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Talkin' Black

November 18, 2008   

As you may already know, I am an English major. Nevertheless, I have many cross-disciplined interests, and so each semester I make sure to enroll in at least one course outside of my major. This semester I am taking an African American History class which covers the beginnings of the trans-Atlantic slave trade through the beginning of the Civil War. 
 
I have a research paper due this Friday for my history class. I am writing paper on “Negro dialect”—African American speech patterns as transcribed by the interviewers of the Works Projects Administration in the 1930s.  During the New Deal 1930s, several writers were commissioned to interview former slaves about their experiences in slavery.   I have learned that these aspiring writers probably saw this as an opportunity to both make money and to become inspired for their creative writing projects.
 
I am particularly interested in how these writers listened to their African American interviewees—how they heard them. The writers were told that they had to transcribe or record the speakers’ dialects exactly as they were spoken. But the problem I have found is that the writers really focus, if not obsess, over the pronunciation of words. I hope to uncover what the implications might have been behind this obsession of people's speech. Why have there been associations with the intelligence of black people based on the way they speak?

For example, when I began my college education I felt a lot of pressure to speak clearly and to annunciate my words. And it is almost impossible to imagine Barack Obama speaking Ebonics and winning the election. It’s practically a no-brainer. Yet, I wonder why these strong negative reactions exist in the first place to whether or not black people can be received as intelligent and legitimate based on whether or not they speak standard or non-standard English.