The role of dialect representation in speaking from the margins: “The Lesson” of Toni Cade Bambara by Katy M. Wright “What kinda work they do and how they live and how come we ain’t in on it? Where we are is who we are, Miss Moore always pointin out. But it don’t necessarily have to be that way, she always adds then waits for somebody to say that poor people have to wake up and demand their share of the pie and don’t none of us know what kind of pie she talking about in the first damn place. ” –Toni Cade Bambara, “The Lesson”
African American philosopher George Yancy, exuberantly sensitive to the power of language in texts, asserts that in representing “the complexity of Black experiences,” not just “any form of discursivity will do”: the narrative content cannot be divorced from the narrative form; the narrative voice must speak in harmony with the reality it describes (275). “What other linguistic medium,” asks Yancy, “could I use to articulate the rhythm, the fluidity, the angst…. and the beauty involved in traversing” the “ghetto streets” of youth than the dialect of African American English (273)?
Within literature, African American authors confront this reality continually, weighing the value of speaking in the so-called “Standard” American English dialect against speaking in the languages of what Yancy calls their “nurture,” those languages “which helped to capture the mood and texture of what it was like for [each] to live” (Yancy 273). Toni Cade Bambara, a Harlem-born author of the mid-twentieth century, chose to embrace the language of her culture and community, and in her hands that language became a powerful tool for describing a complex and distinct reality.
An exploration of her use of dialect representation in the short story “The Lesson” enables a focused analysis of the usage of alternative dialects in art, for through dialect, Bambara discloses and explores empowerment, disapproval, and celebration, and successfully challenges how those listening hear the voice of the marginalized. African American English (AAE, also called African American Vernacular English, AAVE) constitutes a major dialect of English spoken in the United States.
Internally diverse like all dialects, AAE has a unique and potent history that reflects the ubiquitous tensions between so-called Standard American English (SAE) and variant dialects (Zeigler 588). Zeigler and Osinubi assess the tension between SAE and AAE in terms of the “larger postcolonial struggles of its speakers,” who have long lived in an oppressive, utilitarian relationship in which European and American whites achieved domination through the dehumanization of Africans and African Americans (588).
Because of this colonial relationship, the dialect that emerged among African American speakers was and is still heard in American culture, largely by SAE speakers, as an incorrect imitation of standard English (594). The years of “postcolonial denigration and stigmatization” of AAE following the abolition of slavery in the 1860s entrenched the dialect in a swamp of social prejudice and politically motivated rejection (595).
African Americans seeking integration into mainstream America, as they “negotiate[d] and respond[ed] to the … superstructures of power that determine[d] their” socio-cultural participation, were compelled to speak in the language of the educated white majority (589). For Yancy, it is still invaluable for African Americans engaged in dialogue with mainstream America to compose texts using SAE, despite the perpetuation of historical power structures through such consent (276).
Though the embrace of SAE on the part of many African American activists and advocates demanded the broad acceptance of the full humanity of African Americans, there was a simultaneous abandonment of a significant and legitimate cultural heritage that originated in the rejection of African American language (Zeigler 592). To counter this effect, marginalized, postcolonial African Americans chose and choose still “to reclaim their cultural identity” by reclaiming language (592).
The reappropriation of African American English parallels the multivalent reimagining and recreation of black culture and community in all fields of African American experience. (1) For centuries, the opposed forces drawing AAE speakers into and away from mainstream culture and society, what Smitherman calls the “push-pull syndrome,” has characterized African American discourse and art (Zeigler 600). The “tendency toward recreolization,” the reintegration of nonstandard linguistic aspects into a dialect, is a powerful style of “reaction to the politics of oppression” (603).
Yancy asserts that in performative or literary environments, the language actually becomes “a space of agency, contestation, self-definition, poiesis, and hermeneutic combat,” of genuine self-assertion where an individual or collective self has been denied existence (277). When an author uses an alternative language such as AAE in English discourse, that language compels a text “into a space of established norms of linguistic propriety, calling into question and perhaps rupturing the authority” of the standard dialect (Yancy 276).
A main site of this convergence and divergence within African American language and discourse is African American literature. The literature African Americans produced in the twentieth century is laden with the languages of African American cultures and communities, reflecting the recognition in that era of language’s power to describe plural and diverse realities (Heller 279). Toni Cade Bambara (1939-1995) is a fitting representative of those authors, and her literature explores African American experience in the tumultuous mid-century decades with enthusiastic rigor (“Toni” 3).
