January 29, 2017

BANKS | Final Throwaway Thoughts

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Well, here we are.

Serendipitous opportunities notwithstanding, I have exactly seven columns remaining. And while the international state of affairs has certainly given me plenty of material for the next six, I will need more time to digest and dissect all of that before writing.

In the meantime, I find myself reflecting on my time at home in Atlanta. Those close to me know that I could easily write a book about all the thoughts, observations and emotions that result from my infrequent excursions there, but my most recent return found me thinking a lot about language.

As I’ve mentioned before, I speak near-fluent German, but I began learning the language as a child, long before I had fallen in love with words. Now, though, as I continue my nascent studies in Japanese, I can’t help but to see both English and German in a new light, amplified even moreso by my blackness. After all, I understand the historical legacy — that is, colonialism, crackling with the wreckage of abduction, coercion and erasure — from whence the power of my English comes.

To that end, whenever I get the opportunity to listen to my family’s vernacular — or that of any black person, for that matter — I tend to soak in every syllable. After all, we grabbed the reigns of the English imposed upon us and finessed a fresh aesthetic from its archaic bones, which was an undeniably brilliant act of resistance. And now, regardless of all the turbulence associated with its antecedents, English belongs to black folk too. So despite what those hapless souls at the literary citadel might have to say, I have long since realized that the red line on my word documents is a brittle, spindly, pathetic creature. In other words, I will always write my ain’ts without restraint.

On that note, I’ve found myself paying special attention to the turns of phrases of my grandparents or the syntax of my best friends. They fascinate me, because they are loaded with all these linguistic pirouettes and rapid riffs, evidence of the ongoing evolution of language, which we native speakers often take for granted. I appreciate them so much more these days, if only because I recognize the two-pronged paradox of impossibility and wonder that they present to a fledgling learner.

Consider, for example, that I can already have an entire conversation with a Japanese person, even if it would at times be unbearably, dreadfully halting and simplistic. Yet, when I took my 11 year old little brother to the doctor, it dawned on me that I could pick any two or three of his childish sentences and even those would be too studded with colloquialisms, not to mention cobbled together from too many complex clauses, for me to even entertain the idea of translating them into Japanese. As for German, I may be able to converse at the academic’s level in that tongue, but if I were to meet a black German, I would probably sound like a robot, wandering through my speech with a laughable lack of cultural acuity.

And to read! Oh, to read! Lately, reading my idol, James Baldwin, has become an even more unusual experience. On the one, I am reading to witness the sleight of hand and sinewy craft in his stories: incisive jabs, coupled with tender pleas, driven by a dauntless spirit and inimitable cadence. On the other, I am embodying the perspective of one for whom reading a book of that level would require intense focus and a deep pool of patience, as is the case for me when reading German works. Or, further still, I imagine what it might be like to read Baldwin if the familiar symbols and diction were as foreign, obscure and peculiar to me as all of the Kanji I have yet to memorize.

Buried within all of this, I think, is supposed to be some kind of opinion, right?

Well, I do believe you should collect words with reckless, maniacal abandon. I also think you should discover and experience other languages, even if you don’t have the time or resources to learn them. As for myself, I reserve the right to assert my freedom, avail myself of all precedents and dictate the terms of my own language in the same way that my ancestors did.

I think back, for example, to Baldwin’s writing of Giovanni’s Room, a spellbinding novel about white men falling in love with each other in 1950s Paris. At the time, he insisted upon vehemently rejecting its characterization as a “gay novel”, and when the outcry inevitably arose over a black writer writing about non-black people, and in a book that only hinted at race via clever subtext no less, Baldwin again pushed back on the notion that black writers must be just that: writers who are black, and thus subject to the whims of their own racialized conditions. I chuckle at the white world’s attempts to castrate Baldwin, and I simmer at the black community’s attempts to devalue him; they were both baffled, it would seem, because they could not see that he truly did envision himself as a human being above all else. Even in 2017, this self-image remains a terrifying one for too many.

Naturally, I agree with my idol: we need not insulate ourselves within our own worlds, and I feel no need to do so. I try not to force anything when I write, because I trust myself to know how and what I want to say, and to learn from my mistakes. Some might view this as an unseemly combination of faith and arrogance, but this philosophy has nevertheless consoled me in times of artistic uncertainty. I have a deep conviction in the mobility of thoughts — in their proclivity for leaping over obstacles and crashing through barriers. So whenever I feel that I have lost a good idea to memory or disillusionment, it usually manages to claw itself out of a premature grave and evade the literary grim reaper. This resurgent, unburied creation does not always arrive in the same form and is rarely born by the same means as its progenitor, but it has returned all the same.

The only prerequisite for art is life, with all of its attendant peculiarities and sources of inspiration. Unfortunately, simply being alive can strike the idle as redundant and the content as mundane. But for those pretentious or disturbed enough to proclaim themselves artists, life’s repetitiveness can serve as a powerful conduit for renewed inspiration. We are all constantly being gifted with opportunities to respond to our environment, and we deny ourselves a great many joys when we fail to allocate any attention to the predictable aspects of life, to the questioning of why these aspects consistently reemerge or the pondering of their purpose.

These are throwaway thoughts after all, admittedly pompous and mostly empty, so I have neither a conclusion nor a unifying theme for you. But I do have language, words, life and humanity. And, really, that’s all I could ever ask for.