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Multiple Perspectives: African American Women Conceive Their Talk.

Abstract: The African American feminist concepts "multiple jeopardy" and "multiple consciousness" indicate the heterogeneity of African American women's lived experiences. The heterogeneity of their communicative experiences is reflected in three contrasting perspectives offered in free descriptions of "black women's talk" written by 134 black middle-class professional women and college students. A surprising number of respondents evaded the task of offering a gendered ethnic description of their talk; others described black women as style-switching to accommodate the demands of African American and dominant cultural settings; but most celebrated black women's talk as expressing wisdom, fortitude, and caring. I suggest that each of these perspectives reflects the African American woman's struggle to positively construct her voice in the midst of a discourse environment that continues to disparage speech and speakers marked as black and woman.

"Double jeopardy" (Beale, 1970) is often considered the fundamental insight into the lived experiences of African American women. African American feminist thinkers, from nineteenth-century orator Maria Stewart to contemporary cultural critic bell hooks, have pointed out that African American womanhood is experienced holistically. Black [1] women experience womanhood in the context of blackness; they do not experience their gender and ethnic identities as separate "parts" of who they are (Collins, 1990; Davis, 1981; hooks, 1981; 1984). The outcome of being African American and woman in a social order rife with both racism and sexism is that black women's experiences of womanhood may overlap with those of both white women and other women of color, but will also differ from them in important ways; and their experience of blackness may overlap with those of African American men, but will significantly differ from them as well. When the fundamental insight of "double jeopardy" is extended to other aspects of Afr ican American women's identities (e.g., socio-economic class, sexual orientation) the "multiple jeopardy" and "multiple consciousness" [2] that characterize African American womanhood become apparent (King, 1988).

For individual African American women, these twin concepts suggest both the risks of many sorts of disadvantage and marginalization and the possibilities of simultaneous, multiple, self- and group-affirming ways of seeing every aspect of human social life. For African American women as a social group, "multiple jeopardy" and "multiple consciousness" suggest a heterogeneity of social relationships, experiences, and outlooks that preclude essentializing black womanhood.

Any explanation of African American women's communication must, in some way, account for the heterogeneity of black women's lived experiences suggested by multiple jeopardy and multiple consciousness. In this essay, I endeavor to account for that heterogeneity by exploring three contrasting perspectives taken by African American women in response to my request that they write free descriptions of "black women's talk." One-hundred thirty-four middle-class professional women and aspiring middle class women (college students) responded to this request. This is not a report of the responses they gave, but an interpretation of the ways they approached the question, that is, the ways they conceived "black women's talk" as a distinct communication style or repertoire of styles. Some women evaded the idea of "black women's talk;" others saw style-switching as its central feature, but most celebrated one or more of three dimensions of black women's interpersonal style: wisdom, fortitude, and caring.

Hecht, Ribeau and Alberts (1989) suggest that cultural speaking perspectives are ways of thinking about and talking about talk that reveal the discursive forms a cultural group regards as ideal and perceives as typical of particular speakers and situations. Perspectives also reveal the personal qualities and types of interpersonal relationships that are valued by the group. My goal is to connect the three contrasting, gendered cultural perspectives African American women expressed about their talk to one aspect of "multiple jeopardy," the disparaging stereotypes that have formed the dominant consensus about black womanhood and black women's speech throughout most of U.S. history. These stereotypes are central elements of the discourse environment (van Dijk, 1987) in which African American women speak and develop their attitudes toward their own language and speaking styles. I suggest that each of the perspectives represents African American women's effort to positively conceive their talk in the face of the disparaging conceptions they routinely encounter in both the dominant and ethnic cultures that are the predominant settings for their communicative lives. In other words, I offer an inquiry into some of the socio-political bases for black women's conceptions of their communication styles. As Henley and Kramarae (1994) point out, feminist scholars recognize that descriptions of women's talk are of limited value unless they advance understanding of women's relationship to the social order.

