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African American Women’s Language: Mother Tongues Untied

Abstract and Keywords

African American women’s speech styles are critical to any understanding of the African American speech community. Many great American novels rely on the subtleties of African American women’s language (AAWL) to tell both the American and African American story. Yet in linguistic study, women’s language has mainly been viewed as the result of, and indistinguishable from men’s usage. In the 1970s, as the field of sociolinguistics grew, research focused on males and tended to incorporate female data in the overall description of the speech community—if at all. This occurrence influenced our understanding of language in the African American speech community in general and women’s language in particular. This chapter critically analyzes relevant theories and research on AAWL and reviews and critiques ideological, cultural, and social arguments that helped shape these theories. It also considers the role of respectability in arguments about African American women’s innovative and conservative language use.

Keywords: African American women’s language (AAWL), African American speech community, conservative language, respectability, sociolinguistics

45.1 Introduction

A mother tongue refers to the first language learned as an infant, child, and youth.1 Mothers teach their children their language as they nurture and socialize them to understand and participate in the social world. Though her position as the first source to impart knowledge and insight about language and culture may be unrecognized due to gender stereotypes, in a mother’s arms is where a child’s involvement in family, culture, community, and nation begins. A mother’s fundamental role in building and sustaining society is often framed within discourses that belie and minimize her powerful and indispensable position. Like many women of the world, African American women recognize that their responsibilities as mother are viewed as instinctive and natural. Although African American women also share the need of most women to consistently defend their worth, they have additional responsibilities to unravel the realities and ideologies around gender in relation to race and social class in the United States. In many instances, African American women are all too aware of the stereotypes of Black mothers—where they are described as loving too much or too little, but never as the ‘good’ woman/mother.2

While this chapter is about the linguistic research that has emerged concerning African American Women’s Language (AAWL), it should be noted that it is deeply rooted in African American women’s roles and representations in society as well as in issues of gender and racial justice. This is partly because the early stages of the linguistic research coincided with the political and social movements of the 1960s and 1970s. It is also because Black women regularly comment that they believe they are often stereotyped and viewed as problematic in society while also viewed as lacking social and feminine respectability.

African American women’s speech styles are important in the African American community, though in linguistic studies women’s language use has mainly been viewed (p. 818) as indistinguishable from men’s usage.3 Nancy Henley (1995) explores this widespread view in early anthropological work and writes that “anthropologists identified sex differentiation in far-off tribal societies, but not their own. Women’s forms were often viewed as ‘women’s language’ because the language spoken by the men of these societies was seen by these mostly male anthropologists as ‘the’ language” (1995, 362). Considering this proclivity, it is predictable that research on AAWL has focused on males and tended to ignore the presence of female data in the overall description of the African American speech community. This invisibility makes the analysis of AAWL especially challenging since, in general, African American women are: (1) absent from the debate on how Western societies identify women’s roles and language; (2) absent in discussions of ways that women’s language is unique, similar, and different from men in general; and (3) affected by societal attitudes and negative stereotypes toward their speech and use of varieties of African American Language (AAL) in ways that Black men are not.

In order to further address the issues described above, this chapter critically analyzes the relevant theories and research on AAWL, and reviews and critiques the ideological, cultural, and social arguments that helped shape them. As indicated above, while this chapter reviews and critiques previous research on AAWL, it also reflects how AAWL is deeply rooted in African American women’s roles and representation in society as well as issues of gender and racial justice. The African American speech community is one that relies on women’s input and ideology. Consequently, women’s subordinate status in linguistic descriptions impedes our understanding of language in the African American speech community, in general, and women’s language, in particular.

45.2 Recognizing Women’s Influence in the African American Speech Community

In the United States, the untangling of perspectives on women’s roles in language and discourse began in earnest in the 1970s, amidst the political struggles of the Black Power movement and the growing women’s movement. In response to questions raised about society’s implicit and explicit lack of support for women’s rights, Robin Lakoff (1975) published Language and Woman’s Place (LWP). The text began as an article in 1973 and quickly became the most influential and provocative treatise on language and gender.

