Negotiating a Black Vernacular in Children’s Literature

Book Cover Up Home

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Shauntay Grant is a writer and storyteller from Nova Scotia, and served as Halifax's Poet Laureate from 2009-2011. 

*****

nanny made blueburry duff
today afta’ schoo’

had a bigole bag a burry’s
leftova from las summa
frozen cole

she ga’e me two great big dumplin’s
an’ enough sauce to cova’ de bowl

she didn’ haf none doe 

say she need to watch ha sugah’s
e’er since christmas
when she caught diabetics
offa mum's lemin loaf

About a dozen grade 6 students at Nelson Whynder Elementary School in North Preston sit in small clusters: working groups of three or four, huddled around square tables, dissecting a sample from my newest collection of poems.

"You wouldn’ say last, we would say las—without pronouncing T," a girl tells me. She sounds each letter with clear certainty.

"L-A-S."

"I don’ sink so," a boy pipes up in gentle protest.

"Yea!" the girl fires back. "You don’ be sayin’ last! We be sayin’ LAS!”

And instantly, more youthful voices join the debate, weighing in on matters of grammar, spelling, and diction. I move between them, watching the students enunciate and stretch syllables, listening for shapes and patterns. And I watch them scribble with fresh pencils, transferring the sounds their lips make onto milk-white paper, carefully converting a spoken language into a written one.

freezin

freezen

freedin

Three students sound out the fifth line of my poem, mulling over the options. From every corner of the room words like "bigole" and "haf" fill the silence. And soon, it becomes evident that writing a spoken language is perhaps easier said than done.

Primarily a residential community, North Preston (known affectionately as "Up Home") is home to descendants of Black Refugees who migrated from America to Canada after the War of 1812. These former enslaved persons of African descent brought with them to Nova Scotia their songs and stories, cultural customs, and a unique offshoot of the English language that has survived more than 200 years. Where sounds like "th" and "ing" are staples in standard English, in North Prestonese (as the youth have coined it) "th" is often substituted for "s" or "d", and words ending in "ing" are clipped in a way that is customary in historic Black North American communities. Ultimately, it is these slight but significant nuances that make the language sing. And as a children’s writer with roots in North Preston, I’ve become preoccupied with transferring this root tongue onto the printed page.

My current work-in-progress is written in the voice of a young boy from North Preston who sets out to document the sights and stories of his home. And where the language in my first book publication—a children’s picture book called Up Home—is light by comparison, with this new project I want my narrator’s voice to closely reflect the community’s rich vernacular. Even still, negotiating Black vernacular language in my writing hasn’t been without its challenges. And constantly I wonder: How do I write in a way that reflects the language from my community, and is accessible to young readers everywhere?

*    *    *    *    *

At Nelson Whynder school in North Preston, educator Rachel Mantley stands at the front of the classroom, guiding the students in an activity.

"How would you say after?" she says.

"Afta," a boy answers.

"So would that word have a contraction in it somewhere?"

"Yea," says the boy. "At the end."

I’m standing nearby only half-listening, focused on my writing pad, considering the first lines of my poem:

nanny made blueburry duff
today afta’ schoo’

I say the words out loud but low, talking to myself.

after

afta’

afta

I’ve been here before: pouring over the language, somewhat suspicious of my reason, wondering if I’ve pushed my tongue too far. But whatever concerns I might have around communicating North Preston's vernacular in print form, working with this vibrant group of students reminds me that language is multifaceted and malleable. It is innate and evolving. And sometimes, to truly savour a story we must have it uncooked, in raw form.

Special thanks to the grade 6 class at Nelson Whynder Elementary School in North Preston, teacher Melissa Downey, and Instruction & Learning coach Rachel Mantley.

Shauntay Grant is a writer and storyteller from Nova Scotia. She has written and published in several literary genres, and as Halifax's third Poet Laureate (2009-2011) she organized Canada's first national gathering of Canadian Poets Laureate in 2010. Shauntay was recently appointed to the academic staff at Dalhousie University in the Creative Writing Program. She is a recipient of a Best Atlantic Published Book Prize from the Atlantic Book Awards for Up Home, and one of four Canadian authors selected by the Writers' Trust of Canada for its prestigious Berton House Writers' Retreat program (2015-16 cohort). ShauntayGrant.com

Suggestions for Further Reading:

Book Cover Up Home

Up Home, by Shauntay Grant

About the book: A positive, heartwarming portrayal of North Preston past and present. This touching poem from spoken-word artist and poet Shauntay Grant portrays the Nova Scotian community of Preston. Short, staccato lines, musicality and the use of real, spoken language, and Susan Tooke's breathtaking illustrations using real models from the community, combine in a sensory experience that is sure to wow readers of all ages. Grant's memories of growing up reflect a magical place where landscape, food, history and, most of all, people come together in a community filled with love and beauty. A powerful story of one of Nova Scotia's most important black communities.

Book Cover From African Slaves to Nova Scotian Subjects

From American Slaves to Nova Scotian Subjects: The Case of the Black Refugees, 1813-1840, Series Editors: Bryan D. Cummins, John L. Steckley

About the book: Volume 2 of the Canadian Ethnography series is a fascinating study that reveals the little-known experiences and lives of migrant American slaves in the years of struggle after their arrival in colonial Canada between 1813 and1840. Overwhelming odds limited their opportunities for earning a respectable livelihood, but despite years of poverty, disease, racism, and neglect in a harsh environment, the Black Refugees persevered to develop a distinct community identity and a foothold in the rural and urban economy of Nova Scotia. 

African American English in the diaspora: Evidence from old-line Nova Scotians, by Shana Poplack and Sali Tagliamonte

About the book: This provocative volume investigates the origins of contemporary African American Vernacular English (AAVE), one of the oldest, yet unsolved, questions in sociolinguistics.

June 5, 2015
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