Friday, May 18, 2007

Language of the private and public


Recently I was thinking about how language can operate as a private act, and limit what and when we share with others. This occurred to me when I was working on a bilingual project about family. It reminded me of when I read Richard Rodriguez's Hunger of Memory:The Education of Richard Rodriguez (1981) and realized that Spanish was the language of his family and culture-based closeted homosexuality, and English was the language of his mainstream public (read:white) engagement. This book was controversial due to Rodriguez's stance against bilingual education and the adoption of this memoir by conservatives in their battle for English-only education. However, in subsequent years Rodriguez's articulated relationship to bilingual education became more complex.

Then I read "A Twice Named Family" by Traci Dant, which was reprinted on Garrison Keillor's Writer's Almanac on American Public Media. It made me imagine African Americans of prior generations winding their history through English articulations, the legacy of that first generation of English-as-a-Second-Language abductees reformulating this forcibly adopted language, enabling it to carry love, history, dignity, and intimacy. No surprise that Dant is a Cave Canem fellow, now is it? Oh yes, and it's quite something to hear Keillor read this with his Minnesotan accent, occasionally he does attempt a little southern twang. Because he has obvious respect for the poem it feels a little like something out of Camille Billops and James Hatch's The KKK Boutique Ain't Just Rednecks--you might have to see this experimental documentary to fully get my point, and if you haven't you ought to, it's a humorous, incisive, and unsettling work.


"A Twice Named Family" by Traci Dant.

A Twice Named Family

I come
from a family
that twice names

its own.
One name
for the world.

One name
for home.
Lydi, Joely, Door,

Bud, Bobby, Bea,
Puddin, Cluster, Lindy,
Money, Duddy, Vess.

Yes,
we are
a two-named family

cause somebody
way back knew
you needed a name

to cook chitlins in.
A name
to put your feet up in.

A name
that couldn't be
fired.

A name
that couldn't be
denied a loan.

A name
that couldn't be
asked

to go
through anyone's
back door.

Somebody way back
knew we needed names
to be loved in.

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