Insignificant Monkeys: Preaching Black English in Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury and Morrison's The Bluest Eye and Beloved.
- Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark
SPRING SEMESTER OF 1995, WHILE DISCUSSING PART FOUR OF The Sound and the Fury in a course entitled "Faulkner and Morrison: The Color Line in the 20th Century," I spoke of how Faulkner transforms Reverend Shegog's speech in his Easter sermon from "Standard English" to "Black English." I mark these two terms in quotation marks here because they became the source of controversy when an African-American woman in the class objected to my use of them; she not only felt that I was denigrating Black English by placing it in hierarchical opposition to Standard English, but also that I was over-generalizing. Indeed, the woman explained, she is black, yet her speech does not resemble Black English in the slightest but rather Standard English, and therefore, she questioned, wouldn't it make more sense to discuss specific speech characteristics of particular characters instead of defining their speech according to racial identity?
While I wrote extensive journal entries to clarify my confusion over the underlying source of this controversy, the Burlington Free Press printed a front-page article later that week about diversity at the University of Vermont that quoted Cleopatra Jones, the woman involved in the controversy, as saying that she has "experienced [racism] on campus and seen it in the classroom"(1) The article continued:
During a discussion of Faulkner in an English class, for example, Jones was offended when a white student spoke of a white, standard English and a so-called black dialect. The student also implied that the former was superior to the latter, Jones said. "I was highly insulted by that and I stopped class and I asked the young man to explain what he meant by that comment," Jones said. After class, she broke down in tears. "I was upset and I felt that I was just one person taking on the whole class."(2)
I felt the article misrepresented me (even though I wasn't named), portraying me as a glaring racist. The controversy between Cleopatra and me was not over this article, however; our contention centered on representations of race, so we agreed to meet after class the next week to discuss the issue and try to reach an understanding. I better understood why she had cried, as my whole body was shaking from the tension of this encounter, but our conversation remained calm and civil. Cleopatra explained that the term "standard," as she heard me applying it to a language, bestows legitimacy over and above whatever is placed in opposition, which becomes "non-standard," in this case "Black English." Moreover, the term "Black English" equates a certain dialect with an entire race, whereas the distinction is more regional than ethnic, she maintained, with some Southern whites speaking like some Southern blacks, and she sounded like neither, as a black woman educated in the Northeast.
The volatility of the terms I used overshadowed my meaning to the degree that she thought I was saying the opposite of what I intended. She believed I was "demonizing" blackness (to use Morrison's terms) by generalizing a specific instance of (mis)representation as universal, while I believed that, if anything, I was "romanticizing" it, describing the Reverend's switch from a more privileged (Standard English) to a less privileged (Black English) language as a linguistic shift to a more powerful dialect. In the end, we parted neither as friends nor as enemies, but realized that, at base, our perceptions of this episode differed radically. Cleopatra didn't acknowledge my opinion that the Reverend accesses a more powerful language when he shifts dialects; she did, however, persuade me to examine in more depth the terms I used, both "Standard English" and "Black English," to consider their denotations, their connotations, and their present political implications.(3)
At issue here are not abstract theoretical notions but rather highly politicized views that charge this (and every American) classroom with the contentious anti unresolved issues of race. I intend this essay not to validate my perception over Cleopatra's but rather to investigate the dynamic behind this kind of diversity of opinion, assuming that it arose partly from our status as different individuals, but also partly, no doubt, from our differing racial (as well as gender) identities.
Differing racial identities inform the cultures of writing and literary criticism; or, in Toni Morrison's words, "there is culture and both gender and `race' inform and are informed by it."(4) In Playing in the Dark, Morrison positions herself both as a black woman writer and as a literary critic of white writers; she represents blackness in her own writing, but she also examines how whites both represent and repress blackness in their writings.(5) Almost a decade earlier, Morrison began questioning her own representations of blackness, as compared to those of other black artists who did not specifically adhere to "principles of Black art":
The question is not legitimacy or the "correctness" of a point of view, but the difference between my point of view and theirs. Nothing would be more hateful to me than a monolithic prescription for what Black literature is or ought to be. I simply wanted to write literature that was irrevocably, indisputably Black, not because its characters were, or because I was, but because it took as its creative task and sought as its credentials those recognized and verifiable principles of Black art.(6)
Maggie Sale, in a footnote to an essay on Beloved, probes Morrison's intentions here:
It is uncertain whether Morrison thinks that a white writer utilizing the principles she sets forth here would produce African-American literature, or whether all three characteristics are needed--i.e., principles of "Black art," an African-American author, and African-American characters.(7)
At issue here are the boundaries of essentialism in representing blackness in literature. The question is not whether Faulkner or Morrison creates African-American literature but whether and how their racial identity affects and controls their representations of blackness, and specifically their representations of black speech. Each author invents black characters who inhabit different linguistic realms, and Faulkner's representations differ dramatically from Morrison's. Does race control this difference? And if so, is one mode of representation more valid than the other? Can Faulkner, a white writer, write black speech legitimately, and conversely, does Morrison, a black writer, write valid black speech automatically?
