I remember a session early on in my career at Keio University when the new campus was still being set up at Fujisawa, where I would spent the next eighteen years. In my naivete, I was not ready for arguments in the language department to keep English from getting too big for its britches. I understood that every English class offered was one fewer for the French, or German, or Chinese, or Korean, or Indonesian departments – they were working with a zero-sum model and there were only so many students to go around. But I was not ready for political opposition to the use of English in Japan tout court.
“We need to divide the English department into two,” one member of the faculty insisted. “One department could be taught by native speakers and could deal with the literature of the English-speaking people. The other should be taught by non-native speakers who are not of the view that English should be the world’s only international language.”
I protested strongly. “You don’t know my mind,” I said, clearly taking this all personally. They were associating me with American imperialism, and no amount of protestation would convince them I was not their enemy. That I was grounded in leftist politics, that my entire professional life I was engaged with non-native speakers of English, trying to give them a leg-up – with English as a second language as immigrants to the United States, or with English as a foreign language, as citizens of the world seeking one of the most important mechanisms to personal career advancement.
The view I was dealing with, I came to understand as the years went by, was a Japanese nationalist one in which languages and people are one and the same. If you speak French, you are French. And that means you are eat fois gras, you fancy yourself a superior lover, and you take a rational approach to life. If you speak American English you like to invade third world countries, bewail the (so-called) Rape of Nanking while ignoring the genocide of the American Indian, and expect the world to be more or less your oyster.
It seemed overwhelming at times. Teaching difficult students was a challenge I met every day. Some days were better than others, but it came with the territory. It was my job. Convincing colleagues that there was nothing to fear from the use of English was another matter. I would spend considerable time with people who needed persuading that English was a marvelous tool that could, in the right hands, work against the goals of the American military industrial complex they saw erroneously as part and parcel of the language.
Ironically, one of these people (there were not many, fortunately) got wind of the fact that I was using Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech in one of my classes. “That is not your area of expertise,” he said to me, clearly confusing the color of my skin for my politics in his one-nation, one-language world view - in this case his assumption that I would have, of necessity, to be opposed to the goals of MLK.
Oh, but it is, I insisted. I am an American. And the English language filtered through the experience of the African-American churches is one of the richest pieces of my American language and cultural heritage.
I might have said the same for what the Irish, the Scots and the Welsh – and the Indians as well as the Americans - have made of English, given their history of struggle against an invading or colonial oppressor, an idea which came to mind once again this week with the death of Irish poet and Nobel Prize Winner Seamus Heaney.
But that idea really came home, just now, when I heard and felt the influence of Martin Luther King on a young man named Phillip Agnew. He was supposed to speak at the Lincoln Memorial last Wednesday at the 50th Anniversary celebration of the March on Washington, but got cut. He titled his speech Two Minutes.
I don’t know how long this link will work. For now, the story is available on Chris Hayes' program, All In, here.
Or you can go directly to YouTube and get it here.
See what you can do when you don't let a little thing like getting cut off stop you. When you take advantage of the fact that this is 2013 and we are in the age of YouTube and the Internet (capital letter intentional).
Bill Moyers had John Lewis on his program recently, talking about how he had to cut out some of the “revolutionary” rhetoric to fit the occasion of the March. Looking back, he still thinks it was the right choice.
That view, that we have to move slowly, was put forward by the same Martin Luther King who insisted that justice delayed is justice denied. I leave it to others to figure out how to balance the conflicting goals of justice now and not wanting to go off half-cocked. And I take comfort in the fact that young people are still able to step up and keep the pressure on.
In any case, there is no denying that language can be mesmerizing, beautiful, and powerful all at the same time. In the hands of some, it is an instrument of oppression. But it works just as well as the language of dreams.