It’s rare when a media event overlaps with my scholarly work, but TWO events overlapping with it is practically unheard of. However, this past week, such a confluence happened.
First, Neal Brennan, co-creator of Chapelle’s Show, gave an interview to Buzzfeed in which he basically crows about what an awesome white guy he is and how well he understands African Americans. Over the weekend, new media and NFL star Richard Sherman gave an on field, post-game interview in which he crows about being the best cornerback in the entire league. These two events may not seem related, but they both touch on expressions of African American Vernacular English, or AAVE, sometimes also known as Ebonics. (More on Sherman in a later post.)
Regarding Brennan, Ta-Nehisi Coates has already written a very good, more thorough take down of the privileged attitude on display in his interview (though he notes, and I agree, that Brennan is very funny and that Chapelle’s Show is great). I’d like to focus on one small statement Brennan made in discussing how he writes Black characters:
“A white person writing about black people is writing about humanity with a slight vernacular spin.”
Brennan was attempting to make a liberal statement about how characters are just merely human, and that he can write about humans. Despite the fact that Brennan, by his own admission, knows such things as institutional racism have made a wide gulf between the Black and the White experience in the US, he claims the only difference in writing Black characters is a “vernacular spin.” Leaving aside the notion that every Black character written by Brennan must then speak with the very same “spin”, I’d like to unpack the notion of “vernacular” as it applies in an cultural, political, and linguistic context.
AAVE, though it has been a controversial issue at times, is recognized as a legitimate dialect or language system. It is unique to the United States, although it contains many influences from the West African languages which early slaves to America would have spoken. White Americans adopted words like “banjo” and “hip”, among others, from AAVE. It developed alongside Southern white dialects and shares commonalities with those dialects, as well. It has changed and enriched speech in the United States for hundreds of years. Thus, for Brennan to claim that it’s a mere “vernacular spin” that he slaps on a Black character to differentiate them from a white character seems ignorant, at best. Such a claim reduces Black Americans to again being the “other,” or that which is not mainstream White America. It is as though his writing style is something akin to: “You want to write a Black person? They’re just like White people, except they say things like yo!” While it is true that Black American and White Americans (and every other ethnicity/race of American) share in the same humanity we all do, it is reductive and racist to base that humanity on a white template.
Additionally, AAVE is more than a language system. In my dissertation, “‘This is Harlem Speaking Now’: The Cultural Politics of Vernacular and Twentieth Century African American Agitprop Theater” I argue that the very usage of AAVE in theater of the 20th century (and, honestly, beyond) is itself a political act. In a nation where African Americans have been enslaved and maligned and set apart through White institutions, including language, for characters to speak in their own vernacular is essential, significant, and confrontational. Such vernacular usage is similarly found in literature of colonized populations, who are very often kept from learning their own languages or dialects. Writing in such language is a slap directed at the oppressors; not a mere “vernacular spin.”
This is not all to pick on Neal Brennan and say he can’t or shouldn’t write Black characters. He is free to do exactly how he pleases. I just want to draw attention to the reductionist nature of his own language and the importance of recognizing “vernacular” as not simply a few choice vocabulary words, but as something intimately tied up with history, experience, and culture of an entire people.