Monday, November 16, 2009

James Baldwin: If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?

Baldwin, James. “If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?” The Real Ebonics Debate: Power, Language, and the Education of African-American Children. eds. T. Perry and L. Delpit. Boston: Beacon Press, 1998:

If … one managed to change the curriculum in all the schools so that blacks learned more about themselves and their real contribution to this culture, you would be liberating not only blacks, you’d be liberating white people who know nothing about their own history. And the reason is that if you are compelled to lie about one aspect of anybody’s history, you must lie about it all. If you have to lie about my role here, if you have to pretend that I hoed all that cotton just because I loved you, then you have done something to yourself. You are mad. (Baldwin: 8)

What joins all languages, and all men, is the necessity to confront life, in order, not inconceivably, to outwit death: The price for this is the acceptance, and achievement, of one’s temporal identity. So that, for example, though it is not taught in schools … the south of France still clings to its ancient and musical provencal, which resists being described as a ‘dialect.’ And much of the tension in the Basque countries, and in Wales, is due to Basque and Welsh determination not to allow their languages to be destroyed. This determination also feeds the flames in Ireland, for among the many indiginities the Irish have been forced to undergo at English hands is the English contempt for their language … It goes without saying, then, that language is also a political instrument, means and proof of power. It is the most vivid and crucial key to identity: It reveals the private identity, and connects with, or divorces one from, the larger public, or community identity. (Baldwin: 68)

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