LINGUIST List 8.1312

Tue Sep 16 1997

Sum: African American Vernacular Literature

Editor for this issue: Martin Jacobsen <>


  1. Wen-chao Li, SUM: African American vernacular literature

Message 1: SUM: African American vernacular literature

Date: Tue, 25 Mar 1997 17:39:13 +0000 (GMT)
From: Wen-chao Li <>
Subject: SUM: African American vernacular literature

SUM: African American Vernacular Literature

A while ago, I posted a request for literature written in the African
American vernacular, or, to be more specific, literature written in
English with characteristics of African American speech. My thanks to
all who replied.

Before I summarize the recommendations, I feel it is necessary to
point out here that my interest lies purely in the characterization of
African American speech in the written medium -- I did not intend to
make a political statement in the context of the ebonics debate by way
of proposing a separate written language for African Americans, nor
was I suggesting that written language is a word-for-word replica of
the spoken language -- my failure to be specific enough in my original
posting had promted many replies which addressed these issues, e.g.,

From: stephen p spackman <>

>To what extent is this possible? I can think of very little that has
>been "written in" standard spoken english either, and on the whole
>(speaking as a writer, now) I'm not sure it's tenable as an idea.
>Perhaps Hemmingway was trying to do this? But if so, he wasn't IMO
>succeeding.... Frankly, I think _written_ ebonics is the thing
>everyone is afraid of: a competing _standard_ that factionalises US
>culture is a very different kettle of fish from the employment of
>effective teaching methods adapted to the local community (whoever
>that may be), and serving to strengthen the common basis (whatever its

I stand corrected regarding my imprecise use of language in phrasing
my original question, although I do feel that the political issues
raised here are better left for another discussion. Getting back to
the point, i.e., the literature, here are the replies:

(PS: I deleted one message by accident -- if you wrote to me but do
not find your comments summarized below, could you please contact me?

Wen-Chao Li
Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford

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From: Aaron Drews <>

	Many things by Alice Walker might give you some of the
insights you're looking for. Also, Mark Twain's _Tom Sawyer_ and
particularly _Huckleberry Finn_ have long excerpts written in

- ------------------------

From: Anne T Gilman <>

	The sixties saw the production of some primers for children
(by educators) in Ebonics/AAE, though I don't know where one would
find them now. The best currently-available examples of such texts
are re-translations of the Bible. Some authors (Xam Cartier,
Z.N. Hurston, August[?] Wilson, maybe Ishmael Reed) are known for
incorporating AAE into their fiction, but I think Stephen's point
remains quite valid. The same difficulty comes up, when people are
arguing about "authenticity" for N. Scott Momaday (famous,
award-winning Native American (Kiowa) writer), who utilizes some of
his grandmother's storytelling traditions but also clearly makes use
of his Ph.D. work in comparative literature.
	Recordings of African American actors, etc., using Ebonics/AAE
are also a bit tricky because of the long fascination
(c.f. minstrelsy) of the American entertainment industry with
sometimes very skewed images of blacks. Good code-switching data can
be found in tapes of Arsenio Hall shows and in all the Spike Lee
movies I've seen. For verbal art per se, I myself also like to look
at older rap (anything before 2 Live Crew) and also at old gospel
music recordings; there are sometimes spoken prayer segments in the
latter which span mutiple registers and dialects.

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From: rebecca meyer <>

I am responding to your recent posting/request on the Linguist List.
I know of a couple of titles that may be of interest to you: The Good
Negress, by A.J. Verdelle
 The narrator is a young Black girl who moves from the rural
South to the urban North (Detroit I think) in the late 50's.
Exceptional book! Straight Outta Compton, by Ricardo Cortez Cruz
 I haven't actually read this novel, but the title seems like
it would be in keeping with what you're looking for.

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From: James Vanden Bosch <>

Take a look at "Down in the Piney Woods," by Ethel Footman Smothers
(Knopf, 1992), a novel which uses a good deal of BEV of rural Georgia
in the 1950s.

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From: Larry Rosenwald <lrosenwaldWELLESLEY.EDU>

Hi - I saw your LINGUIST query. You'll probably get billions of
responses. In any case - I myself don't think that either Alice
Walker's _The Color Purple_ or Lorraine Hansberry's _Raisin in the
Sun_ (I assume that's the work you were thinking of) is a particularly
rich representation of black English (I dislike the term Ebonics and
don't understand why people have so automatically adopted it). I'd
recommend Zora Neale Hurston (her novel, _Their Eyes Were Watching
God_, and her anthropological work, _Mules and Men_); Suzan-Lori
Parks' play, _The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire
World_, Richard Wright. I don't know whether you're interested in the
representation of black English by white writers - I don't find them
to be different in linguistic details, though I think they're often
different in artistic function. There's Mark Twain's depiction of
black speech in Huckleberry Finn, about which I believe William Labov
has written a lamentably un- published lecture (the point, or one
point, of the lecture, is that Twain gives in some sense a more
accurate picture of black speech than does either Alice Walker or Alex
Haley); and there's Gertrude Stein's "Melanctha," which Richard Wright
singled out for praise as the text that restored his own dialectal
speech to him. ("Melanctha" is the middle text of Stein's book _Three
Lives_.) Stein's use of black speech isn't like anyone else's; it's
worth looking at.

- ----------------------------

From: Christy Ragland <>

You may want to read Zora Neal Hurston's book, Their Eyes Were
Watching God. I have read it and it is the closest thing I have

- ----------------------------

From: Aaron Hawkins <>

Regarding your request for fiction written in Ebonics, I think Zora
Neale Hurston's _Moses Man of the Mountain_ and _Their Eyes Were
Watching God_ qualify. Did you want works with most or all of the
dialogue written in Ebonics, or those written in it exclusively?

- ----------------------------

From: Alida Dewey <>

You might try the novel "Their Eyes Were Watching God"; it has
beautifully rendered dialectial speech. I believe the author is Zora
Neale Hurston.

- ----------------------------

From: "McDougall, Marina" <MCDOUGAMCIBC.CA>

 Hi Wenchao -
 I don't know how you personally define African-American. There
is a wonderful book, "In the Castle of my Skin", which is a Bajan
classic. It has the flavour of Tom Sawyer/Huck Finn, and is the story
of the process of Barbados achieving independence from Britain through
the eyes of 2 boys. It is written in what I think of as Island
dialect, but the word patterns are certainly similar to the way
American blacks speak. There is some Bajan flavour to the dialect
but, comparing them in memory, not all that unlike "The Color Purple".
 Hope this helps.

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