Faculty voice:

April Baker-Bell: Language and identity

Feb. 6, 2019

April Baker-Bell is an assistant professor of language, literacy and English education in the Department of English and African American and African Studies program. An emerging national and international leader in conversations on Black Language, her research interrogates the intersections of sociolinguistics, anti-black racism and anti-racist pedagogies.

Recently, Baker-Bell agreed to answer some questions about her upcoming book, her research and her teaching philosophy.

1. You are in the midst of writing a book (to be published in 2019) that examines students’ language attitudes to determine why those attitudes are there and what’s happening in classrooms to foster this. How has your research confirmed what you suspected or has it surprised you and led you to different paths of study?

My book, "Linguistic Justice: Black Language, Literacy, Identity and Pedagogy," examines how Black youth experience, navigate, and negotiate linguistic racism in English language arts classrooms. The book will also reveal the impact an anti-racist language education has on Black students’ linguistic, racial and intellectual identities.

My research confirmed that traditional approaches to Black students’ language education do not account for the emotional harm, internalized linguistic racism or consequences these practices have on Black students' sense of self and identity. My research has also confirmed that an anti-racist approach to language education has a positive impact on Black students’ language attitudes, linguistic identity and sense of self.

2. While your intent is to offer readers and education scholars a framework to better serve students of color, particularly Black youth, how and why is the curricular frame you provide needed in schools comprised of mostly white students?

The anti-racist language pedagogy that I forward in my book offers all students a critical linguistic awareness and windows into broader conversations about language and identity, language and power, language and history, and linguistic racism. These critical capacities are just as important — if not more important — for white students as they are for linguistically and racially diverse students, as white students are more likely to perpetuate linguistic racism and uphold whiteness by way of their privilege and lack of awareness of language varieties other than their own.

3. How does your research inform the way you teach college students? What activities and experiences do you offer college students that would be purposeful in a K-12 setting?

My research illustrates that racial literacy and critical language awareness is important and necessary for all students. In every class that I teach, I use my platform as an educator to raise my students’ awareness of the racially and linguistically diverse world we live in. For example, I use my learning from the Black youth I worked with in Detroit and the anti-racist language pedagogy I developed to prepare the future teachers that take my English 302 course (Introduction to the English language). In my section of the course, which I have renamed Linguistic (In)Justice: Introduction to the English Language, A Counterstory, I expose students to critical theories of language, critically conscious language and literacy research, and antiracist and critical language pedagogies surrounding Black Language and other U.S.-based stigmatized Englishes.

4. When you think about the next phase of your research, you have mentioned being more involved with classroom spaces and working alongside teachers to assist in the implementation of curriculum that accounts for the intersection of language, race and identity. How would you advise educators who may experience pushback and resistance from colleagues and or administration?

I believe that teachers must understand that pushback and resistance around the language and literacy practices of Black youth usually stem from a misunderstanding of Black students’ language and literacy practices or anti-black racism. In either case, teachers have to ask themselves if they are committed to justice and equity for all students, or just some.

If we are truly committed to justice and equity for all students, then we cannot allow pushback to interfere with our responsibility to serve all of our students. On a practical level, teachers can use research to support their decisions. Critical language scholars in English education have consistently argued that teachers must shift their pedagogies and practices to better support the rich linguistic resources that Black students, and other linguistically and racially diverse students, bring with them to classrooms.

In addition to research, teachers can also rely on the support of professional organizations. For example, The National Council of Teachers of English has several position statements, resolutions and resources that are vital to the teaching and learning of English language arts.

5. Which experiences, people or ideas have most deeply influenced the work you do and why you do it?

I grew up in a family and community where Black Language was not only seen as beautiful and powerful, but it was also respected and necessary. Although this is not always the case for Black students, I never viewed my language as inferior.

During my junior year of high school, I do remember catching wind of the Oakland Ebonics Controversy, which sparked a fiery debate around ‘‘the way that Black people talk.’’ I recall the controversy causing some people, including my parents, to be up in arms about the continuous shaming of Black people, while it caused others, including one of my math teachers, to criticize the language by referring to it as poor grammar and ignorant.

At that time, I was personally unbothered by the negative messages that were being used to describe a language that my lived experiences had already validated. I did not develop a critical consciousness of linguistic oppression or the consequences of it until I started teaching high school English language arts on the eastside of Detroit.

I will never forget having a discussion with my students about “standard English”, which led to a student asking me a rhetorical question: ‘‘What I look like speaking in standard English? It don’t even sound right!’’ This incident helped me to see how ill-prepared I was to affirm and sustain the rich linguistic resources that my Black students brought with them to the classroom. I did not realize it at that time, but this was my entry into what Geneva Smitherman refers to as ‘‘the language wars."