In the process of completing the literature for research, an historic artifact was uncovered: a posting for a runaway slave which indicated the multiple languages the slave spoke (see above). Advertisements for runaways placed in mid-18th century newspapers made frequent reference to their proficiencies in German, French, Spanish, Irish and Dutch. Conversely, servants who were monolingual in English were so identified, as if that was something unusual or noteworthy (Read, 1937).
This got me thinking, is there anything anywhere that shows how long African Americans in particular have been speaking more than one language fluently? The true answer is unclear. But I did find some information about bilingual Africans in North Carolina during our period of enslavement. I decided to write about it:
Newton (2010) discusses the presence of Gaelic-speaking Africans in North Carolina during the period of enslavement. In his historical account, Newton describes an interaction between an African slave and an Irishman just arriving to the United States: “the Irishman assumes the slave is Irish and the slave in turn is able to imitate the Irishman’s accent, suggesting the instability of linguistic identities as well as the necessity to nuance racial categories” (Newton, 2010, p. 98). This anecdote supports Newton’s argument that “racialism was the only dominant notion of identity to downgrade or neglect the role of language” (Newton, 2010, p. 96). The speaking of Gaelic presumably served a functional purpose. But the functionality can be seen as two-fold. First, it allowed the African slaves to be able to engage with the Irish settlers at the basic communicative level. But secondly, as inferred by the anecdote by Newton, it allowed the enslaved African to be able to use language as a tool of social maneuvering, allowing the use of language to function also as a means of transcending the racial barriers set in place by the enslavement hierarchy thus making “the disparity between language as identity and race as identity” (Newton, 2010, p. 99) less clear.
This passage from my research uncovers fascinating information about the presence of bilingual African Americans dating back as far as slavery! There is space (I have already taken up with my own research) to discuss how African Americans used bilingualism as functional tool for survival and transience, that I know I have never seen before. I know I am a bit of a language geek so this may excite me waaaaaaay more than it excites you, but hey, I’m still going to share it. Who knows, you may get excited about it too!