Smitherman asks how Black English can be legitimized in academia, and I want to reflect on my position as a tutor and role in legitimizing Black, Third World, Colored Bodied intelligentsia. I find it easy to align with these marginalized communities because of my own identity as a first-generation, Spanish-English bilingual, self-identified Mexican. Although I was born in the United States, I do not necessarily identify as “American”, which has been normalized to mean white, male, and United Statesian (I remove and substitute the translated “Estadounidense” in order to disestablish the linguistic hegemony of the “Americas”). It was only until recently that I did begin to entertain an “American” identity, but only after Smitherman corroborated an observed distinction between “Black” and “White” “America”. I do not identify with “White” “America”, because its systems were never designed for me or my fatherlands; and it is this same system that encapsulates and oppresses a “Black” “America” with which I do identify. I am therefore comfortable in saying I am Mexican American, so long as it is the same Smithermanian America which accepts its own Blackness.
Because the student population at LIU – Brooklyn constitutes diverse linguistic backgrounds — even outside the populous ESL student representation — I cannot help but theorize how to accommodate an emerging globalization; further, by recognizing the rich, complex grammatical natures of these linguistic backgrounds, I am reminded the realm of possibility in English language, which again pushes my drive to funnel creativity throughout the session. I have proposed in former writings that there is a distinction between colloquial and academic English — the former being the conversational use of language, and the latter more an academic performance; of course, there must be a clarity between the two — a translator, moderator, medium, what the Writing Center identifies as a “tutor” which I have come to recognize also as a significant position of power within Smitherman’s framework.
I have always found myself attracted to the particular field of addressing the development of academic fluency with students who represent linguistic backgrounds outside of the native English speaking. I am coming to understand Smitherman less an anti-assimilationist and more a preservationist (and moreso among others) for the Black lexicon and intelligentsia that had been created up until the book’s publication. The reader must experience a paradigm shift by relinquishing subconsciously and consciously held white supremacist views on the construction of English language in order to internalize Smitherman’s pedagogy; in the exact same way, tutors must experience a paradigm shift when working with any student who identifies under any framework (gender, sexuality, nationality, linguistic background). I believe the most effective tutoring occur when a paradigm shifts within the tutor; when I delve more deeply into the students’ understanding of English, I can also observe more deeply the form and means of communication as an extension of their individual thought, which again helps me develop the student as an independent writer and thinker.
The practice of fostering the development of independent thinking and writing largely and historically has been withheld from people of color. Education knowledge, and the command of language create the politicization of colored bodies that challenge the systemic oppression, of which education itself is a part. This goes back to Smitherman’s question of legitimizing Standard Black English, but the answer always circles back to the university or academia; indeed, Audre Lorde says “The master’s tool will never be used to dismantle the master’s house”, and thus reminds the reader not only the necessity of complete social reconstruction, but also the danger in reconstructing new forms of oppression when the “master’s house” has been reclaimed. Because I am rooted in the third world as a first-generation, bilingual, queer man of color, and now have a position as a writing tutor — which in reality is a position of power and therefore an avenue to reclaim and re-establish what Smitherman proposes — I can empower my fellow brothers and sisters by acknowledging, recognizing, attempting to learn (because I will never truly know or understand their culture to their degree, and any other understanding is an act of cultural violence and an extension of colonial mentality), and developing their language skills in an academic framework so as to assure their success and challenge the system’s status quo.
Smitherman motions the reader against assimilation, but I also want to ask the tutor to understand their privilege and power in legitimizing — or de-legitimizing — their students’ intelligentsia. Yet I believe that after all of our readings and my observations, there is a distinction between modern and post-modern academic praxis. We tutors are trained to identify a student’s needs as “higher” or “lower” order concerns, and yet this very premise creates its own set of problems.
The existence of ” ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ order concerns” (H/LoC) is hierarchical and can therefore only be applied to linear pattern of thinking; and thereby ignores the student who thinks recursively. It can therefore be surmised that “H/LoC” are but one way of attempting to map out the complex — certainly more complex than a binary bound in such arbitrary notions as “higher” and “lower” — circuitry that is thought. When the notion of “H/LoC” is thrown own, it allows the tutor to address the students’ more specific, complex, grammatical interactions; whereas the framework of “H/LoC” isolates mistakes in a grammatical vacuum where other frameworks cannot interact therein, although they most certainly do in the reality of the students’ paper. By utilizing the “H/LoC” binary as a filter for identifying and assessing student strengths and weaknesses, the tutor’s teaching methods have already excluded students whose learning patterns exist out of the linear; this dissonance between what the student thinks and articulates becomes more apparent when only these “H/LoC” methods are applied, because they do not recognize the “higher” thought in face of the “lower”. There’s a presumption that there isn’t a larger argument despite the bad grammar through which it is delivered; and this is problematic considering a large constitution of our students represent diverse linguistic backgrounds and so “bad grammar” or a “lower order concern” is actually more important. Indeed, grammar is the very path toward uncovering the students’ thoughts to themselves. Achieving this clarity requires a framework that can exist within the chaos of language — not one that is bound in two labels of “higher” and “lower”.
And yet when I made this distinction known within the parameters of the class which is supposed to supplement my tutoring, I was met with punitive measures. It seemed another measure to assure conformity, or what Smitherman might identify as assimilation. I thought it interesting that I, a first-generation, Spanish-English bilingual, queer man of color, who had achieved some position of power and had recognized the anti-colonial potential, was met with opposition from my very own instructor; in this respect, it seemed as if history was repeating itself and I was having to legitimize my own intelligentsia with my professor who could not recognize my own agency.
This is yet another problem Smitherman seems to ask: when is the legitimization going to occur? I want to take this question further and ask when is the legitimization going to occur, if not in 2013 when the “New World” is supposed to represent a shift into the post-modern. Again, it seems the answer lies not in the student, but rather dismantling the internalized white supremacy of individuals who occupy positions of power, no matter how sublime or minute the act of racism may be. I myself was underestimated by this supremacy; my intellect was overlooked and challenged in a way that was no Socratic but interrogative. Though I have an upcoming publication by the National Association for Chicana and Chicano Studies; despite having taken the Mellon Mays Seminar in Critical Race Studies at Macalester; despite my own ontological and epistemological account of growing up as a queer brown man in a poor brown neighborhood; despite the apparent need to identify frameworks being “higher” and “lower” order, I had to, class after class, state my perspective and legitimize my own logic, because the instructor would not acknowledge my insight. Indeed, on the last day of class, the instructor remarked — for once, not a punitive statement against my voice — how it appeared that I was well read into the “post-modern” lexicon and pedagogy. I don’t feel as if I should have to give my credentials in order to establish legitimacy, and I believe that Smitherman would not only agree but would also question how nearly half a decade could pass without its respective social progress; how an institution can claim to be that of “higher education” and still harbor systemically racist practices.
So, to answer Smitherman’s question about legitimization, my essay had to become a form of resistance; and when I contextualize my sessions with the students I serve — first generation, people of color, queer people of color, English as a second language — who are dodging systemic traps, one of the biggest funnels being “the education”, I begin to question how little “things” have changed since Talkin’ and Testifyin’s release. I have been trained to “speak truth to power”, and yet at this crossroads I am forced to reconcile the possibility that the paradigm may shift and I may contain this power. The question then becomes what to do with this power — perform the white patriarchy with which I’ve been colonized, or break the colonial chain and embrace global evolution.
Smitherman, Geneva. Talkin and Testifyin: The Language of Black America (7th ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977. Print.