This Ain’t No Joke


A Dime a DozenMy girl­friend
Guadalupe knows
she’s not
the only one
who speaks
two tongues.
I’m flu­ent in
two Englishes:
one “Black”
the oth­er “good.”
It pays to speak
both languages
/in my neighborhood.

—A Dime a Dozen


This is a touchy sub­ject, so I may as well jump on in.

I was recent­ly asked to read and com­ment on a book fea­tur­ing a main char­ac­ter who fre­quent­ly thinks and speaks in poor Eng­lish through­out, and I had a prob­lem with it.

I grew up in neigh­bor­hoods where chil­dren, and many adults for that mat­ter, dropped g’s and split infini­tives on a dai­ly basis. And, to be clear, I’m not talk­ing about region­al dialects, or col­lo­qui­alisms. I’m talk­ing about gram­mat­i­cal­ly incor­rect Eng­lish. I heard it used every day. I, myself, was dis­cour­aged from using it by my par­ents, and most espe­cial­ly by my self-taught grand­moth­er, who would drop every­thing and give me the evil-eye if I so much as used the word “ain’t” in her presence.

Now, I was not taught that I would be bet­ter than any­one else if I used “good” Eng­lish, but I def­i­nite­ly got the mes­sage that the use of stan­dard Eng­lish gram­mar would stand me in good stead when I went out into the larg­er world to make my way. Wise advice, as it turned out.

Right or wrong, in main­stream soci­ety, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the mar­ket­place, we are judged by the man­ner in which we com­mu­ni­cate. If we rou­tine­ly use incor­rect gram­mar, (or speak with a thick accent) we are often assumed to be less intel­li­gent or capa­ble than some­one who uses good gram­mar. Mind you, the Stan­dard Eng­lish speak­er may not, in fact, be the smarter of the two. How­ev­er, doors will be opened for the one, and closed to the oth­er, based sole­ly on the per­cep­tion of intel­li­gence as judged on the basis of speech pat­terns. Any­one who has ever been an immi­grant, as I once was in Swe­den, knows exact­ly what I’m talk­ing about.

What does all of this have to do with the book I read? I’m get­ting to that.

Most of the sto­ries I write are set in the kind of inner-city neigh­bor­hoods I grew up in. My char­ac­ters live and breathe in these com­mu­ni­ties, have the same expe­ri­ences as peo­ple liv­ing there, strug­gle with the same prob­lems, and share the same region­al dialects, slang, and col­lo­qui­alisms. How­ev­er, you will not hear my char­ac­ters using poor gram­mar, and that is not by accident.

For more than 30 years, I have been giv­ing voice to African Amer­i­can chil­dren, in gen­er­al, and urban chil­dren of col­or in par­tic­u­lar. I cre­ate sto­ries that val­i­date them, respect them, and speak to and through them. And I do so with­out using heavy dialect or incor­rect gram­mar. Why? While I’m all about val­i­dat­ing the per­son, I don’t want to encour­age or val­i­date a speech pat­tern that will ill serve these chil­dren lat­er in life when they leave the neigh­bor­hood to work, get a high­er edu­ca­tion, or apply for a bank loan to start a busi­ness. Instead, I try to cre­ate a good and valu­able mod­el of lan­guage use that, I hope, my read­ers will aspire to; mod­els that lan­guage arts teach­ers and read­ing coach­es can point to as they seek to raise the lan­guage bar for their African Amer­i­can stu­dents, in par­tic­u­lar. And yes, there’s def­i­nite­ly a line, here. I walk it every sin­gle time I put pen to paper.

Like many authors, I often choose to use authen­tic speech in the dia­logue I write, but I’ve dis­cov­ered that a lit­tle goes a very long way.

Some peo­ple argue that there’s noth­ing wrong with mim­ic­k­ing the actu­al speech pat­terns they hear in a giv­en com­mu­ni­ty since, well, that is the way they speak. But that’s a weak argu­ment. Sure, I’ve heard chil­dren say “we ain’t been doing noth­ing bad,” it’s true. How­ev­er, there are also those who use four let­ter words with great aban­don, and employ the “f” bomb in every oth­er sen­tence. Should sto­ry­tellers, par­tic­u­lar­ly those of us who write for chil­dren, mim­ic that, as well?

As writ­ers of fic­tion, our job is not to regur­gi­tate every­thing we see and hear pre­cise­ly as we see and hear it. We are not reporters, or court stenog­ra­phers. We are sto­ry­tellers. As such, we get to make deci­sions about what our char­ac­ters say, and how they say it. And those of us who write for chil­dren have an added respon­si­bil­i­ty in the mod­els we cre­ate for our young read­ers. After all, we are reach­ing them at a time in their lives when they are still mal­leable. That matters.

There’s anoth­er side to this issue, though. Call this the dol­lars-and-cents side of things. African Amer­i­can children’s authors are already at a dis­ad­van­tage in the mar­ket­place. We have a tough time get­ting our books into the main­stream sim­ply by virtue of the fact that our book cov­ers fea­ture black char­ac­ters. As it is, there are book­sellers, teach­ers, par­ents, and even librar­i­ans who pre­sume that a child who is oth­er than African-Amer­i­can will not relate to a book fea­tur­ing an African Amer­i­can char­ac­ter. Ask any Black author you know, and he or she will con­firm what I say. We, as authors, have to work dou­bly hard to prove how wrong this assump­tion is. Giv­en such a cli­mate, is it real­ly wise to cre­ate a book writ­ten in a man­ner that will dis­cour­age even more teach­ers from using that book in their class­rooms, or keep librar­i­ans from shar­ing it with the stu­dents they serve, or dis­suade book­sellers out­side of the black com­mu­ni­ty from putting it on their shelves?

Obvi­ous­ly, the choice of lan­guage style is up to the indi­vid­ual author. I’d sim­ply like to stress that there is a great deal to con­sid­er when mak­ing that choice.

2 Responses

  1. “As writ­ers of fic­tion, our job is not to regur­gi­tate every­thing we see and hear pre­cise­ly as we see and hear it. We are not reporters, or court stenog­ra­phers. We are storytellers.” 

    Nik­ki, I think you raise some provoca­tive ques­tions for con­tem­po­rary writ­ers that include, but go beyond the issue of lan­guage. What does it mean to be a sto­ry­teller? What is our ‘code of ethics’? How do we bal­ance engag­ing with cul­ture with shap­ing it, and not slide into mere­ly reflect­ing it? Ques­tions worth wrestling. Thanks.

  2. “How­ev­er, there are also those who use four let­ter words with great aban­don, and employ the “f” bomb in every oth­er sentence.”
    I had just jour­naled this thought the day before yes­ter­day. While research­ing urban fic­tion I came a across a book writ­ten by a fel­low Bronx­ite. His char­ac­ters were all set in the South Bronx; his theme was drug dealing/using and the life that goes with it. I can relate all too well with this lifestyle, though, thank­ful­ly, long removed. After read­ing sev­er­al chap­ters one thing struck me: the language–though true to street and char­ac­ter, made the read­ing cum­ber­some, bor­der­line fake. The point is, though peo­ple real­ly talk like that in the street, there is no need for it in extreme on paper. As you said, “A lit­tle goes a very long way.” There are many avenues to explore in this dis­cus­sion and the pros and cons. But I’ll only hit on one right now. As a read­er, I’ve been drawn into sto­ries where authen­tic lan­guage was used cre­ative­ly and spar­ing­ly, mak­ing it hard to put the book down. As a writer, I could only wish to do the same.

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