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“American Alphabets”, Wendy Ewald

openDemocracy Opendemocracy
13 March 2006

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"American Alphabets"
by Wendy Ewald
Scalo | December 2005 | ISBN 3908247810

In this extract from the book, Wendy Ewald discusses her "American Alphabets" project

Like most everyone I know, I first encountered written language in children’s alphabet primers. Looking back, I now see that the words and visual examples used to represent letters reinforced the world view of the middle-class white girl I happened to be. A picture of a shiny new car illustrated the letter C. My father ran a Chevrolet dealership in Detroit, so I thought this example had been dreamed up with me in mind. I assumed that the congruence between written expression and one’s own experience of the world held true for all children.

Since then, the role of language in our culture has undergone several mutations, many of them brought on by the mass media. From McLuhan to Spielberg to MTV to PowerPoint to Rap to the internet, people have oscillated between thinking about communication as “technique” or substance”. Evolution in media technology has made text, except in its most rudimentary form, into a dialect most accessible to a powerful but culturally narrow elite. We have, in this respect, reverted to the earliest days of literacy, over four thousand years ago, when writing was an exclusive tool of priestcraft and commerce.

In modern times, language is supposed to de democratic, available for all to use; and writing is one of its most important uses. But while the US has become increasingly diverse, the culture of our schools has remained much the same as in my childhood: white middle-class. And the language sanctioned in the classroom is, as it was in the 1950s, an extension of a white middle-class ideal. The words taught in school constitute our society’s official language, and unless we master the intricacies of it, our chances of making more than a marginal living are alarmingly small. Too many children, including those who speak English as a second language, are excluded from or condescended to by the current system.

A few years ago, for instance, after my husband and I adopted a baby boy in Colombia, I began to hear disturbing stories from English-as-a-Second-Language teachers in North Carolina, where I do a lot of work. They talked about the bad treatment their students sometimes received from other teachers, who assumed that because the children didn’t speak English well, they were stupid. Those stories prompted me to think about using photographs to teach language. With the students’ help, I would make pictures to illustrate the alphabet so children could influence the images and meaning of a primer – in effect, make it their own. I wanted not just to mend an educational system, but to see our language(s) and out children as they actually are in the world, without the haze of conventional rhetoric.

First, I went South. For many years North Carolina has been a stop on the Central-to-North America migrant stream. Workers follow the tobacco and vegetable harvests, sometimes far into the northeastern states, before returning home. Some of the migrants have “settled out” – taken up permanent residence in the US. Many of then don’t speak English and many are not citizens.

I created an alphabet with the Spanish-speaking children of these immigrants. We began by discussing how language itself migrates (Spanish from Spain to the Americas, for example), and where in the world different languages are spoken. I asked them to think of a word in their own language for each letter of the alphabet, and to assign these words visual signs specific to their culture. I photographed the signs, objects or scenes they selected. When the negatives were developed, the children altered them with Magic Markers, adding the letter and word they were illustrating.

The Latino children said their English-speaking peers were mistrustful when the Latinos spoke Spanish. They were happy to work on a project in their own language that they could share with their schoolmates without fear of hostility. The words they used – like nervioso or impostor – were symptomatic of their uprooted way of life. Taken as a whole, their list of words amounted to a kind of cultural self-portrait.

A couple of years after working with the Latino children, I was commissioned to create a new piece for a show at the Cleveland Centre for Contemporary Art. I built on the Spanish alphabet to explore more profoundly the notion of language in America. It was my hope that a series of self-styled alphabets could allow us to see ourselves, and the issues of culture in a fresh light.

To examine the African American tradition of speech, sixth-grade students at Cleveland’s Central Intermediate school would create “An African American Alphabet.” Central is an historically important black high school that once produced leaders such as Stokely Carmichael. But it had fallen on hard times. The art teacher had no money for supplies. Mid-way through our project, the ceiling of the art room collapsed. But even in, or perhaps because of these compromised conditions, the students were enthusiastic and meticulous about making an alphabet all their own.