The Participants and the Study

I set out to gather and interpret qualitative data about how middle class and aspiring middle class African American women view their communication styles in relation to those of African American men and white women and men. I used a seven-item free-response questionnaire in which I asked, "How would you describe the following ways of speaking: 'women's talk,' 'black talk,' 'black women's talk,' 'black men's talk,' 'white talk,' 'white women's talk,' 'white men's talk?' The questionnaire was not intended as a quantifiable, "scientific" measure, but as a source of narrative descriptions.

The 134 African American women who responded to the questionnaire varied in age, socio-economic class, regional provenance, and the racial configuration of the neighborhoods in which they grew up. Most (104) were undergraduate students enrolled in introductory communication, English, sociology, and psychology classes at a black women's college located in the Southeast with a student body recruited from throughout the nation. The remainder (30) were professional women (aged 22 to above 50) who grew up in various regions of the U.S. and were currently working in the Southeast; their responses were solicited by students enrolled in an upper-level communication and gender seminar. Because all of the participants had or were acquiring college degrees and professional jobs, it is not surprising that most (110) self-identified as "middle class." Although 58 described themselves as growing up in "mostly black" neighborhoods, 72 described their neighborhoods as "mostly white" or "multi-racial" (the remaining 4 had li ved in several different types of neighborhoods while growing up).

I encouraged participants to make their responses as lengthy or brief as they wished; the majority (109) were in the form of word lists, phrases or single sentences; 11 were narratives of two sentences or more. As I began a content analysis of the responses, [3] the most glaring, and troubling, results that emerged were that 14 of the women who completed the questionnaire chose not to describe "black women's talk," and another 13 wrote statements that suggested they resisted (or resented) the request to describe it. These resistant responses and non-responses came from women in all the demographic groups described above. Why would 20% of the participants in this study (27 African American women) evade the task of describing their own talk?

As a feminist scholar, I wanted to account for all responses in some manner, even the non-responses; to use a metaphor familiar to feminist researchers, I wanted to listen to all the voices in the text and to attend to the silences as well. It was reflection on the non-responses as well as the full range of written responses that led me to consider the perspectives participants took on the idea that "black women's talk" can or should be described as a distinct, identifiable style or repertoire of styles. In the remainder of this discussion, I describe what I have labeled the evasive, accommodating, and celebratory perspectives on black women's talk and their relationships to the socio-cultural milieus in which African American women routinely construct definitions of their talk and conduct their communicative lives.

Perspectives on Black Women's Talk


In this perspective I include the 27 women who either did not respond or who wrote responses that resisted the question, such as the following:

[Black women's talk] suggests nothing in particular.

[Black women's talk] is no different from women's talk in general.

I can't describe talking like a black woman because all black women don't talk alike; you can't generalize.

All written evasive responses were brief, that is, one sentence or phrase, such as those above; their tone was self-assured and sometimes vehement:

There is no description for talking like a black woman.

How would I describe black women's talk? I wouldn't!

Of the many possible reasons for evasive responses, I suggest the following two. First, Susan Ervin-Tripp has pointed out that it is often difficult for speakers to sufficiently objectify their own speech in order to discern its features (Ervin-Tripp, 1968). Both a non-response and a resistant response may be the result of a woman's inability to distance herself enough from her own talk to perceive its gendered cultural markings.

The second, more compelling, reason for evasive responses, I believe, has to do with how black women speakers and black women's speech is constructed in the U.S. American social order. Because the U.S. is a hierarchically structured, multi-cultural society in which marginalized groups have little control over the dominant consensus about any of their culture-based behaviors, some members of marginalized groups inevitably internalize dominant cultural evaluations of their ethnic language and communication style, even if those evaluations are overtly prejudiced (van Dijk, 1987). One black feminist scholar has described the dominant consensus about black women within U.S. American society in the following rather striking manner:

Black women embody by their sheer physical presence two of the most hated identities in this ... country. Whiteness and maleness ... have not only been seen as physical identities but codified into states of being and worldviews. The codification of Blackness and femaleness by whites and males is contained in the terms 'thinking like a woman' and 'acting like a nigger'. ... Therefore, the most pejorative concept in the white/male worldview would be that of thinking and acting like a "nigger woman" (Bethel, 1982).

