Students in my African American literature class have heard me say frequently these past few weeks that, “the one who controls the narrative holds the power.” African descended people have long understood and valued narrative, the power of story, and the power of naming. The history of colonialism and the trans-Atlantic slave trade is a chronicle of narrative violence seeking to impose a false history, consciousness, and culture on African peoples. Anxiety has been the cost.
I perceive a great deal of anxiety in African descended people around the world. It seems to be a chronic, if not terminal, malady arising from that peculiar sensation of always looking at ones self through the eyes of others. DuBois’s words persist and endure and provide an answer to Malcolm’s pointed question, “Who taught you to hate yourself, from the top of your head to the soles of your feet? Who taught you to hate your own kind? Who taught you to hate the race that you belong to?”
Recently, in several of my Facebook feeds, an article appeared about African children being punished for speaking in their indigenous languages at school. Being a United States native of the state of Louisiana, I was reminded of stories from older Acadians (Cajuns) whose old French tongue was banned. They tell stories of being disciplined in Catholic schools by nuns when they would slip into the Cajun French frequently spoken in their homes and communities. Over time, they abandoned their illicit tongue. However, this also meant abandoning and denying a key point of access to their cultural heritage. Now, there is a push to regain and restore Cajun French and to preserve that heritage. But, can the damage be undone?
Ngugi wa Thiong’o proclaims that language is inseparable from ourselves as a community of human beings with a specific form and character, a specific history, a specific relationship to the world.” As an African descended person living in the diaspora and an educator in African descended cultural studies, I was pained to read about the African soul, young African souls, being made illicit and African tongues being declared profane. While the body may be decolonized, the mind clearly continues to be the sight of much colonial violence. My protesting voice simply joins so many others in resisting this stigmatizing and demonizing of African ways of being in the world. The voice of the poet June Jordan cries out, “I am not wrong: Wrong is not my name My name is my own … and I can’t tell you who the hell set things up like this …”
Our tongues are not illicit or profane; nor are our ways of being. How long O Lord will we continue to be punished?