Freedom Lane – The Ebonic Plague
“The New Haven Board of Education is rolling out a new program to help stamp out Ebonics usage in school,” the bubbly news anchor said, standing outside a public school, smiling and holding her microphone. “The controversial program has come under heat from the African American community as being racist.”
The scene shifted, showing a black professor, addressing a small crowd from his podium. The name “Cole Boatwright” was displayed on the screen under him. “They’re trying to stifle our voice,” he said to murmurs of agreement from his audience. “Ebonics is a language, our language. It should be taught in schools, not silenced!”
The anchor was back, smiling once again. “Despite the community’s pleas and protests to stop the program,” she continued, “programs are expected to start in some schools as early as Monday.”
“Dis some bullshit!” Da’Quarius shouted at the TV.
“Calm down,” Helen said. “If you come to this country, you should learn the damn language the normal people speak.”
“I was born here!” Da’Quarius snapped. “Dammit, biddy. I was born in da’ same city as you!”
“That’s enough shouting,” Rose said. “Now I don’t agree with the severity of all this, but you could probably benefit from some speech coaching.”
“Oh shit,” Helen muttered. “Rose is being racist again! I love it when that happens.”
“I am not being racist,” Rose said. “I’m just saying that maybe some of the more… ethnic school children could benefit from learning how to speak properly at a job interview or wherever.”
“Both biddies turned on me,” Da’Quarius said, crossing his arms.
“Hey,” Helen said. “I’m with you, kid. Nobody’s gonna tell us how to talk in our own damn city!”
“Yeah,” Da’Quarius said. “Fight da’ power!”
Rose sighed. “This isn’t going to end well at all.”
Created, written, & directed by Budgerigar Orville Bigelow
Co-created by executive producer BluntSharpness
Season 11, Episode 4: The Ebonic Plague
“Starting today,” Mr. Hessman said, addressing his sixth grad social studies class, “some of you will be joining our new speech class, abolishing Ebonics in our prestigious school.”
The class stared at Hessman, not taking his bait to get him going on another of his signature rants. Luckily for them, he didn’t need such prompting.
“I, for one,” Mr. Hessman continued, “don’t think my students should be judged on the way they speak. Ebonics is the language of the streets, and god forbid someone curtails their accent to make another not feel uncomfortable. In a minute, they’ll be calling those selected by this school to the special class, eradicating their voices, turning them into the sheep and followers they want for this white-washed society.”
The intercom above the door buzzed, and Principal Johnston’s voice filled every room in the school. “The following students are to report to the assembly room,” he said. “Da’Quarius Masters.”
The students waited for more names, but none came. The intercom clicked off with a buzz of static, and the room was silent. Every set of eyes was on Da’Quarius.
“Well ain’t dis a mo’ fucker.”
Liz Tyson, Miss Tyson to her students, sat in her new classroom in Haven Hills School. She was chubby, had short brown hair, and wrapped in a blue-green shawl. She thought she’d have a full class of students, but only one sat in the back row of the class, a bald boy with yellow glasses named Da’Quarius; a name that told her breaking his usage of Ebonics was going to be a challenge.
“Good morning,” Miss Tyson said. “My name is Miss Tyson.”
Da’Quarius sat with his arms crossed, a look of annoyance on his face. “’Sup?”
“Do you want to sit closer?” Miss Tyson asked. “It looks like it’s just the two of us today.”
Da’Quarius huffed and picked up his things, moving toward the front of the class. He sat in the front row, directly across from Missy Tyson, once again crossing his arm.
“What do you expect to get from this class?” Miss Tyson asked.
“Lemme set one thing straight,” Da’Quarius said. “You an’ I ain’t fuckin’. I don’t care how many times da’ white teacher seduces da’ black kid on da’ news. It just ain’t happenin’ here. So you can get dat notion outta yo’ head right now.”
Miss Tyson sighed. “I wasn’t expecting anything like that to happen,” she said. “I just want to teach you proper English.”
Da’Quarius huffed again. “Proper English? Lemme ask you somethin’. What if some kid comes from England an’ talks with an accent? I bet dat’s okay. But I talk with an accent, and you wanna make me talk more white.”
“It’s not about talking ‘more white’,” Miss Tyson retorted. “It’s about being able to speak well enough to go to college, get a job, and keep up with others in the workplace. Your quality of life will be much better if you don’t sound like a walking stereotypical joke.”
Da’Quarius looked over Miss Tyson. “So bein’ black is a joke now?”
