the great divide: language and its power in identity & resistance

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Language is so powerful that it can form messages that completely affirm a people or utterly diminish, even erase, a people. Language can blur the lines of reality and present a reality all at once. Language is political power; it is agency. And as people of the African Diaspora, how we use, understand, respond to, and identify ourselves via language, is both part of our resistance and survival.

Many of the issues that plague – and ultimately divide – the human race are because of language. Language that acknowledges and determines existence; rations land and space; allocates wealth; controls resources; protects children; constructs gender; or liberates the oppressed. What holds it all together, or tears it all apart, are fragile words that speak to a larger language. And no matter the city-state or government, the language informs and reinforces the status quo that defies one thing: difference. There is an ever-present struggle to defend and define one’s difference. And why? Because for many, if on the “wrong” side of language, it is a matter of life and death.

In protecting one’s right to safely exist, it becomes paramount to not only control the language used to define your difference, but elevate it in a way that fully realizes and affirms you. A self that is fully aware and protective of all that it requires to live as safely and freely as possible. This is why at the core of resistance, any resistance, language must be understood from both sides: the oppressed and the oppressor(s). You must know what it means when certain rhetoric is being used. You must know how it is being used, considering every question imaginable, as to better define what it is that is being implicated. If not, you may find yourself in a blatant or understood hyphenated situation, where you are less of the whole. Not quite the one; but, not the other either.

The immediate function of the hyphen in grammar is to: create, combine, clarify, join, or separate. Similarly, with people, it purposes to do the same; sometimes literally and sometimes it is simply implied. In Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, Toni Morrison offers that: “In this country, [. . .] American means White, and Africanist people struggle to make the term applicable to themselves with ethnicity and hyphen after hyphen after hyphen.” This very notion keeps one explaining their mere existence over and over again. What is supposed to clarify or give way to some sort of nuance, only creates more of a divisive and hostile dialogue. All with the idea of wholeness: honoring as many of a person’s parts as possible.

And while achieving wholeness in a place that diminishes  your region (America) when identifying, is seemingly impossible, it does not exempt us from how language is politicized. We do not have the luxury to simply not identify. The best hope is to reclaim how you are identified, because you will be labeled one way or the other. It is at every turn of our lives: introspectively, interpersonally, sexually, spiritually, socially, etc. This begs the question: why is language so important? Though people trivialize political correctness and are cynical about ever-changing terms, you will find that language, still, is at the core of such criticism. Here, it impacts and influences legislation that directly affects the lives of people who are simply trying to exist in a world where people launch attacks on them with only one weapon in sight: words.

To go a step further, I am willing to bet that we have all found ourselves saying or thinking, “Well, why is saying that problematic? People are so sensitive nowadays.” We are socialized that way. No matter how good we strive to be; it must be unlearned and constantly checked and checked twice more. Yes, people are sensitive. People are sensitive about safely existing. People are sensitive about their basic needs. People are sensitive about more than equality, but equity, which assures them fair access to living a life well beyond “just enough.” Just enough is not good enough, because it does not have the collective in mind; only a select, small few.

So, when we consider identity and resistance, the use of language must remain at the center. For language has been and will continue to be a resource and conduit to a more freer collective. And the language must be as nuanced as it is precise; as volatile as it is consistent; and as fundamental as it is auxiliary.

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