Having really done a lot of work to achieve greater mental and emotional clarity over the past two years, I’m experiencing reactions to my schoolwork and readings that I must have had back in the day but just ignored because they were uncomfortable.
So, back in middle school and high school I had a really great English teacher, probably the person who made me want to write more than anyone else. The school forced us to read a Shakespeare play every year from 4th grade to 12th (and then I went ahead and read all the rest in college; I still have that giant book somewhere at my mom’s), but this teacher was very intentional in choosing books from different contexts, including many black authors I gather weren’t read in most schools, and especially not very white schools like mine. It was great, in retrospect, and I really enjoyed reading Morrison and Hurston, but doing some work for school now I am struck by how I feel while reading articles about African American Vernacular English (AAVE).
I’ve know about AAVE as such since the first time I went to grad school (sigh), but the author of the particular study I’m reading was clear to frame her positionality as a white researcher in the context of exploitative research performed on marginalized groups. In other words, she was sensitive and kind and acknowledged that others haven’t been. It’s a great article (though it’s super long). But that’s not my point.
While reading, I was struck by the way AAVE is analyzed and picked apart. And then I thought about how my program, supportive though it may be, is still… a lot of white students. These are, by and large, very kind and sensitive white students. But the point I keep delaying because it’s uncomfortable to say is, I think for a long time I felt as though I was on display when we discussed black culture, students, and, now, language. I don’t really speak AAVE very often though I certainly understand it, which is another way of saying I’m pretty far from the stereotypes and tropes of black men. I’m not really saying that’s good or bad, but it’s true.
Ultimately, my teachers and professors have generally handled the issue well. Especially now, my classmates never say anything that makes me feel on display. But I think that my classmates, being very young and very privileged kids, did a lot of really unsettling things when these books were read in class, and I’m pretty sure it was pretty unpleasant. I can’t pinpoint moments, but there was a pervasive sense that these books mattered less than the standard classics, at least as far as my classmates were concerned.
My experience being one of the few black faces in my environments was valuable, but sometimes I think the thing I learned the very most about every day was just how different my life was from theirs.