Twisted Threads of Gold and Steel: Dialect in Slave Narratives



This Friday, June 19, is Juneteenth, the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States. 

On June 19, 1865, Union General Gordon Granger and his troops arrived in Galveston Texas to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation which had been issued two years earlier. Granger read General Order No. 3, announcing the emancipation of enslaved peoples: 

“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”

The Civil War ended in April 1865 and Texas was the last Confederate State to have the proclamation announced. Being the most remote of the slave states meant there were few Union troops present to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation until after the war ended. 

Formerly enslaved people in Galveston celebrated after the announcement and the following year organized the first of what became the annual celebration of ‘Jubilee Day’ on June 19 in Texas. Texas later became the first state to recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday and today all but three states celebrate Juneteenth. 

While Juneteenth is an important celebration of the ending of slavery, it did not guarantee African Americans equal rights. Systematic racism is still prevalent today, and as recent events have exposed, we still have a long way to go to end the racism ingrained in American society. 

One way to do so is to identify and acknowledge the various ways racism has persisted in American culture. The Cayuga Museum’s new exhibit Twisted Threads of Gold and Steel: Dialect in Slave Narratives, looks at the use of African American speech by authors of slave narratives. Adopted by writers of popular fiction in the late 1800s, a fictionalized version of African American dialect became embedded in the American literary canon and prevails today as the stereotype of African American speech. 

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Impact

The inconsistent and incorrect use of what early writers thought of as a dialect of Standard English perpetuated the thought that African Americans were uneducated and served as a marker that African Americans were “different” than their white neighbors. The early 1970s brought new attention to this myth, and social scientists declared Black English to be a separate language from Standard English. This recognition acknowledged African American speech patterns as complex and nuanced and added legitimacy to their speech. 

Despite the gains made in recognizing Black English, the stereotypes from earlier popular culture have prevailed and African American speech patterns are often the object of racial ridicule. The constant dismissing of Black English has led to countless injustices faced by speakers of the language. For example, a recent study of court stenographers revealed that a failure by court officials to understand the grammar of Black English could mean the difference between a guilty and not guilty sentence for many African Americans and other speakers of languages other than Standard English.