If Black English Isn't a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is? | Study Guide

James Baldwin

Download a PDF to print or study offline.

Study Guide
Cite This Study Guide

How to Cite This Study Guide

quotation mark graphic
MLA

Bibliography

Course Hero. "If Black English Isn't a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is? Study Guide." Course Hero. 18 Feb. 2021. Web. 22 May 2022. <https://www.coursehero.com/lit/If-Black-English-Isnt-a-Language-Then-Tell-Me-What-Is/>.

In text

(Course Hero)

APA

Bibliography

Course Hero. (2021, February 18). If Black English Isn't a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is? Study Guide. In Course Hero. Retrieved May 22, 2022, from https://www.coursehero.com/lit/If-Black-English-Isnt-a-Language-Then-Tell-Me-What-Is/

In text

(Course Hero, 2021)

Chicago

Bibliography

Course Hero. "If Black English Isn't a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is? Study Guide." February 18, 2021. Accessed May 22, 2022. https://www.coursehero.com/lit/If-Black-English-Isnt-a-Language-Then-Tell-Me-What-Is/.

Footnote

Course Hero, "If Black English Isn't a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is? Study Guide," February 18, 2021, accessed May 22, 2022, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/If-Black-English-Isnt-a-Language-Then-Tell-Me-What-Is/.

If Black English Isn't a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is? | Context

Share
Share

Court Case in Ann Arbor, Michigan

One month before Baldwin wrote "If Black English Isn't a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?" a judge in Ann Arbor, Michigan, issued a ruling in a controversial case about black English. The case was an indication of the tensions surrounding the use of black English at the time Baldwin wrote the essay even though he does not explicitly mention the ruling. The case ignited controversy and was being discussed not just in Michigan but nationwide. A nonprofit organization called the Student Advocacy Center filed a lawsuit on behalf of 11 black students who attended a predominately white school. They claimed the students' civil and constitutional rights were not being protected because the school had not factored their cultural and economic differences into their education. By the time a decision was reached, there were only five students connected to the lawsuit because some had moved or aged out of the school. The judge ruled that schools have to consider the language students speak in their homes if it differs from standard English. Teachers from the school system in question were sent to training to raise their awareness of black English. Some people thought that teachers would be forced to give instruction using black English, but this was not the case. Although the judge's decision resulted in additional training, the judge described black English using the terms "dialect" and "language system."

Baldwin in France

Baldwin first went to France to live in Paris in 1948 when he was a young man. He wanted to escape the prejudice against black people in America and work on his writing. He found community in the company of other artists and writers who lived there. Living in Paris as a black, gay man was a welcome change after the discrimination Baldwin had faced in the United States. Baldwin appreciated the cultural atmosphere he found in Paris. He would return to Paris for short and long periods of time throughout his life.

Baldwin was in Hollywood writing a screenplay for the movie version of The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965) when Martin Luther King Jr. was killed. Baldwin was finding it difficult to write a screenplay about Malcolm X because he knew Malcolm well. The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. added to the grief and rage that Baldwin was already feeling. A friend helped Baldwin find a place to stay in St. Paul de Vence in the South of France so he could rest while grieving over the assassinations of three of his friends: Medgar Evers (1925–63), Malcolm X (1925–65), and Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–68).

The welcome Baldwin received when he arrived in the village of St. Paul de Vence was not what he expected. The villagers did not know what to think of this black, gay man of small stature. It took about half a year for Baldwin to charm the villagers into accepting him. The woman he rented a room from was fearful of having a black man in her home. Over time Baldwin's landlady grew very fond of him. He started renting more rooms in the house. Baldwin eventually became the owner of the 18th-century house where he first rented a room by purchasing a bit of it at a time.

Baldwin wrote "If Black English Isn't a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?" while living in St. Paul de Vence.

Beat Generation

The Beat movement started in the United States after World War II (1939–45). It was named for the writers, musicians, and artists who were weary or "beat" down by the societal rules and expectations of the previous generations. The movement was popular in the 1950s in major cities such as New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.

In "If Black English Isn't a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?" Baldwin critiques the Beat generation as a "phenomenon ... largely composed of uptight, middle-class white people imitating poverty" and putting their own spin on phrases originated by black people. Black English was not generally accepted in the United States where it was formed, but Baldwin writes that he doesn't know what white Americans would sound like if there were no black people in the United States.

Cite This Study Guide

information icon Have study documents to share about If Black English Isn't a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?? Upload them to earn free Course Hero access!