Anne H. Charity Hudley, PhD
Professor of Education and African-American Studies and Linguistics
Christine Mallinson, PhD
Professor of Language, Literacy, and Culture Program and Director of the Center for Social Science Scholarship
University of Maryland Baltimore County
Antione D. Tomlin, PhD, PCC
Associate Professor + Chair of the Academic Literacies Department
Anne Arundel Community College
“I’m Black; my language is Black, my being is Black,” said one college graduate we interviewed. “You don’t need permission to be Black or to use your Black language. Demand the respect be put on your language because your Black language matters, and so do you!”
In 2018, our team began the Talking College Project, a four-year study, where we worked with over 100 Black and African American undergraduate and graduate students across the U.S. Students shared about their linguistic experiences in college and why recognition and respect for Black language and culture is something that all Black college students and the faculty who work with them need to know.
Black college students deserve to reap the benefits of decades of linguistic research into Black language practices, including the specific variety often referred to as African American English. Linguists know that all languages and varieties have inherent value. From a Black-centered perspective, the cultural value of Black language practices is even more important. Through language and communication, social relationships and community belonging are forged.
The need for this information to reach Black students and faculty is a critical equity issue in education, as we support all students to claim and create their own linguistic and cultural destinies. Black language matters because Black lives matter.
Your Language Is Your Black Is Your Beautiful
In the words of our student researchers, your language is your Black is your beautiful. What Black people say is a key pathway through which Blackness is transmitted culturally, and how Black people talk is also a cultural enactment of Blackness. When we talk about Blackness, we’re referring to a broad set of experiences of history, culture, identity, and community. Language is central to Blackness in all its variability.
Across the Black Diaspora, the cultural value of Black language practices is seen in homes and with friends, in speeches and sermons and songs, in person and online. In college, Black students use African American English and Black language practices as a means of preserving meaning and of establishing points of cultural connection with one another.
Given the principle that language is culture, we challenge the damaging belief that Black language is deficient. Too often, Black students receive this false message. Such claims are not true: Your language is not broken, nor are you. Language variation does not diminish in any way a person’s intellect or aptitude. Black is beautiful, and Black language is, too.
Your Black Don’t Have to Look or Sound Like Someone Else’s
There isn’t just one way to communicate. Some Black people use African American English, some use it situationally, some don’t use it at all, and many Black people use other languages and language varieties. Language is a product and a repository of Black culture, but it is not what makes a person Black.
As our student researchers put it, your Black don’t have to look like or sound like someone else’s. How a person uses language is shaped by their communities and their individual experiences. A person’s entire linguistic knowledge—the languages, varieties, and styles that they use or know to any degree—makes up their personal linguistic repertoire.
Black students deserve to name, understand, and own the linguistic variation that they may have intuited throughout their lives. The National Council of Teachers of English and the Conference on College Composition and Communication stated this point in 1974 and have reaffirmed it ever since: Students have the right to their own language—including all the spoken, signed, written, and gestural characteristics that give Black languages and language varieties their richness and cultural resonance.
Black Language Is Activism, and It Is Powerful beyond Measure
Language has always been a primary site of unification and resistance for Black people—from the antebellum period, when enslaved Africans sang songs to guide freedom seekers, to the contemporary era, when social justice leaders organized a global movement around the phrase #BlackLivesMatter.
Black college students led the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Today, Black college students are still rising up and taking a stand for racial justice and systemic social change. You know your language and what it can do, especially when it joins with other voices. Language is a tool of the Black freedom struggle and liberation.
Black college students are key to a new tradition of liberatory linguistics that can bring about change in higher education. Based on our research, we created strategies, modeled after the Speak Up! Campaign of the Southern Poverty Law Center, to support Black students in claiming their linguistic agency and creating linguistic inclusion on college campuses.
- Be Prepared.Claim your language and challenge anti-Blackness. Where you can, speak out if someone devalues your (or someone else’s) language—such as, “My language is my culture” and “We preserve our language to preserve our meaning, value, and worth.”
- Be Encouraging. Help others stand up for linguistic justice and speak out against linguistic racism. Express your support for brave peers who insist on their right to their linguistic identity and heritage.
- Be Confident. Advocate for linguistic rights whenever you can. Where can students hear, see, and use Black language, language varieties, and culture on campus? Where can greater linguistic inclusion be achieved in classes and on campus?
- Be Proactive. Create the linguistic climate that you seek. Join with faculty and staff mentors who can help advocate on students’ behalf. Through linguistic activism, you can create a more welcoming place for Black languages, varieties, and those who use them.
You Know Your Language
There is so much left to learn about Black and African American college students’ linguistic experiences. To do so requires gathering more knowledge from students themselves—including those who speak African American English, those who don’t, those who flip the switch, and those who mix it up.
We hope to motivate Black and African American college students to do their own research into Black language practices, through community-centered models of doing linguistics. Be bold and share your experiences to converse and learn together, and consider how your research can advance linguistic justice. After all, you know your language better than anyone else.
Feel free to join us in the conversation on Twitter at @TomlinAntione, @clmallinson, and @Acharityhudley
Anne H. Charity Hudley, PhD, is Professor of Education and African-American Studies and Linguistics, by courtesy at Stanford University. Her research and publications address the relationship between language variation and educational practices and policies across the educational lifespan from preschool through graduate school, particularly for Black students. She has a special dedication to creating high-impact practices for underrepresented students in higher education. Charity Hudley is the co-author of numerous publications and four books: The Indispensable Guide to Undergraduate Research, We Do Language: English Language Variation in the Secondary English Classroom, Understanding English Language Variation in U.S. Schools, and Talking College Making Space for Black Language Practices in Higher Education. Charity Hudley is a fellow of the Linguistic Society of America and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).
Christine Mallinson, PhD, is professor in the Language, Literacy, and Culture Program and affiliate professor in the Department of Gender, Women’s, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC), where she also is the founding director of the Center for Social Science Scholarship. The author and editor of numerous books and articles, Mallinson draws upon interdisciplinary frameworks from linguistics, education, and sociology to examine language as a socially and culturally contextualized practice in ways that are community-centered while also informing educational policy and practice. She is the past chair and a current member of the LSA Ethics Committee, as well as a member of the LSA Committee on Ethnic Diversity in Linguistics. She is past associate editor of the journal American Speech, and she has served on the editorial boards of the journals American Speech, Language and Linguistics Compass, and Voice & Speech Review.
Antione D. Tomlin, PhD, PCC is a tenure-track Associate Professor + Chair of the Academic Literacies Department at Anne Arundel Community College. Dr. Tomlin is also an ICF Certified Life Coach.
Any opinions, findings, and conclusion or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the view of Interfolio.