Tyrone Williams

Diction is to lexicon as parole is to langue; in positing this assertion as an axiom, I mean to emphasize the systems underlying each dyad even if the tetrad itself—diction/lexicon :: parole/langue—might be understood in terms of the relative capaciousness of each term. At the same time the meanings of the English and French terms do not overlap; diction does not mean the same thing as parole; lexicon is not the English translation of langue. This structural analogy between English and French linguistic terms with four different semantic values is meant to illustrate the complexities of the relationship between what DuBois called “the Negro” and “the American” in his pioneering essay “Of Our Spiritual Strivings.” The Negro, a New World creation, is not an African but stands in relation to the African as the American does the European. Thus, Negro/African :: American/ European. But as DuBois makes clear, the semantic values of the Negro and American are not isomorphic. Indeed, the former is affected by a strange frisson, a “peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” In what sense, then, does the dyad Negro/American map onto diction/parole? For DuBois the distinction is largely a matter of language, of expression, and he formalizes this point by beginning each essay in The Souls of Black Folk (the title itself was a polemical throwing down of the gauntlet) with a quotation from a Western philosopher, poet, or essayist, followed by a musical excerpt from a spiritual sans words. In thus gesturing toward the erased languages of enslaved Africans by marrying Western linguistic expressions to African musical expressions, DuBois identifies the “Negro” as less a genetic “type” (according to Enlightenment-inspired anthropological categories) than a global hybrid of linguistic and musical expressions. Although the global hybridity of the “American” was just as obvious in the late 19th c. as it is today, the struggle over American identity on several fronts (e.g.,  the suppression of Native American culture and the oppression of its various tribes and nations) was fraught with anxieties over language. This historical fact is suppressed or bracketed by what we may name, anachronistically, as the identity politics of the American and deferred by the “double-aimed struggle” of the “black artisan.” Both the American and the black artisan struggle to make a “nation” out of a ‘horde,” the former by negrophobia, which the latter has to fight off even as he has to help build a black nation without giving in to negrophilia (and thus an identity politics mirroring that of the American).

During the rise of black militant politics and art in the Sixties and Seventies, DuBois’s Harvard education, his invocation of a Talented Tenth, and his Elizabethan prose fell out of favor while the economic pragmatism of his opponent, Booker T. Washington, came to be seen as more useful for the general black populace. DuBois’s elitist tendencies as a young man aside (his death as an African socialist redeemed him in the eyes of some), his use of what had become a rather common phrase has been misunderstood. He was not saying that the “Negro” was hopelessly confused because his “dark body” was the site of “two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings, two warring ideals...” (11) Most important, he did not imagine that reconciliation meant assimilation or acculturation. Rather, the “half heart” of the “black artisan” was a direct result of his “double-aimed struggle”: “to escape white contempt for a nation of mere hewers of wood and drawers of water, and on the other hand to plough and nail and dig for a poverty-stricken horde...” The contradictions of two tasks—to prove to the “American” that a Negro can distinguish himself as a scholar and help build a nation of the dispossessed from the ground up (literally)—cannot be mapped onto, or read as synonyms, for a confusion of  identity (a word that DuBois does not use in the passages above).

For black artisan Harmony Holiday (poet, essayist, blogger, dancer and filmmaker), diction as multimodal strategy serves to shuttle back and forth between didactic attacks on negrophobia and didactic apotheosis of negrophilia. Black English is important to Holiday even though her books of poetry shuttle back and forth between Black English and Standard English. It would be premature, however, to assume that Holiday, a mixed-race daughter whose writings may well be described as evidence of “two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings, two warring ideals,” associates Black English with her black father and Standard English with her white mother. Negrophilia can express itself in either Black English or Standard English depending on how a speaker interprets what has been called “black love.” Ditto for negrophobia. Moreover, just as nothing prevents a black speaker from using Standard English, so too nothing prevents a white speaker from using Black English. This does not mean, of course, that the social and cultural values of these two modes of English are equivalent. For the black writer, however, equivalency must be asserted by incessant code-switching if the accusation (from oneself or the “black community”) of “assimilation” is to be avoided. Though examples of Holiday code-switching can be found in all her books, the poem “Maafa’s Good Diction,” from her most recent book, Maafa (Fence Books, 2020), encapsulates Holiday’s strategic deployment of Black and Standard English in her most compelling work. 

Black English appears in this poem in the forms of an abbreviated proper name (“I’ll always miss Malcolm”) and slang (“beneath afros not beneath straight perms or braids”). What is excised or bracketed here—X, Afros, permanents— “belongs” to a Standard English associated with white culture: “assimilation has its own/ language  good  diction.” Notably, Holiday does not write in Black dialect, signaling that she in writing to both black and white audiences she sidesteps the perils of a naturalism almost indissociable from minstrelsy. Still, insofar as Black English is to Standard English what the ineffable is to the expressible—Black English/Standard English: : ineffable/expressible—Holiday’s use of nonstandard spacing is a literalization of sub rosa coding: “they call me a        secret so I sing in the    cut.” The reference to Fred Moten’s theorization of  the “break” as informing jazz improvisation, sexual identity and radical politics on the one hand and a slang expression for seclusion on the other illustrates the dynamic and complex private and public lives of the poem’s ostensible subject: the relationship between radical thinkers Fred Hampton and Angela Davis. But these gaps among two modes of English also point to what is irrecoverable: not just the languages lost during the African diaspora but also the people and, along with them, the ways they would have used African languages. Black English is not a placeholder, as though those languages and people could be recovered. Rather, for Holiday, Black Rnglish is what came after the Diaspora, and while she takes no position on the controversial theory of “Africanisms” surviving the black holocaust (a literal translation of maafa), she understands the motivations behind esotericism in the work of artists like Sun Ra. Black English cannot help but draw on orthodox and heterodox grammars and syntaxes of the American language, understood as a composite of languages from every continent on earth.       
Poet Tyrone Williams was born in Detroit, Michigan and earned his BA, MA, and PhD at Wayne State University. He is the author of a number of chapbooks, including Convalescence (1987); Futures, Elections (2004); Musique Noir (2006); and Pink Tie (2011), among others. His full-length collections of poetry include c.c. (2002), On Spec (2008), The Hero Project (2009), Adventures of Pi (2011), and Howell (2011).  Williams is the editor of African American Literature: Revised Edition (2008). He teaches at Xavier University in Cincinnati.