When I was a tot, my mother made me read Alex Haley’s Roots all the way through. Even though my linguist days were far ahead of me, I was struck by one sentence: At the end of the Revolutionary War, a slave exclaims, “Freedom am won!” That seemed an off rendition of black speech to me then, and I assumed that Haley had innocently concocted that am usage.
Yet Haley was hardly alone in putting into black mouths an overgeneralized usage of am beyond the first-person singular. The Alexander in Irving Berlin’s pop hit “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” who’s supposed to be a black man, sings, “That’s just the bestest band what am!” As late as the 1950s, the cartoon character Buzzy the Crow, rendered as an African American in the vein of the crows in Disney’s Dumbo, was given to saying things like, “That cat am a tobacco-smokin’ fiend!”
Overgeneralized am sounds so gratingly unnatural to a modern ear that even experts on Black English have long assumed that this usage was created by white minstrels. After all, minstrel dialogue was dripping with these clumsy ams; one routine included the query “You’se a man with a heap of intellectualities, am you not?” Zora Neale Hurston, who did extensive ethnographic study of poor rural black people and painstakingly reproduced their speech in her literary work, memorably wrote: “If we are to believe the majority of writers of Negro dialect and the burnt-cork artists, Negro speech is a weird thing, full of ‘ams’ and ‘Ises.’ Fortunately we don’t have to believe them. We may go directly to the Negro and let him speak for himself … Nowhere can be found the Negro who asks ‘am it?’”