Identity Through Language:

Updated: Feb 27, 2020

An Analysis of How the Oppression of Language on Black Americans Influences Perception of Identity

Many multi-lingual writers have English as their second language, for they tend to use English as a more universal form of communication to reach wider audiences. At the same time, many trans-lingual writers and speakers feel English is an oppressive language. As a result, writers like Julia Alverez, known for her creation of Spanglish, blend their English to reflect the many languages they speak, illustrating a more representative medium of their native tongue. Doing this creates a new, more inclusive English that allows writers to force their way into an oppressive Euro-American society. On the other hand, writers like Gloria Anzaldua spoke and wrote in English and Spanish, but ultimately found solace in her mother tongue because of the sense of identity in her native language. This is true for many trans-lingual writers. Noticeably, many people from black and brown countries have a great sense of nationalism and pride in their native country and native language.


In my senior seminar: trans-lingual imagination class, we were discussing the role language plays on a person's identity. If many multi-lingual speakers and writers feel like English is oppressive compared to their native language, where does that leave African Americans whose "mother tongue" is English. As a black American, I have no ties or sense of identity to America or to American English, as it feels like English doesn't particularly belong to me. However, it's interesting now I'm exploring writing, (obviously) specifically writing in English. Where does that leave me as a writer? Does writing in English compromise my integrity? Am I succumbing to the language of the oppressor? Or am I taking back any kind of authority my ancestors lost, who couldn't read, write, or really speak English at all, and re-claiming this language as mine? Do I want to? Do I have a choice? My trans-lingual professor stated in class "writers live in their words." So, is English my home now? I don't know whether to feel oppressed or free. Which then poses the question: does language simultaneously oppress AA but also give us authority over our humanity?

There are conflicting ideologies between two famous writers, Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe and Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o. Thiong'o believes, "If you know all the languages in the world, but you don't know your mother tongue, that's enslavement." In some ways, his viewpoint makes sense. If your community was conquered by mass systems of white supremacy, including your language, that would make knowing the language of the oppressor better than your mother tongue inherently oppressive. However, that ideology is arguable for people with known lineage to their native country. Again, where does that leave African Americans? In contrast to Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, Chinua Achebe doesn't protest writing in English despite his first language being Igbo. As a way to blend his two identities, Achebe writes with calques. A calque is the phenomenon of thinking in one language and speaking in another. To summarize a quote Chinua Achebe once said, write in English, think in African, and fill it full of calques. To be a writer is to be a rebel. Chinua is advocating for rebelling against the English language and make a new one by making it your own. Regarding AA, slaves were punished for learning to read and write. Phillis Wheatley, Fredrick Douglas, and Nat Turner fought back because they were educated with literature. To me, being a writer is an act of defiance against those who sought to oppress black people's voice. Eva Hoffman, author of memoir "Lost in Translation: A Life in a new Language", illustrates this point perfectly. In her memoir she said,

"It’s not that we all want to speak the King’s English, but whether we speak Appalachian or Harlem English, or Cockney, or Jamaican Creole, we want to be at home in our tongue. We want to be able to give voice accurately and fully to ourselves and our sense of the world."- Eva Hoffman, Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language

In recent years, black people are trying to emphasize AAVE (African American Vernacular English) as a niche of the American English language. My guess is African Americans are trying to find our home in English. The skill of code switching is also starting to become more recognized as a valuable asset. Speaking to a room of black people, compared to a room of white people, might warrant a different kind of language to get the intended message across. Code switching is almost a form of trans-lingual-ism. I think it's cool more black people are finding solace in AAVE, as Gloria Anzaldua emphasizes when you change your language, you change your homeland. Sure, language is an instrument of oppression but also empowerment. If we take the English language and make it our own, maybe we can find a new home that represents a more inclusive America.

"African American writing by its very manifestation within a white supremacist nation and its culture is a radical endeavor."
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