Vernaculars of Home


This essay examines James Baldwin’s conception of what he calls “black English” and its link to historical and cultural identity. I link Baldwin’s defense of black English to his reflections on the sorrow songs and sound, which draws on long-standing accounts of musicality as the foundation of the African-American tradition. In order to demonstrate this relation to the tradition, the essay puts Baldwin’s remarks in relation to Frederick Douglass’s and W. E. B. Du Bois’s description of the sorrow songs. I also underscore how that relation to the African-American tradition marks an important set of tensions with mid-twentieth century black Atlantic theory (Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon), tensions which make sense of the Americanness of Baldwin’s work. Across the essay, I claim that Baldwin’s account of language has epistemological and ontological significance (and so is not just aesthetic or political), which gives an interesting and important twist to Martin Heidegger’s famous phrase that “language is the house of Being.”