Black English & Disney

Black English, or African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) is one of the more debated and politically charged linguistic realities related to language, communities and social relations. But what is AAVE exactly? Where can we hear AAVE? 

By the end of this of lesson you should be able to demonstrate an awareness of how language and meaning are shaped by culture and context. We will achieve this learning outcome for Part 1 by taking the following steps: We will begin with several discussion about how African American stereotypes are formed through the use of AAVE. Then we will look at several secondary sources that define AAVE and comment on the effects of it on particular audiences. Then we will look at the use of AAVE in several Disney movies. When working with these primary sources, we will find evidence of AAVE and discuss how it is used to reinforce stereotypes. 

Because AAVE and the portrayal of African Americans in the media can be so controversial, it is best to start by asking some of the bigger questions. As we return to these questions throughout this series of lessons, you may find that your opinions change. What's more you may find that you begin to understand issues of race, identity and language that you had never thought about before. These questions have no right or wrong answers, only more informed answers.

  1. What do you associate with the history and culture of African Americans?
  2. How are these associations expressed through the use of language? To what extent do African Americans speak a 'different' language? What is the difference between AAVE, Ebonics or a Southern accent?
  3. How does the use of language in children's movies reinforce stereotypes that are associated with African Americans?

Background reading

Before we turn to the Disney films, it is important to have an understanding of the history of AAVE. Here are several questions for you to answer in response to the articles on AAVE below.

  1. The first question from the discussion points asks: 'What do you associate with the history and culture of African Americans?' How does the first article, from Time Magazine, shed more light on the history of African Americans by tracing the origins of Black English? How might your associations with AAVE be attributed to this history?

  2. The article from Time Magazine raises the issue of teaching 'correct' English to young African Americans. However, it offers no answers to this question. As we move towards an analysis of accents in Disney movies, do you think that children should be exposed to a range of dialects and accents? Or do you believe that children's movies have a duty to educate their audiences properly in the use of 'correct', standardized English?

  3. The introduction to Spoken Soul celebrates the language of African Americans. Why might there be a "dizzying love-hate relationship with black talk that is as old and new as the nation itself?" Why do people love and hate these forms of language?

  4. The second question from our discussion points asks: 'How are these associations expressed through the use of language?' Look at the list of differences between standard American English and AAVE. What associations do you have with these forms of AAVE? How do they make you feel?

 Education: Black English
Time Magazine
1972

To grow up decent, our children need new clothing to present themself in school in proper neat!! The sun have to shine for our children too. Amen.

—Sign carried by a demonstrator in New York in 1969

To most citizens that complaint seems illiterate. To a linguist it is a good example of Black English, a dialect with its own grammar and vocabulary. For three centuries, it has been the language of most American Negroes, but until recently, both its origins and its rules have remained a mystery. Scholars once thought that it was either an ignorant misuse of Standard English or a remnant of archaic British dialects learned by slaves from their Southern masters. Lately, however, a number of linguists have come to believe that the dialect originated with the slaves themselves.

Pidgin. That theory receives its first book-length substantiation with the publication of Black English (Random House, $10). In it, Linguist J.L. Dillard of the University of Puerto Rico describes how slaves were forced to develop their own lingua franca because traders usually separated groups speaking the same language in order to hinder communication and thereby prevent revolts. The slaves taught each other pidgin varieties of their masters' language.

Black English retained some African words that later entered into Standard English (examples: goober, jazz and banjo). More important, Dillard found that Black English arranged English words according to a syntax resembling that of West African languages. Black English does not require a distinction between present and past tenses, for example, but it does require a differentiation between continuous and momentary action. Thus, Dillard notes, if a black says of a laborer, "He workin' when de boss come in," he means that the man worked only when the boss was present. On the other hand, if he says, "He be workin' when de boss come in," he means the work went on before and after the boss's entry. Similarly, "You makin' sense but you don't be makin' sense" means, roughly "You just made sense, for once."

Frequently when Black English sounds ungrammatical to white ears, it is merely conforming to its own rules. Thus, in the demonstrator's placard, the pronoun themself leaves off the standard English -ves ending because them already establishes plurality. Since Black English rarely uses suffixes, neat means the same as the Standard English noun neatness. Black English also does not differentiate between genders of pronouns, so it is perfectly correct for a speaker to say, "He a nice little girl." In unraveling these rules, however, linguists encounter a problem—almost nobody speaks "pure" Black English. Ghetto blacks, hearing their speech scorned by whites as illiterate, often try to "improve" it to conform more nearly to Standard English.

To Dillard and his frequent collaborator, William A. Stewart, president of the Education Study Center in Washington, the implications of Black English are obvious: ghetto children often have learning difficulties that are basically language problems.

