Linguists have long been aware that the language scripted for “ethnic” roles in the media has been manipulated for a variety of purposes ranging from the construction of character “authenticity” to flagrant ridicule. This paper provides a brief overview of the history of African American roles in the entertainment industry from minstrel shows to present-day films. I am particularly interested in looking at the practice of distorting African American English as an historical artifact which is commonplace in the entertainment industry today. Dialogue which is clearly meant as an imitation of African American English still results in the construction of an ethnic stereotype that serves as a reflection of European American attitudes regarding African Americans. As a result, such depictions provide non-Black acculturated people with a perception of Blackness that is founded in inaccuracies and derision but has been portrayed as authentic, leaving Black life open to continual mimicry.
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Here I do not mean “Uncle Tom,” in the Harriet Beecher Stowe sense, where Tom was a heroic figure, strong, faithful, and loyal to both Whites and to his fellow slaves. Instead, I am referring to what Patricia Turner calls the “trope of Uncle Tom” where “few, if any popular and folk culture depictions are true to the Stowe original.” (Turner 2002, 75). My use of Uncle Tom in this instance is in keeping with what Turner identifies as today’s popular understanding of the Tom, having a “supposed identification with his masters/employers and… contempt for his own (black) kind…(having) racial self-hate…willing to ‘sell out’ blacks in order to placate whites and improve his personal well-being.” (Turner 2002, 69) There are a number of other departures between Stowe’s Tom and what modern audiences believe a Tom to be; for example, the original Tom was not old or particularly servile, but today’s Toms are, without exception, elderly, frail, and slavishly loyal to Whites. I believe that I am accurate in describing Stephen as a twisted Uncle Tom here since, in nearly every article on Samuel L. Jackson’s role in Django Unchained, the character is referred to as such.
Interestingly, here, Walker and Williams use “Swanee River,” a minstrel song originally written by Stephen Foster for Christy’s Minstrels. The song is supposedly written from the perspective of a former slave who longs for the plantation. Perhaps, its mention in the Walker and Williams song is yet another layer of signification.
It is worth noting, however, that not all speakers of African American English use every feature in every possible environment—wide variation exists between speakers and even within the speech of individuals. It is also the case that AAE shares some grammatical and phonological features with varieties of English spoken by southern Whites. Unfortunately, in the blackface imitation of African American English, the rules of the variety are misapplied (sometimes intentionally and sometimes out of linguistic ignorance) so that the dialect is presented to audiences as comedy, purposefully ridiculing Blacks.
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Bloomquist, J. The Minstrel Legacy: African American English and the Historical Construction of “Black” Identities in Entertainment. J Afr Am St 19, 410–425 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12111-015-9313-1
- African American English
- Language and identity
- Language attitudes
- Language prejudice