In LWP, Lakoff argued that women and men talk differently and that women’s speech reflected male dominance in society. Lakoff suggested that male speech styles were so dominant and different from women’s styles that women’s speech actually contributed to the perpetuation of stereotypes as well as women’s secondary role in society. Her argument was based on observations and intuitions about middle-class White women and focused on what she considered to be the two main forms of discrimination in women’s language: that women are taught a weaker form of language than men (e.g., (p. 819) tag questions), and an inherent sexism in the structure and usage of language itself (e.g., euphemisms for women). Lakoff’s work was also influenced by the social and political definitions of feminism of the era that considered males and females in opposition to each other. This perspective of feminism is referred to as the difference and dominance perspective (see Eckert and McConnell-Ginet 2003; Talbot 2010; Wolfram and Schilling-Estes 1998). Research and theories about this dichotomy represent the first period of systemic investigation into the relationship of gender and language. However, as the study of gender and language grew, preoccupation with identifying direct contrasts between the speech of men and women was regularly criticized. As Jennifer Coates (1998) explains, “In the early years… research into the interaction of language and gender relied on a predominantly essentialist paradigm which categorized speakers primarily according to biological sex, and used mainly quantitative methods” (3).

In many respects, Lakoff’s (1975) argument that women’s speech both reflected and supported the perpetuation of stereotypes of women’s secondary role in society was analogous to the argument put forth in a 1960 essay on racism and language written by Ossie Davis (1967) titled, “The English Language Is My Enemy.” Davis, an acclaimed actor and civil rights activist, examined the significance of words that include dark and black as morphemes in English. He argued that racism is so embedded in American ideology that one cannot speak and learn English without also learning negative views of Blackness and participating in the stereotyping of African Americans.

If you consider the fact that thinking itself is sub-vocal speech—in other words, one must use words in order to think at all—you will appreciate the enormous heritage of racial prejudgment that lies in wait for any child born into the English Language. Any teacher good or bad, [W]hite or [B]lack, Jew or Gentile, who uses the English Language as a medium of communication is forced, willy-nilly, to teach the Negro child 60 ways to despise himself, and the [W]hite child 60 ways to aid and abet him in the crime. (1967, 11–12)

With the exception of Davis’s (1967) argument, early discussions of race, social class, and racial dominance (as compared to male dominance) were largely absent from the linguistic discourse and analysis during the late 1960s and the 1970s. Much of the linguistic work on dialectology focused on regional variation, and sociolinguistic studies and were mainly of the White working class.

Considering the marginal inclusion of African American women in discussions of feminism and language and gender, it is not surprising that the study of AAWL did not appear as central to sociolinguistic studies of the African American speech community. Rebecca Walker (2005) explains the dilemma faced by working-class women, women of color, and Black women, in particular, whose speech communities did not represent the ideologies of middle-class White women.

For many of us it seems that to be a feminist in the way that we have seen or understood feminism is to conform to an identity and way of living that doesn’t allow for individuality, complexity, or less than perfect personal histories. We fear that the (p. 820) identity will dictate and regulate our lives, instantaneously pitting us against someone, forcing us to choose inflexible and unchanging sides, female against male, [B]lack against [W]hite, oppressed against oppressor, good against bad. This way of ordering the world is especially difficult for a generation that has grown up transgender, bisexual, interracial, and knowing and loving people who are racist, sexist, and otherwise afflicted. (Walker 2005, 22)

The battles that emerged during the larger women’s movement over the demand that women of different races and classes be included were also reflected in the research on AAWL. The groundbreaking linguistic argument of the late 1970s—that AAL is a systematic dialect and should be respected as such—was founded on the assumption that it is men who create and speak African American vernacular speech, since “it was assumed at the time that vernacular dialects were maintained and transmitted primarily by adolescent males” (Wolfram and Schilling-Estes 1998, 187). Comprehensive review of ethnicity and gender research in linguistics critiqued this problem and argued that the language of working-class women and women of color has been on the periphery as a unique, marginal, or special case, rather than as one among many examples of language (see Henley 1995). Cameron and Coates (1988) addressed these issues by integrating women’s diversity, especially in terms of social class and culture, in their critique of arguments regarding generalizations made concerning women’s prestige usage. They argue that what is considered conservative for middle-class women may not be seen as conservative for working-class women for whom it can be innovative instead. This creates a superficial contradiction about what formal and informal styles of language use among women means when compared to men’s usage. Cameron and Coates consider this view part of the folklore about women (as mysterious creatures) and argue that it is actually based on the notion that “male behaviour and male norms are prototypical” (1988, 24).

