Cosby Criticism of
African American Language Skills
Sparks Intense Debate,
Says The Brokaw Company

LOS ANGELES, June 28 2004 /PRNewswire/  Bill Cosby's criticism about the 
dismal lack of "standard" English proficiency and its link to the educational
and economic crises facing African American youth continues to spark intense
social debate.
   
Speaking at the NAACP Brown V. Board of Education commemoration at Howard
University last month, Mr. Cosby remarked:  "Just forget telling your child to
go to the Peace Corps.  It's right around the corner.  It's standing on the
corner.  It can't speak English.  It doesn't want to speak English.  I can't
even talk the way these people talk.  'Why you ain't, where you is.'  ... I
blamed the kid until I heard the mother talk.  Then I heard the father talk.
This is all in the house.  You used to talk a certain way on the corner and
you got into the house and switched to English.  Everybody knows it's
important to speak English except these knuckleheads.  You can't land a plane
with 'why you ain't.'  You can't be a doctor with that kind of crap coming out
of your mouth."

Since his speech, Mr. Cosby has expanded his criticism to include the
gratuitous use of profanity, vulgarity and self-degrading imaging that have
become high profit commodities in pop culture media.  He has repeated that his
urgent reason for "ringing the bell" is the estimated fifty percent high
school drop rate among African American males.

Some critics of Mr. Cosby's remarks have pointed to the vast contributions
of the African American dialect to the world arts and culture, citing the
beauty of works of the literary greats Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston
and musicians such as Ray Charles in their arguments.  Mr. Cosby maintains
that he has no issue with the artistic merit of the African American
vernacular but does not want this argument used as a way to justify young
people not learning standard English and thus impeding their potential.  "Zora
Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes and Ray Charles did not pepper their language
with the 'N' word or call women vulgar names," explains Mr. Cosby.  "Watch an
interview with Ray Charles talking about his life and his music, you will
notice that he spoke standard English."

Arnold Rampersad, Cognizant Dean of Humanities, School of Humanities and
Sciences at Stanford University and preeminent biographer of Langston Hughes,
believes it is misguided to romanticize African American vernacular given the
educational crisis facing today's youth:  "Common speech is indeed vigorous
and creative, but typically only someone who is educated can see the degree of
creativity in such speech, and then romanticize what is essentially
monolingualism.  And people who romanticize monolingualism of the type
attacked by Bill Cosby (the type founded on ignorance and the active
disdaining of books) need to have a monolingual social class in order to
satisfy their romanticism.  Mr. Cosby is absolutely correct that
monolingualism of this type is a guarantee of economic and other forms of
poverty -- including intellectual and spiritual poverty."

What would Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes think about this current
debate?  Noted Hurston scholar Cheryl Wall, Professor of English at Rutgers
University, has this opinion:  "Hurston would have applauded hip-hop, I am
sure.  She would have celebrated its impact not only on U.S. culture, but also
on youth culture internationally.  But, I believe, she would have been stunned
and saddened by the fact that too many young African Americans in the
twenty-first century cannot speak standard English.  She might have been
furious -- as I am -- that now that her books are, finally, being taught in
colleges, not enough black students are enrolled to read them."

"Hurston celebrated the art of poor, uneducated black folk-not only for
its poetry but because it was evidence of their spiritual survival.  At the
same time, she worked her fingers to the bone to get the education that then
allowed her to appreciate the culture of her neighbors in the all black town
where she was raised.  Like most black writers-from Langston Hughes to Toni
Morrison-and most black leaders including Malcolm and Martin Luther King,
Hurston could switch from black English vernacular to standard English in an
eye-blink."

Professor Rampersad explains further:  "Hurston and Hughes understood the
beauty of vernacular black English and wrote stories and poems in which
vernacular speech is prominent.  However, both artists valued even more a
command of standard English ... Their love for and appreciation of vernacular
English was made possible by their command of standard English and would have
been impossible without it.  Both depended on formal learning for their basic
power as artists.  Hurston wrote that she never understood black people until
she had the 'spy glass' of anthropology, learned at Barnard College; Hughes
wrote that he decided to become a writer when he read, in French in high
school, the stories of Guy de Maupassant.  Both artists gained their strength
from a combination of loving the masses of black people and loving the world
of books and learning in general.  Both understood the best way to express
that love was to make themselves educated people."

In closing, Professor Wall draws a parallel between the qualities of Zora
Neale Hurston and Bill Cosby  on never being afraid of being politically
incorrect.  "[Hurston's] social commentary was often funny and intemperate.
It provoked angry criticism  mainly from other black people.  She kept right
on talking.  I hope Mr. Cosby does as well.  Saying nothing in the name of
racial unity will only let a bad situation get worse."

SOURCE Brokaw Company

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