This semester I am teaching English 327, Advanced Rhetoric and Grammar. Three weeks ago, we began our final unit: “Power in Language.” Essentially, we’ve been discussing the power that language wields in the context of police brutality. For their final projects, the students are tasked with choosing a case of racialized police brutality and writing two letters: one from the perspective of the victim, in Black English, addressed to a political or legal figure; the other, a reply, composed in Standard English. To prepare for the assignment, we read three critical works. The first was June Jordan’s “Nobody Mean More to Me Than You And the Future Life of Willie Jordan” (1985), in which she explains the necessity of writing in Black English when discussing anti-Black violence. She argues that syntax structures our conscious thoughts, which means Standard (White) English— the language of the white hegemony “preoccupied with abstraction or with nothing/nobody evidently alive” (368), and White, Western ideals and values—ironically, the language system we have been studying all semester— alienates Black folks from a true sense of self. She even deems it “suicide” (372), since our conscious states substantiate our humanity and cultural identities. Moreover, Jordan’s class decided to compose letters on behalf of a student whose brother had been recently murdered by the NYPD. Fully aware of the socio-political consequences for doing so, they, of course, chose Black English to express their outrage for the young man’s death, the silence regarding the details of the case, as well as the ensuing NYPD incompetence and impunity. For only Black English would effectively express their testimonies and outrage. Jordan and her students identified nineteen guidelines of Black English, which they agreed was person-centered, clear, embodied a discernible voice, and avoided passive voice constructions.
Second, we read George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” (1968), in which he argued for political regeneration vis-à-vis the fine-tuning of the English language—a reflection of Western political ethos. Orwell identified several flaws in Standard English: pretentious diction, the use of passive voice, euphemisms, stale metaphors, and abstractness.
Finally, we read Nancy McHugh’s “Telling Her Own Truth: June Jordan, Standard English, and the Epistemology of English” (2004), in which McHugh locates Jordan within the tradition of epistemologists concerned with epistemologies of ignorance, but within a racialized and linguistic context. The epistemology of ignorance, McHugh explains, is the active construction of ignorance mobilized as knowledge. McHugh argues that Standard English is one practice that actively produces ignorance insofar as it is heralded as the only legitimate linguistic medium for a speaker to “appear to know,” as this voice “holds the most political, economic, educational, and social capital in terms of knowing . . .” (90). But if a speaker hails from a Black embodied subject position, and then forced to speak Standard English, they experience a loss of self, consciousness, knowing, and “their experiences can’t be accounted for” (McHugh 90). McHugh insists that Black English’s rejection of passive voice allows for testimonies recounting state-sanctioned violence to be relayed accurately given it requires the presence of a culpable agent (95). We must avoid a language that “seeks to create an ignorance of [Western] accountability” (McHugh 95), and to deny a Black subject’s right and capacity to know.
Coincidentally, as soon as we began this unit, I started receiving details about the extralegal exercise of police authority on campus involving Black male students. I initially thought there was one student who had been accosted, as many of the details of the separate cases were the same. While several faculty members have been working hard to challenge this form of systemic injustice on campus, it’s important for the student voice to be heard as well. I therefore asked my Eng. 327 students if they wanted to meet me on campus Saturday (12/1) to compose a letter in Black English regarding these incidents, addressed to administration and to the Police Division. Our goal was to publish the letter in The Torch. They were open to it. But I knew that the conversation had to include the Black victims and many other Black voices on campus. So, Friday evening (11/30), I sent an e-mail out to former and current students, advisees, and other Black students on campus were informed by word of mouth. Despite my last-minute planning, we met—it was packed house at that. There were also two other faculty members present. We listened to testimonies—one from a first-hand account, and the other from classmates aware of the other incidents. I, as well as the Eng. 327 students present, discussed the relationship between power, language, epistemic violence, and consciousness. We discussed the ever-evolving guidelines for Black English. We then composed a letter expressing our collective concern and outrage. It is as follows.
December 1, 2018
Attention: Wittenberg Administration and Police Division
We been hearin’ ‘bout the stuff that been goin’ on involving Black students on campus. So ya’ll had six police encounters with Witt students. Outta the six, three was Black male students, this semester alone! And only 9.4 percent of Witt is Black. Witt Police verbally harassed at least one of the students on different occasions, as the student saw it. We believe him! But administration didn’t! Ya’ll trippin, trippin, forreal!
We pay attention. We see patterns in every case. First off, ya’ll out here targetin’ Black men. PERIOD. For example, one male say he leavin’ campus and ya’ll pull him over ‘cause his lights ain’t on, and ya’ll only make him get out the car. Not his white friends. We feel like Black students automatically criminalized. What ya’ll be on?
Second off, why ya’ll don’t believe Black male students? For example, when they say they students here, why they have to prove they students over and over again? Why they need security checks when they got Witt I.D.? Ain’t that ‘gainst protocol? When they say they ain’t been drinkin’ or they ain’t drunk, why you keep askin’ and playin’ mind games w/ ‘em? (We learned that called “gas lighting” btw). One even offered to take a breathalyzer! But the officer ignored his offer and made him take other sobriety tests that no one can’t track. Ya’ll ain’t slick and we mad – like forreal!
Ya’ll have demonstrated more patterns, but we think ya’ll get it.
Here’s the thing: we want redress! We want . . .
1. Safety. One of the young men said he was nervous and also felt harassed. They fear they life could be takened. So what’s finna happen to ensure safety of ALL students – especially students of color?
2. Fairness. If one person gotta get out the car, everybody do; hold everybody to the same standards: if the student produces a I.D., don’t go further than you would w/ white students to disprove the student go to Witt; it’s two sides to every story; ya’ll validate what the officer say and ignore the student.
3. Accountability. We want consequences for they actions. Police can’t do what they want and violate Black students rights. Fine the officers. Make them apologize. Fire repeat offenders. Make ya’ll records public so students can see which officers target Black students and other students of color.
4. Training. We want ya’ll to implement better hiring practices. Make sure these police don’t come to Witt demonizing Black students and actin’ on they implicit biases and internalized stereotypes. That’s wild. Give them tests to identify they implicit biases and more importantly, take steps to help them unlearn and de-construct a system made to oppress.
In conclusion, we agree that this a Witt problem and a White problem and we tired of talkin’ ‘bout diversity. Step outta your cars and get to know us. We not criminals. We not drunks. We not violent. We students.
Dr. Battle and English 327-01 (FA ’18) students; other mad, concerned Black students; two faculty members: Erykah Andrews, Courtney Eden, Kimberly Estenson, Sarah Hartman, Ariel Moss, Alexis Perry, Samantha Reynolds, Anna Shouvlin, Mackenzie Swank, Leul Bulcha, Kellon Norfleet, Meseker Tefera, Tatyana Mays, DaVaugn Stephens, Jamin Waite, Saqqara Goins, Aacha Gregg, Seneca Neal, Gloria Craig, Malik Lowman, Chris Riviere, Makayla Hall, Taiylour Kirkwood
For a list of guidelines for Black English, visit www.thewittenbergtorch.com