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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