Wanting the Same Things: Black English then and now



Language has been described as a code that two or more people share to communicate messages (Wardhaugh, 2006). Yet while all English speakers, for instance, may exchange messages, not all types of English sound the same. Standard American English (SAE), for example, is the style taught in American schools, typically used in American literature, usually spoken by educated people and often found in the U.S. news media (Fromkin and Rodham, 1998; Wardhaugh, 2006).

There are also non-standard varieties or “dialects” of a language that can reveal a speaker’s geographical or social background through distinctive grammar, vocabulary and/or pronunciation (Fromkin and Rodham, 1998, p. 400). SAE itself could be considered a dialect (Fromkin and Rodham, 1998; Trudgill, 1995) and unique for its association with the dominant culture and in “mainstream” functions, including education and employment (Toliver-Wellington, 1973, p. 108).

Trudgill (1994, p. 2) nevertheless suggests that, “Dialects are not good or bad, nice or nasty, right or wrong – they are just different from one another, and it is the mark of a civilized society that it tolerates different dialects just as it tolerates different races, religions and sexes.” While commendable, I find Trudgill’s suggestion utopian and naïve. Dialects harbor connotations (e.g. geographical and social) and, in some cases, “very specific historical relationships” (Hinskens et al, 2005, p. 1).

Take for example the manner of speech associated with black Americans, the ‘black dialect’ or ‘African American Vernacular English,’ henceforth AAVE (Toliver-Wellington, 1973; Shores, 1974; Mufwene, 2000). AAVE includes the dropping of the final consonant in some words like desk (“des”) and cold (“col”) or substituting /d/ for the voiced /th/ (Toliver-Weddington, 1973, p. 109; Wolfram and Beckett, 2000, p. 13) as well as the absence of the copula/auxiliary (e.g. is and are), as in “He tall,” “They running” (Rickford, 1999, p. 6) or “You hear?” rather than “Do you hear?” (Fine and Anderson, 1978, p. 12). There may also be multiple negatives like ‘He don’t never do nothing’ (Linnes, 1998) and the “invariant ‘Be'” such as ‘You be…’ (Linnes, 1998, p. 343; Wolfram, 2000); though actually variant if suffixed with -s, as in ‘He be’s…’ (Viereck, 1988, p. 293). Even with features distinctively different from SAE, AAVE is a rule-governed system of language (Rickford, 1996).

Obviously, not all black Americans use AAVE (Toliver-Wellington, 1973; Shores, 1974), including me and, for example, Senator Barack Obama or U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice but, as Shores (1974, p. 106) has claimed, “every black person in America, except those born and raised in virtually all white areas, has some knowledge of the language.” Actually, I would venture to say that virtually all Americans have an awareness of the dialect, even if all black people do not use it.  The bottomline is that the dialect represents our black heritage, in any case, and ‘very specific historical relationships’ that are not easily denied, as Trudgill’s suggestion implies.

Trudgill’s sense of tolerance and civility is nonetheless useful in discussing AAVE and why, given SAE’s utility, some black Americans do not demonstrate the mainstream dialect. Wardhaugh (2006) suggests contemporary AAVE reflects a southern dialect supported by decades of racial segregation. This paper agrees with that notion and begins where AAVE originated, then continues by looking at the practice of segregation, black identity, popular media and general attitudes regarding the dialect. Trudgill’s idea of civility and social tolerance will then be reassessed.

The same thing

 “We [blacks] don’t mimic the immigrant story. Where this conversation has got to go is that black Americans and white Americans founded this country together and I think we’ve always wanted the same thing.” – U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice (Pleming, 2008, ¶ 3)

Secretary Rice’s assumption is reasonable, echoing the spirit of Trudgill’s civilized, tolerant society and is no less utopian and naïve. Blacks did not begin as Americans, we began as slaves, and the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries were neither civilized nor tolerant times. For black people, founding America meant a life of degradation and oppression in areas including language. Degraff (2005, p. 535) explains that enforcing black linguistic inferiority allowed supporters of slavery to cope with the moral issue of “How can the slave be a full-fledged human and a chattel?” One state governor simply saw the black man as “an animal in the form of a man, possessing the greatest physical power, and the greatest capacity for labor and endurance … a wild barbarian, to be tamed and civilized by the discipline of slavery” (Hafenbrack and Kennedy, 2008, March 26). As an elected official in 1861, I suspect he expressed a popular opinion as AAVE was developing.

Developmental theories for AAVE include the “Anglicist hypothesis” (Wardhaugh, 2006, p. 344; Wolfram and Tolbert, 2004, p. 1), which suggests AAVE was primarily influenced by the English spoken in colonial times. ‘Substrate’ theories suggest AAVE developed from a convergence of African languages spoken by first the arrivals with the regional English dialects, and may still be evident in communities (e.g. Hyde County, North Carolina) with limited outside dialectal influences (Wardhaugh, 2006, p. 344; Wolfram and Tolbert, 2004, ¶ 13).

