22 March 2014

On Race and Reading Aloud

I'm sure I'm not the first instructor to have this quandary.

How should a white instructor, who speaks standard American English with the accent of northern white privilege, read aloud dialogue written in dialect, specifically African American Vernacular English?

I love to read aloud, and I love to read aloud in class.  It gives students a shared experience of a certain chunk of text and it reveals the aesthetic pleasures of a text in ways that get lost in the heat of class discussion.  When I'm teaching in my field, eighteenth-century Anglophone literature, reading aloud is crucial tool for helping students approach unfamiliar forms of English.  They can grapple with the Sterne's self-referential ellipses, Wollstonecraft's layered dependent clauses, the seemingly interminable sentences of any writer much more effectively, once they've heard them.  Hearing where to place the emphases, getting familiar with the underlying rhythms of the prose style, makes a huge difference.  Of course, I don't affect an English accent--the students don't expect it, I couldn't pull it off, and it would be weird.

Similar benefits accrue, in a more limited way, in my fiction class, where we read more accessible and contemporary literature.  If nothing else, reading aloud emphasizes the necessity of slow reading, lingering on every word.  For students coached to treat literature as a puzzle to be solved and to scan for keywords that will unlock a predetermined right answer, reading aloud exposes them to every syllable and productively complicates their assumptions about what effective reading looks like.

Toni Morrison is one of those writers whose prose begs to be read aloud.  There is sheer pleasure in letting the rich, plummy sentences of Sula roll off the tongue.  And then one comes to the dialogue. Her characters are poor, and black, and even though Morrison uses few dialect markers, it's clear that they wouldn't sound like the way I usually talk and read.   So usually when I'm going to read a passage involving dialogue I point out the problem.  "I can't convincingly reproduce African American vernacular English," I explain.  "If I tried, it would be excruciating, so I'm going to end up reading this like the white middle-class matron that I am.  It may be excruciating in a different way, but bear with me."  Usually, it's a disclaimer they've heard before.  Early on in this course, I often teach Jamaica Kincaid's "Girl"--a maternal monologue from a West Indian mother to her daughter, consisting entirely of instructions on proper behavior.  Here again, I explain that I won't try to imitate the accent (but as a mother of two daughters the tone of maternal harangue comes easily to me).

Other voices that I don't try to imitate: the immigrant Chinese mothers and grandmothers in short stories by Amy Tan and Gish Jen.  The Scottish dialect in Robert Burns's poetry (I don't like Burns, so I don't teach him at all--makes that one easy).  Russian accents when reading Chekhov. The class markers in the dialogue in pretty much any eighteenth- or nineteenth-century canonical novel.  So at least I'm consistent.

One semester, though, in my fiction class, an in-class exercise on Richard Wright's "The Man Who Was Almost a Man" resulted in one white student reading aloud to the class a chunk of the story's dialogue. In this story the interplay between the standard English of the narration and the vernacular English of the dialogue and free indirect speech serves to gloss the central conflict of the story, in which a young African-American man grapples with his powerlessness. The student embraced Wright's dialect markers and strove to sound African-American in his reading of the dialogue.  It wasn't as excruciating as it could have been.  It didn't sound like aural blackface--it sounded like a sincere effort to get inside the world Wright depicts.  I have since avoided exercises that could reproduce that situation--mostly because on this racially divided campus, I don't trust all white students to carry it off in good faith.  But the experience made me wonder if approach to reading dialect is too cautious.

The right way to read aloud is whatever allows the listener to enter most directly into the story.  A lot of us can hear accents and dialect in our heads when we read, without being able to reproduce them by reading aloud, and a ham-handed effort to do so can interfere with the listeners' ability to connect to the story for themselves.  On the other hand, fiction invites readers into worlds they don't know, where they're not at home, where they take on board--for the space of the narrative--ways of understanding the world that may be alien.  Every undergraduate classroom involves students who are "at home" in white narratives differently, for whom reading aloud in standard literary English involves different degrees of code-switching.  Is my insistence on reading always as myself a way to make the text more available to the listening students?  Or is it just another way to assert that my racial and class positioning is the necessary and desirable default?


  1. Do any of these have audio books with appropriate people reading them aloud?

  2. I was going to say the same thing as the person above—most audiobooks have readers using the appropriate dialect. This could be a solution, albeit a more time-consuming (and possibly expensive) one for you, because you'd have to purchase the books and then find the exact passage you want to play and have it ready to go in class, and you'd lose the flexibility to read passages on a whim.

    Barbara Kingsolver reads her own audiobooks, and I find her use of dialects to really enhance the stories, so I do agree with you that something important is lost from a character when one hears the character's words coming from a dialect that is not his/her own.

  3. That's a great suggestion from Anonymous, though it has the limitations that Leslie describes. It would definitely work for those "Okay, here's a passage I know we're going to be talking about today, so let's listen to it together" moments--not so much for responding effectively to the twists and turns of class discussion. I'd be reluctant to interrupt the flow of conversation in order to locate a relevant passage in an audiobook. I'd also worry about creating distance between the students and the text with the implication that their own audiation is insufficient. It's definitely worth finding out, though, which of the course readings are available on audiobook form from the library.

  4. Yes—if you found yourself reading the same passages semester after semester, either because you select them ahead of time or because they regularly come up naturally in discussion, then you could bookmark those passages and have them at your fingertips with just one click. If your department is willing to pay for an Audible subscription ($15/month), their app allows you to create your own bookmarks. I've always wondered why anyone would want to use that feature...now I know one scenario when it might be useful!