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Check the Action

The success of the excellent movie American Fiction has brought renewed attention to Percival Everett’s Erasure, the 2001 novel on which the movie is based. Several commentaries have been posted on YouTube, including an enthusiastic review by the self-styled Rambling Raconteur. During a largely unobjectionable review, he notes that the “My Pafology” section of the novel is written in “standard Black English.” He asserts confidently, “That’s the language used throughout the text.” Actually it’s not. Although elements of Black English surely exist in the story, some of the language is nonstandard Black English. I assume that Everett knows this. His satirizing of characters like Juanita Mae Jenkins, author of the bestselling We’s Lives in Da Ghetto, and Van Go Jenkins, the star of “My Pafology,” is done partly through depictions of their language. This is not to be confused with linguistic accuracy in the wider world.


Many of us remember these audition lines from Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle: I ain’t be got no weapon. Why you be gotta pull a knife on me? The white filmmakers in the movie thought the lines wonderful because they supposedly represented the genuine language of the hood, genuine Black English. Of course, nobody in the hood spoke that way. Simply inserting “be” into a sentence does not make it Black English. Similarly, lines like Yo, Sharonda, where you be goin in a hurry likes dat? (which made it from Erasure to the movie) and Why you be screamin, Baby Girl? are not standard Black English.


I ain’t got no weapon and why you gotta pull a knife on me? are standard utterances in Black English and several other language varieties. They indicate one-time actions. To insert a “be,” known as a durative be, would indicate repeating action or habitual action. Therefore, a “be” in these cases is not standard Black English because these sentences are not intended to indicate repeating or habitual actions.


Similarly, only if the speaker is inquiring about Sharonda’s habit of going somewhere in a hurry would the sentence be standard Black English. But that is not what she is inquiring about. Only if Van Go Jenkins is asking his sister about her habitual screaming would the sentence be standard Black English. But that is not what he is inquiring about. The standard utterances in Black English, because the references are to one-time actions, would be Yo, Sharonda, where you goin in a hurry likes dat? and Why you screamin, Baby Girl? 


So “My Pafology” is not standard Black English throughout. I don’t say the Rambling Raconteur be off. But he off on this one.



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