Resources: AAE Text Collections

(Folklore and Oral History)

comments by Peter L Patrick


Bruce A. Botkin. 1989 [1945].

Lay My Burden Down: A Folk history of Slavery. NY: Delta Books.

This highly influential collection of ex-slave narratives is an edited version of interviews which were in general not mechanically recorded (the few exceptions are in Bailey et al. 1991), but were written down on the spot by members of the Federal Writers’ Project, a New Deal relief program run by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s-40s. This material is also fundamentally fascinating and truthful, but there are serious problems with using it as verbatim speech records, which have been examined in the literature. An attempt to use the FWP materials should begin with the sociolinguistic literature about them and use, in addition or instead, the monumental series of 41 volumes ed. by George Rawick which record not only the written interviews with minimal or no editing, but also the notes of the interviewers and editors. Botkin’s collection is easily available, however, and can give a flavor of what Rawick’s contains; but neither should be mistaken for an unedited, faithful record of vernacular speech. I can give sources for the sociolinguistic literature on this resource/problem; many can also be found in Bailey et al.’s EBE texts/commentary book.


Daryl Cumber Dance. 1978.

Shuckin’ and jivin’: Folklore from Contemporary Black Americans. Bloomington: Indiana University Press

In the early 1970s Dance, an accomplished black folklorist, collected "traditional prose narratives, anecdotes of local characters, folk songs, folk verses, and accounts of individual experiences which… ‘possess a distinctive and unique folk flavor’… collected from both rural and urban areas, from informants of all ages, and from storytellers of all educational and economic levels" – all once lived in Virginia, but they are often widespread and traditional or general in nature. Dance "made every effort to transcribe [the texts] word for word from the taped version… rendering the dialect faithfully [and] reproduc[ing] the informants’ exact pronunciations [without] forcing any false consistency on the dialect." It’s a great collection in stone vernacular AAVE of different registers and varieties.


John Langston Gwaltney. 1980.

Drylongso: A Self-Portrait of Black America. Random House

Distinguished black anthropologist Gwaltney conducted a "landmark contribution to ‘native anthropology’ ", also in the 1970s. Networking out from his own family and friends, and achieving a truly rare degree of trust and candid-ness in his taped discussions, he solicited the opinions of hundreds of members of mostly working-class North-eastern communities on the questions of what constitutes ‘core black culture’. JLG notes this is not "another collection of street-corner exotica but an explication of black culture as it is perceived by the vast majority of Afro-Americans who are working members of stable families". It is a repository of wisdom and understanding of life for anyone, white or black, and a stunning reading experience. It also succeeds in its goal. In the process, many authentic voices are heard in an extremely wide range of AAE speech forms. JLG is not a linguist but notes that his speakers are "masters of a number of English speech forms… [they] move quite freely among them and this motion is reflected in the narratives through apparent inconsistencies of ‘standard’ grammar and orthography". As he leaves out his own speech, some editing has taken place and it may not all be word for word, but it reads very genuinely and is probably quite reliable for grammar, discourse and ways of speaking.


Guy Bailey, Natalie Maynor, and Patricia Cukor-Avila, eds. 1991.

The emergence of Black English: Texts and commentary. Philadelphia & Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

This volume transcribes and analyzes recordings of Americans born into slavery, from the Library of Congress’s Archive of Folk Song. The transcripts are of interviews with a dozen Ex-Slave Elders born before the end of the Civil War (between 1844 and 1861), mostly at a great age: the youngest we are certain of was 79, the oldest well over 100 (possibly 130!). They were largely recorded in the 1930s and 1940s, speaking usually to strangers, mostly white (though interviewer Zora Neale Hurston was an exception to the latter, and John Henry Faulk to the former), at a time when recording spoken reminiscences was still a rare, perhaps awesome, and certainly formal event. The book also contains a variety of invited critical and analytical perspectives by ten scholars of African American history and folklore, AAE and creole languages. The transcripts mix traditional categories of sociolinguistic interview speech, including simple question-and-response exchanges, volunteered and elicited narratives and tall-tales, harangues, eyewitness accounts of history and moments of evident humor or passion. The original recordings, variable in quality, are available in the Library of Congress and continue to be studied by linguists. This volume is the complement to Botkin: a few short, painstakingly-transcribed recordings, tantalizing in what they leave unsaid and unfinished, but unlike Botkin's, taken directly from the still-existent 'real thang'.


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