One of the more interesting book notices to come our way this past year was an announcement about a book by a local author called What the Word BE: Why Black English is the King's (James) English. It’s by Southfield-based writer editor, playwright, and business owner Diane Proctor Reeder, 57, and was named one of the “Ten Best Black Books of 2014” by critic Kam Williams, member of the NAACP Image Awards Nominating Committee.
Why did the book earn national props? It’s because the book offers a provocative theory: that the roots of “Black English” can be found on every page of the King James Bible. “The Bible is chock-full of Black English,” Reeder says, “from every ‘I be,’ ‘he be,’ ‘she be,’ to sentences that today’s English teachers would call today ‘subject-verb disagreement,’ the examples are as plain as day.”
Reeder was kind enough to take some time out to discuss her theory, and her book, with us.
MT: How did this whole project get started?
Reeder: I have read the Bible three times through in my life. The second time I read it, I came across a verse in the book of Isaiah and the verse was: “… surely the people is grass.” That struck me as incorrect English, and as I kept reading I kept finding these odd verses here and there, and I began to wonder about it. Then I reflected on the fact that constructions like, “I be,” “he be,” and “she be” are rampant throughout the King James Bible. And I reflected on the fact that that is a very typical African American speech pattern. So I decided one day to go through the whole Bible and yellow-highlight every Black English-looking verb, and, as I continued to do it, I kept seeing not just instances of “be,” but other constructions. If you think about just a typical Black English phrase, such as, “Come get you some greens,” I found out that meant something. That is actually called “pronoun insertion.” It’s a grammatical construction that was perfectly acceptable in jolly old England — just not today. So, I went through the whole Bible, yellow-highlighted every verb, and realized I had something. So I started doing some linguistics research and discovered that all the linguists know that Black English and 17th century English are very similar. So, I developed a theory. I said, “Well, wait a minute. The Bible was our ancestors’ primary reading text in slavery, and so doesn’t it stand to reason that some of those grammatical patterns would have adhered through the generations? So that those Bible stories were sort of printed into our DNA because that was the only book that our ancestors, in large part, were allowed to read?” And so as I continued to do the research I found evidence to support that, from people like James Baldwin and other historical documents. And then I started to think about the fact that, you know, “correct grammar” is a really arbitrary kind of concept. It is conferred on us by people in power. People with money and power tell us how we are to speak. And so the book became sort of a philosophical treatise on ending black shame. Our people have been told we speak this way because we’re dumb, have lazy tongues, or can’t learn the language. So I’m pushing back on that a little bit and saying, “No. We actually did learn quite well. And some of those constructions are evident today.” So that’s sort of the arc of it.
MT: So where some might see, um, some might make accusations of illiteracy, what you see is a rich pedigree that is the result of being steeped in this uniquely American experience.
Reeder: And I love the way you put that: “Rich pedigree.” I’m trying to do something no less than end black shame. As African Americans, we have been sort of indoctrinated to be ashamed of ourselves, of our color, of our look, of our culture. And I’m saying, “Here let’s push back on that. Let’s stop being ashamed and let’s embrace the richness of our history,” and this is one part of that. Now there’s a whole body of research on the influence of West Africa on Black English, or African American vernacular English. And I am simply adding to that body of knowledge, saying, “This is another piece of the puzzle.”
MT: Is there something about Black English, as you study it, that renders it distinct from just typical Southern speech?
Reeder: I would say that a lot of these constructions are very typical to Southern speech, but that African Americans have put their own twist on it and I would say that’s primarily through pronunciation and through adding words to the language. I would say that the use of the word “be” and using it “incorrectly” is probably more unique to African American grammatical patterns.
MT: Of course, one of the things that critics of Black English would make is that if you use that kind of English when you are applying for a job or a grant or trying to cement a business deal, you’re going to run into some obvious difficulties that other people who spoke in more accepted patterns would not.
Reeder: Absolutely, and I address that as well. There’s a trend out there now and it’s being called “code switching.” And that is simply the ability to speak a certain way to a certain audience one way and another way to another audience, so, what I’m saying is: “Let’s look at the phenomenon of code switching and actually formalize it and interestingly enough, the University of Michigan in conjunction with Ventris Publishing has developed a training program for teachers. It’s called “Toggle Talk.” And it’s a way of educating teachers as how to bring children from their home dialect to standard English, specifically without denigrating their language. I’m advocating that kind of approach with Black English: not trying to replace standard English with Ebonics, but trying to embrace all of the dialects, respect them all, and then teach children how to code switch effectively. And that approach to education actually has a demonstrated impact on academic achievement and there have been studies to indicate that.
MT: It’s also interesting that the King James Bible, for all of its poetry — we’re talking about a book that is now more than 400 years old, one that often requires Cliffs Notes or the equivalent in order to comprehend. And yet, despite the fact that many, many intelligent people have gone to great effort to put the Bible in plain everyday speech, none of them has the poetry of the King James Bible.
Reeder: Yes. Absolutely. In fact, I’ll tell you something else: A young man whose name I cannot recall, I believe he is from England, he appears to be a person of color, and I can’t remember his name offhand, but he has something going around, it’s called “Hip Hop or Shakespeare?” and he literally reads lines to an audience, an audience of black and white folks, people of color, Europeans, the whole gamut. In fact, the audiences I’ve seen have been largely white and he reads a line from hip-hop and then he’ll read a line from Shakespeare; each time he reads a line, the audience has to guess what genre that comes from. And they can never guess. And so, you see the poetics of “Black English” really find its apex, I think, in hip hop.
MT: I imagine that you sometimes must run into resistance from people in your campaign to recognize these speech patterns as part of the legitimate history of English-speaking people. Could you talk about that a bit?
Reeder: Sure. It’s very interesting. I’ve gotten a lot of excitement from just about everybody I’ve talked to, but the only pushback I have ever gotten has been from black women English teachers, and I think I know why. They’re so invested in the language, and the pushback, I believe, is coming out of a genuine love for black people that says, “Oh my god. You put this out there and they’ll be talking that way all the time. They’ll never get a job.” So it comes out of a good place, but then I try to explain to them what I’m really trying to say and what I’m trying to do. I had one, once I explained it, understood it. She wasn’t quite as embracing as other people have been, but she at least understood my point and that I was not trying to advocate speaking this way universally. So, yeah, that’s been really interesting. Almost everyone else I’ve shared this with has been really excited about it.
MT: After this project, are you gonna take a break from the Bible for a while?
Reeder: [laughs] That’s hard for me to do because I’m a Christian writer, and the Bible is, to me, such an infinite book that you can never, ever plumb its depths.
For more information, see dianereeder.com.