Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Necessity and Invention
In “If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?,” James Baldwin emphasizes that necessity was the proverbial mother of the invention of Black English. For Black Americans, necessity often meant sheer survival. Baldwin describes a people who were in constant danger and who needed a distinct and “unassailable” means of communicating amongst themselves. In the Black diaspora, people transported to America from Africa were bound into “the institution of chattel slavery.” Due to their disparate backgrounds, they had to devise a shared language. This inventiveness occurred in the context of faith. The Black English he analyzes arose as the language of a new religion, within the Black church, which he terms an “unprecedented tabernacle.”
Rather than the “adoption of a foreign tongue,” Baldwin sees a more powerful creative transformative force at work, yielding an “incredible music” that is all the more remarkable for having arisen under constant surveillance, danger, and privation.
Languages and Cultural Context
One of the central themes of the essay is the influence of cultural context on the formation of languages. Baldwin explores the ways that language fits into the larger cultural and social experience of Black people. For children growing up, in particular, language and education are inextricably intertwined. One reason that the use of distinctive language matters so much is that language is perhaps the most prominent symbolic expression of experience. As children grow up, they need to communicate with fellow community members in a distinctive language that is coherent with their shared experience.
Education in the United States has effectively severed this coherence for the Black child, Baldwin asserts. Along with frowning upon the use of Black English, educators, in particular, and White society, more generally, reveal their disinterest in and disdain for Black culture. This ignorant attitude is damaging; the child cannot learn from someone who outwardly despises his culture and language. Thus the effect of this situation is diminished education for Black children.
Cultural appropriation is another important aspect of cultural context. When ideas and terms are adopted by the dominant culture, they are widely viewed as having greater prestige and purity. Baldwin offers numerous instances of Black vernacular terms that entered the White mainstream. One example is a term for extreme poverty, “beat to his socks,” which gained prestige when attached to the literary Beat Movement, which was largely comprised of middle-class White men feigning poverty as an aesthetic pose.
Linguistic Hierarchies and Racism
Many people have never experienced the denigration of having their language labeled a “dialect.” For marginalized populations, however, such acts of patronization are commonplace. The idea that Black English is not a true language but a lower order on the linguistic hierarchy is a component of the daily racism of American life. Because of its origins and its effect on American history and culture, Black English constitutes a language, Baldwin argues. Expanding on the rhetorical question posed by the title, he expresses his curiosity about which “definition of language is to be trusted.”
Throughout the world, dominant societies tend to control the labeling and classification of languages. Among the examples that Baldwin offers are Great Britain, which suppresses the languages of Ireland and Wales, and France, which treats the Provençal language similarly. Further, Baldwin demonstrates how a single language—shaped to express a certain way of life—is pressed into new variations when taken up by distant communities. Within France, French sounds different in Paris and Marseilles; and outside the country, enormous differences characterize the uses of French in Quebec, Guadeloupe, and Martinique. Baldwin shows how the imposition of standard national languages is a political tool routinely employed in the state-sanctioned oppression of minorities and subject populations.