The truth is that the African American speech community, with its array of ideologies and practices, was developed within a social history that included a mandatory language style that was publicly and enforcedly marked as subservient. During US slavery and until the 1960s in the South, Blacks could not exhibit linguistic agency nor could they initiate verbal interactions with Whites without being under the threat of death (see Morgan 2002). Control and surveillance were relentless and occurred within all aspects of Black life, especially in terms of day-to-day interactions. Interaction styles included nearly every conservative, overly polite verbal and non-verbal expectation of women’s speech framed within a racial prejudice: (a) use formal address when speaking to a White person, (b) do not speak unless spoken to, (c) do not speak assuredly (use hedges), and (d) do not make statements (overuse tag questions), and so on. The discursive requirements also included non-verbal rules such as stepping aside when a White person approaches, keeping one’s head lowered and not looking at someone directly in the eye. Thus, linguistic and conversational cues of subservience and dependence were necessary as performatives to corroborate the defense for slavery, and later segregation.

(p. 821) Since the struggle against racial bigotry and injustice was the main civil rights concern for the Black community, African American women essentially represented both racial and gender issues. Unlike the White women in language and gender studies, African American women were not considered significantly different from Black men in terms of AAL usage. This representation at the height of the feminist movement did not result in African American women being considered feminist and assertive in terms of women’s rights and participation in society. In fact it placed them further outside the language and gender discussion in that the scholarship on AAWL was not aligned with feminist arguments that did not recognize racial discrimination and focused on comparison and difference exclusively in terms of middle-class White males and females.

45.3 AAWL Visibility in Sociolinguistics: Conservative and Innovative

Though theorizing about women’s language relies heavily on the understanding of interaction and the social context in which it occurs, early sociolinguistic studies of vernacular usage among African American women adopted the assumptions of general linguistics: that all women’s language is more conservative than men’s and that women adopt innovative features more quickly than men (Jespersen [1922] 1964). However, what is referred to as conservative and innovative use of language can at times refer to the same interaction, depending on speech community norms and social context (see Cameron and Coates above). Since women’s designation as conservative speakers is based on the speech of middle-class White women, when in contrast with Black women’s speech it is treated as the unmarked and “normal and good” speech. Several important AAL research projects of the late 1960s and 1970s included observations and, in some cases, data about Black women’s language use that revealed this fact. For instance, in the Detroit studies of 1969, Walter Wolfram found that African American women used more standard forms when compared to African American men. Wolfram (1969) reported that lower-working-class men deleted copulas (e.g., “She Ø smart”) 66 percent of the time, while women did so 48 percent of the time (178). In contrast, in research conducted in Washington, DC, Ralph Fasold (1972) reported that his team found little to no difference among African American men and women.

Some linguists turned to social and psychological explanations for the contradictory findings by suggesting that women are insecure, mysterious, status seeking, and so on. While these explanations reflected the stereotypes that Lakoff (above) decried, they also expose the traps of the linguistic terrain that women navigate in general. When these traps are combined with the racial terrain, Black women often must consider how they are viewed as a result of being Black women and what their language use contributes to that assessment. As Patricia Nichols suggests, variation may be based on “both (p. 822) culture-specific and crosscultural” factors (1982, 55). As the social context shifts, language ideology concerning attitudes toward dialect usage, linguistic accommodation, intentionality, and so on, shifts as well.

In her study of Black women’s language in rural coastal South Carolina from 1974‒1975, Nichols ([1982] 1998, 1983, 2009) compared linguistic usage between the mainland and islands. She was concerned with community norms and differences in those norms. While many Blacks in the region had been Gullah speakers, Nichols reported that at the time of her study, “The language now used by [B]lacks… constitutes a post-creole continuum … which encompasses creole, non-standard, and standard varieties of English” (1998, 57). She focused on the use of three syntactic variables:

  1. (1) the for-to complementizer

    • “I come for get my coat.”

