When my mother started teaching, the word Ebonics hadn’t yet been coined; nobody had grappled in the academic journals as to whether to accept it in the classroom or make students speak a more mainstream, i.e., white, speech. All she knew was that she couldn’t understand her students easily and assumed that if she couldn’t, than neither could others and this barrier in speech would create a barrier in life. So, without saying that black speech was bad, she explained to her students that it was different, that it might hold them back, and that she was going to teach them to speak in a way that would help them get ahead. She encouraged conversation about whether it was fair that they had to learn a new way of speaking to fit in, expressing her own pragmatic opinion that this was a moot point.
Because I was a child when we moved to Mississippi, I learned to understand black speech quicker than the rest of my family, the same way a ten-year-old transplanted into another country can learn the new language faster than the adults. There were moments when I had difficulty, mostly with the children from out on the plantations; it seemed like the kids from town spoke pretty much the same way I did.
When my mother first started writing her journal, she was adamant that she didn’t want to write in a way that tried to capture black speech, viewing that as disrespectful. But after much consideration, I decided that her efforts to help her students modify their speaking patterns were such an important aspect of her teaching, that I wanted to illustrate it. Even more than that, putting mainstream English into the mouths of people who didn’t speak that way didn’t feel authentic. And that’s something I really cared about, authenticity.
So I’ve introduced it into the conversation, writing, using the phrase, for example, “That be right,” instead of “That is right.” Another example is that I’ve sometimes eliminated the final consonant from words, choosing “explainin’” rather than “explaining.” I’ve used “dem” for “them” and “Miz” for “Mrs.” I haven’t been consistent in how I’ve done this, for there was no consistency. And by the time I’d lived in Mound Bayou for a few weeks, I didn’t even hear the differences.
But my editor did. Alexandra Shelley accepted me as a client following the completion of one of my early drafts. It was only after I acknowledged that I was near the beginning of the process rather than the end that she took me on. We talked for over an hour in our introductory meeting and covered a lot of territory, but two pieces of advice hit me hard. One was that I had to go back to Mound Bayou and interview people who knew my mother and so I could learn how the town had changed, and validate my memories. The other was that the absence of black speech made my book seem unrealistic.