from EXPRESSIVE LANGUAGE
Speech, the way one describes the
natural proposition of being alive, is much more crucial than even most
artists realize. Semantic philosophers are certainly correct in their emphasis
on the final dictation of words over their users. But they often neglect
to point out that, after all, it is the actual importance, power, of the
words that remains so finally crucial. Words have users, but as well, users
have words. And it is the users that establish the world’s realities. Realities
being those fantasies that control your immediate span of life. Usually
they are not your own fantasies, i.e., they belong to governments, traditions,
etc., which, it must be clear by now, can make for conflict with the singular
human life all ways. The fantasy of America might hurt you, but it is what
should be meant when one talks of "reality." Not only the things you can
touch or see, but the things that make such touching or seeing "normal."
Then words, like their users, have a hegemony. Socially—which is final,
right now. If you are some kind of artist, you naturally might think this
is not so. There is the future. But immortality is a kind of drug, I think—one
that leads to happiness at the thought of death. Myself, I would rather
live forever just to make sure.
The social hegemony, one’s position in society, enforces more specifically one’s terms (even the vulgar have "pull"). Even to the mode of speech. But also it makes these terms an available explanation of any social hierarchy, so that the words themselves become, even informally, laws. And of course they are usually very quickly stitched together to make formal statutes only fools or the faithfully intrepid would dare to question beyond immediate necessity. The culture of the powerful is very infectious for the sophisticated, and strongly addictive. To be any kind of "success" one must be fluent in this culture. Know the words of the users, the semantic rituals of power. This is a way into wherever it is you are not now, but wish, very desperately, to get into.
Even speech then signals a fluency in this culture. A knowledge at least. "He’s an educated man," is the barest acknowledgment of such fluency in any time. "He’s hip," my friends might say. They connote a similar entrance.
And it is certainly the meanings of words that are most important, even if they are no longer consciously acknowledged, but merely, by their use, trip a familiar lever of social accord. To recreate instantly the understood hierarchy of social, and by doing that, cultural, importance. And cultures are thought by most people in the world to do their business merely by being hierarchies. Certainly this is true in the West, in as simple a manifestation as Xenophobia, the naïve bridegroom of antihuman feeling, or in economic terms, Colonialism. For instance, when the first Africans were brought into the New World, it was thought that it was all right for them to be slaves because "they were heathens." It is a perfectly logical assumption.
And it follows, of course, that slavery would have been an even stranger phenomenon had the Africans spoken English when they first got here. It would have complicated things. Very soon after the first generations of Afro-Americans mastered this language, they invented white people called Abolitionists.
Words’ meanings, but also the rhythm and syntax that frame and propel their concatenation, seek their culture as the final reference for what they are describing of the world. An A flat played twice on the same saxophone by two different men does not have to sound the same. If these men have different ideas of what they want this note to do, the note will not sound the same. Culture is the form, the overall structure of organized thought (as well as emotion and spiritual pretension). There are many cultures. Many ways of organizing thought, or having thought organized. That is, the form of thought’s passage through the world will take on as many diverse shapes as there are diverse groups of travelers. Environment is one organizer of groups, at any level of its meaning. People who live in Newark, New Jersey, are organized, for whatever purpose, as Newarkers. It begins that simply. Another manifestation, at a slightly more complex level, can be the fact that blues singers from the Midwest sing through their noses. There is an explanation past the geographical, but that’s the idea in tabloid. And singing through the nose does propose that the definition of singing be altered . . . even if ever so slightly. (At this point where someone’s definitions must be changed, we are flitting around at the outskirts of the old city of Aesthetics. A solemn ghost town. Though some of the bones of reason can still be gathered there.)
But we still need definitions, even if there already are many. The dullest men are always satisfied that a dictionary lists everything in the world. They don’t care that you may find out something extra, which one day might even be valuable to them. Of course, by that time it might even be in the dictionary, or at least they’d hope so, if you asked them directly.
But for every item in the world, there are a multiplicity of definitions that fit. And every word we use could mean something else. And at the same time. The culture fixes the use, and usage. And in "pluralistic" America, one should always listen very closely when he is being talked to. The speaker might mean something completely different from what we think we’re hearing. "Where is your pot?’’
I heard an old Negro street singer last week, Reverend Pearly Brown, singing, "God don’t never change!" This is a precise thing he is singing. He does not mean "God does not ever change!" He means "God don’t never change!" The difference, and I said it was crucial, is in the final human reference the form of passage through the world. A man who is rich and famous who sings, "God don’t never change," is confirming his hegemony and good fortune or merely calling the bank. A blind hopeless black American is saying something very different. He is telling you about the extraordinary order of the world. But he is not telling you about his "fate." Fate is a luxury available only to those fortunate citizens with alternatives. The view from the top of the hill is not the same as that from the bottom of the hill. Nor are most viewers at either end of the hill, even certain that, in fact, there is any other place from which to look. Looking down usually eliminates the possibility of understanding what it must be like to look up. Or try to imagine yourself as not existing. It is difficult, but poets and politicians try every other day.
Being told to "speak proper," meaning that you become fluent with the jargon of power, is also a part of not "speaking proper." That is, the culture which desperately understands that it does not "speak proper," or is not fluent with the terms of social strength, also understands somewhere that its desire to gain such fluency is done at a terrifying risk. The bourgeois Negro accepts such risk as profit. But does closeter (in the context of "jes a close-ter, walk wi-thee") mean the same thing as closer? Close-ter, in the term of its user is, believe me, exact. It means a quality of existence, of actual physical disposition perhaps . . . in its manifestation as a tone and rhythm by which people live, most often in response to common modes of thought best enforced by some factor of environmental emotion that is exact and specific. Even the picture it summons is different, and certainly the "Thee" that is used to connect the implied "Me" with, is different. The God of the damned cannot know the God of the damner, that is, cannot know he is God. As no Blues person can really believe emotionally in Pascal’s God, or Wittgenstein’s question, "Can the concept of God exist in a perfectly logical language?" Answer: "God don’t never change."
Communication is only important because it is the broadest root of education. And all cultures communicate exactly what they have, a powerful motley of experience.
LeRoi Jones (Imamu Amiri Baraka) "Expressive Language"
in Home: Social Essays, copyright © 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966
by LeRoi Jones (IAB). William Morrow & Company, Inc.