“Language is a tool, not a cage….”

I’m writing an author profile right now, so I’ve been digging around for exemplars. I stumbled upon one by Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop that was published in Language Arts in 1992. Dr. Bishop is interviewing Patricia McKissack, who’s written 100s of books by now, in my estimation. Some of her books are written in Standard English and some are written in dialect, so Dr. Bishop waits until the end of the interview to pop the question: What’s the deal with that? (OK, this is the question I hear, but it isn’t the actual question Dr. Bishop asked.)

I LOVE McKissack’s answer!

She is so smooth with it.

First, she breaks out with a recitation of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “In the Morning,” which is entirely in dialect, and then she eases into his *“Symphony,” which is in Standard English.

I am howling when I read this. My howl is akin to two basketball players giving each other a chest bump after one makes a 3 pointer. I’m a loud reader.

Then she says one of the best lines in the whole piece: “Language is a tool, not a cage, and I refuse to be caged by language” (p.74).

Was this response choreographed? At any rate, it’s presented like a beautiful ballet.

McKissack doesn’t stop though. She helps us teachers by saying: “Language is wonderful. We can do much with it, and if we free our kids up to express themselves in many different ways, their school experiences with language will be so much more meaningful to them. They will not be inhibited about putting things on paper, or in their talking” (p.74).

She broke it down further, so everyone will be clear:

“…when it’s not there [when students need help with Standard English], we can clean it up—decide whether to write ‘I am’ or ‘I be.’ And if ‘I be’ fits the story better, leave it alone” (p.74).

Some teachers and parents might get nervous about the last line above, especially English teachers who believe they do a disservice to students when they do not eradicate nonstandard forms.

McKissack ends by explaining what real world authors do:

“When I’m choosing a word, I never choose the right word; I choose the best word, and the best word is not always Standard English. That’s what we need to teach our children—to find the best way to express their thoughts” (p. 74). [italics in original]

I feel like I just got schooled, as they say, and I’m OK with that.

(All emphasis is mine, unless noted.)
Source: Language Arts Vol. 69, 1, 1992
*“Symphony” is Dunbar’s poem that begins, “I know what the caged bird feels, alas!”