College Essays and the African American Vernacular
Last year was my first year serving in a full-time, school-based position at a predominately Black public charter school. In college, I interned at another predominately Black Chicago charter school that was affiliated with my university. That experience showed me that I love working with young Black people. People who remind me of myself. Individuals who grow up working class, poor, or “poor adjacent” in Chicago’s often violent South and West Side communities but aspire to make it out of the hood and on to college and career. I love Black children and Black people, despite messaging that I should not. However, last year, I ran into a big dilemma: our students’ writing.
In November, I asked all 86 of my seniors (95 percent of whom were Black) to share their personal statement with me and their elective teachers for feedback. As I began to read and review, sadness and disappointment overtook me. Our students did not break their ideas down into paragraphs. They did not capitalize “I” or proper nouns. They left off punctuation marks. And their writing was riddled with serious English language violations.
When I brought this to others’ attention, they all lambasted what I found. “Yes, this a problem we are aware of.” “Yes, it’s a shame!” Some posited, “Our students write like they text.” But upon further review, I noticed that the students were not simply writing as they text. They were writing in a completely different language: African American Vernacular English (AAVE).
AAVE has been well-documented and researched by linguists and debated by urban education policymakers. Not all African Americans or Black Americans speak AAVE. However, it is commonly spoken by urban Black Americans and found in urban, working-class communities. AAVE is also the preferred dialect of internet-speak. AAVE is revered as cool, witty, warm, and urban by internet influencers. It is also a dialect or language that is often viewed as “less than” by speakers of professional Standard American English (SAE). Some people discriminate against AAVE speakers by viewing them as less educated, poorer, and ill-prepared for professional or academic settings because they do not utilize “proper grammar.” However, AAVE has its own distinct grammar and syntax laws that have been developed over centuries of use.
I speak AAVE more than SAE in interpersonal and romantic relationships. It is more natural to me than SAE as someone who grew up in a hyper-segregated Chicago community. I also struggled with codeswitching between AAVE and SAE when addressing predominately white and upper-middle class audiences as an admission counselor for the University of Chicago. For some listeners, this inability to consistently remain in SAE made me appear more “relatable” and “folksy.” For some, I reminded them of home. For others, I appeared more emotive and comforting. I argue AAVE is professional, despite attacks and misunderstanding by individuals who do not speak AAVE.
I know that my students are largely not writing for other native AAVE speakers. Instead, their writing will be perceived as incorrect and uneducated by a profession that is still predominately white and privileged (admission counselors). Though I can read their writing and understand AAVE—our native tongue—I am forced to translate their language to SAE as an editor or peer reviewer.
This year, I will adjust my approach with the students. I want them to celebrate their bilingualism. To know that AAVE is, yes, revered on the internet and in their communities. And I will remind them that they are writing for community outsiders who expect SAE.
When I worked for UChicago, I must have presented at least 40 essay writing workshops to various public school students. For predominately white audiences, I always said, “Write the way you talk or speak. Do not try to use unnaturally large words to sound smarter,” because that was the common problem I saw from upper-middle class and middle-class students. They used the thesaurus feature of their writing software to death. They no longer sounded authentic. Even worse, sometimes they misused words. However, that advice—“Write the way you speak”—cannot be given to speakers of AAVE or many other bilingual students. Instead, I have to say: “Write the way you would speak at a job interview in downtown Chicago.” I must specify, downtown Chicago because of hyper-segregation. My students work retail, food service, and grocery store jobs in predominately Black and poor neighborhoods where SAE may not be the default dialect.
Given this hyper-segregation, it is rare for my students to have to codeswitch into SAE outside of school. However, they see examples of their elders codeswitching when talking on the phone, visiting the doctor’s office, or in their workplaces as some TikTok videos have demonstrated. (See example A, example B, example C, and example D.)
Teaching English to non-native speakers of SAE is hard. It has been argued for decades that schools should adopt an English as a Second Language (ESL) approach to teaching SAE to urban Black students. However, there has been a lot of pushback from Black families in labeling their students as ESL students, which has in part made readily available and downloadable content hard to find. While researching for this article, the only resource that I found for teaching SAE as a second language for AAVE speakers was this PBS unit on AAVE—an inadequate source for a task this large.
So, what can we do in admission and in urban schools right now to help native AAVE speakers adopt SAE for their college essays and interviews? Well, I argue that we discuss AAVE: Its rich history, its rightful place in society, and, yes, all the negative social connotations it holds in out-group communities. Teach students that there is a proper place and time to use AAVE in professional writing and speech (see Toni Morrison, Gwendolyn Brooks, Eve Ewing, Langston Hughes, etc.). You too can be great poets and orators. However, for admission purposes, you must adopt SAE. “Write as you would for a downtown—read predominately White and rich environment—interview.”
As admission readers, remember that some Americans are not native SAE speakers. Please remember the rich diversity, multiculturalism, and multilingualism that exists in this nation and across the world. Allow students to write dialogue in their native tongue, be it Spanish, Creole, or AAVE. Try to walk in their shoes instead of marking them down for grammar rules that even you cannot understand. Learn more about AAVE, race, equity, diversity, and inclusion. Be generous and patient and seek help from a native AAVE speaker as a second reader if needed. But, hopefully, with time, you will have read those texts on your own and will have developed an understanding and appreciation (not appropriation) of AAVE.
Thank you for focusing on race and inclusion in your everyday lives and work. Stay up. Stay you. And if applicable, stay Black.
Safiya Johnson recently served as a postsecondary counselor at a predominately Black Chicago Public School charter school that is located on the Near South Side of Chicago. Prior to working in urban education, Johnson worked for the University of Chicago Office of College Admissions as a director of community initiatives and senior assistant director of admissions. She holds a Master of Education in education policy and management from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a Bachelor of Arts in sociology from the University of Chicago. She is a native South Sider and sociologist at heart who loves exploring neighborhoods and the arts scene in Chicago. Connect with her on LinkedIn and Twitter.
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