ABOUT THE FILM

THE E-WORD

Written, Directed and Produced by Jonathan Gayles, Ph.D.

Website: www.ewordfilm.com

Principal Academic Advisor and Research Consultant, Ronald Williams, II, Ph.D.

Current length is 62 minutes

Film will be distributed by Films Media Group.

Camera, audio, editing, and graphics* by Jonathan Gayles

On 18 December, 1996, Oakland Unified Schools adopted what is now commonly known as the “Ebonics Resolution.” Among several points of the Resolution, the board resolved that:

the Superintendent in conjunction with her staff shall immediately devise and implement the best possible academic program for imparting instruction to African American students in their primary language for the combined purposes of maintaining the legitimacy and richness of such language whether it is known as “Ebonics,” “African Language Systems,” “Pan African Communication Behaviors” or other description, and to facilitate their acquisition and mastery of English language skills;

and

…that the Board of Education hereby commits to earmark District general and special funding as is reasonably necessary and appropriate to enable the Superintendent and her staff to accomplish the foregoing.

Almost immediately, this action garnered the attention of the entire nation. Some have argued that the national attention represented tensions about race rather than the potential technical and educational merits of the Resolution itself. Much of the public debate focused on the alleged desire to “teach” Ebonics – something that was never articulated in the original or revised Resolution. Consequently, the Ebonics “debate” could also be understood as a debate about the legitimacy of Black cultural expression itself. Others consider the Resolution, and the contentiousness that followed its adoption, as evidence of political correctness and local educational activism gone completely awry.

For nearly six months, the Resolution was at the epicenter of the so-called “culture wars” in the United States, sharing space with the O.J. Simpson trial. What is clear is that the Resolution provoked pre-existing tensions about race, education and culture that may have had little to do with the Resolution itself. Indeed, less than five weeks after its adoption, the Resolution was the subject of a special U.S. Senate hearing on Ebonics convened by Senator Arlen Specter (R-Pennsylvania), then chair of the Senate’s Subcommittee on Education Funding. That a Resolution adopted by a local school board warranted a special senate hearing in less than six weeks speaks to the degree to which the Resolution (or what some thought the Resolution represented) resonated nationally.

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Brief Description

This documentary critically considers the Ebonics Resolution as well as the myriad  influences on the public debate (or lack thereof) that erupted as a result of the Resolution. Through the use of archival footage and interviews with scholars, policymakers and, most importantly, those directly involved with the Resolution, the documentary pursues a coherent and comprehensive engagement of Ebonics.

Specifically, this documentary seeks answers to the following questions:

• What is Ebonics?
• What structural aspects define this speech variety?
• To what degree is there debate about the name – both the act of naming the speech variety and the name “Ebonics” itself?
• For what reasons was the Resolution adopted?
• For what reasons was the Resolution revised?
• What influenced the public dialogue on the Resolution?
• To what degree was there local consensus on the Resolution?

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BRIEF SUMMARY OF FILM SEGMENTS

BEYOND ISLANDS OF EXCELLENCE

This chapter considers local pedagogical practices that preceded the adoption of the Resolution. Specifically, the success of the Standard English Proficiency Program (SEP) is addressed. Much of what was proposed in the Resolution reflects the success of the SEP program. Additionally, the degree to which the goals of the Resolution were “conservative” are considered.

INTENT

This chapter engages the “local” dialogue about the Resolution and the degree to which the original wording of the Resolution may have clouded the intent of those involved. Far from a consensus, the Resolution evoked considerable tension. This is especially true of efforts to revise the Resolution. These efforts were successful only by an extremely close vote of the Board.

WHAT’S IN A NAME

This chapter examines the origins of “Ebonics” as well as the continuing tension around the use of this term. More specifically, the use of “vernacular” as a descriptor is also addressed in addition to disciplinary differences in nomenclature.

WHAT IT IS

This chapter examines the assertion that Ebonics is a rule-governed and structured system. Several examples are offered including “aspectual be.”

WE SPEAK, THEREFORE WE DON’T KNOW

This chapter considers the (mis)representation of the Resolution in popular culture. Additionally, the chapter considers the way in which our use of language emboldens our opining about the Resolution – however misinformed this opining may be.

IT’S NOT (ONLY) ABOUT LANGUAGE

This chapter examines the contexts within which language is valued, performed and experienced. The “trap” (Alim) of hierarchies based on language/dialect distinctions is addressed as is the fact that language is neither right nor wrong. Finally, the relationship between language and identity is addressed.

NO REGRETS

Some of those involved in the Resolution reflect on the Resolution’s legacy.

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PRIMARY AUDIENCES

This film should be of interest to those interested in African-American Studies, Anthropology, Linguistics, Popular Culture, History, Educational Policy, Multicultural Education among other areas that engage the relationship(s) between language, race, culture and class status.

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INTERVIEWEES (ALPHABETICAL ORDER) 

H. Samy Alim
Professor of Education
Stanford University

John Baugh
Margaret Bush Wilson Professor of Linguistics
Washington University in St. Louis

Michael Calhoun (Lampkins)
Former Student Board Member
Oakland Unified School District

Toni Cook
Former School Board President
Oakland Unified School District

Carolyn Getridge
Former Superintendent
Oakland Unified School District

Lisa Green
Associate Professor of Linguistics
University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Janice E. Jackson
Speech Language Pathologist
Atlanta, Georgia

Sylvester Hodges
Former School Board President
African-American Task Force Chair
Oakland Unified School District

Sonja Lanehart
Brackenridge Chair in Literature and the Humanities
University of Texas at San Antonio

William Labov
Professor of Linguistics
University of Pennsylvania

Terry Mazany
Former Associate Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction
Oakland Unified School District

Theresa Perry
Professor of Education
Simmons College
Director, Simmons College/Beacon Press
Race, Education and Democracy Lecture and Book Series

Jean Quan
Mayor, City of Oakland
Former School Board President
Oakland Unified School District

Nabeehah Shakir
Educator
Oakland Alliance of Black Educators

Earnie R. Smith
Professor of Medicine and Linguistics
Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science

Carol Lee Tolbert
Former School Board Member
Oakland Unified School District

Robert Williams
Professor of Psychology (Emeritus)
Washington University in St. Louis

Ronald Williams II
Former Student Board Member
Oakland Unified School District

Walt Wolfram
William G. Friday Distinguished University Professor
North Carolina State University

Mary Zeigler
Associate Professor of English Language and Linguistics
Georgia State University

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* Some purchased templates were used but customized by Gayles