Poetry and personal blog – Spilling my guts to strangers


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.


Poet Paul Dunbar (1872 – 1906) wrote some of the most gorgeous verse in standard English. Here is an excerpt from Beyond the Years:

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


Comments on: "Memorialized" (27)

  1. I Love Mahalia… and Gospel music is to me… the greatest music ever!

  2. Loved it as I like to know the history of language. It is wonderful to know that it was a form of rebellion… brilliant

    Thank you Sweepster


    • Thanks for reading, A! I’m glad you enjoyed it. Time moves so fast; Every once in a while it’s nice to put things in context! 🙂

  3. What a great post. I loved the video!

    • Thanks so much, Jessica! Great song and singer. There were some videos of better quality I could have chosen but I liked that this one showed the passage of time!

  4. Sweepy,

    I loved this! When we understand more about different cultures and languages we can better understand each other. I love listening to older Black women speak. There is so much history and feeling. Every culture has their own language and dialect and we should be more tolerant of others instead of making fun of people. I love how you entertain and educate us girl!

    • I so agree that we need more understanding. Sometimes the issues get caught up in emotions and politics–making it hard to be proud of our culture. xox

  5. I am so happy that I scrolled down and found your post,this is awesome..a learning process for me..

  6. “Memorialized” is an excellent piece, both as a tribute to your grandmother’s literary influence on you, and on a unique and rich culture of language and spirit.

    My daughter has a penchant for Black culture: the history, the language, the music, the movies… methinks the girl has soul. I first noticed it at a very young age with her fascination over the illustrated children’s book Follow the Drinking Gourd, based on the coded song.

    For a long time she “majored” in Black History. That’s all ‘she studied,’ as the vernacular goes. From her Addy doll, to the abolitionists and the Underground Railroad, to heroes like Harriet Tubman, Fredrick Douglass… to the Civil Rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks… to poets like Maya Angelou and Rita Dove, and Glenis Redmond (she met Glenis and bought one of her poetry books, came home and started dramatizing the poems, and later performed ‘Hats’ at a poetry reading.

    And now she’s mastered the language of Ebonics. A young black man said of her recently, “That’s the blackest white girl I ever met!”

    • Wow, Debra, that is interesting. Hats off to you for even introducing your daughter to a different culture through books. I’m often dismayed that there are many people who would not think to explore a culture other than their own. They are missing out on one of the greatest aspect of this country–diversity.

  7. Sweepy Jean, a well written, thoughtful, and informative piece – and a very nice followup to your previous heartwarming post on your grandmother and language. I find it interesting that, despite our different backgrounds, your stories resonate in me, too. But maybe that’s not really so strange.

    As for Mahalia Jackson, I remember that my devout, opera-loving mother loved listening to her – but I was a child then and too young to appreciate her.

    • Thank you very much, Diane. I truly believe that we can all relate to the humanity in each other’s stories, regardless of background. You mother is also a testament to that as she was able to enjoy different kinds of music. xox

  8. there is not a sound that a person makes that can’t not be written. so why is wrong to write the way it is spoken. not understanding some words only means you have to learn more. some manner of speech may be different, and some time melodic, poetic, or just plain fun to hear. love your post thank you and god bless

  9. SweepyJean,

    Your post clarified so much for me… Being an Urban Girl there has been so much controversy surrounding ebonics and the younger generation, You have done a good job here….

    • Thanks, Jess! I’m afraid that in general, the younger generation has no clue as to the origins of ebonics or even what it is. The controversy surrounding it keeps it from getting legitimate consideration.

  10. Hi Sweepy –

    Your post reminds of when I lived in Europe. I used to meet up with American businessmen/women for a few days at a time while they traveled, and we did some business. Most of the time, for dinner for example, these folks wanted to eat at an American establishment…i.e…Pizza Hut. OMG, crazy. No cultural experience there, huh!

    I disliked hanging around any Americans where ever I was in central and southeastern Europe. I wanted nothing but culture. It’s like 10 of us bloggers meeting up in New Orleans, and hanging around iHop, KFC, or TGIFridays on a Saturday night. I think the French Quarter or out in some lowly bayou cultural locale is the experience for me. Great informative post, SWJ! 🙂

    • Yes, indeed. Why bother to visit a different culture and not experience different things? Also, when is this met up happening in New Orleans? ;p

  11. Ha! I love that they spoke that way as a form of rebellion. So much fun to learn about languages. 🙂

  12. I loved this tribute to your grandmother, Adriene, and the way you valued “Ebonics.” It reminds me of Chabakano, a dialect in the Philippines that they usually refer to as broken Spanish. They don’t conjugate their verbs, so it seems like a simpler version of the Spanish we speak today. Nevertheless, there’s still a “wrong way” of speaking Chabakano because the language has developed its own nuances.

    Loved learning more about this, Adriene! =) Thank you!

  13. Taking steps to recognize, appreciate and learn from the past can be rewarding. You have shared a personal account of how your Grandmother’s way of being has reflected upon you today. Thank you. This brought to mind for me the fact that I have gained an appreciation for my own hispanic roots in music lately. I even run to some tunes sung in Spanish. I have found a new appreciation for the language, the inflection of the words and although I have no specific reason to pin point the newfound interest- I am growing from it.

    • I think our heritage is soaked into our DNA and tapping into it when we need to brings comfort. I love the energy and emotion of Latin/Hispanic music. Thanks for sharing, Veronica!

  14. Thanks for sharing, you have enlightened me on some things that I didn’t fully understand.

Leave a Reply; Comments Can Be Made Anonymously

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: