June Jordan speaking in Allen Ginsberg’s class at Brooklyn College in 1989 continuing from here
JJ: So sometimes the kind thing you describe, the radical rhythm, is …(yeah, it’s interesting, there in the oral tradition too)
AG: Have you written about that much? or written any descriptions or essays on this?
JJ: Well, I wrote.. Well, I had a column for a couple of years, I guess, two years, for the American Poetry Review, some time ago, and at one point I wrote.. it was called “The Black Poet Speaks of Poetry”. What I did in there was I devoted one column to what I called the distinctively Black poem because it just seemed to me that when critics got around to us they didn’t know what they were looking for, or looking at, so they said, when they got to us, there’s nothing here. And I was trying to give them a primer on what you might be looking for and therefore what you might find and then you could make judgment of that. If you don’t even know what it is.. It’s like if I didn’t know what a sonnet was, I didn’t have a clue, and you just gave me a whole slew of sonnets and asked me to criticize it I would look like a fool, you know.
Except these people didn’t want to look like fools and said we were the ones who were not doing anything, just making political statements and calling it poetry. So there I tried to define a…. you know I also said that it was different that our aesthetic, value-system also, required, you know, diction that was easily accessible to anybody, the average person, average person, (I call it “the average subway rider”, straphanger), she should know what you’re talking about, otherwise, you know, it’s anti-democratic what you’re doing. And it had to serve (some) collective purpose, I thought, because otherwise why would you expect people, you know, at random gathering on a street corner, to pay attention to you if you’re not paying attention to something of concern to them. So. ..and a collective… serving a collective purpose is another way of being political, obviously. And I figure…
And at that point I was pushing, as I am again and again, black English (I see you have something in your course papers called “dialect” – to me it’s language, it’s not dialect, it’s black English). I was promoting and pushing at that and a distinctively black poem, you’ll find….it’ll either be written altogether in black English or certainly will lean (to) the attributes on that language, yeah, black English, for its force.
Student: Could you define what black English is?
JJ: Yeah, that I’ve written about a lot, lots
Student; Well can you give us a brief definition here . When you say black English, what are you saying?
JJ: I’m talking about the language of Black America this distinct form in African-Americans here in America, in the USA
Student: All over the country?
JJ: Yes, there is a language, there is a language, there is a language system that is discoverable, system of communication.
Student: What is a Language System?
JJ: A system of communication that is common to all of us, that we all know – well, well we don’t know it well, but we all know, regardless of class, or of region, you know, whether we’re from the Caribbean or Alabama, and it comes out as language always does, it derives from our particular historical experience, you know, one that is particular to us, as against any other group of people we know. And, let’s see, I’ve really written about it at length, I really don’t want to get into it here, but I’ll just give you some ideas. For example, when we want to say something is really good, really positive, ok? we use a number.. we string together a whole lot of negatives (which is the complete opposite of standard English, which is to say white English) – “Aint nobody nowhere never sing as good as Anita Baker“? – for example. You know what I mean? – like that. That’s, like, three or four negatives in a row (and) you know I’m saying she’ is fantastic. You know what I mean? The very simple idea…the very simple version is “He bad” meaning “He good” – ok? But… that’s an example, the use of the double negative, triple negatives, quadruple negatives, to say something really intensely positive, this is a characteristic of the language. Another is that we really count upon the present indicative tense more than any other. There’s more communication taking place inside the present tense than (say) in the past tense, or future tense, or anything like that. And the possessive case almost never shows up (as..she has) . So you notice I’m not talking about specific words, I’m talking about structures, syntax, the grammar of consciousness is what I’m talking about, constitute(s) our language, is the base for. I taught this at Stony Brook, black English, a few years ago for the first time, under the aegis of the English department, which was very exciting, and it was the first time that I know of that it’s ever been done in the country, and it was credited, completely, a credited course. We’ll do it again, although I’m going out to Berkeley now but I’m going to try it as a year-course because, we got a lot done but we really need more time, because the first semester we could have spent the entire first semester on the grammar and then, you know, like, as you do with any language, you learn how you do it, and so in the first semester you practice learning speaking it and in the second semester you write it, and what we did our first time around was to study it and also then try to write it (you know write, using it simultaneously) – and that was little ambitious, I think. But there are other people doing it and there was a very important decision in 1976 in Michigan, an extremely important decision by the Supreme Court that there is such a thing as black English, and that if.. and any teachers of black children who were not able to.. who didn’t know the language and so on, that it was their business to learn it. In other words, because otherwise they would be disqualified from teaching those works to those children, because otherwise what was happening was that black children in Michigan were coming into (without knowing black English, which is the language, their home language, the language they learn at home) and they’re coming into school and being evaluated as intellectually deficient and verbally deficient and all that, which is to say everything they knew to do and how they knew to say it was called wrong (not different but wrong!). And so people said, “this is wrong, you wrong”, you know what I mean? And then they would say they should this other language they called Standard English. They said this is not the other language this is the right language, which is the white language. So, what happened there is what’s happened throughout this country, which is black kids, having come across this kind of reception for our language skills, become alienated from language per se and from reading and so on, and intelligence tests, and all these things depend upon your attitude towards language. And if your own language has been discredited for you when it mattered the most, when you first come to school, you’re probably not going to have a positive attitude towards language per se. So, anyway, the Supreme Court made this ruling – there is such a thing as black English and that anybody teaching black children will have to know their language first and start with that language. And what that means is they learn how to read and write the language that they speak, which is what happens to everybody in this country, you know, that they learn how too read and write in the language that they speak, and then when they have done that, then they can go on to a second language, let’s say standard English, a third language Spanish or what have you – like that – And this was happening – this is happening in different places for kids who speak Spanish. It’s the same thing. Yes?
