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.
- What do you associate with the history and culture of African Americans?
- 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?
- How does the use of language in children's movies reinforce stereotypes that are associated with African Americans?
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.
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?
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?
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?
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?
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.
|Film||Examples of AAVE||What are the effects of this language? How might the use of language reinforce stereotypes?|
|The Jungle Book|
|The Lion King|
|The Princess and the Frog|
AAVE in Disney films
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?
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.