Kuumba Protests Professor’s Comment

The leaders of the Brothers and Sisters of Kuumba singing group expressed dismay yesterday at comments made by Associate Professor of Linguistics Bert Vaux after the group performed at the beginning of his lecture Wednesday.

According to a video of the class, Social Analysis 34, “Knowledge of Language,” Vaux began his lecture by saying, “Thank you for that, that was very nice. Now, appropriately enough after that, I have [a student] to comment on our Ebonics vocabulary.”

“The segue was very clear, and it caught everyone off guard,” said Kuumba President Johanna N. Paretzky ’03. “I don’t know if it was a lighthearted joke and he wanted people to laugh, but we didn’t.”

Vaux said in an interview yesterday he was not “equating Kuumba with Ebonics,” but said he wished the singers had made their guest performance at Monday’s lecture on Ebonics. A question had arisen in the prior class about grammar in the dialect and when Vaux asked if any of the students in the class were “native speakers of Ebonics,” no one volunteered.

“If they had come to the class before, I could have seized the opportunity to ask some of them if they were willing to answer some of these questions,” he said.

Vaux said he thought there might be a native Ebonics speaker in Kuumba who could answer the grammar question.

He acknowledged that “you can’t be sure based on someone’s race that they’ll speak a particular language.” But, he said, “the odds of someone who is African-American being familiar with Ebonics and having grammaticality judgments in it are greater than the odds of the student I had to use in class having them, who wasn’t African-American.”

According to Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) spokesperson Robert Mitchell, FAS administrators were not aware of Vaux’s comments. But he said that if Kuumba’s account were accurate, “it’s a serious matter” and the administration would take appropriate action.

“I will pursue the issue with Dean [of the Faculty William C.] Kirby, and we would take the appropriate actions following a conversation with all of the relevant parties.” He would not elaborate on what those actions might be.

According to Paretzky, she and two other members of the group—Shelby J. Braxton-Brooks ’03 and Robert P. Young ’06—stayed after the lecture to express their concerns to Vaux and to ask that he apologize at the beginning of the next lecture on Monday.

Though she characterized the talk as “mature on all sides,” she said, “as much as he seemed to understand our complaint, he wasn’t explicitly apologetic at all. He said he didn’t realize we would take it that way.”

Paretzky added that she feels an apology is still warranted, though she said she understands Vaux did not set out to offend anyone.

“The segue was still really detrimental to the work a lot of members of Kuumba are trying to do in erasing misperceptions about what black culture and diversity are.”

Vaux said he is “happy to say something” and that he asked the Kuumba members to e-mail him what they would like him to say during the next class. He added the Kuumba members agreed, but that he had not received any correspondence from the group and could not contact them because he did not know who they were.

“If there are particular issues they want me to address I will be happy to. If they prefer for me to come up with something myself then I’ll do that instead,” Vaux said.

But Paretzky said Vaux’s response was inappropriate.

“His response [to our request for an apology] was really disillusioning,” Paretzky said. “He was hesitant, then he said, ‘What exactly would you like me to say?’ I don’t know if I’m ready to e-mail him. That was pretty dismissive and condescending.”

Vaux’s teaching fellow, Claire L. Bowern, said it was purely coincidental that the Kuumba performance took place before the Ebonics lecture.

“It happened that the Kuumba advertisement coincided with the part of the course that deals with Ebonics,” she said. “End of link. There’s a lecture on Ebonics in ‘Knowledge of Language’ because it’s a topic that interests students and it’s an opportunity to show that Ebonics is not some freaky slang but a regular language with interesting characteristics.”

Students in the class were divided over the incident.

Jordan B. L. Smith ’06 said he did not remember being offended by Vaux’s comment.

“When he talked about Ebonics, one of the big points he tried to make is it’s as bona fide a language as standard English,” he added.

But another student said she felt differently.

“I remember him saying it segued well into our discussion of Ebonics. I remember thinking, ‘Is that relevant?’” Lisa J. Kennelly ’06 said.

Vaux, generally regarded as popular with students, was informed by the linguistics department Monday night that he was not being put up for tenure. He plans to file a grievance with the FAS Office of Academic Affairs.

—Staff writer Dan Rosenheck can be reached at rosenhec@fas.harvard.edu.