From Ta-Nehisi Coates at The Atlantic.
The back story on this is that for some months, TNC -- whose story is worth reading, by the way -- I highly recommend his memoir The Beautiful Struggle -- has been learning French for the first time. Not without some struggle that he's chronicled on the blog, in many good posts about language and how, in learning a new language, you craft a new sort of identity for yourself.
I wish there was a single link to the entire series of posts dealing with language, but I can't find one, so this Google search will have to do: site:theatlantic.com ta-nehisi coates french
The last few posts have been the interior commentary while traveling for the first time to Paris. I'm loving them, because they are more than a travelogue, they are an extended commentary on the existential questions raised by the experience of speaking a new language and being a new kind of "other." n Here they are:
At 8:45 I will board a ship. It will punch through the sky. At some point, God willing, that ship will emerge over airspace far from the beloved West Baltimore of my youth.
Something is happening in this world. I think of my grandfather, lecturing from the daily newspaper, drowning in alcohol, addicted to violence. I think of my father, working all summer as a child, saving his funds for a collection of recordings that promised to teach him French. He didn't learn French, but he learned to compel his son to want to learn French. I think of my grandmother pushing up from the Eastern Shore of Maryland raising three daughters in the projects, somehow sending them all to college.
I think of what these folks might have been had they not lived in world intolerant of black ambition. The world has changed....
Je ne sais pas. What I know is I live in a time that people who made me possible only dreamed of. And then yesterday I almost lost it all....
I have come to regard anyone who speaks more than one language as the bearer of great and unearned power. You say bilingualism and I imagine ice sleds, healing factors and flight. In New York, I am surrounded by the secret schoolmen of Salem. They speak and and my fingers dabble at the inhibitor collars.
I am deep in my dark and twisted lab. I am building a machine of fantastic power and awesome savoir-faire. Soon I shall flip a switch, and all those who laughed at my "Parlay-vouz" and "Jay Nay Say Pahs" shall turn, light leaping from them into the cone of my terrible device. Then they will stagger before brilliant me, blinking and depowered. For now I just murmur "Mutie scum" under my breath and bide my time.
I am in Geneva, like the only human on Asteroid M. They told me that the people would switch to English as soon as they heard my French. But this only happens when we are discussing money.
I walked to a pâtisserie, ordered a pain au chocolat and a coffee (it's becoming a ritual) and thought mostly of my wife. I was watching the people come and go. I was watching the children here, lost in their strange freedom unlike anything I've ever known. They range the city--embracing, grazing, laughing.
When I was a kid in West Baltimore the cops called this loitering. Childhood was a suspect class always bordering on the edge of the criminal. You play football on the traffic island and the cops chase you off. Never mind that it's the only long patch of green in your neighborhood. You fly your kites from the second level of Mondawmin Mall and the les gendarmes are in effect. Go back to watching the Wonder Years and dreaming. You nail a crate to a telephone pole, because all the courts near you have been stripped. The city doesn't send people to repair the courts, but to tear down your crate.
Perhaps somewhere in Paris it is the same. But what I have seen is a place with a different sense of the Public, with children loosed in such a way that I have not seen even in wealthy areas....
A month ago I was giving a talk at a college where someone asked my why it was wrong for white people to use the word "nigger" in a friendly way. I responded, as I always do, by pointing out that the names people use depend on their relations. That I should not expect to call another man's wife "honey" by pointing out that he calls her the same thing. That my wife and her friends use the word "bitch" between them, but that is not a name I should expect (or want) to employ. That whatever they say, I have no desire to address my gay friends as queer. If you respect the humanity of black people, then you respect that they get to do what other humans do--ironically employ epithets in a communal way.
But walking through le jardin, I saw the problem from another angle....
I'm looking forward to more of this.