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The Skin That We Speak: A Book Review

The skin that we speak: Thoughts on language and culture in the classroom. Lisa Delpit & Joanne Kilgour Dowdy (Editors), New York, NY: The New Press, 2002, 229 pages.
Reviewed by Beyan Negash

Note: This was written as book review several years ago, but I edited it now for awate readers, which meant it needed more than just reviewing – synthesis and analysis were par for the course if it is going to meet awate readers’ sensibilities. So, here we go.

No equivocations. No words minced. No time wasted. In The skin that we speak: Thoughts on language and culture in the classroom, Delpit & Dowdy (2002) delve straight to the stated purpose and to the objective that they set out to accomplish. The authors’ use of the Preface to not only preface and provide a clear window into what lays in wait in the rest of the book, but also it is worth a mention that they did it with such integrity paying homage to a scholar who, apparently, had left voluminous body of work in the field of “history, psychology, and education [which they declaratively state] will continue to inspire scholars who seek to do what is right in the world” (ix).

Therefore, a reader at the outset would invariably surmise then that this book will have a slant toward social justice in general and toward young Americans in particular. Consider how the authors pay homage to Asa G. Hilliard III, whom they say, “knew the forces aligned against our young: those who would tell them that they were not smart enough, strong enough, good enough; those who would say that they did not speak “right”; those who cause them to question their own worth and thus stunt their growth; those who would suggest that they were anything other than phenomenal” (ix). An interesting take of Lisa Delpit (2002) when she states thus: “I have learned from my Brother Asa to seek out those dark forces and work to extinguish their power” (ix). The term “Brother Asa” is historically/culturally/politically nuanced intimation meant to give indications that there is not only affinity toward the man’s work, but that the book will be dealing with African American issues and by African American scholars following Asa’s footsteps.

The introduction, while it provides the overall picture vis-à-vis the book, yet kept, theme-wise, where the preface left off as Delpit (2002) crisply captures the essence of the book with her unassuming style: “The purpose of this 2002 collection is to explore the links between language and identity, between language and political hierarchy, and between language and cultural conflict” (xx). And few lines later, Delpit unequivocally declares that, “This volume also concerns itself primarily with language and education. This issue of language use in school is particularly volatile. The commencement of formal education is usually one of the first settings in a person’s life when their language may be judged as right or wrong; when assumptions may be made about their intelligence, family life, future potential, or moral fiber every time a sentence is uttered. African American language has had a particularly stormy relationship with the education power structure. Schools often see themselves, and are seen by the larger society, as the arbiters of what is proper, correct, and decent. African American language forms have been considered none of the above. Thus, there have been continual moves to eliminate its presence in classrooms, and raging debates whenever it appears that there might be some move to suggest otherwise…The most recent flare-up, the so-called “Ebonics Debate,” took the country by storm during 1996 and 1997.”

Against the above backdrop, structurally, the book moves forward in three distinctly unique narratives: In chapter 1, Dowdy, the coeditor, narrates her personal journey of identity formation as constituted through the formal English language at the insistence of her mother while growing up in Trinidad. This upbringing and the inner look of which informs Dowdy’s perception of language and its powerful anxiety-inducing characteristics that seemed to haunt the writer when contextualized to her society’s norms, speaking formal English was not one. For example, Dowdy points out that she “survived [her] high school years by assuming the best mask ever fabricated: the mask of language. I invented a character who wanted to please her teachers and her dead mother. I engaged a form of thinking that never appeared to question authority and also never let slip any knowledge of an alternative identity. My role was to survive, and to do it with the same finesse that millions of black people had done over the centuries. Yet I was determined to beat the system that had been working to eradicate all vestiges of black genius, through its autocratic approach to education” (9).

