I talked about my grandmother’s way of talking in the last post, but how did she influence me as a writer?
Through my grandmother, I learned how to appreciate individuality as shown through the way people talk. Accents, inflection, dialect, regional colloquialisms–all of these fascinate me. It’s like peeking into another dimension.
From her, I came to understand that poetry does not have to be limited to a particular set of words or syntax. An outgrowth of this is that I enjoy “spoken word” as a form of poetry because it often uses the vernacular. I also enjoy hip hop and rap music. What’s more, these modes of expression are as dynamic and versatile as any other mode.
Be yond the years the answer lies,
Beyond where brood the grieving skies
And Night drops tears.
Where Faith rod-chastened smiles to rise
and doff its fears,
And Carping sorrow pines and dies–
Beyond the years.
Dunbar also wrote in an authentic black American dialect. The dialect (if not syntax or vocabulary) in the poem A Negro Love Story, as seen in this excerpt, reminds me of my grandmother’ voice:
Hyeahd de win’ blow thoo de pine,
Jump back, honey, jump back,
Mockin’-bird was singin’ fine,
Jump back, honey, jump back.
An’ my hea’t was beatin’ so,
When I reached my lady’s do’,
Dat I couldn’t ba’ to go–
Over the years, I came to know my grandmother’s speech to be indicative of “black English” or “ebonics,” and that some scholars agree with some of my thoughts on the topic.
Is Ebonics Another Language?
There has been much study about ebonics. In his book Black English published in the early 1970s, J. L. Dillard championed the idea that black English is a separate language. As he outlined and I can attest, black English is not a haphazard making of mistakes. It has its own set of rules and vocabulary.
Black English originates with the American slaves. Some of the rules echo aspects of the original African languages they spoke. Dillard and others theorized that the turning around of verb tenses seen in black English (such as saying “he do, she do” instead of “he does, she does”) was a deliberate form of rebellion against their circumstance, one of the few things the captives could do to protest their enslavement: Whereas the “incorrect” speech could be viewed as ignorance, among the slaves it was an inside “joke,” a way of maintaining autonomy and dignity as individuals.
There is a wrong way of speaking black English. One famous example is in a song from George and Ira Gershwin’s opera “Porgy and Bess”:
Porgy, I’s yo’ woman now,
I is, I is!
This is black English written poorly. More authentically, the lyric would read, “I be yo woman now.”
There has been much controversy as to the significance of ebonics. In the 1980’s there was a big push by some educators to recognize it as a separate language as a way to help bridge the achievement gap among students in urban schools. The pushback among both blacks and whites was tremendous, with much resistance to legitimizing ebonics.
Among other things, many people mistook the slang of the youth-oriented hip hop culture for ebonics. In truth, many users of hip hop slang also speak ebonics–an important difference.
Onward Christian Soldiers
Just as the slaves used language in speech to rebel against their bondage, their religious hymns, or “negro spirituals,” were not simply used for purposes of worship. These songs helped them vent anger and sorrow, or to express hope:
There is a balm in Gilead to make
the wounded whole.
There is a balm in Gilead to heal
the sin-sick soul.
One of these mornings bright and fair,
I’m gonna lay down my heavy load.
Gonna kick my wings and cleave the air,
I’m gonna lay down my heavy load.
Below is a video of my grandmother’s favorite gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson.
© Sweepy Jean and Sweepy Jean Explores the (Webby) World, 2011