There is abundant evidence of the "negative coding" of black womanhood in the U.S. Qualities the dominant culture defines as undesirable in women in general are frequently projected onto individual African American women (Manning-Marable & Houston, 1995) as well as onto African American women as a social group (Anderson, 1997). Historically, almost all the undesirable feminine qualities, from promiscuity to intellectual inferiority to outspokenness have been used to disparage black women (Collins, 2000; Essed, 1991; Guy-Sheftall, 1990; 1995).

In popular entertainment, for example, black women who were loud, smart-alecky, and/or ungrammatical speakers were stock characters in early nineteenth and early twentieth-century minstrel shows and continued to be reproduced in such mass media characters as "Sapphire" of the Amos and Andy radio and television programs, "Mammy" of the film Gone With The Wind, and "Florence" of television's The Jeffersons (Anderson, 1997; Merritt, 1997). When producers of pseudo-realistic daytime television talk shows encourage teenage and young adult black women guests to be particularly obstreperous, the long-standing stereotype that uncivil, ungrammatical, and traditionally unfeminine communication are central features of black women's talk is reinforced.

The mass media are not the only dominant cultural contexts in which black women's speech and black women speakers are coded negatively. In her study of black women's interpersonal interracial encounters, Philomena Essed (1991) demonstrates that any speaker or any discourse marked as black and female is likely to be pejoratively evaluated. Essed argues that racism and sexism are inseparable in interpretations of African American women's discourse, and that the dominant culture exerts tremendous pressure on African American women to assimilate by communicating in ways that are as non-black as possible. (See also Etter-Lewis, 1993; St. Jean & Feagin, 1998.)

But African American women not only encounter negative coding and an urge to assimilate in dominant cultural contexts. Members of marginalized groups do not develop speaking norms and values in isolation from those of the dominant group; thus some African Americans who recognize pragmatic reasons for not conforming to dominant cultural norms nevertheless valorize those norms as ideal behaviors (Hannerz, 1970). This tension between ethnic and dominant cultural norms and behaviors is implied in the concept of multiple consciousness. For example, a black woman may recognize that black women's tradition of work outside the home has resulted in cultural expectations of egalitarian male-female relational communication (Ladner, 1971; Houston Stanback, 1985); nevertheless, she may idealize the more passive, submissive communication style considered traditional for white women. The valorization of dominant cultural norms for women's talk seems to underlie black men's portrayal of black women as domineering speakers, for example as "verbal castrators" (Abrahams, 1975; Bond & Peery, 1970; Rogers-Rose, 1980; Spillers, 1979), or as contentious "hard mouths" (Folb, 1980).

Nowhere was the tension between African American and dominant cultural linguistic norms more apparent than in the controversy over teaching "Ebonics" in the Oakland public schools which erupted in the national media in December 1996 (Locke, 1996). In her contribution to a special issue of The Black Scholar on "Ebonics," Rosina Lippi-Green (1997) summarizes the dialectical language attitudes of the masses of African Americans:

The greater African American community seems to accept the inevitability of linguistic assimilation to mainstream U.S. English in certain settings, but there is also deep unhappiness about the necessity in many quarters.... To make two statements: I acknowledge that my home language is viable and adequate, and I acknowledge that my home language will never be accepted, is to set up an unresolvable conflict (9).

I suggest that evasive responses are one way respondents to my study endeavored to resolve this conflict. Because African American womanhood and African American women's talk so often are maligned in both the dominant and ethnic cultures, the women who responded evasively, with silence or verbal resistance to the idea of black women's talk, may have conceived the question as a request for pejorative stereotypes of their language and speaking style (e.g., talking like a "nigger woman"). Those who had internalized the dominant consensus about "black women's talk" as linguistically unacceptable and stylistically unfeminine may have been unable to conceive a self-affirming way of describing their talk as black women except as singular (not generalizable to other black women) or as "no different" from the talk of women who are not black. When we consider the sociopolitical context in which respondents endeavored to describe their talk, evasive responses that appear to deny the existence of distinct black women's speaking styles can be more usefully understood as strategies for resisting racist and sexist stereotypes of those styles.


A small number (4) of the women who participated in the study took what I call the accommodationist perspective on black women's talk. This perspective is illustrated by the following response:

If [a black woman] is around her friends, she will use slang ... and if she is speaking with a group of business associates she will talk intellectually.

Rather than evading the idea of black women's talk, the woman who wrote this response valorized speakers who can use both an informal African American speaking style and a formal, mainstream American style.

By recognizing the need to switch styles, the women who took this perspective, like those who took the evasive perspective, indicated awareness of the dominant consensus that speech marked as "black" and "female" is inferior, lacking in prestige and social power. But they were more explicit about the components of their style, specifying an African American English lexicon, context sensitivity, and communicative flexibility as characterizing black women's talk:

Talking like a black woman would depend on [the] social conditions and what education the woman had, but there could be talk about black men and how blacks, especially women, are treated.

[Black women's talk is] anything [from what is] said between individuals living in a rural setting to communication that takes place in the world of "high society" Blacks. It takes on may different forms given the scope of the topics and the situation....

Respondents' descriptions of style-switching parallel those of language and communication scholars who also argue that style-switching is most often situation dependent, and that in order for African American speakers to alternate styles they must acquire a command of African American styles through socialization in African American speech communities, and of a mainstream style through formal education, or through a combination of education and modeling (e.g., by bi-stylistic parents) (Baugh, 1983; Nelson, 1990).

Like evasion, accommodation can be traced to the tension created by a social order that engenders multiple consciousness in African American women. Bi-cultural behaviors, such as communication style-switching, are one way of resolving that tension, especially for educated professional women whose lives require them to meet the communicative demands of both the ethnic and dominant cultural milieus (Bell, 1983; Bucholtz, 1996; Dill, 1979; Rubin & Garner, 1984; St. Jean & Feagin, 1998).


Most of the respondents (107) resisted and transcended stereotypic perceptions of black women's talk to offer alternative descriptions that spoke to the self-affirming interpersonal qualities that they considered central to their communication styles. This is the perspective that I call "celebratory." Celebratory responses were characterized by positive evaluations of black women's communication behaviors, including those that are often pejoratively stereotyped by others. The largest number of celebratory responses (49) focused on underlying social and interpersonal functions of talk, that is, on communication strategies and attributes of the speaker. Here are a few examples:

[Black women's talk is] talking with intimacy [and] deep caring; [it is] highly intuitive, and charged with an other-worldly quality. It connotes that the conversation is humanistic, principled, and based on inner convictions...

A black woman's talk may be out of protest so she's going to be heard. Talking like a black woman also suggests that the conversation may be really down to earth.

[Black women's talk is] candidness, use of emphasis and intensity, "joaning," [4] loudness; often entertaining and comical in her use of expressions ("honey," "child," "sugar"), especially characteristic of Southern black women....

Three dimensions of black women's interpersonal communication style are suggested by the celebratory descriptions, each indicating the goals, strategies, and outcomes of talk that are valued by black women speakers: wisdom, fortitude, and caring.


Geneva Smitherman (1977) argues that communication scholars often place so much emphasis on the dynamic expressive style of black speakers, they ignore the high value blacks place on the substance of talk. Citing the criticism of dynamic but vacuous discourse in a once-popular soul song entitled, "Talkin' Loud, but Sayin' Nothin'," Smitherman reminds us that through the "rich verbal interplay among everyday people, lessons and precepts about [black] life and survival are handed down from generation to generation" (p.73).

