Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Is Black English a distinct language? This is the question which James Baldwin addresses in his 1979 essay “If Black English Isn't a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?” Baldwin first asserts that the status or use of Black English is deeply rooted in American history and rests in the role of language in society. The way a speaker utilizes and manipulates a language both "reveals the speaker" and defines him.
Throughout history, people have used language so that they are not "submerged" in a reality without the ability to articulate their experiences. By being able to describe one's circumstances, one gains a greater chance of surviving and succeeding. Baldwin then points to people living in various regions of the world which are French-speaking, from Paris to Quebec to Martinique, and states that since each region presents its own "very different realities," each of these speakers would have difficulty understanding each other even though their base language is the same. The experience shapes the language itself.
Language, then, carries political weight. It has the power to bind people together in a common and shared experience, and it has the power to divorce people who stand outside that commonality. Baldwin again looks to Europe and notes that in England, to open one's mouth is to "put your business in the street." The subtle nuances in British English betrays “your parents, your youth, your school, your salary, your self-esteem, and, alas, your future.”
Baldwin argues that Black English has significantly influenced Standard American English, but not in the ways white people always consider. For example, the term “jazz” existed as a sexual term in the Black community before white people "purified" it during the Jazz Age. Baldwin also points to the Beat Generation’s appropriation of the concept of being “beat,” which refers to poverty. Beat figures were "uptight, middle-class white people" trying to imitate the poverty and “funk” of the Black community—an act which Black people themselves could not comprehend.
Baldwin looks to history for examples of the powerlessness of people who do not share a language. He notes that when slaves were brought to America, they were chained together but, given their disparate origins, lacked any means of communicating. This allowed the institution of slavery to last much longer than it would have otherwise. Slaves began to come together under the formation of the Black church and in that context devise a shared tongue. As in the formation of any language, the rules of that new language were dictated by what it was required to convey.
By way of example, Baldwin recalls times in his own past when his parents or siblings needed to convey to him the imminent danger he faced from white people "just behind [him]," and they did so with both a speed and with subtle nuances of language which made comprehension impossible for white people. Baldwin further argues that white people cannot "afford" to understand Black English because it would reveal too much about themselves and would "smash" the metaphorical mirror into which white people have gazed for so long.
Black English is equated to an "incredible music" which reflects the achievements of a people who have been both forgotten and reviled by history. It has allowed the commonality of shared experience which has brought Black people to their present situation. Baldwin states that this ability to unite a people and move them forward through history is an "unprecedented journey" that proves the legitimacy of Black English as a distinct language.
Baldwin rejects the idea of Black English being merely a "dialect," noting that Black people could...
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not have survived and transcended such a hostile environment with anything less than a language of their own, unique to their circumstances and struggles.
He further charges that the only reason white people have sought to educate Black people is to be able to use them for white purposes. Education thus wrongs Black children, who cannot be genuinely taught by the white educators who despise the reality of their experience. Black children are asked to modify their language and thus their core experiences, forcing them into a "limbo" which separates them from their Black identity.
The country's standards are "untrustworthy," with countless nonwhite Americans "in prison, or on the needle, or standing, futureless, in the streets." Perhaps all of these "futureless" people have decided that a country that has learned so little has nothing to teach them.