Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.
-- Matthew 5:5 (KJV, RSV)
Dey bless fa true, dem wa ain tink dey mo den wa dey da, cause all de whole wol gwine blongst ta um.
-- Gullah Nyew Testament
I stood by my car on the campus of a black college in Mississippi, outside the building where three and a half decades earlier I had first taught Speech and Drama. A middle-aged gentleman wearing a beret and a red convertible parked next to me. In southern fashion, we chewed the fat. He asked if I had come for the Gullah language conference. I said no, but I had read about the project to preserve Gullah: I understood that a Gullah New Testament was in the making. He said, “It’s done. Would you like to see one?”
So I held in my hands a red leather book. The Word of God in the language of people whose ancestors were enslaved. "Fa de fus time, God taak to me de way I taak." Sea Island Creole, like all regional languages, is under siege. The loss of any language is the loss of a world; but can the children make a living in it?
Ancient Latin, Greek and Hebrew still live through the learned professions because so much was written in them. Thucydides still speaks to the occupiers of Iraq. But the language of a people to whom literacy was denied will go up in smoke if its classics are never written down. I held in my hand a torah.
The words are like marbles and pebbles in my mouth. My tongue must move them and move around them. “We Fada wa dey een heaben, leh ebrybody hona ya name.” The words change my cadence, alter my intonation, punctuate my breath. “We pray dat soon ya gwine rule oba de wol.” I cannot speak them in my customary voice. “Wasoneba ting ya wahn, leh um be so een dis wol same like dey een heaben.” Saying these words, I become someone else.
Listen to me: I’m talking about race. The Attorney General said, on February 18, that we’re “a nation of cowards” because we don’t talk about race. Here I am.
These divine tablets are radioactive. They attest a truth that, when I came to teach here, I was not supposed to speak. Liberal doctrine was, there were no black ways of speaking. Any such suggestion would prove that I was “prejudiced.” “Negroes” were “just like us,” and teaching them would be like having Sidney Poitier in for dinner, with his well-cut suit and Ivy League articulation. No wonder that I failed here as a teacher: I was young, and I was immature, and my cultural instruction had been bogus.
“How dare you depict our people as incapable of proper English? Apologize immediately for your stereotypical and condescending parody!” But this is not a parody. I didn’t make this up. These words come from the mouths of African-Americans; these words are sacred to them; these words enact the lives of ancestors. Black scholars are rushing to retrieve these words before they vanish from the earth. “But you, who oppressed us, have no authority to speak these words. They’re ours not yours. Only we can read them, write them, study them, interpret them.” So let me get this straight: you say I don’t have a moral obligation to study your works, to learn how you survived in the oppression to which we imported you? “There, you see! You’re always looking for an excuse, to ignore our culture, and belittle the black experience!” The nuclear word, armed in various silos, hums whichever way I turn. I’m not the only one. Even if you’re black, you’re not safe handling these tablets.
Listening with love, I hear that my African-American brothers and sisters, on trek toward liberation, have brought with them a past that is both joy and torment. There’s no disgrace in this ambivalence – it comes with the territory; but it should be owned, by black and white alike. I, a white man, can’t resolve the conflicts of my siblings. Who died and made me the referee?
How to view the artifacts of an enslaved and terrorized past – that’s the issue. Are they badges of shame or trophies of achievement? Is “dialect” or “pidgin,” the creole of a people we suspended between worlds, a problem or a solution? Is the spiritual a whine of submission or an anthem of subversion? Is Br’er Rabbit a dirty family secret or a culture hero? Bert Williams, who performed vaudeville in blackface; Hattie McDaniel, who played the mammy in a racist film; Stepin Fetchit, who clowned in the black and the white movie industries – were they race-traitors or crossover artists? Not for me to say.
Oppressed people on the road to liberation ask: are we the same as, or are we different from, the rest? God speaks from both sides of her mouth: there is no answer. There is only, in God’s time, sublimation of the warring terms – an Aufhebung as Hegel would have it – for which there is no logic but only grace. Are Jews the same, or are they different? Yes. Are women the same, or different? Yes. Are gays the same, or different? Yes. Are African-Americans the same, or different? Yes. They are all the same. They are all different.
How I have run on! far beyond the usual limit of this enterprise. But there’s no truthful short description of these matters. If you want me to talk about race, Mr. Attorney General, you’re going to have to listen for a while. Hard to keep opposing terms of truth in one’s head at the same time. Easy to get it wrong when there is no right. I cannot resolve the issues. I cannot stop caring. The best part of me lacks authority, but will not be silent. Hier steh’ ich, in my social location; ich kann nicht anders.
If you can’t hear the spiritual’s defiance (“Gonna walk all over God’s Heav’n”), concealed in a double entendre of compliance; if you can’t cheer the sass of Will Marion Cook’s Broadway songs (“When they hear them ragtime tunes/ White folks try to pass for coons”), decades before Porgy and Bess; if you can’t read victory in a language made from memory and reality (“de whole wol gwine blongst ta um”), reminding its speakers who they were; if you don’t know that when the master has his boot on your neck, survival is resistance; then it doesn’t matter what your race is, if you can’t read these chapters of our nation’s racial history, I can’t be on your side.
On the other hand – if you think Bill Cosby, because he portrayed a paterfamilias who practiced a profession and sent his kids to college, is not black enough; if you think Barack Obama, because he talks with the articulation of the Harvard man he is, is not black enough; if you think Colin Powell, because he speaks of responsibility, is not black enough; if you define the word “black” as “poor, ignorant, shiftless and unemployable,” except in sports or hip-hop; if you deny that our brothers and sisters, who lived with ingenuity behind The Veil, can learn to be bilingual and then prosper by it – then it doesn’t matter what your race is, or what your nationality, your language, your class and culture are; if you think that way, I can’t be on your side.
My “side” must be both sides. If I relinquish either, I am worthy of that devastating word. The world is now so tilted that simplicity is banished. And yet, brothers and sisters of color, it is so simple: I want you to prosper in a land you have good reason to hate, but which you also love.
Am I brave enough, Mr. Attorney General?
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