This relentless onslaught that continues to be visited upon African Americans in this country must be countered with equal force and magnitude. Dowdy’s sharp language cuts deep into the heart of the matter. “In the public life,” she states that “the value given to the patriarch’s tongue, the master discourse always supersedes that given to the matriarch… In other words, soul and reality occupy separate linguistic spaces. This conflict duplicates itself in every aspect of life, when the colonized tries to negotiate the two worlds of language by building bridges from one side to the other” (12). The pain and the anguish of minorities in this country is manifested in the most destructive fashion, through the slow form of self-annihilation epitomized by that inscrutable institution of school-to-prison-pipeline, an institution of learning that was supposed to be life affirming becomes where these minority children are socialized to believe less and less worthy of education and become more and more socialized to appropriate the language of the “institution”. In other words, the language of prison minority children tend to be socialized into during their schooling years by the school system. Consider this: Misbehaving child is, for instance, put during lunch in “detention” at a far corner of the cafeteria table, alone, where all eyes of the children are on that child, already seeing him as a pariah and social outcast. That is precisely why Delpit and Dowdy are aiming to nip the problem in the bud before it is too late – right at the beginning – at the elementary school. Such experience and “The continual disappointment with the master discourse creates a shroud that covers every utterance with a doubt about its worthiness. The voice in her head does not match the tone in her throat. She sees and hears herself becoming a tape played at the wrong speed. Unless she can reconnect with the sense of familiarity of using language that she grew up taking for granted, she loses all ability to integrate the dominant idiom into her language system and she is rendered voiceless.” (12)

This is too massive undertaking for one child, one family, to effectively counter. “The war will be won when she who is the marginalized comes to speak more in her own language, and people accept her communication as valid and representative. Her need to communicate, formerly unhappy forays into the unfamiliar territory of alternate language discourse, will blossom into the flowers that had been dormant in the arid land of the desert of master discourse. The status quo that assured her that no one would listen, or that they would complain that her enunciation was incomprehensible, will disappear in an ocean of sound” (13).

Ernie Smith entertainingly shows in how he acquired the so called “Standard English” as he kept traveling between the two worlds of Black English in Los Angeles. Black English and thus begins the phasing out of the personal experience and the phasing in of the general need of the schools to think wisely in how to inculcate the two experiences with which children come to schools throughout the U.S.

In chapter 3, Delpit shares with her readers from a personal journey that her daughter went through in the acquisition of both Black & Standard English, the lessons of which could be applied, not only to parents but also to the teachers who should be cognizant of the fluidity and permeability of language. In chapter 4, Judith Baker provides indispensable suggestions that teachers could use in finding ways to teach children the standard form of English while at the same time valuing the experientially based with which the pupils come to schools. Chapter 5 tends to stand from the rest of the chapters because its ideas emanate from across the Atlantic Ocean, namely, England. Michael Stubbs looks at how class affects children’s learning just as does race on this side of the Atlantic.

Chapter 6, 7, & 8 capture all the essences of the previous chapters in that what might transpire when children’s languages are not only not validated but are seen as deformed and corrupted version of the Standard English instead of being seen as languages with their own rules and patterns.

In the final narrative, chapters 9, 10, 11, & 12 hone in on what I consider the most important part of the book in that these chapters directly address teachers who should be made aware of their own biases, their own shortcomings when it comes to teaching children. If need be to equip these teachers with the necessary tools through professional developments, mentoring by experienced teachers, and the like. I say this is important because attitudes that we adult teachers bring into any social setting, a school being one fundamental social space in which children learn what citizenship means, how to socialize with their peers, how to solve problems of personal nature that they may encounter in their day-to-day schooling. These and many more scenarios of life will indubitably have an impact, and the repercussion of which toward those who are vulnerable might be one life altering experience. And teachers who are aware of their own biases, subjectivities, and prejudicial tendencies will be far more likely to avert harming children’s intellectual growth than those who might see teaching as an occupation of making ends meet.

What this important book brings for readers is not just pointing out social problems, but that how crucially important language is and that it could be used for common good or can become as a fodder for oppression. If we examine the history of language and how a given language becomes prominent during the nation-state formations, which began with the French revolution is one of assured path to hegemony. Once nationalism gains traction, language becomes front and center by which a country and its population’s national identity are defined. Jingoism and patriotism were some of the ways in which language superiority began to disseminate jingoist venom, especially in the countries where Europe was the colonizer. In the post-colonial African countries, for example, where multiple languages are spoken in a given country, one that dominates the political power oppresses the other languages spoken much the same way in which Europe did when it colonized these countries and there are replete examples of this throughout Africa and beyond. The implication of that far reaching legacy is that, to this day, many African countries suffer from that perpetual mimicry they have learned from their colonizers by using it on their own people who happened to speak different language than them (Thiong’O 1986; Smith 1999). Good public education system can be a curse or a blessing depending on how the dominant culture in any given society decides to utilize it. If a nation has a farsighted plan in seeing its citizens as an asset, this timely quote that I came across the Awate forum aptly captures the spirit and the letter of what education should be about:”….the past reveals an order that can be understood in terms of the progressive development of human capabilities….capabilities anchored in freedom of thought….” ‘The freedom of thought transforms a society whereby progress can be attained and can be utilized to gauge if the present generation is better off than the previous generation. He concluded.”’ (Nicolas de Condercet as cited by Paulos on the comment section, 10/14/17)

In its 2017 Trafficking in Persons Report released on Tuesday, the U.S. placed countries in three tiers with the worst being Tier 3 countries whose “governments do not fully meet the [Trafficking Victims Protection Act’s (TVPA)] minimum standards and are not making significant efforts to do so”.

The worst African offenders include: Burundi, Central African Republic, Comoros, Democratic Republic of Congo, Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Mauritania, South Sudan and Sudan.

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CM Chargé Natalie E Brown CM OMS Debra R. DeBose HRO Elizabeth K. Thompson MGT Elizabeth K. Thompson POL/ECON Violeta Talandis POSHO Elizabeth K. Thompson CON Jolanta Mikiewicz DCM Michael Veasy PAO Violeta Talandis RSO Charles (Chuck) E. Diamond, Jr.. CLO Kedir Nasser EEO Joseph Thornsberry FMO Elizabeth K. Thompson IMO Marc Alfano ISSO Jared Dutka

About Beyan Negash

Activist, a writer and a doctoral candidate (ABD) in Language, Literacy, and Culture at New Mexico State University (NMSU). Beyan holds a bachelor of arts in English and a master of arts in TESOL from NMSU as well as a bachelor of arts in Anthropology from UCLA. His research interests are on colonial discourse and post-colonial theories and their hegemonic impact on patriarchy, cultural identity, literacy development, language acquisition as well as curriculum & citizenship. The geopolitics of the Horn of Africa interests Beyan greatly. His writings tend to focus on Eritrea and Ethiopia. Beyan has been writing opinion pieces at awate.com since its inception (1 September 2001).

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  • Donald King

    I like a lot to read the different book review. Reading help me with an essay writing. Till that time when I work at https://tutoriage.com/, I read a lot of book reviews.

  • Selamat Professor Beyan Negash,

    Subpar or even a whole in one as far as meeting this awate reader’s “sensibilities.” Thank for bringing the attention of De & Do (2002) The Skin that We Speak. It is now a must read for me.

    I don’t know if I have given thought, until now, to using Roman Numerals and Arabic Numbers for pagination of the preface and chapters of books, respectively. Perhaps, The Boston Latin School established in 1635 in what would become the United States of America, is responsible for the convention.

    From i the 9x to x the 10x to 9 and 12 only on the 16th hole I realized the best I can hope for is to finish with a +15 on the eighteenth. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=51USLgPWhgc

    Question I have for you: Can you explain the footnotes? It is not lost on me that it is a directive of sorts. (IX is an acronym for index as in NYSE IX and ix = 9 —-> TishAAte Biherata TTebaE iu hzba.)