The term "Black English" gained its currency through the scholarship of J.L. Dillard (author of the book Black English), as well as his predecessor, William A. Stewart.(8) Literary critic and linguist Sylvia Wallace Holton characterizes these two as "creolists," in contradistinction to the earlier, increasingly less credible movement of the "Anglicists:" on the one hand the "Anglicists took the position that those blacks who came to America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries learned their English from British overseers," and though their "English was imperfectly spoken, ... its peculiarities were English, nevertheless." Alternately, "the creolists claimed that Black English must be regarded as a language separate from American English; it has a separate history and was subject to a different pattern of development."(9) Between these two extremes exists a middle-ground, Holton suggests; she invokes the "intelligent, well-balanced" argument of linguist Robbins Burling who
posits the idea of a continuum ranging from Non-Standard to Standard English, along which all American dialects can be placed (at least approximately). Along the scale different levels of Black English, ranging from Non-Standard to Standard, would appear beside different levels of white English, ranging from Non-Standard to Standard.(10)
Burling's theory allows for Africanist roots to Black English while simultaneously suggesting the inevitable influences of the English of white speakers upon black speakers of English. This solution seems logical in its reflection of the complex development of language outside a theoretical vacuum.
Determining the socio-historical roots of Black English does not solve the problem of its literary representation. Just as certain English dialects sound significantly different from Standard English when spoken, so too do they appear different when written. The challenge for the writer consists of faithfully transcribing the dialect as spoken while still conveying a comprehensible meaning in writing to the reader. "But in this process he may also introduce variations from normal spelling that do not indicate significant dialectical differences in pronunciation," Sylvia Holton explains (p. 58). Linguists call this "eye dialect," or phonetic (mis)spellings signalling "difference," but not necessarily enhancing "realism."(11) Holton suggests that the employment of eye dialect also signals an author's "patronizing" attitude toward a character; to go further, the use of eye dialect to represent Black English could be construed, in certain circumstances, as racist.
Morrison spells out her reasoning in Playing in the Dark for avoiding this technique of eye dialect, discussing "how the dialogue of black characters is construed as an alien, estranging dialect made deliberately unintelligible by spellings contrived to defamiliarize it" (Playing, p. 52). Earlier, in "Unspeakable Things Unspoken," she provides a representative example from American literature of the absurdity of eye dialect:
It could never have occurred to Edgar Allen poe in 1848 that I, for example, might read The Gold Bug and watch his efforts to render my grandfather's speech to something as close to braying as possible, an effort so intense you can see the perspiration--and the stupidity--when Jupiter says "I knows," and Mr. Poe spells the verb "nose." (pp. 13-14)
Zora Neal Hurston echoes Morrison's sentiment: "I know that I run the risk of being damned an infidel for declaring that nowhere can be found a Negro who asks `am it?' nor yet his brother who announces `Ise uh gwinter.' He exists only in a certain type of writers and performers."(12)
Yet, compare this to Hurston's own portrayals of black speech in Their Eyes Were Watching God: "Ah wanted to preach a great sermon about colored women sittin' on high, but they wasn't no pulpit for me"; "Yo' wife is uh born orator, Starks. Us never knowed dat befo'. She put jus' de right words tuh our thoughts."(13) Does Hurston transgress against her own proclamation here? In her criticism, Hurston questions the portrayal of black speech rendered in burlesque disregard for "authentic" representations of "pronunciation and grammatical and lexical features" (Holton, p. 127); in other words, she condemns the condescension of eye dialect. In her fiction, Hurston represents black speech with phonetic accuracy; her characters speak not in gibberish but rather in distinct dialects with uniform rules of usage, inflection and construction. According to Holton, Hurston's characters "assert their individuality because of, not in spite of, their speech" (p. 127).(14)
James Baldwin asks the question, "If Black English Isn't a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?" in response to the assumption that it is a "mere dialect."(15) Baldwin points out the flexibility and power of his language:
There was a moment, in time, and in this place, when my brother, or my mother, or my father, or my sister, had to convey to me, for example, the danger in which I was standing from the white man standing just behind me, and to convey it with a speed and in a language, that the white man could not possibly understand, and that, indeed, he cannot understand, until today. He cannot afford to understand it. This understanding would reveal to him too much about himself and smash that mirror before which he has been frozen for so long.(16)
Baldwin here valorizes the strength of Black English in that it possesses an immediacy as well as a disguise that enables its speakers to simultaneously escape and critique their oppressor; this language maintains in code an opposition so integral to the oppressor's self-definition as master that his decoding of it would destroy that definition. At the same time, as long as racial hegemony exists, so too will the need for a language of the oppressed indecipherable by the oppressor; such a coded language is the necessary veil behind which black folk must hide until (and if) racial equality is achieved.(17)
