LINGUIST List 14.2956

Wed Oct 29 2003

Review: Ling & Literature: Richardson (2003)

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  1. Don Walicek, African American Literacies

Message 1: African American Literacies

Date: Wed, 29 Oct 2003 18:20:28 +0000
From: Don Walicek <>
Subject: African American Literacies

Richardson, Elaine (2003) African American Literacies, Routledge,
Literacies Series.

Announced at

Don E. Walicek, the University of Puerto Rico at Rio Piedras

PURPOSE / CONTENT: This book offers a critical account of the language
and literacy practices of African American students. In it Richardson
shows that current pedagogical theory and institutionalized practices
consistently fall short of valuing and fully understanding the
cultural and historical experience of African Americans. This
predicament, argues the author, has led to unethical educational
practices and student underachievement. Responding to this crisis,
she calls for changes in literacy education. Her analysis pulls from
research in sociolinguistics, communication studies, and education.
It will be of interest to educators, sociolinguists, and, more
broadly, readers with an interest in African American Vernacular
English (AAVE), curriculum design, and vernacular expressive arts.
The book consists of an introduction, six chapters, a lengthy
bibliography, and an index.

OVERVIEW: The first chapter, ''Literacy, language, composition,
rhetoric and (not) the African American student,'' examines some of
the social practices and ideologies that inform the history of African
American education in the United States. Richardson sees her research
as a contribution to the construction of a multicultural America. She
writes, ''I use the term multicultural to signify equal opportunity
beyond the point of allowing people of color access to historically
White institutions'' (8). While her particular focus is African
Americans, she endorses and encourages attention to a variety of
cultures and marginalized groups (Asian, Black, Latino/a, Native
American). Such projects, Richardson argues, demand that the
production of knowledge be critiqued and expanded.

Chapter one also introduces one of the main points of the text: that
White supremacy, capitalism, and related discourses of American
meritocracy inform the literacy practices of educational institutions
and contribute to the underachievement of African Americans. The
author relates language teaching practices to racism by reviewing a
substantial amount of literature (i.e., Smitherman 2000, Fine 1995,
Rickford 1998, and Woodson 1990) which shows that many non-white
students see narrow, culturally-biased approaches to language as an
attempt to erase them culturally. She considers the teaching of
standardized English void of discussions of social context, politics,
culture, and power an example of this process at work. Confronting
this and related problems, she holds, demands that African American
students study and use AAVE in the classroom. Doing so, Richardson
argues, enables educators and students alike to combat more
effectively the perpetuation of social stratification on the basis of

The second chapter, entitled, ''The literacies of African
American-centered rhetoric and composition: freestylin' or 'lookin'
for a style that's free','' maps the development of African American
literacies and rhetorical practices. It provides an analysis of
literature, folklore, vernacular expression (e.g., childhood rhymes,
gospel, 'shuckin' and jivin'). The chapter's scope is expansive,
covering the periods of slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the Harlem
Renaissance, the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Power Movement, and
the contemporary era of Hip Hop. Richardson points out that these
historical events have more in common than we might think. She notes
that in each writers, performers, and artists, whether 'common folk'
or ''experts in their respective areas, challenge and cope with
hierarchical power relations shaped by the legacy of The Atlantic
Slave Trade. Her particular interest is the relationship between
these responses and literacy. Chapter three continues in a similar
fashion but focuses on providing a sketch of specific female
contributions to African American literacies.

The fourth chapter has two primary goals. First, it discusses
theoretical influences on Richardson's understanding of notions of
African American-centered literacies. Second, it asks whether the
teaching methodologies she proposes actually work. In describing one
particular study highlighted in this chapter, the author explains that
as most of her students were African American, she developed an
African American-centered composition theory for their courses. She
based her approach on four observations: (1) form and content are
inextricably bound, (2) Black discourse is an academic discourse in
constant flux, (3) contrastive analysis of AAVE and Standard English
will improve students' critical language facilities, and (4) cultural
and critical awareness can be realized in writing and discourse using
features that have arisen in the African American historical
experience. Richardson tests the effectiveness of the curriculum by
evaluating whether the composition skills of her students improved
over time. Her findings indicate that written fluency improved due to
exposure to her curriculum. She supports this conclusion by
presenting data from these rhetoric and composition courses. Included
are examples of activities conducted in the classroom, writing
prompts, analyses of AAVE syntax, and students' comments collected at
the end of the course.

