The day after the 2017 Boston Marathon, the marathon’s sponsor, Adidas, sent an email to participants who completed the race. The subject line read, “Congrats, you survived the Boston Marathon.” On the surface, nothing appears wrong with this line; however, given the events at the marathon on April 15, 2013, when Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and Tamerlan Tsarnaev detonated two homemade bombs close to the finish line killing 3 people and injuring 264, the choice of the word “survived” carries heavy connotations. Rather than using “survived,” another word such as “conquered” or “endured” or “completed” would work better. This marketing faux pas led me to start thinking about discussions I have had with students recently in class about language and the way it shapes the way(s) we react to the world around us.
These discussions began when we read Toni Morrison’s “Recitatif” (1983), a story that strips away language that would identify the characters, Twyla and Roberta as either white or black. In Playing in the Dark, Morrison comments on this goal in relation to the story:
The kind of work I have always wanted to do requires me to learn how to maneuver ways to free up the language from its sometimes sinister, frequently lazy, almost always predictable employment of racially informed and determined chains. (The only short story I have ever written, “Recitatif,” was an experiment in the removal of all racial codes from a narrative about two characters of different races for whom racial identity is crucial.) (xi)
We know from the beginning that one of the characters is black and one is white because Twyla, the narrator, says that the other girls in Bonaventure with them called them “salt and pepper.” Even without the cues to which character is black and which character is white, as readers we place racial categories on Twyla and Roberta because we bring with us, as we read, a lifetime of experience and connotations that affect our reading and understanding of the text.
For example, I had a student say that she pictured Twyla as black specifically because she had a friend named Twyla. Other students presented different reasons as to why they characterized the characters in the ways that they did. For some, the scene where Roberta and Twyla protest different sides of school integration solidified which was black and which was white. I could go on and on with a discussion of this story and the ways that our previous experiences with language play into how we read and perceive the characters, but I want to provide a couple of more examples that we have discussed this semester that highlight the importance of language.
Immediately after reading “Recitatif,” we read Dorothy Allison’s “River of Names.” Allison mentions the role language plays in her work, and we can see that in terms like “white trash” and in the ways she structures her sentences. The first like of Allison’s novel Bastard Out of Carolina (1993) reads, “I’ve been called Bone all my life, but my name’s Ruth Anne” (1). Here the first independent clause appears in passive voice, thus others call the narrator “Bone,” not herself. In the second half of the sentence, Ruth Anne takes control and names herself. In this way, rather than being an object, she becomes a subject that acts upon the object.
A similar sentence occurs in “River of Names.” The narrator makes a joke about “a South Carolina virgin” to her lover Jessie, and she prefaces the joke by saying, “Almost always, we were raped, my cousins and I. That was some kind of joke, too” (12). Again, the passive voice denies “we” any agency or action. Instead, other act upon the narrator and those with her, violating her. The unnamed perpetrator, not the “we” that embodies the narrator and her cousins, conducts the action. Again, the narrator becomes an object, not the subject.
When discussing Ernest J. Gaines’ “The Sky is Gray,” I talk about language within the story and also use images from the FSA/OWI photos to share with students images of the story’s setting. This semester, I chose two photos and provided students with the captions. (Images below.)
Russell Lee took both of these photos in Pointe Coupée Parish, Louisiana, in 1938. He also provided the captions for each image. The caption for the image of the left reads, “Mr. and Mrs. Emil Kimball standing in doorway of farm home. They will participate in tenant purchase program. Morganza, Louisiana.” Here, the couple standing in the door have an identity; they are Mr. and Mrs. Emil Kimball, and Lee provides this for the viewer. In the caption for the image on the right, though, Lee denies the woman at the counter any sense of identity apart from her race. The caption reads, “Negro waiting for groceries in general store. Jarreau, Louisiana.” Lee only refers to her as “Negro.” He does not even refer to her as a “woman.” Even if he did add “woman” to the caption, it would still deny her an identity apart from her race and gender.
These, of course, are only a few examples of the ways we have discussed language in my survey classes these past couple of weeks. When talking about “Recitatif,” I began by telling students about Saussure’s sign and the signifier and the signified. This allowed them to see the ways we perceive language and bring our ideas (signified) to a word (signifier) that conjures them. This occurs in Morrison’s story and with the captions for Lee’s images. As well, by looking at syntax, students begin to understand that the construction of a sentence presents key insight into what the author wants to convey to the reader and where, in the case of Allison, power and agency exist.
The items discussed here are by no means extensive, but I do hope they provide you with some thoughts about different ways to approach language in the classroom or in your everyday reading. What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.