The Role of Dialect Representation in Speaking from the Margins the Lesson of Toni Cade Bambara

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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,...
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