Berlin of 1884 was effected through the sword and the bullet. But the night of the sword and the bullet was followed by the morning of the chalk and the blackboard…The bullet was the means of physical subjugation. Language was the means of spiritual subjugation. — Ngugi Wa Thiong’o
“I just had to stop you to say that you are SO articulate!”
My 19-year old self sat on a panel for a room full of High School Seniors who eagerly sought insight about their transition to college, when a woman in the room cut me off mid-sentence to exclaim that I was SO articulate. In the awkward silence that followed for a few seconds too long my mind raced with confusion and a resounding discomfort…Thank you?
Of course this remark was meant as a compliment, but what did her definition of “articulate” include? I imagined if this woman heard me speaking with my father who sounds like he never left the islands of Trinidad and Tobago — would she have felt differently about my intellectual capacity? And if she heard me speaking Black English with my friends in Crown Heights, Brooklyn — would she have questioned my worth? And was being articulate while Black something exceptional (Alim and Smitherman, 2012)? Yes, yes, and yes.
This woman was affirming my authority over Standard American English, and the truth is that I did, in fact, break out the finest formal English that my mind could conjure up because I was in a school setting…The other languages that powerfully informed my linguistic identity — Black American English and Caribbean Creolized English — were silently prohibited from the space we shared. But why? And where did I learn to check my other languages at the door while in such settings?
What if I told you that prevailing attitudes toward the language practices that students bring into the classroom are rooted in colonial, often racist, logic? What if I told you that by not disrupting these kinds of attitudes in your classroom, your pedagogy might be more aligned with colonialism than you realize?
Well, I wrote the poem that would later become my first TED talk, “3 Ways to Speak English,” on the train ride home that same day. And this poem became the beginning of my journey toward exploring the intersections of language, race, and social justice as a critical social researcher, teacher educator, and community organizer.
Here is one of the most troubling findings to emerge from my research:
Ngugi Wa Thiong’o is an East African author who grew up in colonial Kenya and shares that a huge aspect of the colonial subjugation process was controlling the language of students in school. Specifically, divorcing the language of the home/community from the space of school was a signature colonial tactic. In his book, Decolonising the Mind, he writes:
One of the most humiliating experiences was to be caught speaking Gikuyu in the vicinity of the school. The culprit was given corporal punishment — three to five strokes of the cane on bare buttocks — or was made to carry a metal plate around the neck with inscriptions such as I AM STUPID or I AM A DONKEY…what is important…is that the language of our evening teach-ins, and the language of our immediate community, and the language of our work in the field were one…And then I went to school, a colonial school, and this harmony was broken. The language of my education was no longer the language of my culture.(Thiong’o, 1986, 111)
When I came across this passage I was shocked to learn that the context of the colonial classroom was so similar to K-12 classrooms across the United States today. No, students are not physically beaten for speaking in the language of their communities, and no, they are not forced to wear physical signs, but the work of silencing, shaming, and severing the linguistic and cultural practices of the home in effort to have students adopt “Standard American English” (SAE), purported to be the “language of power,” is the work of K-12 classrooms. And this colonial logic is reinforced in our homes and communities under the false pretense of arming children with access to a better world if only they are willing to Ursula their voices. A Liberation Literacies pedagogical approach disrupts the malignant logic that Standard English is the language of power, rendering other language practices powerless and void of utility in K-12 classrooms. And a close look at young Ngugi’s testimony exposes how dangerously aligned our pedagogies are with the subjugation tactics of colonization, which sought to police the language of the oppressed peoples as a means of subjugating their bodies. After all, Ngugi continues,
Berlin of 1884 was effected through the sword and the bullet. But the night of the sword and the bullet was followed by the morning of the chalk and the blackboard…The bullet was the means of physical subjugation. Language was the means of spiritual subjugation. (Thiong’o, 1986, pp.9)
The soldiers wielded the sword and the bullet. Teachers wielded the chalk and the blackboard. Arguments for how our educational institutions are governed by such marginalizing colonial practices rooted in white supremacy have been rigorously explicated. They are sound, and necessary, and valid, and also lengthy…so we will reserve them for another post. Take a moment to listen to “3 Ways to Speak English.” Imagine that a young Jamila and a young Ngugi are two new students in your classroom, transferring in from another time and space. Would your classroom be a space where the quality of being articulate is measured by monolithic standards? Would Ngugi flinch with shame and a deep sense of inferiority if his Gikuyu tongue slipped out? Or would your classroom be the linguistically and culturally affirming space we are so desperately in need of?
