Recently, I attended a reading by Kiese Laymon where he read from an essay in progress. The essay he read came about after the recent events in Parkland, Florida, and the shooting death of Stephon Clark in Sacramento, California. I do not want to talk about Laymon’s essay here because I do not think it would right for me to comment on a work in progress; however, I do want to explore a couple of ideas that the essay made me think about. These are ideas that I have been pondering a lot lately, and as such, this post may appear more scattered than usual. For that, I apologize.
During his reading, and during the question and answer period afterwards, Laymon brought up the idea that we need to be honest and truthful with ourselves and with others. This, in and of itself, is nothing extraordinary; however, the process becomes complicated when we really start to delve into the depths of our lives. Specifically, this process becomes messy when we encounter the linguistic and education systems that have reared us.
We need to recognize, first and foremost, that we are part of system erected to maintain power for certain individuals. This system gets reinforced throughout our lives because the majority of us existed within it and learned from it. This is where the problem resides. If a system teaches us that “black” is bad and “white” is good, the implications of those connotations extend far beyond an abstract idea or possibly inconsequential issue. The implications reach into our interactions with other people as we go about our day to day lives. This linguistic construction, along with other connotations that we bring to the table, clouds the Truth that we so desperately need to seek.
Hosea Easton in the 1820s talks about this when he describes the usage of the “N-word” by whites and their children. He describes the psychological effects of language and the connotations that arise from it on Black youth who exist within a system that degrades and diminishes them through the material of instruction and the language used in that instruction: “the more education they have, under such circumstances, the more artful they are in following the haunt of dissipated principles.” About 140 years later, Robert DeCoy addresses the same issue. He provides two lists of ten words to his readers. The “Alabaster Peer” conceived both sets. The first set refers to Whites, and the second to Blacks. The first word in each set is “white” and “black” respectively. From there, the Whites’ list ascends to words that carry positive connotations, and the Blacks’ list devolves. DeCoy tells his readers that through the creation of these words “the Alabasters . . . have proved themselves Creators of Human Beings.”
Ultimately, to reach the Truth, we need to strip away the artifice of the constructed world that we inherited and perpetuate. Again, though, this proves severely difficult to do. We are comfortable in our ignorance, and we do not want to have our views or perceptions challenged in any shape, form, or fashion. We want to go about our lives: waking up, going to work, coming home, going to bed, repeat. We want to insulate ourselves, protecting our fragile egos from the damaging Truth that lies just beyond the door, or between the covers of a book. We want complacency because the digging is too hard.
Hortense Spillers sums this difficulty up in her essay “Mama’s Baby Papa’s Maybe” when she writes,
Embedded in a bizarre axiological ground, they [the labels] demonstrate a sort of telegraphic coding; they are markers so loaded with mythical prepossession that there is no easy way for the agents buried beneath them to come clean. In that regard, the names by which I am called in the public place render an example of signifying property plus. In order for me to speak a truer word concerning myself, I must strip down through layers of attenuated meanings, made in excess over time, assigned by a particular historical order, and there await whatever marvels of my own inventiveness.
Each of us, no matter who we are, have layers upon layers upon layers “of attenuated meanings, made in excess over time” that hinder us from ever reaching a Truth that will set us free.
Even when one, such as a teacher, tries to chip away at these layers, the process must involve at least two participants: the teacher and the student. If the student, buried beneath layers of sludge, wants to remain entombed, then what do we, as teachers, do? I have had students, throughout my career, question the readings on my syllabi, particularly in survey courses. They would ask, “Why are we reading so many Black authors?” At this, I would talk to them about the importance of learning from the perspective of others, and I would walk through the syllabus, usually concluding that it contains one third or maybe half underrepresented voices. This does not seem to sway the student. What do we do in this situation? How do we proceed? Thankfully, this does not happen much.
While there are the students who overtly reject any engagement with the search for the Truth, there are those who are open to engagement, and it is these students who invigorate me everyday. These students, at a much younger age than I was when I started thinking about these issues, are cognizant of the problematic system that they exist within, and they want to learn more and hopefully rectify the situation. I did not come to this journey till after I completed my undergraduate degree, and some of my peers did not come to it till much later. That is what inspires me about these students. I strive to help them strip away the detritus that suffocates us and keeps us subsumed and oblivious to Truth.
Returning to “black” and “white.” Learning to disentangle ourselves from the linguistic systems that constrain requires constant thought. Almost every day in class an issues arises where we discuss two sides of the topic. Through my years of training, I want to use “black” and “white” to label the sides. I have to pause, take a breath, and think of another pair of words to deploy. Sometimes I use “good” or “bad,” words still somewhat problematic. Other times, I just state the sides. I am not sure if students pick up on this. I do not necessarily expect them to unless I mention it, but I hope that in some way, maybe subconsciously, it has an impact on them and the ways they think about language because it is a topic we discuss frequently throughout the semester.
Unfortunately, I am on a lifelong journey to dig myself out of the layers above me. I do not know if I will ever truly make it, but I know, for sure, that I am trying my best to throw the trash to the side and reach that Truth.
What are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments below. Make sure to follow me on Twitter @silaslapham.