Novel Spaces is in its 10th year! Over the coming months we'll be featuring some of the most popular posts from our archives. This one was first published March 3, 2013.
By Kevin Killiany
My wife, who grew up in rural coastal South Carolina in the 1960s, was one of four black students to integrate a white high school. She has lived through danger and repression I can only imperfectly imagine. I'm something of an aberration in her portfolio, which documents a lifetime of involvement in and championing of African American culture. One thing that makes her angry is novels by black writers in which educated, professional, upper-middle-class black characters are familiar with the drug culture, routinely drop the f-bomb and n-bomb in conversation, and have a casual attitude about sex and marriage. She gets particularly incensed at the depiction of black men as dogs.
A writer at a recent workshop presented a story set in a working-class urban community. The writer and the characters were black and, though the writer did not, all of her characters spoke in a cursing, slang-filled argot in dialog replete with phonetic spellings. A white member of the workshop admitted she'd had difficulty following some of the conversations and suggested the writer's work would be more accessible if she employed standard usage with only a few bits of slang. The writer questioned whether telling her to make her characters sound more white was a valid criticism. I cited the works of Caribbean writers here in Novel Spaces (with directions to their respective websites) as examples of incorporating elements of a culture authentically but in a way that was accessible to the widest range of readers and the conversation ended soon thereafter.
My native tongue is Southern English. This means that in the spoken language I know that 'child' rhymes with 'while'; that there's no need to enunciate the silent G at the end of words like readin, writin, children, or singin; and that an R following a vowel is softened (not eliminated, as some impersonators would have you believe). As a Southern writer I know the language is enriched by whimsical usage and the employment of words not currently in vogue; that initial articles are often superfluous; and that one should trust one's listeners and readers are intelligent enough to apprehend the occasional unspoken verb or subject. However, I'm also aware that many folk outside the South assume that Southern usage implies the inability to master any other and may be evidence of limited intellectual acuity. If not inbreeding. More troubling to me is that for many people of colors other than beige a white person who speaks with a Southern accent is suspected of being a closet klansman, or to at least harbor prejudicial tendencies. (And I know from personal experience that a white writer who depicts black Southerners as speaking with the same Southern accent he speaks with can find himself vilified as a racist.) With that in mind, I limit the dropped G in my characters' conversations to just often enough to establish locale and at no time call attention to the fact 'mild' and 'mile' are homophones. While I do exercise my cultural predilection for offbeat word choice and atypical sentence structure, I make a conscious effort to keep things simple enough for English majors to follow.
The assumption writing in dialect implies racism is not a new development; and it's not exclusively directed at white writers. I know my love for Zora Neale Hurston is on record somewhere—several someheres. According to Google Maps the Maitland, Florida, house I grew up in is four-point-three miles from the Zora Neale Hurston Museum in Eatonville, Florida. Never met her. I discovered her in college, and through her the Harlem Renaissance, but she had passed away the winter before the summer I became a reader. She did not, as I've seen reported elsewhere, starve to death in a homeless shelter. She was working as a librarian in Fort Pierce, FL, when she died of a stroke. However, it is true that due to lack of funds she was buried without a headstone. And the reason she had to work as a librarian and died too poor for a headstone is the direct result of the way she wrote. Or, more accurately, how her writing was perceived by others.
Hurston was an anthropologist by training – as in had degrees from Howard and Columbia – and a dedicated folklorist. She traveled to remote southern communities and as far afield as Haiti collecting legends and folk tales and recording them before they were lost to history. As a trained folklorist she wrote phonetically – because how a language is spoken shapes the sound and rhythm of the words. In other words, she wrote in dialect for legitimate academic as well as her own cultural reasons. However, many influential writers and social leaders felt she was betraying black culture and undermining black social progress by doing so. As Richard Wright (Black Boy and Native Son) wrote of what is now considered her masterpiece Their Eyes Were Watching God: "her novel carries no theme, no message, no thought… her novel is not addressed to the Negro, but to a white audience whose chauvinistic tastes she knows how to satisfy. She exploits that phase of Negro life which is 'quaint,' the phase which evokes a piteous smile on the lips of the 'superior' race." Because her use of language offended such powerful voices in the African American literary movement her books were out of print for thirty years. No books in print meant no royalties, a low-wage job, and a funeral paid for by working class friends.
(Which kinda puts my whining about being abused by internet trolls in perspective, doesn't it?)
There is no one right way to speak English. It's a living language, malleable and resilient. It's lost and gained words over the years. Nor is English homogeneous – it's not changing in the same ways or at the same rate everywhere. Or with everyone. There is no one white way of speaking, no one black way of speaking, no one Native American, or colonial, or Hispanic or Asian, or Australian, or Canadian, or American – and try telling folk in the UK they all sound alike. There's no one any way of speaking. However, there is an agreed set of general conventions that enable all of us divergent English speakers to understand and be understood. As writers who write in English, we need to hew close to these conventions if we are to reach the widest audience. But at the same time we need to be true to our own voices, and true to the voices of our characters. The trick is in finding the balance.