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“To Not Be a Traitor of Black English”: Youth Perceptions of Language Rights in an Urban Context

by Valerie Kinloch - 2010

Background/Context: Although progress has been made since members of the Conference on College Composition and Communication passed the Students’ Right to Their Own Language resolution (1974), there still remains a demand to examine youth perceptions of language. Such examinations can help teachers and researchers improve curricular choices, honor the lived experiences of students in classrooms, and address a systemic problem within a larger sociopolitical context: the continued failure of American public schooling to adequately educate Black students and other students of color.

Purpose/Objective/Research Questions/Focus of Study: The primary purpose of this article is to detail how youth perceive language rights in their academic and community lives, particularly in relation to what they name “Black English” and “Academic English.” To understand youth language perceptions, this article is guided by the following inquiry: Given the historically dichotomous relationship between Black English and Academic English, how do youth perceive language in their struggle to acquire academic success?

Setting: Data for this ethnographic project, which derive from a larger ongoing multiyear study on youth representations of community and literacy, were collected from two African American teenage males who reside in or near New York City’s Harlem community and who graduated from the Harlem High School of New York City and currently attend local colleges in the area.

Research Design: The article uses a case study design to examine youth perceptions of language in their struggle to acquire academic success. Data for this study were collected from the following sources: researcher field notes, classroom observations, audio- and videotaped “rap” sessions, formal and informal interview meetings, participants’ written responses to and verbal conversations on a series of 10 questions that we collaboratively designed over a 3-month period, and data member checking sessions.

Conclusions/Recommendations: The findings presented in this article highlight the potential for additional research on youth perceptions of language in relation to success and survival. Given current debates in educational research on student achievement, multiple perspectives, and the intersections of students’ lived experiences with pedagogical practices and teacher training, teachers and researchers should continue to identify the ways in which student voices, writings, and experiences are oftentimes excluded from schools. Students’ Right to Their Own Language is an important policy statement that questions U.S. monolingualism in multicultural, multilingual contexts.

 “It’s who we are. It’s like telling me I gotta take off my culture and identity when I leave my hood and go to a place that don’t care about me. Like schools. How can I leave me and my Black English home? I’m nobody’s traitor.” —Phillip, youth participant 2007

“We affirm the students’ right to their own patterns and varieties of language—the dialects of their nurture or whatever dialects in which they find their own identity and style. Language scholars long ago denied that the myth of a standard American dialect has any validity. The claim that any one dialect is unacceptable amounts to an attempt of one social group to exert its dominance over another. Such a claim leads to false advice for speakers and writers, and immoral advice for humans. A nation proud of its diverse heritage and its cultural and racial variety will preserve its heritage of dialects. We affirm strongly that teachers must have the experiences and training that will enable them to respect diversity and uphold the right of students to their own language.” —Passed by the Conference on College Composition and Communication, Fall 19741

Although progress has been made since members of the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) adopted the Students’ Right to Their Own Language (SRTOL) resolution in 1974, positions on the language rights of historically marginalized students2 remain highly contested. Research conducted in the aftermath of the resolution (Gilyard, 1991; Smitherman, 1975, 1977; Stoller, 1975) demonstrates the perceived difficulties of affirming the rights of students “to their own patterns and varieties of language” in the context of schools. Despite the rhetoric of affirmation advocated in SRTOL, many teachers lament their inability to teach linguistically diverse students. This lamentation is problematic, given the following major predications: By 2010, nearly “38 percent of people under the age of 18 in the United States will be African, Asian, or Hispanic American” (Klauke, 1989), and K–12 American classrooms will experience a 41% increase in students of color (National Center for Education Statistics, 1998). Such predications, indicative of an increasingly multicultural society, speak to an urgent need for educators to better account for the languages, identities, subjectivities, and forms of knowledge held by students of color (Holloway, 1993; Mahiri, 1998; Pendergast, 2003).

Holloway (1993) is attentive to how classrooms as well as societies are becoming increasingly multicultural and multilingual. Students labeled “nontraditional” on account of race, language, cultural traditions, and histories of struggle constitute a large number of people entering public institutions (e.g., classrooms, universities, service organizations). Even in the face of this reality, a recurring challenge for many educators involves locating actual practices by which to affirm the rights of linguistically diverse students in classrooms (Kinloch, 2005a, 2005b). Ongoing discussions on teaching students historically marked “diverse,” “nontraditional,” “nonmainstream,” and “multilingual” reflect a need for teachers, researchers, and policymakers to reconsider attitudes, dispositions, and pedagogical approaches to working with students. As Mahiri (1998) asserted, in not “los[ing] sight of goals for excellence,” teachers and researchers should “illustrate alternative paths that permit elbow room for varied cultural and participatory styles as well as more mediums and strategies for representing knowledge” (p. 7).

One way to “illustrate alternative paths” (Mahiri, 1998, p. 7) involves understanding how SRTOL serves as an important commentary on the changing demographics of classrooms and societies as a result of the presence of linguistically diverse students. Research on Black English,3 from Smitherman’s “understanding of Black rhetorical patterns” (qtd. in Gilyard, 1999, p. 639), to Jordan’s (1985) discovery of Black students’ negative reactions to seeing their spoken language on the printed page, to Ball’s (1996) examination of students’ use of “their language abilities . . . within the context of their expository writing” (p. 27), foregrounds this study’s investigation. Youth perceptions of language, I argue, can serve as responses to the lamentation of educators to do more than simply affirm the language rights of students (see Kinloch, 2005b, for a comprehensive study on youth language rights). More significantly, understanding youth language perceptions can help us improve our curricular choices, honor the lived experiences of youth in classrooms, and address a systemic problem within a larger sociopolitical context: the continued failure of American public schools to adequately educate Black students and other students of color.

The study in this article, using a case study approach (Barone, 2004; Compton-Lilly, 2003), derives from a larger ongoing multiyear project on representations of literacy and place/location by youth who live and attend high school in New York City’s Harlem community. The larger project examines the interplay between the ways in which youth negotiate their literacy practices (e.g., writing, reading, performing) inside and outside of school contexts. At the beginning of the 2003–2004 academic year, I frequently visited the school and engaged in unstructured discussions with Ms. L, an English language arts teacher, and her junior-level students (N = 30). During the 2004–2005 academic year, the year in which I started working with Khaleeq, a youth participant in this project, I conducted a pilot phase of the study at the school. As I continued my research with students and teachers at the high school during the following academic year (2005–2006), I met and began working with Phillip, another youth participant in the project. My individual and group conversations with Khaleeq and Phillip heavily focused on the politics of place, urban gentrification, youth writing, and youth perceptions of language.

In this article, I focus on youth perceptions of language in the struggle to acquire academic success. Phillip and Khaleeq, two African American Harlem superstar code-switching urban teenage males, are completing their second year of undergraduate studies at local universities in New York City. Working with Khaleeq and Phillip in their high school and community, I have carefully observed how they employ Black English and Academic English in their daily lives.4 According to Khaleeq, “I use both languages every day. I am aware of it. Others who use both are aware of it, but I’m not sure about everyone else. I have to keep what I know as I improve on what I need to know. Right?” Khaleeq and Phillip are beginning to notice how one’s choice in language use, conscious or unconscious, can either allow or restrict entrance into certain conversations and communities, a realization that is at the heart of this article.

Recognizing the many differing public perspectives on and attitudes toward language in general, and Black English in particular (Kinloch, 2005b; Kynard, 2007), I position my work with Phillip and Khaleeq in a historical framing of language rights issues as related to SRTOL. To do this, I first contextualize the SRTOL resolution in the political climate of the 1960s and 1970s. Then, I establish parallels between the politics of SRTOL, in its recognition of linguistic varieties of students, and scholarship on Black English that insists on “meaningful and successful education for black kids” (Smitherman, 1977, p. 207). Returning to Holloway’s (1993) assertion that today’s classrooms are visibly more multicultural and multilingual, I provide a description of the project’s methodology and case study design, which lead into an analysis of Phillip and Khaleeq’s perceptions of language (i.e., Black English, Academic English). In this analysis, I argue that classrooms should be more responsive to students’ languages and identities by listening to their “social, cultural, and community . . . lives” (Schultz, 2003, p. 76). Such responsiveness has the potential to encourage teachers, researchers, and policymakers to advocate for effective ways to locate students’ literacies and languages within the context of schools.



