Kathyrn Stockett’s popular and widely acclaimed 2009 novel, The Help, tells the story of black housemaids in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1962 through the perspective of three different characters. Two of the women, Aibileen and Minnie, are black housemaids, while the third, Skeeter, is white and a recent college graduate. The narrative style of Aibileen and Minnie is markedly different than Skeeter’s in vocabulary, grammar, and syntax, because Stockett chose to write the two black women’s narratives using features of Black English. If Stockett had written Aibileen and Minnie’s narratives using the same linguistic features as Skeeter’s, she would have inaccurately portrayed the differences in the vernaculars of black and white Americans that can still be heard today.
The Help is an uplifting story of black and white women who come together in an attempt to bring about change in the Deep South during the last decade of the Jim Crow laws, but not all representations of Black English have such a positive story. Black English has consistently and often inaccurately been used in literature to perpetuate racist stereotypes. Black English (also known as Ebonics, Black Vernacular English, and African American English) exists as more than just a literary style; it is a spoken dialect that dates back to the arrival of the first slaves in America. Black English’s inextricable link with the history of slavery and racism accounts for its subjugation and the overwhelmingly negative view of the dialect as simply slang or an improper way of speaking Standard English.
In fact, Black English is a full dialect with a rich and compelling history that reflects the survival of a people who suffered through hundreds of years of racism—a reflection that Standard English simply cannot accomplish. Modern scholars, linguists, and the public must recognize Black English as a legitimate dialect of Standard English and a central part of American history; to further deny this, is to deny black Americans the right to celebrate and honor their history and culture through Black English.
Black English in The Help and Its Linguistic Features: A Full Dialect
Beginning on the very first page of The Help, Kathyrn Stockett employs phonological, syntactical, and grammatical features of Black English to reflect Aibileen’s vernacular. The novel opens:
1Taking care a White babies, that’s what I do, along with all the cooking and the cleaning.2 I done raised seventeen kids in my lifetime.3 I know how to get them babies to sleep, stop crying, and go in the toilet bowl before they mamas even get out a bed in the morning.4 But I ain’t never seen a baby yell like Mae Mobley Leefolt.5 First day I walk in the door, there she be…6 it didn’t take two minutes fore Baby Girl stopped her crying, got to smiling up at me like she do…7 Mae Mobley two years old now. (1-2)
The following list details the linguistic elements of Black English in each sentence of the above passage. Sentence one in the passage, indicated by a superscript 1 before the sentence, will be analyzed after “Sentence 1:” and so on.
Sentence 1: In “Taking care a White babies,” the use of a instead of of reflects the loss of the final sound in a word.
Sentence 2: In “I done raised seventeen kids in my lifetime,” done acts as an auxiliary verb to indicate perfect aspect where have would in Standard English (Dillard 48).
Sentence 3: In “I know how to get them babies to sleep,” them acts as a marker for plurality: here, them “does not simply indicate that more than one [baby] is being referred to; it also indicates that it is ‘those’ and not ‘these’ [babies], and the plural is…marked by the s ending [on ‘babies’]” (Rickford and Rickford 110-111). Also in sentence three, in “before they mamas even get out a bed,” the use of they instead of their reflects r-deletion, most commonly heard in yo’ for your.
Sentence 4: “I ain’t never seen a baby yell,” represents two linguistic elements of Black English: the use of ain’t for haven’t and the double negative of ain’t never, which is “one of the most commonly discussed features of the black vernacular” (Rickford and Rickford 123).
Sentence 5: Sentence five also contains two linguistic elements of Black English: the elimination of –ed for past tense and the use of the variant be as a substitute for was. In “First day I walk in the door,” the absence of –ed to mark past tense represents the fact that –ed “does not furnish any meaningful signal for [the] linguistic system” of Black English (Dillard 52). “There she be” exemplifies “one of the most celebrated features of [Black English],” the verb be and its ability to replace am, is, are, was, and were, as well as its function as an invariant verb that “describes an event that is performed regularly or habitually, as in ‘He be talkin’ with his lady every day” (Rickford and Rickford 113).
Sentence 6: In “it didn’t take two minutes fore Baby Girl stopped her crying,” fore instead of before represents “the fact that blacks (especially older ones) delete the unstressed initial and medial syllables” in some words (Rickford and Rickford 102).
Sentence 7: “Mae Mobley two years old now” reflects what is “known among linguists as zero copula—that is, the absence of is,” an extremely common linguistic element of Black English (Rickford and Rickford 114).