The students at Central started to work on their alphabet by reading aloud writings by John Edgar Wideman and Toni Morrison that incorporated African American vernacular. They also discussed how they spoke with their family and friends, in contrast to the way they talked to teachers or at school. The resulting alphabet included words that are common in standard English but have additional meanings in African American usage. Jermaine Whiteside, for example, defined ill as “near impossible” as well as “not normal or sound.” The teachers were amazed by the versatility, and subtlety of this parallel language.

In order to photograph the images that the Central students would use to represent their letters, I built a studio on the school playground. The playground had been abandoned because the neighbourhood around Central had become too dangerous for the students to have recess outside. I set up my lights and large-format camera just beyond the chainlink fence surrounding the school.

Having decided to work in colour as well as black and white, I asked each child to choose a theatrical backdrop cloth from a colourful collection I’d brought along. Their choice of colour was a crucial element in their self-description.

As cars cruised menacingly by, we made the photographs. Some of the kids used their bodies to demonstrate their words while others used objects. Dannie Smith held a package of Oreos (for the letter O) in front of his black t-shirt. The t-shirt had a picture of Latrell Spreewell on it, so the NBA star appears to be dribbling towards the cookies. After I had shot the pictures, the students wrote word definitions. They also wrote sentences to demonstrate how their words would be used in conversation, Oxford Dictionary style.

When the work was exhibited at the Cleveland Centre for Contemporary Art, the student’s unconventional use of English caused a stir. Some visitors were upset that children were allowed to use conversational English on museum walls. To clarify the meanings of the word “money” for instance, one of the boys wrote: “Without money you cannot have no car, no ice, no house, no bed and no food.” The grammar and cadence of these texts confirmed the tensions between our official language and language as it’s used by people who do no share many of the assumptions of the prevailing culture.

Next I looked at how young women, particularly white women such as myself, used language. I went to work with students at Philips Academy, an exclusive boarding school in Andover, Massachusetts.

The girls and I began by talking about the position of women throughout the history of the Academy. I researched the school’s archives and showed the girls old student diaries, photographs and administrative memos. My selections from the archives highlighted the expectations and limitations in the day to day life of a 19th century Philips girl. To this mix, I added my own experiences as a student at Philips in the late 1960s; my friends and I had questioned our prescribed role as proper young ladies whose education included having tea with carefully screened visitors in the drawing room on Saturday afternoons. I talked about the language we used then – words like “cool” and “right on.” Our words were more rebellious than we actually were; our language was ahead of us on the path to cultural freedom.

We went on to investigate how Philips girls use language today – in email, for example – and how the language of popular fiction and films reflects their problems and aspirations. The use of casual, straightforward language in the Diary of Bridget Jones, for example, led us to discuss adolescent self-involvement and self-criticism. The film, the girls said, accurately reflected the nonchalant banter they themselves used. Language was to them a bulletin board for their inner life; they didn’t discuss their feelings in lush phrases but in staccato shorthand. In contrast, the Philips journal writers of the 1800s used an ornate style to describe sheltered lives dedicated to self-betterment.

The girls got together to choose words they thought best represented them as individuals and a group. Among these were “tearful,” “sentimental,” and “orgasmic.” The girls were surprised at how sad a portrait of themselves they had painted, and how preoccupied they were with sexuality. Their words reminded them that they felt dominated by their male counterparts at Philips, too easily withdrew from competition with boys. Their language, then, signalled their social status.

As a stage on which to photograph the White Girl series, I chose the stone portico of a classroom building where, more than thirty years ago, I’d taken courses in music and sex education. After reviewing the graphic style of the teen magazines I suspected my students read, I collected coloured backdrops that were softer in shade than the ones I’d brought to my African American students. After the Philips girls chose their backdrop colour, they brought over their own props. I procured things they said they needed but couldn’t buy (whiskey, cigarettes). After the negatives were developed, the girls wrote letters and words on them. They had to learn how the colours of the negatives reacted with the colours of the markers. If they wanted their words to appear yellow on a salmon backdrop, for instance, they had to write with a blue marker. If they wanted to write in pink on the pale blue background, they would write with a green marker. Most of the girls wrote their words very simply, in pale colours.

In the fall of 2002, I looked for a public school in the borough of Queens, in New York City, that would allow me to work with Arabic-speaking students. For years I’d been thinking of working with students to create an Arabic alphabet. Now as war with Iraq became imminent, the project felt urgent.

