A Word on Language
Recent conversations and correspondences boths on- and off-line have turned my thoughts to the sticky question of the relationship Black academics, language, accessibility, and the broader African American and Afro-diasporic community.
The ivory tower, the intellectual elite, the plantation — these and similar terms have been used by progressive activists to capture the perceived (and in many respects the actual) elitist and exclusionary nature of the academy. Add the phrase “slave to/in” or “stuck on/in” and you will understand just a small sampling of the not-so-affectionate nicknames sometimes applied to the Black academic whose published work uses the specialized language of his or her discipline. Such terms are not applied universally, and are generally reserved for those scholars whose texts introduce ideas believed to be emancipatory for African Americans and/or other people of African descent, but in language that is inaccessible to most readers.
I have long been troubled by this line of thought. I think it’s not only acceptable but often necessary for a scholar to use the specialized language of his or her discipline in his or her work. Disciplinary language was not created (solely or primarily) to exclude. Rather, disciplinary language enables scholars to write with precision about subjects for whom more mainstream forms of language have few or no applicable terms. Scholars who use obscure and jargon-filled language in ways that seem excessive and/or exclusionary are often decried by readers both inside and outside of their fields of research.
It is true that some of the people who might benefit from exposure to and debate around some of the ideas expressed in certain scholarly essays and books might be unfamiliar with the language used in some academic publications. Black scholars, many of whom would very much like for their work to become part of a broader discussion of race and identity, tend to transmit their ideas using a variety of different media, many of which are accessible to a wider audience than might find their way into an academiec publication. Many Black scholars give speeches in the community, for example, or do workshops for churches on their areas of expertise. Many do interviews on public radio and local television, media forms that are accessible to virtually everyone.
I cannot say how many times I have heard the argument that books by Black academics are “inaccessible to the people who need to read them the most.” Suffice to say that opinion is very familiar to me. As a Black woman in the academy, however, I would have to say that many of those who need to hear and understand new and progressive anti-racist ideas the most are other people in academe. I could list number of articles and books by Black academics that have changed the way that many non-Black scholars in the humanities and social sciences teach, both in terms of what and how they teach.
And in terms of social change, what happens in college classrooms really does matter. A greater percentage of people go to college in the U.S. than in any other country in the world. That means that students from a wide range of socio-economic classes, races, faith traditions, and regions attend college and return to their communities influenced greatly by the ideas and texts that they are exposed to.
“Big words” and specialized language can be obfuscating and alienating for some; but I don’t believe that this is the problem of the user of said words. My own personal vocabulary is serviceable, but not enormous. I do love words, though, and I do the best I can to express myself with precision and clarity, and to learn new words whenever possible, partly because of the emphasis that both of my parents placed on constantly striving to become more knowledge. Today they refer to this pursuit as lifelong learning. I prefer to call it self-education as a lifestyle.
Something has gone awry in the education young Black people — not the education that kids get in school, but the education they get at home. There was a time when most parents of African descent, many of how may themselves have had limited education, told their children that they needed to have a bigger and broader vocabulary, that they needed to learn more, work harder, take advantage of more opportunities, and in the end just do better than their mom and dad had. There was a time when Black parents and grandparents of all classes taught their kids that each generation needed to have higher standards — of living, of learning, of freedom and joy — than previous generations.
To those who would take issue with ways of using language that they perceive as less familiar, less accessible, or more elite than what they are comfortable with, I would paraphrase some words I once read on a t-shirt:
“I’ve upped my standards. Up yours.”
Post by Ajuan Mance