  • Bayan Nagash

    Selam to y’all!
    Forgive me for not getting back to you in timely fashion as I usually try to do. My itinerary for the last several days has been next to impossible for me to engage. I knew that, but I felt the review was something not necessarily one that would generate heated discussions. It is rather one that I hope would compel you to read the book or others similar to it. At any rate, allow me to hastily note on Ismail’s question of mother tongue. There is an excellent researched material by Eritrean scholar, in a journal article that you may find of interest. I am availing the copied pasted version of the abstract and introduction. I believe the article is a google search away. I have it saved in my files if need be I can avail it. Suffice it for now, this teaser to those who might not read the whole piece…

    JOURNAL OF MULTILINGUAL AND MULTICULTURAL DEVELOPMENT, 2015 http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/01434632.2015.1080715
    Mother tongue versus Arabic: the post-independence Eritrean language policy debate
    Abdulkader Saleh Mohammad
    College of Development and International Studies, University College of Oslo and Akershus, Oslo, Norway

    “This paper analyses the controversial discourses around the significance of the Arabic language in Eritrea. It challenges the arguments of the government and some scholars, who claim that the Arabic language is alien to Eritrean society. They argue that it was introduced as an official language under British rule and is only spoken by the Rashaida minority and by a small educated elite. By contrast, this paper demonstrates that Arabic has served as the established lingua franca among the Eritrean Muslims and as the administrative language and medium of education for centuries. The main focus of the paper is a critique of the government’s post-independence language policy, which replaced Arabic as the medium of instruction by mother tongue education under the purported aim of establishing the equality of all nine Eritrean languages. I argue that the promotion of this policy has political implications and that one of its purposes is to alienate the Muslim community from the use of the Arabic language as a marker of their common identity. The article is written from a sociological perspective and draws on numerous conversations with mother tongue school teachers, students and parents, and on participant observation of the public debate.”


    “Eritrea is a multilingual, multireligious and multicultural state in the Horn of Africa inhabited by nine ethno-linguistic groups, whose languages belong to the Nilotic, Cushitic and Afro-Semitic families (Woldemikael 2003, 118). The population is equally divided between Christians and Mus- lims. Historians, anthropologists and sociologists have described the cultural and linguistic diversity of Eritrean society as a ‘mosaic of people’ (Longrigg 1974; Trimingham 1976; Pollera 1996). Migration and intermingling of different ethno-linguistic groups and religious conversion to Christianity and Islam characterized the culture and social structure of the population. Due to the interaction between the different groups, multilingualism was common and is still part and parcel of the Eritrean social reality. During the Ottoman and Egyptian periods (1553–1889), all ethnic groups except for the Tigrinya used Arabic as the language of communication. The Italians sup- ported the Muslim community’s use of Arabic in education and at the Shari’a courts, and the British legalized it as an official language along with Tigrinya. Even after Eritrea’s annexation by Ethiopia, the Arabic language continued to be widely used besides Amharic in legal and commercial agreements.
    In contrast, the current Eritrean government’s language policy focuses on the development of the nine vernacular languages as the medium of instruction at the primary level with the aim of
    promoting equal opportunity among Eritrea’s nine ethnic groups (Department of Education, Asmara 1991). The article critically assesses this language policy, which is based on the assumption that inequalities among the ethnic groups are related to language. Instead, it argues that inequalities are related to structural socio-economic exclusion and marginalization of certain groups and raises the question if mother tongue education in remote rural areas helps the inhabitants to be empow- ered. Can it help them to get access to higher education and job opportunities and thus induce upward social mobility?

    “The article is based on a review of the relevant literature and the author’s long-term participant observation of the post-independence language debate (1993–2011). It draws on extensive narrative interviews with key individuals in the educational sector, students and parents.1 The first section deals with the historical background of Arabic as the language of communication, education and trade interaction. The second section explores the language policies of the British and Ethiopian authorities and elaborates the significant role of the Arabic language during these periods. It stresses the importance of Arabic during the armed struggle as the language of mobilization, training and education. The third section elaborates the top-down approach of the post-independent multilingual education policy and illustrates the debates of its supporters and opponents. The fourth section dis- cusses the practical implications of mother tongue educational policies in Eritrea and other African countries. The final section is a critical assessment of the polemic arguments brought forward by sup- porters of the mother tongue policy to discredit the use of Arabic. I conclude that the government’s intension is to strengthen the hegemonic role of the Tigrinya language and to reduce the influence of Arabic as a marker of common identity for the Muslim communities.”

