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Smashing Mirrors, Spoken Soul

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

There was a moment, in time, and in this place, when my brother, or my mother, or my father, or my sister, had to convey to me, for example, the danger in which I was standing from the white man standing just behind me, and to convey this with a speed, and in a language, that the white man could not possibly understand, and that, indeed, he cannot understand, until today. He cannot afford to understand it. This understanding would reveal to him too much about himself, and smash that mirror before which he has been frozen for so long.”

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

My students, almost instinctively, understand this pull towards needing a language to survive, needing to smash the damn mirror.

Whether we’re studying the writings of Junot Díaz and Laurence Yep or the various spoken word pieces we all bring to the table, my students write and speak beautifully — if tentatively (despite our open discussions of white supremacy and our class’s very POC-oriented playlist/syllabus, they are still in school and I am still their white girl professor) — about  various usages of Spanish, Chinese, and Spoken Soul as more liberating than “standard” English, as fundamentally able to convey depths of thought and emotion that bleached language cannot approach. They know, too, that certain linguistic cues almost inherently change the audience of texts, often signalling shifts from writing for their white professors, to writing for their various communities, to writing — radically – for themselves.

Sure enough:

“…White man tells me — hunh —

Damn to’ soul;

White man tells me — hunh —

Damn yo’ soul;

Got no need, bebby,

To be tole…”

Sterling A. Brown, qtd. in Spoken Soul

Sterling A. Brown’s celebration of catharsis vis a vis a blues-style celebration of melancholy validates my students’ insights: punctuating poetic speech with vocalizations of forced physical labor needs not name its discontent with the violence of whiteness. The affective power of this language need not be put into speech itself: as my students say, ‘it just gets at emotions the way ‘standard’ writing can’t.’

Along these lines, Spoken Soul serves as a sharp overview of much of the historical meanderings around meaning and surviving regarding the false binary between “Standard English” and “Black English” (as a stand-in for “everything else”).

The father-son Rickford team, in the Spoken Soul chapter simply called “Writers”, use these pages to lay out their first history of Spoken Soul (a term for “Black English” not yet tainted by the need for quotes around it to offset the history of ire and judgement of white supremacy surrounding terms like “vernacular”).

Instead of casting the violent history of white mangle-strangling of Black speech as the primary thread through which to write about written Spoken Soul, the Rickfords explicitly accord expertise into the hands of Black writers. Writers’ complex relationships to Spoken (written) Soul is made evident throughout this chapter, which provides historical accountings of white minstrelsy but focuses mostly on Black uses of Black languages.

Their discussion of James Weldon Johnson’s long and roller coaster-esque relationship to Spoken Soul begins following their accounting of the violence of minstrelsy and the ways that white writers and performers destroyed and devalued Spoken Soul in their blackface misrepresentations. This placement of their discussion frames Johnson’s (and others’) oft-resistance to Spoken Soul historically, drawing attention to the ways that audience (intended or otherwise) deeply impacts the performance of the verbal realm.

This resonates deeply for me, thinking about teaching freshmen comp: for whom do our students feel like they’re writing? How can we navigate the plethora of non-“standard” Englishes in many of our CUNY classrooms to encourage students to write “for each other” rather than for constraining, strangling white audiences (like… me)? What might it be like for white women teachers of comp (we seem to be… everywhere) to encourage our students of color to take a leaf out of Langston Hughes or Zora Neale Hurston’s (proverbial and literal) books, since they “refused to shun the speech of the black masses just because outsiders had misrepresented it”? It seems to me that this reeks of white privilege: so what’s the acceptable ground here?

Students, I feel like, can get at this dynamic well through reading chapters like this, which gives them a great spread of literature. And, armed with today’s examples of these dynamics, teaching this text could have a lot of potential. The Rickfords’ discussion of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s frustration that “now they don’t want me to write anything but dialect” because white audiences wouldn’t recognize or widely read his poems written in “standard” English reminds me forcefully of Empire: mainstreamed white consumption of Black language, Black imagery, Black bodies, Black music, needs its Blackness to be suitably in “dialect” so as to not disrupt masturbatory white fantasies of Black (non)people.

“They love the way we talk,” my girlfriend said while we were watching some commercial that had a Black woman voicing over a magnetic refrigerator giraffe last night, “but they don’t want to actually deal with our bodies.”

Indeed.

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1 comment

  1. As always, I am moved by your posts. I enjoyed your commentary about students having to, for lack of a better description, unlearn school when they are in critical literacies classrooms (I think this is true when their profs are POC too). Students won’t just value, use, explore, and creatively fuse the multiple languages in which they make meaning just because we ask. First, they haven’t had that practice. Second, they can’t really trust people to be what they say they are about.

    Most of the colleagues I have ever worked with insist they are dynamic and radical… or if not, radical, then at least progressive. Professors often have this sense of themselves. It is quite stunning, in fact. Most of what their students produce is standard, western, white discourse— in speech and writing— and yet they insist their classrooms are alternative to the norm!

    The same two-facedness about Black Language is true in journals. I once submitted a piece to a journal with the words RADICAL and PEDAGOGY in the title… they told me, in a nutshell, that Black Language is for the writing of Toni Morrison (yes, she was named), not academia and not nonfamous people like me. Two issues are illuminated here: 1) white folk think they own even Black Language; 2) the standards for Black academics are such that they need to be Pultizer&Nobel Peace&National Book award winners (strangely, none of the white authors’ style or prose seem prize-worthy to me and yet they are published in the journal). At the risk of repeating myself, this is a RADICAL PEDAGOGY journal. Imagine what these radicals’ classrooms must be like! Students really can’t afford to trust us.

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