As one or two readers may know, I teach a weird upper-level college English class in Reed-Kellogg sentence diagramming. You would think that such a venue would be the last refuge for apolitical teaching. You’d be wrong. Once my students become proficient in this arcane art, they are assigned to seek out sentences by famous people and diagram them. Those who feel they have particularly problematic sentences are invited to the blackboard. This past term, one of my cheekier students—male, blond, tall, athletic, smart—offered to share the sentence he’d chosen, by one Antoine Dodson. Charles Dodgson? I thought at first, anticipating a bit of Wonderland. No, he said. Antoine. It was a famous sentence. It had gone viral, he said, on YouTube.
Our classrooms are equipped with technology that I yearn to use, so I naïvely booted up the computer and overhead projector and searched “Antoine Dodson.” “That’s it!” several students yelped when I found the title: “The Story of Antoine Dodson.” As soon as I clicked on the one-minute clip, from a news report of an attempted rape, I knew I was in trouble. After a brief interview with the victim, the reporter addresses the victim’s brother, an African-American with a doo-rag on his head, who speaks to a rap beat and moves his body for emphasis as he explains how his neighborhood has become more dangerous. My students thought he was hilarious. My white students, that is. The two Asians, three Latinos, and three African-Americans in the class watched without expression.
Now what the hell do I do? I thought. Ours was a class in sentence structure, in syntax, with the underlying assumption that we were diagramming the construction of what David Foster Wallace called SWE, for Standard White English. We had dealt in passing with slang and idiom, but only to find a place for the “na” in “gonna” as connecting the end of a present progressive verb to the beginning of an infinitive phrase. This was a half-credit class; it was all we could do to articulate the difference between adjectival and adverbial clauses, much less take on the Ebonics wars. Then again, what an opportunity presented itself! Leave the trees and ladders behind, whispered my social conscience, and address the assumptions that reduce white students to giggles over a brother’s concern for his sister’s welfare in a dangerous urban neighborhood.
I did neither. Instead, hesitatingly, I began correcting my cheeky student’s diagram. He had, for instance, this:
which I corrected to this:
Correcting his errors led us to discuss, not Antoine’s colorful language or movement, but the difference between present progressive verbs and predicate participial adjectives, as well as the peculiarity of the American parsing of the verb “must,” whose past tense is “had to” and which therefore lends itself to an idiomatic present tense of “got to.” We also noted, in passing, the repeated infinitive “hide,” a rhetorical gesture reminiscent of the previous week’s diagrams from famous speeches.
Gradually, the giggles died. The biggest guy in the class, who was African-American and usually silent, raised his hand. He pointed out that “home boy” in Antoine’s last sentence was a vocative, not an appositive. To my immense relief, Antoine Dodson’s syntax (unlike Sarah Palin’s, as parsed in Slate) diagrammed almost perfectly. If it hadn’t … well, that’s a topic for another post.