The Atlantic

Freedom Am Won: A Linguistic Mystery

Many of the roots of Black English reach back to the speech of rural white folks in the British Isles.
Source: AP

When I was a tot, my mother made me read Alex Haley’s Roots all the way through. Even though my linguist days were far ahead of me, I was struck by one sentence: At the end of the Revolutionary War, a slave exclaims, “Freedom am won!” That seemed an off rendition of black speech to me then, and I assumed that Haley had innocently concocted that am usage.

Yet Haley was hardly alone in putting into black mouths an overgeneralized usage of beyond the first-person singular. The Alexander in Irving Berlin’s pop hit “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” who’s supposed to be a black man, sings, “That’s just the bestest band what am!” As late as the 1950s, the cartoon character Buzzy the Crow, rendered as an African American in the vein of the crows in Disney’s , was given to saying things

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