“Look,” Miss Tyson said, taking off her glasses and pinching the top of her nose. “What the hell do you want to hear?”
“How’d your first day of speech lessons go?” Rose asked, passing over a casserole dish full of broiled chicken over the dining room table toward Da’Quarius.
“How do you think?” Da’Quarius asked. “I’m one of da’ only black kids in dat school, an’ I’m da’ only one dey picked to toss in. I’m sittin’ with dis white bitch every gotdamn day, hearin’ ‘bout how I talk is a fuckin’ joke an’ shit.”
“I wish you wouldn’t use that language at the dinner table,” Rose said.
“Oh,” Helen said, taking her chicken and placing the dish back in the center of the table. “So you’re going to chime on the way he talks too? I told you, it’s just street talk. He’ll grow out of it.”
“That’s not what I meant,” Rose said. “I was talking about the swear words.”
“OK,” Helen said. “Kid, don’t friggin’ swear at the table.”
Rose sighed while Da’Quarius chuckled. “It’ll be good for you,” Rose said. “I hope you see that in the end. I’m sure your student advisor thinks so too.”
“You mean Hess?” Da’Quarius said. “I think you’ve pegged him wrong on dis.”
“What do you mean?” Rose asked.
“Aight,” Mr. Hessman said, standing up from his desk. “Get’chu some paper, you jive-ass mamma jammas. We’s ‘bout to have a quiz up in here.”
The class murmured, looking at each other as they took their notebooks out, except for Da’Quarius, who couldn’t hide his smile.
“Okay, turkeys,” Mr. Hessman said. “Listen up, cuz I’m only gonna give yo da’ ‘structions once. Ya feel me?”
The class all got their pencils ready, nervous looks on their faces.
“YOU DID WHAT?!” Principal Johnston roared, turning read as he roared at Hessman.
“I’m giving the students a small taste of the language of the streets,” Hessman replied. “Do you have an issue with that?”
“You know how the Board of Ed is right now with this Ebonics nonsense,” Johnston replied. “They’ll have my ass if they find out you taught a class talking like that.”
“I thought it was good,” Da’Quarius said from his seat in the corner. “E’ryone gets to see what we’re ‘bout to lose, even if yo’ jive talk is dated.”
“Bingo,” Hessman said. “It’s been a long time since I’ve conversed in jive, Da’Quarius, but im glad you appreciated it at least.”
“Why’s he even here?” Johnston asked. “He’s not the one in trouble for once.”
“I’m his student advisor,” Hessman replied. “And this time I needed a student to advise me, so it made sense to flip the script. He’s also the only one who passed my quiz today. He got an A-plus on it if you must know.”
“He’s the only one who can understand you when you talk like that!” Johnston exclaimed.
“Like what?” Da’Quarius asked. “Like a nigga?”
Johnston turned red. “Get out,” he said quietly. “Both of you, get out before I suspend you both.”
“You heard him, Daq,” Hessman said. “Let’s get you to speech class.”
“Shit,” Da’Quarius muttered. “I was hopin’ to get outta dat class.”
Miss Tyson aimed her wooden pointer at the dry erase board. There were words written all over it. She pointed to “this”, waiting for Da’Quarius to repeat it.
“Dis,” Da’Quarius said.
“This,” Miss Tyson said. “The ‘T’ and the ‘H’ do not make a ‘D’ sound. Try another.” She moved the pointer.
“No,” Missy Tyson said. “‘that’.
“Dat’s what I said!” Da’Quarius exclaimed. “Dat!”
Miss Tyson sighed. “Let’s try something else,” she said. She uncapped the marker and wrote a new word on the board. “Thick.”
Da’Quarius stared at her, calculating. “Dick.”
“No!” Miss Tyson snapped, dropping her pointer on the ground. “You’re doing this on purpose!”
“No I ain’t!” Da’Quarius retorted.
“I’ve heard you make the ‘T-H’ sound correctly before,” Miss Tyson said. “You’re choosing to say ‘dis’ and ‘dat’ instead of ‘this’ and ‘that’. You are more than capable of making the sounds needed to say these words.”
“Dis is how I talk!” Da’Quarius shouted. “Wha’chu want me to do? Learn a whole new language so you can get yo’ paycheck an’ bounce? I ain’t goin’ down like dat.”
Miss Tyson looked down and shook her head as the bell rang. Da’Quarius picked up his backpack and left without another word. She looked up and followed him with her eyes. “Why won’t this kid even try?”
“Who’s up next?” Miss Reynolds, and ancient English teacher, asked her sixth grade class. “We haven’t heard from Da’Quarius yet. Come up and give your report.”
