|Type of paper:||Critical thinking|
|Categories:||Race Discrimination Languages|
James Baldwin's "If Black English Isn't a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?" was written with the tragic history of African Americans in mind. In this essay, Baldwin provides numerous examples that successfully support the significant impact black culture has had on English. Meanwhile, he concentrates on the background and history of different languages to get audiences to think about semantics from a new perspective. This essay effectively helps readers to understand that black English and culture have had an enormous impact on mainstream English as well as the American culture. Although Baldwin uses a harsh tone and gives blunt commentary, he effectively applies concise, emotionally inspiring examples and credible facts about the history of African American to prove the reality and necessity of black English.
The history of slavery is prominent throughout his essay. Baldwin uses emotional appeals in his essay and uses pathos to stress the necessity of black English or the harshness of the language. The tone in this article directly parallels the roughness of black English, specifically his short sentences and blunt statements about the ignorance of Americans. Baldwin concludes his article with the following:
And, after all, finally, in a country with standards so untrustworthy, a country that makes heroes of so many criminal mediocrities, a country unable to face why so many of the nonwhite are in prison, or on the needle, or standing, futureless, in the streets-it may very well be that both the child, and his elder, have concluded that they have nothing whatever to learn from the people of a country that has managed to learn so little (796).
Although Baldwin often emphasizes the importance of black English, in this essay, he attacks the positive reputation of American values and instead emphasizes American ignorance toward black vernacular and culture. American audiences usually find offense with Baldwin's essay, however, which make his claim more powerful.
The use of rhetorical appeals is apparent in Baldwin's essay. Another example where Baldwin uses rhetorical appeals to stress on the necessity of black English is when he appeals to the emotions of his readers through pathos and he tells a personal story that describes how Americans tend to discredit a language that was once meant to save people:
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 (796).
This story helps readers to realize that black English is really necessary for them to stay safe; Americans do not fully understand the necessity of this language, even though it is a language that has been spoken for centuries. Baldwin primarily defines the development of language as a political act used by individuals in establishing a unique identity. With a clear explanation of black English, Baldwin differentiates between language and dialect. According to him, language allows individuals to express and define themselves from their own perspectives instead of being defined by others (Baldwin 795). The role of language goes beyond mere communication and can be used in classifying individuals and in judging the backgrounds of different people.
Baldwin effectively proves the reality and necessity of black English through these relevant examples, which bring a new perspective to white American readers. Although emotion definitely is an easy way that Baldwin can make readers believe in a claim, the author also uses logic to explain the reality of black English. Baldwin targets the Americans who speak English by explaining that some of the words they use came from African-American vernacular. Baldwin says that "Jazz, for example, is a very specific sexual term, as in jazz me, baby, but white people purified it into the Jazz Age. Sock it to me, which means, roughly, the same thing, has been adopted by Nathaniel Hawthorne's descendants with no qualms or hesitations at all, along with letting it all hangout and right on!" (Baldwin 795). This pattern of purification and usage makes white Americans think they have the power to possess and dominate other people and their culture. Throughout history, white Americans have taken control of African Americans through slavery, and now Americans use black English phrases and rework them for themselves.
Being illiterate keeps people from written information and can hurt their ability in school. Not speaking the right language is also a handicap, as Baldwin explains, saying, "If two black people, at that bitter hour of the world's history, had been able to speak to each other, the institution of chattel slavery could never have lasted as long as it did" (Baldwin 795). Not being able to speak the same language makes it nearly impossible to communicate, which contributed to slavery lasting as long as it did. Language is not perfect, but it is essential and crucial for human survival. It impacts the day-to-day activities of an individual, regardless of the creed, region, or race. Through language, individuals are able to express their desires and feelings to the world around boosting their knowledge and understanding of different aspects of life.
The language someone speaks demonstrates where the person comes from. Each country has its own official language, and many languages have dialects. If a person speaks dialect, it may reveal where the person comes from, and dialects may be used to divide people from different places. Baldwin discusses the different dialects of the French language and explains that:
A Frenchman living in Paris speaks a subtly and crucially different language from that of the man living in Marseilles; neither sounds very much like a man living in Quebec; and they would all have great difficulty in apprehending what the man from Guadeloupe, or Martinique, is saying, to say nothing of the man from Senegal-although the 'common' language of all these areas is French (794).
They thus all speak French but with a dialect from their own region.
People use language to separate and identify themselves. Baldwin says, "It goes without saying, then, that language is also a political instrument, means, and proof of the power. It is the most vivid and crucial key to identify: It reveals the private identity, and connects one with, or divorces one from, the larger, public, or communal identity" (Baldwin 795). The author describes how language is a political instrument and an illustration of the power and how it connects people or differentiates people from the societal identity. This point is a key element in the article because the black race obviously speaks differently from the white race. The difference in language causes a larger divide and distances black people even more from society because it is not the standard that society goes by, and anything which dissociates from the standard is labeled as wrong.
Baldwin reports that the development of language is a political behavior through which people establish a distinct identity. He also differentiates between language and dialect. A language allows people to define and realize who they are instead of another people expressing or misrepresenting their reality. According to Baldwin, "People evolve a language in order to describe and thus control their circumstances, or in order not to be submerged by a reality that they cannot articulate" (Baldwin 794). Baldwin points out that language helps people understand and communicate with one another. Therefore, people get a sense of something that everyone craves: a feeling of being a part of society.
Baldwin claims that black English is a language that derives from African-Americans, and he makes a clear statement about the creation of black English, as well as its profound purpose. Black people had to create a vernacular to improve their chances of surviving against the pressures of racism. Baldwin, a well-known author, desires to challenge racist perspectives, and he effectively uses techniques and rhetorical devices to not only secure the attention of multi-racial readers from different backgrounds but also to disprove the ridiculous claim that black English is not a language. Through his profound emotional ideas and effective appeals to pathos, Baldwin delivers profound insight into the purpose and creation of black English.
Baldwin, James. "If Black English Isn't a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?" Practical Argument: A Text and Anthology, edited by Laurie G. Kirszner and Stephen R. Mandell, Bedford and St. Martin's, 2017, pp. 794-797.
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