Theories and Politics in African American English
Annual Review of Anthropology
Vol. 23: 325-345 (Volume publication date October 1994)
Marcyliena Morgan
In lieu of an abstract, the publisher reproduces the first page of the article. (Link)

Letters to My Tutor…

My dearest Simone,

I read “Theories and Politics in African American English” shortly after reading “A Survey of Afro-American English.” I didn’t write down many of my thoughts at the time and at the moment I find myself not in the best mood to write anything, but I will. Marcyliena Morgan’s review was published over a decade after the one by John Baugh, but the discussion doesn’t seem much changed. Shall I bore you with my passing thoughts over the week? Morgan uses the term African-American English (AAE), so I’ll go with that.

Some of the discussions of AAE seem to describe speech elements that I tend to associate with Southern rural speech generally. I wonder whether some researchers and non-black residents outside the South associated certain speech elements more exclusively with AAE because they only encountered that speech from black people. I’m thinking of the large migrations of blacks from the South and how others may have taken certain elements of Southern speech to be AAE exclusively. It’s been a while since I’ve spent any significant amount of time in rural Mississippi, so my memory of distinctions between white speech and black speech in the area are a bit fuzzy. Morgan discusses the lack of third person singular verb agreement in AAE – this I remember to have been common in the region. I could imagine just about anyone saying, “Oh, he don’t mind…”

Growing up, the black people in the area referred to the local speech as talking “country,” while more standard English speech was deemed talking “proper.” There were country-talking white people and proper-talking black people. There were distinctions between black and white speech, but I’m hazy on what those were. I am left with the impression that the dividing line between black and white speech was not as clearly drawn in my rural Mississippi area (in the 70s and 80s) as I get the impression it may be in some of the academic literature, at least in regard to some of the basic grammar.

Morgan writes that African-American parents did not believe the differences between AAE and standard English were significant enough to create misunderstandings in the classroom and that instruction should be in standard English. This was the thinking where I grew up and I tend to agree. The most significant thing for me was having teachers who understood my experience as a black child. Several of the older teachers and the principal at my elementary school were more mindful of the fact that they were educating black children. Younger black teachers weren’t as much that way. I went to a different all-black elementary school for one year and the teachers there didn’t speech as much to the experience of a black child either.

The older teachers were more likely to speak directly and specifically about things being said about black children and black people in academia and in the general media. We got the rundown – This is what you will hear; This is how you might feel about it; Here is an alternative way to view things. As far as speaking standard English, they spoke about the possibility of being teased by peers and the wider black community; they spoke to black males as far as dealing with the perception that speaking standard English might be seen as being more effeminate; they spoke about dealing with negative responses from whites in the community; they spoke against the more negative and belittling characterizations of AAE.

The negativity from whites in the local community could be frightening at times. When my more “proper” speaking cousins from the North came to visit, they often got cold and mean stares from whites because of the way they spoke. Given that there was a certain amount of stigma attached to speaking with a Southern accent, black children speaking more standard English with a non-Southern accent were responded to as if they were being hostile, as if they were attacking whites by speaking in a certain manner.

My favorite elementary school teacher spoke in a manner very similar to that of Maya Angelou. I think of her whenever I hear Maya Angelou speak. This teacher greatly influenced how a I speak and how I think. I was so lucky to have that group of elementary school teachers. I may have some more follow-up on this later.

Ever true,