Several years ago, Jerry W. Ward, Jr., responded to a question I posed about barriers preventing students from engaging poetry by noting that one possible challenge for students was "fear of language, or, perhaps to be precise, fear of language that one does not participate in creating." Among other things, his phrase "fear of language" served as a point of departure for me to explore a range of thoughts.
Last week and this week while working with high school students from Cahokia and Madison, Illinois, I returned to considerations of the fear of language, especially in relation to the art and pain of insults.
Like many of my fellow African American literary scholars, I spend considerable time speaking about the power and artistry of language, primarily in favorable ways. We discuss and in many cases celebrate works and words by Toni Morrison, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, and many others. However, we've had less to say, at least in formal ways, about the damage that people, black people, can do to other black people with language.
During the course of my conversations with high school students, some of them talked to me about their experiences being bullied. They discussed being called names and being regularly targeted as the subject of jokes. One student told me that the students at her school were relentless: "They always saying how bad I look, how funny I dress, and how dumb I talk."
She told me that she was relieved that her family had recently moved and that she would get a chance for a new start at a new school. She and a couple other students noted that the insults at their expense apparently had noticeable receptions. "Everybody laughs," they said when I asked about the responses to the negative insults hurled at them.
Talking to those young people last week and this week has been a reminder for me to expand the discussions about the power of black words in my classes. It was a reminder to why, for good reason, some young people have a fear of the ways language is used against them.
• Fear of Language