CONCERNED LINGUISTS AND EDUCATORS
C/O Professor Geneva Smitherman
Michigan State University
East Lansing, MI 48824
Tel 517/353-9252; Fax 517/432-2854
November 16, 1998
Mr. Arthur Sulzberger, Publisher
The New York Times
229 W. 43rd Street
New York, NY 10036
Dear Mr. Sulzberger:
We are writing to express our dismay and concern about the ad
"I Has a Dream," which was printed in The New York Times
on October 9, 1998 (copy enclosed Athena
We are appalled that the ad appeals to readers to "speak
out against Ebonics" and flies in the face of the body of
research and scholarship produced by linguists on Ebonics, also
known as African-American Vernacular English (AAVE). Some of this
work dates back over fifty years.
The ad strikes us as an attack on the many African Americans of
all ages who sometimes use AAVE, especially African American youth.
As linguists and educators deeply committed to the education and
development of Black youth, we think it imperative that readers
of the Times be informed of the scientific truth about AAVE.
To that end, we request that the January 1997 "Resolution
on the Oakland `Ebonics' issue," passed by our professional
organization, the Linguistic Society of America, with a membership
some 7,000 strong, be published in the Times as a public service
ad. (A copy of the resolution is enclosed.)
Concerned Linguists and Educators
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE ANTI-EBONICS ADVERTISEMENT (Thanks to Rosina
Lippi-Green for detective work)
An association called Atlanta's Black Professionals contacted
three advertisement agencies: Austin Kelley Advertising, Ketchum,
and Folio Z, to create the advertisement.
The creative director, Lee St. James discussed the issue with
African American colleagues in Atlanta's Black Professionals,
and the consensus among them was that the thought of not fostering
"proper" English in the black community is frightening.
St. James decided to run the headline in what he felt to be Ebonics,
and to use Martin Luther King's landmark speech and the image
of Martin Luther King turning his back on Ebonics in the advertisement.
The advertisement was run in Atlanta, both in newspapers and as
posters. The advertisement (the poster version?) was popular and
was requested by schools from Miami to Richmond.
The advertisement won the Grand Prize of the annual Athena Award
offered by the Newspaper Association of America (cf. http://www.naa.org/display/athena/grandprize.html).
The winner(s) of the Grand Prize donated half of the money to
the Head Start Association.
Someone from Ketchum informed the Head Start Association that
the NYT was willing to print the advertisement free of charge
as a public service announcement. The Deputy Director of the Hard
Start Association responded that it was "a good idea"
given the fact that the advertisement had won the Athena Award.
However, the Deputy Director claims that neither Ketchum nor anyone
else ever asked for the endorsement by the Head Start Association.
The advertisement was run by the NYT. (One suspects that it was
because 1) the advertisement won the prize, and 2) the NYT wanted
to make AAVE look bad.)
The Head Start Association received a flood of calls. The Deputy
Director said that he expected a retraction to be run by the NYT.
A DESCRIPTION OF THE ADVERTISEMENT
The advertisement features an image of a black man in a overcoat
with his back turned to the reader, with a headline "I HAS
A DREAM" written over the image of the man. Below the image
is the text, which reads:
"Does this bother you? It should. We've
spent over 400 years fighting for the right to have a voice. Is
this how we'll use it? More importantly, is this how we'll teach
our children to use it? If we expect more of them, we must not
throw our hands in the air and agree with those who say our children
cannot be taught. By now, you've probably heard about Ebonics
(aka, black English). And if you think it's become a controversy
because white America doesn't want us messing with their precious
language, don't. White America couldn't care less what we do to
The fact is language is power. And we can't take that power away
from our children with Ebonics. Would Dr. Martin Luther King,
Malcolm X, and all the others who paid the price of obtaining
our voice with the currency of their lives embrace this? If you
haven't used your voice lately, consider this an invitation."
("SPEAK OUT AGAINST EBONICS", The National Head Start
Association, 1651 Prince Street, Alexandria, VA 22314, The New
York Times, October 9, 1998, A19 [National Edition])