Morrison, Baldwin, and Hurston suggest the extreme poles of Black English: on the one hand they validate its power over and above Standard English in practical and aesthetic expression; on the other hand, they expose its potential to misrepresent and minstrelize African-American characters. In an attempt to reconcile these extremes, literary critic Michael Grimwood points to James Weldon Johnson's preface to The Book of American Negro Poetry, in which the African-American poet articulates the dilemma of black writers in the seeming impossibility of adopting an authorial voice that neither ignores the power of Black English in deference to Standard English, nor invalidates Black English by misrepresenting it. Grimwood paraphrases Johnson's argument that
to be published, [black writers] had had to adopt one of two equally dishonest voices: they could pass for white, writing in a colorless, genteel English, foreign to their own roots; or they could imitate the Negro dialects that had been invented for them by white authors.(18)
Johnson concludes that "Negro dialect is at present a medium that is not capable of giving expression to the varied conditions of Negro life in America and much less is it capable of giving the fullest interpretation of Negro character and psychology."(19) Instead of resigning himself to this artistic absence, Johnson calls for
the colored poet in the United States ... to do ... something like what Synge did for the Irish: he needs to find a form that will express the racial spirit by symbols from within rather than by symbols from without, such as the mere mutilation of English spelling and pronunciation. (pp. 4142)
Essentially, Johnson argues against the imprecise and condescending markers of eye dialect, and for "a form that is freer and larger than dialect, ... expressing the imagery, the idioms, the peculiar turns of thought, and the distinctive humor and pathos, too, of the Negro" (p. 42). The question my essay asks is whether Faulkner and/or Morrison answer Johnson's call for a new, authenticating mode of representing Black English.
William Faulkner, according to his biographer Joseph Blotner, understood his lack of understanding of black consciousness:
Even toward the end of his life, Faulkner would talk of the difficulty of understanding Negroes' thoughts and feelings. He seemed to feel that not only had they perforce developed a pattern of concealment from white people, but their modes of thought and feeling were often different and therefore difficult for a white person to understand.(20)
This is not for lack of trying, however; in the opinion of Toni Morrison, Faulkner was "the only [white] writer who took black people seriously. Which is not to say he was, or was not, a bigot."(21) Morrison defends Faulkner's literary integrity, though she leaves open to question his personal and political integrity.
Baldwin is not so forgiving; he finds Faulkner's personal, political, and literary integrity lacking in true conviction for substantial change in the political, social, and material situation of blacks in the American South before the Civil Rights movement.(22) Baldwin here summarily dismisses Faulkner's fiction as "something very closely resembling a high and noble tragedy" (p. 119). While Faulkner's troping of classical Greek modes of tragedy onto a more contemporary political and social landscape may have served to marginalize certain issues of race, his texts advance other tropes that complicate this formulation.
In The Sound and the Fury, Faulkner describes Reverend Shegog as a "monkey" of "insignificance," repeating both these terms three times in the span of one page.(23) Faulkner characterizes the preacher in racist terms, animalizing him based on racial features, and thus enforces Baldwin's view of him as a bigot not only in the political but also in the literary arena. A closer consideration of Faulkner's language suggests another, quite opposite possibility. The proximity of the two terms, "monkey" and "insignificance," suggests a characterization modeled on or playing off a nineteenth-century African-American folk hero, the Signifying Monkey.(24)
Henry Louis Gates, Jr., discusses the name of this figure after whom he titles one of his books:
The ironic reversal of a received racist image of the black as simianlike, the Signifying Monkey, he who dwells at the margins of discourse, ever punning, ever troping, ever embodying the ambiguities of language, is our trope for repetition and revision, indeed our trope of chiasmus, repeating and reversing simultaneously as he does in one deft discursive act.(25)
The Signifying Monkey plays off racist definitions by imperceptibly shifting and reversing those linguistic markers and definitions through language itself, undermining the racist slur by turning it back in on itself and thereby gaining control over the power to define. Gates describes the African-American rhetorical device, from which the Signifying Monkey gains his strength, of "Signification:"
The mastery of Signifyin(g) creates homo rhetoricus Africanus, allowing--through the manipulation of these classic black figures of Signification--the black person to move freely between two discursive universes. This is an excellent example of what I call linguistic masking, the verbal sign of the mask of blackness that demarcates the boundary between the white linguistic realm and the black, two domains that exist side by side in a homonymic relation signified by the very concept of Signification. (p. 75)
Faulkner, of course, introduces Reverend Shegog not as a Signifying Monkey, nor even as a significant monkey, but as a monkey who is insignificant. It is precisely Shegog's initial insignificance, his ability to conceal his power beneath the mask of his physical meekness, that establishes him as a trickster figure in his act of Signifyin(g). He commences his sermon in the "white linguistic realm," an instance of "linguistic masking," until, the reader later realizes, he slips skillfully and undetected into the black vernacular, or "linguistic realm." "When the visitor rose to speak he sounded like a white man" (p. 339); the congregation, however, "did not mark just when his intonation, his pronunciation, became negroid, they just sat and swayed a little in their seats as the voice took them into itself" (p. 341).
