Wendy Ewald

Wendy Ewald


American Alphabets


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. While the United States has become increasingly diverse since then, the culture of our schools has remained much the same as in my childhood: white middle-class. American Alphabets is an attempt to remake the buildings blocks of our language to reflect our differing cultures.

The young people I worked with chose the words and suggested the imagery of their alphabets. I created a Spanish alphabet with Spanish-speaking children of immigrant farm workers. The words they chose—like nervioso or impostor—were symptomatic of their uprooted way of life. Taken as a whole, their lists of words amounted to a kind of cultural self-portrait. Students in Cleveland worked with me on an African Alphabet and girls in a private school on a Girl’s alphabet. At the Queens Museum I collaborated with Arabic speaking middle school students to create the Arabic Alphabet. The students had emigrated with their families from Egypt, Jordan, Algeria, Morocco and Lebanon.

impostor n. imposter
someone who robs and treats people badly and kills peoples.
There’s an imposter trying to rob all the money from the bank.

nervioso adj. nervous
when you get scared and feel uncomfortable.
Telly was nervous because she has a test. She got scared that she might flunk.

querer v. to like
when you love someone.
He loves him.

voltear v. to turn
looking forward and backward.
One day I was turning my head to see what was happening.

w letter not found in the Spanish alphabet and found only in foreign words.

African American   n. & adj. A black person born in America.
I feel proud because African Americans are special. White people waste their time trying to put us down. – Calvin Williams

lemons   pl. n.   Yellow oblong citrus fruit with acid juice and thick skins from which a fragrant oil is made.
Lemons are as yellow as the sun and are sour as candy. – Monique Cowa

nappy   adj.   When someone’s hair need to be straightened out and it’s hard to get a comb through it.
Girl, your hair is nappy! You need to get it straightened out. – Dafawn Taylor

talk   v.i. & t.   To speak, to express speech.
The boy is always talking trash. – Mark Stoves

x   n.   Twenty–fourth letter of the alphabet.
I’m entering the X-games. – Jermaine Whiteside

girl  n.
strong, feminine, smart, crazy being.

What does it mean to be a girl? Different things for different people, but for me it means being whatever I want to be. It means being an athlete and a tomboy but also liking to wear a skirt form time to time. It means hanging out with boys while also knowing that there is nothing like girlfriends.

insecure adj.
being unsure of who you are or how you fit in.

Everyone has insecurities, especially those people who have not found their special qualities, or the things that set them apart from those they pass on the path. At one time or another we all struggle to find our niche. We are all human; therefore we are insecure.

normal adj.
typically describing something that is usual or conforms to the standard.

Often people prefer to think of themselves and be thought of as normal. However, how does one know what is normal? Something is only normal when it has conformed to its surroundings and does not stand out. However, if moved to a different surrounding, the previously normal thing would become strange or different. Nothing is ever truly normal.

queen n.
a woman born into prestigious authority; and therefore developing grace and sophistication.
Her poise and grace were known throughout society: at school and at home. Her delicate smile had awed many, for they were fascinated and transfixed by her elegance. She was the queen, a worldly woman who was known and respected by all.

victim n.
someone who has suffered as a result of an action or belief.

I think girls today are victims of many things—not only physical abuse but also of a more subtle inner abuse that holds them back from fully expressing themselves.

letter (pronounciation)

shin (sh) shamm (smell)
to discover an odor
The girl is smelling the flower.

sad (emphatic s) sahn (plate)
the object to serve food in
I have a plate.

‘ayn (a strong guttural sound) ‘ima (blind)
loss of vision, cannot see
The boy was blind.

ghayn (gh) ghezaá (lunch)
the food that we eat at midday
I had my lunch.

kaf (k) kitab (book)
a material set of sheets bound into a volume
I love reading books.