Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Diagramming Sentences or Dissecting and Alienating Souls?

This image was a part of a FB post and article: A Picture Of Language: The Fading Art Of Diagramming Sentences.  Here are some of the FB comments:
  • I remember diagramming sentences in school and really loved doing it on the blackboard and finding the placement of every word in the sentence. Oh! what a wonderfully thrilling challenge and I usually got them correct."
  • "Wish they still taught it in school."
  • I'm convinced this is at least part of the reason today so many people can't write or use proper grammar."
  • I certainly do remember doing this! Loved it!
Certainly, many enjoy misty-eyed memories of English instruction. If that's your lot, I'm glad that you had instructors, families, and/or situations that foster great memories.

I must mourn. While some saw us diagramming sentences, I felt that we were dissecting and alienating souls.

Part of my "not knowing, or "not caring" about "proper" grammar was in part a rebellion against the implied "improper" label directed at us - African people - via the door of "improper" usage of the oppressor's language.

Being taught to use the English language code to challenge oppression, and even to get to know and appreciate African and African-American language codes that we spoke would have helped me have fun with diagramming sentences.

I wasn't asked or allowed to analyze my Great Grandfather's "Gwine" as in "I'm gwine (going) tuh da sto." My mom called him “Papa.” I knew him as “Papa Down The Road.” I remember the mild shock of discovering that his name was really Oscar McClain. My mother's eyes lit up when she said his name. Dad always made sure we visited – with a gift - usually a cigar and a nip.

Papa Down The Road aka Oscar McClain  Photo by Wekesa
Madzimoyo - All Rights Reserved.
Papa’s language code was never invited into the school, and certainly not into the language class. Instead, I was taught to distance myself from it, and hence from him. Not one time did the instructor make sure that I could communicate "correctly" or "properly" with Papa. His code was so simple that it wasn't worth diagramming, I suppose.

My mother, grandfather, uncles were ministers - language was central in our family. Our language was like our dancing or Friday night or shoutin' on Sunday morning - hot, moving, sensual, rhythmic, philosophical and correct in ways that the English language and English people weren't and probably never will be. If I did bring it in the cold surgical table of English and other school instruction would cut it out. Where they saw only grades and red marks on a paper, I saw blood streaming...

I know. I was there. Learning to speak the oppressor's language better than "they" was a source of family pride, it was both a hope that I wouldn't suffer as much, a prayer that whites would accept me (us), and a rejoinder to the claim that we were inferior: "See, we can speak your own language better than you."

Sawdust. It was like chewing on sawdust. Over the long night of oppression, our retreat to survive had morphed into surrender. We didn't learn English to evade, invade, or gain a strategic advantage that would lead to liberation. We didn't nurture or develop our own language codes for our own purposes. Dunbar’s 1896 “We Wear the Mask” had become too faint of a reminder.

Now, by the 1950-60's, we sought to become the mask. The prevailing strategy was to show that we had mastered the words and the syntax of the language which severed our ancestor's tongues.

Fortunately, mixed in with my family pride at my English language acquisition were spikes. “You, talkin’ white” was also a challenge hurled at my increasing English language prowess. It was a sharp pointed admonition for me to remember to wear my proficiency as a mask, and a tool in invade and evade. I know now, it was also a crude yet legitimate request that I REASSURE them that I wouldn't take on the English views about them as my own.

Grand Ma Hettie’s insistence on speaking her language code with style and flair reminded me not to become the new slasher - cutting our people's tongues and spirits by seeing them as “improper” when they chose to speak a different language code than our oppressors.

Grandma - Hettie Tucker
Photographer - Unknown. Property of Tucker Family - all rights reserved.
Though a great cook, farmer, and shooter, she was also a prayin’ kind of woman.  Her constant prayer included. … a “ thank you, Lord, for waking me up this morning; keeping me clothed in my right mind...” I thank grandma Hettie for keepin’ me clothed in my right mind, helping me make sure that I didn’t unwittingly become the mask of terror.

I was in college by the time I heard Sterling Brown’s "Long Track Blues," "Battle of Joe Meek," and "Conjured." When I meet Zora’s Tea Cake and Janie, I was in heaven. I could trust them to navigate language codes without losing their souls or inducing me to lose mine.

My family was welcomed in their house of instruction - in their language classes. Where were they when I was in the 4th grade at PS 26 in Brooklyn. Where were they when I was at J. S. Spivey in Jr. High School in Fayetteville, NC?

Claude McKay's “If We Must Die” grabbed me  - instructed me on how I could use this language to express my disdain for the countless tongues, arms, legs, hands and hopes that had been severed or twisted by English instruction.

Then came David Walker’s “Appeals,” then Henry Highland Garnet, Francis Ellen Watkins Harper, Ida B. Wells and countless others helping to make sure my grandmother’s prayers were answered.

So you see, my English grammar memories are not so misty. While my Black teachers tried to make it fun and relevant. I think I even managed to win an award or two. In their sincere effort to make life better for me, they only saw that we were diagramming sentences, or just learning math formulas. A handful like Ms. Fannie Jenkins (Geometry teacher) saw it as a battle too. When she encouraged me to fight, I aced Geometry.

Education - be it grammar or computer programming - is still a battle for the souls of our people.

Stumbling and often giving mixed messages, my family, community, and the Black Power Movement made sure that in the tug-a-war for my soul, my psyche, my allegiance, and my power, that English instruction - as dissection and alienation - wouldn’t win.

Got to go now.

Gwine spend some time with Papa Down the Road. Did I tell you that he lived ‘till he was 103, and set a mark for me? Gwine sit on da porch, talk with him and have a drink of some of that corn liquor he liked so much. Wanna come?  C'mon. Get up off that surgical table and join us. There is plenty of room on Papa’s porch.

PS: This awareness has spawned AYA's Family Lore Project. Check it out: