Writing Slave Dialogue

Monday, December 4, 2017

My current work-in-progress is about a Mississippi riverboat disaster, and part of it is set in Louisiana. The year is 1850, and slavery is still going strong. One of the supporting characters is a twelve-year-old slave, and that creates a dialogue problem.

I want Caleb’s dialogue to sound authentic, but I also want it to be readable and respectful. By respectful I mean that I’m trying to avoid stereotypes and also that I don’t want to give the impression that Caleb is less intelligent than my white protagonist, Lizzie. So how can I write dialogue that accomplishes all three goals?

Resources on writing dialects suggest choosing a few common characteristics identified with the dialect and that differ from what many people call “standard English.” Some sources suggest using them in the initial dialogue and then reverting to occasional references to remind readers that the character is speaking in dialect. Others suggest consistent use throughout. That sounds good in theory, but it is much harder in practice.

Obviously, the first step is to study the actual dialect. My primary resource for slave dialect is the slave narratives collected by the Federal Writers’ Project during the Great Depression (available at the Library of Congress website (https://www.loc.gov/collections/slave-narratives-from-the-federal-writers-project-1936-to-1938/about-this-collection/). I have read a number of them looking for common characteristics that I can incorporate into Caleb’s speech.

The most dominant characteristic—used extensively in each narrative—has the speakers replacing “th” with “d,” as in “dese” instead of “these.” Unfortunately, I’m concerned that doing that may violate all three of my goals, making the dialogue hard to read, stereotypical, and unintelligent sounding. Take, for example, this sentence where Caleb tells Lizzie about the poisonous snakes in the bayou: “Dey only bite when you step on dem or dey are mad.” So even though that’s the most dominant characteristic, I may ignore it and concentrate on dropped “a”s at the beginning of words (“bout” for “about”),” dropped “g”s in words ending with “ng” (“talkin” for “talking”), and a few idioms such as “ain’t” and “chilluns” (children).

I’m only halfway through the second draft, so I still have time to figure it out.

But it’s hard.

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