“To Not Be a Traitor of Black English”: Youth Perceptions of Language Rights in an Urban Context

From Section:
Multiculturalism & Diversity
Jan. 30, 2010

Source: Teachers College Record, Volume 112 Number 1, 2010, p. 103-141.

Although progress has been made since members of the Conference on College Composition and Communication passed the Students’ Right to Their Own Language resolution (1974), there still remains a demand to examine youth perceptions of language. Such examinations can help teachers and researchers improve curricular choices, honor the lived experiences of students in classrooms, and address a systemic problem within a larger sociopolitical context: the continued failure of American public schooling to adequately educate Black students and other students of color.

Purpose of the Study and Research Questions

The primary purpose of this article is to detail how youth perceive language rights in their academic and community lives, particularly in relation to what they name “Black English” and “Academic English.” To understand youth language perceptions, this article is guided by the following inquiry: Given the historically dichotomous relationship between Black English and Academic English, how do youth perceive language in their struggle to acquire academic success?

Data for this ethnographic project, which derive from a larger ongoing multiyear study on youth representations of community and literacy, were collected from two African American teenage males who reside in or near New York City’s Harlem community and who graduated from the Harlem High School of New York City and currently attend local colleges in the area.

Research Design
The article uses a case study design to examine youth perceptions of language in their struggle to acquire academic success. Data for this study were collected from the following sources: researcher field notes, classroom observations, audio- and videotaped “rap” sessions, formal and informal interview meetings, participants’ written responses to and verbal conversations on a series of 10 questions that we collaboratively designed over a 3-month period, and data member checking sessions.


The findings presented in this article highlight the potential for additional research on youth perceptions of language in relation to success and survival.
Given current debates in educational research on student achievement, multiple perspectives, and the intersections of students’ lived experiences with pedagogical practices and teacher training, teachers and researchers should continue to identify the ways in which student voices, writings, and experiences are oftentimes excluded from schools. Students’ Right to Their Own Language is an important policy statement that questions U.S. monolingualism in multicultural, multilingual contexts.

Updated: Jan. 17, 2017
African American students | Dialectics | Language | Multiculturalism | Student attitudes