  2. (2) the static-locative preposition at

    • “Can we stay to the table?”

  3. (3) the third person singular pronoun it

    • “Well, ee was a fun to me.”

    • “Over there they call um over the island.” Nichols ([1982] 1998, 57)

Nichols found that older African American women from the mainland showed more conservative linguistic behavior than the African American men, while African American women from the island were actually more innovative than the African American men. The contrasts continued for other age groups as well, though at times African American men used more standard forms and vice versa (1998, 60). She found a correlation between the linguistic variables used by the African American women and the variety of social relations and the type of jobs the women worked. She reports that “all island women work outside the home at some time during their lives, as do most [B]lack women in the area” (60). Thus, women who had stable jobs that did not include outsiders were more linguistically conservative than those who had more mobility. She concluded that how social class was defined and an understanding of the types of jobs available to African American women influenced the language variety that occurred across generations and communities.

Jennifer Bloomquist (2009) was also interested in whether women would adhere to mainstream language standards more consistently than do men (cf. Trudgill 1972) or whether they were more likely to take the lead in adopting linguistic innovations (Labov, Yaeger, and Steiner 1972). She examined women’s language in an isolated African American community in rural Pennsylvania’s Lower Susquehanna Valley (LSV). When Bloomquist compared urban and rural African American women’s use and knowledge of words and expressions common in the LSV lexicon, she found some notable differences. These linguistic differences were, with respect to location, shaped by social history, contact, and identity. She found that African American women did not change and alter their variety to accommodate outsiders and varieties spoken by Whites in the area, though they incorporated linguistic features and styles typical of the region. She argued that these data contradict earlier claims about the relative uniformity, and to some extent, (p. 823) the supraregionality of AAL. However, she worried that while the African American women represented a stable speech community that is part of the region, sociolinguistic studies often excluded their communities in regional studies as though the women did not use local language. Bloomquist issues a warning to linguists who have this tendency that “excluding African American data in regional language variation research, and then comparing AAL… to ‘White’ regional language norms… furthers the assumption that the varieties are necessarily and fundamentally distinct” (2009, 181).

Research on young children’s acquisition of AAL may also provide insight on language development and change, as well as the role of gender in the development of conservative and innovative usage in African American speech communities. This information may also offer insight on language socialization, in general, and regarding gendered speech and language use, in particular. As Green and Conner (2009) explain, children have to learn the phonology, morphology, and syntax of their native languages as well as the discourse styles and pragmatic and rhetorical uses of the words and phrases. They provide evidence of this from a 5-year-old girl who has learned the pragmatic use of all in AAL.

  1. (4) . . . like they was playing dress up. Looking all cute.

Green and Conner write, “Given the context all is used in [4] to underscore the very “cute” appearance of the characters.… While it is true that all is a quantifier, in this context the word does not just have the meaning of ‘totally’ ” (2009, 91‒92).

Green and Conner (2009) also examined African American girl’s rhetorical uses of past time preverbal markers in data from the language of developing, AAL-speaking girls. They found that when they considered simplex forms in which single verbs are marked with past tense morphology (e.g., worked) or unmarked (e.g., work), the girls employed what might be called conservative practices. In contrast, when they used complex sequences (had + verb or BIN + verb) they not only represented the past perfect but also regularly referred to events that were accomplished and/or achieved in the past. Thus, early stage AAL-speaking girls use forms both to indicate events in past contexts and as rhetorical markers in oral discourse. In fact, Green and Conner argue that at four years, some of the children “talk about and/or comprehend past events in at least three contexts: simple past, remote past, and preverbal had event marking” (2009, 106). They also found that the girls could use stressed BIN beyond that of a tense-aspect marker and in aggrandizement contexts.

These findings on the language development of young African American girls suggest that they are learning discourse and language norms that identify them as AAL speakers who also learn the importance of stress, vowel length, and pragmatic forms that may be most associated with AAWL. The question of acquisition is not only concerned with when a child acquires a feature but also when it is used with competence according to speech community standards and expectations. When these questions are examined in women’s language, they are also focused on race, language competence, and performance and gender. To answer the question of what is AAWL and who speaks (p. 824) it requires the examination of the complexity of African American speech communities from the perspective of the full range of linguistic analysis as well as language ideology.

