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Behind the Times

Natalia J. Garland

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Reverend Jeremiah Wright, in a speech delivered on 04/27/08 to the Detroit Branch of the N.A.A.C.P., praised that organization for advancing civil rights in America. However, Wright's speech seemed more fitting for the 20th century in tone and focus. He repeatedly said that "a change is going to come," apparently not noticing the self-contradiction regarding his opening remarks: significant changes have already occurred, in part due to the efforts of the N.A.A.C.P. Wright wants us to change how we perceive and treat others who are different from us. Listening to him was like stepping back in time.

Wright's theme was that racial and cultural differences do not mean that any group of people is comparatively deficient. He drew from biological, psychological, and educational concepts to prove his point. However, his proofs might not be correct in substance and are definitely outdated in application. It is now common knowledge that some cultural differences, especially in art, music, and literature, are to be appreciated as a personal choice and to be evaluated within the context of the genre. There is nothing new about that. Whether you read Shakespeare or Stephen King, listen to Patsy Cline or Ella Fitzgerald: each has its own unique merit.*

But Wright went on to talk about the differences between the left and right hemispheres of the brain. "African-American children," he said, are right-brained, and "European-American children" are left-brained. This is how Wright described their differences in learning styles.

Left brain is logical and analytical. Object oriented means the student learns from an object. From the solitude of the cradle with objects being hung over his or her head to help them determine colors and shape to the solitude in a carol in a Ph.D. program stuffed off somewhere in a corner in absolute quietness to absorb from the object. From a block to a book, an object. That is one way of learning, but it is only one way of learning.

African and African-American children have a different way of learning.

They are right brained, subject oriented in their learning style. Right brain, that means creative and intuitive. Subject oriented means they learn from a subject, not an object. They learn from a person. Some of you are old enough, I see your hair color, to remember when the N.A.A.C.P. won that tremendous desegregation case back in 1954 and when the schools were desegregated. They were never integrated. When they were desegregated in Philadelphia, several of the white teachers in my school freaked out. Why? Because black kids wouldn't stay in their place. Over there behind the desk, black kids climbed up all on them.
[End of quote.]

Is Wright correct? Here is another definition of the brain which includes the right, left, front, and rear portions.

Put simply, we have a left side of the brain which likes to deal with results, logic and is linear in it's approach to the world. We have a right side of the brain which deals with patterns, feelings and "togetherness." In addition the front part of the brain deals with abstraction and concepts while the old brain--at the rear in the brainstem is all about instinctive behaviour. (From the How to Do Business website.)
[End of quote.]

It would seem more likely that people use all portions of the brain (go to illustrations). People may be naturally disposed to prefer one portion of the brain over the others, but all portions can be utilized to some extent. It is questionable whether all blacks and all whites can be neatly categorized into left or right usage patterns. If Wright has two Master's degrees, then he must have used the left portion of his brain. He must have absorbed from objects--books.

In tone, Wright seems to depict the white student as a pathetic loner, as though academic pursuit through books excludes the other experiences of higher education: listening to lectures, engaging in classroom discussion, and perhaps studying together with friends. In tone (you know what I mean if you had a chance to watch him on T.V. and to hear the response of the audience), he seemed to depict the black child as active and adorable as he climbs on desks and exasperates the white teacher. That remark should be heard as an insult by black parents. Black children are capable of showing courteous behavior toward adults and respecting school property. If climbing on desks results from a black preference for the right brain, then how do we account for white children who climb on desks?

Then, Wright connects the right side of the brain to black oral traditions: "....they come from a right-brained creative oral culture like the (greos) in Africa who can go for two or three days as oral repositories of a people's history...." According to the illustrations provided with today's essay, written and spoken language skills are a left-brain function, while creativity is a right-brain function. That is why we have great black writers like Phillis Wheatley, Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, and great black speakers like Martin Luther King, Jr. They were using both the left and right portions of their brains. How do we account for the black American scientist, George Washington Carver? He must have used the left portion of his brain.

Next, Wright said that black children have been criticized for using "bad English," while whites have been permitted to speak in a variety of regional dialects. He used John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson as examples of differences in spoken English. This is probably the most accurate statement made by Wright, but it still needs clarification. Black English involves differences in the rules of grammar as well as in pronunciation. There has been controversy over whether black English (Ebonics) is a dialect of English or a separate language. All white people could understand Lyndon B. Johnson's accent, but many whites could not clearly understand the English spoken by some blacks.

Here is the way a teacher, Anthony Cody, describes black English.

Black English is a pattern of speech with its own deep grammatical structures, not merely a different vocabulary. From the point of view of most linguists, there is nothing inherently superior about one set of grammatical rules over another. The point of language is communication, after all, and the grammar of Black English is perfectly serviceable. Black English is despised because of who it is who speaks it; African Americans, and poor ones at that.
[End of quote.]

But again, this is old news. Nobody nowadays disputes the acceptability of language dialects. Wright calls for changes which have already happened. Wright did not simply review the accomplishments of the N.A.A.C.P., but discussed certain racial, cultural, and educational issues as though these were still huge deficiencies and, therefore, "a change is going to come." Perhaps it is not America, but Reverend Wright that needs to change. His grievances are not based on the current reality of American life, but seem driven from what is perhaps is his own wish for relevance and recognition: not among the poor ones, but among the great ones. (Written 04/28/08: bibliography available.)

[*ADDED NOTE: As a matter of clarification, I regard Shakespeare as superior to Stephen King. High school students should be taught Shakespeare because of his language usage, thematic constructions, and historical content. My point is that authors such as Stephen King (and if he is not to your taste, then perhaps Tony Hillerman, Rosamund Pilcher, or Barbara Wood) do not belong in the same categories with Shakespeare, Dickens, or Faulkner. Within the genre of the horror novel, howwever, Stephen King has to be given credit as an original story-teller. If someone prefers Stephen King over Shakespeare, that is a matter of personal taste. I do not regard Shakespeare and Stephen King as interchangeable in greatness, but I think each can be appreciated within the standards of the type of writing.] (Written 07/03/08)

Until we meet again..............stay sane.

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Copyright 2008 Natalia J. Garland