African American Rhetoric and Other Englishes

1 4 2,648


I’ve been thinking about African American discourse and African American rhetoric (along with other indigenous rhetorics) since 1973, when members of CCCC were debating what would become the resolution known as "Students' Right to Their Own Language," eventually passed in 1974. That debate helped me think long and hard about the hegemonic status of "standard" English, about the home dialects and languages of my students, and about my own home dialect of the Appalachian mountain south, a language I grew up with, inhabited with ease, and loved, but which I seldom used as an adult in speaking, and never in writing.


At the time, I hoped that most other teachers of writing and reading would welcome this resolution, take its message to heart, and adjust their attitudes toward what counts as "proper" language use. Alas. Twenty-five years after the resolution, the debate still goes on, though "standard edited American English" has been challenged, seriously and serially, for decades now, from those who advocated during the Ebonics controversy to those who advocated for code switching and now to those who argue for code meshing and for "translingual" dispositions to language use.


As I travel around the country, visit schools, and go to conferences, I don’t see agreement across these lines of argument. Far from it. But I do see movement toward more progressive attitudes toward language variety and language use. And I also see very encouraging scholarly work addressing these issues, from Jerry Won Lee’s wonderfully insightful The Politics of Translingualism: After Englishes (Routledge, 2017) to Bonnie J. Williams-Farrier’s "'Talkin' Bout Good & Bad' Pedagogies: Code-Switching vs. Comparative Rhetorical Approaches" (a must-read essay in the December 2017 issue of College Composition and Communication), to the hot-off-the-presses On African-American Rhetoric by Keith Gilyard and Adam J. Banks (Routledge, 2018). I could name a number of others, but let’s stick with these three for a start: if you have not read them, you are in for a treat. I’ve learned so much from each of these texts, and as a result feel I can understand and embrace what Lee calls "translingual dispositions," and I am becoming more familiar with the moves and strategies of African-American rhetoric, thanks to Gilyard and Banks, as well as with the tropes, schemes, and syntactic moves of what Williams-Farrier calls African American Vernacular Tradition. I will write more, and more specifically, about what I’m learning soon, but in the meantime, if you’ve read any or all of these texts, I’d love to hear what you have learned!


Image Credit: Pixabay Image 2667529 by StarzySpringer, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License

About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.