I found "The Origin of White Folks" by Annie Virginia Culbertson (it's pretty far down the page) while reading a news article and became intrigued by its accent. The poem is clearly written in some dialect:

DE white folks nee-nter putt on airs
About dem wash'out faces,
De culled folks wuz made de fust,
De oldes' uv de races.

(That's the first four lines; it continues on in a similar fashion) What accent/dialect is this? I don't have the knowledge or skills to identify it. And then, what does it add to the poem? What effect is conveyed by having this specific dialect? There must be some reason to be written like this.

  • 1
    I'm no expert but is this not the so-called American Vernacular English?
    – tum_
    Feb 18, 2021 at 10:22
  • As I said in the question, I have no idea. I don't have knowledge of dialects, current or historical, and I have no idea how to go about identifying this one.
    – bobble
    Feb 18, 2021 at 14:38
  • @tum_ 's comment is well taken. From the science of phonetics point of view, dialect transcription in literature is never precise, and contextual hints are always needed to identify the accent more precisely. If the author is the AVC mentioned in the 2 October 1902 issue of the "Bedford Democrat" newspaper, we know she visited the Shenandoah Valley region of Virginia, and came from East Orange, New Jersey. (See virginiachronicle.com/… ) Feb 18, 2021 at 16:45
  • As you can see in the link for the poem, this was published in "The Brownies' Book", a magazine aimed at Black children. Which would indeed make tum_'s comment the likely identity of the accent. That doesn't answer the question of why it's there.
    – bobble
    Feb 18, 2021 at 20:43
  • May I recommend Lays of a wandering minstrel (Lippincott, 1896), by Anne Virginia Culbertson (1864-1918)? This AVC is clearly the author of the poem in question, and seems to me to have found an anthropological or folkloristic turning; described approvingly in this essay. The non-dialect poems in AVC's LWM make it seem very likely that she herself was not black, and was well educated. Feb 20, 2021 at 3:10

1 Answer 1


I was doing some research on this poem from the same article. While I don't know much about the author, I do know a bit about dialect poetry.

In the mid to late 19th century, both white and black authors produced literature in African American dialect. White authors used this as a way to "other" African Americans, and the subject of the literature often presented enslaved or formerly enslaved characters in reductive and comical roles. This body of literature was prominent after the Civil War and is tied closely to the Lost Cause ideology.

African American authors, on the other hand, wrote black dialect poetry (in some cases) as a subversive posture where they "used the form to abuse the form" and provide subtle commentary on the social condition of African Americans in the mid to late 19th century. There are, however, examples of reductive vernacular verse by African American authors, but this should not be seen much as pandering, but more an example of disenfranchised authors attempting to gain access to the publishing market.

  • 2
    Welcome to Literature! This looks like a good answer (or at least the start of one). Could you provide some sources to back it up? Also, are you saying that my question about this specific poem can be answered by a general trend? I was hoping for specific analysis but if there's evidence that the reason is general I would accept that.
    – bobble
    Feb 19, 2021 at 20:59

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