11 Oppression, Language, Survival: A Response to James Baldwin

Zilu Wang

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In this essay, Wang explores the relationship between language and social contexts. Pairing the linguistic background of their own family with James Baldwin’s article ‘If Black English Isn’t A Language, Then Tell Me What Is’ Wang unpacks the subtle differences in language that can illuminate details of lived experience. Further exploring the interplay between  language and control, this essay focuses on language as a tool to reflect different realities.

Zilu Wang


ENGLWRIT 112: College Writing

Day Month Year

Oppression, Language, Survival: A Response to James Baldwin

When I was little, I was always curious to know why my grandfather seemed to speak a different language than everyone I knew. No one else around me used words such as “comrades” and “serve the people” that were both novel and puzzling to the eight-year-old me. “Where did you learn these words?” I inquired, to which my grandfather returned a gentle smile and said: “These were the words of Chairman Mao.” From his answer, I was finally able to gather that these words were the remnants of the Maoist period, and the reason why I felt as if my grandfather was speaking a different language: he was speaking a different language. During the Chinese Cultural Revolution, people were forced to adopt a type of communist language. Refusal to speak this language would immediately result in arrest and even execution. Therefore, having lived in this social context, my grandfather is accustomed to speaking the communist language.

In his article, “If Black English Isn’t A Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?” James Baldwin speaks about the capacity of language to articulate experience. According to Baldwin, “people evolve a language in order to describe and thus control their circumstances.” Baldwin’s observation is that, since each individual has distinct circumstances, he/she speaks a language that is subtly different from that of other people. For instance, as Baldwin points out, “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 … although the ‘common’ language of all these areas is French.” In my grandfather’s case, the language that he uses articulates the circumstances of another place in another time period: China in the Cultural Revolution era. Though Baldwin claims that everyone speaks different languages, everyone spoke the same language in China during the Cultural Revolution. The Communist Party took control of people’s realities, and thus every individual had the exact same amount of control left: none. In fact, they had so little control that they could not “evolve a language”; their language was given. Baldwin says, “people evolve a language … in order not to be submerged by a reality that they cannot articulate. (And, if they cannot articulate it, they are submerged.)” If we do not have the tools required to articulate our circumstances, we are submerged by the forces of our societies. This is why the Chinese people were submerged: they lacked the language to articulate their reality.

The fact that the Chinese people were forced to speak a language that reflected a controlled reality robbed them of their ability to articulate their circumstances. James Baldwin, in his essay, asserts powerfully that “we are not inarticulate because we are not compelled to defend a morality that we know to be a lie.” This quote implies that inarticulateness is a result of hypocrisy, and that the white people in America were inarticulate because what they said was not consistent with the reality. This situation in America is surprisingly similar to that in China during the Cultural Revolution period. As a result of the political environment, the Chinese people were all hypocritical, though involuntarily. They praised the Communist Party and recited Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung for fear of oppression, and this hypocrisy was another obstacle that prevented Chinese people from becoming articulate.

The Chinese Communist Party must have recognized the potential of language as a means to control reality, or else it would not have paid such attention to people’s language. This shows that “language is also a political instrument, means, and proof of power,” as the James Baldwin essay states. Through the imposition of the communist language, the Communist Party reinforced its ideology among the people as they became accustomed to and accepted the values hidden within the language. The reason speaking the communist language would protect people is that language, as Baldwin recognizes, “connects one with, or divorces one from, the larger, public, or communal identity. There have been, and are, times, and places, when to speak a certain language could be dangerous, even fatal.” By speaking the communist language, my grandfather connected with the Communist Party. By contrast, those who spoke a different language distanced themselves from the Communist Party and risked danger. It is interesting that while James Baldwin also uses the word “survival” in his article (to describe the purpose of black English), “survival” as the purpose of communist Chinese has a completely different meaning. Whereas James Baldwin uses the word to indicate flourishing and advancing, I use the word in the most literal meaning: “the state of continuing to live.”

On a more fundamental level, reactions to languages are not triggered by the languages per se. “It is not the black child’s language that is in question, it is not his language that is despised: It is his experience.” In this quote, James Baldwin elegantly states that black English is despised only because it represents the black experience. What this quote suggests is that reactions to languages are based on not the languages themselves, but on the contexts of the speakers that these languages reveal. Applying this idea to the Chinese scenario, it is evident that the oppression was not geared towards the non-communist language itself, but rather an entire ideology that the non-communist language represents: capitalism.

The ability of a language to articulate reality and facilitate survival varies according to different social contexts. In Baldwin’s context, black English articulated the status quo of the African Americans, and contributed to the flourishing and advancing of the African American population. In contrast, in my Chinese context, the communist language was essential to preventing harm, and the language did not reflect reality accurately. When a language fails to reflect reality, its speakers become inarticulate, such as the white people in America and the Chinese population during the Cultural Revolution. For both the white people in America and the Chinese Communist Party, their reactions toward languages are not determined by the languages per se, but the personal contexts of the speakers. In the contemporary China, since the political circumstances have changed, the Chinese people have become articulate. Nevertheless, remnants of the Cultural Revolution can still be found, such as the communist language that my grandfather still uses.

Works Cited

Baldwin, James. “If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?” The New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/books/98/03/29/specials/baldwin-english.html. July 29, 1979. Accessed 5 March 2017.