Da’Quarius walked to the front of the class, holding his oral book report. He cleared his threat and began his assessment of Watership Down by Richard Adams. “So dis book ‘bout a bunch of bunny rabbits, but don’t let dat fool you. It all starts when one of da lil’ bunnies sees da’ future, and dey all doomed to be kilt. Den -”
“Let me stop you for a minute,” Miss Reynolds interrupted. “What are you doing?”
“My oral report on Watership Down,” Da’Quarius replied. “It gets better. Da’ bunnies go to war just to get laid in da’ third part. Fo’ real, yo.”
“I mean the matter of which you speak,” Miss Reynolds said. “Weren’t you among the students taking the classes to stomp out those disgusting ebonics?”
“It’s only been a week,” Da’Quarius said. “’Sides, you ain’t gonna tell me how I can an’ can’t speak. Dis is America, an’ dis is my voice.”
“I suppose not,” Miss Reynolds said. “I am, on the other hand, your teacher, and I can grade you as I see fit. I believe your report, the parts I was able to understand, earned you a D.”
“Dat’s bullshit!” Da’Quarius exclaimed. “I didn’t even get to finish! You let Todd go on for like twenty minutes on that stupid red fern book. We know da’ dog dyin’ made you cry, Todd. Shut the hell up about it!”
“Sit down,” Miss Reynolds said. “Or the D will turn into an F.”
“Umma take my ‘D’ an’ ‘F’ yo’ face with it, bitch,” Da’Quarius muttered, moving back toward his seat.
“What was that?” Miss Reynolds asked.
“You prob’ly wouldn’t have understood,” Da’Quarius replied. “Bein’ ebonics an’ all. Just know dat dis won’t go unpunished.”
“Indeed,” Miss Reynold said, smirking. “I don’t suppose it won’t.”
“The teachers in this school are actively giving students bad grades because of their accents!” Professor of African American Studies, Cole Boatwright shouted, standing outside the front steps of Haven Hills school. “I’ve been inundated with stories from every school, hearing how these teachers are treating ebonics as something that needs to be stomped out instead of nurtured. Maybe ‘white-washed’ is a better word. I speak for many when I say that this type of behavior toward black students will not be tolerated!”
“He speaks awfully well for a black guy,” Helen said, muting the evening news. “I wonder if he sees the irony of speaking so well, defending children’s right to speak like slobs.”
“You were all for us speakin’ da’ language of da’ streets,” Da’Quarius said. “Now you’re callin’ out dis mo’ fucker.”
“I’m calling him out because he’s making the rest of you look bad,” Helen said. “If he wanted to support your cause he’d use the language of the people, not this high-born professor talk.”
“Please stop arguing,” Rose said. “Da’Quarius, I got an email from your speech teacher. She thinks you’re not even trying to learn.”
“Dat ho dimed me out?” Da’Quarius asked.
“Also,” Rose continued, “your English teacher is concerned about an outburst you had during class that resulted in you getting a D on an oral report.”
“Reynolds dimin’ on me too?” Da’Quarius asked. “My whole school is full of snitches. I bet Reynolds didn’t mention how da’ whole thing started cuz she was bein’ racist an’ shit.”
“Shank them in the shower,” Helen said. “They’ll learn.”
“We don’t shower with our teachers,” Da’Quarius said.
“Regardless of snitches and this professor on television,” Rose continued, “I want you to put an effort. I know you don’t like this teacher or the class, but she won’t go away until she sees that you can do what she’s asking. Trust me. You’re better off just putting in the time and the lip service.”
“Alright,” Da’Quarius said, getting up. “I’ll see what I can do. I ain’t guaranteeing nuttin’, doe.”
“Thank you,” Rose said.
Da’Quarius went up toward his room. Helen waited until he was gone before commenting. “This whole thing is going to die down soon anyway.”
“Probably,” Rose agreed. “But Da’Quarius may just learn something in the end.”
Da’Quarius walked into Miss Tyson’s speech class. “You ready fo’ another round?”
Miss Tyson sighed. “I think I’ve had enough of the arguing and fighting,” she said. “Teaching one student proper English shouldn’t be this hard.”
“Dat’s da’ spirit!” Da’Quarius exclaimed. “You mind if I play on my phone until class ends? I’m in a twitter feud with Corey Feldman. Mo’ fucker thinks he should still be alive.”
“I just want to know one thing,” Miss Tyson said, sitting near Da’Quarius. “Why don’t you want to learn this stuff? Why is the whole world against this cause.”
