The Reading Matrix
Vol. 3, No. 3, November 2003

The Skin That We Speak (2002)
Lisa Delpit and Joanne Kilgour Dowdy

New Press New York , NY / USA
Pages 384
ISBN 1565845447
Reviewed by Mia S. Ross
University of 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 dialects.

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?


















Mia S. Ross is a senior English Education major at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and a senior Broadcast News major at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University .