By Briana Whiteside
I was sitting in a graduate class when an individual pointed out that “black language is a dialect.” Now to some, this assertion would seem fairly reasonable; however, decades of research and writing on black language suggests otherwise.
Distinct ways of black speaking and African American Vernacular English (AAVE) have
been often been labeled as “slang,” “gibberish,” and “dialect.” Scholar Karla D. Scott argues in “Broadening the View of Black Language Use: Toward a Better Understanding of Words and Worlds,” that “To reduce black language use to mere slang is an obvious oversimplification, but a common perception because blacks appear to use words with meanings not understood by those who are not black” (185). People who misunderstand black language practices often mislabel what they think they hear.
In Black Literature and Literary Theory, Henry Louis Gates explains that, “the African American tradition has been figurative since its beginnings because blacks have always been masterful of the figurative, saying one thing to mean quite another, a necessity for black survival in oppressive western cultures” (6). A key feature of this figurative language use is the act of signifying, that is, “saying one thing to mean another,” which is practiced in African American language and literature as well. For young adults signifying involves hiding conversations from parents, or just coded language used to refer to something amusing, or troubling.
Developing more respect for black language means appreciating the ways that African Americans use the master’s tool to dismantle the house. That respect also means moving beyond the reductive labels about black language as simply a dialect.
Briana Whiteside is a graduate student in English at SIUE and a contributing writer for the Black Studies Program.