3 Ways to Turn Your Classroom into a Linguistic Celebration
Toward the end of “3 Ways to Speak English,” I say, “let there be no confusion, let there be no hesitation/This is not a promotion of ignorance, this is a linguistic celebration.” This comes after what I hope is a clear social critique: That the three tongues that I engage in most frequently, “one for each: home, school, and friends,” all inform my intellectual identity in uniquely powerful ways, and that any effort to diminish this is rooted in discrimination. This understanding guides my commitment to Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy (CSP) in my own practice as an educator. Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy is an approach that “seeks to perpetuate and foster — to sustain — linguistic, literate, and cultural pluralism as part of the democratic project of schooling (Paris, 2012, 93).” Classrooms that seek to sustain linguistic, literate, and cultural pluralism are at once sites of “linguistic celebration.” Here are three ways to begin shaping your classroom in this direction:
1.Check your attitude about the multiple language practices of your students
As an educator, you probably have some pretty strong convictions about what constitutes excellence in your classroom. However, we do not often take the time to interrogate where our measures of excellence and standards are birthed. What makes the standard forms we uphold superior to other ways of knowing in our world? Standard Language Ideology is defined as “bias toward an abstracted, idealized, non-varying spoken language that is imposed and maintained by dominant institutions (Lippi-Green, 2006).” What kinds of biased attitudes to you hold consciously and subconsciously about the languages your students engage in within their homes and communities? Are you complicit in upholding marginalizing social attitudes about language that are rooted in discrimination? Along with this, for the 21st century student enmeshed in the digital landscapes and subsequent digital citizenship through media and technology, new digital literacies are in constant flux. If you have dismissed how the saturation of digital languages and literacies exist in the lives of your students…interrogate these attitudes.
2. Check your students’ attitudes about their multiple language practices
In an article entitled, “I Never Really Knew the History behind African American Language,” Dr. April Baker-Bell shares her experiences engaging African American Language in the classroom:
I recall having a discussion with my students about code-switching from AAL to Dominant American English (hereafter DAE). This discussion revealed that my students either held negative attitudes toward AAL (although they spoke it) or resisted using DAE because they felt that it reflected the dominant culture, and they did not want to be forced to imitate a culture of which they did not consider themselves part (Baker-Bell, 2012, pp. 355).
Rather than make assumptions about your students’ attitudes toward their own language practices, create critical, safe, and brave space to unpack what they already feel and know. If your racial, linguistic, or cultural identities differ from those of your students, be sure to regard this in how you plan and prepare for such space. Dominant ideologies have the capacity to seep into the consciousness to marginalized peoples AND marginalized people are not just passive objects of marginalization. So while it is news to some that the perspectives, languages, and cultural values of marginalized people are valuable, many of us know this and wrestle with what it means to navigate institutional spaces in light of these contradictions.
3. Put voice before form
A mentor of mine once shared the philosophy of his first art teacher. On the first day of his art class the teacher said to a classroom full of young minds, “I am not going to teach you how to paint, I am going to teach you how to see. Once you know how to see, you will be able to paint anything.” We are so often fixated on the form that we want our students to master within the curriculum that we stifle the voices of our students. So many of my students have confided that they simply complete work to get the assignments of their teachers done. “What did you have to say about the question your teacher assigned?” I ask. “I don’t know, I just said anything.” Is your unit structured to put your students in dialogue with the disciplines of English, science, math, history, etc? Or is it structured for your students to reproduced the form of a five-paragraph essay, for example, without time and space for learning what they actually have to say? What if students understood the classroom as a space where they were challenged to express voice and perspective in ways that draw on the various practices within their linguistic repertoires? What if Standard American English and five paragraph essays were just two of many equally valuable forms in your classroom and your students, because you have first taught them how to see, how to critically and passionately tune into their own voice, are eager to master any form set before them?
 i.e. In Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid the protagonist is offered access to a desirable world by the sea witch only if she is willing to give up her voice in exchange
Jamila Lyiscott is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute for Urban and Minority Education (IUME) of Teachers College, Columbia University, and a professor at Long Island University where her work focuses on the intersections of race, education, and social justice. The recently awarded Cultivating New Voices among Scholars of Color fellow also serves as a public speaker, community leader, and educational consultant locally and internationally. Her scholarship and activism work together to prepare educators to sustain diversity in the classroom, empower youth, and explore, assert, and defend the value of Black life. Jamila’s recently featured TED Talk, “3 Ways to Speak English,” was viewed over 3.5 million times. She has also been featured on NPR, Huffington Post, Upworthy, The Root, Radio New Zealand, Lexus Versus and Flow, and many other media outlets and her scholarly work has been published in several peer-reviewed journals. As a testament to her commitment to educational justice for students of color, Jamila is the founder and co-director of the Cyphers For Justice (CFJ) youth, research, and advocacy program, apprenticing inner-city youth and pre-service teachers as critical researchers through hip-hop, spoken word, and digital literacy.
Alim, H. Samy, and Geneva Smitherman. 2012. Articulate While Black: Barack Obama, Language and Race in the U.S. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.
Baker-Bell, April. 2013. ““I Never Really Knew the History Behind African American Language”: Critical Language Pedagogy in an Advanced Placement English Language Arts Class.” Equity and Excellence in Education 46(3): 355.
Lippi-Green, Rosina. 2006. “Language Ideology and Language Prejudice.” In E. Finegan & J.R. Rickford (Eds.), Language in the USA. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Paris, Django. 2012. “Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy” Educational Researcher. (41)3: 93–97.
Thiong’o, Ngugi wa. 1986. Decolonizing The Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. Portsmouth, N.H. Heinemann.
**6–2–2017: this story has been corrected to reflect that Ngugi wa Thiong’o is from East Africa, not West Africa as originally stated.