Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Language and Power in John Edgar Wideman

Yesterday in Resistance and Reconciliation we talked mostly about "power," using the work of Michel Foucault as a lens through which to view an aspect of power and domination; the subjugation of particular knowledges, particular stories. Because the class was mostly discussion, I'm not sure that I can give you a feel for how it was to be in the room. I can say, looking back through my notes after class, that we talked about, in order:

1. Foucault's Two Lectures, especially pertaining to "the insurrection of subjugated knowledges."

2. WEB DuBois' concept of a "veil of consciousness;" that is, the notion that people (and, in the case of DuBois' work, Black people) tend to see themselves the way they are seen.

3. An essay by Laura Stivers titled Resistance to Structural Adjustment Policies, found in the textbook Resistance and Theological Ethics edited by Ronald R. Stone and Robert L. Stivers. We attempted to connect some of Stivers' observations to Foucault's discussion of "capillaries of domination."

4. Part I of Traci C. West's Wounds of the Spirit: Black Women, Violence, and Resistance Ethics. This Part of her book focuses on the stories of black women who have been victimized by all kinds of violence, especially what she calls "intimate violence," a phrase that many of us struggled with because of the oxymoronic distance between the words "intimate" and "violence." The phrase captures all of the immediate potency that the words "rape" and "molestation" have lost.

Anyway, in discussing "subjugated knowledges" - that is, those forms of knowledge that have been subjugated by power, those stories that we don't hear because we are conditioned by our participation in power structures not to hear - and West's stories from black women who have been vicitimized by the power of violence and the violence of power, our discussion at some point shifted organically into a discussion on the relationship between language and power.

There are some stories, some in the class argued, that we perhaps don't hear simply because of the language they are told in. By this they didn't mean that the stories were written or spoken in, say, Mandarin Chinese and we only speak English. Rather, by this they mean that they were spoken or written - told in some fashion - in a "shameful" dialect of English, some bastardized subset of our language that we dismiss as ignorant without ever engaging its content.

Some of us had this experience reading the stories in West's book. They used a kind of dialect that reflects a lack of formal education; and we, as graduate students and/or professors of some stripe or another ("Masters of Divitity students," "Masters of Arts in Religion students," "Masters of Spirituality students," "local pastors," "military chaplains," "Ethics professors," and "Systematic Theology professors" are labels carried by those in the room) value formal education above almost everything else. As such, most of us were subconsciously dismissive of the stories told in a less formally educated English dialect. After all, we have worked hard to master a kind of English - not necessarily our native dialect of the language in most cases - to achieve what success we've achieved. That these women had not done the same kind of work, that they had not mastered our new language, turned us off a little. Made us on some unconscious level judge them as somehow inferior to us, as somehow participating in the violence done to them.

They weren't our kind of people, and they didn't communicate their stories on our kind of language, and so we were less able to hear them. This is part of the relationship between power and language. They mastery of the language of power gives one access to power, allows one to have one's story heard by power. It allows us to participate in power, and hold some power of our own. Failure to master the language of power renders one almost powerless; at least powerless to communicate to power, to be heard by power.

This discussion reminded me of the work I did on John Edgar Wideman's use of language as an undergraduate. I did an independent study on the subject aimed at producing a publishable paper. The end result was almost, but not quite, worthy of inclusion in an academic journal.

Anyway, much of my work focused on the relationship between race, power, and language. Part of my thesis was that Wideman - a black author - had to "unlearn" the language of his native Homewood, PA, and learn the more "white" language of academia that he encountered at Penn and Oxford. His success in his chosen profession - and, more broadly, his success in life - depended on subverting his native language and conforming to the language of power. What follows is a small chunk of that paper:


Nowhere is this more apparent than in Wideman’s use of, and comments on language. While Hoop Roots represents a major step for Wideman’s use of language, language, and its connection to race and cultural upbringing is not a new topic for him. It is, in fact, one of the running themes of one of his earlier works, Brothers and Keepers. Brothers and Keepers is a memoir of his interactions with his incarcerated brother. These interactions take place both in physical reality and in his imagination, and interactions in both realms are significant. It is often, in fact, difficult to tell which interactions actually took place, and which interactions are merely descriptions of what he wished that he had said or heard. Wideman often meditates on the alternating distance and intimacy with his brother. This leads him to discuss many obstacles in their relationship; obstacles which include education and language. He says:

Your words and gestures belong to a language I was teaching myself to unlearn. When we spoke, I was conscious of a third party short-circuiting our conversations. What I’d say to you came from the mouth of a translator who always talked down or up to you, who didn’t know you or me but pretended he knew everything.

Was I as much a stranger to you as you seemed to me? …I’d made choices. I was running away from Pittsburgh, from poverty, from blackness. To get ahead, to make something of myself, college had seemed a logical, necessary step; my exile, my flight from home began with good grades, with good English… (Wideman Brothers and Keepers 26)

Here it is not his use of language which is interesting, but his comments on language. Language, the white language of “good English” has become a form of alienation, both from his brother as well as himself. In adopting the language and values of the dominant culture which educated him, both at Penn and Oxford, Wideman can no longer relate to his natural culture, the culture which he shared with his brother and his family.

But, now as he is writing this book, he has gained some distance both from his original culture and the culture of his education. He is able to articulate a critique of his own thoughts and actions, and of the impact that his education and the dominant language of that education had on him. When he speaks of the third party short-circuiting the conversation, or the translator, or the know-it-all, he is speaking of both himself and the culture which educated him. He is, of course, mocking the tendency of young, well-educated men to bluff others with their new vocabulary. He is also mocking the tendency of educated people to over-value their education and gloss over that which they don’t know. He is mocking the way in which one culture judges another culture by its own values rather than looking at the internal values of that culture. And he is mocking the way in which older brothers, far removed from home, distance themselves from the struggles of the younger brothers left behind.

But, it would be a mistake to overlook the role language in this passage. Language may be the most significant alienating factor. Wideman has given up the language structure of his youth, of his family, of his home. He has exchanged it for his ideas of success. It may be a necessary and even helpful exchange, but it is not a cheap one. His brother speaks the language that he is teaching himself to unlearn. Whereas language was once one of many common bonds between them, it is now an obstacle.

Is it possible, I wonder, to use the language of the dominant culture, and not, through the use of that language, appear to be talking down to someone who uses language differently? Is it possible for someone within the language structure of the dominant culture to encounter a different language structure, notice that it is different, and yet pass no judgment on it? Is it possible to move from one language structure to another without passing some form of judgment on the now abandoned language? Wideman did not move from one language structure to another because he thought that both language structures were equally valid and useful. Rather, he moved from the language of Homewood to “good English” because he was taught that the English he was learning was, in fact, good. He adopted the language of the dominant culture in order to succeed. With that there must be some form of evaluation of the language structure that he discarded. It is, if not quite inferior, at least not as useful.


There's more to the story, as you might guess. The rest of the paper explores how Wideman's views on and use of language change over time, as he goes through the process of "unlearning" and "relearning" the language of Homewood. It explores the role that language plays in his "alienation" from both his culture and the culture of "white" academia. It also looks at how he uses language on the "other side" of success.

I suspect as we explore these issues in Resistance and Reconciliation, I will publish other excerpts from my study of Wideman. But this is more than enough for today.

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