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View Full Version : Use of AAVE in dialogue -- advice/discussion?



slhuang
03-27-2013, 02:12 AM
This is one of those, "soliciting feedback to see if I'm doing something offensive" posts.

I'm very interested in / concerned with the idea of language with regard to racism and privilege. In my current WIP (which is contemporary SFF), I have an African-American character who speaks with some light AAVE influences (the use of "ain't" and so on, NO phonetic spellings). Of course, I have no hope of not making mistakes with this, but I have someone very qualified I'm hiring to copy edit his dialogue for me. That is, if I keep it the way it is. I wanted to ask for some wider feedback/range of opinions on what you think of giving an African-American character AAVE speech patterns.

The character in question is portrayed as intelligent, compassionate, and badass. He's the secondary lead, and is the MC's voice of conscience as well as backing her up with a gun (if it matters the MC is also a POC, though not African-American). Especially as the series goes on, I'm confident I've portrayed him as a well-realized, three-dimensional character. There are also quite a few other characters of color in the series, including other African-American characters, and they mostly speak Standard English.* But he's the most prominent African-American character and is the only super prominent African-American character in the first book.

Here's why I wanted to do it. Feel free to tell me if you think any of these reasons are FAIL / offensive:

1) It seems to me that assuming all of my African-American characters would choose to speak entirely Standard English* is itself a form of erasure, since many African-American people I know in RL do speak with some level of vernacular.

2) From my reading about language marginalization, it strikes me as a good thing in re: racism/privilege to portray a clearly intelligent (and well-educated, we later learn) man as using some amount of AAVE.

3) I try to ask the question "how does this person's race/background/ethnicity affect him/her?" for ALL my characters, and see what the answer would be, and as I developed this character this choice seemed to make sense. The short version of the relevant parts of his background is: grew up in a poor and violent environment without many options (and grew up speaking AAVE), had a lot of bitterness about his upbringing and strove to erase all the AAVE influences from his speech as part of erasing where he came from, later started to let some of those influences back in as both a way of coming to some peace with his background and reclaiming it, and also so some of the people he was working with would feel more comfortable with him / relate to him better (particularly at-risk youth). Is still capable of code-switching to strong AAVE or Standard English* (and he speaks Spanish and Mandarin Chinese fluently, too). None of this background is given to the reader in the first book, though.

So -- does it concern you that I'm trying to write speech with AAVE influences? Does it concern you that I'm only going with "light" AAVE influences? Does his background strike you as a landmine of cliche / offensiveness? (If it makes a difference, there are a great diversity of both major and minor Black characters in the series, whose professions so far include doctor, math professor, roboticist, police officer, former circus performer, priest, engineer, security guard, comedian, Princeton student, forensic scientist, hairdresser, etc. . . . and he's also not alone in having had a troubled childhood; *all* of my MCs did, in varying ways.)

Thank you in advance for any thoughts! I really have done a lot of reading on this but haven't found much "boots on the ground" thought from media consumers who aren't academics. Totally happy if people want to discuss the general idea of racism through language in this thread, too.


* "Standard English" is the term I always see used in the reading I've done -- if this is considered to marginalize AAVE, please let me know which term I should use instead.

Kitty Pryde
03-27-2013, 03:45 AM
It sounds mostly ok to me, and in most respects he is like many real people I know. Two things:
1. You've got to be so bulletproof absolutely correct if you use a nonstandard dialect, the right city, the right generation, etc. People in LA sound different from people in SF or NY or Detroit or Indianapolis or Dallas.
2. Most people I know who 'overcame' a lousy upbringing have to some extent embraced what they grew up in, and even take pride in it. Someone told me the ghetto is where you're from but it's not who you are. Even in a depressed community, they grew up with friends, aunts, uncles, teachers, etc who supported them and raised them up. So that aspect seems less realistic to me. There are other reasons to change to a more standard dialect.

slhuang
03-27-2013, 04:17 AM
Thank you, Kitty! This is very helpful!



1. You've got to be so bulletproof absolutely correct if you use a nonstandard dialect, the right city, the right generation, etc. People in LA sound different from people in SF or NY or Detroit or Indianapolis or Dallas.


Noted, thank you. I believe my person who's copy editing will be equal to the task -- I'll make sure to discuss it with him to make sure.



