In The Skin That We Speak: Thoughts on Language and Culture in the Classroom, Lisa Delpit and Joanne Kilgour Dowdy have compiled essays from a diverse group of scholars and educators who share a common belief about the potentially harmful power of language and language attitudes on children in the classroom. The authors seek to "explore the links between language and identity, between language and political hierarchy, and between language and cultural conflict" (p. xiv). The book is divided into three sections and includes personal essays, linguistic analysis, case study, and policy analysis, many of which speak to the ongoing debates surrounding Ebonics and the education of African American students.
Part One, Language and Identity, includes personal essays that explore the struggles of two individuals with issues of identity connected to the languages they were raised to speak. In "Ovuh Dyuh," Dowdy describes growing up in Trinidad where she spoke British English to succeed in school and gain her mother’s approval, yet felt separated from her peers and her inner Trinidadian self. She writes about the tension among her multiple identities, which were tied up in these two dialects or linguistic codes, and how, through acting, she gives her Trinidadian self credibility and acceptance. Ernie Smith, in "Ebonics: A Case History," traces his own educational, linguistic, and professional history as he evolved from failing student and street hustler to community and civil rights activist.
The second part, Language in the Classroom, examines language attitudes in the classroom and addresses ways to constructively combat the negative consequences of such attitudes. In "No Kinda Sense," Lisa Delpit describes hearing her 11-year-old daughter Maya begin to speak African American English after transferring from a mostly White private school to a predominantly African American charter school. Through Maya’s experiences, she realizes that "acquiring an additional code comes from identifying with the people who speak it, from connecting the language form with all that is self-affirming and esteem building, inviting and fun" (p. 39). She realizes that her initial fears and shame about Maya’s new language are shared by many in the African American community, yet claims that in the context of the Ebonics debate, speaking out against the children’s home language is speaking out against that child’s home. "Since language is one of the most intimate expressions of identity, indeed, ‘the skin that we speak,’ then to reject a person’s language can only feel as if we are rejecting him" (p. 47).
In "Trilingualism," Judith Baker, a high school English teacher at a large vocational school in Boston, presents strategies she has employed to help her students understand and feel respect for their home language, while supporting their writing and speaking abilities in many ways. Michael Stubbs focuses on the relationship between language and perceptions of social class, level of education, and family background, noting that stereotypes and social meanings are often propagated through the schools themselves. In "Language, Culture and the Assessment of African American Children," psychologist and Africanist scholar Asa G. Hilliard picks up on this theme of how language attitudes disadvantage African Americans, saying we must "re-educate our nation to the truth about language" (p. 102), beginning with a new understanding of basic linguistic principles and of the history of American and African American English. The last two chapters in this section, by Gloria Ladson-Billings and Victoria Purcell-Gates, focus specifically on how teacher attitudes affect educational outcomes for linguistic minority children. Ladson-Billings writes about a six-year-old African American girl, Shannon, who risks being educationally shortchanged because her teacher allows her to refuse to do simple writing assignments, day after day. Purcell-Gates recounts the story of a how a White family from Appalachia is affected by negative teacher attitudes toward their nonstandard dialect of English.
Part Three, Teacher Knowledge, examines teachers’ language and their preparation to examine their own practices. Author and teacher Herbert Kohl exhorts teachers to study their language and "when you see trouble, attune your work and topsy-turvy your practice in the service of your students. If you see your students failing, re-attune your work" (p. 161). Geneva Smitherman addresses the Council of Teachers of English and the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) in her piece entitled "Toward a National Public Policy on Language." This chapter, originally written in 1988, follows up action taken after the CCCC’s 1974 language education policy entitled "The Student’s Right to Their Own Language" and the National Language Policy of 1988, also known as English Plus. Smitherman expresses dissatisfaction with the implementation and follow-up on these policies, writing that "all that is required for oppression to take hold is for good and well-meaning folk to do nothing" (p. 168). She calls for institutional collaboration on a broad scale to ensure that the linguistic rights of students are extended and protected.
Shuaib Meacham, in "The Clash of Common Sense," offers a case study of two African American college graduates enrolled in the professional school program to become certified teachers, raising questions about the effectiveness of programs that train teachers for culturally diverse classrooms. The final chapter, by Joan Wynne, underscores the harm that myths about language supremacy impose on both African American and mainstream children. As a White English teacher, Wynne recognizes the impact of attitudes of linguistic supremacy as she watches eight of her bright African American students refuse to ask questions at a press conference they were attending in order to receive an award for their high school newspaper. She raises a voice of warning for teacher-education programs that "give so little time, effort, and attention to teaching our pre-service teachers about the basic assumptions of the realities of language diversity" (p. 211). Wynne’s chapter echoes the book’s main theme: by failing to promote awareness and respect for the richness of the African American heritage and language we fail to provide a true understanding of the complexities of our American society. This linguistic racism fails to provide an education that allows our children to come to understand one another in our troubled democracy.