The Nation recently published a poem in which a homeless narrator speaks a complex, nuanced variety of English with a long and interesting history.
The variety of English is Black English, and the poet is Anders Carlson-Wee, a white man. In the wake of the controversy, The Nation’s poetry editors have appended a kind of trigger warning to the poem calling its language “disparaging.” (They also apologized for its “ableist language;” the poem used the word “crippled.”) Carlson-Wee has dutifully, and perhaps wisely, apologized that “treading anywhere close to blackface is horrifying to me” and declared that the poem “didn’t work.”
However, I suspect that many are quietly wondering just what Carlson-Wee did that was so wrong—and they should.
The primary source of offense, in a poem only 14 lines long, is passages such as this, in a work designed to highlight and sympathize with the plight of homeless people: “It’s about who they believe they is. You hardly even there.” The protagonist is referring to the condescending attitudes of white passersby who give her change. Yet Roxane Gay, for example, directs white writers to “know your lane,” and not depict the dialect.
To be sure, America long harbored a tradition of mocking black speech in exaggerated “minstrel” dialect. Minstrel shows highlighting this kind of talk, full of “am” used in all persons and numbers, and mangled words such as “regusted” for “disgusted” (that one used as late as the 1940s on the radio show Amos n’ Andy, in which white men portrayed black ones), were central to American entertainment well into the 20th century.
This wariness of the minstrel stereotype underlies much of the discomfort that the artistic depiction of Black English often arouses. However, while verdicts on statutes of limitations will differ, barely anyone alive recalls seeing a minstrel show in person. It is ever harder to draw a meaningful line of influence from white (and black) men guffawing on stage during the Taft administration and anything being created today.
But more to the point, the Black English Carlson-Wee uses is not exaggerated: It is true and ordinary black speech. The production of Oscar Hammerstein’s rendition of Carmen in Black English, Carmen Jones, has elicited similar objections against its characters using Black English, with Hilton Als dismissing the libretto as stained with “ridiculous Amos n’ Andy lyrics.” James Baldwin had the same take on Carmen Jones, charging that the characters’ speech sounds “ludicrously false and affected.” Some might see pieces like this as the link between minstrel shows and our times. The characters, though, are actually using speech that would have been quite familiar to my relatives, and those of Baldwin and Als, in the 1940s. Carmen Jones, and especially its film version, has been adored by black people of a certain age, and I’ve known quite a few of them who would be mystified by the idea that Dorothy Dandridge and Pearl Bailey were forced to sing “minstrel” in it. I caught the current production, and as someone who has both studied Black English a fair amount over the past 25 years and also loves old radio, am quite sure that I did not endure an evening of Amos n’ Andy dialogue.
Whence the outrage among so many against black people depicted accurately speaking in a way that, well, a great many definitely do?
One source of the objection could be an impression that Black English is bad grammar. That notion is tragically common, and under it, many may suppose that even if black people do use Black English, it’s a bad habit, a legacy of lack of access to education, perhaps. Naturally, then, it will seem offensive for a white person to show black people engaging in it. Accuracy or even affection will be seen as bleeding into condescension and critique.
Black English, however, is not a degraded variety of the language—it’s an alternate form of English. If a sentence like People be lookin’ at him funny seems unsophisticated because the be isn’t conjugated, try wrapping your head around the fact that the be also expresses, overtly, a nuance that the standard sentence would not—that this looking in question happens on a habitual basis. You wouldn’t say People be lookin’ at him funny if it were happening at the moment. Black English jangles with things that we are trained to hear as “slang,” but which foreign learners would struggle to master, in the same way as they would with pluperfects and subjunctives.
In many other places in the world, people live their intimate lives in varieties of a language quite different from the standard and no one operates under the impression that the vernacular form is “broken.” Try telling a Moroccan that his everyday Moroccan Arabic is “wrong” compared to the Modern Standard Arabic used on the news. He’ll tell you that it’s a matter of context: The news is in standard, you talk about it in vernacular.
The difference between Black English and Ted Koppel’s speech is of the same kind as the one between Moroccan and standard Arabic. Does anyone think the characters in August Wilson’s plays spend hours speaking “bad grammar”? Baldwin was, to me, more useful on Black English in the years after his Carmen Jones essay. “If this passion, this skill, this (to quote Toni Morrison) ‘sheer intelligence,’ this incredible music,” he taught us, “does not indicate that Black English is a language, I am curious to know what definition of a language is to be trusted.” What “broke”? Nothing—something grew.
Black English was born not of lack of access to blackboards, but of intimacy—people who spend more time with one another and trust one another more talk more like one another. Moroccans hang with Moroccans, and thus speak an Arabic of their own, different from that of Algerians hanging with Algerians next door. If black people didn’t have their own English, given the segregationist history of this country, it would be extremely peculiar.
