Clearly, Lorraine Hansberry understood that the dialects of black communities were distinctly different from the dialects of other communities, for she has her characters speak in the very real language of their community. Although Hansberry’s own immediate family were all college educated and spoke Standard English all the time at home, Hansberry herself spent a lot of time in poor Southside households that were similar to that of the Younger family in Raisin. Naturally Mama’s speech is different from Beneatha’s; however, there are even subtle differences between the speech patterns of Mama and Walter and Ruth and Bobo.
The language of many of the characters of Raisin is unconventionally non-Standard English; the black characters are not merely speaking English that is ungrammatical; rather, they are speaking a dialect common in the black communities that are heavily populated by migrants from the South. Their dialect, although similar to the white southern dialect, is distinctly different in that it is mostly an outgrowth of the period of slavery. At that time, slaves were forbidden a formal education and therefore mimicked whatever English they heard, ending up with a “Pidgin English” not unlike the English spoken by many of the Native-American population.
It is natural to superimpose one’s known grammatical structure upon a language that one is attempting to learn, as in the German placement of the direct object after any interrupting phrase; it was comically noted at the turn of the century that the recent German immigrants would readily construct the following type of English sentence: Throw Mama from the stairs her hat. In the same way, the slaves, many of whom were from West Africa, superimposed their own grammatical structure upon their new master’s language, ending up with what linguists define today as “Black English.” Broadly explained, Black English has its own grammatical structure — even though it is non-Standard English. It is not solely “bad grammar,” for in some cases, the “errors” are intentional for effect.
The most prominent example of this dialect is in the “abuse” of the verb “to be.” Blacks have always “abused” the grammatical form of the verb “to be” in whatever language slaves were forced to learn — be it English, French, Spanish, or Dutch. These “abuses” are even found in Surinam, which proves the result of the African continuum, for many West African languages have a habitual tense which translates as “to be.” Note the following examples of this habitual tense:
Harry be waiting for me every night when I come home.
You can never reach Mary because she be talking on the phone.
Donald be so tired when he leaves work.
In each of the above examples, the word “be” means “all of the time.” However, in the following examples, forms of the verb “to be” are purposely omitted in order to express a different meaning:
The answer to the question: “What is Harry doing right now?” might be, “He waiting.”
The answer to the question: “What is Mary doing right now?” might be, “She talking on the phone.”
Note that in the above examples, there are distinctly different meanings. When the word “be” is used in the above constructions, the meaning is “all the time.” Omitting the main verb before the participle means the action is taking place “right now.” So, in the black dialect, “He talking” means something completely different from “He be talking.”
Hansberry had to have been aware of the semantic subtleties of the black dialect in order to have made these points in Raisin.
Note the following examples from various scenes of Raisin.
Walter: I can’t be bein’ late to work on account of him fooling around in there.
Ruth: Oh, no he ain’t going to be getting up no earlier no such thing!
Ruth: Walter, don’t be dragging me in it.
Also in the black dialect, one moves directly from the subject to its adjective, getting to the point more quickly by having eliminated any forms of the verb “to be.” For example, one might hear someone say in black dialect, “Don’t bother Lisa ’cause she tired.” One might also hear “She pretty,” “He ugly,” or “They smart.”
Note the following from various scenes in Raisin:
Walter: You tired, ain’t you? Tired of everything . . .
Walter: We one group of men tied to a race of women with small minds . . .
Mama: But [Beneatha] you so thin . . .
Mama: We ain’t no business people, Ruth. We just plain working folks.
Mama: Ruth honey — what’s the matter with you — you sick?
Ruth: You think you a woman, Bennie — but you still a little girl.
TO BE CONTINUED
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