Jamila Lyiscott, Ph.D. proudly speaks three types of English. Formal diction in the classroom transforms into African American English in the community where she grew up and to Caribbean Creole-ized English with family.
"Have you ever endured the shame of mixing your words with your thoughts like, 'Professor: This author purports that sometimes hegemonic forces are forced to use degrees of fabrication and I be thinking the same thing, so I don't know why they be hatin','" she asked students gathered in Chapel during her spoken-word poem The Art of the Cypher kicking off her talk about language, race and power at Brooks' celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day on Monday. "This may sound like just another case of broken English," she continued, "but I be as broken as the records of my history."
Examining language within historical and cultural context is just part of Lyiscott's expertise. The Assistant Professor of Social Justice Education at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and Senior Research Fellow of Teachers College, Columbia University's Institute for Urban and Minority Education has made it her life's work to shine a light on the way languages and racial differences impact teaching and learning. (Her "Broken English" spoken-word essay has been viewed on Ted.com 4.5 million times!)
"So much of who I am and what makes me not just articulate but brilliant . . . was not allowed in school," Lyiscott shared, later noting "in schools we're taught that if it's not mainstream English, it's not valuable." The author of Black Appetite. White Food. Issues of Race, Voice and Justice Within and Beyond the Classroom explained that in adolescence, she felt that she "needed to erase parts of my identity to succeed [in school] — that I would be deemed articulate and intelligent by my teachers if I left my 'hood' in 'the hood.'"
School is "a place that is meant to help us become more equal," she leveled. "But what I have learned in my own experience and research is that school is actually very often a place that is complicit in sustaining inequality. School becomes a place where you sort out, and reinforce, who becomes marginalized."
Educators are "very intentional about which histories and which languages and what standards and what norms and what values get implemented and sustained in school," she continued. "And when you make those decisions, you also make decisions about what gets left out."
Lyiscott was invited to Brooks School to share her perspective in celebration of Dr. King's legacy. Following her speech, she did a question-and-answer session and participated in one of 13 different workshops about race, ethnicity and gender expression facilitated by students. The community also viewed the Netflix documentary 13th, about the constitutional amendment that abolished slavery and subsequent laws that have continued to deny black Americans freedom.
When Dean of Community Life and History Teacher Ashley Johnston introduced Lyiscott in Chapel, she acknowledged that the social justice educator's message may make students uncomfortable. "It is my hope that you will push yourself to sit in the discomfort and that you will walk away knowing a bit more what it's like for your peers to be their authentic selves," said Johnston. "My hope for the day," she explained, "is that we as a community push ourselves to better understand one another . . . to question who has the power to create the culture at Brooks; to consider why that power exists and how you may contribute to and benefit from that power." By "grappling with who we are," Johnston added, " we may create change that will strengthen the Brooks Community."
Shalini Navsaria '23 appreciated the chance to consider "language and oppression" she said. "[They're] things that don't really get talked about." The topic is one that Catherine Xie '22 admitted she hadn't paid attention to before: "A lot of the problems she mentioned are the problems I never thought about . . . so that was very helpful."
Not that these realizations came easy. "I think it was kind of heartbreaking a little bit at first, hearing you're not really accepted for who you are, but it was very cool for me to hear about her and her upbringing," said Camilla Johnson '22. "I started to see other people's points of view."
Ella Dooling '22 agreed. "I thought it was really interesting to hear another perspective and she was really good explaining things," she said. "I never knew language could be such a big part of [racism] and how that makes such a big difference in someone's lives and their education, and also how people are trying to help but are not actually being helpful and creating more of that divide in our society."
Amy Del Cid '22, on the other hand, recognized much of what Lyiscott discussed. "A lot of what she said, I could relate to — like the code switch or how I may feel like I have to censor myself in certain situations. . . . I really liked hearing her presentation. It spoke to me."
The call to preserve your authenticity is what spoke to Saul Iwowo '22, who is from London. "She kind of opened my mind up to what she was saying about having your own kind of identity and keeping the identity strong," he said. " . . . I'm always talking about that with my parents about how the schooling system here is different from England."
Where you come from shapes how you see the world and it's a problem, Lyiscott maintains "when many of us show up to schools and various institutions of power . . . [and are essentially] asked to trade-off or exchange who you are so that the other people around you can be comfortable."
Citing a statistic that more than 83 percent of educators are not people of color and live outside of the racially diverse communities where their students reside, she also noted that "you may not even notice that there's a problem because you have the kind of privilege where those trade-off don't need to be made — and that's what makes a difference about who is able to step into school spaces authentically or not."
Lyiscott works with educators and speaks in schools yet acknowledges that "a lot of people who encounter my work find it a little extreme, the idea that we could possibly embrace and engage and center and value multiple language practices and identities in school spaces as equally brilliant," she said. "They think it's too radical . . . [but] how extreme do we need to be to combat the kind of injustice that we live with each and every day?"
After all, welcoming all types of language practice benefits everyone, she concluded. "The process towards diversity is not just about the presence of difference," Lyiscott shared. "It is about creating opportunities and spaces for truly esteeming and exploring the value of difference on its own terms. You see, the problem with standard forms is not that we are incapable of acquiring them. It is that they so often fail to incorporate the genius that is available within diverse cultures. And if I am forced to be like you then I am robbed, and you are robbed, of the fullest potential of me."
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