Dialect and the N-word on the streets of Fredericksburg

From John Hennessy, NPS:

In our last post I quoted from a WPA slave narrative by Fannie Brown describing a slave sale in Fredericksburg in 1860.  It is by any measure a brutal, powerful passage, and I present it again here.

I recollec’ one day I… went up close among de white folks gathered roun’ de warehouse peepin’ in through de windows to see de slaves. Den after a big crowd come roun’, I heard a nigger trader say, “Bruen…let my niggers out….”  Jim, a big six-foot, tall slave, come out smilin’, and his shirt was took off, and den dey start exzaminin’ him. Dey jerked his mouth open an’ look at his teeth an’ den slapped him on his back, an’ den dey said, “Dis is a prime nigger. Look at dose teeth.” Somebody say one hundred dollars, another two hundred an’ so on ’till one thousand dollars was reached. Den Jim …. was handcuffed an’ put in de coffle  wid de other slaves dat had been sol.

While the challenges of working with WPA slave narratives are many (see here for a quick overview), to my eye and ear, this quote presents two challenges to anyone using it in a public program.  First, the use of dialect.  I have always found it fascinating that when the writers hired by the WPA’s Federal Writers Project did their interviews with former slaves, many chose to record the words in dialect.  We of course have no way of knowing if the dialect recorded actually reflects the words and speaking style of the subject.  Or were interviewers were merely trying to make the words sound more “authentic?”

The larger question in my mind is whether the decision to record dialect reflects inherent racial views of the 1930s that should be rejected in 2010.  Dialect was recorded far less commonly for interviews with white subjects.  By using dialect, were interviewers consciously or subconsciously trying to suggest illiteracy or lack of eloquence?  Does the use of dialect diminish the narrative quality of the interviews? Is it one reason the narratives have, until recently, been so sparingly used?

More to the point, when standing in front of the Planter’s Hotel, reading  Fannie Brown’s remembrance of a slave sale, do I read it as printed, in dialect?

I do not.  Not only would it sound silly coming from me, but it distracts from the power of the words themselves.

We have also used the quote in our podcast for the World and Words of John Washington. We asked a prominent local teacher to record it for us–an African-American who was closely involved in the Civil Rights movement and who is completely devoted to efforts to convey history, flattering or not.  We left it to her to decide how she wanted to read it, and she felt it as an essential part of the quote and opted to read it with dialect. She did a fabulous job–it worked.  But I would not and could not ask someone to do that, and I could not do it myself.

A less subtle question emerges from the use of Fannie Brown’s quote.  When reading it in public, do you use the N-word as quoted in the narrative?

I’m curious how people feel about that.  I’ll give a couple days for folks to offer up their opinions, and then share how I have handled the question.

2 thoughts on “Dialect and the N-word on the streets of Fredericksburg

  1. Wow John, you like to ask difficult questions. I wrote a long dialog in this space and after reviewing it, I deleted it entirely as I am and was concerned that what I wrote would be misunderstood. I think you handled the issue of the quote quite well in presenting it to the teacher, she chose to use it as presented and coming from her it probably was accepted by diverse audiences, I on the other hand being of European American decent would not have used the quote, but I may have paraphrased it to convey the message of the unpleasantness, fears and inhumanity of an auction of humans.
    Questioning the WPA project person who recorded the quotes is interesting. Were all of the recorders white and did they use racial stereotyping in their “interpretation” of what they heard and subsequently recorded? Thank you for examining such questions for we readers to ponder and for public historians to delve into and find answers.
    I copied my deleted text into a word document so that I can come back to it later and perhaps offer some thoughts based on my personal experiences or I may just sit back and listen to what others are saying before commenting.

  2. Thanks John: While there were some African-American interviewers, the vast majority were white. Here are the instructions they were given by the series editor John Lomax:

    “Simplicity in recording the dialect is to be desired in order to hold the interest and attention of the readers. It seems to me that readers are repelled by pages sprinkled with misspellings, commas and apostrophes. The value of exact phonetic transcription is, of course, a great one. But few artists attempt this completely. Thomas Nelson Page was meticulous in his dialect; Joel Chandler Harris less meticulous but in my opinion even more accurate… Present day readers are less ready for the overstress of phonetic spelling than in the days of local color…
    Truth to idiom is more important, I believe, than truth to pronunciation…. In order to make this volume of slave narratives more appealing and less difficult for the average reader, I recommend that truth to idiom be paramount, and exact truth to pronunciation secondary…

    I would like to recommend that the stories be told in the language of the ex-slave, without excessive editorializing and “artistic” introductions on the part of the interviewer. The contrast between the directness of the ex-slave speech and the roundabout and at times pompous comments of the interviewer is frequently glaring.”

    While these instructions certainly don’t betray any intent to diminish the interviewees, it remains hard to me not to see the effort to record dialect as a product of well-entrenched views on slaves and African-Americans that viewed their dialect, at least, as quaint and “appealing.” I am not aware that any analogous instructions were given to those interviewing subjects for the WPA’s folk culture project, for example.

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