The ethnic cultural priority placed on the substance of talk is reflected in responses that describe what I term the wisdom dimension of black women's talk. The emphasis on wisdom and knowledge is one of two important distinctions between the stereotypes of black women's talk (as smart-alecky, domineering, obstreperous) and black women's own experience and understanding of their talk.

The women who took the celebratory perspective not only constructed black women's talk as substantive but constructed themselves as authorities. They described a variety of bases for their authority, including intellect formal education, life experiences, common sense, moral principles, and intuition. While many responses described black women as generally knowledgeable, those that focused on the topics of black women's talk (30) give some sense of respondents' perceptions of the domains of black women's knowledge. Topical responses can be grouped into two major categories: talk about black men and talk about black women's personal and professional lives. The women referred to talk that criticized certain black male behaviors (e.g., infidelity) as well as talk that supported individual black men or empathized with the situation of black men as a social group. The majority of topical descriptors referred to talk about women's personal and professional lives, including "how black women are treated in the white patriarchal society," "sisterhood," "single motherhood," "being a working woman," "female strength and independence," and "bettering yourself."


In their study of black perspectives on interracial communication, Hecht, Ribeau and Alberts (1989) make several references to black women's talk as "tough;" their two black women informants told them that black women "have had to be so tough as the head of the household throughout history that they 'tend to talk tough and make fun of white women who are soft'" and that "'Talking tough' is a way of carrying oneself.... [B]lack females historically have had to take charge, and this has led to strength" (pp.385-410). The word "tough" was never used by the women who responded to my questionnaire; however, they used a total of 27 other, more positively connoted words and phrases to describe what I term the dimension of fortitude in black women's talk. This was, by far, the largest number of descriptors used for any category; they included: "strong," "stem," "firm," "challenging," "with authority," "direct," "candid," "with assertion," and "says exactly what's on her mind."

In expressing fortitude, respondents frequently combined descriptions of strength and assertiveness. Unlike the African American women quoted by Hecht and his co-authors (1989), those in this study did not consider themselves to have been forced by circumstances to adopt a facade of strength. Instead, they constructed fortitude as a desirable quality in women communicators and women's communication. Their descriptions related fortitude to forthrightness ("getting down to the heart of the matter"), seriousness ("in-depth conversation"), sincerity ("meaning everything they say"), and the absence of pretension ("down to earth"). In addition, they often coupled descriptors related to fortitude (e.g., "powerful", "firm", "determined") with descriptors related to self-esteem (e.g., "self-assured", "confident," "speaks with pride and dignity"). The following are typical responses:

[Black women's talk is the talk of] a strong woman with a lot of pride in who she is and what she believes in.

[Black women's talk is] talking like you believe in yourself. You are speaking with strength.

[Black women's talk is] assertive and proud talk.

This dimension of black women's talk is best understood when we keep in mind that it is realized and valued in the context of wisdom. Taken together, the two dimensions indicate that black women value speaking out and speaking strongly, but not without a basis in knowledge and experience. They do not value talking loud but saying nothing. In addition, we should not confuse fortitude or strength with dominance, an error that leads to stereotyping black women as domineering and obstreperous. An assertive speaker who conveys strongly held opinions and ideas is not necessarily one who wishes to exert undue control over the conversation, to silence others. My analysis of conversations among black women, between black and white women, and between black women and men demonstrates that black women do not engage in such dominance behaviors as monopolizing talk time, controlling topics, or interrupting more than they are interrupted by their conversational partners (Houston Stanback, 1983; Houston, forthcoming).


