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Black History, Uncensored: James Baldwin and the threat of ‘Black English’

James Baldwin’s 1979 essay demanding respect for Black language helps explain right-wing attacks on words like “critical race theory” and “woke.”


We should never forget that the right-wing fight to thwart inclusive learning plans stems from a fear of Black language. 

There’s a reason conservatives have waged this fight using “woke” and “critical race theory” as boogeymen. Republicans have relied on bigoted, white fears of the unknown to frame these words as dangerous. 

That these ideas were conceived by Black minds — more specifically, Black minds awakened and unnerved by the fact they were often seen as inferior to white people — only seems to make conservatives more resolute in banning them. 

As an example, Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders spoke to those bigoted fears in her State of the Union rebuttal on Tuesday, denouncing what she called a “woke mob” that has put conservatives “under attack in a left-wing culture war we didn’t start and never wanted to fight.” And that was just one sliver of a rather unhinged speech.

In that vein, it feels right to highlight a James Baldwin article that’s been on my mind as the next post in our ongoing series “Black History, Uncensored,” which focuses on work by Black artists targeted by Republican bans. While most Republican bans targeting Baldwin take aim at his essay collections and novels, Baldwin’s “If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?” is a perfect follow-up to my Toni Morrison post from yesterday. 

Not solely because the 1979 piece cites Morrison, but because it speaks to the same phenomenon Morrison addressed in her “Unspeakable Things Unspoken” speech: white elites’ apparent impulse to discredit the legitimacy of Black speech and expression. 

And both probe for reasons. 

Baldwin wrote: 

The brutal truth is that the bulk of white people in America never had any interest in educating black people, except as this could serve white purposes. It is not the black child’s language that is in question, it is not his language that is despised: It is his experience. A child cannot be taught by anyone who despises him, and a child cannot afford to be fooled. A child cannot be taught by anyone whose demand, essentially, is that the child repudiate his experience, and all that gives him sustenance, and enter a limbo in which he will no longer be black, and in which he knows that he can never become white. Black people have lost too many black children that way.

He continued:

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.

Conservatives haven’t been coy about their efforts to toxify and manipulate Black language. 

And Baldwin, for his part, always saw this for what it was: cultural desecration.

Read previous “Black History, Uncensored” posts on Toni Morrison, Alice WalkerTa-Nehisi Coates, Kimberlé Crenshaw and bell hooks.