29 pages 58 minutes read

James Baldwin

If Black English Isn't a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?

Nonfiction | Essay / Speech | Adult | Published in 1979

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Summary and Study Guide

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

James Baldwin’s essay, “If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?” appeared in the Sunday edition of The New York Times on July 29 1979. The essay makes a case that Black English is a distinct and vibrant independent language rather than a dialect of so-called “standard” English. The essay addresses Black English as a Form of Resistance, The Weaponization of the Power of Language, and Education as a Tool of Self-Empowerment.

A famous and sought-after public intellectual, James Baldwin was a novelist, essayist, playwright, poet, and teacher. His 1963 bestselling nonfiction book, The Fire Next Time, comprised two previously published essays that dealt with Black identity and racial struggle in the United States. The book led to him appearing on the cover of Time on May 17 1963.

By the time “If Black English Isn’t a Language…” was published, Baldwin had spent more than 30 years writing, speaking, and teaching about race, language, and literature. Baldwin also used his skills in support of the African American civil rights movement of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. He received a Guggenheim Fellowship (1954), the National Institute of Arts and Letters Award (1956), and the Polk Memorial Award for outstanding magazine journalism (1963) and was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters (1964).

This guide uses the essay source text from the 1979 internet archives of The New York Times.

Content Warning: This guide discusses racism and enslavement.

Note: This study guide capitalizes “Black English” and “Black people” while also quoting and preserving James Baldwin’s lowercase usage “black English” and “black people.” The source text also uses “men,” “he,” “his,” and “him” as universal terms assumed to refer to people overall.

The essay’s title makes both the essay’s purpose and its argument clear from the outset. Baldwin uses the essay to explore aspects of what constitutes a language and consider multiple purposes and uses of language, marshaling evidence to support his contention that Black English is a fully-fledged language in its own right. He begins by addressing the context of the sociocultural debate over Black English and asserts that the real issue is the role of language—any language—rather than the status of the specific language called Black English. He also broadens the debate to discuss how some people or cultures attempt to use language to define an “other.”

To explore the broader role of language, Baldwin explains why people need language and offers French as an example, delineating some of the myriad ways and places that French is spoken alongside the widely differing circumstances of the inhabitants of those places. Baldwin asserts that their “common” language isn’t actually held in common at all. He goes on to describe how all humans use language to achieve what he calls their “temporal identity”: a specific identity created and bounded by a particular place (or places) in time. He cites “tension in the Basque countries, and in Wales” and Ireland as examples of people who are determined to keep their unique languages alive even in the face of contempt from other cultures toward those languages (Paragraph 3).

Baldwin returns to English to convey his overall argument regarding the arenas of politics and cultural or communal identity. He discusses how language can connect or divide people and how it even has the potential to lead to lethal consequences. He describes the role that accents play in public life in England, using the occasion to introduce and illuminate his first linguistic example of Black English: “put[ting] your business in the street” (Paragraph 4). Leading from this example, he argues that Black English flavors and even distinguishes American English, listing numerous Black English terms and phrases “adopted by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s descendants” (Paragraph 5). Baldwin also makes the case that at least two significant American sociocultural periods and movements owe their existence to Black English: the Jazz Age (roughly 1919-1929) and the Beat Generation (roughly 1955 to the early 1960s). He claims that Black people “created a language that permits the nation [the United States] its only glimpse of reality” (Paragraph 6).

Following from this discussion of the Jazz Age and the Beat Generation, Baldwin reasserts that the “present skirmish” over Black English has its origins in American history—more specifically, in the Black diaspora that was a consequence of the centuries-long slave trade of Indigenous African peoples. Captured Black Africans arrived on North American shores “chained to each other” but unable to speak each other’s languages (Paragraph 7). Baldwin elucidates how enslaved Black people formed the Black church, which then gave rise to Black English. Baldwin highlights the particular circumstances of the enslavement of Black people in the United States and describes how those circumstances sparked an “alchemy,” creating a new language that came “into existence by means of brutal necessity” (Paragraph 7). For example, the new language had to quickly alert its speakers to the many dangers they faced daily and had to do so beyond the understanding of white people. Baldwin asserts that many white people still don’t (or won’t) understand Black English because, if they did, it would reveal to them “too much about [themselves]” (Paragraph 8).

Given the emergence of Black English in the face of danger, Baldwin describes the multifaceted “mighty achievement” of Black English as a language and questions any definition of language that would disqualify Black English. He builds his case against Black English being a “dialect” rather than a full language and defends Black people’s articulateness, saying, “[w]e are not compelled to defend a morality that we know to be a lie” (Paragraph 10).

Baldwin ends the essay by addressing the “brutal truth” of education: that most white people educated (or educate) Black people solely to “serve white purposes” (Paragraph 11). Baldwin asserts that educating someone requires respecting that person’s life experience and their culture. He argues that educational systems or agents who “despise” Black children’s experience have led to the loss of too many Black children. He lists many more reasons—including Black people disproportionately making up prison populations, easy access to dangerous addictive drugs in minoritized communities, and a dearth of employment opportunities—that Black people might sensibly rely on their own skills and language rather than adopting anything from their oppressors.