Over 30 years ago, members of the CCCC officially adopted the SRTOL resolution. The resolution followed on the heels of major turning points for the rights of disenfranchised people in America: the refusal of Rosa Parks to give up her bus seat to a White man in Montgomery, Alabama (1955); the assassinations of prominent civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. (1968) and Malcolm X (1965); Black power movements, the leadership of Kwame Ture, and the presence of a radical Black tradition; and the passage of the Voting Rights Act (1965). Countless other political events informed the birth of SRTOL, including the Brown v. Board of Education decision (1954; see also Pendergast, 2003), the Civil Rights Acts (1957 and 1964), the launch of the Poor People’s Campaign (1967), and numerous student protests in major U.S. cities. These events fundamentally altered the political landscape of, and power relations in, America by calling attention to linguistic, cultural, and economic differences of people historically marked “nontraditional,” “nonmainstream,” and “non-White.”

At the backdrop of political and social movements for the rights of people of color, the resolution serves to legitimize human differences defined by cultural and linguistic varieties in educational contexts. Embodying a political language that critiques differences and justifiably rejects deficiencies,5 the resolution insists on quality educational opportunities for students whose language “not only reflect[s] a different class, but also a different race, culture, and historical experience” (Smitherman, 2000, p. 381). This insistence, as Kelly (1971) described, has as much do to with language as with race, racism, and Black power: “I had to grow Blacker,” argued Kelly, “as I realized the awful blindspots which prevented some whites here from seeing Blacks as humans” (p. 107). She continued, “I am tired, very tired of being the object of studies. . . I am sure that thousands of Black students would echo those words” (p. 107). The work that led to the birth of SRTOL—from Kelly’s rejection of the objectification of Blackness by White culture to public critiques against White-centered pedagogical practices that disregard students of color—represents a critical juncture for educators to interrogate issues of racism, access, privilege, and resistance in education. This juncture continues to serve as a commentary on the changing political climate around civil rights (Ball, 2006; Pendergast, 2003), as well as a response to an increasing sociocultural-linguistic crisis in public school and college classrooms across America: how to educate linguistically diverse students in light of longstanding racist national politics, policies, and positions (Alim & Baugh, 2007; Delpit & Dowdy, 2002; Lee, 1995, 2001; Perry & Delpit, 1998).

The latter point was highly reflected in the 1979 Ann Arbor “Black English” court case just as much as it was publicly debated in the 1996 Oakland School Board Resolution on Ebonics. The Ann Arbor case, according to Ball and Lardner (1997), “focused on the language barriers created by teachers’ unconscious negative attitudes toward students’ uses of African American English and the negative effect these attitudes had on student learning” (p. 470). Here, the “educational underachievement of Black students” (Ball & Lardner, p. 470) attending Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School was a result of culturally irrelevant pedagogical practices and curricular choices, as well as inadequate training of teachers to work with African American students. Although the case’s Memorandum Opinion and Order (Martin Luther King Elementary School Children v. Ann Arbor School District Board, 1979), written by Judge Charles Joiner, is attentive to the languages and literacies of countless African American children and their families, it does position Black English, or African American Language, as inferior to mainstream English. The memorandum declares, “Black English is not a language used by the mainstream of society—black or white. It is not an acceptable method of communication in the educational world” (p. 1378). This argument has implications for the ways in which teachers, researchers, and policymakers make sense of race, class, and language in regard to the Oakland Ebonics resolution.

Contributors to Perry and Delpit’s (1998) The Real Ebonics Debate: Power, Language, and the Education of African American Children discuss the implications of the Oakland Ebonics resolution in their insistence that Ebonics is a legitimate language system. According to Perry, “Black Language/Ebonics is not merely a pass-through language, only to be used to get to Standard English. The members of the Oakland school board had it right when they affirmed the importance of fluency in Black English and Standard English” (p. 15). As far as teacher preparation and awareness are concerned, Delpit extends Perry’s argument in her assertion that teachers learn the language of their students in order to help them access “the national ‘standard’” (p. 25). Students, for Perry and Delpit (1998) and Ball and Lardner (1997), do have a right to their own language in the contexts of schools and society, writ large.  

Both the Ann Arbor case and the Oakland resolution represent national moments that have reawakened debates concerning students’ language rights, teacher attitudes toward language, and institutional policies and practices that delegitimize student differences and diversities. Such debates were reflected in the passage of the SRTOL resolution, particularly because the resolution stemmed from a national organization whose members were communication and composition scholars. Even more, such debates—in the wake of Martin Luther King’s assassination and in the height of American politics in the 1970s—turned into a discourse of right and wrong, standard and nonstandard language practices. Such concerns infiltrated traditional classroom structures and questioned conservative pedagogical approaches. Although many people supported SRTOL for its affirmation of the languages of racially diverse students, others demanded that the resolution be rescinded because of its acceptance of students’ nonstandard language forms in schools. Despite competing positions, Smitherman (2000) maintains that SRTOL sought to meet the following objectives: “(1) to heighten consciousness of language attitudes; (2) to promote the value of linguistic diversity; and (3) to convey facts and information about language and language variation that would enable instructors to teach . . . more effectively” (p. 386).

The intended objectives (Smitherman, 2000) critiqued the political struggles for freedom that sparked civil rights demonstrations (e.g., boycotts, marches, protests) and subsequent rights policies (e.g., open admissions, voting rights) of the 1960s and 1970s. SRTOL also resisted traditional approaches to talking about diversity in classrooms by challenging standardizations, homogenizations, and normalizations in the teaching of racially and linguistically diverse students. Attention to political and social movements, calls for civil rights, and demands for quality education for nontraditional students redefined the work of professional organizations (e.g., the American Educational Research Association [AERA]; the Conference on College Composition and Communication [CCCC]; the Modern Language Association [MLA]; and the National Council of Teachers of English [NCTE]) and the research of many language scholars. The argument toward multilingualisms and bidialecticalisms, especially by scholars invested in the study of Black English, quickly became popularized.


Language and literacy scholars have examined Black English for its linguistic features and functions in relation to orality (Baugh, 1999; Labov, 1972; Rickford, 1977; Rickford, Ball, & Blake, 1991;). Smitherman’s (1977, 2000) examination of Black English focuses on rhetorical strategies, discourse features, and discursive patterns that contribute to African American worldviews, or epistemologies. On this latter point, Smitherman (2000) wrote that the tradition of orality “has served as a fundamental vehicle for gittin ovuh” (p. 199). She continued, “That tradition preserves the Afro-American heritage and reflects the collective spirit of the race. Through song, story, folk sayings, and rich verbal interplay among everyday people, lessons and precepts about life and survival are handed down from generation to generation” (p. 199). Smitherman’s attention to the orality and heritage of Black English (Gilyard, 1991; Labov, 1972) points to her concern for the preservation of this language system for its speakers, a concern that stemmed from shifting student demographics in public schools beginning in the 1950s, protest and Black power movements in the 1960s, and debates around open admissions in the 1970s. Her attention to orality is reiterative of a concern expressed in the resolution: working with linguistically diverse students in schools in the face of longstanding historical struggles for civil rights.

Jordan (1985) took up the issue of language-diverse students by focusing on the politics of Black English in an undergraduate course titled, “In Search of the Invisible Black Woman.” Fueled by negative student reactions to the language, sounds, and structure employed in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Jordan led the class in an activity of translation before explaining the students’ “own negative first reactions to their spoken language on the printed page” (p. 126). On translating Walker’s Black English into “standard” English, Jordan wrote that the “process of translation exploded with hilarity and even hysterical, shocked laughter. The Black writer, Alice Walker, knew what she was doing” (pp. 125–126). On this point, Jordan continued, “If the rudimentary criteria for good fiction includes the manipulation of language so that the syntax and diction of sentences will tell you the identity of the speakers . . . then Walker had written, perfectly” (pp. 125–126).

Jordan’s students’ recognition of the significance of Black English—orally and in print, their own and Walker’s employment of it—involved both examining their repertoire of rhetorical strategies (Dyson, 1999) and accepting it as a language system of survival and resistance for countless Black people (Kinloch, 2004). However, as Jordan described, Black English has always been under fire by those who qualify it as “a linguistic buffalo” instead of “as an endangered species, as a perishing, irreplaceable system of community intelligence” (Jordan, 1985, p. 123). Her argument is clear: Black English is positioned negatively in a contrastive relationship with Academic English. This relationship does not privilege “original word habits,” “our own voice,” “community intelligence,” and the “identity” of Black English speakers (p. 123). Whereas Jordan named this contrastive relationship “homogenization” (p. 124), Richardson (2003) characterized it as “the devoicing and disempowerment of African American students” (p. 2). Similarly, Baugh (2006) examined such relationships for “racial fallacies” in his critique of the linguistic history of slavery and in his insistence that we honor the home languages of students.

