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Racism and Education, Languages and Culture
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Welcome to The 5-Week Linguist Show. Today, I’m going to talk about something pretty serious that’s going on in the world and I just want to share a really personal story and my very humble opinion about what can be done.
So today, I want to talk about racism, education, language, and culture and I know that the language teaching and learning community, we’re so open. We live and breathe acceptance and other perspectives and understanding other people’s points of view. It’s just part of who we are and it’s part of what we try to instill in others through languages and I wanted to share a really personal story and it’s uncomfortable for me and I think you’ll understand why when I finish or get towards the end and perhaps you could do a little bit more research. If you choose, I’ll provide you with some links about what’s going on.
So one thing that really surprises people when they get to know me is my background. So my parents come from two extremely different backgrounds. They met at college. They went to Boston university as undergraduates and my name, my first and my last, are Lithuanian and I’ve got blue eyes and I’m very fair. So it always comes as a surprise to people when I share who my grandfather was and it’s my biological grandfather. It was my real grandfather. There’s no adoption going on.
My grandfather was someone named Benner Turner and Benner Turner was born in Georgia as the grandson of slaves and when his father was born, soon thereafter his parents, my great-grandfather’s parents were born into slavery and they had to actually give away all of their children. They just couldn’t … There was no way that they could even feed anyone besides themselves and they got people to take in their kids, et cetera, and my great-grandfather was the oldest and he was old enough to work and the job that he got as a teenager was being a porter on the railroad and it was going back and forth between Atlanta and Washington D.C.
Apparently, he was very popular and he was very bright and many wealthy people who traveled between these two regions gave him books and so he studied and these wealthy people that heard, getting to know him in their travels and finding that he would read every book that they would give him, decided to sponsor him to go to Howard University and he became a doctor and moved back to Georgia and there, he treated the African-American community.
But he made a ton of money and became extremely wealthy because apparently he was the best doctor around but the white people didn’t want to be seen coming to him and they would pay him all kinds of money to keep things like … things that they didn’t want people to know out of the public eye and he took that money and he opened pharmacies and became, as I said, very wealthy particularly for someone who was born to people born into slavery.
He had my grandfather, my mother’s father, and it was his dream to take this money and to do something about racism and when my grandfather was 12 years old, he took him to witness a lynching and he said this is what they do. This is what they do to African-American people and there’s people there having picnics watching this for sport and it might sound pretty cruel to bring a 12-year-old there but he said this is the reality that you’re facing. This is what you’re going to have to look at unless you want to change it.
My grandfather was an extremely intelligent man. My great-grandfather, my great-grandparents, Edwin and Layla Turner had the means to give him an education and in Georgia at that time, schools didn’t go past the ninth grade. So there was no public school to attend after 14 years old, really, 15 years old, and there was plenty of money to send him to a boarding school or a private school but no one would take him because of his race.
So my grandfather went to high school at one of the most prestigious schools in the United States, which is a Phillips Andover Academy in Massachusetts and lived there and he graduated and he got a degree from Harvard and he got a degree from Harvard Law and he was fully intending to fulfill that investment that was put into him by the privilege that he got, the privilege of having the means to be able to try to bring some justice to the way that it was accepted that society was.
When he returned to Georgia, he tried to take the bar three times and failed every time so a top Harvard graduate failed the bar three times in Georgia. He was really discouraged and he suspected it was because of his race but there was no way to prove that. He moved to Pennsylvania and very easily passed the bar and practiced at a prestigious law firm in Philadelphia and when my great-grandfather died, he wanted to put back to the South to help take care of Layla Benner.
So when he got real that he could move to North Carolina, which he did and passed the bar, this was some years later and he could practice law but the reality he thought was there’s got to be something different. I want to fight this but all white juries … This part, short-term, I can work on this. Long-term, I’m not so sure.
The best thing I can do is teach. So I’m a teacher. As you know, I’m from a family of teachers and I think we all end up here at some point in our lives, everyone in my family at some point it seems for some reason but I also think we’re all teachers regardless of if that’s what we get up and go to an academic institution and do or not. We all do it in so many different ways. You do it as parents. We do it as friends. We do it … We are always teaching each other but that’s perhaps another conversation.
He became dean. He started teaching at law school at I believe what is now North Carolina A&M University. That had a different name. They used to call what are now HBCU, historically black colleges and universities, normal institutions and I think that you could go for a two-year degree and become a grammar school teacher, things like that. They’ve really evolved over the years and when he did that, he ended up getting essentially a promotion to become dean of … Start a law school at South Carolina State University, which had a different name then in Orangeburg, South Carolina.
So my grandfather quickly became president of this HBCU, historically black color college and university and as I’m told, huge advances were made in this university during his tenure and he was an autocrat and apparently extremely good at getting things done, which knowing him personally, I have no doubt about that and the university got accreditation, et cetera, but as I understand it, because of course I wasn’t alive back then, he did a lot of this through segregation. He felt that he could do better for more people by working the system. He was really afraid of white flight and integration, et cetera.
So I’m going to fast forward about 17 years to the civil rights movement and people were sick of it. People were sick of him supporting what they felt, he was supporting segregation so he may be considered a hero or a villain. I don’t know. I don’t want to get into it. I think for the practical side of the university, he made huge contributions and he also collaborated with other presidents of HBCUs and his best friend was Dr. Mays, who was the man who gave Martin Luther King’s eulogy, and when Layla Benner, my great-grandmother needed help beyond what the family could give her, he helped her find an amazing place that took really good care of her.
So whether … I’ll leave you some links to my grandfather. He could be seen as a hero or a villain. I’m not sure and I’m not here to weigh in on that, as I said, but I will say that one thing he knew is a couple of things that have always resonated with me. He said to me as a child never be proud or ashamed of who you are but take every opportunity to be proud and ashamed for the things that you do. They are two really different things and it didn’t make sense to me until I was older and I fully understood the situation.
If I’m very honest, I can’t say that I would have understood how deep-rooted the racism is in our culture had it not been a central family theme for me. So Bryan Stevenson, the author of Just Mercy and an amazing lawyer who’s done so much good for so many people, just works so hard, points out some really interesting points and statistics and if maybe in your life you didn’t have the opportunity to learn about that period after slavery and the Civil War and Reconstruction, et cetera, that it seems to me that a lot of things were just replaced. You know?
You don’t let the Harvard graduate lawyer into the bar. You don’t accept him, which incidentally, my grandfather found out three years before he died that all the African-American people who took the bar during that time didn’t pass. I don’t know how he found that out.
Education can really change things. Again, I’m not sure what kind of education we have. When I think back to my history books, I think that we kind of skip ahead, skip over, gloss over that period and if you don’t live close to that, if that’s not a part that stares you in the face like it is right now, it’s really hard to see how systemic it is.
The statistics on African-Americans in prison and conviction rates and this huge part of me, of course, always carries around some guilt because I think we come from the same place. Why am I treated differently? Why am I not being pulled over? Why am I not being arrested all the time? And you’d be really surprised at some of the things that I’ve heard in my lifetime people say around me, assuming things that aren’t so … but I won’t get into that but it’s a very interesting perspective on both sides of that issue that maybe a lot of people don’t get.
And when it comes to languages, we know that language and culture are completely entwined. They’re inextricably linked. You can’t take them apart and culture, of course, are the products, the perspectives, and the practices of a people and that’s what we’re doing. We’re always teaching that. We’re teaching understanding. We’re teaching seeing life and the world through a different lens, through other people’s lens, not just through our own.
I can’t imagine a time where language education could be more important. Understanding what other people have gone through and what leads us as cultures, as people, to make the choices we do that sometimes they seem hard and they seem unfair and they seem damaging to people and we think that they’re the best at that time and I’m not going to weigh in on any specifics. You can read about what happened with my grandfather. People finally had enough. Maybe you’ll say hero and villain but another thing I know that he taught me is how important education is and I do hope that we can continue to foster and encourage and make a long sequence of languages and/or intercultural education mandatory so that this stuff just isn’t glossed over and not in our consciousness.
And for a fairly practical exercise for people learning English, one of my very favorite tools for learning language is Audible on my phone. I’m busy. I love sitting down with a book but the fact of the matter is I’m a teacher. I have a lot of things to read, a lot of things to think about, and a big escape for me is being read to and consider listening to, if you’re learning English, Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. He’s absolutely amazing and I hope that the importance of understanding what other people go through can really be heard and respected by a lot of people.
Thank you so much for letting me share this really personal story that’s really difficult and painful for me to talk about sometimes because I always think about when I read the articles about my grandfather and then I think about the really simple things that we do with our grandparents. Going out for ice cream. I remember Rice Krispie Treats, their beautiful Southern accents, fried chicken that my grandmother used to make all the time and I loved that, his books and his smelling like Parliament cigarettes. Those little things and his lectures, which now I’m very happy. A lot of people don’t get the duel Ivy League person being a grandfather and a lot of people have to pay a lot of money to listen to those lectures but I got them at the dinner table. So thank you so much and until next time.
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Reading to expand vocabulary http://reallifelanguage.com/reallifelanguageblog/2015/06/07/reading-in-a-foreign-language-multiple-passes/