Black History Month is an annual celebration in the United States, which recalls the many contributions African-Americans made to American history, including the development of American culture and American English.
Dating back to the 1920’s, Black History Month started out when the second week of February was deemed as Negro History Week by the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. Carter Woodson was an author, publisher, Black linguist who spoke fluent French, and historian. He was credited as being the Father of Black History. Some 50 years later, the focus on discussing Black history during the designated week evolved into what is now Black History Month.
While Black History Month aims to be a reminder of the cultural contributions of the African-American people, there are critics who say it is not necessary. Some feel it is a celebration of one particular race, instead of simply deeming African-Americans as Americans. Actor Morgan Freeman is a vocal critic of the Black History Month. For him it should not be celebrated as such because American history equates to Black History.
Regardless of how people feel about Black History Month, it is unmistakable that African-Americans have made a vast contribution to American culture. Whether it is in music, food, literature or the arts, the influence of African-Americans can be seen in people’s day-to-day lives just as African-Americans have tried to assimilate other languages and cultures.
Influential multilingual African-Americans
Since early in the 19th century, there have been several Americans that not only mastered several languages but also contributed to American society.
Charles Reason. He was born in 1818 and was the first African-American who became a professor in a college that was dominated by white students. He was a professor of Belles Lettres, Mathematics, French, Latin and Greek and was the first principal of the former Institute of Colored Youth, which is now named the Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, the oldest historically Black institution of higher learning.
- Lewis Howard Latimer. He was fluent in German and French. He was born in 1848, was a patent expert, inventor, scientist, and was an assistant to Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell.
- Mary Church Terrell. She was a champion of women and human rights, who spoke fluent Italian, French and German.
- W.E.B. Dubois. He was a 19th and 20th century writer, activist and educator who taught Literature, English and French. He was the first among African-Americans to have a Ph.D. from Harvard University, no less. He was also the founder of National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
- Carter G. Woodson. The “Father of Black History,” he was a fluent French speaker, was a historian, publisher, editor and author. He was the person who, in 1926, launched the “Negro History Week” that became the Black History Month. In 1912, he received his Doctorate in History from Harvard University.
- Joel Augustus Rogers. He was born in Jamaica but migrated to the United States in 1917. The mostly self-taught anthrophotojournalist had written more than 30 articles and books on the history of blacks around the globe. He was multilingual and spoke Spanish, Portuguese, German and French.
- Lillian Evanti. She spoke fluent French, established Pittsburgh’s National Negro Opera Company. She held the distinction of being the first opera singer to perform in a European organized opera company.
- Bessie Coleman. When she was denied entrance in a U.S. flight school, she went to France to study for a pilot license, and thus became the first African-American woman to do so. She was fluent in French.
- Paul Robeson. He could converse in 20 languages and was fluent in 12 languages. He was a civil rights activist, writer, concert singer, athlete and actor. He was a Stalin Peace Prize laureate and a winner of the Spingarn Medal, which is awarded to African-Americans by the NAACP for outstanding work.
- Shirley Chisholm. He was a fluent Spanish speaker, and the first African-American to be elected to the House of Representatives in 1968.
- Dr. Maya Angelou. She spoke fluent Italian, Spanish, West African Fanti and French, and was is a director, producer, civil rights activist, playwright, actress, author, historian and poet.
Contributions to language
One aspect that African-Americans have truly influenced the American landscape is in the area of language. The African-American Vernacular English or better known as Black English has made a distinct mark in American culture. African-American English is described by Black linguists as a type of English in America that is used by the urban working class. Its influence can be easily heard in various forms of pop music, such as music by artists Nina Simone and Vera Hall, to hip hop artists LL Cool J, Lil Wayne and Kanye West.
Historically, African-Americans have a rich linguistic history since many opted to continue speaking their tribal language in spite of the restrictions of slavery. Creolization is the term used to describe how the creole culture emerged or blended with the western culture. The blending of languages, or pidgins, commonly occurs when two cultures come into direct contact with one another, resulting in new words, new pronunciations or special customization of language.
Distinctions in language
The grammatical structure and phonology of African-American English is largely similar to the dialects spoken in the Southern States of the U.S. The specific pattern of how words are pronounced is similar to West African dialects. For example, the letters b, d and g are usually not pronounced so that the word cub becomes cup or the d in the word hand may not be heard. A consonant at the end of the word may not always be pronounced. Consonants that are in succession are also often reduced or blended together.
The use of the word be can be found prior to a verb, such as in the sentence, “He been eating” instead of saying “He has been eating.” The words “is” and “are” are oftentimes removed in sentence construction, such as saying “You funny,” instead of saying “You are funny.”
The way verb tenses are conjugated as well as the distinctive use of double negatives are just some of the hallmarks of African-American English that make it largely similar to Creole.
Some linguists who support that African-American English is largely Creole are John Dillard, William Stewart and John Rickford.
Changing the vernacular
There are many words common to the English language today that are actually of African origin. Many expressions such as hip and cool are also of African-American origin. Gullah is an African-American language that is still spoken mainly on the Sea Islands off the South Carolina coast. Most of its vocabulary was derived from English although the underlying grammar was founded from several West African languages, such as Hausa, Kimbundu and Kikongo. These languages were the origin of gumbo, jazz, tote and goober and other words that have found their way to mainstream English.
Ebonics is a term loosely used to describe the language, though a very common misconception about the language is that is it the language of the marginalized. There are also those who criticize it for being very grammatically incorrect or sloppy, such as in the use of double negatives. Finally, there are those who feel it is not really considered a language since the Black Americans themselves don’t think of it as such.
There are educators who feel that its use should be limited if not eliminated since it is making it more difficult to teach proper English in schools. Many feel that those who insist in speaking this way put themselves at a social disadvantage due to the stigma associated with the language.
There’s no denying that African-American English has transcended the streets and gone mainstream in many parts of the world. Thanks to the movies, music and various forms of pop culture, people all over the world know about this type of English. It’s no longer a language limited to one particular race; even non-blacks can be heard speaking this way.