The school principals I talked to were afraid to identify students who spoke Arabic. I sympathised with the principals’ protectiveness. The Patriot Act had prompted a round-up of innocent Arabs for questioning or confinement, often without legal representation. As I thought about it, though, I realised that by hiding their students, the principals were, in effect, denying them the opportunity to express themselves as proud Arab Americans. At last a forward-thinking middle school principal, Mr. Pongino, arranged for me to work with ten students of Intermediate School 220. The students had emigrated with their families from Egypt, Jordan, Algeria, Morocco, and Lebanon. Some were fluent in Arabic; others knew just a little form hearing it at home.

These students had never before had the opportunity to meet as a group and now, during Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, they were especially happy to hang out in the darkroom together during lunchtime; otherwise would have had to sit in the cafeteria watching the other students eat. As it was, they spent their lunch hour carefully writing on their negatives and composing sentences and definitions for words they’d chosen in English and Arabic. Ahmad, an eight grader, chose the word jar (neighbour) for the letter jim because “it means something like kindness, which is what people must show in the world.” He also chose fekr (thinking) for the letter fa because, he said, “It’s a good symbol. It represents me. I’m a good man because I’m smart.” Ahmad, who wanted to be an airline pilot when he grew up, wrote his words in the graffiti-like font he’d seen on the walls all over his American neighbourhood. Although many of the words chosen were names for common objects like lemons, other words were surprisingly sophisticated, such as “command” and “diminish.” For “diminish” one of the students used plastic cups from the school cafeteria to make a pyramid, whose volume diminished toward the top.

I wanted to construct an installation of the Arabic alphabet that would convey the experience of literally walking through language. To accomplish this, the negatives had to be digitally scanned in preparation for printing them on large (4 X 8 feet) transparent silk banner. The machine we used was a state-of-the-art Heidelberg scanner, but the initial results looked odd: the digitalised faces of the Arabic children were ashen, drained of colour. When we tried to correct the colour, the machine overrode our input. Finally we came to understand that the scanner was programmed to produce Caucasian skin tones. It took us some time to debug this bias and achieve realistic hues.

After hanging the large silk banners from the twenty-foot ceiling in the Queens Museum, we invited the students’ parents and other members of the Arab community to attend a celebration, which happened to coincide with the US invasion of Iraq. The crowd milled around under the outsized alphabet banners that swayed slowly in the air conditioning currents and talked about how important it was to see their language honoured in this way; they wanted the world to know there was more to Arabic than inflammatory words like jihad; and that Muslim culture was more than a minor ingredient in New York City’s melting pot. The students and their families took tremendous pleasure in the affirmation they felt that day, as if, just for this moment, solidarity could face down the horrors of war.

Putting together these various alphabets – each of them at once American and foreign taught me a lot about written language, specially about how we have come to take this sophisticated and fundamental medium for granted.

Recent archaeological research suggests that the alphabet was invented in Egypt around 2000BC. This new system of writing was a radical revision of the elegant but obscure hieroglyphs on temples and monuments. This first alphabet had the advantage of simplicity, plus it was portable from one language to another; the letter-symbols would work in Hebrew or Egyptian or any number of languages.

The new alphabetic system retained echoes and hints of the old pictographs. It still does. Originally, letters were named after familiar objects: “ox” was the name for A. the shape of the letters mimicked the objects for which they were named. The letter R, for example, came from the Egyptian hieroglyphic for head or chief: resh. The profile of a head, then dictated the design for R. When Woroud, one of my students from Queens, chose the word raas or “head,” to represent the letter R, it seemed natural enough. I was startled, though, when she insisted that her head be photographed in profile, just as in the drawing of the ancient letter.

We devise songs, rhymes, and picture books to help us learn language, as if it were a mechanical process. True, A has gotten to Z in the same order since the Phoenicians designed it that way – an uncanny consistency that may trick us into thinking language is inflexible. But these alphabet primers prove how fluid and creative letters and language can be. The alphabet we learn as law is, in fact, an ongoing act of the imagination.

© Wendy Ewald

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