It’s been a thorn in the side of grammar snobs everywhere. Drop a wire into any conversation in any urban or informal setting in any Black American household and take note. Then try duplicating it in academic circles and see if you aren’t met with the swiftest look of consternation.

Ebonics: It’s what we’re taught to stay away from if we want to be seen as more than primitive beings that warrant dire socialization. However, the subject of debate is now a valued skill set among the federal government. Recently, the Department of Justice placed an Ebonics requirement for its Atlanta Drug Enforcement Agents, to “monitor, translate and transcribe” DEA recordings of drug dealers.

Nine agents to be exact.  In addition, the Atlanta field office needs linguists of the following varieties:

144 Spanish
12 Vietnamese
9 Korean
9 Farsi
8 Laotian
4 Jamaican
4 Chinese
4 Igbo

Either White drug dealers are either already covered, or they don’t pose a threat to the Drug Enforcement Agency. If the criminal justice system didn’t lock up enough minorities before on drug charges, that is certain to change now. Seeing Ebonics on that list should make any person wary of a skewed criminal justice system become more dubious.

I guess it’s easier to snatch up dealers in doo-rags than in three-piece suits.

Are Black drug dealers not the lowest rung on the narcotics totem pole? While it’s understandable that officers need to know the language of drug dealers, this requirement is a bit overkill. Dealers speak in codes; slang even. Ebonics isn’t a language taught by Rosetta Stone. So who is going to be hired? This mandate basically states, “We need nine ni–ers who can understand this sh–. Because we can’t.”

Being specialized in deciphering Ebonics isn’t a deterrent against crime; it’s little more than profiling. It’s obvious that the DEA is fighting to lock more people up or there wouldn’t be a need to bring in “specialists.” However, this does bring to light another issue: Is Ebonics a “legitimate” language?

In the circles of many homes, the subject of whether Ebonics is a language on par with Spanish rages on—with many parents and teachers asserting that proper English is devoid of Ebonics. Slang is often lumped in with Ebonics, but there is a clear difference between the two: The former deals with syntax and is general; the latter deals with individual words and is race-specific.

Ebonics, or Black English, has been viewed as a defective and deficient form of English spoken by African Americans since enslavement; a remnant of an unpleasant past when African Americans was not formally taught to read and write; a time when the finer points of articles, gerunds, nouns, and verbs weren’t available in a textbook.

So an aural sense of learning filled the vacuum and Ebonics became the lingua franca. “That” became “tha.” “These” became “dese.” “Those are the people that turned us in” morphed into “Dems are da people dat turned us en.” To the enslaved, this way of communicating was necessary if they were to adjust to a new world that was hellbent on wiping out generations of dialect, customs, and social mores developed in Africa.

Because slaveowners forbade literacy in their slaves, language—along with full citizenship—was a tool of power. When something becomes prohibited, the prohibited becomes in demand. Chris Rock has a funny bit in his standup special, Never Scared, where he talks about literacy (books, pages) being the “crack of their day.” In this context, learning proper grammar was the prize among the Diaspora.

In a sense, many post-Emancipation Proclamation Blacks use the acquisition of language to not only one-up their non-Black counterparts, but also fellow Blacks. The current intellectual warfare within the Black community is a clear sign of this. We often judge each other by the language we use, writing off one who can’t correctly spell or pronounce a polysyllabic word as inferior.

This isn’t to be confused with code switching: the ability to speak multiple dialects or languages in a single conversation. If I’m talking to my friends or family, or had a few to drink, you would hear a code switch. Code switching is an accepted form of speech. The switch, however, comes in the context of intimate (or inebriated) conversation, not in a public sphere.

In 1996 there was a push to instill Ebonics in Oakland public schools. The push failed, for good reason. Mastering the intricacies of Ebonics in a public space won’t add to the progress of Black Americans, or close the educational gap. Ebonics, if necessary, should be picked up and adapted in private settings. Taxpayer dollars at the primary education level shouldn’t be devoted to teaching our students a language that has no functionality in Corporate America. After all, there aren’t public classes teaching people how to rap; that skill burgeons in the subterranean.

That’s what African American Studies programs in colleges and universities are for. Ebonics is only helpful in the environment that requires its grasp. According to the federal government, that environment is among Black drug dealers in Atlanta.

For nine lucky people, the effects of the Great Recession have been mitigated.

Oh Ebonics.

(Photo Credit)

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  • I disagreed with the ebonics translator until this past weekend when I were told the words GUH and BAIT. I had no idea what people were saying until I asked. Ebonics is its own language and as quick as it comes in, it goes out. I think people have to understand it to be able to work in certain fields truthfully.

    • Beef Bacon

      What is GUH and BAIT?

  • LeeLee

    I disagree with the argument that ebonics is a synonym for slang. I think what makes it different is the fact that there is actually structure to it. It just isn’t the same structure used for standard English. I think more emphasis should be put on code switching.

  • Sarah

    I think the people who are deriding using Ebonics in public school systems are missing the point. The goal isn’t to “teach kids Ebonics.” It’s to teach kids who already speak Ebonics more effectively by trying to use the kids’ home language. The goal was to use Ebonics to help kids better learn by using linguistic structures they are familiar and comfortable with. Teaching codeswitching into standard English was part of the educational goals.

    And Ebonics is not just “bad grammar.” It’s a dialect (or dialects, given regional variations) with rules governing syntax as well as semantics and pragmatics. Just becuase you don’t know those rules doesn’t mean they don’t exist.