Some schools have already begun teaching black children the rules of Standard English as though it were a foreign language, but Dillard and Stewart would go even further. They argue that such children should first be taught to read Black English, so that what they see on the printed page would correspond to the way they talk. Stewart's organization, in fact, has produced three experimental reading books—Ollie, Friends and Old Tales—in parallel Black English and Standard English versions. In theory, once the child masters the principle of reading, Dillard writes, "transition to the reading of Standard English should be much easier."

 Spoken Soul: The Story of Black English
Rickford and Rickford
2000

Now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the Spoken Soul writers exalted is battered by controversy, its very existence called into question. Though belittled and denied, however, it lives on authentically. In homes, schools, and churches, on streets, stages, and the airwaves, you can hear soul spoken every day. Most African Americans—including millions who, like Brown and Baldwin, are fluent speakers of Standard English—still invoke Spoken Soul as we have for hundreds of years, to laugh or cry, to preach and praise, to shuck and jive, to sing, to rap, to shout, to style, to express our individual personas and our ethnic identities (“’spress yo’self!” as James Brown put it), to confide in and commiserate with friends, to chastise, to cuss, to act, to act the fool, to get by and get over, to pass secrets, to make jokes, to mock and mimic, to tell stories, to reflect and philosophize, to create authentic characters and voices in novels, poems, and plays, to survive in the streets, to relax at home and recreate in playgrounds, to render our deepest emotions and embody our vital core.

The fact is that most African Americans do talk differently from whites and Americans of other ethnic groups, or at least most of us can when we want to. And the fact is that most Americans, black and white, know this to be true.

In this book, we will explore the vibrancy and vitality of Spoken Soul as an expressive instrument in American literature, religion, entertainment, and everyday life. We will detail the features and history of Spoken Soul. We will then return to the Ebonics firestorm that flared up at century’s end, considering its spark (the Oakland, California, School District’s resolutions and their educational significance), its fuel (media coverage), and its embers (Ebonics “humor”).

In the final chapter we will reflect on the vernacular’s role in American life and society, and seek the truth about the dizzying love-hate relationship with black talk that is as old and new as the nation itself. Who needs this information and insight? We all do, because Spoken Soul is an inescapable vessel of American history, literature, society, and popular culture. Regardless of its status, we need to come to terms with this beloved and beleaguered language.

Some traits of Black English or African American Vernacular English (AAVE)

Double negation

AAVE Standard American English
I didn’t do nothing I didn’t do anything.
You don’t have to be no Einstein. You don’t have to be Einstein.
I didn’t see no woman. I didn’t see a woman.

Absence of 3rd-person singular form

AAVE Standard American English
young don’t count young doesn’t count
He don’t have no choice. He doesn’t have a choice.

Omission of the copula(to be)

AAVE Standard American English
Trevor said he dead. Trevor said he is dead.
I don’t think he married. I don't think he is married.
They looking busy. They are looking busy.

Omission of the auxiliary

AAVE Standard American English
You playing football. You were playing football.
I been knowing King all my life. I have known King all my life.

Past participle of strong verb denotes past tense

AAVE Standard American English
And we done it. And we did it.
I didn’t know what King done. I didn’t know what King did.

Disney and racism

After reading about AAVE, we can apply what we have learned to several primary sources, which have been taken from children's movies (Disney and Dreamworks films). There are advantages to working with this one specific type of text. First of all, animated children's movies are influential in shaping the values of future generations, and they reflect the values of current generations. In these films, certain use of language is associated with certain kinds of behavior and animals. Secondly, it is useful to work with the same genre of film through the ages, to see if values have changed over time. Finally, for the sake of the further oral activity (see below), it is useful to focus on one film producer, one genre, or one character's use of English. These movie clips will help us understand how language reflects and is shaped by culture and context.

In these clips you have seen many different characters in different settings. In the contexts of these films, look to see how meaning is shaped through the use of African American language. What kinds of stereotypes are reinforced through the use of language, and where do you see evidence of racism? What if different accents had been used for these roles? Fill in a table like the one below and discuss your answers with your classmates and teacher.

