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James Baldwin on how writers need to change their language (and more than their language).

Emily Temple

June 16, 2020, 10:00am

This morning, I drank my coffee while listening to this 1979 speech, given by James Baldwin in Berkeley. It is no novel thing to remind you, readers of this website, that James Baldwin was one of our most essential speakers, thinkers, and writers, so I’ll just say: if you’ve got half an hour this morning, you should spend it watching this. It’s a beautiful, brilliant speech—one that feels, unfortunately, like he might have written it for our current moment. He begins, as all writers must, with language:

What a writer is obliged to some point to realize is that he is involved in a language which he has to change. For example, for a black writer, especially in this country, to be born into the English language is to realize the assumptions of the language, the assumptions by which the language operates, are his enemy. When Othello kills Desdemona for example, he says, “I threw away a pearl richer than all my tribe.” I was very young when I read that. And I wondered about that. Richer than my tribe? I really had to think about being as “black as sin,” as “black as night,” “black-hearted,” and in order to deal with that really, to deal with that, at a certain time in my life, when I was not in this country, but in France, where I could not speak to anybody because I spoke no French—but no one wanted to speak to me—I dropped into a silence in which I heard for the first time, really heard, and began to be able to try to deal with, the beat of the language of the people who had produced me.

Watch the whole thing here:

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