Bambara was raised in the Harlem community of New York City in the 1940s and ’50s; she attended college in Queens and worked in the community throughout the 1960s (5). This experience centered Bambara’s fiction, which deals extensively and almost exclusively with the lived experience of blacks in mid-century urban America (6). The author, eager to effect social change through the pairing of storytelling and activism, celebrated the lives of urban African Americans in her first set of short stories, published in 1972 (4).
These stories specifically and exuberantly celebrate black English in the midst of that urban life as a means of communicating lived experiences inadequately described in other voices (“Toni” 4; Heller 279). As Yancy notes of AAE texts generally, Bambara’s stories become “demonstrative enactments of the historical, stylistic, political, communicative, cognitive, and social ontological power of African American language” because she chooses to use AAE almost exclusively and always consciously (278).
This use of “counter language,” of a distinct, non-standard dialect, is of central importance to Bambara’s fiction, which embraces the African American’s struggle between convergence and divergence with the standard culture (Zeigler 603). A linguistically representative tale drawn from this set of short stories is “The Lesson. ” “The Lesson” recounts a summer afternoon’s events, narrated by an African American girl named Sylvia.
It is unclear how much time has passed since that afternoon, on which a group of adolescents from an impoverished and unnamed African American district of New York venture uptown with Miss Moore, a college-educated black woman. Sylvia narrates in a distinct idiolect of AAE, and she and her friends also converse in AAE; a dialect nearer to SAE is represented by a clearly more economically privileged girl named Mercedes, and Miss Moore, the educated teacher, approximates SAE (Heller 279, 283). 2) A closer analysis of Bambara’s employment of AAE is extremely useful in examining the complex functions of dialect representation in the literature of the historically marginalized and colonized. To begin with, Bambara’s language in “The Lesson” is laden with taboo vocabulary, indicative of the informal speech style she seeks to represent among these adolescents (Heller 284). Sylvia, the narrator, describes a “sorry-ass horse,” a woman “black as hell,” “boring-ass” activities, and “dumb shit foolishness,” all within the first paragraph of the story (Bambara 87-88). Damn,” “shit,” “ass,” and “hell” all make multiple appearances, and though this sort of language is absolutely not limited to or characteristic of AAE, it situates the African American adolescents in their economically disadvantaged urban environment, where pressures to limit taboo vocabulary are at a minimum and the socially approved language is, in fact, that which is considered inappropriate in other social spaces (Bambara 87, 87, 88, 93; Heller 284).
The author explicitly recreates the informal speech of adolescents (though the speech-style is certainly not limited to adolescents) with such word choice and similarly reflects this in the conscious inclusion of informal and AAE pronunciations, evident in the clipping and contracting of words (Heller 281, 282, 285, 287, 288). Instances of this include, among the more familiar, “kinda” (representing “kind of’), “outta” (“out of’), “oughta” (“ought to”), “dunno” (“do not know”), “whatcha gonna” “what are you going to”), and “wanna” (“want to”) (Bambara 87, 88, 89, 90, 92, 94; Heller 288). Another common form of contraction is the contracting of”would” onto other words: for instance, “long’d,” “father’d,” “somebody’d,” and “thousand’d” are all spoken by characters in the story (Bambara 90, 92, 92, 93). In this narrative, characters also commonly replace the velar nasal /_?? _ / with the alveolar nasal /n/, transliterated by Bambara as the omission of the final “g” in verbs with the present progressive “-ing” ending (Heller 282).
The author repeatedly represents verbs in the form, “screamin,” “goin,” “lyin,” “plan nin,” and “watchin” (Bambara 90, 90, 91, 94, 94). A few nouns featuring the “-ing” suffix also undergo this replacement, such as “somethin” and “nuthin” (95, 96). A constantly noted contraction form is what Sidnell, in analyzing AAE, describes as consonant cluster deletion. “Ole,” for instance, represents a pronunciation of “old” with the final “-d” deleted; “suppose” is a pronunciation of the adjective “supposed” with the “-d” dropped and “seem,” of the verb “seems” with the final “-s” deleted (Bambara 88, 88, 95; Heller 281). 3) Whereas these replacements and consonant cluster deletions involve final sounds, a number of words in Bambara’s story are represented with the initial morpheme deleted; in each case, this occurs in words where the initial syllable begins with a vowel sound. Examples of this are, with deleted phonemes in parentheses, “(ex)cept,” “(e)specially,” and “(a)shamed” (Bambara 87, 88, 93; Heller 281). Finally, the AAE pronunciations of these urban adolescents features an interesting pattern in spoken adverbs: quite frequently, the “-ly” ending is deleted (Heller 285).