Reverend Shegog's personal linguistic transformation becomes a communal event, transforming the entire congregation into a single unit in the act of transforming himself into a Christ-like figure:
And the congregation seemed to watch with its own eyes while the voice consumed him, until he was nothing and they were nothing and there was not even a voice but instead their hearts were speaking to one another in chanting measures beyond the need for words, so that when he came to rest against the reading-desk, his monkey face lifted and his whole attitude that of a serene, tortured crucifix that transcended its shabbiness and insignificance and made it of no moment, a long moaning expulsion of breath rose from them, and a woman's single soprano: "Yes, Jesus!" (pp. 340-341; my emphasis).
Reverend Shegog, as a Signifying Monkey, frames his speech as a means first of mimicking standard "White English,"(26) but then the Reverend undercuts the standard ("I got the recollection and the blood of the Lamb!") by abandoning it in favor of the more comfortable black dialect ("I got de ricklickshun en de blood of de Lamb!") that draws his congregation into a communal space of identification where barriers between selves are broken down, and all are bound together by their common voice and suffering (pp. 340-341). Reverend Shegog accomplishes what he couldn't with standard White English; he identifies the suffering of his congregation with that of Jesus, as he himself becomes God-like: "Ef you be Jesus, lif up yo tree en walk! I hears de wailin of women en de evenin lamentations; I hears de weepin en de cryin en de turn away face of God: dey done kilt Jesus; dey done kilt my Son!" (p. 343). Reverend Shegog's language conflates the sufferings of Christ at the hands of the Romans with the sufferings of the African-American congregation at the hands of white society; in this instance, Faulkner converts to a black idiom as a means of subverting the idiom (as well as the historical actions) of the master.(27) Whether consciously or not, Faulkner represents Reverend Shegog as a Signifying Monkey and thereby utilizes Black English not as burlesque but as a demonstration of the transformative powers of language.
Another black character who practices the art of Signifyin(g) takes his rifle, as does the Reverend, from the church. The Deacon,(28) in part two of The Sound and the Fury, first appears speaking Standard English; "glad to have chatted with you," he says to two Harvard freshman as Quentin approaches him. Quentin reflects:
That was the Deacon, all over. Talk about your natural psychologists. They said he hadn't missed a train at the beginning of school in forty years, and that he could pick out a Southerner with one glance. He never missed, and once he had heard you speak, he could name your state. He had a regular uniform he met trains in, a sort of Uncle Tom's cabin outfit, patches and all. "Yes, suh. Right dis way, young marster, hyer we is," taking your bags. "Hyer, boy, come hyer and git dese grips." Whereupon a moving mountain of luggage would edge up, revealing a white boy of about fifteen, and the Deacon would hang another bag on him somehow and drive him off. "Now, den, dont you drop hit. Yes, suh, young marster, jes give de old nigger yo room number, and hit'll be done got cold dar when you arrives." (pp. 110-111)
Faulkner represents the Deacon the same way he does the Reverend, as a Signifying Monkey, except in a reversed dynamic: the Reverend role-plays as a speaker of Standard English before shifting his speech into the black (evangelistic) vernacular; here, the Deacon tricks the Southerners by playing the role of the slave, punctuating with his Southern black dialect, complete with "Marster" and "Suh," until he reverses roles and "completely subjugate[s]" them as his speech "gradually move[s] northward" and blanches itself white as a Brooks Brothers shirt (p. 111). At the same time, Faulkner reveals hidden behind a mound of luggage the Deacon's true identity as a master himself, with a teenage white boy as his slave, and the Southern Harvard freshmen soon enslaved to his capitalistic preyings on their Southern sense of place.
