focus of that history is not simply how, when, and why they do and do not conform to the mainstream. That history is so much richer than that (a realization that another of Fecho’s students, Robert Turner, was already expressing.) We would do well to study critically the work of someone like Elaine Richardson who draws on a cultural history of “African American literacies” in such a way that students and professional writers, both past and present, exist on a horizontal, historical continuum. Here I am also referring to the “counternarrative” of literacy central to “the African American narrative tradition” that Perry examines and calls “freedom for literacy and literacy for freedom.” The linguistic and rhetorical intricacies of this narrative tradition go unexamined in the book although the students are deep up in it (p. 92).

As a final student example, Nora Jenks compels us to contextualize the ways a

Caribbean presence has always shaped the way Black culture has been understood in American cities. I have met too many young people from the Boogie Down Bronx to ever forget that the foundation of Hip Hop culture and one of its myriad expressions, rap music (MCing), rests on the technological innovations of Kool Herc, a Jamaican immigrant. This is what one is compelled to realize when we move beyond seeing Hip Hop culture only in terms of its current bling-bling, hyper-materialistic co-opting (and, as Spike Lee has shown in his movie, Bamboozled, its gross Zip Cooning in many cases.) Marcyliena Morgan (2002) reminds us of the multiple ways that this culture, the very nature of the sounds of the words, always takes in multi-ethnic language varieties. The negotiations that Nora Jenks is making are ones that have always been made and re-made. She too is firmly entrenched in a tradition. It is the very nature of the African Diaspora, this dynamic of people and cultures in constant flux that are always moving and re-shaping themselves. I borrow these notions from scholars like Paul Gilroy, Robin Kelley, and Brent Edwards who argue that the identities of African Diaspora people are transnational, fluid, hybrid, dynamic, and overlapping, which keeps them in constant dialogue with each other and the social world. This perspective also encourages work that shows such students as “active agents” rather than passive victims in some type of grossly simplistic, singular, monolithic Black culture and language system (Kelley 1997).

I was often reminded of Voices of the Self: A Study of Language Competence by Keith Gilyard (1991) who also insists on a transactional model as does Fecho in this book. Gilyard defines such a model as one which acknowledges that human beings are always negotiating an environment that is in and of itself never fixed, but always evolving. But what those cultural transactions look like for African American students are much more complex than taking in the mainstream or not. We, as critical literacy workers, cannot reduce traditions in literature, literacy, culture, and history to simplistic, anti-intellectual, and apolitical clamors for something called a mainstream. This then is not a critique of Bob Fecho’s work but a call for where we must go next. It is the place where Fecho’s book is leading us. To “riff” (the technological innovation of a Jazz rhetoric) on James Baldwin’s question in 1979: if this isn’t English, “then tell me what is”?


Baldwin, J. (1979, July 29). If black english isn’t a language, then tell me, what is? Letter to the Editor, The New York Times, p. E19

Ball, A. (1992). Cultural preference and the expository writing of African American adolescents. Written Communication 9(4), 501-32.

Berthoff, A. (1987). The teacher as researcher. In D. Goswami and P. Stillman (Eds.), Reclaiming the classroom: Teacher research as an agency for change.

Upper Montclair , NJ : Bayton/Cook.

Dickar, M. (2000). Teaching in our underwear: The liabilities of whiteness in the multiracial classroom. In S. Steiner, H. Krauk, P. McClaren and R. Bahruth (Eds.) Freirean pedagogy, praxis and possibilities. (pp. 167-184).

London : Falmer Press.

Farred, G. (2003). What’s my name?: Black vernacular intellectuals.

University of Minnesota Press.

Gilyard, K., and Nunley, V. (2004). Rhetoric and ethnicity. Boynton/Cook.

Gilyard, K. (1991). Voices of the self: A study of language competence.

Michigan : Wayne State University Press.

Jackson, R. and Richardson, E. (2003) Understanding African American rhetoric: Classical origins to contemporary innovations.

New York : Routledge.

Kelley, Robin. (1997). Yo’ mama’s disfunktional: Fighting the culture wars in urban

America . Boston : Beacon Press.

Kells, M., Balester, V., and Villanueva, V. (2004). Latino/a discourses: On language, identity, and literacy education. Boynton/Cook.

Makoni, S., Smitherman, G., Ball, A., Spears, A. (2003) Black linguistics: Language, society, and politics in

Africa and the Americas . New York : Routledge.

Morgan, M. (2002). Language, discourse and power in African American culture.

New York : Cambridge University Press.

Ogbu, J. (2003). Black American students in an affluent suburb: A study of academic disengagement.

New Jersey : Lawrence Erlbaum.

Perry, T., Steele, C. and Hilliard, A. (2003). Young, gifted, and black: Promoting high achievement among African American students. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Pough, G. (2002). Empowering rhetoric: Black students writing Black Panthers. College Composition and Communication 53(3), 466-486.

Redd, T. (1995). Untappend resources: “Stylin” in black students’ writing for black audiences. In Rubin, D. Ed. Composing social identity in written language. (pp. 221-40).

New Jersey : Lawrence Erlbaum.

Richardson, E. (2003). African American literacies.

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Illinois University Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 106 Number 12, 2004, p. 2350-2358
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11344, Date Accessed: 11/29/2021 11:06:18 PM

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About the Author
  • Carmen Kynard
    Medgar Evers College, The City University of New York
    E-mail Author
    CARMEN KYNARD is an instructor at Medgar Evers College of the City University of New York in the Department of Languages, Literature, and Philosophy where she is currently teaching Freshman Composition, the Sociology of Urban Education, and the Spoken Word in African American Written Texts. Her latest publication can be found in Teaching English Today: Advocating Change in the Secondary Curriculum published by Teachers College Press. She is currently completing her dissertion at New York University entitled, Runnin’ With the Rabbits but Huntin’ With the Dogs: A Historicization of Educational Discourses and Theories Pertaining to African American Language and Literacy Since the 1970s.
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