The demand of white, affluent society that all Americans should speak, read, and write "proper" English causes many people who are not white and/or middle class to attempt to "talk in a way that feel peculiar to [their] mind," as a character in Alice Walker's The Color Purple puts it. In this book, Sonja Lanehart explores how this valorization of "proper" English has affected the language, literacy, educational achievements, and self-image of five African American women - her grandmother, mother, aunt, sister, and herself. Through interviews and written statements by each woman, Lanehart draws out the life stories of these women and their attitudes toward and use of language. Making comparisons and contrasts among them, she shows how, even within a single family, differences in age, educational opportunities, and social circumstances can lead to widely different abilities and comfort in using language to navigate daily life. Her research also adds a new dimension to our understanding of African American English, which has been little studied in relation to women.
Sonja L. Lanehart is Brackenridge Endowed Chair in Literature and the Humanities at the University of Texas at San Antonio.