Similar to Jordan’s (1985) discovery of students’ initial negative reactions to Black English is Balester’s (1993) study of 8 African American college students and their writing practices. Interested in how African American rhetorical tradition is situated in a discourse on languages and dialects, Balester noted that speakers of Black English are “always torn between double voices; the educated SAE [Standard American English] brings benefits while it alienates from BEV [Black English Vernacular], and the familiar, homey BEV brings scorn while it establishes solidarity and allows for greater expressiveness” (p. 15). Balester’s talk of the difficulties in having “double voices” (p. 15) relates well to Jordan’s focus on the relationship between Black English and Academic English. In juxtaposition with the history of school desegregation, rights movements, and the push for multicultural societies, many people are often forced to surrender their “double voices” (Balester, p. 15) and oral traditions “to please those who will never respect anyone different from themselves” (Jordan, p. 123). This can result in negative perceptions of self as connected to language (Kynard, 2007).

In many ways, Balester’s (1993) research also relates to additional studies on Black English, or African American Language (Alim & Baugh, 2007; Ball, 1992, 1995; Ball & Lardner, 2005; Redd & Webb, 2005), that examine the ways in which identity is connected to language, culture, and race in light of assumptions that constructions of authorial identities are limited to particular vernacular traditions and linguistic systems. Ball (1995, 2000) for example, drawing on her significant body of research on the oral and written languages of African American students in formal and informal settings, identified a wealth of knowledge of African American Language speakers. In her study of four African American students and their use of expository writings, Ball (1996) revealed that students “demonstrated an ability to skillfully manipulate and interchangeably use AAVE, mainstream, and academic English during discussions—style switching with ease depending on their degree of personal engagement in the conversation” (p. 28). In the case of Ball, students displayed their mastery of multiple literacy practices, perspectives, and “formulaic patterning, interactive involvement with the audience, orally-based text patterns, and implicit topical links through the use of anecdotes” (p. 35).

Clearly, language and literacy scholars have investigated the significance of Black English in their insistence that students have a right to their own language. Although some people continue to contest the validity of Black English, or African American Language, I argue that it is a “rule-governed language used in multiple sites, from street corners to church pulpits to classrooms, and for multiple reasons, from signifying to being a lingua franca for enslaved Africans” (Kinloch, 2004, p. 75). Is it possible, then, for educational programs to better legitimize the linguistic value of Black English, given the widespread failure of programs from the 1960s and 1970s that purported to be dedicated to the educational achievement of linguistically diverse students of color?


According to Smitherman (2003), the widespread emergence of programs dedicated to language remediation for nonmainstream English speakers in the 1960s and 1970s sought to engage this legitimization by “redress[ing] the academic exclusion of and past injustices inflicted upon . . . historically marginalized groups” (p. 13). Smitherman documented how enhanced educational achievement, under the auspices of reform initiatives, attempted to narrow the educational disparity between Black and White families exasperated by “the cultural and linguistic mismatch between higher education and the nonstandard (by virtue of Color and class) students who were making their imprint upon the academic landscape for the first time in history” (p. 19). She classified such educational reform initiatives as Upward Bound and Head Start, for example, as overly invested in masking “cognitive-linguistic differences” of students. This masking—the reinforcement of White middle-class norms—did not draw on students’ “funds of knowledge” (Moll & Gonzalez, 2001) and traditions of orality from primary communities of socialization (Gee, 1989, 2001).

Dillard (1972) and Baugh (1983, 1995) also argued against similar educational initiatives for language-minority students. Dillard, in his discussion of the history and linguistic system of Black English, insisted on the legitimacy of Black English, given its historical development as a lingua franca by enslaved Africans and its influence on the practices of Academic English. The social divisions among slaves, according to Dillard, resulted in the formation of varieties of English (e.g., African Pidgin English, Plantation Creole, and Standard English; see also Rickford, 1977). Because of the history, usage, and structures of Black English and the social conditions under which slaves created ways to communicate for survival, this language is inextricably connected to cultural practices, identity constructions, and Black people’s fights for freedom and against institutional racism throughout the Diaspora (see Rickford, 1977, 1987, 1999; Pendergast, 2003). Such connections require educational programs to do a better job of gaining “adequate structural and historical information about Black English” to prevent the critical capacities of Black children from being crippled (Dillard, p. ix). Dillard, in his rejection of Black English as a language of deficiency, posits a significant suggestion: Students should learn Black English (i.e., reading, identification, writing, talking) and connect this learning to their engagement with Academic English (i.e., association).

Along with Dillard’s (1972) research is Baugh’s (1983) study on the history and structure of the speech practices of adult speakers in various urban contexts. Baugh described three language categories of students in schools: native English speakers, nonstandard English speakers, and nonnative English speakers. He connected the categories to the increasing need to have educational programs that “meet the needs of bilingual and bidialectical students” instead of programs that are “ill conceived and retard genuine progress” (p. 109). Baugh argued less for “trying to develop black readers in the vernacular” (p. 190) and more for systematically restructuring aspects of school experience—reasonable class size, meaningful student–teacher–parent connections, well-equipped learning spaces. His attention to quality educational programs parallels his focus on the association between shifting language styles and educational opportunities afforded to students who employ street speech (see also Alim & Baugh, 2007).

For Dillard (1972), Baugh (1983), and Smitherman (2003), recognition of the linguistic and cultural history of Black English can greatly influence educational practices and promote oral traditions and worldviews of Black English speakers. This recognition points to a reimagination of educational programs, including those of schools, as being attentive to forms of  knowledge (Fisher, 2007; Mahiri, 1998). They should also be attentive to student identities and languages, and the interplay between oral traditions and acquired economies of expression. Gilyard (1991) and Rickford and Rickford (2000) suggested that the language practices of students be a part of their learning activities, an argument that has implications for educational programs and schooling. Similarly, Elbow (2000) believes that students should be invited, especially when producing drafts of writing assignments, to “use their own language and not conform to the language and culture of mainstream English” (p. 323). These scholars insist on the legitimization of language varieties (e.g., Black English) in educational contexts. I argue that the recognition of primary and secondary discourses, to use Gee’s (2001) phrase, is important if pedagogy is to make “skill achievable while at the same time allowing students to maintain their own sense of identity” (Gilyard, 1991, p. 11).

Using this historical framing of language rights as concerns Black English leads to a reconsideration of the value of students’ language experiences from primary communities of socialization (Gee, 2001). Whereas Smitherman (2003) discussed the oral tradition of Black English and failed educational programs designed to assist historically marginalized students, I examine perceptions of language by Phillip and Khaleeq as they participated in the unfamiliar world of college. This examination involves listening (Schultz, 2003) to the cultural lives of youth. This listening challenges linguistic homogenizations and standardizations in the education of Phillip, Khaleeq, and other “nonmainstream” students—a point advanced by the SRTOL resolution.



The study being reported on in this article employs a case study design (Barone, 2004; Simons, 1980; Stake, 2000) to examine youth language perceptions, dispositions, and attitudes. To do this, it draws on Yin’s (1984, 1993) understanding of the methodological underpinnings of case study research. In Case Study Research: Design and Methods, Yin (1984) asserted that this particular type of research method serves as “an empirical study” that carefully examines events, conditions, and/or recent phenomena (p. 23) by using multiple data sources across a significant period of time. Related to Yin’s argument is Barone’s belief that case studies should document “patterns of behavior rather than a one-time event” (p. 24). Working with Phillip and Khaleeq for well over 2 years in their school and community contexts (Kinloch, 2007a, 2007b), I have observed their language and speech patterns, reading and writing practices, and engagements with teachers, administrators, peers, and community members in a variety of contexts (e.g., school, familial communities, community tenants’ association meetings, and local cultural institutions). Because of my time in the field—beginning with my initial and informal observations of teachers and students at the high school (2003–2004) and extending throughout subsequent academic years (2004–2005, 2005–2006) and summers (2006, 2007)—I have been able to identify shifting “patterns of behavior” (Barone, p. 24). Such patterns, in my opinion, serve as significant commentaries on adolescent developmental issues (e.g., gaining a sense of ownership and responsibility; being and becoming) and on literacy research and studies on youth interactions in multiple contexts (e.g., schools, communities, after-school sites). A case study design, then, has been beneficial for the ways in which this study addresses the guiding tenets of qualitative methods, hence qualitative research: describing, understanding, and explaining (Stake, 2000; Yin, 1984, 1993).

Additionally, a case study approach has afforded me an opportunity to gather multiple sources of data (i.e., student writings and journals; audio- and videotaped student interviews; videotaped community documentaries by students; in-depth rap sessions with students; interviews with teachers; and researcher field notes and reflective writings). My work with students and teachers at the high school led to my present work with Phillip and Khaleeq, who became interested in exploring youth involvement in and responses to the gentrifying community of Harlem. Here, I intentionally focus on Phillip and Khaleeq because of their outspoken positions on the failure of (and boredom with) American schooling for Black students, their interests in community gentrification, and because of their desires, in Phillip’s words, “to be part of that world [mainstream] cause I want to have a pass into both my home world first and the academic world second.” This confession led to numerous rap sessions and community meetings with Phillip and Khaleeq. It also encouraged me to examine their perceptions of language if, in fact, schools are failing to adequately honor the literacies and languages of Black students—hence, the value of employing a qualitative case study design for the present project.


