The Flip Side of Something Lost in Translation: "Language: Teaching New Worlds/New Words"
Saturday, January 09, 2021
hooks wrote this essay inspired by Adrienne Rich’s poem, The Burning of Paper Instead of Children. Rich describes her frustration with language that can’t describe oppression. It broaches a discussion on the imperialist nature of Standard English.
This is a powerful and poetic rumination. It shows how Standard English dominated the lives of displaced black people. Dominate. Shame. Humiliate. Colonize. Slaughter. Conquest. These are the words hooks uses to describe the experience of chattel slaves. These slaves lost their freedom as well as their means by which to communicate with one another. If you’ve never considered this before, imagine being being sold, you, your family, your friends. Imagine someone takes you to a place that doesn’t speak your language. Imagine that you have to learn a new language. Not in classes but in response to threats at work, with the highest stakes imaginable. I can’t. Would you view that imposed language as a language of oppression? I would.
It would never occur to me to resist at the level of language. But that’s what these chattel slaves did. They created a black vernacular, a counter-language that mangled vocabulary and syntax. This language (spoke) beyond the boundaries of conquest and domination. It created a site of resistance. Resistance? Yes, because white slave owners couldn’t understand it. These chattel slaves may have lost their African language. But they gained the ability to communicate in plain sight of their oppressors.
hooks connects this black vernacular with rap music. Both were popular if not appreciated. Both got white people to listen if not respond and, in the process, become transformed.
She considers the reluctance of academic journals to publish pieces in black vernacular. In a prior post, I wondered if she had ever considered creating her own Academy. I now wonder if she had ever considered publishing her own journal. Granted, it would be a niche journal. It would would feature academic pieces written in black vernacular. I'd read it.
In the classroom, she asks non-native speakers to first write in their native tongue. Then to translate the result. The flip side of something lost in translation. Her purpose? So students didn't feel estranged by a dominant Standard English.
She elaborates. Here my skepticism accrues. She describe the effect of listening without mastery. How it creates a momentary silence, a space to learn. She proposes that students may only need to understand fragments of master narratives. This requires a leap of faith. Faith in my ability to pull it off and faith in my students’ ability to digest it.
I appreciate her criticism of Standard English used in the Academy. How it offers no intimate space for non-native speakers. I appreciate her characterization of black vernacular as ruptured, broken, and unruly. What happens, though, in my classroom? How do I weigh these poetic, spot-on observations against my classes’ specific requirements? These observations may enchant me. But I am nonetheless not a little stymied at their practical application.
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