Sonny's Blues

Sonny's Blues James Baldwin on Language

Two weeks after James Baldwin's death in December of 1987, the University of Massachusetts held a service for the American author. At the service, Chinua Achebe, famed African writer and intellectual, claimed that Baldwin had reached "a new perfection of language" (Terry 552). He had managed to express the essence of the African American experience in English, something that would elude many authors before and after him.

James Baldwin's use of the English was anything but incidental. Baldwin considered American English a language alien to his experiences and perspectives, as it was the language of the dominant white culture. Throughout his long career, he struggled to mold the language to his needs. Writing in the London Observer he explained his thought process:

“My quarrel with English language has been that the language reflected none of my experience. But now I began to see the matter in quite another way… Perhaps the language was not my own because I had never attempted to use it, had only learned to imitate it. If this were so, then it might be made to bear the burden of my experience if I could find the stamina to challenge it, and me, to such a test” (“English and the African Writer” 349).

For Baldwin, language was a reflection of a people's needs. It evolved in order to allow a people "to describe and thus control their circumstances" ("If Black English Isn't a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?"). Given the racial history of the United States, African American and white citizens had different needs and faced different realities. Indeed, Baldwin believed that there was "a great distance between the language of an American black and an American white" (Fares 71), even arguing that "Black English" was a separate language altogether.

Throughout his life Baldwin struggled to make the English language, so dominate by white culture, to "bear the burden" of both his experience and the African American experience at large. For many critics, activist, intellectuals and readers he not only succeeded -- he excelled.