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During colonial and antebellum American history, slaveholding states enacted anti-literacy laws that prohibited teaching enslaved people how to read or write. Later iterations of these laws criminalized the education of African Americans—enslaved or free—in response to conspiracies and insurrections led by literate enslaved and free African Americans. These enactments along with the customs of violence on slave plantations inevitably resulted in a mostly illiterate enslaved population. The legacy of literacy proscription, through segregated schools, continued to impair the quality of education that Black children received. Because of unresolved opportunity gaps, the low literacy rates of Black children and the disparity in academic achievement between Black and White children remain pressing issues for school reformers.
Anti-literacy statutes also prevented enslaved Africans from formally learning the rules and grammar of standard American English. Consequently, enslaved Africans created their own English dialect—African American Vernacular English (“AAVE”). AAVE is an English language variety whose structure and grammar conflicts with standard English, at times. Today, many Black children enter school speaking AAVE. Furthermore, linguistic research documents the academic challenges faced by Black children who speak AAVE. Current education law does not explicitly account or provide remedial support for children who speak AAVE.
This Note argues that the often overlooked linguistic barriers presented by children who speak AAVE is the primary driver of low literacy rates among black children. This Note recommends allocating federal funding for the implementation of bi-dialectal programs for AAVE-speaking children to ensure that Black children have access to equal educational opportunities.