Vernacular Theory

By Murphy, Anthony C. | American Visions, June-July 1994 | Go to article overview

Vernacular Theory


Murphy, Anthony C., American Visions


Does Ralph Ellison's novel, Invisible Man, become a richer text when the reader approaches it with an understanding of the black vernacular tradition? "I think in the end you really can't understand that text if you don't know black American folktales," explains William J. Harris, an associate professor of English at Pennsylvania State University. "To get a real meaning of the text, you have to know who Brer Rabbit is; you have to know Brer Rabbit is a trickster. And in terms of language, you have to know about the dozens--that verbal assault form developed by young men insulting each other's mothers sort of blundy. You have to know these forms to come to a real sense of the novel."

Harris is the co-chairman, along with Penn State colleague Bernard W. Bell, of "African-American Voices: Language, Literature and Criticism in Vernacular Theory and Pedagogy," the fourth in a series of annual Penn State summer seminars in theory and culture. Scholars Houston A. Baker jr., Robert O'Meally, Geneva Smitherman and Hortense Spillers will lead discussions in their respective fields--literary criticism, the blues-jazz aesthetic, black vernacular English, and the black feminist-womanist tradition. …

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