09 September 2009

A Language of Necessity

Today, in a research writing class I teach, the students were discussing James Baldwin's essay If Black English Isn't A Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?

Several students said that even if he hadn't italicized it, this sentence would have leapt out at them: A language comes into existence by means of brutal necessity, and the rules of the language are dictated by what the language must convey.

The first time I read that sentence, so many years ago, it left me in tears. I knew exactly why, but I couldn't tell anyone else why. And even if I could have said, I'm not sure that I would have.

In those days, I didn't have language to express what I was experiencing. I tried to fashion it from bits and pieces of what I'd heard and read, but it never seemed like enough. Somehow I could not explain that, for example, I didn't "feel like a woman;" rather, I knew that I am one. Yet, at the same time, my sexual desires, such as I allowed myself to explore them, were not limited solely to either men or women. I did not have the language that allowed me to explain, much less express, this basic truth: That one's sexual preferences no more defines his or her gender than his or her body parts do.

Of course, I didn't talk about that aspect of my past. However, I could sense they knew, somehow, that although I am about as far from being black as anyone can be, I've actually lived much of what Baldwin describes in his essay. They knew that everything I said was not simply tested by the Socratic method or any other intellectual procedure: they could see that I have lived it; I have felt it.

I could see it in the way some of them nodded their heads and others stared when I said that the need for a concise, accurate and, if possible, moving language can cause people to suffer silently or even unconsciously with one problem or another. "That's the reason," I explained,"why children are molested and don't talk about it until they're 30 or 40 years old, or why girls get raped and don't talk about it until they're grown women."

One young woman in particular looked at me with a gaze that reflected her inquisitiveness and rage, yet was a plea for understanding at the same time. I could see the her question in her eyes,"How did you learn

The odd thing was that her gaze actually snuffed out whatever flickering of whatever desire I had, at least at that moment, to tell about my own story of sexual abuse. That they knew I was speaking and teaching from my heart was enough for me.

Then again, I don't think I had to talk about my own experience for her or other people to know that I had it. And if they don't know, that's even better: It means they trust me and I won't let them down.

Now I'm thinking of a time when I was discussing a student's paper on
A Doll's House with her. It was during the last year I lived and worked as Nick, and I had just left a long-term relationship and a place in which I had lived for eleven years. I had been spending a lot of time with my doctor, therapist and social worker; I would soon start to take hormones.

In the middle of our conversation, the student blurted out this observation: "When you were teaching about
A Doll's House--especially when you were talking about Nora--you were teaching about yourself, weren't you?"

Now, some would argue that we are always teaching about ourselves, and I wouldn't disagree.

But I also couldn't deny that teaching
A Doll's House, especially when I was talking about Nora, was particularly poignant for me at that time in my life.

"How did you know
that?," I wondered.

"Sometimes you just looked ready to cry," she said.

Indeed I was. But I wasn't today. I had other language at my disposal. I paid for it, but it is mine. Hopefully, I communicated something with it today.