April Baker-Bell Write Up

April Baker-Bell Write Up

April Baker-Bell: Linguistic Justice, Black Language, Literacy, Identity, and Pedagogy Post Event Write Up

by Emily Nolan, Writing Arts Intern

If you couldn’t make it to Dr. April Baker-Bell’s virtual event, here’s what you missed! 

April Baker-Bell looks at the camera, offset from the right side of the screen. She has has wide, almond shaped eyes, black skin, and wavy black hair

Dr. April Baker-Bell’s event gave insights to Rowan students and faculty about Black Language, and why antiracist Black language pedagogy should be implemented by all teachers. This inspiring, informative event was co-sponsored by the Ric Edelman College of Communication & Creative Arts, the Writing Arts Department, the Division of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, the Office of Social Justice, Inclusion, & Conflict Resolution, the Faculty Senate, the Faculty Center, and the College of Education. Dr. April Baker-Bell’s event took place on February 5th, and was attended by over 100 Rowan students, staff, and faculty. The Division of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion chose to highlight this event in the form of a write-up because the research Dr. April Baker-Bell has done deserves to be celebrated and to reach as many students and faculty as possible.   

Who is the esteemed April Baker-Bell? Dr. April Baker-Bell is a transdisciplinary teacher, researcher, activist and associate professor of Language Literacy and English education in the department of English and African American Studies at Michigan University. Dr. Bell’s work focuses on interrogating the intersections of Black language and literacy, antiracist pedagogy, and self-preservation for Black women in academia, with an emphasis on early career Black women. Her most recent publication is a book titled Linguistic Justice: Black Language, Literacy, Identity, and Pedagogy, which brings together theory, research, and practice to dismantle Anti-Black Linguistic Racism and White linguistic supremacy. Linguistic Justice was awarded the National Council of Teachers of English 2020 George Orwell Award, for its distinguished contribution to honesty, clarity, and public language. 

A Look Into Black History: Dr. Bell began her event by acknowledging the struggles seen through Black history. 500 years ago, enslavers raided villages in various parts of Africa to abduct African people for the transatlantic slave trade. In addition to the horrors slaves faced physically upon capture, captors utilized a tool for mental and emotional manipulation called language planning. Language planning occurred by captors purposefully separating captive Africans who spoke the same language, as a way to minimize communication between people and plans for rebellion. After a traumatic journey to the new world, enslaved Africans arrived chained together without a shared language to communicate with one another, or the ability to understand their oppressors' language. When considering the trauma that was inflicted upon enslaved Africans, language is not typically taken into consideration. However, the terror of not being able to communicate with anyone, in any sense, is something that should be considered greatly in relation to their suffering. In light of this, enslaved Africans created a language from remnants of their mother tongue to be able to successfully communicate with one another, and communicate in a form their oppressors could not understand. Another form of communication enslaved Africans utilized were spirituals. Spirituals were thought to simply be religious Black songs, however, they were a form of comradery that utilized coded messages. The coded messages would convey how, and when escape plans would occur. Examples can be found in the popular Swing Low Sweet Chariot, and Wade in the Water. Swing Low Sweet Chariot was a metaphor that signified assistance for escaping would arrive soon. Wade in the Water signified that if someone moved through the water, dogs would not be able to pick up the scents of those trying to escape. 

Defining Black Language: “A style of speaking English words with Black Flava--with Africanized semantic, grammatical, pronunciation, and rhetorical patterns. Black Language comes out of the experience of U.S. slave descendants. This shared experience has resulted in common language practices in the Black community. The roots of African American speech lie in the counter language, the resistance discourse, that was created as a communication system unintelligible to speakers of the dominant master class.” (Smitherman 2006)

