Notes on James Herndon.
BY TONY WOLK
These notes are provided as annotations to Wolk’s 1972 interview with James Baldwin.
JAMES HERNDON (1926-1990): Author of The Way It Spozed To Be and How to Survive in Your Native Land (Heinnemann, 1968 & 1971). The Way It Spozed To Be comes out in the open about the way language varies from person to person. The word for my language versus yours is ideolect; the word for one locale versus another locale is dialect. And somewhere along the line we speak of languages. Yet, across Europe, for example, inevitably you speak the same language as your neighbor—yet look at all the dotted lines on the map!
Of course language is but one aspect of our schooling. Once you bring a row of textbooks into a classroom its becomes more prescriptive (vs. descriptive), that is, one size fits all. Which explains the Scopes trial back in the1920’s and whether we are allowed to admit Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution into the curriculum. That is, the distinction between science and religion. It explains how Jonathan Kozol, a Rhodes Scholar (one of the few who became grade school teachers), was fired for including Langston Hughes into his classroom in Boston in 1964. See Death at an Early Age: The Destruction of the Hearts and Minds of Negro Children in the Boston Schools (Houghton Mifflin, 1967). I’ll also recommend Kozol’s more recent book, The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America (Crown, 2005).
James Herndon is one of many teachers and writers who have steadily been a voice for the fluidity of language. You’ll see that in the creolization of Frantz Fanon’s mixture of Carib, French, English, etc. It’s a process that is ever going. It explains why there isn’t a single planetary language. The other side of that coin is those (generally English speakers) who want our grammar to mirror the Latin grammar from two thousand years ago. My fixation in the interview on the split infinitive is but one example of the arbitrary rule. (On the off-chance you might want to go a step further: in Latin, and hence in what are known as the Romance languages [like French, Spanish, Italian, Romanian, etc.], the infinitive is a single word [aller for to go, parler for to speak]. But English grammar derives from a Germanic family of languages, where the splitting is so easy—who hasn’t heard To boldly go where no man has gone before!)
Strangely, this laying down the law is thanks to a single person: Bishop Lowth, who in the eighteenth century wrote a first grammar for English speakers—really, who but foreigners would have any need for such grammars! The well-meaning Bishop did it by translating a Latin grammar book into English! Presto-chango! Curiously, I remember hearing my father in the 1950s still uttering the old saw, Latin grammar is perfect grammar.
The case with our native tongue is much the same. No matter what you hear at home, this (says the teacher with handbook in hand) is how you will use the language. The American Heritage Dictionary from the late 60s goes out of its way to freeze our usage, with a Usage Panel of more than a hundred “experts.” Examples of its strange narrowness includes avoiding words like roundish (meaning kind of round), because things are either round or they aren’t. In the same way you’re either perfect or you’re not, no in-between. Despite the familiar phrase, In order to form a more perfect union. Nor can you use certain words, like ain’t, a contraction like is+not for am+not. It’s handy, and there’s no one who has never uttered it.
All this is preface to especially how it is for black students (notice the added emphasis you get by splitting that infinitive). My student Mel Toran from storefront campus days (see the introduction) told me that he spoke one way in school but another at home, that he had that under control. But, came the realization: at home he was speaking school!
Pardon if I’ve gone on too long, but as a teacher who asks his students to write (and who loves the science of linguistics), I don’t want to see them in strait-jackets (spell-checker wants straitjackets!) I wonder how spell-checker figured that out. Oh! It’s thanks to The American Heritage Dictionary—shoulda knowed.