Jessica Grieser on her book, The Black Side of the River

Interview by Anna-Marie Sprenger

Anna-Marie Sprenger: First of all, congratulations on your new book! I am curious how you came to focus on place specifically in your research of Black speakers in DC, and if you can elaborate on why place identity is an important change from traditional dialectology studies?

Jessica Grieser: That’s an interesting question because really, this study started out as one about class! I was interested in how middle class African Americans position themselves and use language differently than their neighbors from different socioeconomic backgrounds. Anacostia was a great place to look at that, because in the 2010s, Black residents from other parts of the city were moving in there, so it was starting to experience a class shift but not a racial shift. What I discovered, though, was that the story of the neighborhood really wasn’t about conflict; it was about unity and the way that people talked about the neighborhood. It’s that “way that people talk about” that is different than dialectology, or even place-based variation studies–I’m a lot less interested in exactly what language features use and more in all the practices that allow them to combine a D.C. identity, an Anacostian identity, and a Black identity in ways that turn Anacostia, and D.C., into Black space.

 Anna-Marie Sprenger: What do you feel makes the story your participants tell of Anacostia unique from other stories of change and belonging in Black space in the US?

Jessica Grieser: A lot of that is rooted in the history of Anacostia itself. Anacostia was historically a settlement of both white workers from Navy Yard across the river, and also freed slaves who had purchased the area of Hillsdale from the Freedmen’s Bureau. So it has always been a place of racial integration and also racial conflict, and yet, it has always been understood as Black place (the MLK day parade has always been there, the Anacostia Community Museum essentially was the Smithsonian’s Black History museum until 2016). So unlike many Black spaces, which are created by the ghettoization of Black communities through policy and planning, it was largely created by people choosing to be there. Anacostia is a place where you have this black history that goes back generations and generations: some of my interviewees can trace their history back to great-grandparents who were enslaved on the land that they live on now in row houses. So it’s a different kind of place. At the same time, a lot of it is the same as other Black spaces in the U.S., and that’s something I don’t want to be lost either. These ways that people stake claims on the neighborhood are generalizable and they’re the kind of things we should be listening for in all communities.

Anna-Marie Sprenger: Your book focuses on place specifically, but we could say it is also about time – the changes participants see in Anacostia take place over time, and the events that have come to define the area are linked to particular moments in the timeline of the Anacostian imaginary. Could you share your intuitions as to how sense of time is or isn’t a part of Anacostians’ place identities and the sociolinguistic variation that reflects these identities?

Jessica Grieser: I mentioned this above, but a big sense of Anacostia is its history. The fact that the neighborhood unfolded over time, the fact that the neighborhood’s demographics changed over time – for instance, Anacostia high school was a white high school and it was Ballou high school that was the black high school. Now both of them, like most of the DC public schools, are predominantly black. So those sorts of changes are the kinds of things that my participants are noticing and thinking about. When it comes to the variation itself, that isn’t necessarily something that we see changing over time, but we do see are changes in the strategies that different people use to talk about the neighborhood itself. For instance many of my older participants with the benefit of time and with the benefit of having this claim staking process in the neighborhood earlier, felt much more free to criticize the processes of gentrification more overtly. With my younger speakers, mostly in their 30s, who were the same age as the population that was moving in and gentrifying, and also the same social classes that population, the strategies that they needed to use to covertly critique gentrification were different.

Anna-Marie Sprenger: While your project takes a community of practice approach instead of a speech community approach, you extensively discuss the use of enregistered African American Language features for the construction of place identities. What do you make of speakers who maybe didn’t use enregistered AAL features, or were otherwise linguistic outliers in some way – what did you learn from them?

Jessica Grieser: So this is actually what’s really interesting about this work! One of the reasons that I conducted my quantitative analysis the way that I did, was to see if I could find patterns that were similar across speakers, even for speakers who didn’t use very many enregistered features of AAL. And the fascinating finding is that yes, even if you don’t use very many, the ones that you do use are going to be used in the same place where people who use lots and lots of these features are still likely to use lots more of these features. So I suppose what’s interesting is less about the outliers, but more that even those who might be otherwise considered outliers still show the same general pattern. In turn, that pattern tells us something about the stylistic role that these features can play and the kinds of meanings that different speakers can draw upon when they use them which gives us yet more insight into the kinds of identities that get index to buy a particular variety, and where’s that I hope or helpful beyond just studying aal. 

Anna-Marie Sprenger: Do you feel that conducting the research for this project and writing this book was itself in a way a place-making process?

Jessica Grieser: Absolutely, if for no other reason than that it reifies the significance of places that people might think of as insignificant. That’s one of the responses I’ve gotten about this book from my participants themselves, is that they didn’t always see the connections between the outer history of the neighborhood and its relationship to the rest of Washington DC, and the role of these places that they think of as everyday places in maintaining a sense of community identity. And more personally it was a place making process for me: doing this project really made DC a second home for me in a way that won’t ever go away. I feel like my own Black cultural identity strengthened significantly in the course of doing this project, and these days if people ask where I’m from, I often describe being a professor in the midwest as “I’m a just Washingtonian who is just away on business for the next thirty years!”