This study began to take shape at the Harlem High School of New York City (HHS of NYC), an open admissions school with 37 teachers who identify as Black/African American, Latino, White, and Asian. There are approximately 500 students in Grades 9–12. Of the total amount of students enrolled, 54% are Black/African American, 45% are Latino, 2% are White, and 1% are Asian.6 Roughly 46.1% of the students are males, and 53.9% of the students are females. According to Ms. L, the English language arts teacher whose classes I worked in, the school was originally designed for elementary students but has been transformed into a site that houses three schools—two high schools and one junior high school. Bustling with energy, one can hear the voices of adolescents and young adults speaking Black English and Spanish in the hallways, classrooms, and subway cars. Their talk resonates with the rich histories that surround the school: the Schomburg Center for Research on Black Culture, the Theresa Hotel off of West 125th Street, the Adam Clayton Powell Building, the Studio Museum of Harlem, historic churches, and various public schools bearing the names of famous African American and Latino leaders.

Centrally located in Harlem, the school implements the arts and social justice in its work with students, which is how Phillip, Khaleeq, and I became collaborators on a number of arts- and literacy-based projects in and out of school. Phillip is outspoken about his history of struggle and is expressive about his disappointment with public perceptions that paint, according to him, “Black males as dangerous” (see also Kirkland, 2008; Mahiri, 1998). His heavy voice and bright smile quickly reveal a young man who is caring, passionate, and concerned about the possibility that Black residents in Harlem will be displaced because of gentrification (Kinloch, 2007a, 2009). Khaleeq, a soft-spoken and well-informed young man, shares Phillip’s concerns about public perceptions of Black males and the displacement of Black residents. Both are interested in projects on community struggle, gentrification, and the languages of Black America (Kinloch, 2007a, 2007b, 2009).

During one of our earlier conversations on writing processes and practices of high school students, Phillip shared, “I’m interested in the outside community, and I want to write about my community in school. But there’s never a real opportunity to do so.” Khaleeq added, “We always talk about writing and language, never about our language.” Their interests in writing about “my community” and “our language” served as my invitation for Phillip and Khaleeq to join me in an examination of youth representations of community, art, and struggle in the postmodern landscape of Harlem. We have been collaborating and engaging in talk for more than 2 years. Our work, as Phillip reflected, “began at the high school, which is why it’s important, and is now happening in our communities, in the office [my university office space], and just anywhere else we take it. Location is important.”


My involvement with HHS of NYC began during the 2003–2004 academic year, when I was a frequent visitor to the school. The following academic year (2004–2005), I regularly observed and participated in Ms. L’s classes. On average, I spent 3 days a week informally assisting Ms. L with writing workshops, designing lesson plans, coteaching classes, and speaking with students and other teachers about a number of topics: teaching writing, testing, Harlem as a site of literacy, White teachers teaching students of color, and affirming the languages of students inside classrooms. During the 2005–2006 academic year, I began to engage in extensive conversations with Phillip and Khaleeq. From our conversations, I started to more frequently observe them in their English language arts classes and engage in informal follow-up discussions with them during their lunch period. Many of our conversations extended into brief after-school meetings.

This particular study draws on data collected after Phillip and Khaleeq graduated from high school and as they began to think about their identities as first-year college students. Whereas previous studies (Kinloch, 2004, 2005a) focused on student–teacher exchanges and the ways in which language is negotiated in classrooms, this article focuses on the language views of two young men in an out-of-school context. Drawing specifically on my work with Phillip and Khaleeq, I posit the following research question: Given the historically dichotomous relationship between Black English and Academic English, how do youth perceive language in their struggle to acquire academic success? With parental consent, I conducted a series of follow-up interviews and talks with Phillip and Khaleeq (May–November 2006) that stemmed from pre–high school graduation conversations (September 2005–June 2006). Data collection procedures for this aspect of the study range from audio- and videotaped sessions (Fisher, 2007; Kinloch, 2007a) to participant observations of interactions in and reflections of their out-of-school communities (Cushman, 1998; Hull & Schultz, 2002, Kinloch, 2009b). Data sources include field notes, taped interviews, shared journals, and responses to a number of surveys, questionnaires, and mapping activities.

To focus specifically on perceptions of language, the data to be analyzed derive from participants’ written responses to, and subsequent verbal conversations on, a series of 10 questions that we collaboratively designed over a 3-month period (see Appendix A). For aspects of the research question that examine the dichotomous relationship between Black English and Academic English, I coded my field notes and audio- and videotaped data for recurring themes of resistance, struggle, and language beliefs posited by Phillip and Khaleeq. These themes derived from discussions of relevant literature on language, including Smitherman (2000), Jordan (1985), and Gilyard (1991). I noted their readings of and reactions to the literature, as well as their emerging “language ideologies” (Schieffelin, Woolard, & Kroskrity, 1998) in relation to Black English and Academic English. The next data analysis phase involved investigation of the peer interactions between Khaleeq and Phillip as they grappled with ways to position their cultural practices, values, beliefs, and attitudes in a discussion of language perceptions and academic success. In my data analysis, I paid careful attention to their concerns about not abandoning their Black cultural practices and use of Black English for full entrance into “mainstream” society. Here, I noted that both participants were heavily invested in “remaining loyal members of the community that has always protected them from the watching eyes of outsiders.” The latter point is a major theme that resulted from the data and from my ongoing observations of the participants in their community.

In addition to the phases of data analysis, it is significant to note that participants were instrumental in collaboratively designing the survey questions and in participating in extensive member checking sessions (Lincoln & Guba, 2001) of collected data for accuracy. They became involved in analyzing data for relative meaning and understanding; this occurred over an additional 3-month period (November 2006–January 2007). They participated in follow-up discussion sessions on their written responses and analyses—approximately nine in a 3- month period. The participants and I continue to meet on a regular basis to revisit their responses in comparison with their emerging, ever-shifting perceptions of language. In the remainder of this article, I describe the results of our work and offer insights into Phillip’s and Khaleeq’s struggles talking about language rights, which at times are highly contradictory and difficult. I listen to their voices and, when invited to contribute, participate in challenging their perceptions and ways of talking about language. This work points back to the value of SRTOL as concerns a discourse with youth on Black English. Additionally, it points to a larger concern that needs to be addressed: the continued presence of discriminatory practices, in pedagogical performances and curricular choices, that delegitimize students’ home languages and literacies.



Khaleeq walked into my university office a few minutes before Phillip arrived. Updating me on his first semester of college, he responded, “It’s good. Easy, you know.” Before I could comment, Phillip bobbed in, and in his usual “I’m a supa-star” attitude, quickly turned to Khaleeq and said, “I feel you, man. School’s good, I’m lovin’ it. You gotta do what you gotta do. It’s not high school, that’s for real.” Without an invitation to join their newly developing conversation, I replied, “I feel you, too. Things different from high school. College is like, is like a different world, one that requires you to be on the up-and-up, you know.” Phillip and Khaleeq smiled before responding, “‘V,’ you down, you with it. That’s good to know.” Being “down” and “with it” meant that I was able to talk in a language that many of my students employ, and switch to a language that, according to Khaleeq, my White colleagues use. We talk regularly about language but had never really talked about our own perceptions of language. From this brief exchange and the previous others that we engaged in for more than a year, we decided to make language a central part of our work together.

Over the next few months, Phillip, Khaleeq, and I talked about the significance of Black English and Academic English, or what they interchangeably name “proper” and “standardized” English. In our talk, we focused on their perceptions of language in relation to success in the larger world. Defining success as the achievement of goals, objectives, and/or dreams, Khaleeq and Phillip quickly associated success with language, and language with a standardized way of talking and presenting oneself in the larger society—one that does not particularly resemble the familiarity of their mainly Black communities.

During a previous conversation, Phillip mentioned that there is a difference between how one “walks in the world” and how one “talks in the world”: To walk is to participate in the everyday life and activities of a society that has historically scrutinized Black people, all people of color, for not fitting in on the basis of race and ethnicity; this happens when people assimilate into a mainstream culture by rejecting who they are, what their history is. According to Phillip, “they are simply walking through life being like someone else and they don’t know who they are.” To talk is to acknowledge the histories of struggle that have “gotten people this far to have dreams and achieve the dreams. To talk means I know the past and talk about it in languages belonging to me, like Black English.”

