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

by James Baldwin

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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 742

In this essay, James Baldwin explores the importance of understanding language in its multiple contexts. He regards power, politics, and survival itself as the primary issues at stake in language debates. Baldwin emphasizes the role of language as “a political instrument”—one that both establishes and proves the power of those who use it and attempt to control it. With this piece, first published in the New York Times in 1979, Baldwin states his position within a widespread debate in the United States about “non-standard” English or “dialects.” Black English was then often referred to as “Ebonics” and later became known as African American English (AAE) or African American Vernacular English (AAVE). Baldwin asserts that all modern American English speakers would be severely limited if they did not use Black English.

By focusing on the racial components of language that are conveyed by the label “black English,” Baldwin points out not only the positive values but also the underlying necessity of this distinct language. Countering many assertions that the use of Black English represented inability to speak “standard” English, Baldwin primarily stresses the positive aspects of African Americans’ development of a distinct vernacular. He argues, in effect, that American Blacks had to become bilingual in order to survive in a racist society.

The isolation of African Americans from mainstream socialization, Baldwin explains, also contributes to the creation of distinctive ways of speaking and writing. In particular, education was severely limited under systems of oppression and segregation. While the long era of slavery is especially significant in this regard, legal barriers to educating Black people were in place throughout the United States far beyond its end.

An important component of Baldwin’s argument is the connection he draws between Black English and oppressed languages elsewhere, including the politics of education in teaching these languages in schools. He emphasizes the vital necessity of language as connected with survival itself. Regarding the English language, Baldwin raises questions about regionalism and class within England, and about oppression of the Irish through forbidding language use. Baldwin’s essay is not confined to English, however; he enters the larger language rights debate within Europe. He points out that many European groups (such as Provencal, Basque, and Welsh peoples) defend their languages and resist their diminishment by the label of “dialect.”

One key point that Baldwin emphasizes is that modern American English is, in many respects, dependent on Black English. His historically oriented points include the development of English, through a transformative “alchemy that transformed ancient elements,” into the lingua franca for enslaved people of diverse African origins when they arrived in America. Their innovations made their way into standard English. Even such defining modern periods and cultural trends as the Jazz Age and the Beat Generation owe their names to Black English.

Throughout the essay, Baldwin points out ways that Black culture has been suppressed and oppressed. He explores “education” as a two-way street by which Blacks and Whites have learned about each other. The denigration of Black English is part of a larger educational system that despises the experience of the Black child under the guise of despising their language. He emphasizes that teaching so-called standard English constitutes a “demand, essentially, . . . that the child repudiate his experience.” This link between language and the larger Black experience is a key point, as Baldwin argues that the attitudes in the dominant educational system effectively nullify educational efforts, because they require children to accept things they know to be untrue:

A child cannot be taught by anyone who despises him, and a child cannot afford to be fooled.

(This entire section contains 742 words.)

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A child cannot be taught by anyone who despises him, and a child cannot afford to be fooled.

Baldwin counters proposals by White people, including those working in the educational system, that Black English is substandard or inferior. Rather, he points out the high value for those who have been endangered or threatened of having an alternative linguistic system. They needed a language that Whites could not understand and by which they could communicate those dangers. He terms this the “brutal necessity” that prompted development of Black English:

A language comes into existence by means of brutal necessity, and the rules of the language are dictated by what the language must convey.

Baldwin emphasizes the role of education not only for its effects on Black people—what was taught to or withheld from them. Language is a key factor, too, in understanding why Whites have limited knowledge about African American people and the social systems that have restricted and harmed them.