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What is Pro-Black pedagogy in language classrooms: Thoughts on Dr. Baker Bell’s Linguistic Justice

Updated: Apr 11, 2023

Our first blog post of the new year is by guest author Dylan Ashton. Dylan is an educator, a student, a Fulbright Scholar, and more recently, a Soul Food volunteer who teaches English and French to some of our young members. This is the second post in his thoughtful and nuanced series on colonial languages.

Moving forward, a powerful discussion can take place when we begin to question the ways in which we as teachers, language users, and research-practitioners use the languages that we already “have” to implement pro-Black, decolonial[*], and abolitionist pedagogy in colonial language classrooms.

Students in my classrooms both in France and the United States have asked me, “why should I have to learn this language? This has nothing to do with me”. Having been a student of language for over a decade at this point I could only go back to the same reasons that were given to me: You’ll get a better job. You’ll get paid more. You’ll get to travel. But is any of this true? Who actually is able to get a better, well-paying job? Who gets to travel? Where do they get to go and on whose terms? I looked at my students and I knew that deep down in our current structure, some of my students would benefit far more than others by learning a language apart from their native tongue. My white, middle-class students (many of whom shared my upbringing) would be able to add their three, maybe four years of language classes to their college applications and go to a good school where they would maybe continue their language education. But what about my already bilingual students? What about my students who spoke Spanish, Wolof, or Tagalog at home and English or French in school? These were brilliant students whose bilingual-ness didn’t necessarily afford them the same merit when it came time to apply to colleges.

Photo © Soul Food / English Club

In Dr. April Baker-Bell’s book, “Linguistic Justice: Black Language, Literacy, Identity, and Pedagogy”, she questions the ways in which her students actually benefit from this framework and the reasoning behind this motivation. In Dr. Baker-Bell’s critique of Respectability Language Pedagogies, she questions, “what gets lost or sacrificed” in the process of establishing White Mainstream English as a continued and ever pervasive norm of the language classroom. If the ways in which we teachers value standard languages simultaneously devalues non-white or non- “standard” forms of these colonial languages, how are we upholding this system of linguistic racism? While Dr. Baker-Bell’s work focuses mainly on Black American students in English Language Arts classrooms, she challenges her readers to apply these same ideologies and language critiques to any space where language is taught and to students of all races. Teaching these ideologies to white native speakers of a colonial language is just as important in the process of seeking justice and dismantling anti-Black linguistic racism. I began to question the justness of this linguistic reality. I began to wonder if I should be teaching these languages at all; if by teaching these languages, I would be promoting this same system of inequity. Why do some languages get to survive, while others must conform or perish?

When it comes to the survival of non-colonial languages, the normalized oppressive rhetoric has promoted, “survival of the fittest”, but the aspect of the conversation that is missing from this system is the years of injustice that have accumulated to allow for the erasure of languages and thus entire populations, histories, culture, identities, and knowledge. As previously mentioned, we cannot untie the history of oppression from the current actuality of power. In her TED talk, “The Danger of a Single Story”, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie states:

“Start the story with the arrows of the Native Americans, and not with the arrival of the British, and you have an entirely different story. Start the story with the failure of the African state, and not with the colonial creation of the African state, and you have an entirely different story”.

We cannot think about the current state of indigenous languages as a failure of the language users themselves, but as a result of generations of violent erasure at the hands of colonial structures. My already multilingual students should be valued and praised for their complex understanding and practice of their own linguistic identity. For my native colonial language speaking students in class, we should be able to have conversations about how we can use our linguistic privilege to create spaces that can begin to unsettle colonial frameworks of oppression.

I’d also like to mention here that in this long, complex history, many have reclaimed power through the use of colonial language or have been within the structure of colonization for such a long period of time that the colonial language itself has become an integral part of the individual and communal identities. We can see this all over francophone literature where French is used as a means to tell stories and to even gain access to the colonial economic system. To police an individual or community’s use of language seems to place blame on those most affected as opposed to placing blame on the oppressive structure that led to this language use to begin with. As a native speaker of English and as a second language user of French, I don’t necessarily believe it is my roll to learn and become an expert on a third non-colonial language. There are many indigenous speakers that can and should have those rolls. To quote the revolutionary Black poet Audre Lorde:

“For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. Racism and homophobia are real conditions of all our lives in this place and time. I urge each one of us here to reach down into that deep place of knowledge inside herself and touch that terror and loathing of any difference that lives here. See whose face it wears. Then the personal as the political can begin to illuminate all our choices.”

English and French as colonial languages will never be the tools used to decolonize, yet for those of us who have but these tools, we can do our very best to use them to unsettle and critique the system that keeps them in power.

[*] In refencing Audre Lourde’s work, I do not believe that work in colonial language can ever truly be decolonial, but instead colonial language teachers are charged with the work of unsettling colonial power through their pedagogy and practice.

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