Student: Could you speak about your own experience with language, how it developed..?
JJ: Sure – Mine was very divided and complicated. I should say complicated and rich . My father made me read things before I could really understand them. You know I read them when I was (little). that kind of thing. That included the Bible and Shakespeare, you know, long passages from the Bible, whole long passages of the Bible and Shakespeare, long plays, long before I could possibly understand what I was reading, so that I was really very much taken in the sound of the language, you know what I mean? That’s the only thing I could understand – what it sounded like (I didn’t know what the hell I was reading or what it meant, I didn’t have a clue) And the other person that he introduced me to was Paul Lawrence Dunbar, you know. So that was very exciting to me because I thought it was all sound. It was all sound, Dunbar had a certain sound. Edgar Allan Poe had a certain sound, you know what I mean, Elizabethan English had a certain sound, and the Bible, scriptures, you know, had that kind of cadence to it, and to me it was all about sound, it was just music, I just loved it. And then my parents raised a cousin of mine as sort of a.. almost as if she was a sister, and she was a really good mimic of West Indians, and so she would, she would…when people would come over go visit.. (her name is Valerie). Valerie would.. She would do some Paul Lawrence Dunbar and then she would imitate various friends and relatives who were not there at the moment, who were West Indians. And I was.. you know.. everybody loved this because… And all it was was the different sounds of all these different languages, everybody was summarizing them by calling them English. And I got very excited about language for that reason. And because I saw how, because it was Valerie, how it worked, just reading and reciting these poems by all these different people, I said, “that’s what I am”. So that’s how I got started and it was really about the sound..
Student: (But this is all pretty standard procedure of language-learning for children). So I was thinking.. you, obviously, you yourself, didn’t have personal contact with Black English?
JJ: Well, yeah, my aunt.. We lived on Hancock Street in a three-story house, and my aunt and her husband lived in the top floor. We lived on the first two floor and her husband and my cousin lived on the top floor. And her husband was a man named Theodore I Rutledge, my Uncle Teddy, and his black English was amazing, and he talked it a lot…and I imitated him
Student: Was he…American?
JJ: Yeah, no, American, He was from Georgia, originally. And I…
Student: How long had he been in New York?
Student: How long had he been in New York?
JJ: Well he had come up here and for amount of time, I think he’d been drafted. And he founded something called The 99th Street Boys, here in Manhattan, And he was just a talker, this guy, he was a talker. You know. And one of the things, one of the talks he could talk was black English (and I didn’t even know what that was, I just thought it was my Uncle Teddy. He used to tell stories all the time, and I’m sure they were all lies! – and I adored him, you know, I adored him, he was just incredible, incredible. And, subsequently, when he was talking when he was talking that talk, that was black English. I mean, I call it black English but I didn’t know what it was, I just called it Uncle Teddy.
Oh yes, definitely. They sent me away to school. They thought that would solve the problem. For one thing they thought I was developing a Brooklyn accent (which is a whole other consideration that didn’t even cross my mind…)
Student: But your parents didn’t speak what you define as black English
JJ: Well my father had a very heavy.. no not black English…no because he was Jamaican
Student: Yeah I’m just looking at your definition here.