The abbreviated adverbs “gradual,” “serious,” “bad,” and “tight” constitute instances of this (Bambara 87, 89, 89, 92). In this case, the deletion of the “-ly” suffix does not create ambiguity, for the function of the adverbs is clarified by syntax. For instance, in the phrase “spread out gradual,” the verb-adverb construction is clear, and including the “-ly” suffix would be, in effect, superfluous (Bambara 87). In an intriguing construction, Sylvia at one point says, “we talk about his mama something ferocious” (Bambara 89; Heller 289).
Here, the adverbial “something ferocious” replaces the standard adverb “ferociously,” and “ferocious” (instead of functioning as an abbreviated adverb) acts as an adjective modifying the colloquial, indefinite “something. ” These various contraction forms litter the text, functioning as explicit representations of the spoken AAE dialect of the characters. A second site of variant features Bambara explores in “The Lesson” is tense.
As noted, African American English often omits morphological tense markers and indicates tense, instead, through the use of adverbials indicating time, conjunctions indicating successive events, the use of “been,” “be,” “done,” or “gon”/”gonna” before verbs, the use of the item “steady,” or simply through context (Sidnell). In “The Lesson,” Bambara omits tense markers from verbs on multiple occasions. As previously noted, some instances of final “-s” or “-d” deletion constitute tense marker omissions, as in the omission of the “-s” from the verb in the phrase “she know damn well” (Bambara 91 ; Heller 287).
In a sentence which explores several AAE tense marker variants, Bambara writes the following in the voice of Sylvia, the young narrator: “And I watched Miss Moore who is steady watchin us like she waitin for a sign” (Bambara 94). Here, the item “steady,” often used by AAE speakers, describes a consistent or persistent action (Sidnell; Heller 288). Past tense is marked in the verb “watched,” and this allows Sylvia to thereafter use present tense “is” and present progressives “watchin” and “waitin” without needing to further indicate the past tense.
Perhaps the most notable mode of Bambara’s play with tense marking is her use of the quotative form “say. ” In her 2002 study of African Americans living in rural Texas, Cukor-Avila charted the use of quotative forms by AAE speakers recounting dialogue or internal thought processes (4). The author found that among AAE speakers, “there is a strong preference for say as the main verb of quotation,” especially among those born before 1950; the finding is consistent with a number of previous studies (11). “The Lesson,” which contains a great deal of dialogue narrated by Sylvia, is peppered with this same form.
For instance, Sylvia explains, “I’m stalling to figure out the tip and Sugar say give him a dime” (Bambara 89). Or in another case, “‘And I don’t even have a home,’ say Flyboy like he do at school” (91). Or yet again, “‘I think,’ say Sugar pushing me off her feet” (95). This quotative form leaves the tense unmarked; in recounting dialogue, an SAE speaker would be more likely to say something like “Sugar says” in present tense or “Sugar said” to indicate past tense. The constant use of quotative “say” is another feature of Bambara’s story–of AAE–that relies on the marking of tense in alternative manners.
African American English, in a number of ways, avoids the repetitions of SAE through the omission of unnecessary (i. e. redundant) items. “The Lesson,” for example, includes instances of dropped conjunctions, dropped prepositions, and copula deletion. The narrator Sylvia says at one point, “I decide–he don’t need it–bad as I do” (89). Omitted from this sentence are “that” and “as,” two standard conjunctions. In the phrase, “just to get–all broke up,” the pronoun “it” is omitted because the context makes clear that a toy sail boat is the topic of the comment (92).
Sylvia later begins a sentence, “Got as much right to go in as anybody” (93). Here, the ‘T’ pronoun is implied by the previous sentence, ensuring that the narrator’s speech is not ambiguous. Deleted items in AAE speech do not lead to unclear speech or a loss of meaning; rather, the items prove in their deletion to be unnecessary. In the case of prepositions, the following phrases demonstrate this AAE feature in “The Lesson”: “this lady moved–on–our block;” “we all moved North–the same time;” “we shove her out–the pack;” “still have plenty–money” (87, 87, 95, 96).
