African American Dialect in Literature
Toni Cade Bambara, the possessor of ‘‘one of the finest ears for the nuances of black English,’’ may have revolutionized the use of contemporary African American dialect in literature, introducing it to non-African American audiences in much the same way that Mark Twain brought the dialect of middle America to people of the mid-nineteenth century through his character Huckleberry Finn. Like Zora Neale Hurston in her works of the 1920s and 1930s, Bambara uses language to capture what is unique about her characters’ experiences and voices. Through Bambara’s fiction, people around the world have come to better appreciate the richness of African-American language, mythology, and history and the strength of the African-American commitment to community. Bambara’s work mirrors the lives of African Americans and strives to chronicle the civil rights movement which sought to improve the quality of those lives.
After earning a reputation as a worker in the civil rights movement, a college teacher, and an editor, essayist, and collector of writings by African Americans, Bambara published her first book in 1972, a collection of short stories. Gorilla, My Love was immediately and enthusiastically welcomed. In a review in Washington Post Book World, Anne Tyler remarked on ‘‘the language of her characters, which is so startlingly beautiful without once striking a false note’’; the Saturday Review placed it ‘‘among the best portraits of black life to have appeared in some time,’’ and the New Yorker noted the ‘‘inspirational angle’’ of the stories. Readers admired and learned from the view of African American life presented in the stories, while critics exclaimed over the ‘‘bold, political angle’’ of Bambara’s language. Of the collection and public and critical reaction to it, Bambara once wrote, ‘‘It didn’t have anything to do with a political stance. I just thought people lived and moved around in this particular language system. It is also the language system I tend to remember childhood in’’ (in her Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions, 1996). Because Bambara was so familiar with the culture she represented in the book, because she wrote in ‘‘the language many of us speak,’’ she would need other people to teach her just ‘‘what was so different and distinct’’ about her work.
In an article in Black Women Writers: A Critical Evaluation (ed. Mari Evans, 1984), Ruth Elizabeth Burks describes Bambara as a griot, an African who preserves history by retelling it; she ‘‘perpetuates the struggle of her people by literally recording it in their own voices.’’ When looked at as a unit, her three major works trace the history of the civil rights movement in America and African Americans’ struggle for freedom. Gorilla, My Love preceded the principal flowering of the movement, but it demonstrated a need for equality and a willingness to take it when it is not offered. For Bambara, a spiritual communion, one that is based on a shared sense of community and purpose, is necessary for African Americans to achieve freedom. The type of communion found in ‘‘Blues Ain’t No Mockin Bird,’’ one of the stories that appeared in Gorilla, My Love, is unique in the collection, for it portrays a harmonious, cooperative relationship between a man and woman; the other stories in the collection all depict close ties among women. In the story, Granny is feeling threatened by outsiders, two men who claim to have been sent by the county to make a film about the food stamp program. Granddaddy Cain responds to her outrage and forces the men to leave the property. The old couple’s granddaughter, grandniece, and young neighbors all witness, and learn from, the interaction.
At the time of Gorilla, My Love ’s publication, many commentators associated its breezy style of speech with African American street dialect. But even when the stories take place in a non-urban environment, as does ‘‘Blues Ain’t No Mockin...
(The entire section is 5,310 words.)