While Stockett employs a multitude of the linguistic elements of Black English to represent the black characters’ voices in The Help, she leaves out just as many. Black English has too many linguistic features to name all of them in a short research report; the dialect employs a systematic and rule-governed grammar, pronunciation patterns, and a unique vocabulary (Rickford and Rickford 91). In short, Black English is a fully functioning dialect that includes all of the elements necessary to perform as an “expressive instrument in American literature, religion, entertainment, and everyday life” and, equally as important, it “often thrives when and where Standard English is left mute” (Rickford and Rickford 4, 38).
The Effect of Using Black English in Literature
The stylistic effect of using Black English in The Help is that the voices of Aibileen and Minnie read as authentically as possible. If the above excerpt did not include any features of Black English, the black housemaids’ narratives would not accurately represent the way a black housemaid in 1962 would have sounded in speech or in writing. The use of Black English in American literature as a stylistic tool has a long-standing history; it has been used as a celebration of black culture and identity for hundreds of years, but also (and sadly, much more frequently) as a vehicle to perpetuate racism.
The minstrel show, a play put on by slaves for themselves and later masters and guests, was a popular American tradition from around 1840 to 1900 (Rickford and Rickford 30). As Sylvia Wallace Holton states in Spoken Soul: The Story of Black English by John and Russell Rickford, what started as an artistic expression performed by slaves turned into “a ritualized performance by white men in black face to burlesque the black” and “The image of the black man that grew out of the minstrel show…became confused with reality in the minds of many Americans” (30). The minstrel tradition, which also produced written plays, “was infamous for reinforcing demeaning stereotypes of African Americans—as comical, childlike, gullible, lazy, and in the words of Nathin Huggins…‘insatiable in…bodily appetite” (Rickford and Rickford 30).
As evidenced by the contrast between The Help and the minstrel tradition (only two examples of hundreds of years of literature), Black English in literature can have a very different effect on the public consciousness depending on the agenda of the author behind the work. The conflicting representations of Black English in literature have certainly led to the modern conflicting view of Black English as a whole. After all, literature plays a central role “in developing our experience of [a] language...[as] literary experience everywhere makes contact with everyday language use” (Crystal 413).
The Help, one of many novels that includes Black English and has achieved critical acclaim and commercial success in the past few decades, proves that Black English in literature has become more accepted over time. However, Black English as a spoken dialect is far from accepted—in fact, it is often vilified. In Spoken Soul: The Story of Black English, John and Russell Rickford cite Newsweek to describe a 1996 poll on Ebonics in the magazine; the Ebonics poll elicited more responses than a poll asking people whether they thought O.J. Simpson was guilty or innocent (6). The responses included statements that Ebonics is “disgusting black street slang,” “incorrect and substandard,” “nothing more than ignorance,” “lazy English, “bastardized English,” “the language of illiteracy,” and “this utmost ridiculous made-up language” (6). To understand how Black English came to be a subjugated dialect and its subsequent condemnation, one must acknowledge the fact that the history of black Americans begins with the racism inherent in slavery. Hundreds of years treating black Americans as inhuman and subordinate to Whites left a stain of racism on American consciousness that still influences the way many people view anything influenced by race, including Black English.
The History of Black English and Why It Is a Subjugated Dialect
As John and Russell Rickford eloquently summarize in Spoken Soul: The Story of Black English, the story of how Black English came to be a subjugated language
is not an easy one to tell because it is not just about language. To tell the story right, you have to talk about the culture and lived experience of African Americans. You have to talk about a language inextricable from the complex social structure and political history of people of African descent in these United States. (ix-x)
The existence of Black English in America begins with the arrival of slaves. African men and women were first brought to the United States in 1619; “by the time of the American Revolution (1776) their numbers had grown to half a million, and there were over 4 million by the time slavery was abolished, at the end of the US Civil War (1865)” (Crystal 96). When transporting slaves from Africa on ships, slavetraders purposefully brought together people who spoke different languages so that they could not communicate with each other or, more importantly, plot rebellion ([Crystal 96](#crystal). In The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, David Crystal explains how this grouping of slaves who spoke different languages eventually led to
several pidgin forms of communication, and in particular, a pidgin between the slaves and sailors, many of whom spoke English. Once arrived in the Caribbean, this pidgin English continued to act as a major means of communication between the black population and the new landowners, and among the blacks themselves. Then, when their children were born, the pidgin gradually began to be used as a mother tongue, producing the first black creole speech in the region. It is this creole English which rapidly came to be used throughout the southern plantations… (96)
Scholars and linguists typically agree on the fact that Black English in America originates with the arrival of slaves; however, extreme contention abounds as to the history of Black English following the arrival of slaves in America. Disagreement revolves primarily around whether Black English “bears the vivid imprint of the African languages spoken by slaves who came to this country” or if “the devastating experience of slavery wiped out most if not all African linguistic and cultural traditions…and that the apparently distinctive features of [Black English] come from English dialects spoken by white (British) peasants and indentured servants whom Africans encountered in America” (Rickford and Rickford 129).