Another idea is that AAVE is more of a “creole” language (Wardhaugh, 2006, p. 344); that being based on a dominant form (e.g. English) and former pidgin codes or “marginal language” (Fromkin and Rodman, 1998, p. 422). Mufwene (2001, p. 62) suggests a creole subsequently reflected more vernacular of the European “founder population,” as southern economies shifted from homesteads to plantations, with locally born slaves eventually teaching language to new arrivals. However, ‘teaching’ would not mean schooling in a traditional, book-learning sense.

According to Butchart and Rolleri (2004, p. 158), “In the Deep South, fear of slave insurrections led to draconian legislation by the 1820’s prohibiting anything beyond oral education and training for servility.” The risk of organized revolts was also reduced by slave owners mixing slaves in groups of assorted linguistic backgrounds (Wardhaugh, 2006). Moreover, massive domestic slave migrations to wherever labor was needed (Dunaway, 2003) surely favored the marginalization of any language other than the standard English of the time. Wardhaugh (2006, p. 83) explains that “So long as whites and blacks kept considerable distance apart, physically and socially, there was little opportunity for decreolization.”

A definitive explanation for the development of AAVE remains elusive (Poplack, 2000; Wolfram, 2000). What is known is that prior to the American civil war (1861-1865) there were only three general education schools available to freed slaves in the south (Butchart and Rolleri, 2004). In the decade following the war, former slaves and their supporters had established more than 100 schools in and around the south (Butchart and Rolleri, 2004). For me, the most important issue is how the vile conditions of slavery prevented the vast majority of blacks from learning the English (i.e. code) of their white contemporaries. Sadly, the end of slavery would not mean the complete end of black linguistic oppression.

Freedom, identity and ‘dat window dere’

Trudgill’s vision of a civilized, tolerant society and Secretary Rice’s optimistic assumption would still not apply as the 20th century began. Freedom from slavery meant strict racial separation through “Jim Crow” laws that, after an 1896 amendment, promised “separate but equal” treatment of all races (Smith, 1962, p. 66). The premise was a “farce” (Andrews, 1978, p. 370; Franklin, 1994, p. 3), just as the term ‘Jim Crow’ was derogatory, referring to a minstrel caricature (National Park Service, 1998). The rules varied by state or municipality and included segregated libraries, buses, hotels, restaurants, water fountains, cinemas, hospital entrances and schools (National Park Service, 1998), with most laws vehemently enforced until the 1964 Civil Rights Act ended public segregation (Morris, 1999, p. 527).

Before the 1964 Civil Rights Act, I wonder, why would a black person have adopted SAE when mainstream America was essentially closed to black people? Flowers (2000, p. 2, in Greene and Walker, 2004, p. 436) suggests, “Most members of the subordinate group are obliged to learn the standard dominant language to get along.” However, until WWI, ‘get along’ would have meant working in agriculture or as domestic help, not industry (Taylor, 1996). It may have also meant “code-switching,” a situation-specific ability to use either dialect (Hinskens et al, 2005, p. 25; Linne, 198, p. 352; Toliver-Weddington, 1973, p. 108).

Today’s youth have reportedly found code-switching appealing, ethnically unifying (Horvat and Lewis, 2003) and essential in hip-hop music and culture (Akim, 2002), but during the Jim Crow era code-switching may have been less appealing. For example, and from psychiatrist Frantz Fanon’s (in Wyrick, 1998, p. 33) perspective on identity, “language differences mark both the man’s inferiority complex vis-à-vis whites and his dislocation from the black community.” My understanding of Fanon’s analysis is that one’s efforts to fit in where he knows he is not wanted may come at the social and/or psychological expense of where he has been accepted.

There is no reason to assume a black person with a command of SAE would have been welcomed to fit in anyway (Shores, 1974), especially since black people were routinely mocked in mainstream culture. For example, from the 1920’s to the early 50’s, America’s most popular radio program was ‘The Amos and Andy Show’, a situation ‘comedy’ with two white men playing black characters in black-face and voice in front of a live studio audience (Fine and Anderson, 1978; Ingram, n.d.).

The following is an exchange from an episode in 1943 (Ingram, n.d., part three):

Kingfish: “Dis is west, the sun sets right out dat window dere, evaday, yeah.”

Lady: “Oh, well then, I’m in the right place.”

The radio show lead to an equally popular TV version with black lead actors (Fine and Anderson, 1978; Ingram, n.d.). The TV program aired between 1950 and 1953 and eventually ended under organized protests asserting racism (Fine and Anderson, 1978; Ingram, n.d.).

While it would be more than 10 years before a black actor, not portraying a servant, was regularly featured on TV, the 70’s reintroduced comedies featuring blacks in inner city or lower middle class situations (Fine and Anderson, 1978). Ironically, ‘Roots,’ a 1978 mini-series about slavery, may have been the only notable exception to the apparent preference for comedies rather than dramas about the black experience (Weinraub, 2000). TV producer Steven Bochco, who has developed TV shows depicting realistic black experiences, has suggested that “Mainstream white audiences aren’t particularly comfortable with… [black dramas]”, adding that, “the feeling was that they were being taken to school” (Weinraub, 2000, ¶ 16).

