In this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri negro dialect; the extremest form of the backwoods Southwestern dialect; the ordinary “Pike County” dialect; and four modified varieties of this last. The shadings have not been done in a haphazard fashion, or by guesswork; but painstakingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity with these several forms of speech.
For those of you not familiar, that is Mark Twain’s explanatory note for Huckleberry Finn.
I was put in mind of this as I was reading IQ, a novel by Joe Ide. As a novel, I didn’t actually hate it. The basic conceit is that Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson are re-imagined living in South Central Los Angeles. Both are African American. Isaiah Quintabe (known as IQ) has genius level intelligence and has developed a near photographic memory. However, his idolized older brother dies and it leaves him antisocial and remote from his neighborhood. IQ takes in a roommate named Dodson (suspiciously close to Watson), who is a low level drug dealer and all around hustler. Dodson, as you can imagine, is much more worldly and practical than IQ.
IQ and Dodson are hired to find the person who is trying to kill a famous rapper named Black the Knife, real name Calvin Wright.
As happens in such novels, IQ has brilliant insights that allow him to jump to conclusions. Dodson is his comic foil that is always bedazzled by his insights but occasionally contributes in his own way as well.
All of this is fairly benign and harmless. It’s not brilliant literature, but in its way, it’s suitably clever, the relationship between IQ and Dodson is humorous, and the plot smoothly moves to its completely predictable finale.
So, what inspired the Mark Twain quote? Well, as I read it, I couldn’t but help to think about cultural appropriation.
Nearly all of the characters are African American. The characters are all stereotypical. Picture in your mind what a low level drug dealer would look and sound like, and you pretty much get Dodson. Picture a rich and spoiled up from the streets rapper, and you pretty much get Black the Knife. One of Cal’s bodyguards is the stereotypical large but not very bright man. The relatively few female characters are highly, overtly sexualized. They all (with the exception of the determinedly otherworldly IQ) speak in slang, sprinkling the “N-word” liberally throughout.
Joe Ide is Japanese American. Now he is from South Central Los Angeles, so maybe he knows exactly what he is speaking of as he writes it. I don’t know. I’m not from that area myself.
However, it’s disquieting. Black culture has been appropriated for hundreds of years. Non black people have been speaking for black people for nearly that long. Seriously, the phrase Jim Crow comes from an 1830’s minstrel show. The Amos ‘n’ Andy radio show was performed by white actors. Pat Boone got rich singing Little Richard songs. Quentin Tarantino has apparently decided that since his movies so often have black characters that he’s become some kind of honorary black person (leading to some really painful interviews where he’s trying to act black; check out the Cracked YouTube video for a fine example).
This got me to thinking about Mark Twain. He clearly thought that he’d nailed the character of the escaped slave Jim. In his explanatory note, he calls out that the dialect was carefully researched and constructed. He is clearly proud of his work. However, in the novel, Jim’s lack of education and ignorance is regularly made a target for humor.
I know that authors want total creative freedom and I’d like to respect that. Given the history of subjugation and appropriation of black culture, if you’re not a black writer and you’re writing a novel in which nearly all characters are black, and not only that, but are stereotypically black and are regularly using racial epithets that would be considered obscenely vile if uttered by a non black person, perhaps you should really think about treading carefully?