    The historical significance of the Arabic language in Eritrea

    “The Arabic language has a long history not only in Eritrea, but throughout the Horn of Africa, where it was commonly used even before the expansion of Christianity and Islam. The territory’s geo- graphical location has been attracting immigrants, invaders and colonizers since time immemorial. The Sabians settled along the Red Sea coast between 1000 and 700 BC and later moved further to the Eritrean and Ethiopian highlands, where they mixed with the Cushitic indigenous population (Longrigg 1974, 11–12; Trimingham 1976; Mohammad 1996, 118–119; Pollera 1996, 26). They introduced Ge’ez, a Semitic language with a specific alphabet, from which several languages emerged, among them Tigre and Tigrinya (Negash 1999, 61–64). From the eighth century AD trade with the Middle East increased and attracted Arabic-speaking settlers, who intermingled with the coastal population and expanded their trade activities to the hinterlands; accordingly the Arabic language spread as the regional lingua franca. The pastoral Afar, Saho and Beja maintained social and com- mercial interactions with the Arabian Peninsula, and the role of Arabic was further strengthened during the rule of the Ottoman Empire from 1557 to 1872 and the Egyptians from 1865 to 1885 over the coastal area (Longrigg 1974, 61–63; Pankhurst 1997, 104–105). All agreements and court documents in Massawa were written in Arabic (Miran 2009), and it was during this era that the Ara- bic language became deeply anchored in the society.
    In addition, Arabic as the language of Islam fostered a common religious and cultural identity among the Muslims. This development can be compared to the spread of Kiswahili among the multi- lingual coastal population of Kenya and Tanzania before European colonization. Kiswahili was writ- ten in Arabic script before the colonial authorities transliterated it in Roman alphabet in order to distance it from the Arabic and Islamic culture. In spite of attempts by the colonizers and the mis- sionaries to marginalize Kiswahili, it remained the dominant language and borrowed words and idioms from Arabic (Mazrui and Mazrui 1998, 169), similar to the local languages of Eritrea.

    “In 1890, the Italians created Eritrea as a political entity and colonized it until 1941. They tolerated the use of Arabic as the lingua franca and the language of the Islamic institutions and schools. On the other hand, in the late nineteenth century, European missionaries studied the ethnic and linguistic composition of the Eritrean population with the aim of spreading the Christian faith and preventing the expansion of the Arabic-Islamic culture. The Italian administration shifted the capital city from Massawa, the Islamic and Arabic-dominated traditional power centre, to Orthodox Christian-domi- nated Asmara in 1897. Similarly, the British shifted the capital from Islamic Mombasa as a Kiswahili metropolis to Christianized Nairobi (Mazrui and Mazrui 1998, 182–183).

    “In Eritrea, Swedish and Italian missionaries focused on developing the vernacular languages as written languages. The Ge’ez script was used for Tigrinya, while the Latin script was used for the Kunama, Beja, Bilen, Saho and Afar languages (Negash 1999, 69). Education in Italian Eritrea prior to fascism was almost entirely in the hands of Protestant and Roman Catholic missionaries (Gottesman 1998, 75; Ashfaha 2015, 141–142), who translated the Bible in vernacular languages and proselytized among different ethnic groups in order to contain the Arabic language and the Islamic faith. Nevertheless, with the support of the Italian authorities, Arabic continued to be used at Qur’an schools, Sufi order centres and private schools and it maintained its function as the lingua franca among the local population and with the neighbouring Arab countries (Miran 2005, 195).”

  • Ismail AA

    Hayak Allah Beyan,

    This book review as adapted to suit discussion in this forum as you have stated has, in my view, relevantly augmented our horizon on how language and culture could be interactively operated to the advantage or disadvantage of members of multi-cultural societies. Before I pass to scribbling a few things on the substance, let me praise the style and language command this post projects to the read. The melding of simplicity and sophistication at the same time is amazing.

