Hon. Regent Dr. Adelaide Sanford speaking at a forum on...

Hon. Regent Dr. Adelaide Sanford speaking at a forum on Ebonics. (Jan. 11, 1997) Credit: J. Conrad Williams

This story was originally published in Newsday on January 13, 1997

While the battle over black English rages in Oakland, Calif., a group of community advocates and educators, fiery in their own right, gathered in Brooklyn to discuss using ebonics in New York City schools.

The New York Ebonics Movement, founded by local activist Charles Barron and the Rev. Herbert Daughtry, supports training teachers to use ebonics as a bridge to better communication with students. At a panel discussion inside the House of the Lord Church on Friday night, Barron pointed to dismal city reading scores as evidence that the present system has consistently failed.

But, perhaps the most compelling argument for adopting the controversial language came from New York State Board of Regents member Dr. Adelaide Sanford. Speaking as a granddaughter of slaves, Sanford said rejecting black English is condemnatory of a child's identity, and accepting ebonics is key to respect.

"I submit we have a right to self-define ourselves. Our children come from ghettos where they live in racial and social isolation. They enter school scarred," Sanford said. "When they speak, teachers should respond, That's wonderful, now how would you say it to someone who doesn't understand?' "

City Schools Chancellor Rudy Crew disagrees with the use of ebonics in schools and has said the "proposal argues for a lesser set of expectations - almost to accept that African-American children can't attain skill levels in use of the English language." Ron Davis, spokesman for the United Federation of Teachers, a union representing teachers, sides with Crew and also rejects the notion.

Members of the pro-ebonics group, which also includes United Parents Association President Ayo Harrington, explain that critics have been quick to pass judgment without getting the facts straight. After speaking to the Oakland school board last week, Harrington said her organization passed a resolution supporting the ebonics proposal and is exploring its use as a teaching tool in New York City schools. The Linguistics Society of America also has given its stamp of approval to using ebonics as a bridge system to raise academic achievement in the classroom.

Barrons said ebonics opponents are missing the point.

"We're not talking about teaching kids ebonics. They already know it," Barrons said.

" What the Oakland decision is saying is that we don't speak broken, im proper, or bad English, we speak differently," he said. "Putting a value judgment on speech perpetuates inferiority, and using ebonics would help build self-confidence in children as they learn standard English without degrading their African roots."

At the forum, Sanford noted that the issue of speech and its effects on educational performance was not a new one to the Board of Regents. For the past four years, Sanford said, board members had requested state funds for "transitional workshops" for children from Africa and the Caribbean who speak different dialects.

"The media never covered that issue and the money was never allocated," Sanford said.

Now Sanford and the New York ebonics group, although angered by the media's coverage so far, hope the debate will call attention to the pattern of academic failure among minority students raised in low-income, urban areas.

Though Barrons called the birth of the coalition in Brooklyn "historic," bringing ebonics to Queens could prove to be a bigger battle.

When Shirley Huntley, board member of School District 28, which includes Forest Hills and Jamaica, was asked last week if she was in favor of ebonics, she said, "I only know one language - English." Similarly, School District 24 board member Frank Borzellieri of Ridgewood voiced his opposition to the New York ebonics proposal last week and called the entire concept "multiculturalism gone mad."

"What they are saying is that rather than do things that might succeed, let's acquiesce and let them wallow in their own ignornace," he said. "I'll fight this until hell freezes over."

The next meeting of the New York Ebonics Movement will be Feb. 3 at the House of the Lord Church, 415 Atlantic Ave., Brooklyn.

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