Black Language Devalued In Classroom Settings: Despite the decades of research involved in the many facets of Black language, Black language is still not perceived as a legitimate language by all. However, Black language has all the necessary qualities that are used to categorize language. Black language is systematic with standardized rules at the lexical, phonological, and grammatical levels. Dr. April Baker-Bell states that the arguments that belittle Black language are typically based on comparing Black language to “White mainstream English.” It is important to note that linguists have long argued that the notion of a standard language is a socially constructed myth that is maintained by people who have a shallow understanding of language. People that perpetuate this notion normalize White ways of speaking English, and in turn justify discrimination against Black people on the basis of language. Unfortunately, the idea mentioned early of language planning is not just an issue of the past. Language planning is still used in American classrooms to penalize Black students for using the counterlanguage that their ancestors were forced to create, instead of White mainstream English, a language with roots to conquest and domination. The way Black language is devalued in the classroom reflects how Black lives are devalued in the world. Likewise, the way White mainstream English is deemed the norm in American classrooms perpetuates the ideology that White culture is considered the accepted standard for students to follow. Dr. April Baker-Bell informs that one of the problems Black language faces in classrooms is that many teachers reduce a legitimate language to slang, and view people who participate using Black language as intellectually inferior. Teachers correct students who are using Black language based on their speaking, and writing, regardless of the fact that they are following the grammatical and phonological rules of the language. Corrections on this basis are demeaning towards an entire language, damage the student’s sense of self, and in turn, detract from their overall success in the classroom.  

Appropriating Black Language: When April Baker-Bell began her research in 2008, she collected examples of Black linguistic appropriation. She informs that there are many examples of designers capitalizing on Black language to create market messages that invite consumers to buy their product. Below are some examples that showcase this. 

Capitalizing on Black language for consumer products shows the Black community that it is acceptable for Black language to be used, and exploited for profit by a non-Black person for the purpose of marketing. Yet, there is still a stigma around Black people using Black language as a linguistic resource in classrooms, and communities. Dr. April Baker-Bell summed it up best as she said “This is unfortunate, but unsurprising because Black language is one of those features of Black culture that White America loves to hate yet loves to take.”

Black Language Pedagogy: Through her research, Dr. April Baker-Bell noted that in her variety of different classroom settings in high schools and higher education, the narratives of her students' lived experiences with Black language in the classroom were eerily similar. Her students’ stories affirm that even the most progressive approaches to Black language education do not account for the internalized anti-Black linguistic racism or consequences these approaches have on a Black student's sense of self and identity. Anti Black linguistic racism is normalized in education through teacher attitudes, curriculum and instruction, pedagogy, and research and discourse. Teacher attitudes refer to the belief that Black language equates to a lack of intellect, and must be eradicated or “fixed” in order for the student to be successful professionally. "Curriculum and instruction" refers to Black language not being acknowledged in curriculum or the study of language as a systemic linguistic system. Black students are not conventionally taught the rules of their own language. "Research and discourse" includes the research on Black language that ignores how the role that White linguistic supremacy, linguistic racism, and the experience of the Black language speaker, affect the research. Anti Black linguistic pedagogy accounts for teachers silencing and correcting their Black students when they participate in a classroom setting using Black language. Teachers must have the experiences and training that enable them to sustain the right of students to their own language, and recognize linguistic diversity. Dr. April Baker-Bell affirms that her goal for pedagogy is to get Black students to see the beauty in Black language, and to understand that there is nothing wrong with the way they communicate. 

Code-Switching: Code-switching is when a person alternates between two or more languages in the environment of a conversation. In this context, Black students code-switch between Black language and White mainstream English. Black people are expected to participate in educational settings by adjusting their style of speech, behavior, and expression for the comfort of others, predominantly White people, in exchange for fair treatment and equal opportunities. April Baker-Bell refers to this pedagogy in the classroom as the code-switching approach. The code-switching approach contends that teachers who encourage code-switching treat Black students equally, but think that if their students sound more White, they will avoid discrimination. The main issue seen with this approach is that code-switching is expected to occur without any acknowledgment of students’ racial realities or the role of anti-Black linguistic racism. April Baker-Bell’s students question this pedagogy as a whole since code-switching is presented as a form of survival but does not save Black people from violence and death at the hands of the police. Trayvon Martin used what most people consider “standard” English when he said “What are you following me for”, which did not protect him from being murdered by police officers. 

Takeaways: Black language is a legitimate language with all the necessary factors that are used to categorize, and study language. Black students are in need of a language education that speaks to their racial and linguistic realities. Antiracist Black language education and pedagogy should be implemented in all classrooms. Antiracist Black language pedagogy when correctly enforced should work to dismantle the normalization of anti-Black linguistic racism and White linguistic supremacy through teacher attitudes, curriculum, instruction, pedagogy, research, and discourse. It should also acknowledge that Black language is connected to Black people’s ways of interpreting and surviving in the world. Lastly, Black lives won’t matter in the classroom if Black language does not. 

We highly suggest that you take the time to watch Dr. April Baker-Bell’s recorded event. To access the recording log in with your credentials at rowan.zoom.us, then click the below link.