Again, the omission of standard prepositions (“in” or “to,” “at,” “of,” and “of”) never leaves a phrase meaning unclear. The most notable feature of AAE with regards to such omissions is copula deletion (Sidnell; Heller 286). The conjugated “be” verb used in various sentence types by SAE speakers is often omitted by AAE speakers (Sidnell). The occasions of this omission are “future sentences with gonna or gon,” “before adjectives and expressions of location,” and “before nouns” or noun phrases (Sidnell). In “The Lesson,” Sylvia reports, “Miss Moore–crazy or lyin one;” elsewhere, she remarks, “he–too little” (Bambara 91, 92; Heller 288).
Both demonstrate copula deletion prior to the use of an adjective. The phrase “his sorry-ass horse–his secretary,” on the other hand, omits the copula before a noun (Bambara 87). Bambara uses copula deletion with fluidity and constancy, freeing Sylvia from the verb “be” in almost all she says. A final site of Bambara’s demonstration and employment of AAE in “The Lesson” is agreement. (4) In minor instances of this, the narrator avoids agreement between the verb “be” and nouns, and also between the article “a” and nouns.
The first case is made clear in the phrase, “the million and one living things in the air around us is invisible,” where the count noun “million and one living things” is treated as a mass noun (thus, “is” is used instead of “are”) (90). The second is evident in the phrase, “the whole thing put into a oven,” where the initial vowel of “oven,” in SAE, requires the article “an” instead of “a” (Bambara 90; Heller 289). These avoidances of agreement may also be identified in Sylvia’s repeated double negations, such as “she don’t never let up,” and “Don’t nobody want to go for my plan” (Bambara 88, 89; Heller 285).
Sidnell describes this feature of AAE as an allowance for “negation to be marked in more than one position;” interestingly, AAE “resembles French and a number of other Romance languages” in this aspect. Bambara assigns the following thought to Sylvia: “I have never ever been shy about doing nothing or going nowhere” (Bambara 93). In this sentence, the multiple negations occur in the marking of the indefinite nouns “anything” and “anywhere” (which become “nothing” and “nowhere”). Sidnell notes that “in so far as the negation must be expressed with indefinite nouns” in AAE, “this is a form of agreement marking. Though SAE speakers often perceive the double or multiple negations of African American speech as a failure of agreement, marking the negation in multiple positions is, in fact, a functional way of affecting agreement within a sentence. Though the marking is non-standard, it is a clear, meaningful alternative to the style of negation common to SAE. As with the other features of AAE that Bambara employs, such variations in agreement do not hinder meaning or clarity in the text; rather, they become meaningful styles of expression for Sylvia and her companions.
It becomes clear in the unfolding of this text that the use of African American English is at no moment accidental, incidental, or coincidental. As George Yancy insists, “the medium” must “be the message” in African American discourse, and Bambara wastes not a word of the tale: because the very language itself exists in tension with so-called Standard American English, the entire fabric of the text speaks the author’s “Lesson” to the dominant culture (275). Each feature of AAE that Bambara explores functions harmoniously within the narrative to imbue it with greater meaning.
To begin with, the usage of taboo language (such as Sylvia’s descriptions of a “sorry-ass horse,” a woman “black as hell,” and “dumb shit foolishness”) functions as a potent challenge to the linguistic and, by extension, social norms of mainstream society (Bambara 87, 87, 88; Heller 280). The inclusion of taboo language in everyday speech affects a paradox: the alienated, “unacceptable” nature of her or his speech illuminates the speaker’s marginalization; at the same time, the challenge she or he presents to the order and stability of the dominant culture empowers the speaker.
Sylvia is not a passive and obedient citizen, but a linguistically fierce, aggressive agent who refuses to submit to a system that seeks to dull her capacity for expression by amending her vocabulary (Heller 280). The uninhibited, even oblivious use of taboo language speaks to the freedom available to the individual who remains outside of the SAE culture; this freedom, for Sylvia, is a style of empowerment, for she speaks (unlike educated Miss Moore) outside of the domain of the conventional social power structures.
