H O W A R D   U N I V E R S I T Y

Faces & Voices 5
An Anthology
of Verse and Prose

the Composition
for Honours Class,
Howard University,

E. R. B

Faces & Voices 4


Language, the Essential Birthright
E. R. Braithwaite

I am very skeptical whenever I hear it stated that any American, born in these United States can someday become President of these United States. That
Statement may be true for White Americans. Most certainly it is not true for Black Americans. 

I am very skeptical when I hear and see the slogan “BE ALL THAT YOU CAN BE” casually repeated in the recruitment ads because I know that more Black Americans could be members of the uppermost echelons of Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines, if they were truly allowed to be “All that they can be.”

I am doubtful of any suggestion that more Black Americans are not represented in the upper reaches of corporate America because they lack the skill, drive, industry or imagination required to get them there.

I am hopeful, however, that eventually more Black Americans will arrive at the simple understanding that there is one area of enterprise not controlled by forces outside of themselves or inimical to their interests, which can be used and exploited by them to serve their hopes, their dreams and their ambitions, without anyone else’s by-your-leave. It is an enterprise readily available to any and all Black Americans who have the will to seek and pursue and eventually master it.

I speak of the simple and uncontested birthright of every American, irrespective of color, race, creed, sex or any condition. That birthright is the language. If understood in its range, depth, beauty, and versatility; if used with the precision of the scalpel, the power of the gun, or the grace and beauty of the violin, it can provide the Black American with the means to really “be all that she (he) can be,” without reference to anyone else’s grace or favor.

Any dictionary, even the ‘little’ ones, contains many hundreds of thousands of words. Any dictionary, especially the ‘little’ ones, may be bought for a few dollars, or borrowed, without cost from a local library. Any Black American who can read could, with the minimum of effort, improve the use of his language away and beyond the few hundred words which have now become tired and dreary from over-use.

Many Black Americans, at birth, can lay claim to no money, or property. Some are born without the right to lay claim to a name. However, every Black American, whether or not he is aware of it, can lay claim to the American language as his, without ever having to request permission for its use, in whole or in part from anyone, and that claim may not and cannot be denied him by any person or group of persons in any circumstance.

Any Black American may lose any money or property he or she may have, any right or privilege he/she may claim, and, like Job, be ultimately reduced to abject poverty and loneliness. Additionally, for some crimes considered grievous, he/she may be forced to surrender that especially important symbol of Americanness, the passport.

When I read James Baldwin, or Eldridge Cleaver, or Toni Morrison, or Malcolm X, Alex Haley or DuBois; when I listen to Martin Luther King or Thurgood Marshall, Langston Hughes or Maya Angelou, I am reminded that each, in his or her own way, exploited that birthright so powerfully that, like the servant entrusted with the five talents, the returns were immensely bountiful.

I believe that such is the majesty, the scope, and the incisive power of language that, when used well, even the weakest among us can become empowered and emboldened. Many Black Americans in circumstances of material hardship have had little access to or interest in the niceties of their own language, and have been content to use and, unhappily abuse the few hundred words with which they are comfortable. But when I see and hear students behaving in similar fashion, students who have easy access to libraries, computers and helpful faculty, I am sadly burdened with the realization that some of our problems are of our own doing.

Recently, a student claimed that his casual use of language was dictated by a wish to be not too far removed from an easy identity with his “homeboys;” he did not wish to be considered by them as “uppity.” I reminded him that his language. Because of its scope and infinite variety allowed him, if he so wished, to be “bilingual” in it. He could easily use all the words and terms necessary for comfortable dialogue with his “homeboys” and, at the same time, have, at his ready command, everything required for discourse at any other social or economic level.

The familiar saying, “Knowledge is power” only partly and imperfectly states the obvious. I believe that Black Americans, beginning at birth, should be told, guided, challenged and encouraged to believe that the American language, sometimes called the English language, is theirs, as a birthright. It has been cultivated, expanded, refined and explored for centuries by luminaries such as Milton, Shakespeare, the Brontes, Scott, Baldwin, Hughes, Morrison and millions of others alive and dead, until it is the living vital gift each American receives with the first breath of life.

Sometimes I listen to, or happily read a piece of original work by one of my students which is something so remarkably beautiful, so simply designed and yet so full of imaginative wonder that my heart leaps up within me; then I know, then I believe beyond the shadow of any doubt, that nurtured, encouraged and even occasionally cajoled, some of them could, in time, produce work which might more than favorably compare with anything yet done by anyone, bar none.

I venture to assert that anyone reading this will, at some time, have observed with amazement and perhaps stunned disbelief, the fluid grace with which some ballplayers can hit or throw a ball across the gridiron through throngs of opponents or, while in dizzying motion, correctly measure the distance to the hoop and with casual accuracy score the basket. Nothing and no can ever convince me that such skill, either in early potential or eventual maturity is selective, limited only to athletic endeavor. No one and nothing can ever persuade me that, even among the more disadvantaged of Black Americans, more determined attention to their language, their essential birthright, would not only produce similar remarkable results.

It must not be forgotten that once upon a time in these selfsame United States, Black Americans were discouraged and even actively barred from general professional participation in the national sports and pastimes. Today, with greater access to football, soccer, tennis, baseball and basketball, Black Americans have transformed these games and taken the skills to new heights.

It is my fervent hope that every student in any discipline in Howard University will be persistently reminded by faculty that effective exercise in and management of his (her) language is conducive to a clearer understanding of any text on any subject. The more familiar the student is with his language, the better able is she (he) to grasp every nuance which might otherwise prove elusive. The more the student reads, the more he practices the use of words, the more he employs variety in speech, the wider becomes his vocabulary and the greater his ability to exploit it.

There is for Black Americans no magic key, no “open sesame” to the American dream. There is, however, a readily available, easily accessible means to academic betterment and personal improvement, a means amply demonstrated for us by men and women of yesteryear and today, by Langston Hughes and Richard Wright, by Alice Walker and Toni Morrison, by Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin, all of whom claimed, studied and exploited their birthright; all of whom, even those of very humble beginnings, proved that with and through mastery of their language-birthright, they could really be “All that they could be.”

© 2001 E.R. Braithwaite

© 2001 Howard University.
(First Published in limited print edition, An Anthology of Verse and Prose, by the Composition for Honours Class, Howard University, Spring 2001. Professor E.R. Braithwaite)
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