    1. “ትግርኛ ኣይትዛርብን ዲኻ፡ ኤረትራዊ ሙሽ ኢኻ።” has become casual comment among our Eritrean compatriots about which members of the minority segments of our society complain. In my pre-independence days (I could be taken as bi-lingual Saho and Tigrigna speaker because I never remember when I learned Tigrigna) I do not remember hearing such comments. Now, the interview as well as my reflection on readings of my history courses about which I did not take attention at the time have led me to ponder on how language and culture play determinant role in shaping attitudes and self-perceptions.

    2. The closing paragraphs have aptly summed up how languages and cultures could be used as weapons to determine political and social hierarchies in nation-state set ups. Historical processes in which the reigning dominant languages had beren enhanced to assume the status they enjoy in our time are clear indicators that discourses in languages and cultures have been designed to inculcate. In post colonial and poor societies (our own included) language, culture and religions of rulers are licenses to jobs and social status. I have mentioned in one of my recent rejoinders an example I had heard from our country when an employer put proficiency in Tigrigna for a janitor’s job as requirement. This summarizes part of what the message this interview discussed.

    3. Since our interest (in forum) in interacting and discussion matters in language, culture and politics is to help ourselves understand the affairs of our nation at this crucial phase of its existence better, investing time in contributions as this post is worthwhile. That is why I think it is important for me to end these remarks by posing a question on how the schooling in mother-tongue policy the current regime had adopted could be explained in the framework of the substance the book in review provides.

    • Haile S.

      Selam Ismael,
      You spead the incense of the juice that Beyan squized out of this book. Albeit a sour juice (being different) that everyone of us has and continue to taste in one form or another. Through language it revives and reminds the smoldering smoky lake (discrimination) that we swim constantly. You can’t avoid it, you smell, respire it and can’t brush it off as it comes back with the wave of your hand. As you well put it, it is also our own overt reality that remain mostly buried among the problems we normally discuss. I long for the day his Excellency minister Osman Saleh answer in Saho to a question on foreign policy asked in the same tongue, not necessary in revolt, but as a normality.

      • Ismail AA

        Selam Haile S,
        Succinct and keen observation as usual. Thank you.
        For us Eritreans who keep on wandering in the wilderness in search of ways of putting our acts together to save a nation in travail and setting ourselves in the right direction of building a society with uniting national identity, we must be aware we cannot enjoy the sweet juice of our affairs without tasting the sour sides of them. I mean that is simply the burden we should bear. The sooner we do that the better our chances of sustaining a meaningful national state. The way the current order are leading us is setting us to towards the brink. More waste of time could mean falling down the precipice. We can imagine what that means in the context of our geopolitical region and what we have been witnessing out there.

  • Thomas

    Great job again, Beyan. Amharic is the dominant language in Ethiopia and it is for obvious reasons.

    If any of you were in Asmara during the referendum time (1993), you would now the femous song by our mothers there:) The Samir Samba “ma’arey ye……… SONG):) That song was tattoo in my brain. Who can forget that song “ansti”:)

  • Kokhob Selam

    Selam Beyan brother,

    Wow! what great job!!!

  • Paulos

    Selam Beyan,

    Cool stuff. Really. Violin playing, Fiodor Dostiyoviski reader Black kid acting White. I clearly remember in the late 90s when the media was blazed with Ebonics. But don’t you think the irresistible psychology of belonging and recognition is at a constant play where Karl Marx’s “Supra-Structure” and Antonio Gramsci’ “Cultural Hegemony” are the cruel realities in a society particularly in a society where the winner takes all.

    With in Marx’s Supra-structure parlance, the dominant class controls the Law and means of information as well including “culturally refined” languages. If history is to attest to that effect, Latin was very powerful language and it was an indication of upper-class within those who spoke it during the Medieval times. The same argument goes with French language where it was a sign of power for over 300 years including when the Romanovs spoke it at the Imperial court instead of Russian. Later on of course when the adage, “The Sun never sets in the British Empire” became a serious reality, English became the language of the world. And of course who knows what the future holds, we might as well start learning to speak Chinese.