C/O Professor Geneva Smitherman
English Department
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 advertisement, 1998).

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.)

Sincerely yours,

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.

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.


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 segregate ourselves.
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])