In the last week I have taken two of my teacher certification exams, so Education is the primary current running through me at the moment. As a result, I can’t help but focus my attention on Molly’s character in Suzan-Lori Parks’ Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom. Early in the play, she seems to string together a series of phrases that are unrelated to the situation at hand, such as, “I lie down you lie down he she it lies down,” and, “The-little-lamb-follows-closely-behind-at-Mary’s-heels-as-Mary-boards-the-train.” She questioned the phrases, pointing out the absurdity of a lamb boarding a train (25). Likely, these are phrases that she was taught to memorize during her formal education, and they come to mind as she recalls being thrown out of school.
Of Molly’s words, what stands out most to me is the repetition of, “S-K is /sk/ as in ask.” It’s fairly common for people, especially children, to produce the word “axe” in speech instead of “ask,” as Molly does later on. Based on what she is saying, it appears she was receiving phonics instruction intended to change this tendency. For those who are not familiar with literacy education, phonics is the relationship between sounds and sets of letters. The letter “S” correlates with the phoneme /s/ and the letter “K” correlates with the phoneme /k/, and in order to produce the sound associated with “S-K” you blend the phonemes /s/ and /k/. Phonics instruction is important, because it impacts students’ ability to decode individual words, which impacts their reading fluency. Reading fluency in turn impacts students’ ability to make meaning from what they read, to comprehend text. These are the skills that help people be successful readers, which as participants in an English class, we all likely see as holding value. This is all to say that there are legitimate reasons Molly could have been receiving this type of phonics instruction in school.
However, given the context of the play you could also interpret that Molly’s teacher was trying to change her speech because they saw it as sub-“standard” English. Much of Imperceptible Mutabilities of the Third Kingdom is written in vernacular, meaning the words are spelled the way real human beings speak. Parks even gives us a guide to “foreign words & phrases” on page 17, including such words as, “iduhnt” and “heud.” Her use of the word “foreign” to describe this language is significant, because it implies that the source of words is far away, rather than typical speech. By labelling the language as such, Parks is intentionally mimicking those who label some speech as “standard” and some speech as “dialect.” The Naturalist character is an example of someone who buys into the dichotomy. Their speech mostly is not in vernacular and is intended to sound highly academic. Significantly they label themselves mundus modernus and the subjects of their study, whose text uses vernacular, mundus primitivus (29).
Modern and primitive— two words that have historically been used by one group of people to justify dominating another. In Ron Eglash’s African Fractals, he describes how the presence of fractal geometry rather than a Cartesian system in African communities was used as colonial proof of primitivism. The English did not understand the fractal geometry and believed that African development was not rational, meaning they needed the “guidance” of colonial rule (Eglash 196). It seems that Parks is engaging in “Rep & Rev” of this idea.
So what does this have to do with Molly and her phonics instruction? In asking Molly to change her speech from what she knew to what was considered “standard,” the primitive versus modern dichotomy was established by her teacher. Molly then needed to decide how to live in two worlds with distinct expectations for speech. Based on the way that Molly questioned the lamb on a train saying, it seems that she did not conform to the teacher’s expectations. As a result, she was thrown out of school. It is terribly common for students to fail academically because their background does not align with what the school system considers “standard.” In the field of Education, there is growing awareness of this issue and many teachers are now more mindful of students’ backgrounds. Yet as I described earlier, there are legitimate reasons for teaching “standard” English speech as a means for supporting literacy acquisition. So was it appropriate for Molly’s teacher to have her recite “S-K is /sk/ as in ask” or was it repetition of the primitive/modern dichotomy of colonialism? All I can really say is that the structures in place are not working for equitable education and Parks is bringing attention to that issue through Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom.