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

James Baldwin

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



Defined by Language

James Baldwin's essay "If Black English Isn't a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?" addresses the criticism directed toward black English. He does not think the issue is the actual language itself. He writes that issues with language are connected to power and prejudice. People use language to judge and classify other people.

People who feel prejudice toward another group may use language to discriminate against that group. People within the group use language to "describe and thus control their circumstances." Baldwin writes that people in each country have paid a different price for the language they all have in common. People in various French-speaking countries have very different ways of life despite speaking the same language. The reality of life in Paris is different from that of life in a former French colony like Martinique. Baldwin points to the places around the world where language is dividing people. There are people in places such as Ireland, Wales, and Basque fighting to hold on to their ancestral languages. They need these languages to articulate their circumstances while those in power want to eliminate the languages to control those people. Language is a tool for survival.

The Creation of Black English

Baldwin begins the essay referring to arguments about black English. He also evokes the language suppression experienced by the Basque, Welsh, and Irish people as additional examples for comparison. He then returns to the issue of black English. He discusses how black English has influenced American English as a whole. The Beat generation of the 1950s was a social and artistic movement of young people that reinterpreted the style and phrases from jazz and black American culture. The Beat generation's choice to use words and phrases borrowed from African Americans shows that there is something valuable about black English. This is true even if some of the meaning is lost when young white people adapt black English to describe their experiences.

Baldwin writes that black English was created out of necessity. The Africans who were transported to America and enslaved had to develop a way of speaking to each other because they were from different ethnic groups and could not communicate. Later, black people still had to communicate and signal to each other when they were under threat in a way that others would not recognize. Baldwin criticizes the idea that all of this effort to create a communication system should be classified as a dialect and not a language. The Africans who were transported to the United States did not just learn English the way people learn foreign languages in an academic sense. According to Baldwin the creation of black English was "an alchemy that transformed ancient elements into a new language."

A Child's Education

Baldwin questions whether the United States can really educate black children when black people are living "in the midst of so hostile a population." He returns to his original statement that what people are arguing about isn't the language itself but the role the language plays in helping the speakers of that language define themselves. Baldwin writes, "It is not the black child's language that is in question .... It is his experience." Baldwin doesn't think a child can be educated by a system that wants the child to deny his experience. He observes that when a child has to deny his experience, the child lives an unsteady existence. He wonders if African Americans should even desire to be educated by a country with "standards so untrustworthy."


The Real Point of Contention

Baldwin opens his essay by declaring what he really sees as the issue within the controversy over the use of black English. People think they are arguing over the language itself, but in Baldwin's opinion they are arguing over the role of language. If language allows people to "control their circumstances" as Baldwin writes, then people are arguing over who gets to control certain realities and not over the mechanics of the language. Imposing a language on a group and not allowing that group to speak its own language assures that power rests with the oppressors and not the oppressed.

Suppressing or banning people's language is a way to limit their ability to define themselves and their experiences. Baldwin uses the verb "articulate" to indicate the way a person can use language to control reality. In the medical sense, articulate refers to being connected by joints. These connections allow movement. When a group loses its language, the people become disconnected and cannot hold themselves together. It then becomes easier for another group to rule over them.

A Shared Problem

In the title and the opening segment Baldwin examines the issue of prejudice against black English in America. He returns to black English later in the essay, but for a moment Baldwin looks at other marginalized groups who have also had their languages suppressed. Baldwin offers other examples of language suppression to reinforce the argument he makes. He gives examples of how the French language is spoken in different places around the world, but it is not the exact same language in all of those places. Baldwin was living in France when he wrote this essay. Despite the language they have in common, people in Paris, Quebec, Guadalupe, Martinique, and Senegal "each have very different realities to articulate, or control." The phenomenon that happens among speakers of the same language that live in different countries also happens within the same country. Baldwin gives the example of how England has a range of accents with each accent revealing information about a person.

Black English Was Not Created in a Vacuum

Black English was not made by black people in Africa on their own. As Baldwin notes it "is a creation of the black diaspora." Black people were brought from Africa to the Americas and the Caribbean by force. People from different ethnic groups in Africa spoke different languages and were not able to communicate with each other. They also had to learn the language of their new lands. A new language was formed out of necessity because black people had to communicate with each other and with white people.

Baldwin writes that the black church was formed under duress. He calls it the "unprecedented tabernacle" where black English came to life. Black people were not learning English as a foreign language for travel or for academic reasons. African Americans had to find a way to communicate to continue living, so it was a matter of survival. Baldwin also references Congo Square, a gathering place for enslaved and free black people in 19th-century New Orleans, Louisiana. Congo Square is recognizable, has a name, and still exists. Many other gathering spots are lost to history. Black people in the United States during the time of slavery gathered when and where they could. From these gatherings black English was formed over time. African Americans in Congo Square would engage in practices that were rooted in African traditions in a more open way than they did in church. In the same way, the language that developed had elements that were easily understood by people outside of the black community and elements that were not.

Baldwin points out that the influence of black English goes both ways when he writes that he thinks white Americans would sound different if there had never been black people in America. He discusses the Beat Generation which was a cultural movement of young, creative white people that peaked in the 1950s. This group made their own versions of words and phrases that black people used. He writes about how they were "imitating the poverty" that spawned the language black people used, but he indicates that the imitation lacked the depth of the original. He is not afraid to make reference to white people. He uses the term "Nathaniel Hawthorne's descendants" in an ironic way to describe the rebellious Beat Generation and link them to America's restrictive strain of Puritanism. America's Puritanism is a leftover of the 16th and 17th century moral and religious movement to purify the Church of England from Catholicism. This led some Puritans to leave England for the colonies that became the United States. Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–64) is an American novelist and short story writer who was uncomfortable with the legacy of his well-known Puritan ancestors. Some Americans use their Puritan connections as reasons to boast because they hope others will be impressed that they are related to people who helped to start the United States. Hawthorne did not express pride in his Puritan heritage. Baldwin turns the tables and uses this legacy to critique. Baldwin points out that generations after Hawthorne distanced himself from Puritans, the Beat generation tries to go even further by adopting the slang of marginalized black people. The Beat generation uses black English as a kind of costume, imitating the language of poverty while remaining middle class.

Baldwin argues the unfairness of using black English while also devaluing it. Black people's creative use of language in the midst of struggles becomes imitated in some circles and disparaged in others. In addition to the countercultural Beat Generation, Baldwin mentions that the ways in which black people speak have been incorporated broadly into the English language. He also notes that black people are given little credit for this.

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