Black English in Literature Analysis

Historical Background

The term “black English” was coined during the 1960’s to identify African American language styles. Beginning in the 1940’s with seminal studies by Lorenzo Turner of the Gullah dialect, the investigation of black English was continued by such scholars as J. L. Dillard, Geneva Smitherman, Molefi Kete Asante, and Joseph Holloway.

Generally, Africans brought to North America during slavery were denied formal education. Having their own languages, they adapted linguistic patterns of their mother tongues, creating dialects that blended African and English expressions. The syntactical and grammatical structures of African languages merged with English forms. Black English has been primarily associated with the Southern states, although Africans were also transported to the North. Furthermore, internal migration resulted in the transfer of Southern black dialects to Northern urban areas.

Recognized by its alteration of standard English verbs and pronouns, suggesting the influence of grammatical structures of African languages, black English is also identified by a lexicon. The study of English spoken by African Americans can also be linked to black folklore in which altered spelling has been used to approximate the sound of black dialect.

Nineteenth Century

Black English can be found in folktales, narratives, short stories, novels, poems, and dramas. Although slave narratives were primarily written in standard English, black language styles are often elements of those texts. In Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave (1845), there is an allusion to a plantation song that contains vernacular. One of the characters in Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) uses such words as “nebber” (never) and “chile” (child).

Black English is also present in the first novels written by African Americans, many of which portray plantation life. William Wells Brown’s Clotel: Or, The President’s Daughter (1853), perhaps the first novel written by an African American, and his play, The Escape: Or, A Leap for Freedom (1856), contain passages of vernacular. To a limited degree, Frank J. Webb’s The Garies and Their Friends (1857) characterizes enslaved Africans through dialect that includes such words as “gwine” (going). Harriet E. Wilson’s Our Nig (1859), the first novel published by an African American in the United States (Clotel was first published in England), uses black English in its treatment of the North. Martin Delany in Blake: Or, The Huts of America (1859), set in Mississippi, uses the slave experience as a vehicle for black dialect.

Black English...

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The Modern Era

In the twentieth century, black and white American writers have used black English. Eugene O’Neill’s All God’s Chillun Got Wings (1924), whose title uses vernacular, was followed by Garland Anderson’s Appearances (1925), one of many dramas by black playwrights during the 1920’s. A series of plays by black women writers show the varied uses of black English. Eulalie Spence’s Undertow (1929), set in Harlem, exemplifies the transfer of vernacular to the urban North. In the play, Hattie, a Harlem resident, uses such expressions as “’cept” (accept) and “sence” (since). Georgia Douglas Johnson’s A Sunday Morning in the South (1925) also contains vernacular, as did most folk plays, which were particularly suited to black dialect. Jean Toomer’s Balo (1924), John Matheus’ ’Cruiter (1926), and Randolph Edmonds’ Bad Man (1934) are examples of folk plays that employ black English.

Certain Southern white writers continued to use black language styles, most notably William Faulkner, whose novels and short stories often depict black characters. In The Sound and the Fury (1929), Dilsey and Luster speak in black English; short stories such as “That Evening Sun” also show this trait in Faulkner’s writing. Another popular Southern writer, Julia Mood Peterkin, re-creates the patterns of Gullah in Scarlet Sister Mary (1928).

However, the most pronounced use of black English in the modern era has come from African American writers. During the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920’s, Langston Hughes and Sterling Brown were advocates of black vernacular in an...

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The Black Arts Era and Beyond

In poetry, African American writers of the 1960’s and 1970’s continued to avoid the servility associated with dialect. Gwendolyn Brooks, Don Lee, Amiri Baraka, Jayne Cortez, and Sonia Sanchez are among the numerous black poets who updated black English during the protest era in which folk dialect suggested oppression. Black poets used the rhythmic patterns of black speech closely related to the phrasing of jazz melodies. However, varied spelling, similar to alterations in nineteenth century dialect, were sometimes employed along with black expressions of the day. For example, in “blues,” Sonia Sanchez uses “u/shd” (you should), suggesting protest through the modification of standard forms.

Prominent African American novelists have also used black phrasing. Toni Morrison’s novels, including Sula (1973), Beloved (1987), and Jazz (1992), are known for their replication of African American voices. Alice Walker’s The Third Life of Grange Copeland (1970) and The Color Purple (1982) reproduce black Southern vernacular. Considered a Southern black novelist, Ernest J. Gaines maintains the rural voice by re-creating the syntactical flow of black speech. Gaines’s The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971) and A Gathering of Old Men (1983) reproduce the black dialect of Louisiana.

African American playwrights have continued to use black English as an authenticating characteristic of the black literary identity. Douglass Turner Ward’s Day of Absence (1966), set in a Southern town, Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf: a choreopoem (1976), portraying young urban black women, and August Wilson’s dramatic project, which includes a series of plays set in various decades of the twentieth century, all rely on dialogue based on black speech patterns. Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1985), The Piano Lesson (1990), and Seven Guitars (1996) show a sustained interest in black language styles.

African American literature has been maintained by writers who have recognized that the sound of black English gives validity and cultural identity to their literary works.


Suggested Readings

Asante, Molefi K. “African Elements in African-American English.” In Africanisms in American Culture, edited by Joseph E. Holloway. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990. A very informative study of the African sources influencing African American vocal patterns.

Baker, Houston A., Jr. Blues, Ideology and Afro-American Literature: A Vernacular Theory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984. A theoretical study of African American discourse using the blues as conceptual framework.

Dillard, J. L. Black English: Its History and Usage in the United States. New York: Random House, 1972. One of the major statements emerging from the linguistic analysis of black language patterns.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. Uses the trickster figure as a basis for analyzing texts by such authors as Hurston and Walker.

Holloway, Karla F. C. The Character of the Word: The Texts of Zora Neale Hurston. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1987. Focuses on the sources of Hurston’s complex uses of black language styles.

North, Michael. The Dialect of Modernism: Race, Language, and Twentieth-Century Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. A study of modernist writing and its connection to standard language patterns.

Smitherman, Geneva. Talkin and Testifyin: The Language of Black America. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1986. A highly informed study of black language patterns and modes of discourse from African origins to popular urban variations.

Turner, Lorenzo D. Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1949. A pioneer study of African linguistic elements in the Gullah dialect.