Khaleeq established a connection between Phillip’s “walking and talking” and the first of 10 questions that they responded to: Q1. What comes to mind when you read the following? “I feel an obligation to invite all my students to use their own language and not make them conform to the language and culture of mainstream English” (Elbow, 2000, p. 323). Khaleeq commented, “That’s a good point. You walk between cultures and languages in the mainstream, but you talk what you know and how you know it when around people you trust.” He then shared his written response to Q1:

The thought that comes to [my] mind about this quote is the teacher allowing the students to be who they are. The teacher wants his or her student to not feel inferior because their language does not reach the standards of standardized, or Academic English. But sooner or later this will become a disadvantage [inviting students to use their own language] because students will have a harder time with getting a job and being successful. I think the teacher should first let students use their own language, but as time passes teach students to use standardized English. I know that’s what I need.

Khaleeq is deeply invested in maintaining his identity as a speaker of Black English who “is not a traitor to his community,” yet he publicly grapples with locating ways to “be who I am” and “learn more than what I know to succeed.” His appreciation of Elbow’s passage is sincere and ridden with wanting to get “a job” and become “successful,” and he believes that to do these things is to learn “to use standardized English” so as to not be at “a disadvantage.” When I asked him to define disadvantage, Khaleeq said that he wants to move up in the world, to not have to struggle as much, and to move out of his family’s housing development unit and “into a house.”

Phillip shares Khaleeq’s sentiments and believes that it is important for Black people to move up by gaining the skills that would make this move (e.g., social class mobility, buying a house) happen. His written response to Q1 follows:

What comes to my mind is that students are free to express themselves in their own language and ways of life, but still learn the basic skills of any language. A lot of students do not know how to speak standard English and some students think that’s ok. Knowing basic skills in standard English language is good for students in general because they will have their own language that they’re used to and standard English to get them through life, better jobs, and better opportunities for themselves and their families.

For Phillip, “knowing basic skills” is important for students, a theme that he continually returns to throughout our discussion. However, he never really elaborates on what these skills entail besides “knowing how to walk,” “knowing how to talk,” and “knowing how to turn it on when you need to.” He relates basic skills of language to basic skills of basketball and baseball, which involves constant practice: “When I make mistakes in any sport I play, I look at it and fix it and practice. Just like I do with my school work.” As much as Phillip is aware of how he fixes his language, he is just as aware of the dilemma that such fixing involves. He battles with not wanting to fix his Black English because, he says, “that would mean something’s wrong with me, [yet] . . . I want to be successful in life.” His success, much like Khaleeq’s, depends on not abandoning his cultural practices, language, and history of struggle. Nevertheless, he does not want to abandon the opportunities that can derive from knowing “standard English.” He relates his stance to an argument for orality posited by Smitherman (2000): “that tradition [of orality] preserves the Afro-American heritage and reflects the collective spirit of the race” (p. 199).

Thus far, Phillip and Khaleeq’s perceptions of language are, in my opinion, on the margins. They read Smitherman’s (2000) argument on the validity of Black English, agreeing with her claim that Black English is “about life and survival . . . handed down from generation to generation” (p. 199). They also agree that speaking Black English is not enough for Black people to get by in society because of Black people’s history with slavery, oppression, violence, and hatred in a world that still “looks at us like we are the enemies” (Phillip). For Phillip and Khaleeq, talking about their perceptions of language in relation to Elbow’s (2000) invitation for “students to use their own language and not make them conform” (p. 323) raises many topics still to be grappled with: success, struggle, cultural practices, shifting constructions of identity, assessing student writings, and students’ language rights.


Khaleeq and Phillip are grappling with the basic premise of SRTOL, which calls for an affirmation of “students’ right to their own patterns and varieties of language—the dialects of their nurture or whatever dialects they find their own identity and style” (CCCC, 1974).7 To discuss this claim, Phillip readily connected Q1 to Q6, which asks, What does the phrase “Students’ Right to Their Own Language” mean to you? His response is: “This phrase to me gives students the right to their own way of language and life, which is cool. It gives students a choice. But if we as blacks and minorities continue this way of life, how is [sic] our children of the future going to have a better education?” I asked Phillip to clarify this last point for me. It was not until the second month of discussion around these questions that he offered the following clarification:

If we use this phrase, “Students’ Right to Their Own Language,” as a scapegoat instead of using it to better ourselves, our situations, and the future of our young people, then how will we really improve our status in society. When I say we I am talking about Black people and all minorities/people of color.

Phillip appreciates how SRTOL acknowledges the language rights of students, but he is still not confident that teachers are willing to invite students to use what they know (Richardson, 2003; Smitherman, 1977, 2000) to become successful learners. Connecting his comment about students using SRTOL “as a scapegoat” to the idea of teacher attitude, Phillip hopes that “it is used for the best and not for the worst.” His point reflects Baugh (1983) and Dillard’s (1972) concern that educational initiatives of the 1960s and 1970s were poorly designed to meet the needs of language-minority students. Returning to his response a few weeks later, Phillip shook his head before stating, “Some teachers don’t care about their students and will think that he is only using his own language because he doesn’t care. It’ll [STROL] work if teacher attitudes about students and their language change. And I don’t think that’s the case.”

Khaleeq replies, “No, Phillip, that’s not happening,” before telling us that his answer to Q6 echoes Phillip’s response:

The phrase, “Students’ Right to Their Own Language,” means students should have the freedom to use the language that they are accustomed to. Taking away how students talk is taking away the students’ culture. If the person is taking away the students’ culture, it’s saying that the students’ language is not correct, is inferior to the dominant culture, and incorrect in comparison to others. This is discriminating. No person has a right to have that power in taking away others’ culture, but the students don’t have the right to use vulgar language because of anger or to not learn how to use standardized English to get ahead . . . and no, I’m not saying Black English is vulgar cause it’s not!

I asked Khaleeq to elaborate on his statement, “If the person is taking away the students’ culture, it’s saying that the students’ language is not correct.” He displayed an uneasy disposition and fell silent for a while. Khaleeq then talked about personal struggles with teachers who “want one thing from students” but are “not patient enough” to wait for students to understand what is being asked. Here, he is referring to how some teachers do not know how to affirm the right of students to their own languages in classrooms and thus do not attempt to understand their inner struggles. Because of this, Khaleeq admits, “teachers think Black English is slang or something.” For Khaleeq, this lack of understanding, or of attempting to understand, relates to a taking away of students’ culture. At the same time, students should be willing to negotiate their language forms in the classroom by not “us[ing] vulgar language because of anger” or by “learning how to use standardized English.” In this unwillingness, teachers should work to understand that “Black English isn’t slang at all, it’s a language we use everyday for communication, survival.”

Phillip agrees with Khaleeq but is more interested in knowing why students would not have a right to their own language, because that is what they know when they enter the classroom. During the period of this study, he continually posed the question, “What about students who do not know English at all, and English is like their second or third language or something? It’s hard.” Phillip articulates disappointment with the reality that some students, because of institutional structures and teacher authority, do not have a right to “use what they know to learn what they can learn” in classrooms. He does insist, however, that SRTOL cannot be used as a “scapegoat” to get away from “bettering ourselves” and learning standardized English for larger audiences. “So, we’re just stuck here,” Phillip says, “because we want to use what we know but. . . ” Khaleeq interrupts, “but we cannot use it as a scapegoat to not learn more, to not learn standardized English. Now let me say Black English isn’t a scapegoat. How teachers don’t believe students have language rights—now that’s the real problem.”

I ask Khaleeq to elaborate on a previous comment he made (Q1) about not wanting to be “a traitor to his community” in association with Q6. He turns to Phillip’s phrase “so, we’re just stuck here” as a way to acknowledge being on the margins. From here, he goes on to talk about his appreciation for “a group of people getting together” to create SRTOL and to use words such as affirm, students’ right, and respect diversity. I explain to both Khaleeq and Phillip that the phrase “students’ right to their own language” signifies a political time in U.S. educational contexts when racially and linguistically diverse students were entering, at increasing rates, colleges and universities. I also explain to them that many teachers felt unprepared to teach “new” students and that a basic premise of “students’ right” relates to how colleges and universities generally, and teachers and educators specifically, were encouraged to affirm students’ languages and literacies in classrooms. With this in mind, Khaleeq became concerned that if more people, particularly teachers, do not take SRTOL seriously and do not work to find ways to involve students in the classroom culture, “we’ll always be privileging standardized English over all other languages.” Phillip adds, “privileging White over everyone else like we always do is what you mean.” Khaleeq then admits that he is caught in this privileging—“supposed to learn and know standardized English, but I have to know and use Black English, too.” Although he knows that he has a right to his own language, Khaleeq wonders if it is really a right if teachers in classrooms do not value it. He is caught in the middle and does not want to be a traitor to his community. This is where his frustration lies.