45.4 “What Had Happened Was…”: Mars and Venus Meet the Middle Passage

The study of the vernacular, the ordinary language of a people, implies analytical focus on language use in everyday activities and among all social actors living in a speech community. As discussed above, the Black “subjects” of the sociolinguistic research were predominantly male (see Jackson [1974] 2004; Abrahams 1970, 1976; Folb 1980), and as Smitherman reveals: “the content of their speech data primarily sexual” (1977, 162). The content of the verbal genres collected often focused on the denigration of African American women and were, therefore, misogynistic and sexual. However, research on women revealed that the content of the genres was not what defined them. Rather, verbal genres are defined by their structure, function in linguistic and social contexts, and as part of speech community norms. African American women’s verbal genres, narratives, and conversation styles are characterized by an elaborate system of indirectness and contrast with Standard English verbal styles (Morgan 2002; Spears 2009). The discourse styles and genres also reveal a gendered language ideology in which conservative and innovative styles represent the inequalities between men and women, Blacks and Whites, social classes, and Black women and White women. Much of the research on verbal genres of African American women has focused on indirectness like he-said/she-said routines, signifying, and reading.

Signifying or playing the dozens has been described as a form of play, especially among African American males (see Kochman 1974). However, research on African American women and girls reveals that the dozens is actually one example of an elaborate system of indirection (cf. Goodwin 1990; Morgan 2002; Smitherman 1977). Indirection is not simply a lack of straightforwardness. It is an intentional lack of straightforwardness. It is through the exploration of intentionality that indirection can be deciphered and understood. The object of signifying is determined by possible motives of the speaker, how meaning is conveyed, and how the targeted person and other hearers interpret the meaning of what is said. Mitchell-Kernan (1972) argues that it is a powerful form of communication for women because it can convey meaning without directly confronting the person targeted. For instance, Mitchell-Kernan (1972) describes signifying as “the recognition and attribution of some implicit content or function which is obscured by the surface content or function” (317–18). Her 1971 study of African American Language and culture in Oakland, California, demonstrates that women participate in conversational signifying (Mitchell-Kernan 1971, 65–106) and employ linguistic practices similar to those of men. In this case, the socially accepted message serves as a metaphor for the (p. 825) intended message. What a sentence means is a combination of what is intended and the significance of how it is framed within a sentence and discourse.

Unlike her male peers who mainly “play” signifying games, girls are much more invested in what is actually said, who says it, hears it, and if the person who said it actually means it. Marjorie Goodwin’s (1990) analysis of he-said/she-said disputes among African American girls details the elaborate lengths to which participants are willing to go in order to determine who said what behind someone’s back. African American girls learn that who talks about another girl behind her back risks being labeled an instigator. The entire ritual involves investigation, evidence, confession, and resolution in the form of apology or confrontation. Goodwin (2003, 2006) has also found that contrary to Carol Gilligan’s (1982) claim that conflict is disruptive to middle-class White girls, they also “premise their moral decision making on context-specific principles based on social relationships” (2006, 246). Thus, rather than learning to “play nice,” all girls participate in a range of interactions.

As African American girls grow into women, their expression and defense of social face appear in everyday conversations rather than ritualized routines. Morgan (2002) found that signifying and instigating also occur in adult conversations, though through the use of more indirect reference and indexicality. She also reports that for teenagers, he-said/she-said events include discourse strategies that not only introduce potential conflict but also use strategies that reestablish the social order as well. These include investigating and clearing the messenger (instigator); investigating, interrogating, and clearing so-called friends; investigating, interrogating, and clearing the voice of the offending parties; and, finally, resolution.

Another discourse feature found in AAWL research is reading dialect. Reading dialect occurs when features from AAL and Mainstream American English (MAE) are contrasted. Members incorporate distinct dialect forms and functions, and contrast them with their possible linguistic counterparts in the other dialect and constantly make use of the possible meanings implied by the particular forms and functions chosen. Thus, in some interactions formal usage may signify that racism, sexism, or other forms of inequality are in play. Another verbal feature found in African American women’s discourse is what Morgan (2002, 2003) calls “the Black woman’s laugh.” It is similar to Irving Goffman’s (1978, 1981) response cries in that it indexes the thoughts of the speaker. In the case of AAWL, Morgan argues that it is often called the fool’s laugh and suggests that what is occurring or being talked about is considered foolish and not in any way funny.

