The term Ebonics was originally intended and sometimes used for the language of all people of African ancestry, or for that of Black North American and West African people, emphasizing the African roots of the former; since 1996 it has been largely used to refer to African American Vernacular English (distinctively nonstandard Black United States English), emphasizing the independence of the latter from (standard) English.
What is claimed to be the initial mention of "Ebonics" was made by the psychologist Robert Williams in a dialogue with Ernie Smith that took place in a conference on "Cognitive and Language Development of the Black Child", held in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1973. In 1975 it appeared within the title and text of a book edited and co-written by Williams, Ebonics: The True Language of Black Folks. Williams there explains it:
A two-year-old term created by a group of black scholars, Ebonics may be defined as "the linguistic and paralinguistic features which on a concentric continuum represent the communicative competence of the West African, Caribbean, and United States slave descendant of African origin. It includes the various idioms, patois, argots, idiolects, and social dialects of black people" especially those who have adapted to colonial circumstances. Ebonics derives its form from ebony (black) and phonics (sound, the study of sound) and refers to the study of the language of black people in all its cultural uniqueness.
Other writers have since emphasized how the term represents a view of the language of Black people as African rather than European. The term was not obviously popular even among those who agreed with the reason for coining it: it is little used even within the Ebonics book, in which "Black English" is the far more common name.
John Baugh claims that the term Ebonics is used in four ways by its Afrocentric proponents. It may be (i) "an international construct, including the linguistic consequences of the African slave trade"; (ii) the languages of the African diaspora as a whole; or it may refer to what is normally regarded as a variety of English: either (iii) it "is the equivalent of black English and is considered to be a dialect of English" (and thus merely an alternative term for AAVE), or (iv) it "is the antonym of black English and is considered to be a language other than English" (and thus a rejection of the notion of "African American Vernacular English" but nevertheless a term for what others term AAVE, but viewed as an independent language and not a mere ethnolect).
Ebonics remained a little known and little remarked term until 1996; it does not appear within the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, published in 1989 and thus over a decade after it was coined, and it was not used by linguists.
In 1996, the term became widely known in the U.S. due to its use by the Oakland School Board to denote and recognize the primary language (or sociolect or ethnolect) of African American children attending school, and thereby to facilitate the teaching of standard English. Thereafter, Ebonics seems to have become little more than an alternative term for African American Vernacular English (q.v.), although one emphasizing its African roots and its independence from English, linked with the nationally discussed controversy over the decision by the Oakland School Board, and avoided by most linguists.