Mark W. Lencho, in writing about Faulkner's use of Black English, focuses his attention on dialect "variability" in Faulkner's representations of different black characters' speech.(29) Lencho concludes that three main factors influence these dialect variations: positioning in the text indicating "changing artistic intentions during the process of composition"; the "functional load of a passage"; and the geographical origins of the speakers (pp. 406, 408).
A close consideration of these three theses proves disturbing. The first thesis suggests a developmental view, whereby Faulkner "suddenly incorporate[d] more complete examples of black dialect" as the composition of the book progressed (Lencho, p. 410). Lencho's comparison of the speech of Dilsey and Luster at the beginning as opposed to at the end of the text supports this point well; Lencho does not draw a similar comparison between Reverend Shegog and the Deacon, except to suggest that they are both "bidialectal," that is, they "style-shift" from Northern to Southern black dialects. In equating the Reverend and the Deacon, Lencho does not take into consideration nor account for the over two-hundred pages that separate them; according to his theory, the Reverend's "black dialect" should be more complex and realistic than the Deacon's, but a close reading does not bear this out. Lencho's first thesis, that Faulkner "became increasingly concerned with verisimilitude in language as the story advanced," seems to be contradicted by this example (p. 410).
Lencho's second thesis determines variability depending on the "functional load of a passage." This stance assumes a monolithic interpretation of the text that doesn't allow for multifunctionality of passages depending on the perspective of the reading. For example, in interpreting literature, I often find myself gleaning great significance from a passage that seems otherwise insignificant. Lencho's theory would predetermine passages as having "low function loads" or "high function loads"; I find this kind of linguistic Calvinism suspect and of very little use in a literary criticism that attempts to remain open-minded to possibilities in the text. Finally, Lencho attributes the more complex characterizations of the Deacon and the Reverend to their geographic distance from the South, as if only Northern blacks, influenced by white speakers of Standard English, could speak in a variety of different modes; this seems like a type of regionalism at best, and at worst a type of racism.
Focusing on the Signifyin(g) of these two characters, the Reverend and the Deacon, reveals them to be complex, realistic individuals who resist stereotype and simplification in their transformative uses of language: both utilize various speech patterns in dialects in response to the moment. In Gates's terms, considering the linguistic realms of black and white, these two characters "move freely between two discursive universes" in a way that reveals Faulkner's portrayal of them as true human beings and not merely signposts of racial difference.
Morrison continues questioning her own status as a black artist in her 1989 essay, "Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature":
The question of what constitutes the art of a black writer, for whom that modifier is more search than fact, has some urgency. In other words, other than melanin and subject matter, what, in fact, may make me a black writer? Other than my own ethnicity--what is going on in my work that makes me believe it is demonstrably inseparable from a cultural specificity that is Afro-American? (p. 19)
Morrison answers this question by explaining the considerations of Black Art informing the first lines of her five novels to date, but she doesn't shed much light on the possibility of a white writer doing what she does.
In Playing in the Dark, Morrison defines herself as a Black Artist by explaining what blackness does not mean to her:
The principle reason these matters loom large for me is that I do not have quite the same access to these traditionally useful constructs of blackness. Neither blackness nor `people of color' stimulates in me notions of excessive, limitless love, anarchy, or routine dread. I cannot rely on these metaphorical shortcuts because I am a black writer struggling with and through a language that can powerfully evoke and enforce hidden signs of racial superiority, cultural hegemony, and dismissive `othering' of people and language which are by no means marginal or already and completely known and knowable in my work. My vulnerability would lie in romanticizing blackness rather than demonizing it; vilifying whiteness rather than reifying it. (pp. x-xi)
The task Morrison implicitly sets here is not only to determine in what ways her art represents blackness in resistance to this formulation but also to investigate in what ways white writers rely on these stereotypes and cultural phenomena in representing blackness. In other words, Morrison asks her reader to consider whether she or, in this case Faulkner, romanticizes or vilifies blackness or whiteness. She hints that it might be easier for her as a black person to represent blackness in that she does not stigmatize her own racial identity in the ways "others" might.
As with Faulkner, a closer look at Morrison's texts, especially her representations of black characters' speech, will facilitate this investigation. The black characters' in Faulkner's fiction are represented as Signifyin(g), creating dynamic: portrayals; do Morrison's texts rely on similar tactics of representation?
In order to maintain consistency, I will consider two black characters in Morrison's fiction with religious affiliations: Soaphead Church in The Bluest Eye and Baby Suggs in Beloved.
"He finally settled in Lorain, Ohio, in 1931, palming himself off as a minister, and inspiring awe with the way he spoke English."(30) Morrison defines Soaphead Church by his dubious connection to his namesake, and by his linguistic dexterity. Interestingly, he represents one of very few black characters in Faulkner or Morrison who retain no trace of Black English but instead speak completely in Standard English. Unlike Faulkner, Morrison feels comfortable portraying a black character and identifying him as such by his command of standard speech.
