Revisiting James Baldwin’s “Black English”

The first five or six years of teaching high school English have blurred in my memory, but certain days, certain events, and certain students remain vivid.

One day in those years a young woman in my tenth-grade course blurted out in utter exasperation, “When are we going to do English? All we do is read and write!”

No, she was not being sarcastic. This student had been taught in her first nine years of school that English was mostly grammar books and grammar exercises—an environment in which she had excelled, making As.

Reading and writing were much messier, and she feared her status as an A student was in jeopardy.

As an English teacher, I marvel at the power of grammar in the world outside of school. Harry Ritchie, writing about the Bad Grammar Awards in the UK, laments:

It’s a big night on Thursday at the Idler Academy, which hosts its second annual Bad Grammar awards. The founder Tom Hodgkinson promises “a thrilling X-factor for pedants”….

Everywhere, that’s where. Because the Bad Grammar prizegiving is far from a merry little jape. It’s a piece of reactionary nonsense eagerly endorsed by Michael Gove, who has gone out of his way to promote the nonsensically reactionary “grammarian” who inspired all this drivel, Nevile Gwynne, the author of Gwynne’s Grammar. The horribly right-wing and entirely wrong-headed prejudices behind the book and the prize explain why last year’s winners were some academics who’d written in protest about Gove’s education policies and why the smart money this year is on poor old Tristram Hunt and his apparently heinous semicolon.

Grammar, even a garbled understanding of the term, is not just about correctness in English class. Grammar is about values.

Both in school and society, however, grammar is misunderstood, as Jonathon Owen concludes in his call for teaching grammar:

So yes, I think we should teach grammar, not because it will help people write better, but simply because it’s interesting and worth knowing about. But we need to recognize that it doesn’t belong in the same class as writing or literature; though it certainly has connections to both, linguistics is a separate field and should be treated as such. And we need to teach grammar not as something to hate or even as something to learn as a means to an end, but as a fascinating and complex system to be discovered and explored for its own sake. In short, we need to teach grammar as something to love.

And while grammar remains entrenched in our schools and public discourse, it appears that writer James Baldwin is fading. Kathi Wolfe examines Baldwin as an often ignored voice:

Back in the day, being on the cover of Time magazine was huge. Then, everyone from salesclerks to Wall Street traders read the newsweekly, and if your face, well known or not, peered out from it on newsstands or in mailboxes, everyone would know your name.

This was especially true when James Baldwin, the iconic novelist, essayist, playwright and poet, who wrote stirringly and eloquently on the civil rights movement, race and sexuality, made the cover of Time on May 13, 1963. Time made Baldwin a celebrity after the publication earlier that year of “The Fire Next Time,” his searing essays on race and civil rights. One of my most vivid youthful memories is that of my Dad pointing to Baldwin’s visage on Time and saying, “That man is our conscience! You’d have to be made of stone not to listen to him.”

I’m remembering this because Baldwin, who died in the South of France at age 63 in 1987, was born in Harlem 90 years ago this year. Yet, the legacy of Baldwin, black and openly gay years before Stonewall, and one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, is fading in many classrooms, the New York Times reported recently. Fortunately, steps are being taken to commemorate and preserve Baldwin’s legacy.

Time Magazine May 17, 1963

James Baldwin—as novelist, public intellectual, and poet—was an important voice (although often marginalized) during his lifetime, but he remains an important voice because his concerns about race and inequity remain powerful in the U.S. today—and those inequities also remain grounded in attitudes about language.

Revisiting James Baldwin’s “Black English”

Ralph Ellison was simultaneously heralded as a Great American Novelist and shunned by the radical Left during the 1950s and 1960s. Baldwin suffered parallel experiences, although the shunning was politically inverse—Ellison, too traditional, and Baldwin, too radical.

As African American men of letters however, they shared a powerful recognition of the corrosive nature of deficit views of so-called Black English. Ellison confronted that view in a talk to teachers in 1963 addressing the high drop-out rates for Black students:

Some of us look at the Negro community in the South and say that these kids have no capacity to manipulate language. Well, these are not the Negroes I know. Because I know that the wordplay of Negro kids in the South would make the experimental poets, the modern poets, green with envy. I don’t mean that these kids possess broad dictionary knowledge, but within the bounds of their familiar environment and within the bounds of their rich oral culture, they possess a great virtuosity with the music and poetry of words. The question is how can you get this skill into the mainstream of the language, because it is without doubt there. And much of it finds its way into the broader language. Now I know this just as William Faulkner knew it. This does not require a lot of testing; all you have to do is to walk into a Negro church….

But how can we keep the daring and resourcefulness which we often find among the dropouts? I ask this as one whose work depends upon the freshness of language. How can we keep the discord flowing into the mainstream of the language without destroying it? One of the characteristics of a healthy society is its ability to rationalize and contain social chaos. It is the steady filtering of diverse types and cultural influences that keeps us a healthy and growing nation. The American language is a great instrument for poets and novelists precisely because it could absorb the contributions of those Negroes back there saying “dese” and “dose” and forcing the language to sound and bend under the pressure of their need to express their sense of the real. The damage done to formal grammar is frightful, but it isn’t absolutely bad, for here is one of the streams of verbal richness….

I’m fascinated by this whole question of language because when you get people who come from a Southern background, where language is manipulated with great skill and verve, and who upon coming north become inarticulate, then you know that the proper function of language is being frustrated.

The great body of Negro slang–that unorthodox language–exists precisely because Negroes need words which will communicate, which will designate the objects, processes, manners and subtleties of their urban experience with the least amount of distortion from the outside. So the problem is, once again, what do we choose and what do we reject of that which the greater society makes available? These kids with whom we’re concerned, these dropouts, are living critics of their environment, of our society and our educational system, and they are quite savage critics of some of their teachers.

Sara Dalmas Jonsberg, writing in English Journal nearly forty years later, recognized how the social stigma against Black English negatively impacted students’ perceptions of themselves:

When they arrived in my section of freshman comp, the course required of all entering college students, Tarsha, Shera, and Keydrya revealed themselves as bilingual. They knew how to write and speak “good English.” They were articulate and graceful in written and oral “school language.” They also knew how to speak “Black English,” and they knew when each language was appropriate. They referred to the argot they used privately as “slang” or “bad English.” I don’t know how they learned their two languages—which was first and which second, which was spoken at home and which had been acquired among friends—but I did notice this: one crucial lesson had been omitted from the language training of these alert and articulate young women. They did not respect the Black English they could speak so fluently. They did not know its history. They seemed ashamed and were apologetic if they fell to speaking it in class. Enthusiastic and thoughtful contributors to class discussions and projects, linguistically they demonstrated Theresa Perry’s comment that “Black English is the last uncontested arena of Black shame” (4).

Jonsberg’s solution? “I dragged them to the James Baldwin piece that is often included in composition readers: ‘If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?’

Thus, now, I do the same.

Writing from France in 1979, Baldwin opens with:

The argument concerning the use, or the status, or the reality, of black English is rooted in American history and has absolutely nothing to do with the question the argument supposes itself to be posing. The argument has nothing to do with language itself but with the role of language. Language, incontestably, reveals the speaker. Language, also, far more dubiously, is meant to define the other–and, in this case, the other is refusing to be defined by a language that has never been able to recognize him.

He had confronted the role of any person’s use of racial slurs in revealing that person in Take This Hammer, the same year as Ellison’s talk.

Immediately, Baldwin contextualizes his discussion of Black English in the language stratification he witnessed in France: “But each has paid, and is paying, a different price for this ‘common’ language, in which, as it turns out, they are not saying, and cannot be saying, the same things: They each have very different realities to articulate, or control.”

Possibly Baldwin’s central focus is the nature of language: “language is also a political instrument, means, and proof of power. It is the most vivid and crucial key to identify: It reveals the private identity, and connects one with, or divorces one from, the larger, public, or communal identity.”

If we doubt Baldwin’s relevance, let’s pause there and consider the Donald Sterling controversy and the role of his private language exposing his racism and the consequences of those revelations divorcing Sterling from the larger community.

It is not just the language we use, and the prejudices we hold about that language, but what language reveals about us.

Couched in the politics of language is Baldwin’s confrontation of how mainstream English appropriated Black English while simultaneously marginalizing it:

Now, I do not know what white Americans would sound like if there had never been any black people in the United States, but they would not sound the way they sound. Jazz, for example, is a very specific sexual term, as in jazz me, baby, but white people purified it into the Jazz Age. Sock it to me, which means, roughly, the same thing, has been adopted by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s descendants with no qualms or hesitations at all, along with let it all hang out and right on! Beat to his socks which was once the black’s most total and despairing image of poverty, was transformed into a thing called the Beat Generation, which phenomenon was, largely, composed of uptight, middle- class white people, imitating poverty, trying to get down, to get with it, doing their thing, doing their despairing best to be funky, which we, the blacks, never dreamed of doing–we were funky, baby, like funk was going out of style.

Now, no one can eat his cake, and have it, too, and it is late in the day to attempt to penalize black people for having created a language that permits the nation its only glimpse of reality, a language without which the nation would be even more whipped than it is.

Black English for Baldwin was forged out of necessity and with that comes its power—”A language comes into existence by means of brutal necessity, and the rules of the language are dictated by what the language must convey“—and power is both frightening and threatening:

There was a moment, in time, and in this place, when my brother, or my mother, or my father, or my sister, had to convey to me, for example, the danger in which I was standing from the white man standing just behind me, and to convey this with a speed, and in a language, that the white man could not possibly understand, and that, indeed, he cannot understand, until today. He cannot afford to understand it. This understanding would reveal to him too much about himself, and smash that mirror before which he has been frozen for so long.

African Americans are not language deficient, Baldwin asserts, adding,

The brutal truth is that the bulk of white people in American never had any interest in educating black people, except as this could serve white purposes. It is not the black child’s language that is in question, it is not his language that is despised: It is his experience. A child cannot be taught by anyone who despises him, and a child cannot afford to be fooled. A child cannot be taught by anyone whose demand, essentially, is that the child repudiate his experience, and all that gives him sustenance, and enter a limbo in which he will no longer be black, and in which he knows that he can never become white. Black people have lost too many black children that way.

Language is political, but so are any people’s decisions about who and how to teach both the privileged and the oppressed. So Baldwin ends:

And, after all, finally, in a country with standards so untrustworthy, a country that makes heroes of so many criminal mediocrities, a country unable to face why so many of the nonwhite are in prison, or on the needle, or standing, futureless, in the streets–it may very well be that both the child, and his elder, have concluded that they have nothing whatever to learn from the people of a country that has managed to learn so little.

As a free people, we cannot afford either our lingering deficit view of language or Baldwin to fade from our classrooms and our collective conscience.

Wolfe concludes, and I concur:

Why does Baldwin’s legacy matter? Because we still perpetuate and encounter homophobia and racism; and great writing still nourishes our hearts and minds. Happy Birthday, Mr. Baldwin! Long live your prophetic voice!


4 thoughts on “Revisiting James Baldwin’s “Black English””

  1. English is so ambiguous. You can say things and they can be completely misunderstood. Understanding grammar helps one to be more precise. Unfortunately, a lot of mistakes can come from poor tyoing skills. See – there I go “typing” and it didn’t come out as I had planned.

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