The Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. had barely finished addressing the Detroit branch of the NAACP’s Fight for Freedom Fund Dinner on Sunday when television pundits began criticizing his references to educational research showing differences in the ways Black and White children learn or use language.
He was somehow arguing, according to the analysts, that a different standard be applied for Black students, thus dooming them to disadvantage.
Those who follow education might recognize that the studies Wright cited by Dr. Geneva Smitherman and Dr. Janice E. Hale go back several decades, and they have been widely debated.
Nowhere was it clear, however, that any of the broadcasters and analysts had ever heard of these concepts or the research by the learned scholars whom the former pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago quoted, and much of the message was drowned out in the subsequent campaign spin after Wright spoke again on Monday.
Referring to Smitherman, who is a university distinguished professor of English at Michigan State University (MSU) and formerly of Wayne State University in Detroit, Wright cited her studies on linguistics.
According to a CNN transcript, he said:
“Dr. Smitherman compiled the findings of an interdisciplinary research along with her own brilliant findings to show us that the language of Black Americans was different, not deficient. She combined the findings of early childhood education, linguistics, socio-linguistics and the pedagogy of the oppressed to demonstrate most powerfully that different does not mean deficient. It simply means what? Different. I believe a change is going to come because many of us are committed to changing the way we see others who are different.”
Through her work, Smitherman defined Black English as a distinctive language with a grammar and lexicon of its own, a language as legitimate as any other variant of English — American, British, Australian, for example — not just a substandard version. She and others have argued that educators need to understand those differences to help Black children achieve.
Smitherman told Diverse Monday that she was aware that Wright mentioned her and that he has quoted her before. She said she has met him on her campus where he has spoken often. She said, however, that she had not had a chance to listen to press commentaries about the remarks made Sunday.
Responding to a suggestion that the television commentators seemed unaware of her work, she said, “I have written many books. All they had to do was read them.”
Smitherman became widely known after the release of her 1977 book, Talkin and Testifyin: The Language of Black America.
“In a nutshell, Black dialect is an Africanized form of English reflecting Black America’s linguistic-cultural African heritage and the conditions of servitude, oppression and life in America,” she wrote. “Black Language is Euro-American speech with an Afro-American meaning, nuance, tone and gesture. The Black Idiom is used by 80 to 90 percent of American Blacks, at least some of the time … .”
Her numerous books also include Talkin That Talk: Language, Culture and Education in African America, and Black Talk: Words and Phrases from the Hood to the Amen Corner.
On Sunday, Wright also spoke at length about differences in the learning styles of Black and White children, citing the first book by Dr. Janice Hale, Black Children Their Roots, Culture and Learning Style.
“Different does not mean deficient,” he said. “It simply means different. In fact, Dr. Janice Hale was the first writer whom I read who used that phrase. Different does not mean deficient. Different is not synonymous with deficient.”
Hale, a professor of early childhood education at Wayne State University in Detroit, is founder of the Institute for the Study of African American Children. Her other books include Unbank the Fire: Visions for the Education of African American Children and Learning While Black: Creating Educational Excellence for African American Children.
“Is Dr. Hale here tonight?” Wright asked. “We owe her a debt of gratitude. Dr. Hale showed us that in comparing African-American children and European-American children in the field of education, we were comparing apples and rocks. And in so doing, we kept coming up with meaningless labels like EMH, educable mentally handicapped, TMH, trainable mentally handicapped, ADD, attention deficit disorder. And we were coming up with more meaningless solutions like reading, writing and Ritalin.”
Hale told Diverse she did not attend the speech and was unaware that it was on live television when a friend from her hometown in Columbus, Ohio, and others began to call.
She said Wright knew her work because he had invited her to speak at his church after reading her third book, Learning While Black, and he had donated money to the founding of her institute. She said she is a scholar of the research on how people learn — differences that scholars variously call left brain/right brain or field dependent/field independent or relational/analytical learning. To write Black Children Their Roots, Culture and Learning Style, she has also looked at research, including anthropological data, on historical and cultural differences between races that affect learning styles. She said one of her questions was “Is it possible that there could be a distinctive learning style that African-Americans have, that if nurtured, would enable us to achieve better? And the answer to that is, yes.”
She argues that children learn best when teaching methods take differences into account. For instance, she said some research has shown that Black children learn better when lessons incorporate movement into learning tasks.
She compares education to advertising in which corporations know they have to make certain kinds of pitches or use certain music or celebrities to reach a certain audience and argues that teachers too need to use “culturally salient” methods to get educational messages across.
“A teacher is supposed to engage every child in her classroom,” she said.
Hale said she has consulted with schools and has developed a model for how to apply her ideas in a school environment. She said she has not had the opportunity to implement the concepts in a school and hopes her institute will open the door to doing that.
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