JJ: But the.. There is a relationship between the Afro-Caribbean languages and black English, yes, there is a relationship. One of the differences is that.. one of the relationships is that in both cases we’re talking about people who were enslaved and oppressed and so on and who had necessary an ambivalent attitude and relationship to the language of the slave-holder, you know what I mean and the guy who came from England in that case, the big guys that came from England in that case in the case of Jamaica and spoke the Kings English and that’s what it was it was, “the King’ English”, and then there was “the Queen’s English”. It’s a little clearer actually in the Caribbean context because that’s what they called it – “the Queens English” and “the Kings English “. Here, well if you think about it, it gets very clear fast what we’re talking about – we’re talking about power, we’re talking about politics of language is what we’re talking about. In this country, everything is masked, you know, so they don’t call it that. They don’t call it the language of the powerful, they call it “Standard English”. So if you don’t speak Standard English you are sub-Standard (which means something apparently negative obviously. It’s not different, you are sub-Standard!) – So that was huge.. I mean the politics of language is a huge issue that’s going on in this country now in many different places and, as I said, as I mentioned in the reading, I’m just back from London, and Paris and in the British Isles there’s huge, huge fights about, like, language now, In Scotland, and in Ireland and in Wales, the poets there, the people are really supporting, they publish bilingually all the time. They publish in Welsh, lets say, and then in, quote Standard English. Well that’s… You know what I mean? Gaelic and so on, Glaswegian and so on. That’s like as if I was to take a poem that I had written in Standard English and then I would necessarily, over here, over here write the same poem in black English. This is what I’m talking about. They’re doing that in the British Isles.. I mean, this is.. And people are not playing about this. This is deadly serious, because they understand that, what some of us here have been trying to make clear, that language is about consciousness and if you erase your particular language or allow it to happen, your consciousness has been erased, in a historical sense, it’s really.. it’s not ok –
Student: I just wanted to comment on what you were saying. Samuel Beckett, who is Welsh, no he’s Irish, but for many years he wrote in French because English was an oppressive language (and) in Joyce’s Ulysses, it seems, he says, he’s going to write all his work in Gaelic, I think
JJ: I don’t remember – Gaelic?
AG: Well he was from Ireland, so Gaelic, yeah
JJ: ..but he didn’t
JJ: Well Robert Burns was doing very much the same thing with the English poem. That’s why he wrote his poetry the way he did
AG: And Hugh McDiarmid in our century wrote in Scottish, Scots tongue rather than English as part of a campaign to resist the erasure of Scotch consciousness
JJ: There’s a novelist now who’s very hot over there from Glasgow, from Scotland named James Kelman and the last two things he’s written as a novelist, they’re written entirely, you know, in Scots..what do you call it? Glaswegian…and it’s very difficult to understand, and he says Right! – (this is his attitude – “Right!”)
and I’ve just finished writing the play that maybe you mentioned when you were introducing me in which my father (I had my father in the play) and his very very heavy Jamaican accent and I wrote it as faithful as I could and (whoever doesn’t understand doesn’t) understand it. That’s it. Do you know what I mean? It’s like that – Because there’s a life and blood issue here.
When you’re dealing with an oral language, dealing with the vernacular, trying to reproduce it in print, don’t you have, don’t you have two different languages, obviously, operating here? how are you able to, you know, someone mayhear your father and understand him, when they get their ears used to listening to him, but reading it. as you have put it on the page may be a whole different kind of thing
It’s hard, it’s hard, I mean, feeling that way, it’s hard. It’s like what people said about Paul Lawrence Dunbar, they called it dialect, and all that, they wanted to put it down… They said the spelling looks weird, and all this kind of stuff. Well what he was trying to do was to spell it out literally. You know what I mean? Because he was assuming he cannot come among you and read to you the way its supposed to sound so he’s trying to spell it out .
What I try to do, say, in my play about my father’s West Indian accent, I try to give just some general guide. For example, whenever a word has an “h” at the front of it, a West Indian will drop the “h”, you know what I mean? And conversely if the word starts with an “I” they’ll add an “h” – (“yes, ith is..”)…- they’ll add “h’s” where there aren’t any “h”s, and take them off when there are. This is a general guide (just for..)
And so, like I say, the relationships between Afro-Caribbean languages and Afro-American language or black English. An example is…I don’t want to make this too technical but there’s something called copula This is like, instead of saying, in black English you don’t say, “Are you going to the store?” or “You are going to the store”, you say “You goin to the store?” or “You goin to the store” You know what I’ saying? It’s like that. Well, the copula, or whatever, is the “are” – You know what I’m saying? You drop it, you drop it. And the same thing happens in Afro-Caribbean languages (I’m just talking structure now, syntax, groundwork). You drop it. I’m talking about when you’re talking good Black English, good Afro-Caribbean. Like anywhere else.. I mean good bad, indifferent. You drop it you don’t use it and that’s one of the reasons why, if people want to be really effective and forceful, they often, including notably, big time advertisers, they will use one or another variety of Black English, because its so forceful, because you get rid of that stuff that you don’t really need – that you don’t say “Are you going to the store?”, you say, “You goin to the store?” – and then when it was an imperative “You go into the store”. You know it was the same thing and there’s no mistaking what you mean, it’s absolutely clear. The system of communication that we’re talking about really works, it works with a minimum number of words Anyway, this is all about something that I care very much about so I don’t want to ruin it.
So we’ll go on with the panel because we don’t want to use up their time and then we’ll pick up this discussion again at the end – ok