In Spoken Soul: The Story of Black English, John and Russell Rickford conclude that African languages spoken by slaves and the English spoken by whites in America have influenced Black English in its vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar (145-146). The vocabulary of Black English “is overwhelmingly English in origin…[but still includes] direct retentions or borrowings from African languages [and] translations into English of African compounds or concepts” (145-146). Pronunciation in Black English shows “mutual or convergent influence from British dialects and African languages” (149). Black English’s system of grammar “is essentially if not overwhelmingly English in its word order and sentence structure…[but] the case can be made for African influence in several aspects of grammar of [Black English]” (152).
The contention among scholars and linguists as to the history of Black English and its development is a direct result of the fact that Black English was and is spoken by a people who were considered subordinate for hundreds of years in American history. Scholars and linguists did not document, track, and study Black English because they did not consider it a legitimate dialect. The lack of concrete evidence for the evolution of Black English and the current state of Black English as a subjugated dialect are directly caused by racism and the difficulty of eradicating it.
The Future of Black English: Is It On The Path to Convergence or Increasing Divergence?
The most recent controversy involving Black English concerns whether the dialect is on the path to diverging from or converging with White vernacular and Standard English. The divergence theory “suggests that the Great Migration of blacks to inner cities in the North and West in 1915 and after has led to increasing divergence between black and white vernaculars in the twentieth century, particularly since World War I” (Rickford and Rickford 157). William Labov and Wendell Harris, two linguists based in Philadelphia, first presented the divergence theory in the 1980s, when they began to notice that “the black population in that city had become increasingly segregated [from Whites] between 1850 and 1970…which was accompanied by increasing divergence of black and White vernaculars” (Rickford and Rickford 157-158).
Studies suggesting that segregation between black and white Americans, especially concerning financial health and whether they populate inner cities or suburbs, has increased after the 1960s (when federal legislation passed mandating integration) may seem backwards. However, evidence clearly supports this fact: according to the National Poverty Center (NPC) at the University of Michigan, “[the] poverty rate for blacks…greatly exceeds the national average. In 2010, 27.4 percent of blacks were poor…compared to 9.9 percent of whites” (“Poverty in the United States…”). The divergence theory makes perfect sense when considering the fact that poverty disproportionately affects blacks and whites; as long as the two races are separated by financial barriers and thus geographic location, their vernaculars will also diverge.
While “the twentieth century has witnessed the divergence of [Black English] from white vernaculars and Standard English in some respects, it has witnessed convergence with these varieties in other respects” (Rickford and Rickford 160). In short, Black English, like any dialect, is not immune to influence from other forms of English; it continually undergoes a process of change, and some of that change is to absorb features of white vernacular and Standard English. However, as Black English has continued to persevere as a marker of identity for black Americans’ culture and history, it is highly unlikely that Standard English will ever eliminate or completely absorb the dialect.
Recognizing the legitimacy and wholeness of Black English as a dialect of Standard English does not mean encouraging older or teaching younger black Americans to shun Standard English. It simply means that all Americans need to recognize Black English as an integral part of American history, literature, society, and culture and eliminate racist views of Black English as lazy slang or illegitimate. As John and Russell Rickford so powerfully summarize in Spoken Soul: The Story of Black English:
Suggesting that we abandon [Black English] and cleave only to Standard English is like proposing that we play only the White keys of a piano. The fact is that for many of our most beautiful melodies, we need both the White keys and the black…Bear in mind that language is an inescapable element in almost everyone’s daily life, and an integral element of human identity. If for that and no other reason, we would all do well to heed the still-evolving truth of the black language experience. (10)
Crystal, David. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Print.
Dillard, J.L. Black English: Its History and Usage in the United States. New York, NY: Random House Inc., 1973. Print.
Mosser, Daniel W. “‘…at the hands of Americans’: The American (English) Language.” The Evolution of Present Day-English. The Department of English at Virginia Tech, 1998. Web. 31 March 2012.
“Poverty in the United States Frequently Asked Questions.” The National Poverty Center. The Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan, 2012. Web. 1 April 2012.
Rickford, John Russell, and Russell John Rickford. Spoken Soul: The Story of Black English. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2000. Print.
Stockett, Kathyrn. The Help. New York, NY: The Berkley Publishing Group, 2009. Print.