Don’t Say Ain’t

At a former job, a young woman, discussing a popular soul food restaurant, referred to a dish as “poke and beans.”  A co-worker, who was also a school teacher, corrected her:  “No, Shanice, it’s pork and beans.”  At that, the young woman frowned and whined, “Why we got to talk proper all the time?!” 

Talking “proper” was (is) a given in my family – my Mom’s a retired school teacher – but I understood why some people might not speak the King’s English.  I also understood the attitudes of those like Shanice when it came to correct grammar use and pronunciation.  But I never considered the point of view of this young woman or others.  The juvenile fiction book Don’t Say Ain’t gave me some insight into the problem faced by African-Americans and other minority groups:  Being and showing oneself as educated versus being culturally correct.

Taking place in 1957 Harlem, Dana, an African-American girl, is accepted to an integrated advanced school.  There, she must discard her everyday speech habits and speak “properly.”  Her schoolmates ridicule her for her speech and mannerisms, and at home, her neighborhood friends chide her for going to the school and thinking she is “better” than her peers.  Dana begins to wonder if living up to her potential is worth being rejected by her friends.

Though I didn’t suffer as greatly as Dana, I can relate to her troubles.  By high school, none of my school chums since kindergarten – all African-American – were in the advanced and college prep courses that I took.  By being in those classes with predominately white students, they saw me as “trying to be white” or “snobbish.”  Don’t Say Ain’t’s author Irene Smalls and illustrator Colin Bootman had similar experiences.  Smalls was a child when schools in her native New York City were integrated, and Bootman, who was born in Trinidad, had to discard his accent and learn to speak “properly.” 

Sadly, many kids feel that they must choose between betterment of themselves and acceptance by their peers (and sometimes adults).  It’s a tough choice:  The opportunity of uplifting oneself is often seen as rejecting race, culture and community to be “white”; the consequences of the latter may result in remaining stuck in negative socioeconomic circumstances associated with race, not to mention living beneath ones’ full potential.  Some kids who do choose advanced education and opportunities may truly find themselves losing their cultural identity, or isolation from all groups. 

The problem is complex:  Kids need to grow to their level of potential; they also need the acceptance and experience of their peer groups.  They can have both, just as Dana realized in the book.  They only – and always – need the proper encouragement and affirmation from parents, teachers or mentors so they can find solutions to the problem without seeing compromise of their potential or cultural identity as their only solution.

Don’t Say Ain’t is available at all CCLS Libraries.  Please ask a Staff member for assistance.

Published in: on January 15, 2008 at 8:21 pm  Leave a Comment  

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