Oral Histories

Interview of Ernie Smith

California State University, Fullerton, professor of linguistics and expert on ebonics.
Twenty-Five Years of Community Organizing and Institution Building in the Aftermath of Watts: 1965-1990
African American History
Social Movements
Community Activism
Stevenson, Alva Moore
Smith, Ernie
Persons Present:
Smith and Stevenson.
Place Conducted:
South Central Multipurpose Senior Citizen Center in Los Angeles, California.
Supporting Documents:
Records relating to the interview are located in the office of the UCLA Library's Center for Oral History Research.
Interviewer Background and Preparation:
The interview was conducted by Alva Moore Stevenson, Series Coordinator, UCLA Center for Oral History Research; B.A., English, UCLA; M.A., African American Studies (Latin American Concentration). Stevenson prepared for the interviews by perusing the files of Congress member Alfred S. Moore and various primary and secondary sources related to the Watts Rebellion of 1965 and urban unrest in the U.S.
Processing of Interview:
The transcript is a verbatim transcription of the recording. It was transcribed by a professional transcribing agency using a list of proper names and specialized terminology supplied by the interviewer. Smith did not review the transcript, and therefore some proper names may remain unverified.
5 hrs.
Regents of the University of California, UCLA Library.
Series Statement:
This series documents community organizations and institutions that arose in the aftermath of the Watts Rebellion to address issues such as education, employment, healthcare, housing, transportation, and police harassment. The first phase of the series involved interviews with key organizers of the Black Congress, an umbrella organization of Black activist groups whose purpose was to reconstruct the community.
Origins in Oklahoma—Parents’ occupations—Large size of Smith family—Importance of education—Elementary and secondary schools attended—Racial composition of Smith’s neighborhood—Teacher who recognized Smith’s artistic aptitude—Allure of the street life—Decision to pursue postsecondary education—Street education—Smith’s grandparents and great-grandparents—Murder of grandfather—Role of religion in his upbringing—Debate between Malcolm X and Ed Warren—Becoming socially and politically conscious—Decision to join the Nation of Islam and reasons for leaving—Different way in which Islam was taught by the Nation—Teachings and restrictions of the Nation—Prohibition against fornication—Allegations of Elijah Muhammad’s infidelity—Oratorical skills of Malcolm X versus those of Elijah Muhammad—Becoming a Black Nationalist—Excerpt from Rivers of Blood Years of Darkness—Excerpt from Newsweek vis-à-vis needs of residents in Watts community in 1965—First awareness of the concept of race and discrimination—Arrest for exhibition of “obscene” cartoons and caricatures at Smith’s place of business—ACLU defense of Smith—Recognition and awareness of systemic racism—Three Laws of Black Mental Health by Wade Noble—Truths articulated by Elijah Muhammad—Social life as a young adult—Schoolboy’s teachings on gambling—Attending musical performances in the sixties and the neighborhood venues—Class divisions in the Black community—Different meaning of the word class in the Black community—Role of economic stratification and skin color—Role in Congress of Racial Equality and Operation Bootstrap—Jobs held after high school—Postsecondary education at University of California, Irvine—Giving antiwar speech and arrest for use of profanity—Origins of Ebonics—Bias of standardized tests—Findings of Conference on Ebonics— Ebonics: The True Language of Black People—Associating speech with intelligence—Visual versus Auditory Learners— Teaching at Cal State Fullerton and UC Irvine—Watts Rebellion of 1965 and its root causes—McCone Commission Report
Decision to pursue linguistics as a career—Student orator at UC Irvine—Smtih’s mentor, Dr. Joe White—Definition of linguistics—Charges of disturbing the peace—Support of linguists—Controversial political cartoons—Concept of Jihad— Training to be a linguist—United Front Against Imperialism—Failed attempts to teach literacy—Psychological underpinnings of linguistics—Noam Chomsky—Challenge to pursue graduate work—Caribbean scholars who studied Black language—Adrian Dove—Tests to counterbalance biased ones—African language antecedents to Ebonics—Smith’s dissertation—“Honkeyfication”—Verbal dueling—Oakland School District resolution on Ebonics—Definition of Ebonics— Robert Williams, who pioneered Ebonics.
Robert Williams—Mental illness in the Black community—1973 Conference “Cognitive and Language Development of the Black Child"—Williams’ background and training—Differing achievement standards for Blacks and Whites—Deficit and African-centered models of Ebonics—The term Black English—Etiologies for speech differences—Origin of the word Ebonics—Difference versus deficiency—Larry P. v. Wilson Riles case—Culturally and linguistically biased Tests—Dorsal velar and apico alveolar sounds—Reactions to Ebonics.
Definition of a nation—Oakland School Board Ebonics Resolution—African American vernacular English—Ebonics in the context of bilingualism—Gerontology Certificate Program at UCLA.
Scholars researching Ebonics today.
Learning Modal Preference (LMP)—Visual and auditory learners—Advocating for the language needs of Black children—Use of music in marketing to Black community—Comfort level with African heritage—Competition for bilingual resources—Standard English Proficiency Program (SEP) and Proficiency in English Program (PEP)—Historic lack of funding and resources for King Hospital—Sensitivity of administrators—Power of Supervisor Kenneth Hahn—Hospital survives in spite of the system—Politics prevents implementation of preventative medicine programs—Responsiveness of Jonathan Fielding—Problems with Department of Health Services—Attempts to establish geriatrics residency at King—Providing audiometric services—Health screenings for seniors—Politics of health care delivery—Support for King among elected officials—Discrediting of the hospital—Change in character of gangs—Removal of African American children into foster homes—Antisocial and anti-community tendencies—History of drug influx to community—Drug traffickers—Smith’s association with Charles Drew University—Exposing attempts to destroy and privatize of King Hospital—Change in demographics—Serving healthcare needs of diverse and undeserved populations— Anti-immigrant sentiments among African Americans—Consistency between white supremacist and Black nationalist views—“Anchor” babies—Undocumented workers who commit crimes—White Christian appropriation of Black gospel music—Difference in preaching styles—White supremacy under guise of Christianity— African American Creoles and Afro Latinos.
Community organizations addressing mental health needs in the community—Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome—Organizations addressing training and employment needs—Organizations that did not survive—Possibility of another rebellion.