Richardson's teaching is also discussed in chapter five. The focus
here are another set of classes centering on rhetoric and discourse,
with an emphasis on production. Additionally, the author offers a
detailed description of her teaching methodology. The chapter includes
several examples of student writing and Richardson's comments on each
one. In these classes some students sought publishers for papers in
which they used AAVE discourse while others used written AAVE in
developing web pages for community organizations. The author points
out that these assignments proved useful for students because they
revealed differences between public and private discourse. The text's
final chapter, ''Dukin' it out with 'the powers that be,' covers some
of the problems and challenges that the author experienced teaching
African American-centered curricula.

EVALUATION: This is an enjoyable book that offers a fresh perspective
on questions about African American literacies. Perhaps its most
striking strength is the author's highly personal approach.
Richardson includes many personal anecdotes and successfully weaves
these into discussions of the topics mentioned above. Her text can be
seen as an example of 'reflexive scholarship' (Bourdieu 1980/1980) and
as invitation for linguists and others interested in language to
engage in this sort of work. Another related strength of the book is
its attention to popular culture and the author's insightful
discussion of these forms with respect to literacy.

My main criticism of the book concerns organization and clarity. I
found that the author has a tendency to be repetitious in her review
of literature that relates to her research (e.g., Freire 1990, Giroux
1991, Smitherman 2000). Currently these references extend into the
fourth chapter but could, I suggest, be limited to two chapters.
Though these references typically relate to the topic at hand, they
often address points that have already been discussed. This takes
away from the book's coherency as a whole, making it seem as if the
chapters were meant to be read as individual units.

The final criticism to be mentioned here concerns key concepts and
phrases in the text. These are numerous: 'African American
literacies', 'the Black Voice', 'African American ways of knowing,'
'Signifyin(g),' 'survival literacies,' and 'African American discourse
and rhetoric.' What is lacking, and especially important in the more
theoretical parts of the text, is a systematic means for the reader to
relate these one to the others. Usually I had some idea of what these
terms meant, but seldom was the relationship between them defined
precisely. Moreover, it would be helpful if what the author means by
'literacy' and 'literacies,' perhaps the most important words in the
book, was defined in the beginning of the text and then built upon in
later discussion.

Overall the book makes a valuable contribution to studies focused on
the use of AAVE in the classroom. Especially noteworthy is the
author's presentation and explanation of the critical pedagogy that
she developed during her work as an educator. Her approach shows
readers that the problem of educational underachievement in the United
States can be solved only if the sociohistorical and political
contexts of language education are considered. Richardson's work
stands out because it offers solutions in the forms of useful concepts
and strategies, ones that readers can adapt and discuss for with their
own students.


Bourdieu, P. 1980/1990. The Logic of Practice. Stanford: Stanford
University Press.

Farr, M. and Daniels, H. 1998. Language Diversity and Writing
Instruction. New York: ERIC Clearinghouse on Urban Education
Institute for Urban and Minority Education and NCTE.

Fine, M. 1995. Silencing and Literacy. In Gadsen, V. and Wagner, D.
(eds) Literacy Among African-American Youth: Issues in Learning,
Teaching, and Schooling. Creskill, NJ: Hampton Press, pp. 201-22.

Freire, P. 1990. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum.

Giroux, H. 1991. Introduction: Literacy, Difference, and the
Politics of Border Crossing. In Mitchell, C. and Weiler, K (eds)
Rewriting Literacy. New York: Bergin and Garvey.

Rickford, J. 1998. Using the Vernacular to Teach the Standard. In
Rickford, J. African American Vernacular English: Features, Evolution,
Educational Implications. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers.

Smitherman, G. 2000. Talkin' That Talk: Language, Culture, and
Education in Africa America. New York: Routledge.

Woodson, C 1990/1933. The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861.
Washington D.C.: Associated Publishers; first edition, Brooklyn, NY:
A. and B. Publishers.


Don E. Walicek is a doctoral student in the Department of English at
the University of Puerto Rico, R�o Piedras, where he specializes in
the study of Creole languages of the Caribbean. His general area of
concentration within linguistics is sociolinguistics. He has related
interests in the study of race, critical theory, and postcolonial
studies. He completed his B.A. in Social Anthropology and his M.A. in
Social Anthropology and History, both at the University of Texas at
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