Phillip tells him, “Black people have always been caught in the middle, at the bottom, everywhere you know.” He then returns to his response to Q6 by building off Khaleeq’s sentiments about being on the margins: “It’s kinda funny to say ‘Students’ Right to Their Own Language’ when Black people never had a right to anything in this country for years. Not just Black people, all minorities. To get teachers to accept minority students’ languages is not going to just up and happen.” Phillip is aware of the resistance of teachers to affirm the language rights of students because “they may not know how to, but that shouldn’t be reason to not learn ways. Students have to learn and so should the teachers.” Neither Phillip nor Khaleeq wants to be viewed as a traitor to his community, race, and culture. At the same time, they recognize a need to acquire standardized English while sustaining their Black English language, a realization that echoes Cushman’s (1998) 3 1/2- year ethnography of the literacy practices of African Americans in an inner-city community in upstate New York. Phillip and Khaleeq’s act of embracing SRTOL, then, does not mean that they are using it as “a scapegoat,” given that Black English is often and unfairly constructed as the dumping ground for slang. They embrace SRTOL as a way to justify their choice to use more than one language system as they make sense of being on the margins in the face of racism and discrimination against “Black people’s language” (Phillip).


Talk of being on the margins, over the course of this study and thereafter, turned our attention to Q3. How would you describe your language—your everyday language? Khaleeq begins by sharing his reaction: “I would describe my language as in between proper English and Black English.” During our next discussion/rap session, Khaleeq says, “It’s in between because where I live in my neighborhood people use Black English and I have been taught the proper way to speak outside of the home, outside of my neighborhood. A lot of people haven’t learned that.” What Khaleeq is talking about, but does not readily name, is his ability to code-switch between the familial language of home, Black English, and the language outside of home, what he interchangeably calls standardized English or Academic English.

Without time for feedback, Phillip looks at Khaleeq and says, “Most Black people know how to do that thing . . . well, that . . . going back and forth.” Phillip does not know what else to call it other than “that thing,” and when the concept of code-switching is mentioned,8 it is not until Khaleeq explains what code-switching means that Phillip is able to grasp its meanings and purposes. Khaleeq says that code-switching is going back and forth between “different codes depending on where you are.” From here, he explains why his language is “in between” by pointing out the following factors: the longstanding lack of critical feedback from many teachers about his writing; the necessity to go from “standardized English” to Black English while not fully mastering either; and the desire to use language for reasons associated with group familiarity (e.g., cultural pride, sense of belonging) and social mobility (e.g., moving up in the world, employment, financial security). Khaleeq’s frustration has as much to do with wanting to fit into different environments as it has to do with not wanting to be “a traitor.”

Phillip also expresses a similar frustration: He wants to fit into different environments because he wants to be successful. To do this, he has decided, however temporarily, to use Black English around friends, family, and community members and standardized English when around others whom he classifies as “distant outsiders.” His response to Q3 thus reads,

My everyday language is mostly Black English when I’m around my friends, family, girl, etc. When I go to college I don’t speak it to the professors who’ll mark [pass judgment on] me because that is not the proper way to speak according to them, not according to me. Really, who does not speak the way they want when they are stress free from everything that says you’re wrong? Life is too short to waste. Live your life and everyday in it to the fullest because you never know when it will end. Live it how you want it, not the way somebody else wants it. Those other people don’t know me and don’t want to know any of us who speak Black English. If they did, we wouldn’t be marked, scorned.

After thinking about his written response, he eventually extends it to the following: “In certain settings, you should speak as you want to, but when you are in different settings, like school and on the job, you shouldn’t speak that way because it is not standardized and people are still racist.” Phillip goes on to mention that people would not take him seriously if he spoke Black English and if everyone around him did not know or understand the language: “People have to be aware of where they are and who’s around at the time.” He continues, “They already judge me because I’m a Black male. . . . they wouldn’t even try to accept me if I use Black English all the time. We know it’s racist, but that’s how it is.” Phillip’s latter points—“being aware,” “already judge me,” “I’m a Black male,” and “racist”—acknowledge intricate connections between language and context. Such connections parallel research in new literacy studies (Hull & Schultz, 2002; Street, 2003, 2005) that examines the situatedness of literacy to context.

It is important for Phillip, as it is for Khaleeq, to fit into various settings: home, school, work. To fit in, they are conscious of the shift in their language systems, from standardized English with “the professors” to Black English with “friends.” Somewhat problematic is Phillip’s suggestion to “live your life and everyday in it to the fullest” and “live it how you want it,” given the value associated with mainstream discourse practices in comparison with nonmainstream practices. His suggestion, I believe, is a display of the contradictory tensions that are established by the dichotomy between Black English and Academic English on the one hand, and democratic freedom and racism on the other hand. On a separate occasion, for example, Phillip mentions how he wants to achieve his dreams of “superstardom” in order to, as he says, “live the way I want to.” I ask him to explain this desire, and he indicates, “I’ve been thru lots of struggles, from being in jail at 13 to seeing my family struggle all my life. I want to get to where I can be who I want to be and live how I want without someone saying I’m wrong. That everything about me is wrong, my race and language and culture.” Phillip is working toward this goal by attending college, making sense of his history of struggle, and grappling with the power dynamics associated with Academic (or standardized) English in comparison with his everyday language, Black English. As much as he is grappling with such tensions and power dynamics, he is also confronting the history of racism and discrimination that countless people of color have endured and continue to endure in this nation’s communities, public institutions, and schools (Ball, 2006; Pendergast, 2003).

Upon reconsidering Q3, Phillip states, “Everyday language like Black English is an acceptable form of English because it is still English, just not the proper way of English. Example: Spanish is a language. French is a language. And so is Black English.” Khaleeq quickly questions Phillip’s comments about Black English being a “form of English” if it is its own language, and about Black English not being “the proper way,” because it is one way of life “for a lot of Black people. Who says it’s not proper based on your group?” Khaleeq explains that he does not want to “sound dumb to people from other classes and cultures who don’t understand my Black English and all the connections it has to my identity.” Nevertheless, he does not want to “sound like I don’t have an education. I have to be ready all the time cause like you say, Phil, we still living in a racist world. But this doesn’t mean Black English isn’t proper for certain people? It’s a language and part of Black people’s culture and identity.” His belief that Black English is a language that is directly related to “culture and identity” relates well to arguments posited by Smitherman (2000), Ball (1995, 1996), and Gilyard (1991, 1999) on the historical, political, and cultural relevancy of Black English. Phillip and Khaleeq are convinced that students have a right to their own language; this right extends to their use of Black English.


During another group session, we continue to explore our emerging ideas around language rights and standardizations. Both Khaleeq and Phillip demonstrate interest in returning to the idea of whether Black English, for its speakers, is a standard form of communication. Building off Phillip’s initial comment against Black English as “being the proper way,” I offer the following excerpts to demonstrate Phillip’s attitude shift in relation to the standardization of Black English. The shifts are highly indicative of Phillip and Khaleeq’s emerging “language ideologies,” or reflective dialogues (Schieffelin et al., 1998), given their explicit awareness of Black English as a language system.


I see what you mean about Black English being standardized for some



I think it is. Take Q4 for example: “Do you think your everyday language is an acceptable form of English? Why or why not?”


What about Q4?


Let me read you what I wrote: “My everyday language has some exceptions, but not all because I can’t talk to the people at the white house (you get it? It’s a metaphor) with my own language of Black English. [At Khaleeq’s metaphorical joke, Phillip and I laughed hysterically while Khaleeq patted himself on the shoulder and said, “I can make them connections. Just don’t tell my teachers.”]. I can speak proper English in talking with people, getting a job, surviving in the society. But I don’t use some of or any of my vocabulary language to sound like I’m rich, to fake it.”


What do you mean, “some of your vocab language to . . . what?”


Well, I wrote more: “I don’t want to sound like a traitor to my peers like my friends and members of the Black community.” The same thing I was talking about with some of the other questions like Q3. Feeling like I’m a traitor for not using Black English, but also sounding dumb to people from other races and communities who don’t use Black English. This has something to, like, do with why a lot of people think Black English isn’t standardized when . . . I guess I’m saying that it is. If it wasn’t, then we wouldn’t want to use it and understand each other when we use it. We wouldn’t be understood by the people we’re talking to.


This is complicated. I get what you mean. There’re standards all around us, every day, and Black English has standards because it’s language. Just not an acceptable one for people who don’t know how to use it. That’s what I meant when I wrote, “everyday language can be an acceptable form of English because it is English.” Everyday language is what we use all the time without force or the stress of trying to sound like other people.


What do you think, “V”?


I think you are both on to something powerful.


But what do you think? You’ve been listening to us. What you think about what we’re saying?


