Tongue-tied: orality, literacy and the politics of language

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Author: Robert Hinton
Date: Summer 2007
From: Black Renaissance/Renaissance Noire(Vol. 7, Issue 2)
Publisher: Institute of African-American Affairs (IAAA)
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 1,954 words

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In "The Negro and Language," the first chapter of Black Skin, White Masks, Frantz

Fanon writes:

Every colonized people--in other words, every people in whose soul an inferiority complex has been created by the death and burial of its local cultural originality--finds itself face to face with the language of the civilizing nation; that is, with the culture of the mother country. The colonized is elevated above his jungle status in proportion to his adoption of the mother country's cultural standards. (1)

In this chapter, Fanon describes Martinicans who, having visited France and learned Parisian French, pretend not to understand Creole when they return home. "The problem that we confront in this chapter is this," Fanon writes: "The Negro of the Antilles will be proportionately whiter--that is, he will come closer to being a real human being--in direct ratio to his mastery of the French language."

Perhaps in response to Fanon, many Caribbean writers have decided that it is not appropriate to write in European languages because these languages are the artifacts of slavery and colonialism. These writers overlook the fact that Frantz Fanon spoke perfect Parisian French and wrote his words of condemnation in perfect Parisian French in Peau Noire, Masques Blanc. A few years earlier, Aime Cesaire, Leon-Gontran Damas, Leopold Sedar Senghor and others constructed Negritude, in perfect Parisian French. Writing in "Creole" is as much a colonial enterprise as writing in French. It is the act of writing, not the language chosen, that is problematic.

Would it be less of a colonial enterprise if, instead of writing in French, one were to write in Creole by typing on a "European" keyboard, using a "European" alphabet, then stuffing the Creole writing into a "European" envelope and sending it through a "European" postal system to a "European" publisher who will then sell the resulting books in a "European" book-store?"

When she was younger, my daughter would occasionally say "Daddy, you're not speaking correct English. Mommy says ..." My response was, "I'm not speaking English. I'm speaking Afro-Carolinian.' She was skeptical but, because she trusts me, she accepted it. What started out as a desperate attempt to maintain a positive image in the mind of a precocious child, is evolving into a political theory of language.

I have two languages. This linguistic "double consciousness" consists of "Afro-Carolinian," an oral dialect that I learned in the projects from my father's working-class culture; and what I call "American," the written language of my mother's middle-class family; the language taught in school; the language of the books in which I have sought refuge since childhood. Walter Ong writes about the different ways orality and literacy organize the human mind. According to Ong:

Primary orality fosters personality structures that in certain ways are more communal and externalized, and less introspective than those common among literates. Oral communication unites people in groups. Writing and reading are solitary activities that throw the psyche back...

Source Citation

Source Citation
Hinton, Robert. "Tongue-tied: orality, literacy and the politics of language." Black Renaissance/Renaissance Noire, vol. 7, no. 2, 2007, p. 106+. Accessed 14 May 2021.

Gale Document Number: GALE|A164421308