African American Vernacular: Put Some Respect On Our Language

Tuyeni Akanke Smith, M.Ed.
March 3, 2021

Literacy is a word we often use, but do we understand the depth of its application in our nation? Understanding that depth would require the literacy mindset of the United States of America to accept that every culture on the planet has an intelligent language. Language is defined as a communication system embedded in the roots, history, legacy, and evolution of that culture. Consider this: we live in a country that appropriates culture more than it appreciates culture. When we look at culture in the United States, the present day truth includes America’s history of cultural appropriation.This fact affects the way educators teach and apply literacy, which influences how people of the most oppressed cultures see themselves. The future of this country requires cultural appreciation, and integration into the institutions of this nation.

For the purpose of this reading experience, we will define literacy as the ability to read, write, think, listen, and speak with fidelity. If we allow ourselves to reflect on this definition, digging deep to the core of its meaning, we will find that literacy is our access to life. Let us consider Hip Hop. Hip Hop evolves from a history of the enslavement of African American people, and the subsequent struggles of their descendents. The United States could not have evolved economically without African American slave labor. However, the country fails to honor the different languages that formed part of America’s complete identity. African Americans’ self-worth is shaped by their lack of seeing themselves inside the dominant culture of this country, which therefore impacts a person’s agency.

Hip Hop culture’s intellect is painted with African American Vernacular. It is an intelligent language, despite racism’s commitment to deny African American people education. Therefore, we idolize European Vernacular and deny speakers of African American Vernacular access to success in this country. Ironically, lack of agency is a lie painted by the doctrines of a Eurocentric education system. The most intelligent evolution is that of a system of communication. The proof of agency within the African American culture is that despite white supremacy, physical and psychological abuse, African Americans created their own system of literacy. It has led people to freedom and a continued call for social justice and equality. The world’s most lucrative and copied literacy culture is rooted in an aspect of the American experience. African American Vernacular is a language.

According to a leading online streaming company, Spotify, Hip Hop is the most listened to genre of music. With over 50 billion tracks streamed, educators and professionals are listening. Teachers can listen to hip hop at happy hour, but the language lacks its proper respect in academia. Even more condescending are the new ideas of cultural competency that suggest using Hip Hop culture as a means to create buy-in to learning Standard American English. However, by not equipping educators with the skills to harness a student’s home language with fidelity, we deny the development of Standard American literacy for African American students. It is not enough to use a hip-hop beat to introduce a eurocentric idea, we must show students that their favorite songs are rapped over beats which reflects mastery of literary technique. We must consider African American Vernacular as a first language. It qualifies many urban students as English Language learners.

We live in a country where, for many, literacy means to read, write, think, listen, and speak in Standard American English, despite the many languages that create the melting pot of cultures that is the United States of America. When America begins to honor the languages of non-European cultures as equal to its European own, we will then have a starting place for unity. It is then that we will accept the linguistic contributions of many generations of African Americans who have had to master a way of life inside a culture that emerged from oppression. Standard American English is rooted in European culture, and until we understand that, and are willing to change that, it will be difficult to grasp the concept of African American Vernacular as an honorable and intelligent language.

America’s Eurocentric education system has conditioned African Americans to internalize a habit of short-changing their culture. A short-changing of a culture is the root to a short-changing of one’s language, identity, and ultimately self-worth.

In the words of African American mogul Jay-Z, “Teacher, teacher, I’m tryna UN-teach ya.” It is education’s responsibility to remind the urban oppressed that they have a language, they have a culture, and it’s “Supa lit!”

Tuyeni Akanke Smith, M.Ed. is a 33 year old Chicago native and renaissance woman with a passion for identity development, social emotional learning, and all things centered in growth, equity, integrity and truth. 

Tuyeni’s resilience and commitment to her own literacy and identity development, led her to Howard University where she graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Public Relations and Fashion Merchandising. In 2011, Tuyeni started a decade long career as an educator. During this time she earned a dual Masters in Special Education and Elementary Education from Lesley University. 

Tuyeni has taught both youth and adults in the subjects of Humanities, GED education, classroom management, community engagement and instruction. Tuyeni has served inside institutions throughout Washington, DC, Maryland and Chicago, before starting Truth Inspires You Education Consulting, LLC.

Truth Inspires You provides holistic professional development that influences the way teachers, social-workers, health-care providers, and those working in the non profit sector see, and do their work. Truth Inspires You evolved from witnessing many professionals lack the skills and integrity necessary to service oppressed communities. Consequently, a lack of quality output soon becomes “the elephant in the room,” that gets minimally addressed or ignored altogether, for sake of checking boxes and meeting compliance…

As a Renaissance woman, Tuyeni serves as a big sister, auntie, god-mother and mentor who founded a multi-generational sisterhood, The HomeGirl Huddle, a nonprofit organization for young ladies and adult women. The Huddle currently succeeds at healing the individual hearts of, and the relationships between youth and adult women growing in oppressed communities. 

Tuyeni Akanke’s goal is to inspire evolution in as many Chicago natives and organizations as possible. She believes that we are in a time where each title we carry boils down to the fact that we are all human. If we master our humanity, and couple that with how we execute our tasks in life, then organizational systems, communities, families and individuals will operate with fidelity and universal truth.

Tuyeni says “Human identity gives us two choices; either we accept our innate goodness and move in it, or comply with the subconscious conditionings of ill-will and allow the world to remain as it is. Ultimately, each human has a responsibility to humanity, but we must master the individual, inorder to change the world.”

Connect with Tuyeni Akanke Smith, M.Ed. by sending an email to truthinspiresyou@gmail.com.