Well, okay. I believe that Black English is a language. Many people employ Black English in their everyday speech and in their daily interactions with other people. To say that Black English is not a language, a powerful form of communication, is to deny many people the richness of their “Mother Tongue.” Look at the research by Balester, Baugh, Dillard, Gilyard, Jordan. You remember when we read some of that work, right? [Phillip and Khaleeq nodded and Phillip said, “I really like that Gilyard guy.” Khaleeq added, “Jordan’s tight.”]. Now, do I think that Black English should be used in academic settings? Do I think students have a right to use the languages they know in order to, as you both say, “learn what they need to learn?” Yes. This idea goes back to the “funds of knowledge” framework that Moll and Gonzalez developed [Phillip interrupted, “Moll and who? We read that one?”], but it also goes back to Smitherman’s talk of rhetorical strategies, language patterns, and the survival of Black people. [Khaleeq commented, “That Smitherman’s on a hot roll for real. I like her.”]. Students do have rights is a message in the SRTOL document that we were looking at, remember?


Students’ right to use Black English. That makes sense to me. That makes perfect sense. I just had never heard a professor admit it.


Me neither! We should use what we know as a start to learn more, like standardized English. But there aint just one standard is what you’re really saying. Languages have standards depending on . . . context. So I need to find another way to say standardized English [at Khaleeq’s suggestion, Phillip, Khaleeq, and I sat there and tried to offer alternatives to “standardized English.” We came up with “proper English,” “money English,” “White people’s English,” “academic English,” and “school English.” Phillip’s descriptor, “racist English,” led us into a thoughtful silence and into agreement to return to that conversation at another time].

By further exploring ideas related to language standardizations, Khaleeq and Phillip are beginning to embrace the idea that students have language rights. This connects to the usability of Black English in various contexts in which speakers can, according to Khaleeq, draw on home languages “as a start to learn more, like standardized English.” Khaleeq, for example, gravitates toward the argument that Black English has standards for the very people who employ this language to communicate with others. Phillip aligns himself with the belief that students should be able to draw on their home discourse practices inside classrooms to “get ahead” and communicate in standardized English and Black English: “This could make learning more engaging.”

Khaleeq and Phillip now agree that Black English is based in cultural practices and politics or, for Khaleeq, “cultural and political because Black English lets you connect with your own and survive in the world.” This way of understanding Black English, students’ right, and standardizations of languages encourages a reimagination of learning, according to Phillip, as “more engaging.” If learning becomes more engaging, perceptions of language and success, democracy and freedom, embedded in sociocultural and historical contexts, can become more expansive.


Phillip and Khaleeq are still struggling to understand the relationship between Academic English and Black English, particularly in light of the claim that “students’ have a right to their own language.” Committed to maintaining an active presence in their respective Black communities, they acknowledge tensions circulating around representations of language. Khaleeq believes that Black English signifies Black cultural practices, whereas Phillip insists that Black English represents a way of life that is cultural, but also political. Avid Black English speakers themselves, they graciously move between the rhythms of Black English and Academic English, and along the way, they identify reasons for their shifts, reasons that relate to context: to survive, fit in, get a job, make it in the world, and talk with outsiders. They also cite the absence of critical, insightful teacher feedback on writing assignments as a major reason for their frustration with using “standardized English in schools that don’t know how to really balance what the students bring with what teachers should help students learn” (Phillip).9

Specifically, Phillip and Khaleeq are challenging notions of “standardized English” by talking about perceptions of language rights in relation to identity struggles. Phillip establishes connections between his identity as “a young Black male living in a Harlem neighborhood where everyone speaks Black English,”10 and his desire to acquire success “in schools and the world.” His concept of “walking” and “talking” language is provocative in its acknowledgement of “double consciousness” (DuBois, 1903/1989), or “double voices” (Balester, 1993). On the one hand, some people, to use Phillip’s words, “walk through life being like someone else and they don’t know who they are” because they reject, or consciously forget, aspects of their past. On the other hand, some people recognize the historical struggles that “allow us to have dreams and achieve the dreams” because they accept the languages of their culture. Phillip sees no other choice but to accept his past, to understand, as best he can, his personal struggles, and to locate ways to position himself in two communities—a dominant culture of mainstream values, and a familial community of Black cultural practices and politics. Thus, he chooses to walk and talk language. In many ways, this choice represents an identity struggle that he, as well as many other youth, experienced during the process of acquiring a “formal” education.

Phillip has a positive reaction to Black English: it “is not a bad form of English. It’s a language that Black people use. It’s about communicating and not forgetting where you come from.” His positive reaction to the significance of Black English relates to where he lives and how he defines success—being able to “make it in the world and learn different things, and bring it all back home for my people.” However, in his definition of success, Phillip battles with having to learn “standardized English” in the face of perceived public misunderstandings that his learning “is a sign of being a traitor, because I’m not that.” Therefore, his reluctance to learn is intricately connected to how he believes others will view him: as a traitor and a sell-out or as a loyal homeboy who’s down for the cause. Upon reading Smitherman’s (2000) sentiments on Black English, Phillip is hopeful that more people will come to understand Black English as rooted in a cultural tradition of survival, identity, and collective power. Smitherman (2000) and Jordan (1985) are gradually challenging Phillip’s belief that in order to be successful in the world, he must abandon his Black cultural practices and use of Black English.

Khaleeq, much like Phillip, establishes connections between his identity as “a Black male speaking Black English” and his drive to succeed in order to “make a better life.” He wants to get a good job—a really good, well-paying job—and one way for this to happen is for him to embrace “standardized English to move ahead.” In his drive to succeed (e.g., get a job) and remain a loyal participant in his Black community, Khaleeq recognizes the benefits associated with code-switching: “It’s like going from one language to another. Making a shift. Knowing how to use one. Being able to use the other when you really have to.” He is not ashamed to speak Black English and insists on its legitimatization as a language, a way of life, and a tool for survival. His frustration, however, is connected to his refusal to be “a traitor.” Thus, Khaleeq is caught in the middle of two distinct worlds: that of Black English, where he has a strong feeling of familiarity and acceptance, and Academic English, where he could possibly be judged as wanting membership into the “White House.” Khaleeq’s sense of language is connected to his sense of identity in a world in which he wants to be successful.

Khaleeq’s reaction to Black English is just as positive as Phillip’s response: “Black English is a language that I speak. If I was ashamed of it, that would mean I’m ashamed of who I am and my race. I’m not ashamed.” His reaction relates to his strong familial background that, in his words, “has taught me to be confident and to love who I am. I mean, MLK and Malcolm X fought for our rights. I am not giving up that part of my history. They encourage me to work hard. I’m proud of who I am.” Khaleeq refuses to abandon his linguistic and cultural identities and believes that when it comes to Black and Academic English, he has a right to his own language as he works to “learn more, get more, and use many standardized languages.” He chooses to engage in this work in light of racist politics that label both Khaleeq and Phillip as dangerous Black males. Khaleeq’s latter point on working to “learn more . . . [and] use many standardized languages,” in my opinion, is the beginning of his expanded definition of success, one that includes, and moves beyond, “getting a job” and into critically shifting understandings of self.

My work with Phillip and Khaleeq has produced more questions: How can classrooms benefit from listening to students’ perceptions of language? In what ways are young people grappling with tensions surrounding language use in and out of schools, and how, if at all, do they resolve their tensions? What does it mean for students to have a right to their own language, and can this right be affirmed, invited, and challenged in academic contexts? What, specifically, distinguishes Black English from Academic English, and in what ways can researchers better understand cognitive and linguistic dissonance (Portes & Hao, 2002) and language ideologies (Schieffelin et al., 1998)? Are there particular varieties of “Black English” and “White English” that conflict with what Phillip and Khaleeq name “Academic English?” If so, then what are the implications of these varieties on studies of race and place, language attitudes and dispositions, and educational attainment and identity? How can a close analysis of youth participants’ naturally occurring language use lead to an expanded understanding of the micropolitics of language use, identity, and attitudes of Black English in academic contexts (see Rampton, 2006)? What can national organizations committed to research in composition, communication, and literacy learn from Khaleeq, Phillip, and other students labeled multilingual, bidialectical, and/or on the margins?

The findings presented in this article highlight the potential for additional research on student perceptions of language in relation to success. Holloway’s (1993) argument on the changing landscape of classrooms, Smitherman’s (2000) research on traditions of orality, and Jordan’s (1985) discovery of students’ negative reaction to their language on the printed page reiterate the value of scholarship that is attentive to the sociopolitical contexts of the lives of young people (Ball, 2000; Fisher, 2007; Kinloch, 2007a; Lee, 2007). I believe that larger, expansive, and uncontainable views of the lives of youth are needed in education research. With such views, it becomes possible to learn more about young people, to hear their perceptions of success in the midst of struggle, and to fulfill the longstanding mission of the Students’ Right to Their Own Language resolution—to “affirm the students’ right to their own patterns and varieties of language” (CCCC, 1974). Yet affirmation is not enough. We must push for critical spaces to continue thinking about language, equitable educational opportunities, and youth identities as connected to historical and contemporary freedom struggles.

