Ebonics is Not A Sign of Stupidity

By: Deprina Godboldo, March 28, 201

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She never won an Academy Award for the work, but one of my favorite Halle Berry movies is B.A.P.S.

In the film, Berry portrays a Georgia-born restaurant waitress. She is cast as the stereotypical ghetto black girl. Her hair is tall and statuesque. Her nails, like eagle talons. Gum-popping. Head-bobbing. Slang-talking.

Berry’s character and her friend decide to fly to Los Angeles to pursue a tiny dancing part in a rap video. One thing leads to another and the two Southern black women find themselves in a decked-out mansion owned by a old, wealthy white man. His staff, all white. The neighborhood, all white. The customs and traditions, all white.

Therein lies where the movie gets interesting. There are several scenes where the cultures clash, namely when Berry speaks slang while talking to the mansion staff. The staff has no idea what Berry is saying and, in some ways, look down on her character for using broken English. But they only look down on her because they don’t understand themselves, not for Berry’s lack of communication.

Considered to be one of Halle Berry's most embarrassing films, B.A.P.S. explores being "ghetto" in America.

Considered to be one of Halle Berry’s most embarrassing films, B.A.P.S. explores being “ghetto” in America.

This notion that using slang somehow equates to idiocy or lack of decorum is antiquated and dismissive at best. Those who quickly belittle and shun Ebonics users never take into account why Ebonics was developed in the first place. And it serves the same purpose as warm sweaters or a grilled cheese sandwich – it makes someone comfortable with their immediate surroundings.

We live in a country that, for better or worse, is a collection of all different races and cultures. And when immigrants come to the United States, this place is a foreign land. To help themselves feel more comfortable, everyone rushes to sights and sounds that they know and to reunite with their community, even if they don’t know the individuals themselves. That is why you see Asian grocery stores or Irish-American festivals or Spanish radio stations.

Blacks have that same handful of things that make us feel comfortable around our peers. Family reunions are one, speaking slang is another. We don’t use it all the time, just in instances when we feel relaxed and around like-minded friends.

In other words, using slang is one of many techniques African-Americans use to code switch. Its practice is perfectly normal and acceptable when surrounded by peers of your own race or even someone of a different race who grew up in the inner city. Using conversational slang only goes awry when it’s employed in “inappropriate” social situations, including job interviews, meeting the in-laws, or written essays.

The savvy Ebonics specialist knows when and when not to use it. And knowing when it’s appropriate takes a higher level of thinking, the ability to judge a room and instantly determine if this is the correct venue for slang. And so, it could be argued that people who use slang are highly intelligent – particularly those who go back and forth between using it and not. They can change their form of communication to fit the audience, which few people can do.

Ultimately, Berry’s character changes the culture within the mansion to one in which slang is understood and accepted. And that’s what makes American life so fascinating and worth partaking in – that transition from unfamiliar to acceptance. There are many who try and use Ebonics, they think it’s cool but ultimately we have a long way to go before normal American life looks like that scene in the mansion.

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