The Reading Matrix
Vol. 3, No. 3, November 2003
The Skin That We Speak (2002)
Lisa Delpit and Joanne Kilgour Dowdy
Press New York , NY / USA
Mia S. Ross
North Carolina at Greensboro
The idea of encouraging Black English in the classroom
has been a very heated debate among teachers, parents,
linguists, and others. Debating the concept has not given
many people time to evaluate and really look into the logic
of why this language is so important to not only African-American
students, but also Caucasian students. Lisa Delpit, a MacArthur
Fellowship Scholar, has written a few books on the topic
of Black English in American classrooms. Delpit and Joanne
Kilgour Dowdy (2002) have edited a collection of stories
from other teachers, linguists, and scholars on the subject
in their most recent book, The Skin That We Speak .
In this book the authors have split the comments into
three categories: Language Identity, Language in the Classroom,
and Teacher Knowledge. The authors don't just explore American
classrooms, but also those nations that have similar problems
with linguistics in the classrooms.
In the first section, Dowdy writes
of her own experiences with linguistics in the classroom
while growing up in Trinidad. She points out how the
language barrier between those who spoke the “Queen's Language” from Britain and those who
spoke the Trinidadian dialect have a great conflict in
who they are (identity) and in the language that they speak.
She even points out the social differences in those students
who say “Ovuh Dyuh” and “Over There”(p. 6). She states
that those children who spoke the “Queen's Language”(p.
6) were often ridiculed by other children, and if they
didn't speak the language were ridiculed by adults. These
children are put into a spiral of trying to find their
own self-identity. The second part of this section is by
Ernie Smith who entitled his article, “Ebonics: A Case
Study.” This author talks of himself and his struggle to
understand “Proper English”(p. 21) in the classroom. He
illustrates how quickly teachers and administrators labeled
him as a slow learner and put him in remedial classes.
He talks of how he became frustrated with school all together
and then starts to live the “Fast Life”(p. 21) of the streets.
It is here that he learned his most valuable lessons in “Standard
English.” He suggests that it is a tragedy that a child
could learn more in the streets than he did in a setting
where he is supposed to learn.
The second section of the book
starts with Delpit telling of why she started to explore
the concept of Black English in the classroom. She says
that our language is the language that we learn from
our mothers and that is why it is termed our “Mother Tongue.” She goes on to say how teachers shouldn't
say that a person's language is wrong. “Since language
is one of the most intimate expressions of identity, indeed, “the
skin that we speak,” then to reject a person's language
can only feel as if we are rejecting him” (p. 47). She
goes into the Oakland school system debate on the language,
and how this debate has caused a world-wide look into language
of all people of color.
The next concept introduced in
this section to be reviewed is the idea of “Trilinguilism.” Set by author Judith Baker,
the idea is that students have to be trilingual. They should
have a home language-the language that they speak among
their family and friends, a formal language-the language
that they learn to speak in school, and they should have
a professional language-the language that they learn through
their various careers and professional life. Some other
strong points in this chapter are about Sociolinguistics.
Michael Stubbs defines this as “the study of how language
is used in different social contexts, such as homes, factories,
schools, and classrooms” (p. 65). Interestingly enough
he is talking about most of the schools in the London school
systems. He does relate the same problems in London to
those of different parts of the world such as the U.S.
Stubbs recounts a quote that apparently originated from
a Feiffer Cartoon: “I used to think I was poor. Then they
told me I wasn't poor, I was needy. Then they told me it
was self-defeating to think of myself as needy, I was deprived.
Then they told me deprived was a bad image. I was underprivileged.
Then they told me underprivileged was overused. I was disadvantaged.
I still haven't got a dime, but I have a great vocabulary” (p.
79). I think this quote is fitting because it humorously
points out how some educators label children.
The next section is addressed
directly to teachers and how they should look at language
in the classroom. The first author, Herbert Kohl, says
that teachers need to do a 180-degree turn in what they
say and how the students in their classrooms perceive
them, a process he calls “Topsy-Turvy.” He
talks about the perception that students have of their
teachers as the absolute power on language, and that students
need to know that they can speak their own language. The
next author quotes a line from the Color Purple by Alice
Walker. The quote is by the main character Celie, where
she says, “Look like to me only a fool would want you to
talk in a way that feel peculiar to your mind.” The author
of this article is Geneva Smitherman. She talks of how
a national policy needs to be made, and how the NCTE and
the CCCC have both tried to set such a policy on language
in the classroom. The section ends with authors illustrating
how even African American teachers have problems dealing
with language in the classroom. Another point also ending
this section is the ideas that teachers must allow dialects
into their classrooms and let other students respect those
This novel has great impact on the people who read it.
This book gives value to those conducting research by providing
a great collection of authors and beginning research material.
It is also of great value to all school administration
for a beginning to the problem of language in the classroom
and how best to combat it from their level of authority.
The people who I feel will value the most form this book
are teachers, all teachers respectively but more importantly
beginning teachers. These teachers have not yet entered
the classroom, and this book can make them aware of their
behavior as teachers and also the language patterns of
those students in their classrooms.
Although this book is very effective
for all those in a professional setting, others can benefit
from reading this book. It gives vast insight for parents,
students, and anyone who is interested in school systems
and language as a whole. This book has a tremendous impact
on the reader by saying there is a problem, stating out
right what it is, what has been done about it thus far,
and then stating possible solutions for all those involved
in the process, from the child through linguists. This
book changes the way in which we think of Black English.
Being an African American women, I admit even I had my
doubts about Black English being taught in a Standard English
society, but this book has not only shown me that the problem
does exist for those children who find it very hard to
grasp the concept of Standard English, but also that something
can and should be done about how they learn in the classrooms.
It shows that without there being something done that thousands
of kids will be labeled deficient, uneducated, and illiterate.
This book helps to point out the inaccuracy and danger
of such labels by showing that these children just learn
and read differently. Is it not our duty to educate every
child no matter the difficulty level to us as teachers?