The language perceptions of Khaleeq and Phillip point to the important work of literacy studies to account for how students are or are not taught in multilingual, multicultural classrooms. If students do have a right to their own language and if educators are to truly affirm that right, then alternative assessment measures should be devised to evaluate student success and progress. Traditional measures, including academically structured essays, standardized testing drills, and memorization quizzes, need to be supplemented (or, more significantly, replaced altogether) by student performances, collaborative projects, literacy autobiographies, language and oral histories, narrative writings, shared journal logs, community profiles, mini-ethnographies, and visual and technology-based assignments. This way, a “funds of knowledge” (Moll & Gonzalez, 2001) approach can be used inside our classroom work with students who live in literacy communities that are highly understudied in educational research. Drawing on such approaches returns us to the valuable work started by SRTOL, the rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s, and the unfinished work of promoting the rights of students who too often feel like traitors in our very own classrooms. Khaleeq and Phillip, for example, demonstrate the value of their perceptions of language on the ways in which they see the world and their place in it. We would do well to be attentive to their ideas (see Appendix B) and to implement their ideas in our theoretical frameworks, pedagogical approaches, and ideological stances. Doing otherwise represents a disservice to our students and to the longevity of our professional organizations.

Additionally, Phillip and Khaleeq represent only two youth out of countless others who believe that their home languages and literacies are excluded from pedagogical practices, curricular choices, and class assignments (Kirkland, 2008; Kirkland, Jackson, & Smitherman, 2001; Richardson, 2003). The continued exclusion of students’ lived experiences reiterates the failure of American schooling to employ a “funds of knowledge” approach (Moll & Gonzalez, 2001) to adequately and effectively educate Black students and other students of color who are linguistically diverse. This failure represents many challenges faced by adolescents and young adults: negotiating their shifting identities in schools that do not affirm their home literacy and language practices; understanding how their home literacy practices contribute to the practices they are acquiring in educational contexts; grappling with conflicting definitions of success as embedded in contexts and languages; and making sense of the increasing student diversity in classrooms in light of homogenized, traditional curricular practices. These challenges speak to the value of documenting the language perceptions and struggles of youth to acquire Academic English while not being traitors to their communities.

Thus, this study’s significance is not limited to the language perceptions of Phillip and Khaleeq; its significance extends into larger sociopolitical contexts—those of schools and communities, locally and globally—that oftentimes exclude youth voices, writings, and lived experiences. Enacting the principles of the Students’ Right to Their Own Language resolution in our classrooms and research agendas, then, could lead to the resolution’s unfilled goal: “to affirm the students’ right to their own patterns and varieties of language” (CCCC, 1974) in order to not make students feel like “traitors to Black English” (Phillip).


1. The Students Right to Their Own Language resolution was passed by the Executive Committee of the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) in 1972 and by the organization’s general membership in 1974. It was first published in College Composition and Communication (CCC) in the fall of 1974. For more information on the resolution policy stated in the opening of this article, and the supporting document that details theories and suggestions for affirming students’ language rights in classrooms, see www.ncte.org.

2. I use the phrase historically marginalized students in much the same ways that Smitherman (2003) uses it: to refer to students not considered “mainstream” and “White” “by virtue of Color and class” (p. 19).

3. Many language scholars refer to Black English, as I name it throughout this article, as African American English, Pan African American Systems, Black Vernacular English, and, more recently, Ebonics. Academic English, as I refer it throughout this article, is also labeled by many scholars as Proper English, Standard(ized) English, and Formal English. I find these labels problematic, and my reasons for using Black English and Academic English in this article have everything to do with how Phillip and Khaleeq use these phrases in their effort to unpack their meanings and implications within their own African American community of Harlem and within a larger, mainstream, White world.

4. Throughout this article, I use language descriptors, Black English and Academic English, at the request of Phillip and Khaleeq.

5. Historically, Black English has been viewed, however falsely, as a language of deficiency, wherein the language practices of Black children have been deemed inferior, nonstandard, and inadequate for use in academic settings. Black English, as with all other languages and linguistic systems, shift over time and should be critiqued for differences—in patterns, structures, values, and meanings, and not considered deficient.

6. I find it problematic that the racial/ethnic breakdown for Black/African American students is not divided into distinct categories of Black/African and Black/African American, given the increasing number of African students attending the school. Racial/ethnic statistics for the teachers were not available. In addition, reports from 2005 indicate that there were eight administrative and other professional staff. A recent study by the cooperating ELA teacher (Hardman, 2006) indicates that there are currently seven administrative and other professional staff, all of whom are Black/African American.

7. See SRTOL e-version: http://www.ncte.org/library/NCTEFiles/Groups/CCCC/NewSRTOL.pdf

8. During one of our office discussions, my research assistant joined us as an observer. After Phillip grappled with how to name “that thing,” she asked him if he had ever heard of the term code-switching. He had not but was happy to have a term to use instead of “that thing.”

9. I asked both Phillip and Khaleeq if teacher background (i.e., race, ethnicity, location, socioeconomic background) had anything to do with their feelings of frustration as concerned insufficient teacher feedback. They responded, “We need to think about that more.”

10. Phillip acknowledges the demographic changes occurring in his Harlem neighborhood, where more White people are moving into “a place that is home to tons of black people.” He is not too fond of this fact.


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Collaboratively Designed Questionnaire on Students’ Perceptions of Language


What comes to mind when you read the following? “I feel an obligation to invite all my students to use their own language and not make them conform to the language and culture of mainstream English.”


Have you ever heard of the terms Ebonics and Black English? What do they mean to you?


How would you describe your language—your everyday language?


Do you think your everyday language is an acceptable form of English? Why or why not?


Do you think you need to improve on any aspects of your language? Which aspects?


What does the phrase Students’ Right to Their Own Language mean to you?


Is there such a thing as home/community language? If so, what does it mean?


Is there such a thing as school/academic language? If so, then what does it mean?


Are there any disconnections between the language you use in school and the language you use at home? Describe.


Do you think language and power are connected?

Afterthoughts by Phillip and Khaleeq

After we discussed the questions and their responses to them, I asked them to talk to me about their overall perceptions and understandings of Black English (and language in general). Here are some random comments they made:


“That passage by Geneva, I agree with. You should use that in your work because she’s right. Black English is about Black people’s heritage and history from one generation to the next generation to the next. It’s all about how Black people have survived and how we are still surviving. I agree with her.”

“Black English is not a bad form of language or talk. It is a language that Black people have always been using. It is about communicating and not forgetting where we come from. It’s a language and it is not at all slang. Slang comes and goes with the times, Black English does not come and go. It’s here and is a large part of who Black people are.”


“Black English is a language that I speak. I’m not ashamed of it because it is my language, it is who I am. If I was ashamed of it, that would mean that I am ashamed of who I am and my race. I’m not ashamed.”

“I don’t have to give up Black English to gain standardized English. That’s like giving up my identity. If people can’t learn to accept who I am, then go somewhere else. Who I am is someone who is learning something new, Standardized English, and keeping what I know, Black English. I don’t have to give one up for the other.”

“MLK and Malcolm X fought for our rights to be who we are, so I am not giving up that part of my history and that means that I am not giving up my Black English. Why should I?”

Marcelle (research assistant) asked Phillip and Khaleeq if they know what code-switching means. Phillip said “no,” Khaleeq said “yes” and explained:

Khaleeq: “It’s like going from one language form to another. Making a shift. Knowing how to use one and then being able to use another.”

Phillip: “Oh, of course I know what that is. We do it all the time. That’s what it’s called, code-switching? Oh, okay.”

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 112 Number 1, 2010, p. 103-141
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15798, Date Accessed: 10/20/2021 3:16:19 AM

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About the Author
  • Valerie Kinloch
    The Ohio State University
    E-mail Author
    VALERIE KINLOCH is an associate professor in literacy studies in the School of Teaching & Learning at The Ohio State University. Her research interests include the sociocultural lives, literacies, and collaborative engagements of urban youth and adults in and out of school contexts. For this work, she has received a Spencer Foundation Research Grant and a Grant-in-Aid from the National Council of Teachers of English. Her articles, “‘The White-ification of the Hood’: Power, Politics, and Youth Performing Narratives of Community” (in Language Arts Journal) and “Youth Representations of Community, Art, and Struggle in Harlem” (in New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education Journal) explore how youth negotiate their language and literacy practices within their gentrifying community.
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