WASHINGTON, February 2, 2015 — This Black History Month has me re-reading Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. Neale Hurston is one of my favorite authors, and the beauty and facility of the language she used still gives me pause and inspiration.
Sadly, the richness of literacy exhibited by her and her contemporaries—like Langston Hughes, who would have been 113 this week—is sorely lacking in today’s literature. Do our young people even know the names of these and other great writers, or the titles of their works? If the crisis in our culture is any indication, we are failing our children by starving them of the substantive words and sweeping vision of great writers while spoon-feeding them the steady pabulum of gangster rap and reality television.
Back in June of 2013, Rachel Jeantel’s testimony during the George Zimmerman murder trial was cringe-inducing, embarrassing, and mortifying to watch. As a Black woman I have been ridiculed for “talking white” and “thinking I’m white” because I navigate quite well outside of Black culture. Frankly, I would rather take that type of flack than be an embarrassment across worldwide media because of my inability to do so.
If we took nothing else away from Rachel Jeantel’s testimony, it should have been this: Literacy involves more than being able to read and write. It involves the ability to effectively operate in the overall society when it matters most. Unfortunately, Rachel failed this test, and I believe it had some effect on the outcome of the trial. The prosecution’s case certainly was not helped by it.
It would be wonderful if this incident had sparked a wider conversation on the failure of modern Blacks to instill a love of words, literacy, and knowledge in our young; and greater still, on the failure to encourage and teach our children how to maneuver outside of their everyday reality. This not only used to be a matter of practicality, but an indicator of progress, and safety as well. But we appear to no longer give literacy proper weight, let alone thought.
Instead, we have been subjected to a firestorm or paternalism and excuse-making. Ebony, a history-making Black publication, could have penned a thought-provoking piece about how far we have fallen from this cultural norm, how we must return to it, and how we can begin again. Instead, the editorial writer went into attack mode with, “When You Make Fun of Rachel Jeantel, You Make Fun of Us”:
“The chastising of this woman’s speech and body language belied the fact that many themselves were rejecting their own self-reflection. For far too many of our community members that epitomize Drake’s ‘started from the bottom’ mantra would like to forget the places from whence they came.”
Ebony totally missed the mark. My single mother made sure I knew how to read and write, as well as how to talk to adults and authority figures. If reality and sitcom television is any indicator, this has become a lost art. Global Grind writer Christina Coleman took the “you’re not black enough to understand Rachel” tack: “And as Rachel Jeantel sits on the stand, nervous, mumbling and annoyed, it’s not that she’s just a ‘hoodrat with no media training from a hostile environment.’ It’s just that your world and our world are … excuse the cliché … worlds apart.”
This excuse is not only lousy, but lazy. Some of Ms. Jeantel’s critics may have come from the bottom. Some may come from a middle class background, while others may even be upper class. But here is what we all have in common: Parents (single and otherwise) who made sure that no matter how down and fly we were at home, we knew how to interact, engage, and compete outside of the home. This is a necessary component in finding success for any person of any background or race. Knowing this was one way to ensure you did not stay at the bottom, and you were not limited in your opportunities.
You cannot discount that being on the witness stand is not easy, even for the most cultivated or collected of individuals. The purpose of cross examination is to dispatch and discredit the witness as quickly as possible, so being grilled on the stand is akin to being baptized by fire. But we do not help ourselves when we fail to have a grasp of standard English, cannot read cursive writing, do not know how to speak up when spoken to, or how to address an officer of the court.
My mother would say, “You can talk like that here, but don’t you embarrass me outside the house.” I took this seriously, and so did many of my peers, but no longer. Now when young people tank themselves, instead of honestly looking at the reasons and the whys, we blame the critics.
Around the same time of the Jeantel debacle, Chicago Sun-Times columnist John W. Fountain wrote a thought-provoking and pointed article on “Talking Right—Not Talking White”. Fountain made this assertion:
“I have come to understand that your speech does indeed betray you. For one’s enunciation and command of the English language can be as revealing about one’s roots as a buttered southern drawl. But in my mind, mastering the King’s English is no more a betrayal of one’s roots than choosing a mode of transportation to get you to a destination. The point in either case is access.” [emphasis mine]
Let’s take that a step further: This issue is not only about access in terms of career and life opportunities. It addresses the simple, demonstrable fact that when you are required to enter into arenas outside your normal realm, possessing literacy, including a facility with language and a knowledge of historical context, you have a foundation to draw upon. This enables you stand firm and strong in your convictions, instead of wrecking what little credibility you could have had.
Professor David L. Horne, executive director of PAPPEI (Pan African Public Policy and Ethical Institute) calls this dearth of literacy among Blacks “cultural suicide,” and his description is apt. We have a generation that refuses to prioritize and prize literacy on all levels, effectively murdering its chances for advancement and achievement.
Perhaps during Black History Month 2015, we should not only rehearse and reiterate historical facts about our heritage, but allow as well the words and example of the great lives we celebrate to become an integral part of our DNA once again.