Baldwin, language, blackness

In “Letter on Humanism,” a letter written to French theorist Jean Beaufret in response to the claim that his book Being and Time did not contain an ethics, Martin Heidegger famously remarks that “language is the house of Being.” This is a signature moment in Heidegger’s work, one that (roughly) shifts his work from the relationship between subjectivity and ontology to the more searching, and certainly more peculiar, question of language, truth, and Being. But Heidegger underscores something very important in this famous remark: language and what it means to be are inextricably linked.

For Heidegger, this question of language and Being begins a long story about the special relationship between German and ancient Greek, the special character of the Greek language and its ability to reveal certain things about the world, the special capacity of German to reactivate so much of that specialness of ancient Greek, and so also a long story about the special depth of German nationalism. A philosophical nationalism, of course, but nationalism nonetheless. So much specialness. If we de-specify Heidegger’s remark for a moment – bracketing the particularities of his own work on language and Being – then we can catch sight of a crucial insight that also lies at the heart of the black Atlantic: being is inconceivable outside how speaking, writing, and expression manifest. The question of how is pointed and crucial, for in the question of the capacity of language to be tweaked, transformed, or wholly overturned lies the question of the possibility of liberation.

This is of course the question that drove so much of the Négritude movement and its obsession with rewriting the French language in Aimé Césaire’s and Senghor’s poetry. In part, this is the existential moment for Négritude poets; the meaning of existence and liberation from the alienating effects of colonization is a cultural project, turning on a transformation of the colonizer’s language. Fanon underscores this same claim in an existentialist context when, in Black Skin, White Masks, he makes two key remarks on language:

To speak means being able to use a certain syntax and possessing the morphology of such and such a language, but it means above all assuming a culture and bearing the weight of a civilization. (BSWM, 1-2)

and

To speak a language is to appropriate its world and culture. The Antillean who wants to be white will succeed, since he will have adopted the cultural tool of language. (BSWM, 21)

Language carries culture and civilization – world, in a word. The house of Being in Heidegger becomes, in the black Atlantic context, the house of the colonlization of the human, of being, and therefore of Being. Language and world, and therefore being itself, are inseparable. To speak is to be inscribed in a language whose history and roots set the terms of alienation or home.

In a pair of essays from 1979 and 1980, Baldwin makes a similar sort of claim in beginning a defense of what he calls “black English.” He writes in “If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me What It Is?” that

Language, incontestably, reveals the speaker. Language, also, far more dubiously, is meant to define the other – and, in this case, the other is refusing to be defined by a language that has never been able to recognize him. (649)

This passage recalls Fanon’s long reflection on the problem of diction in Black Skin, White Masks, a reflection that circles around the terrifying claim that the destiny of the black person is to be white, and therefore the impossibility of the actualization of blackness in French. Fanon never quite responds to this dilemma in terms of language; pidgin and creole, the two vernacular moments in the Caribbean context, are derided as racialized performances for white people. Baldwin’s advance on Fanon, and I do think it is a profoundly important one, is to see in the evolution of vernaculars a resistance to alienation and the construction of a medium in which the oppressed can see themselves. Baldwin writes:

People evolve a language in order to describe and thus control their circumstances or in order to not be submerged by a situation that they cannot articulate. (And if they cannot articulate it, they are submerged.) (649)

Without language, being is submersion. In this case, submersion drowns being in the wave of anti-black racism, where whiteness occupies black being from the inside and outside. Language evolves, Baldwin claims, in order to resist this submersion. Survival, yes, but also the formation of identity and culture. To begin: what does this evolution look like? A long passage is worth quoting in full:

Black English is the creation of the black diaspora. Blacks came to the United States chained to each other, but from different tribes. Neither could speak the other’s language. 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. Subsequently, the slave was given, under the eye, and the gun of his master, Congo Square, and the Bible – or, in other words, and under those conditions, the slave began the formation of the black church, and it is within this unprecedented tabernacle that black English began to be formed. This was not, merely, as in the European example, the adoption of a foreign tongue, but an alchemy that transformed ancient elements into a new language: A language comes into existence by means of brutal necessity, and the rules of language are dictated by what the language must convey. (651)

This passage raises a number of questions, including the relationship between sound, memory, and the spirituals. Let me postpone that last question for a moment and instead pose the existential question Baldwin here raises. Being itself is made possible in this moment of brutal necessity – possible in the refusal of nothingness and the abyss of submersion. The moment of brutal necessity is terrifying and repeated for two and a half centuries, and so the question of vernacular raises the very real problem of the relationship between painful origin and the culture that is made out of that origin. For Fanon, the painful origin is too much, a ghost that drags down the present with the terrifying past in which survival meant producing relationships to language – pidgin and creole, then folded over into cultural forms like blues, jazz, and spirituals – that degraded black people. But Baldwin, borrowing Toni Morrison’s turn of phrase, instead calls vernacular language a whole world (and not a “dialect,” which would subordinate black English to white English), marked by “this sheer intelligence.” An intelligence – that is, a way of thinking, expressing, and therefore making a world. Or making a series of worlds, diverse from the beginning, in the world of black English and the various histories and memories of which it is composed.

The cultural question raised by the Négritude movement takes on an interesting form here. Whereas for Césaire and Senghor it was a world-to-come, and thus a question of the future as such, for Baldwin it is a question of simply theorizing what is already here. So, in “Black English: A Dishonest Argument,” he writes plainly:

The black American has no antecedent. We, in this country, on this continent, in the most despairing terms, created an identity which had never been seen before in the history of the world. We created that music. (128)

Music, language, identity. Or, in a word: being. Being, perhaps, as description. Baldwin writes:

The language forged by black people in this country, on this continent, as the choir just told you [my emphasis], got us from one place to another. We described the auction block. We described what it meant to be there. We survived what it meant to b etorn from your mother, your father, your brother, your sister. We described it. We survived being described as mules, as having been put on earth only for the convenience of white people. We survived having nothing belonging to us, not your mother, not your father, not your daughter, not your son. And we created the obly language in this country. (126-127)

Baldwin’s remarks – and there is of course much more to say – locate in the question of language and being what Marisa Parham, in her Haunting and Displacement book, describes:

Living with a painful absence, with a phantom limb. Yet even if one might not be able to control one’s environment, cannot alone end racial violence, or steel against the news of other people’s deaths, there are indeed ways we seize tiny bits of control, make small spaces of balanced relation find some distance so that we might live with, as Karla Holloway puts it, ‘grace, hope, and resilience.’