Ntozake Shange and The Role of Language

[By Goyland Williams]

By now, many of you may have read the piece on Ntozake Shange by the New York Times. But, if you have not, then it is definitely worth the read. In the interview, Shange talked about her latest book of “choreoessays” turned theatrical show, “Lost in language and Sound: Or How I Found My Way to the Arts.”

Taking lines from one of her characters in the play, she recalls, “I can’t count the times I viscerally wanted to attack, deform and maim the language I was taught to hate myself in…The language that perpetuates the notion that causes pain to every black child.” The “problem” of language, in this instance, is the problem of Black Vernacular English. At one point during the interview, she laments the fact that even technology seems to ruin her work. Combat.

In a 1979 essay also published in the New York Times, James Baldwin raised the following question: “If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?” As if he anticipates Shange’s struggle with the role of Black English, Baldwin concludes that “language, incontestably, reveals the speaker. Language, also, far more dubiously, is meant to define the other–and, in this case, the other is refusing to be defined by a language that has never been able to recognize him.” For Baldwin and Shange, the other is both black and articulate.

While Baldwin may or may not have anticipated the intersectionality of the body, language, and technology, his essay is a poignant reminder that language is a combat zone. It reveals not only the speaker, but it confesses “your parents, your youth, your school, your salary, your self-esteem, and alas, your future”. And that confession is always both personal and political. 

The “tangle of technology” that Ntozake Shange finds herself in as she weaves the standard with the vernacular is both a question of experience and power. To reject black language is to reject black experience; to wield white power through art. Combat!