The representation of casual and contracted pronunciations in “The Lesson” (such as “kinda,” “cept,” “gradual,” “screamin,” and “thousand’d’) functions as a proof of the capacity of AAE to be articulate, expressive, and meaningful (Bambara 87, 87, 87, 90, 93). Though Sylvia and her peers speak in voices starkly different from the SAE speaker, this “counter language” communicates their experiences and ideas with great lucidity (Zeigler 603). What is remarkable is that the removal of phonemic constraints facilitates a creativiy of expression which actually increases the expressivity of the adolescents’ speech (Heller 285).
The rhythm of the speech encases new meaning: when Sylvia says that her family “‘spread out gradual to breathe,” you can hear the motion of breathing in a way that is strangely absent from the “grammatically correct” version of the phrase (Bambara 87). In addition, the clipping of words in these instances without the loss of clarity increases the efficiency of the language: more meaning is present per sound than in SAE, in which the absent phonemes are pronounced. Bambara’s explorations of AAE tense marking function in a similar way.
Again, the author maintains clarity, the language retains its meaningfulness, and the efficiency of SAE tense marking is challenged, here by the omission of “-s” or “-d” tense-indicative morphemes and the use of “steady” and the quotative form “say. ” More importantly, perhaps, the ambiguity of tense at times suggested by the bevy of unmarked verbs facilitates a more dynamic and engaged narrative. Sylvia’s tale, forever hovering between past and present tense, transcends ordinary temporal bounds through concrete language.
The narrative exists simultaneously in the past and in the present; Sylvia invites the reader to inhabit both spaces with her, for the experience lives presently inside of her, though it has externally come and gone. Bambara’s play with tense through African American English provides room for her to explore this alternative style of narrative. The dropping of SAE items from speech in AAE, occurring in “The Lesson” as omitted conjunctions or pronouns and as copula deletion, also explores the potential for a more efficient language in which meaning and clarity are maintained (Heller 286).
The usage of the copula deletion, specifically, plays an interesting part here: Sylvia’s narrative assumes existence, or passive “be-ing,” and thus the copula “be” is consistently omitted; this omission, in neglecting the assertion of “be-ing,” emphasizes instead the dynamicism and primacy of other (non-passive) activities. When Sylvia offers constructions like “Flyboy checking out what everybody brought for lunch,” “Junebug punchin on Q. T. s arm,” and “Miss Moore asking us do we know what money is,” vivid images of the characters engaged in lived action, experiencing and interacting with the world, arise in the mind of the reader (Bambara 88). In Bambara’s tale, the copula deletion illuminates the humming activity of adolescence and provokes attention to the agency of the characters. The narrative also explores the alternative modes of agreement in African American English, and these modes have an important descriptive and critical function.
The verb “is” in the phrase “the million and one things in the air around us is invisible,” for instance, demonstrates a seeming failure on Sylvia’s part to identify “the million and one things” as a count noun (e. g. , “the drops of water” or “the yellow hats”) (90). SAE speakers would use the verb “are” to indicate this recognition. When Bambara employs that “is,” however, the reader is forced to consider Sylvia’s view of the world: perhaps she understands “the million and one things” to be, in actuality, a mass noun–a metaphorical conglomeration of indistinguishable particles deserving the verb “is. The value of Sylvia’s linguistic variance is the genuine variance of her perspective on life which it illuminates. Her multiple negations (such as “don’t none of us know”) actually increase the internal consistency of English, introducing styles of agreement foreign to SAE (Bambara 95; Sidnell). These supposedly non-grammatical constructions expose the arbitrariness of SAE grammatical constructions, and are continually clear and meaningful.
Sylvia’s style of speech, in which negation is marked in multiple positions, furthers the possibilities for emphasis and increases the intensity of the claims she makes. Once more, additional levels of meaning penetrate the text through the language of African American English. “To talk about language among marginalized speakers,” write Zeigler and Osinubi, is “to engage in discourse about how such speakers negotiate and respond to the social, economic, and political superstructures of power that determine their participation in the life of their society” (Zeigler 588-89). The Lesson” is a narrative that reflexively examines the power of language through lived experience as it explores lived experience through language; Bambara here engages in that discourse which examines the negotiation and response of the marginalized to their marginalization through a language which is itself marginalized (588-89). Each feature of the historically disapproved dialect of African American English which the author employs aligns Sylvia, the narrator, with a rich tradition of African