Yet a white person’s depiction of Black English may still rankle, and I have often sensed that the rub is that the white person may think Black English is the only way that black people can talk, that they are somehow impervious to mastering standard English. And that prejudice was definitely real for a great while.
Now, however, educated whites are quite often aware that black people can talk in two ways depending on circumstance. Carlson-Wee, for example, is certainly aware of this: “If you a girl, say you’re pregnant,” the protagonist says, alternating between leaving out the be verb (a process actually subject to complex constraints in black speech—you don’t just leave it out willy-nilly) and using it (you’re). This is a spot-on depiction of the dialect in use, as something dipped in and out of gracefully.
Or, to take another example, Emmett Till’s great uncle Moses Wright has sometimes been quoted identifying Emmett’s killer in court by saying “Thar he” for “There he is.” One historian has questioned whether he would have spoken that way, at least in a public setting. This evidences a sensitivity to the reality of black speech of the kind I am suggesting, even bordering on insensitivity in that the reporter who depicted Wright as saying “Thar he” was black himself.
The idea that non-black people seeing black people depicted as using their own speech form will think that’s the only way black people can talk corresponds better to another time than our own. It assigns a rather brutalist naivete to people who, albeit hardly devoid of subtle racist biases, have come a long way from Jim Crow. Progress happens slowly, but it happens.
Of course, this controversy also touches on the issue of cultural appropriation. Whether Black English is coherent and whether black people are bidialectal, might we not consider it a kind of encroachment for whites to utilize what is “ours”? Especially when the utilization entails them expressing themselves, in a sense, in something rooted in a culture they don’t belong to?
Perhaps—but we end up tripping over countervailing goals here. We often say that we want whites to understand black pain, the black experience, black difference. We want them to empathize. But upon achieving this understanding, white artists, as artists, will naturally seek to express it through their creations. Are we to decree that they must not? Would this muzzling of basic human creativity, as well as the fundamental drive to share between cultures, be worth something larger?
I’m not sure what that would be, other than a sense of victory in having laid down and enforced the diktat—and the novelty of that would wear off fast. Rather, Carlson-Wee, as a young white man dedicating a poem to a homeless black person’s suffering and trying to get inside her head, would seem to be displaying exactly the kind of empathy that we seek. “Feel it but don’t show it,” we tell him, instead. “Empathize, but block that empathy from your creative impulses, on the pain of hurting us by imitating us without our consent.”
There is logic here, but it is fragile. One suspects it will only ever convince a few. Quite simply, what do we gain, or what do we ward off, by drawing this line in the sand? What are we so afraid of? The Nation might consider publishing more poetry by black writers, such that Black English doesn’t only make a rare appearance in its pages from the pen of a white man. But that isn’t Carlson-Wee’s fault, and the question remains as to what he, as an individual artist, did wrong.
Of course, if a Carlson-Wee depicted Black English gracelessly in terms of the grammar, it’d be time to call foul. But he got it right. As did Hammerstein—in all of the lyrics of Carmen Jones I detect nary a flub, other than a tendency in the written text to apostrophize words that all Americans shorten in casual speech. Carmen Jones’s characters are written as saying “an’” for and, when all English speakers say it that way as often as not. But then, black writers depict Black English the exact same way, and have for eons. If a Carlson-Wee depicted a black person using the dialect who either would be unlikely to ever use it, or would not use it in the context depicted, then critique would be warranted—it’d be bad art and possibly “disparaging” as well.
Gay in fact later wrote on Twitter: “The reality is that when most white writers use [African American Vernacular English] they do so badly. They do so without understanding that it is a language with rules. Instead, they use AAVE to denote that there is a black character in their story because they understand blackness as a monolith. Framing blackness as monolithic is racist. It is lazy.” Indeed. But it isn’t clear to me that Carlson-Wee is guilty of either of these flubs.
That is, when a Carlson-Wee briefly explores the pain of a black homeless person and shows her using precisely the speech variety she actually would, or an Oscar Hammerstein knows that working-class black people in a parachute factory would not talk like the characters in his previous hits Oklahoma! or Carousel, it’s time for educated America to get past the cringe of seeing Black English depicted on the page by someone who didn’t grow up speaking it.
Whites writing Black English in 1895 almost always meant it as either disparagement or infantilization. Whites writing Black English since then, more often than not, deserve some credit for having come a considerable way. The vigilance, the hesitation, the antennas going up—all of this has legitimate roots and will persist. But this evaluation metric should not swat down all nonblack artists who depict black people speaking the way most black people—alternating with standard English—quite definitely do, will, have, and should.
Anders Carlson-Wee engaged in nothing we moderns need slur as “blackface.” To wit, while we must evaluate each case on its own basis, to the extent that any white person’s depiction of Black English of whatever quality or diligence elicits rolling eyes at best and social media witch hunts at worst, we have lost step not only with linguistic science, but also with what most would consider norms of how human groups co-occupy social spaces and learn from one another.