Michael Grimwood notes of Faulkner that "the most definitive characteristic of Negroes ... was their indifference to literary formulations of experience" (pp. 261-262). Grimwood intends this as praise for Faulkner's work, but Morrison's Church presents another facet to the characterization of black subjects: a potential for intellectual prowess, even as expressed in the master standard.(31) Church's speech exhibits no "dialectical variability," and yet his character remains as complex and realistic as Faulkner's characters, perhaps more so. Morrison allows her character to speak the "language of the oppressor," perhaps because she does not need to employ black dialect or Black English to prove his blackness; white writers attempting the same might be laying themselves open to the criticism that they rely on the master standard to represent their character as intelligent.
Church's "sermon" differs from that of the Reverend Shegog in that he does not speak it but rather writes it. This act focuses attention on his literacy and his literariness. He apologizes to his addressee, "God," for the laborious nature of the "precision of his prose," but his prose is just that: precise (p. 140). Morrison here seems to be rebelling against the notion that a black character must exhibit the stereotypical features of blackness, namely, black dialect and poor literacy. She deliberately identifies Church with the standard English of whites, without representing him as a white character.
Like Reverend Shegog, Soaphead Church utilizes his linguistic abilities to become God: "I did what You did not, could not, would not do: I looked at that ugly little black girl and I loved her. I played You ... I, I have caused a miracle I gave her the eyes ... I, I have found it meet and right so to do" (p. 143). Here, instead of using Black English in Signifyin(g) Standard English, Morrison represents Church using Standard English as a means of Signifyin(g) biblical English. Church accomplishes a feat similar to Reverend Shegog's, namely, identifying modern African-American struggles with ancient biblical struggles, suggesting that God has since abandoned His people and He needs replacing. It is interesting that both Morrison and Faulkner focus on the transformative powers of language, especially in the realm of religious experience. Morrison and Faulkner approach this technique from different angles, but both end up displaying the power of the speech of their black characters to transcend suffering.
Morrison describes in Beloved the naming and vocation of Baby Suggs, holy: "Accepting no title of honor before her name, but allowing a small caress after it, she became an unchurched preacher."(32) Presenting her as no less intelligent than Soaphead Church, Morrison represents the speech of Baby Suggs, holy, sprinkled with indicators of Black English. Morrison resists employing the reductive technique of eye dialect, instead choosing to represent her black characters as speakers of a language identifiably their own but also identifiably intelligent, deriving its power not front its playing against standard English, not "playing in the dark," but from its playing on its own ground within the common ground of shared language.
Baby Suggs, holy, commences her sermon with an indication of her use of Black English, employing what linguists call "zero copula": "we flesh" (p. 88). Baby Suggs contracts her helping verb ("to be") right out of her phrase, marking herself as the speaker of a dialect without branding herself as a less adroit speaker of what some would call a sub-standard idiom. Indeed, she proves herself to be a veritable wordsmith. Several other contractions verify the fact that she speaks a relaxed dialect, but her language does not similarly fall into relaxation or laziness; her language works hard. She enumerates a litany of the bodily parts that she urges her congregation to embrace and love in the face of the hatred perpetrated upon those very bodies and their components by the white master race; at a certain point, she lists "the beat and beating heart, love that too," encompassing and commemorating both the brutalization as well as the endurance of her congregation (p. 88). Here, Baby Suggs turns her phases so that her words carry the intensity of her message, equaling if not surpassing any standardized representation of linguistic smithery.
In the end Baby Suggs, too, like Reverend Shegog in Grimwood's interpretation,(33) abandons language, but only after she has clearly conveyed her message, in plain but beautiful terms to her congregation. Her words neither mask nor code her meaning, and she does not give up on speech but rather augments it with her dancing: "Saying no more, she stood up then and danced with her twisted hip the rest of what her heart had to say while the others opened their mouths and gave her the music" (p. 89). Again, speech creates community that surpasses language.
Has Johnson's call for the invention of a new, "freer" language to represent black speech been answered by either Faulkner or Morrison? Both of these authors heed his call, though in different ways: Faulkner's text represents black characters Signifyin(g) on the boundary between black and white, shifting back and forth as a means of accessing the power of each dialect in response to specific situations, and in the act destabilizing the divisions between black and white.
Morrison's black characters inhabit a more "standard" linguistic realm than Faulkner's, but this is not to say that her characters are any less "black." Indeed, Morrison enacts her principles of Black Art as a Black Artist, allowing herself more latitude than Faulkner to explore the boundaries of what constitutes blackness in characterization. Morrison may be positioned in such a place that she can imagine black characters who break down almost all racial stereotypes, but Faulkner imagines not only black characters who challenge their own positions as stereotyped members of a racist society, but also characters whose representations challenge the limitations imposed upon Faulkner, writing from the heart of a racist landscape.
"Language, incontestably, reveals the speaker," Baldwin asserts (p. 187). These four speakers, Reverend Shegog, the Deacon, Soaphead Church, and Baby Suggs, holy, reveal themselves to be Signifyin(g) Monkeys, or, to follow Faulkner's lead, Insignificant Monkeys. More than skin color or dialect, what binds these characters is how they play with language's power to overturn expected meaning and thereby overthrow the binding shackles of social codes.
Faulkner and Morrison invent language that Johnson can only imagine. This language reveals not so much the racial identity of the author but mostly the author's faith in the humanity and complexity and "sheer intelligence" (to quote Morrison) of black characters.(34)
(1) Molly Walsh, "A Degree of Diversity," Burlington Free Press, February 12, 1995, A1, A8.
(2) Walsh, A8. 1 spoke at length with Ms. Walsh by phone in researching this essay, and asked why she didn't seek my view of the incident; she defended this oversight on the grounds of time limitations and press deadlines, but agreed that including my view would have given a more fair-minded view of the incident. However, I might add, this would have complicated her portrayal of the University of Vermont as a racist institution.
(3) An anonymous reviewer who vetted an earlier draft of this essay for Mississippi Quarterly suggested that "the author should eliminate the self-serving guilt narrative at the beginning of the essay" on the grounds that "the encounter between the author and the black student is not given in sufficient detail for readers to know even approximately why the woman was offended. Thus, his voice is `privileged.'" The essay in-hand represents my revision in attempts to provide the "sufficient detail" necessary to contextualize the encounter and render her voice more equal to mine. I realize the possibility of interpreting this introduction as a "guilt narrative"; however, I argue against this charge, asserting the validity and necessity of grounding this academic discussion in its real-life catalytic moment.
(4) Toni Morrison, "Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature," Michigan Quarterly Review, 28 (1989), 3.
(5) Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992) x-xiii, 3-6. Actually, she states at the beginning, "I do not bring to these manners solely or even principally the tools of a literary critic." However, she does end up utilizing the tools of the literary critic, or at least of a very keen reader.
(6) Toni Morrison, "Memory, Creation, and Writing," Thought, 59 (1984), 389. Earlier in this essay, Morrison defines "the characteristics of [Black] art forms ...: antiphony, the group nature of art, its functionality, its improvisational nature, its relationship to audience performance, the critical voice which upholds tradition and communal values and which also provides occasion for an individual to transcend and/or defy group restrictions" (pp. 388-389).
(7) Maggie Sale, "Call and Response as Critical Method: African-American Oral Traditions and Beloved," African American Review, 26 (1992), 49, fn. 1. I pick up on this strand later in this essay.
(8) J.L. Dillard, Black English: Its History and Usage in the United States (New York: Random House, 1972).
(9) Sylvia Wallace Holton, Down Home and Uptown: The Representation of Black Speech in American Fiction (Cranbury, New Jersey: Associated University Press, 1984), pp. 19, 24.
(10) Holton, p. 30. Robbins Burling, English in Black and White. (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1973), pp. 115-121.
(11) Holton, p. 58. Mark W. Lencho, whose reading of The Sound and the Fury I discuss later in this essay, maintains that "Eye Dialect words do not necessarily indicate artistic failure." However, I support the nuanced definitions of Holton, Morrison, and Hurston. Mark W. Lencho, "Dialect Variation in The Sound and the Fury: A Study of Faulkner's Use of Black English," Mississippi Quarterly, 41 (Summer 1988), 415, n. 21.
(12) Zora Neale Hurston, "Characteristics of Negro Expression," in Negro: An Anthology, ed. Nancy Cunard (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishers, 1970), p. 31.
(13) Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937; New York: Perennial/Harper, 1990), pp. 15, 55.
(14) Holton considers Their Eyes Were Watching God to be "an example of dialect writing at its best; it is certainly one of the most successful novels that use dialect to have come out of the Harlem Renaissance" (p. 127).
(15) I draw on J.L. Dillard's definition of dialect here and throughout this essay: "there may be some confusion about the use of the term dialect. As used in linguistics, dialect means simply the collective linguistic patterns of a sub-group of the speakers of a language.... The popular use of dialect to mean `humorous speechways' or `ridiculous language' is not relevant to this discussion. It seems wasteful, and pointless, to coin another term, even though dialect may be subject to some misunderstanding" (p. x).
