When African American authors did employ dialect, they often used it equally in black and white characters. Harriet Jacobs, in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself (1861), the first autobiography by a formerly enslaved woman, uses dialect much more liberally than most other African American writers of her time. She uses dialect as a tool to differentiate educated characters from non-educated, regardless of their skin color. Poorer, presumably uneducated white southerners have a southern dialect and an Irish carriage driver has an Irish dialect, while the speech of her more educated acquaintances is written in Standard English.
Unlike in first person narratives, white authors frequently used dialect for their African American characters. Slave narratives written by white authors were often written as novels (rather than biographies) and sought to weave a romanticized story of escaping slavery. Dialect was used to distinguish black characters from white and to portray a southern setting to their mostly northern readers.
Representation of dialects range from racist caricatures that exaggerate stereotypical black speech, to inclusive depictions that overlook any ethnic differences in speech. While the use of dialect may have begun as an attempt to faithfully record distinctive African speech, it still carried racist underpinnings, as white authors typically only used dialect for their African American characters.
Especially problematic is the use of “eye dialect” by many white authors.
“Eye dialect” describes changing the spelling of a word to make it look like a dialect, without changing the pronunciation. For example, writing “sed” for “said”. This carries the suggestion that the black speaker is uneducated, rather than merely portraying a way of speaking.
Unlike African American authors, who used dialect equally among characters to suggest education level, white authors used dialect to denote skin color. White characters, or enslaved people who were described as possessing lighter skin, spoke Standard English while characters described as having darker skin spoke in heavily written dialect.
“As told to” narratives were short stories told by African Americans and recorded by white writers, becoming popular in the late 1860s after the first wave of published slave narratives.
The Cayuga Museum holds two “as told to” narrative manuscripts depicting escapes from slavery. While the two manuscripts were not written with the intent to publish, they show how white writers used dialect to call attention to the otherness of their African American subjects.
The two subjects, Harriet Tubman and Jane Clark, share many similarities. They were both born to enslaved parents around 1822 and experienced being leased to many different slave owners before they were able to escape north. Both of their journeys took years to complete before they each settled in Auburn and eventually had their stories recorded by white women.