I had a conversation with a young sister the other day to discuss how she might tackle future job prospects. Knowing that I am an avid reader and educator she asked if I could recommend a book that would help her to sound more professional. To clarify, I asked if she meant more knowledgeable about her craft or maybe more mature since she is very young, but upon further explanation she was asking how she might correct her Ebonics to sound more intellectual.
My suggestions were to read more to help expand her vocabulary, learn more root words, and do lessons to help with diction and grammar. I also found a book specifically designed to help teach blacks who use Ebonics better English and grammar habits. I was happy that she had recognized the different linguistic patterns and desired to improve her English but at the same time my heart sunk. For one, I realized how much our education system had failed her and two, I could tell she felt quite despondent for having not previously mastered this skill.
Ebonics, (a word that derived from the terms “ebony” and “phonics”) has a complicated place in the African American community. Those within poor African American communities are expected to speak it consistently or risk being seen as ‘trying to act white’, while those who work in mainstream America are expected to abandon it completely or risk being seen as ‘too ghetto’. People who desire to maintain their roots but still infiltrate the mainstream system must become bilingual.
My bilingualism is not something I often think about. I speak Ebonics (or AAVE) just as resolutely and instinctively as I speak proper English, so I do not have to contend with the complication of using one or the other. That said, I recognize the stigma and career obstacles of individuals who do not regularly exercise both.
The Linguistic Society of America has finally come to terms with this reality and has begun to regard African American Vernacular English (AAVE) speakers like other ESL learners, rather than treating them as individuals who are ignorant or incapable of learning. Sadly, society has not reached this same conclusion. The stigma and ostracism makes many Ebonics speakers defensive and unwilling to tackle the complexities of English formality. This is indeed the obstacle that must be overcome.
While I urge those who speak Ebonics most frequently, to expand their vocabulary and become ‘bilingual’, I also encourage others to recognize that Ebonics does not make one less intelligent, undetermined or incapable.
If you are seeking to become bilingual or you are an educator seeking to help AAVE students overcome their linguistic challenges without insulting their intellect try Ax or Ask? The African American Guide to Better English
For more information on the history of Ebonics and how Ebonics is used in the literature of notable authors like Zora Neale Hurston, Paul Lawrence Dunbar and Langston Hughes, visit
If you still need evidence that Ebonics and intellect are not mutually exclusive, just look at how my son does his homework.