Jevohn Tyler Newsome is currently the Storyteller in Residence at Emerging Arts Professionals SFBA 2018-19. In his “Lift Every Voice and Swing” series, he explores the ways we can use storytelling as a means of survival and struggle while sowing seeds of change both in idea and practice. In the tradition of afrofuturist writers like Octavia E. Butler, Jevohn reflects both on the possibilities and limitations of being a storyteller and on the ways we might apply these creative lessons to our role as arts workers.
CAN WE CONNECT THROUGH WRITTEN LANGUAGE?
According to the biblical tale about the “Tower of Babel,” it is language, both spoken and written, that divides us. Yet our multiplicity of mother tongues makes our planet Earth beautiful. Every language, like a form of music, custom fit with its own scales. Every voice, like an instrument, fine-tuned.
It’s my intention as an aspiring educator to, as Cornel West explains, lift every voice in the orchestra, just like jazz where every player gets a solo, where every bending string and sassy cymbal shakes to its own vibration, just before uniting with woodwind and chord under one last chorus. However, as excited as I am by this jazz analogy, lifting every voice with written words alone ain’t as easy as it sounds. Is it really possible for our many languages to synchronize (follow a shared rhythm), to syncopate (keep our cultures swingin’), and still harmonize (or empathize with one another)?
English is a language with an imperialistic history, and while it’s not the only language responsible for the erasure of many mother tongues, it’s the only language I know well enough to speak, so I know firsthand how many barriers exist between the way the language is taught and the way it’s spoken.
As a Writing Coach at California College of the Arts, most students come to me mid-three-way-crash between the ideas in their head, their ideas when spoken aloud, and their ideas when expressed on the page. You would think that as I writer I’d be a master at this exchange—from brain, to speech, to page—but truth is, there’s always a traffic jam. Writing is not an intuitive practice. There’s a reason why many poets of ancient and indigenous societies memorized their words and sang, rarely writing them down. Language in its most expressive form becomes song. Writing is beautiful for its ability to survive through time; it’s visible, archival, but limited in its ability to transpose the words we breathe. When writing in a language like English, a language full of its own assumptions of who is legitimate or “proper” and who is not, our best bet at resisting its rigidity isn’t necessarily rejecting the language as a whole, especially for those of us who can’t. As a black American, I have no language but English to return to. So, my method of resistance is to make the language mine.
The U.S. education system tends to enforce the idea of a “proper” English, of one “correct” voice both standardized and symbolic of intelligence, while all others are slang and assumed to be ignorant, thus irrelevant and discredited. Notice how grammar fascists are quick to call out the incorrect use of their, they’re, and there, as if someone who don’t articulate they language like you do cannot be understood. If the meaning makes it through, the language did its job. Plain and simple.
One of my major interests is considering how through poetry, we can mend this warped relationship between our ideas, our internal music, and our written language. Can we find our confidence in a language that’s not our own, that doesn’t leave room for our histories, for our learning processes, for our intelligences outside the classroom rubric?
June Jordan, one of my favorite essayists and activists, writes about redefining the meaning of “proper” English in her essay “Nobody Mean More to Me Than You” where she reveals that the English language is very much a battleground between the supposedly legitimate and illegitimate. Similarly, poetry, especially for writers of color, is a point of confrontation between the established norms and the sounds we co-invent with our communities. One way we can decolonize English writing is by complicating the established narratives of “proper” and “improper,” and most importantly, using the language to build connections between each other as opposed to the barriers built by old-school academia. To further investigate this idea, I’m developing a workshop on non-European poetry forms at the EAP Fellowship’s February, “Because Colonialism” session, starting with communal poetry forms like the Renga or Somonka. In the next edition of “Lift Every Voice and Swing,” I’ll dive into what it means to write in-community, making room for each other’s voices.
In this piece, Jevohn reflects on a question he received during the November 10th 2018 Fellowship session on Regenerative Practices: “Can poetry written in English be decolonized?”
There’s a reason why many poets of ancient and indigenous societies memorized their words and sang
as if someone who don’t articulate they language like you do cannot be understood
- June Jordan’s “Nobody Mean More to Me Than You”, an essay on Black English (one of my favorite essays)
- June Jordan’s “Problems of Language in a Democratic State”, on the ways passive language is used against us by institutions.