Da’Quarius turned and put his phone down. “It’s not dat I’m against you,” he said. “What you an’ da’ schools are asking is fo’ us to be less black. Nobody seems to see dat.”
“That’s not what I’m asking,” Miss Tyson said. “As much as you want to call ebonics an accent or its own language, it’s not, and it will never be recognized that way. It will always be perceived as gibberish. It’s fine for where you’re at now, but you’ll never be taken seriously as an adult if you keep speaking this way.”
“What if I’m a football player?” Da’Quarius asked.
“You know what I mean,” Miss Tyson said, smirking a bit. “I just worry about you and kids like you. You can be over-qualified for a job, and be turned away because of the way you talk. You have it hard enough with the racism that won’t seem to die in this country.”
Da’Quarius sighed. “I’m going to tell you something,” he said, “but it has to stay in this classroom.”
“Sure,” Miss Tyson replied. “What a second. You said that perfectly fine.”
“Yeah,” Da’Quarius said. “Do you really think I don’t know how to talk this way? They made us take these classes in the orphanage. They thought white parents would adopt us if we talked like them.”
“Oh my,” Miss Tyson said. “They really said that to the kids there?”
Da’Quarius shrugged. “It’s the truth. What you’re saying is the truth too. I wouldn’t talk like that on a job interview or anything. I know some people who would, but I know better than that.”
“Then why do it at all?” Miss Tyson asked.
“It’s about my identity,” Da’Quarius said. “Look at my regular class. I’m the only black kid in there. I’m one of maybe four in this school. I’m the only black kid in my family too. I can conform and talk like everyone else, but I don’t want lose that part of myself. I came from the ghetto, where they talk in what white propel call ebonics. Maybe it’s just my tribute to them.”
Miss Tyson nodded, at a loss for words. She was about to say something when the door opened and Principal Johnston walked in. “That’s it,” he said, waving his arms. “Class dismissed.”
“Wha’chu talkin’ ‘bout?” Da’Quarius asked, lapsing back into his normal way of speaking.
“That professor and his protesters got the whole program shut down,” Principal Johnston said. “Why am I even talking to you about this?”
“I dunno,” Da’Quarius said. “Maybe we friends now.”
Principal Johnston glowered.
“Finish up this last class and get him to his study hall, Miss Tyson,” Principal Johnston said. “This whole failed experiment is over.”
“The board of education has come to a good decision today,” Professor Boatwright said, speaking into his normal microphone on the news at noon. “No longer will our voices be stifled.”
Helen muted the TV. “I’ll be glad when his voice is stifled. What a blowhard.”
“I thought you were all for ebonics and the ‘language of the streets’,” Rose said.
“People can talk how they want,” Helen said. “This is America after all.”
“Then what’s your problem with Boatwright?” Rose asked.
“I’m just sick of hearing all of this,” Helen said. “Promise me you won’t ride the kid about learning to speak properly when he gets home.”
Rose sighed. “I guess I can’t now, not if it’s labeled as racist and his school isn’t teaching it. I just hope he uses common sense when he’s older and picks up some good habits from us.”
“That’s the spirit,” Helen said. “You gonna make some sandwiches now or what?”
“I guess this is it for us,” Miss Tyson said, walking Da’Quarius down the hall toward his study hall. “All I can say is that it was… educational.”
“It was,” Da’Quarius said. “I’m sorry I gave you such a hard time. I’m not a fan of being told to change who I am to accommodate others.”
“I get it,” Miss Tyson said. “I never looked at it from your perspective. I’ll remember our talk next time I teach one of these classes.”
“The schools aren’t gonna let you teach,” Da’Quarius said. “What are you gonna do now?”
“There’s other things I can teach,” Miss Tyson said. “Don’t you worry about me.”
“This is it,” Da’Quarius said, stopping outside the door to Mr. Hessman’s room. “So this is goodbye?”
“Maybe,” Miss Tyson said. “We may run into each other again.”
“Look,” Da’Quarius said. “I meant what I said when we first met: we ain’t fuckin’.”
Miss Tyson laughed. “See you later, Da’Quarius. You better get in there.”
“Later, teach,” Da’Quarius said. He opened the door to Hessman’s classroom and entered. “’Sup mo’ fuckers?! Guess who’s back in da’ hizzle?! It’s da’ Dee to da’ Quizzy! Outta my way, Todd, you big-ass bitch!”
Miss Tyson laughed as the door closed. She lingered for a moment before turning around to leave Haven Hall and her one, solitary student.