African American modernists' works appropriated literary traditions as they sought to combat the lingering effects of postslavery in the United States, including systematic segregation, everyday violence such as widespread lynchings, and the racist hierarchies embedded within U.S. English. This chapter addresses wide‐ranging debates among African American intellectuals over the status of vernacular linguistic forms in literature. These public conversations produced diverse opinions on whether dialectical literary idioms could be recuperated and reappropriated by African American writers. As we know today, vernacular forms were revitalized, but this chapter focuses on two authors who sought to evade the absolutism of the “standard”/vernacular binary in favor of narratives that actively deessentialized the relations between language and race. Jean Toomer and Nella Larsen pursued complex visions of interracial modernism, and the linguistic strategies of their novels pose the question of what the literary idioms of internationalist, antiracist, multidialectical African American culture would be. Toomer's Cane and Larsen's Passing and “Sanctuary” portray modern African American languages as flexible, inventional, and antiessentialist forms of code switching.
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