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Writing in Tongues

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Shirley Grau's short stories capture the beauty of the spoken word

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor

I'M NOT CERTAIN where the idea came from or why it doggedly persists even to this day (you are free to draw your own conclusions), but certainly as far back as Nigger Jim's introductory speech in Mark Twain's 1884 The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, American authors have been laboring under the impression that the only way to reproduce rural, Southern, African American speech is through creative misspellings, scat-singing punctuation and, a 'course, da mos' lib'ral use o' dat ole cullid folks's standby: da 'post'er'pea (apostrophe, for those of you who need a translation).

And so Jim comes on stage saying to a supposed river ghost, "Doan' hurt me--don't! I hain't ever done no harm to a ghos'. I alwuz liked dead people, en done all I could for 'em. You go en git in de river ag'in, whah you b'longs, en doan' do nuffin to Ole Jim, 'at 'uz alwuz yo' fren'."

Every ethnic and regional grouping from the Boston Brahmin to the Southern California Valley Girl has its own way of clipping and shaping the King's English, and if you tried to write down their creative transgressions in the same way Twain wrote Jim's speech, you'd come up with a similar ball of confusion. It is, however, generally only the Southern, rural African American (and, often, his modern, urban, hip-hop descendant and his Jamaican cousin) who gets singled out for this special attention.

I can't fathom why this should be, but I do know that it is most annoying. Getting through a page of the average writer's blackspeak gives you a small taste of what it must have been like chopping at the brambles and weeds of a row of Carolina cotton. Even African American novelist Zora Neale Hurston--probably the greatest chronicler of the African American South this country has produced--was guilty of this practice.

So it is a remarkable thing, indeed, what Pulitzer Prize winner Shirley Ann Grau (The Keepers of the House, 1965) does when she introduces the title character in the title story of The Black Prince and Other Stories. Grau accurately reproduces the beauty and poetic simplicity of an exchange between two Alabama black folks without misspelling a single word. Gosh.

    "I reckon you got nothing better to do than go around messing with folks," [Alberta says to an unknown man who has hidden from her in the woods]. "You got me so riled up I reckon I don't know what way I'm headed in." [And, when the man finally appears]: "That was a crazy mean thing, and you ain't got nothing better to do."

    "Reckon not," he said, moving the little green twig in and out of the hole between his lower front teeth.

    She pushed her hands in the pocket of her dress and looked him over. "Where you come from?"

    "Me?" The little twig went in and out of his teeth with each breath. "I just come straight out of the morning."

    She turned and walked away. "I be glad to see you go."

EVEN MORE REMARKABLE is the fact that Grau is white (a lot of white authors seem to have trouble recreating believable black characters --at least, characters that are believable to black readers). And finally, Grau wrote "The Black Prince" and the eight other stories in this collection in the 10 years between World War II and 1954, a period when it was not exactly in the national fashion to portray African Americans on their own terms.

Of course, that's not the only good thing about The Black Prince And Other Stories. Flat out, it's just a damn fine collection of stories--originally published in 1954 and reprinted now (thank you, much, y'all) by the University of Georgia Press--a work of beauty and skill on par with the best of Carson McCullers and Eudora Welty. And all of the characters--black and white, sharecropper and state senator--come most definitely on their own terms.

Taken collectively, the stories reveal a Deep South looking backward in longing to the 19th century rather than forward to the new Atomic Age; a society that was complex but not complicated, where people often got out of their place, but not because they did not know where that place was supposed to be.

The world beyond the Mason-Dixon border is rarely mentioned here, and sometimes does not appear to even exist. An African American couple talk of moving to Oregon to escape the color line, but that land seems only a chimera dreamscape of names and lines on a map. An older woman, returning home, finds she cannot remember any details of her exotic life abroad. Even when World War II itself intrudes upon the stage in the form of harassing German U-boats easing along the Louisiana coast and slipping up in the bayous themselves (a number of such incidents are supposed to have happened during the war), it is only to be absorbed, dispersed and finally dissipated in the humid air of this sullen land.

Grau's writing is spare and precise, and she clearly works hard to show (not tell) while making her points. In a scene in the story "One Summer" in which some young children are playing in a backyard, singing the chorus of the gospel song "Shall We Gather at the River?" over and over again:

    There was one--a girl with a fat round face--who was sitting on the ground a foot or two away from the group. Her fresh starched pinafore dress was getting all dusty and rumpled, and every time the group paused for breath, in that second or two of quiet, she'd ask: "Which river? Which river? Where?" Not paying any attention to her, they'd go on singing.

I cannot think of a better portrait of awkwardness and disaffection in human society--all in just a bit more than 60 words.

RAISED IN both her father's Creole New Orleans and her mother's rural Alabama, Grau seems restless and stifled in the rigidity of her native region. Her characters do not fit. They claw at the air while struggling to breathe; they shout for help, but it comes out only soundless, and one gets the sense that no one would answer, even if they heard. There is a sense of helpless biding of time; clearly, the endless youth and boundless hope of the Kennedy Years have not yet come, even in imagination.

Grau wrote several novels and one other short-story collection between 1954 and 1977 and then, inexplicably, either stopped writing for publication or stopped writing material that the publishers were willing to accept. She continues to live in her native Louisiana.

Deep into our third Southern presidency of modern times (Johnson, Carter and now Clinton), we tend to forget just how strange and foreign a land the Southern portion of the United States once was. Grau's stories show the awful stillness of that terrible isolation of the South in the years between Appomattox and Birmingham in a way that seems more terrifying than all the Stephen King novels combined.


The Black Prince by Shirley Ann Grau; University of Georgia Press; 294 pages; $19.95 paper.

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From the August 22-28, 1996 issue of Metro

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