(16) James Baldwin, If Black English Isn't a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?" in Major Modern Essayists, ed. Gilbert H. Muller (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1991), p. 189.
(17) W.E.B. DuBois advances his notion of "the veil" in The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches (1903; Greenwich, Connecticut: Fawcett, 1961).
(18) Michael Grimwood, "Faulkner and the Vocational Liabilities of Black Characterization," in Faulkner and Race: Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha, 1989, ed. Doreen Fowler and Ann J. Abadie (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1987), p. 260. Grimwood also directs attention to Louis D. Rubin, Jr.'s clear and concise discussion of this dichotomy in his essay "The Search for a Language, 1746-1923," in Blyden Jackson and Rubin's Black Poetry in America: Two Essays in Historical Interpretations (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1974), pp. 1-35.
(19) James Weldon Johnson, ed., The Book of American Negro Poetry, rev. ed. (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1959), p. 42.
(20) Joseph Blotner, Faulkner: A Biography (New York: Random House, 1974), II, 1038-1039. Again, I am indebted to Michael Grimwood's essay, in which he quotes this section of Blotner (Grimwood, p. 259).
(21) Claudia Dreifus, "Chloe Wofford talks about Toni Morrison," The New York Times Magazine, September 11, 1994, p. 73.
(22) Baldwin suggests, in his scathing critique "Faulkner and Desegregation," that Faulkner indeed understands the grim realities of the situation of blacks in the South just prior to the Civil Rights movement, but that he masks it with statements such as "go slow," which Justice Thurgood Marshall reportedly interpreted as meaning "don't go." According to Baldwin, "the time Faulkner asks for does not exist--and he is not the only Southerner who knows it. There is never a time in the future in which we will work out our salvation. The challenge is in the moment, the time is always now." James Baldwin, "Faulkner and Desegregation," Nobody Knows My Name (New York: Vintage, 1961), pp. 118, 126.
(23) William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury (New York: Vintage, 1984), p. 339.
(24) The search for authorial intent has been proven futile by the New Critics, and both Foucault and Barthes have sounded the death knell of the author-function; in this instance, the text itself suggests this correlation, whether or not Faulkner intended it. The question is not whether Faulkner himself was racist, but rather the question is whether his fiction advanced racist characterizations or, on the other hand, resisted and problematized them.
(25) Henry Louis Gates, Jr., The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 52.
(26) I use this term after Geneva Smitherman, who puns on its exclusivity by abbreviating it "WE," while playing on the "non-standard" usage of the verb "to be" of Black English, abbreviating it "BE." Smitherman combines these two abbreviations in a neat act of signifyin(g) the "White English"/"Black English" controversy: "WE BE." Geneva Smitherman, "`God Don't Never Change': Black English from a Black Perspective," College English, 34 (1973), 828.
(27) For support and extension of this argument, see James M. Mellard, "Faulkner's Commedia: Synedoche and Anagogic Symbolism in The Sound and the Fury," Journal of English and Germanic Philology, 83 (1984), 534-546. Mellard takes up where I leave off, examining the "impact upon central characters" of Reverend Shegog's sermon: "Dilsey stands to the novel's characters as Christ stands to humanity, for it is she whose life fleshes out--in all its ambiguity--the redemptive message of the Reverend Shegog" (pp. 541, 546).
(28) "Someone spread the story years ago ... that he was a graduate of the divinity school" (Faulkner, p. 111).
(29) Mark W. Lencho, "Dialect Variation in The Sound and the Fury: A study of Faulkner's Use of Black English," Mississippi Quarterly, 41 (Summer 1988), 406.
(30) Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye (New York: Washington Square Press, 1970), p. 135.
(31) "Thus [Church] chose to remember Hamlet's abuse of Ophelia, but not Christ's love of Mary Magdalene; Hamlet's frivious politics, but not Christ's serious anarchy. He noticed Gibbon's acidity, but not his tolerance, Othello's love for the fair Desdemona, but not Iago's perverted love of Othello. The works he admired most were Dante's; those he despised most were Dostoyevsky's" (Bluest Eye, pp. 133-134).
(32) Toni Morrison, Beloved (New York: Plume, 1987), p. 87.
(33) "And Reverend Shegog is clearly a literate man, but he transports his audience away from words, away from intellect" (Grimwood, p. 263).
(34) Qtd. in Baldwin, "Black English" 189. I would like to thank Cleopatra Jones, Jamie Lockwood, Cara Simone, Sue LeBlanc, Heather Marcovitch, Mary Jane Dickerson, and Philip Baruth for reading early drafts of this essay and offering insightful suggestions for revision.
University of Vermont3
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|Publication:||The Mississippi Quarterly|
|Date:||Jun 22, 1996|
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