formally defined in 1975 when Williams published an edited volume, Ebonics: The True Language of Black Folks . In it, he classified Ebonics as the
… linguistic and paralinguistic features which on a concentric continuum represent the communicative competence of the West African, Caribbean, and United States slave descendant of African origin. (Williams, 1975)
The original Ebonics construct was intended to reflect the multinational linguistic results of the African slave trade.
Prior to its coining, no single term described the linguistic consequences of this period in history.
The vast majority of pertinent studies had all been in the United States, and terminology varied from year to year.
“ Nonstandard Negro English” was common during the 1960s, succeeded by “Black English” or “Black English Vernacular” (BEV) during the 1970’s and most of the 1980’s.
Eventually the term African American Vernacular English (AAVE) was introduced as yet another synonym for the speech of most blacks in America.
However — unlike Ebonics — “Black English” or “AAVE” never explicitly referred to the linguistic legacy of the African slave trade beyond the United States.
But even after slavery was abolished in the U.S., a recurrent combination of racial segregation and inferior educational opportunities prevented many African Americans from adopting speech patterns associated with Americans of European ancestry.
As a result, generations of white citizens maligned or mocked speakers of AAVE, casting doubt on their intelligence and making their distinctive speaking patterns the object of racist ridicule.
Many people — African American or not — look down on Black English as an undesirable or ignorant form of the language. Others see it as a proud and positive symbol of the African-American experience. A few political activists or Afro-centrists insist that Ebonics isn’t a dialect of English at all but rather a separate language with roots in Africa. And many people accept Black English as an important social dialect but argue that its speakers must also master standard English in order to succeed in America today.
Many educational policies and services are determined based on a child’s native language. Students who speak languages other than English may be eligible for special programs to help advance their English fluency.
Root of Controversy
Oakland educators realized correctly that many of their African-American students were at a severe educational disadvantage because they lacked adequate proficiency in standard English.
Rather than argue that AAVE speakers were in greater need of standard English fluency, however, Oakland educators argued that black students were linguistically akin to others for whom English is not native.
budgetary impact of expanding bilingual education
Depending upon which definition of Ebonics one chooses, ensuing policy and economic decisions can have profound social, educational, legal and political consequences. Imagine the budgetary impact of expanding bilingual education programs to include African Americans; clearly, neither educators nor politicians had ever pondered or planned for such a prospect.
Moreover, the highly articulate speech of African Americans who are in the public eye, such as Bryant Gumble, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice and Oprah Winfrey serve as constant reminders that many blacks have mastered standard English without any benefit of (or apparent need for) special educational programs.
Few Americans who use the term know the care with which Robert Williams painstakingly described the linguistic plight of enslaved Africans.
Of more immediate educational importance, efforts to increase standard English proficiency among American slave descendants of African origin have never been fully addressed.
Yet, no fair-minded U.S. citizen who would claim that black students are any different from other American students who are far more likely to succeed if they can be helped to obtain greater standard English fluency.