In her analysis of a radio panel discussion convened in 1992 following civil unrest in response to the Rodney King verdict, Mary Bucholtz (1996) found that the Black women participants used several of the discursive strategies described above to construct social identities in terms of gender, social class, and race. These included reading dialect and signifying. Of the six panelists, five were African American, including two women and three men, and there was one White male. Bucholtz reports that at times the women interjected distinctive phonological features and vernacular lexical items that served to establish the solidarity of the speakers as African American. In other instances, the women panelists used questions and deixis in a way that weakened the role of the (p. 826) moderator to direct the interview. She argues, “The panelists’ use of the vernacular as an emblem, rather than as the primary linguistic code, demonstrates that the social meaning of the language is retained, or even enhanced, within an institutional context” (279).

In her research on African American women teachers, Michele Foster (1995) was interested in whether teachers used more conservative and formal styles in the classroom. By using the framework of performance theory and discourse analysis, Foster argues that the African American women in her study intentionally and systematically used features of African American discourse style, such as code-switching, in order to express their identity and solidarity with students. Her data contests the notion that middle-class African American speech patterns align more closely with Standard American English than those of working-class African Americans (Labov 1969). Thus, not only did the middle-class women retain their ability to communicate in the African American vernacular, but they also used African American discourse to index a social identity and communicate a particular stance or point of view (see Stanback 1986). She concludes: “African American English enables these women to communicate cognitive, affective content not available in the standard form of the language, to create and maintain social relationships and express solidarity with listeners” (Foster 1995, 347).

The significance of indirectness and signifying and reading in interaction is magnified in African American women’s narrative practices. There are several narrative styles identified in African American folklore, writing, and art. For example, Gwendolyn Etter-Lewis (1996) finds that African American women routinely use three narrative styles—unified, segmented, and conversational—within interactions and narratives (178). These styles appear in a non-contiguous yet complimentary fashion as they shift according to topic, imagined audience, local knowledge, and so on. These narratives are co-authored and include issues of changing values and culture, especially regarding what it means to be a woman, and morality, personal responsibility, and sophistication.

Sonja Lanehart (2002) interviewed intergenerational female family members to determine attitudes toward language, literacy, identity, ideologies, education, and sociolinguistic contexts. She found that both societal standards and notions of identity influence the women’s attitudes toward standardization and the vernacular. Lanita Jacobs-Huey (2006) examined women’s discourse practices in the cultural setting of a beauty salon. She found that interactions between Black women relied on knowledge of indirection as well as discourse markers representing the attitude of the speaker. She also found that symbols of African American culture, race, and gender regarding hair types, styles, and care as well as authority and respect were common themes in any interaction. Her work revealed a complex interaction of cultural negotiation, discourse, and norms.

Spears (2009) examined the function of the word GIRL to highlight the importance of intonation as discourse markers in African American women’s interactions (see Smitherman 1977). He analyzed the occurrence of the word girl in interactions (see Troutman 2001; Scott 2002; Morgan 1996) and argues that though the word retains its dictionary meanings, it is also what he calls metadiscursive in that it is a cultural marker that indexes language ideology and discourse styles and accounts for the “flavor” of Black speech (Spears 2009, 77). Spears focuses on GIRL in clause-initial position when (p. 827) it is said with a long, stretched, rising intonation. He argues that with GIRL, AAWL speakers are able to perform or present solidarity and identity. “In using GIRL, they also mark their discourse as AAWL, i.e., as African American women talking in AAWL” (2009, 86).

45.5 Gender and R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Conservative and Innovative

African American women contribute to the language patterns and ideology of their speech community. That is, the language choices cannot be simply understood within dichotomies of conservative/innovative, dominance/difference, and so on. Rather, it is embedded in how women are considered in society and in the social and cultural contexts where it matters and where it does not. As Mercer famously argued, “One thing at least is clear—identity only becomes an issue when it is in crisis; when something assumed to be fixed, coherent, and stable is displaced by the experience of doubt and uncertainty” (1994, 259).

