Monday, March 8, 2010

Political Correctness Landmine

I am working on my last chapters of this book, and realize that I am dealing with a political correctness landmine.

This section deals with Marty meeting Kezia, a young runaway slave woman. The storyline, on the surface is no problem. My main concern is creating a believable character for this slave woman. I want her to be a likable character, someone with whom the reader can empathize and want to cheer on to freedom.

However, as I write Kezia's dialog attempting to portray the speech patterns typical of a slave in this woman's time and place, I realize that, no matter what I do to try to be accurate, I am going to upset some readers.

For one thing, I have no Negro ancestry. What do I know about it, right? And, for those who will claim that Black people, African-American, slaves from West Africa--however they want to refer to people in that circumstance at that time and place--did not talk that way, all I can say is this:

I have been reading novels and non-fiction about the time and era for months, knowing that I will be writing these chapters. I have copied and saved samples of slave dialect. I have particularly looked for writings of that time period. The one thing I can tell you is this: the dialects all these sources attributed to slaves or former slave of the 1830s to 1870s is not uniform. And, whether some of my potential Black critics will admit it or not, I suspect that changes in accents and grammar developed in Negro dialect based on region and time period, just as it did in the English spoken by different immigrant groups from Europe based on where they came from and where they settled.

I read an interesting 1890's document about a chicken co-op written in Negro dialect. I read an analysis of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin which warned that the author did not correctly portray Negro dialect. Instead, she portrays it almost identical to the dialect of poor whites living in the Ohio River Valley. In addition, she changed usage styles from page to page.

Another problem is that, largely due to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, slaves were not allowed to learn to read and write. And, even if those free blacks of the era did become literate, they would probably have written in the accepted correct English grammar style to the best of their ability rather than an accurate portrayal of the dialect and syntax of their spoken language.

It is sort of like my situation. I have picked up the Oklahoma-Arkansas syntax from being around my husband and many of the people who migrated to the San Joaquin Valley during the Dust Bowl years. Yet, when I write, I try to express myself as much as possible using the correct English grammar I was taught in school.

So, what am I, as a writer who wants to portray this as accurately as possible, to do?

I decided I need to do more research. I ordered more books about the era and the people, trying to focus on those written by authors who have done doctoral dissertations based on original documents research. Today was like Christmas. Since we were out of town Saturday, we picked up two days worth of mail. In it were six of the books I ordered.

One is Only What We Could Carry: The Japanese American Internment Experience. I do not need it for this book, but know it will be of value for Book Two, Aurora Recover.

Out of many choices, I selected one book on the historical study of how slavery came to North America.

However, I particularly wanted to understand the experience of women slaves, so I chose two other books that I hope will give me greater insight.

Lastly, I chose two of many offerings about white Southern women of the antebellum era. One is a diary of the Civil War years. The other is based on document research. I am also waiting for a diary written by a teenage white girl in the 1850's, in which she discussed her views of the family having slaves.

I am hoping to gain as much insight as I can of what really went on during that time. I want my Kezia character to be someone most of readers will not only find believable, but someone they can believe in.

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