Jeutonne P. Brewer

University of North Carolina Greensboro, emeritus

Audio* | Handout

"That how I learnt to shove a pen" The Autobiography of Charles B. H. Williams

Charles Williams' autobiography is a unique document among the material collected during the 1930s and 1940s by the Federal Writers' Project (FWP) of the Works Progress Administration. As Bernice Babcock, the state director of the Arkansas FWP explained, "one of our country workers reported to me that she had discovered an ex-slave who had written his autobiography" but "would not let anybody see his manuscript nor would he let our worker as much as look at it" (Babcock to Alsberg, December 14, 1937). After Babcock wrote to Charles Williams and traveled to Des Arc to meet him, Williams agreed to allow the FWP to make a typescript copy of his manuscript. Charles Williams' I'se Much A Man consists of 11 chapters contained in 70 typed pages (George Rawick 1979). As Babcock stated, "I have been a book reviewer and have been more or less interested in finds, such as Trader Horn. I think the life story of this ex-slave, as told by himself, is one of the most unusual human nature documents I know anything about" (Babcock to Alsberg, December 14, 1937).

During 1937 and 1938, Williams and the FWP director exchanged letters about publishing the bibliography. Williams' letters provide additional background and insight as well as independent verification of the language used in the autobiography. Like the manuscript, the letters were written on small notebook pages and large discarded ledger sheets. In this discussion I will compare the discourse and language features in the manuscript and the letters.

Little is known about Williams beyond what he tells us in his manuscript, but he shares many details as each chapter describes episodes concerning his background, family, education, or work experiences. Whether he describes his mother's advice, his wife and their son, or his work as an alligator hunter and a tax collector, Williams employs strategies of politeness and indirectness in his Southern interactional style (Johnstone 1999: 509) with his readers. Especially in his letters to Bernice Babcock, Williams uses honorific address. One issue, then, is how does Williams "connect the cultural discourses" with facts about his discourse in his autobiography and his letters? I will include features of interest such as variation in the use of the does + Verb construction ("I does have no rembrance..."), the possessive, perfective I am ("I am carry you erway..."), and the irregular variation in the use of determiners. These features will be compared to the ex-slave recordings (Bailey, Maynor, and Cukor-Avila 1991; Myhill 1995), the WPA ex-slave narratives (Schneider 1997), and Wolfram's (1996) study of perfective I am.

One characteristic that makes this document so linguistically rich is the interplay between features of the spoken and the written word. Reflecting both the print literacy conventions of the McGuffey readers and the conventions for abbreviation in business writing, Williams' manuscript provides valuable insights into the nature of his education, his perception of the written word, and how he "learnt to shove a pen."

Bailey, Guy, Natalie Maynor and Patricia Cukor-Avila, eds. 1991. The Emergence of Black English. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Babcock, Bernice. Letter to Henry G. Alsberg, December 14, 1937.
Johnstone, Barbara. 1999. "Uses of Southern-Sounding Speech by Contemporary Texas Women." Journal of Sociolinguistics,
    4: 505-522.
Myhill, John. 1995. "The Use of Features of Present-Day AAVE in the Ex-Slave Recordings." American Speech 70: 115-147.
Rawick, George P. 1979. The American Slave. Vol. 1. Supplement, Series 2. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
Schneider, Edgar W. 1997. "Earlier Black English Revisited." In Language Variety in the South Revisited, edited by Cynthia     Bernstein, Thomas Nunnally, and Robin Sabino, 35-50. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press.
Wolfram, Walt. 1996. "Delineation and Description in Dialectology: The Case of Perfective I'm in Lumbee English." American     Speech 71: 5-26.    


*Beginning of original audio/video recording was cut off