AAWL reflects the range of AAL usage found throughout the community. But it is more than that. It is also, as Mitchell-Kernan (1972) suggests, a metaphor and symbol of injustice and inequality between social classes, men and women, Blacks and Whites in general—and Black women and White women, in particular. The combination of respectability, citizenship, and womanhood is a consistent theme in works directly pertaining to AAWL as well. As Evelyn Higginbotham (1993) argues, the only recourse that women had to oppose the social structures and symbolic representations of White supremacy was a discourse based on middle-class White women’s language. She argues that was the response to the time when

crude stereotypes of [B]lacks permeated popular culture and when ‘scientific’ racism in the form of Social Darwinism prevailed among professional scholars and other thinking people… can be characterized by the concept of the ‘politics of respectability’… the discourse of respectability in an era when African Americans’ claims to respectability invariably held subversive implications. (186‒88)

When introducing the linguistic and discourse systems and strategies of women of color in the United States, and from non-European cultures as well, AAWL is regularly considered a subsection of White women’s speech. However, as early debates in feminist studies revealed, while race and gender may be relevant to Black women, race may not trouble many White women.4 This is especially true in a system where the notion of the “ ‘good/normal’ woman is constructed against working class women and women of color” (Higginbotham 1992, 8). It is because of this difference that the examination of (p. 828) the language use and strategies of African American women provide significant examples of how gender is constructed for both Black and White women. The attempt to control Black women’s speech is evidence that the very speech style that Lakoff (above) critiqued was also considered ideal White women’s speech and socially marked as good and proper. A major problem is the belief that Black women should use White women’s speech and do not use it. Many women and linguistic researchers resist this description of White women’s speech and have provided valuable data and analysis that proves that it is indeed mostly part of the folklore about women.

Since the conservative standard is often associated with power and prestige, in general when women’s language is compared to men’s, it is a question of whether women deviate more or less from the male prestige standard. In contrast, the African American standard is based on Black male vernacular usage rather than middle-class male usage. Black male usage is not associated with White male economic, political, and social power in society. Rather, it is associated with male dominance and masculinity. Because Black women’s language usage has been viewed as the same as Black men’s vernacular speech, Black women’s speech has been placed in a peculiar position of being judged in terms of Black male dialect variation, Black male style, and White middle-class women’s speech. Consequently, Black women’s speech is severely evaluated when considered as women’s speech and is often depicted as harsh, inappropriate, and domineering language rather than strong and direct. This reality played out tragically in the legal trial regarding the 2012 murder of Trayvon Martin.

In the summer of 2013, many were riveted to the broadcast of the racially charged trial of George Zimmerman for the killing of the 17-year-old African American Trayvon Martin, who was returning home after purchasing candy from a neighborhood store. An important part of the prosecution against Zimmerman was testimony from Martin’s female friend, Rachel Jeantel, who was on the phone with Martin as Zimmerman followed him—and later shot him dead. Jeantel’s testimony was central to the assertion that Zimmerman was not in a life-threatening situation when he shot his victim and was, therefore, guilty of murder. However, the defense strategy was to attack the character of Rachel Jeantel. Her testimony was met with contemptuous commentary from the media and online outlets that ridiculed her appearance, speech, and discourse style by referring to her as an animal, fat, and so on. Britney Cooper (2013), a columnist for writes:

These kinds of terms—combat, aggression, anger—stalk [B]lack women, especially [B]lack women who are dark-skinned and plus-sized like Rachel, at every turn seeking to discredit the validity of our experiences and render invisible our traumas. By painting Rachel Jeantel as the aggressor, as the one prone to telling lies and spreading untruths, it became easy… to treat this 19-year-old, working-class [B]lack girl, a witness to the murder of her friend, as hostile, as a threat, as the one who needed to be regulated and contained and put in her place.

