Day 15: Black Dialect in Literature

15 02 2011

Once again an older piece but this one I have updated a bit to incorporate some new understanding.

OK I am going to admit something to you all, I think in proper English. I have always had a problem not with the use of an urban or African-American southern dialect I just hate when Black characters thoughts are given dialect. Nobody thinks like that! So the questions I want to discuss with everyone reading are: Is inner dialect used by black authors really needed? Couldn’t the works of The Color Purple or Their Eyes Were Watching God be told just as effectively without its use? I have been wondering about these questions for a long time and I still don’t think I have a good answer.

It was obviously the author’s intention to give a literal translation of the time period but in the same breath why not give some thought to readers of other races and the passage of time. Zora Neale Hurston for example at the time she was writing sold mostly to a white audience so is it conceivable to think that this literal use of broken language is not really necessary. You could easily watch the theatrical productions of Their Eyes Were Watching God with Halle Berry or The Color Purple with Whoopi Goldberg and see that even though the dialect is still there, the characters inner voice is very clear and succinct. This clarity gives the work a boarder appeal then it once had with the ability to be embraced by a larger audience, thus explaining the success of these two motion pictures. It also portrays Black thought as being just as clear and well reasoned as that of any other race. I argue that by throwing dialect into Black characters minds it makes African-Americans seem less intelligent and look less logical, which is simply not the case.

I have as an African–American mostly been able to understand the dialect in books that I have read but at the same time these words do not strike me as hard as books without dialect. A book by James Baldwin called If Beale Street Could Talk which is about an inner city black family is full of outdated slang (being that the book was based in the early 1920’s) but Tish, the main character’s inner voice is almost perfect full of deep and meaningful dialogue that anybody can just pick up and right away understand. To me this is the way dialect should be implemented, using a narration that while still keeping the novels authenticity provides deeper and easier to understand context and meaning.

I in no way am trying to condemn African or southern dialect in works of literature in fact I find that poetry is a genre that dialect whether it be contemporary slang or African. One of the best examples that I could think of was Cross by Langston Hughes,

My old man’s a white old man
And my old mother’s black.
If ever I cursed my white old man
I take my curses back.
If ever I cursed my black old mother
And wished she were in hell,
I’m sorry for that evil wish
And now I wish her well
My old man died in a fine big house.
My ma died in a shack.
I wonder were I’m going to die,
Being neither white nor black?

The poem provides a sense of dialect but can be read and understood by anyone who can read. The poems slight use of dialect still keeps it rooted in an African–American genre with a broad appeal and easy to pick apart (as everyone does to poems for inner meaning).

Do we need dialect? Well I believe the answer is both yes and no. We have to in some way preserve another form of the English language and the best way to do that is in literature. At the same time I believe it is about time that contemporary authors move away from this wholesale usage of making every word dialect. It can be woven in but I believe dialect needs the support of deep and present day narration. Today, we see this in the whole ghetto writer movement, think about the Black books you can get at Wal-Mart for $10. Those books are just as harmful they will never be cannon and they play up a stereotypical view of the Black experience. I feel if great authors continue to write and their works be forgotten because some couldn’t understand I think that is a loss that Isa juss ain’t eva gonna be gotten ova.

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