 Disney and racism

Film Examples of AAVE What are the effects of this language? How might the use of language reinforce stereotypes?
Dumbo
"What's fryin' boy?" "Brotha" "You ain't up in no tree (double negative)." "I seen all that too (omission of auxilary)."
In this gang of crows, the leader speaks the most extreme version of AAVE. Arguabley that's what defines him as their leader. He mocks the mouse (who also uses double negatives in a NY accent). Children might think that AAVE is used for mocking, teasing or joking.
Brer Rabbit
"Here he come (omission 3rd person singular)." "It ain't goin' fool nobody (double negative)." 
The bear's use of AAVE is more extreme than the fox's, and he's a lot dumber. For this reason children might associate AAVE with dumbness. The narrator's use of AAVE, though, frames the story in a Southern context, in which this way of speaking is quite normal. 
The Jungle Book
While there is no evidence of AAVE grammar, there are a lot of non-sense words characteristic of jazz music.
It's quite possible that children do not know about black history and jazz. One fear, though, maybe the accent of an African American, King  Louie, voiced by a monkey. Portraying blacks as monkeys is hardly politically correct, which again children might not notice.
The Lion King
Here again there is no evidence of AAVE grammar. Whoopi Goldberg (the voice of the lead hyena) speaks standard American English, with the occasional African American accent, i.e "wha dja think?"
There may be nothing politically incorrect or racist about this film. Children my hear that the lead hyenna speaks differently from the others. Notice the use of the British accent by Scar as the scheming, evil type, another stereotype of Hollywood movies.
Shrek
The omission of the auxilary 'have' from the phrase 'you have got to' is characteristic of all American speech. Similarly the 'gotta' and 'wanna' are part of every US speech.  
Eddie Murphy's accent, nevertheless is quite characteristic of AAVE in this short scene and many others.  Some African Americans might be offended by this accent being used for the silly side-kick of Shrek.
The Princess and the Frog
"You blind to what you need (omission of auxilary).""I be tellin' you." "Money ain't got no heart (double negative)." "You yo daddy's daughta (omission of auxilary)."
This piece of cajun culture could arguably not be performed without the use of  AAVE. The 'Mama' uses a strong variety of it. Because of the images and use of language, children might associate this Southern  accent with black magic.

AAVE in Disney films

  Dumbo
1941

Brer Rabbit
1946

The Jungle Book
1967

  
 

The Lion King
1994

Shrek
2001

  

The Princess and the Frog
2009

We started this lesson by asking some big questions. You may think differently now that you have read several articles on the history and nature of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) and seen it used in children's films. For this reasons you will want to go back and look at the discussion points again. Some points you will want to consider in your answers:

  • Notice that some films used African American voices without the use of AAVE (The Jungle Book and The Lion King).

  • Other films such as Brer Rabbit and The Princess and the Frog are really about Southern culture.

  • Some films (The Jungle Book and Shrek) reinforce this idea that the language of African Americans is 'spoken soul.' Is this also a stereotype?

  • Much of the silly, mocking, dumb or lazy behavior seen in these films is conveyed through different degrees of AAVE use. Nevertheless, we must ask ourselves if the target audience, children, would find this offensive or racist. Does it matter what children think?

Towards assessment

Further oral activity - In a further oral activity you could comment on the use of AAVE in Disney films. When designing an FOA, it's important to have a guiding question and an outline of ideas. Here is a sample guiding question and an outline that you could use to prepare a further oral activity on the use of AAVE in Disney films. 

 FOA outline on Disney and African American stereotypes

How is language used to reinforce stereotypes of African Americans in the Disney's children's movies? Student 1 Student 2

Stereotype 1:

African Americans have 'soul'.

King Louie (The Jungle Book) has ‘soul’, though his use of AAVE is not that strong. Shrek’s sidekick, Donkey has a lot of soul and he speaks AAVE strongly. 
The blind mama from The Princess and the Frog certainly has soul when she's singing and she speaks AAVE strongly. This goes for other characters in the story as well. Black magic could be considered part of this 'soul' association as well. 

Stereotype 2:

African Americans are subservient to white Americans.

The princess in The Princess and the Frog starts as a waitress and ends up owning a restaurant. Donkey serves Shrek more as a friend than a slave.
In The Lion King, the hyenas serve Scar, though Whoopie Goldberg’s use of AAVE is minimal. Noteworthy here is Mufasas use of an African American accentt, as he represents strong leadership.  Though his use of language could hardly be called AAVE. In The Jungle Book, there have been concerns that King Louie speaks with a black accent and he admits to being more primitive than 'man'.  

Stereotype 3:

African Americans like to have a good laugh.

Brer Rabbit confirms this. The slap-stick humor is paired with AAVE. The bear is very clownish and even dumb. Donkey, who speaks AAVE strongly is also always looking for a good laugh inShrek. 

The crows in Dumbo can’t stop laughing and making jokes. They do this in AAVE.  The hyenas in The Lion Kingalso confirms this stereotype. 

Stereotype 4:

African Americans like to go around in gangs.

The crows in Dumbo are very gang-oriented. They speak strong AAVE and pick on Timothy the Mouse. King Louie also seems to be a gang leader.  
In The Lion King, Whoopie Goldber is the gang leader of the hyenas. The fox and the bear arguably gang up on Brer Rabbit. 
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