According to John Rickford (2014), Jeantel’s discourse style included indirection and signifying and her linguistic features included the following: stressed BIN, as in “I was BIN paying attention, sir” meaning, “I’ve been paying attention for a long time, and am (p. 829) still paying attention”; preterit HAD; ask as ax; inverted did in embedded sentences, as in “He had aks me did I go to the hospital” (‘He asked me whether I had gone to the hospital’); absence of auxiliary IS (“He ø trying to get home, sir.”); and absence of possessive –s and third present –s, as in “He a momma ø boy” and “He love ø his family” Rickford (2014).

That Jeantel was aware of the stereotyping during her interrogation was discussed on many Black-themed blogs that concluded that the way the defense attorney spoke to her was designed not only to discredit her but also to condescend to and humiliate her. Britney Cooper provided a theory of the significance of Jeantel’s speech in relation to her identity by stating that “Rachel Jeantel has her own particular, idiosyncratic Black girl idiom, a mashup of her Haitian and Dominican working-class background, her southern U.S. upbringing, and the three languages—Haitian Kreyol (or Creole), Spanish, and English—that she speaks.” There was also consensus that Rachel Jeantel acknowledged as much by her repeated use of dialect reading with her clear pronunciation of “Yes, Sir.”

Rachel Jeantel’s attitude on the witness stand did not represent dialect accommodation, but rather pride in her Black women’s speech and cultural background. Once she seemed to realize that the defense attorney was ridiculing her speech, she continued to use vernacular forms of expressions. She was called ignorant, ghetto, fat, arrogant, and worse. Had she been a vernacular-speaking Black male, it is not clear that her speech would have been associated with ignorance, deception, and so on. It might have been viewed as the norm for a teenager in the African American vernacular speech community. Instead, she was compared to middle-class White woman physically and in terms of language. In the end, her statements were presented as unintelligible, inaccurate, and untrue.

45.6 Conclusion

One of the paradoxes of women’s history is that as social progress occurs, many issues are reframed rather than resolved. This is especially true for African American women who are still judged by a standard of unachievable respectability. Political Scientist Melissa Harris-Perry begins her (2011) book, Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes and Black Women in America, with an analysis of one of the most heartbreaking and powerful stories of Black women: Their Eyes Were Watching God. Harris-Perry places this Zora Neale Hurston novel, written in 1937, at the heart of her political analysis of today’s America in terms of race, social class, and the role of Black women, in particular. The main character of the novel, Jamie Mae Crawford, lives in rural Florida after World War II and must survive gender and racial roles that not only constrain her sense of self but also attempts to destroy and bury any remnants. Harris-Perry argues that this novel remains relevant because Black women are inherently political. She writes, “They are political because [B]lack women have always had to deal with derogatory assumptions about their character and identity” (2011, 15).

(p. 830) This chapter has argued that AAWL is political. The research on African American women represents a feminist perspective on the role of women in society and how women’s voices can be powerful in situations of dominance and bigotry. AAWL studies conducted within the sociolinguistic tradition include research on all aspects of vernacular features as well as standard features. Research on discourse, narratives, and verbal genres represent how women express their lives, ideas, and roles in interaction in particular and society in general. African American women’s issues include race and justice for all members of the community. AAWL is conservative and innovative. It is creative and ordinary. It is varied and complex, as a women’s language must be. It often appears as a defiant voice out of sync with other women. In fact African American women’s speech is a metaphor for women’s voices everywhere. It exposes the silencing of women’s voices and the politics of language and discourse norms and standards for all women. It is the mother tongue.


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                                                                                                              (1.) The title of this chapter refers to Marlon Riggs’s pioneering (1989) documentary on homosexuality in the Black community entitled Tongues Untied.

                                                                                                              (2.) The 1965 Moynihan Report, “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” blamed the Black family and mothers, in particular, for poverty, crime, and so on. Hortense Spillers (1987), in her critique of Moynihan (1965), offers this quote from his report: “In essence the Negro community has been forced into a matriarchal structure which, because it is so far out of line with the rest of American society, seriously retards the progress of the group as a whole” (Moynihan 1965, 75).

                                                                                                              (3.) This is also true in the social sciences and humanities in general.

                                                                                                              (4.) It is this particular problem, along with issues of sexism in the civil rights and Black Power movements that led to the Black Feminist Movement (see Roth 2004).