Featured Linguist: Sonja Lanehart

Sonja L. Lanehart, Ph.D.
Brackenridge Endowed Chair in Literature and the Humanities

When I was a teenager, I asked members of my family at a gathering, “Why do Black people use be so much?” Because many people in my family and people important to me struggled with literacy, my mission was to go to college and graduate school and earn a Ph.D. where most of my family did not make it past high school. Without anyone to tell me African American Language (AAL) was a valid language variety, I originally set out to study Speech Pathology as an undergrad at the University of Texas to “fix” African Americans.

During my time as a student in Austin, I was exposed to James Sledd’s “Bi-dialectalism: The Linguistics of White Supremacy” (1972) and “Doublespeak: Dialectology in the Service of Big Brother” (1984). Sledd, as a southern White male, spoke about language and identity rights for African Americans (and southerners) in a way they could not (Freed 1995) because, as is still the case, African Americans were seen as too close to the situation. I have always found it troubling/problematic/ironic that, with the inclusion of African Americans and other people of color into the academy, or “the Ivory Tower,” we have often been discouraged from studying our own people because we are accused of being too close to the situation and therefore unable to be objective, whereas Whites have freely studied everyone for centuries and seemingly without reproach or prejudice or subjectivities in the eyes of the research community or the ever-nebulous “they.” As James Sledd noted forty years ago, even “compassionate, liberal educators, knowing the ways of society (i.e., the narrative society has constructed about blackness/Blackness), will change the color of a student’s vowels because they cannot change the color of their students’ skins” (1972, 325). Similarly, James Baldwin, in response to the 1979 case Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School v. Ann Arbor School District—the very Ann Arbor I happened to spend my graduate and Ph.D. years at the University of Michigan—wrote:

“The brutal truth is that the bulk of White people in America never had any interest in educating Black people, except as this could serve White purposes. It is not the Black child’s language that is despised. It is his experience. A child cannot be taught by anyone who despises him, and a child cannot afford to be fooled. A child cannot be taught by anyone whose demand, essentially, is that the child repudiate his experience, and all that gives him sustenance, and enter a limbo in which he will no longer be Black, and in which he knows he can never become White. Black people have lost too many Black children that way.” (1979, 19E; emphasis added).

Having meditated on both Sledd’s and Baldwin’s words during my college exposure to linguistics, I remained a lifelong learner of language variation because I come from a community whose language is not valued. Instead of trying to “fix” the language of my people (where there are no problems to begin with), I, a Black woman, was not discouraged from studying my own people because I vowed to use my education to remedy the linguistic prejudices people hold against AAL and its speakers. I know these negative beliefs about AAL persist. I see them in my classes when African American students, usually while using AAL, reject there is such a thing as AAL or that they themselves speak it. I hear this attitude reflected when I interview Black adults, college students, and teenagers about their perceptions of language. I cringe at both Black and non-Black employers who say they will not hire someone who pronounces ask as “aks” (a common pronunciation in AAL) or uses “double negatives” (multiple negation) because it represents faulty thinking (as if language were math) or who pronounces four as “foe” (again, common in AAL) or who just plain does not use “good” English (i.e., “bad” English is a synonym for AAL). I hurt listening to people denigrate Rachel Jeantel for her speech during her testimony as a witness to the murder pf her best friend.

Sista, Speak!
Black Women Kinfolk Talk about Language and Literacy
By Sonja L. Lanehart

I have based my work in Critical Sociolinguistics since the murder of Trayvon Martin, the devastating trial of his murderer, the rise of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, the massacre of “The Charleston Nine,” and the murder of my distant maternal relative, Sandra Bland, and too many other Black women and men, girls and boys, across the United States. I focused my vocation on asking questions needing answers and investigating gaps in the literature regarding language use and identity in African American communities because I am part of those communities. It is business and it is personal.

As sociolinguists, we have a responsibility to the communities we study in addition to ourselves. As a Black sociolinguist studying Black communities, it is incumbent upon me – and all scholars – to use scholarship both within and outside the academy for the benefit of humanity and society. This is why I do what I do.





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