Collins (2000) emphasizes an "ethic of care" as a central element of black feminist epistemology and describes it as most often manifest in the high value placed on personal expressiveness and the interrelationship between cognitive and affective involvement in interaction. Earlier, I noted that the wisdom dimension was one important distinction between the stereotypes of black women's talk and black women's own experience of their talk. Their emphasis on caring is another important distinction. The relationship between expressions of caring and fortitude is illustrated in the following descriptions:

[Black women's talk] reflects a warmth and sensitivity that is characteristic of their personalities; since they have to face so much in this society they are more nurturing to their families and husbands; caring.

[Black women] will tell the truth if asked, even if it hurts (provided it's for the better).

The second response emphasizes the context-sensitive nature of black women's forthright speech. In contrast to whites who eschew confrontational talk (Foeman & Pressley, 1987), black women perceive forthrightness as caring, supportive discourse in some contexts, "if asked...[and] provided it's for the better." Most descriptors of the caring dimension of black women's talk were embedded in lists or narratives describing the other two dimensions as well; descriptors respondents frequently used were "concerned," "compassionate," "sensitive," "warm," and "humanistic."


Despite a discourse environment rife with racist and sexist stereotypes of their communication, both within and outside their own social group, most of the African-American women in my study constructed an alternative, self-affirming, celebratory vision of their talk that emphasizes speaking knowledgeably, assertively, and sensitively. This majority perspective stresses the social and interpersonal goals and strategies of talk. While the linguistic style-switching entailed in the accommodation perspective is dependent on socio-economic class and/or education (Seymour & Seymour, 1979; Nelson, 1990), the features of talk emphasized in the celebratory perspective are not necessarily linked to class or educational status. Further research is needed to determine whether the speaking perspectives of African American working class women are similar to those of the middle class (and aspiring middle class) women in this study, as well as whether there are class-related differences in African American women's ways of expressing wisdom, fortitude, and caring in interpersonal interactions.


Throughout their history in the United States, African American women have actively constructed alternative definitions of themselves and their behavior that defied the derogatory judgments of their intellectual abilities and disproved the pejorative stereotypes of their moral character promulgated by the dominant culture (Collins, 2000; Guy-Sheftall, 1995). In this discussion, I have described evasion, accommodation, and celebration as three perspectives taken by African American women in describing their talk. Admittedly, speaking perspectives tell us how individuals think about talk, but not how they use language in actual communication interactions. Yet they provide vital information about the communication behaviors speakers value and expect. In addition, perspectives suggest key elements of the frames speakers use to interpret talk.

The heterogeneity of African American women's lived experiences, suggested by the concepts "multiple jeopardy" and "multiple consciousness" (King, 1988), is reflected in the contrasting perspectives on their talk described in this discussion. Although a majority expressed the celebratory perspective, focusing on wisdom, fortitude, and caring as desirable features of their interpersonal style, a few chose to describe their talk as accommodating the language and communication demands of both the ethnic and dominant cultures, and others evaded the task of offering a specific description. Each of these ways of conceiving their talk demonstrated the respondent's struggle to positively construct her voice in the midst of a discourse environment that continues to disparage speech and speakers marked as black and woman.

Marsha Houston is Professor and Chair of the Communication Studies Department at the University of Alabama. Her scholarship focuses on intercultural communication, feminist communication theories, and the communication of African American women.


(1.) Throughout this discussion the terms "black" and "African American" will be used interchangeably.

(2.) "Multiple consciousness" is an extension of the concept "double consciousness" developed by the African American sociologist W.E.B. DuBois (1937) to describe the social outlooks of blacks in the United States.

(3.) Content analysis was done by the author using a combination of repeated manual searches of the responses and the list-processing computer program PC-File III (Button, 1984). Details can be found in Houston (1992, April), obtainable from the author.

(4.) "Joaning" is one contemporary term for those African American speech events that involve using teasing or kidding to criticize or "talk about" another (e.g., "signifying" (Smitherman, 1977; Garner, 1983), "loud-talking" and "marking" (Mitchell-Kernan, 1972).


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Author:Houston, Marsha
Publication:Women and Language
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2000
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