Time magazine (Morrow, 1978, ¶ 3) once questioned “Why are black families so often shown [on TV] to be in screaming turmoil, the air brushed with insults?” One answer the magazine proposed was that “earnest dignity and accomplishment are not very funny, unless they are mocked” (Morrow, 1978, ¶ 3).  In a study of the ‘Dialect features of language of black characters on American television programming’ (Fine and Anderson, 1978, p. 17), researchers support that claim of contrivance and also find that “the language heard on these shows is a limited dialect, one that does not correspond to BEV [black English vernacular] in natural settings, but gives the impression of difference.”

The researchers (Fine and Anderson, 1978, p. 25) suggest that TV producers adopt a strategy of “black, but not too black.” In one case, three young black males on ‘What’s Happening’, according to Fine and Anderson (1978, p. 17), would be expected to use the most AAVE, actually used very little. One reviewer called the show a “Black Happy Days” (Fine and Anderson, 1978, p. 18). Still, the three characters often mocked the “correct” grammar of the younger sister character (Fine and Anderson, 1978, p. 18).  In other cases, the more intelligent appearing or wealthy a character (e.g. Michael on Good Times, Helen on The Jeffersons), the less AAVE used; thus implying AAVE is the speech of less intelligent or poor people (Fine and Anderson, 1978). Also, linguistically, slang is not considered a distinct AAVE characteristic (Dillard, 1973, in Fine and Anderson, 1978; Linne, 1998; Rickford, 1996), but emphasized in TV comedies featuring blacks (Fine and Anderson, 1978).

The basic concern is that limited views of black people on TV could reinforce negative stereotypes and attitudes (Fine and Anderson, 1978; Morrow, 1978; Weinraub, 2000). Compounding that concern, I believe, is that, as of 2000, the US was still largely segregated, with urban housing blocks either 90% black or 90% white (Quinn and Pawasarat, 2003). In employment, the U.S. Department of Labor (Taylor, 1996, p. 5) has reported that, “There are fewer blacks than whites in higher-paying white collar positions, even though blacks may have comparable education.” In other words, the mainstream workplace may not necessarily broaden one’s view of black people. Furthermore, research has shown that more than half of rural, and more than a quarter of urban and suburban white teenagers learned about black manners of speech from watching TV (Fine and Anderson, 1978).

Perhaps limited natural exposure to black people and contrived TV presentations of black culture would help explain why President Bush, his former chief-of-staff Karl Rove and Senator Joseph Biden have all referred to Senator Barack Obama as ‘articulate,’ thus inferring to critics that the quality was rare (CBS News, 9 March 2008). Drawing perhaps the most attention was Senator Biden who said, “I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy” adding, “I mean, that’s a storybook, man” (Thai and Barrett, 2007, ¶ 3). Whatever the reason for these arguably narrow-minded opinions, they remind me that we have not fully realized the ideal society suggested by Trudgill.

Blaming the victim

Senator Barack Obama recently referred to Faulkner in saying, “The past is not dead and buried. In fact, it is not even past” (2008, March 18, ¶ 31).  Senator Obama was addressing the persistence of racial divisiveness in our country that, in my opinion, is partly enabled by how we view dialects. Transcending such feelings, I believe, was Trudgill’s point, but AAVE has had an undeniably oppressed past that is not dead and buried. Take Wardhaugh’s (2006, p. 83) observation that, “many people, both whites and blacks, regard any characteristics which seem to mark the speech of US blacks as instances of either ‘southern’ speech or ‘lower-class’ speech”.

There are, nonetheless, many black people, particularly young people, who gather a strong sense of pride, unity and even artistic expression from AAVE (Akim, 2002; Horvat and Lewis, 2003; Linne, 1998). However, it is the negative attitude, that divisiveness, I feel is tantamount to ‘blaming the victim’ for a manner of speech that was ironically shaped by laws and practices in the dominant culture. Plantations did not provide schooling for blacks (Butchart and Rolleri, 2004). Abolition did not bring blacks meaningful opportunities (Taylor, 1996). The media has often not offered useful black examples, linguistic or otherwise (Fine and Anderson, 1978; Morrow, 1978; Weinraub, 2000).

The divisiveness issue Senator Obama raised is not likely to be solved by complaining about the past or ignoring it. In this regard, Newark Mayor Cory Booker (2008) tells youngsters that “People judge you on how you present yourself” he says, “And you have to speak proper English. I can’t deal with the double negatives and the slang. You have to speak the English of Frederick Douglas, W.E.B. DuBois [and] Booker T. Washington.” Mayor Booker’s advice illuminates the fact that those early black leaders chose SAE, and therefore supports Secretary Rice’s assumption.

Could the same thing she believes founding blacks wanted have included the same standard of English for schooling, employment, social discourse and simple respect? With Douglas, Du Bois and Washington as examples, the answer is yes. Still, there is no way of knowing for sure, but those would have been reasonable desires and, if realized, truly reflective of Trudgill’s idea of a civilized and tolerant society.


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