A Brief Consideration of Language

By Dwight L. Wilson, originally posted to Facebook on January 27, 2022

When my ancestors were kidnapped from Africa, the overlords employed white supremacy philosophy to both claim they themselves believed in freedom of religion and strip the victims of their ties to ancestral religion. In the enslavers’ minds, surely the Holy One was named Jehovah, not Nyame. Any black saying otherwise was dismissed as uncivilized if not inhuman. Refusing to stop inflicting trauma, we were forced to change African personal names, and forbidden African languages so that the powerful could feel more comfortable. In partial response, I gave my sons African names 1) Kai Ashante (thank you for the surprise), 2) Rai Imani (strong faith), 3) Tai Amri (an eagle is leading) and 4) Mai Hakili (a leader who is both spiritually and intellectually strong).

Growing up with a brilliant mother who was expelled from high school for the sin of being pregnant out of wedlock with the baby who turned out to be me, and a father expelled in the 7th grade for “being too smart for a Negro,” the first spoken language the traumatized taught me was what I call “Ghettoese.” To this day, I think in neither CNN nor FOX and if you hear me say, “Wow!” or “Ouch” I have translated the words that first appeared in my mind.

I learned in lower school that the language spoken by whites on television was the language, not of choice, but of necessity, if one wanted to receive the “A” level grades that Mom declared was the only way to escape the slums. A carryover that still has legs is the unspoken teaching that we should despise the blues genre of music because the singers sound “so country.” Accepting that malarky (another translation) leads to millions hating our own people’s sound because it’s not refined and suggests a time we would like to forget. The ghosts of Son House, Muddy Waters and Junior Wells agree.

Turn the clock back. My first language was body language, the common communication understood by each baby I hold as a Monday morning volunteer on the Pediatric Cardiology Ward of CS Mott’s Children’s Hospital. Whether their parents identify as African-American, Asian-American, European-American, Latin-American, or Native American, each baby is fluent in reading smiles, eyes, and touch. In turn, they wiggle, explore the contours of my face, stroke the hair on my arms, cuddle tighter in the crook of my arm… In 1969, when I was 21, I began pastoring two churches in Maine, neither of which had a single black member. I had been a minister since before my 18th birthday, but all congregations where I grew up in Ohio were segregated. In the black church I heard “Amen!” “Hallelujah!” “Preach brother, preach!” “Come on up!” or saw waving of hands and occasionally, when the organist got things right, 😊 ecstatic dancing. The congregants in Maine sat statue like. To comprehend whether or not I was reaching them, I had to re-learn to read body language. But I had to do so without touching. I asked myself: what’s being declared by that sudden wrinkle on the left side of the forehead, or slight shift in posture where one seated rump cheek moves to the left? Moreover, I had to discern how to read a room’s vibration. As the great poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar wrote, “We wear the mask.”

America is not post-racial. As someone who for more than 50 years, has run anti-racism workshops, mediated myriad disputes between disparate parties, and been CEO of several nonprofits with white dominated boards, I’m not talking theory or what I read in a book. This has been my practice for more than 50 years. Fast forward to pandemic-Zoom-speech. When I am in the minority, I cannot adequately read a screen of whites. Add to the above that all of us in a race-based society have unconscious biases, and all black men are suspects. To protect my own integrity, and sometimes that of an organization, on a Zoom, I refuse to try to attempt facilitation of hyper-sensitive topics. If I cannot feel the vibrations, I will not put myself in harm’s way. This body has experienced enough trauma.

You may not like what I just told you, but as Daddy would say, “If I’m lyin’ I’m flyin’ and I just told you what God loves, and that’s the truth.”

Throughout his career, Dwight L. Wilson is a Quaker who has held many jobs: educator, administrator, religious leader. In each role, he worked to advance equality, opportunity and understanding. He continues this work in his carefully researched historical fiction series Esi Was My Mother, which follows the lives of an enslaved black family from 18th century Africa to the American Civil War. He strives to portray triumphant examples of black stories that will make history come alive for readers. He is also author of two short story collections, The Kidnapped and The Resistors as well as a memoir centered on caring for children, Whispering to Babies and two psalms books: Modern Psalms In Search of Peace and Justice and Modern Psalms of Solace and Resistance.

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