How The New Oxford Dictionary of African American English Will Pay Tribute To & Protect the Legacy of Black Americans
Harvard historian and "Finding Your Roots" host Henry Louis Gates Jr. has been named Editor in Chief of the dictionary that is set to document hundreds of years of AAVE.
From Ebonics to the modern term AAVE (African American Vernacular English), there have been many names for African American English.
Similar to the way hundreds of other English countries have their own regional variations with a plethora of terms that differ from standard American English, African American English is continually expanding and evolving. Despite the fact that there are hundreds of recognized English dialects, African American English is often looked down upon, deemed incorrect, and unprofessional.
Throughout my American public schooling, my friends and I were constantly being chastised by teachers, both white and of color, about speaking “correctly”. We were warned that in college, our professors wouldn’t take us seriously if we spoke outside a “standard” (by which they meant white) English dialect, that employers would deny us jobs, and banks deny us loans.
So, like most Black people in the U.S., we became expert code switchers, fluent in white and African-American English. Many of my friends also mastered their family’s own native languages (Spanish, Arabic, etc.) and the variations of English that stemmed from them.
I grew up in classrooms full of kids forced to be fluent in multiple languages, ridiculed by teachers who could barely manage one.
But soon, AAVE will finally gain the academic recognition it deserves, with Harvard-based historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. named as the editor of the new Oxford Dictionary for African American English. The creation of this dictionary, set to release in 2025, not only ensures the legacy of African American language is recorded, but it assigns credit of the creation of pop culture terms to Black people.
“...words that we take for granted today, such as ‘cool’ and ‘crib,’ ‘hokum’ and ‘diss,’ ‘hip’ and ‘hep,’ ‘bad,’ meaning ‘good,’ and ‘dig,’ meaning ‘to understand ’— these are just a tiny fraction of the words that have come into American English from African American speakers … over the last few hundred years.” Gates Jr. said, highlighting the dire need for a record of this language and its’ origins.
Black people in the U.S. have always pushed the current of popular culture and often ridiculed for it before the culture becomes mainstream (ie; rap music, big lips, gold hoop earrings, food with seasoning, jazz music, anything from Rainbow, big butts, weed, rock & roll…the list goes on). Yet it is a rare occasion when Black people are recognized, and even more rare when we are compensated for, being the creators of what the U.S. accepts as popular culture.
The undertaking of this new dictionary is just one step of many needed to unearth and preserve the long-buried history of African Americans and our contributions, both old and new, to the world.
Kendi is currently a student at New York University and is the author of multiple award-winning poems, short stories, stage, and screenplays.