2. Most people I know who 'overcame' a lousy upbringing have to some extent embraced what they grew up in, and even take pride in it. Someone told me the ghetto is where you're from but it's not who you are. Even in a depressed community, they grew up with friends, aunts, uncles, teachers, etc who supported them and raised them up. So that aspect seems less realistic to me. There are other reasons to change to a more standard dialect.Thank you so much -- now that I'm looking at it, I definitely did not make his upbringing as three-dimensional as it could be, even though I really try to be SO aware of that stuff in character development, particularly with characters of color (::smacks self:: :e2smack:). Thank you!!

Lavern08
03-27-2013, 08:12 PM
... since many African-American people I know in RL do speak with some level of vernacular.

When I'm hanging out with my BFFs, I tend to use more slang, and drop my ing's

When I'm at work (white-collar job and only minority in the office) I mostly check that type of vernacular at the door. ;)

akaria
03-27-2013, 11:05 PM
The only problem I see is with him having the background of growing up in the ghetto. It seems life in the ghetto is often the backstory for any Black character and I'm so very bored with it. Some of us grew up in houses. With backyards. Without dodging bullets and drug dealers. And barely making ends meet. Working class Black doesn't equal ghetto.

I'm gonna second Lavern here. It's tempering language to the crowd one is with. I don't think it's special to Black people and doesn't need to be highlighted. You talk to your boss a different way than you would your BFF. Doesn't everyone do this?

slhuang
03-28-2013, 12:03 AM
When I'm hanging out with my BFFs, I tend to use more slang, and drop my ing's

When I'm at work (white-collar job and only minority in the office) I mostly check that type of vernacular at the door. ;)

Oh, yes, I had certainly planned on having him code switch when he felt it was appropriate! :)


The only problem I see is with him having the background of growing up in the ghetto. It seems life in the ghetto is often the backstory for any Black character and I'm so very bored with it. Some of us grew up in houses. With backyards. Without dodging bullets and drug dealers. And barely making ends meet. Working class Black doesn't equal ghetto.

Hmm, yes, I was worried about this. Does it make a difference if his rough upbringing is three-dimensionalized the way Kitty recommended? Does it make a difference that all the other MCs come from different varieties of rough backgrounds as well? (Five MCs in the first book, and this particular character's actually the only one of them who went to college and had a stable life/job for any length of time (before Plot screwed them all).)

(By the way, please feel free to say no, it doesn't make a difference -- I'm genuinely asking the question, not trying to defend. :))

I've been mulling it over and I'm not really sure how I'd give him the street skills he needs (that all the MCs need) if he had a safer, more normal upbringing . . . or the empathy he has for some of the other (younger) MCs, who have a pretty flexible view of "legal" and whose lives are pretty much a mess. Unless I made his prior adult life a lot less stable than it was, and I like that idea even less. I can think of other ways he could grow up with the skills he needs to have, but I really wanted him to have that extreme personal empathy for troubled kids . . . I'll think on it, though, because this is a REALLY good point and I don't want to give him a background that's just ridiculously tiresome for Black characters to have.



I'm gonna second Lavern here. It's tempering language to the crowd one is with. I don't think it's special to Black people and doesn't need to be highlighted. You talk to your boss a different way than you would your BFF. Doesn't everyone do this?Yes, I do see what you mean. My understanding, though -- and I could be wrong -- is that there's a difference between simply tempering one's language and code switching dialects? (For instance, for me personally there are certainly scenarios where I censor any profanity, say, but I don't think my grammatical structures change . . .) Or are you saying it's all the same, just a matter of degree?

Thanks so much for your thoughts on this everyone; I really really appreciate it. :)

Jcomp
03-28-2013, 01:33 AM
When I'm hanging out with my BFFs, I tend to use more slang, and drop my ing's

When I'm at work (white-collar job and only minority in the office) I mostly check that type of vernacular at the door. ;)

Bin'o

Rachel Udin
03-28-2013, 09:53 PM
I did a paper on AAVE (Not saying this qualifies me in the least), and I found that as Kitty pointed out, it varies. It was in the Ray Charles movie. What struck me about that movie was that the AAVE was spot on and it varied depending on location quite a bit, which surprised me quite a bit--most films are not known for such accuracies.

I can pick it up (I have a pretty good ear for languages. I can pick up dialects in languages I don't speak), but it might help you get a sense of the range, since it covers from the South, to the North to California. (though it won't help you pick out exact subtleties.)

So, yes, be selective of how you use it.

SBibb
03-29-2013, 03:29 AM
Thanks for bringing up this post. I'd wondered about it myself, and I hadn't even considered how different regions would affect it. Very informative.