Vernacular and Register in Dialogue
Jones incorporates character dialogue that draws on Southern elements of American speech. His characters range from prostitutes to medical doctors, from children jumping rope in the street to old women hunting down a murderer. As these different characters interact and converse with each other, speech patterns and tendencies begin to emerge. These patterns indicate not only changes in speech in the Black community, but in the geography, demographics and overall face of Washington, DC.
One speech trend is shown when characters express their attitudes about Southern speech through thoughts and dialogue. In “A Rich Man,” for instance, Horace, a man of means and education, finds himself surrounded by inmates who speak quite differently than he. Horace uses the best “white man’s English” he knows in order to impress the other inmates (339). However, Horace finds that communication with his cellmates is much more effective when he uses a lower register to match their colloquial dialogue. Similarly, in “Bad Neighbors” when Terence, a wealthy future doctor, tells Amanda, a deemed bad neighbor, to move her car, he says, “I don’t care about that. You’re just going to have to move that thing somewhere else.” To which Amanda replies, “First off, I ain’t movin shit. Second off, it ain’t no thing. It’s a classic. Third off, you better get out my damn face. This a free country, man” (359). Here, perhaps more than any story in the collection, a reader can see how different Black characters interact with and respond to the use of the Southern vernacular.
Language also divides older and younger characters, especially when the older characters, like many inhabitants of Washington, DC, have migrated from more southern towns in the United States. In “All Aunt Hagar’s Children,” three older women, the mother, Miss Agatha, and Aunt Penny, have preserved some Southern vernacular they developed from growing up in Alabama.
Miss Agatha gives the unnamed narrator some advice true to her Southern heritage, “Maybe you shouldna been workin today, on the Lord’s day” (115). Earlier, the narrator recalls asking a future college student, “Whatcha gonna be takin up?”, noting that he said it the way his Southern mother would have (114). These phrases speak not only to a generational gap but also to the Southern roots of many characters throughout the short stories. Similarly, in “Root Worker,” Glynnis, a young doctor, speaks perfect English while Imogene Holloway, an older root worker, uses more Southern vernacular heard in North Carolina. The age gap could foretell a shift in speech among Black citizens of DC.
While these are trends seen in several places throughout the collection, they do not hold true for every story. In the case of “Spanish in the Morning,” for example, the unnamed narrator’s father and grandfather are from North Carolina, but their dialogue does not indicate Southern patterns. In this story we can see how choosing to stray from African American Vernacular English might be an active choice based on upward mobility. Jones, as one of the only Black writers to consistently use Black DC as a setting in his work, shows not only that part of the South has traveled to the Capitol, but that over the timelines of the stories, the movement has shaped the way African Americans of different ages and social status speak and think about speech.
Southern Migration to Washington, DC
Movement away from the South does not always mean people leave Southern beliefs, traditions, and mannerisms behind. The South remains with these characters even as they leave their homes behind to move to DC and continues to be an important part of them, whether they appreciate their southern roots or are attempting to run from them.
In “Adam Robinson Acquires Grandparents and a Little Sister,” Noah Robinson “...still had the gentlemanly quality of the countrified South about him,” despite having moved to DC from South Carolina with his family when he was only seven (241). Noah Robinson, never losing his Southern manners, demonstrates how those traditions and manners remain with the people who move away from the South long after they do so.
Some people, however, move to DC in order to get away from the South and distance themselves from the lives they once lived. In “Blindsided,” Roxanne Stapleton, who had moved to DC from Louisiana, observes a woman on the bus with “a southern accent so thick it insulted Roxanne’s ears” and thinks about how she herself had worked to eradicate her own accent so no one would be able to tell where she came from (294). Roxanne working to eliminate her accent and distance herself from her Southern past demonstrates how some people who move to DC, despite having family and roots in the South, still do not want to have any connection to where they came from.
On the other hand, no matter how far characters get from the South, the South always pulls at them to return. In “Root Worker,” Dr. Glynnis Holloway takes her mother to see a root worker in North Carolina when modern medicine is unable to help her. Glynnis’s family had originally moved to DC from North Carolina when she was born, and her mother’s nurse tells her that “…sometimes black people from the South need to go back home,” that they “leave, [they] run away and don’t realize how much [they’ll] need to go back home one day” (177). Though Glynnis has lived her entire life in DC, there is still some part of her that remains connected to the South.
Many of the characters throughout the stories are both deeply religious and extremely superstitious; both notions go hand in hand for many of the characters. The rituals involved in both religious and superstitious practices work to reconcile the two ways of thinking and allow characters from the religious and superstitious, from the South and DC to coexist. In the story “In the Blink of God’s Eye,” Aubrey’s father encourages him to attend church and tells him, “it’s but a little bit outa your whole life, son…And God has a long memory” (4). This moment between father and son helps demonstrate how important religion is in the lives of these people, and how a bit of superstition creeps into their religious activities. The way Aubrey’s father frames attending church seems as though taking the small trouble to attend church is in itself a ritual of insurance, just in case God should notice and remember. Religion is not only like a ritual for the characters of Jones’s stories, something to believe in, but it is also a set of rules to follow.
The stories that characters tell, the beliefs they hold, and the actions they take shape what kinds of people they are. Jones uses all three of these things to shape the characters of his short stories into what he views as accurate representations of people who come to DC from the South and the Southern beliefs and traditions they bring with them. The blending of religious and superstitious beliefs molds the people who live in DC into the kinds of people who can easily merge the two forms of belief into one coherent system that incorporates both the worship of faith and the ritual of the supernatural.