Sunday, July 13, 2008

Language and the Betrayal of Culture

“The Black man who arrives in France changes because to him the country represents the tabernacle; he changes not only because it is from France that he received his knowledge of Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Voltaire, but also because France gave him his physicians, his department heads, his innumerable little functionaries – from the sergent-major “fifteen years in the service” to the police-man who was born in Panissieres. There is a kind of magic vault of distance, and the man who is leaving next week for France creates round himself a magic circle in which the words Paris, Marseille, Sorbonne, Pigalle become the keys to the vault. He leaves for the pier, and the amputation of his being diminishes, as the silhouette of his ship grows clearer. In the eyes of those who have come to see him off he can read the evidence of his own mutation, his power. “Good-by bandanna, good-by straw hat…”

So I started reading the book Black Skin, White Masks by Frantz Fanon. Im only on the third chapter so I’m sure more writing on this book is yet to come however I wanted to start discussing/processing what I am reading.
The first chapter of the book is about language and the cultural significance of language. Everyone has some degree of experience with this, most of us can tell a southern accent, a British accent, an Australian accent. And people have often encountered the difficulties of that language barriers present, and often discrimination that results.
In the book Fanon discusses the dialects and languages of people in France and the French colonies during the 20th century. Most specifically Fanon discusses the differences in language from the primarily black inhabited colonies to the mainland and the cities, such as Paris. Fanon speaks about an un-ending quest to be white. This quest is shown, among other ways, in those who reform the way they speak so they can avoid the stigma they would otherwise face in French society.
The short movie I have posted below is a satire on the play Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw. For those of you who don’t know the plot of Pygmalion it is as such. A rich doctor in 19th century England finds a girl on the street that speaks a very “poor” version of English and he makes a bet with his friend that he can train her to pass in high society over the course of a number of months. The play is often thought of as a commentary on nature vs. nurture. However I want to look on this, and the movie versions that followed (My Fair Lady, Trading Places) as commentary on society. These movies put forth the idea that to succeed you must assimilate into the culture of those in power. This is apparent in Fanons writing as well as in the play. This is not a fact I am not going to attempt to ignore because I see it everywhere. The voices of those on the margins are often squashed not simply because of minority status or alternative lifestyle but also because there exists a great cultural and language divide. It is simple kids from the poor parts of the inner city do not speak the same way that kids from the rich suburbs do. I can see this divide in myself when I reflect on the way that my language changed as I moved out of private middle school in a very upscale, Philadelphia mainline suburb to public high school in the inner ring suburb right outside of west Philadelphia, Upper Darby. Upper Darby High School serves as a midpoint for a lot of things. It is within that school district that the landscape changes from the city to the suburbs and naturally the language of the students reflects that in between status.
So what Fanon seems to talk about is the constant desire on the part of black citizens to “become white” to assimilate to the culture of the ruling class in order to rid themselves of their blackness and therefore be successful. He speaks about a black physician he once knew who joined the army, as a medical officer, in order to be the boss. This man joined the army and refused to go to the colonies or serve in a colonial unit, rather he wanted to be the boss of the white men, to gain their subservience in whatever way he could. This was his way of gaining whiteness. Despite his exemplary behavior ability as a physician he felt that he could never be legitimized within the community.
One of the elements of any culture is the language. Denial of natural language is like a denial of culture and identity. Forcing someone to give up their native toungue is a form of oppression and yet so many cultures also force it on themselves. Fanon talks about more middle and upper class families and nice schools where the language of creol was banned because it was considered uncivilized and improper. Is language the tool of the oppressor? Is language just a way to keep disenfranchised youth from the ghetto? Whether it is mid 20th century France or present day America I think there is something wrong with a society in which people on the margin must conform to the methods of the power in order to succeed, however, I also feel as though this is inevitable in any society and so I struggle with that. I do not like the concept of forcing others to give up their culture in order to be accepted by mine, and yet without allyship and cross cultural understanding (on both parts) how can anything get done?

PS- I think you have to have and be signed into a vimeo account to watch the video, I am working on a solution to embeding so everyone can watch but in the mean time it would totally be worth it to get a vimeo account and watch this (plus a ton of other really sweet vids on vimeo)

Untitled from Hannah Horwitz on Vimeo.

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