Poet and political activist Amiri Baraka first published as LeRoi Jones in the 1950s as a member of the Beat poetry movement. Baraka’s 1959 visit to Cuba, where he encountered a group of politically active writers, and his involvement in the burgeoning civil rights movement led him to move to Harlem in the 1960s, where he became a black nationalist and founded the Black Arts Movement.

Baraka’s essay “Expressive Language” first appeared in Kulchur in the winter of 1963, and was published in his collection Home: Social Essays (1966). The book grounds Baraka’s creative work in a commitment to defining and promoting a black aesthetic, which critic Houston Baker defines as “a distinctive code for the creation and evaluation of black art.” Asserting that “words’ meanings, but also the rhythm and syntax that frame and propel their concatenation, seek their culture as the final reference for what they are describing of the world,” Baraka argues that the artist must use the language and semantics unique to his culture to create his art, and that the work should also be understood within the context of that culture.

While Baraka’s political stance has shifted over the years, he has consistently focused on the spoken word rather than the written page, and his interest in the nuances of sound and pronunciation can be heard in this essay. Baraka’s work has variously found its form in poetry, fiction, essay, drama, music criticism, and performance. The volume in which this essay appeared marks the beginning of the controversy that would surround his politically driven, uncompromising work in the decades to come.

Speech is the effective form of a culture. Any shape or cluster of human history still apparent in the conscious and unconscious habit of groups of people is what I mean by culture. All culture is necessarily profound. The very fact of its longevity, of its being what it is, culture, the epic memory of practical tradition, means that it is profound. But the inherent profundity of culture does not necessarily mean that its uses (and they are as various as the human condition) will be profound. German culture is profound. Generically. Its uses, however, are specific, as are all uses . . . of ideas, inventions, products of nature. And specificity, as a right and passion of human life, breeds what it breeds as a result of context.

Context, in this instance, is most dramatically social. And the social, though it must be rooted, as are all evidences of existence, in culture, depends for its impetus for the most part on a multiplicity of influences. Other cultures, for instance. Perhaps, and this is a common occurrence, the reaction or interreaction of one culture on another can produce a social context that will extend or influence any culture in many strange directions.

Social also means economic, as any reader of nineteenth-century European philosophy will understand. The economic is part of the social—and in our time much more so than what we have known as the spiritual or metaphysical, because the most valuable canons of power have either been reduced or traduced into stricter economic terms. That is, there has been a shift in the actual meaning of the world since Dante lived. As if Brooks Adams were right. Money does not mean the same thing to me it must mean to a rich man. I cannot, right now, think of one meaning to name. This is not so simple to understand. Even as a simple term of the English language, money does not possess the same meanings for the rich man as it does for me, a lower-middle-class American, albeit of laughably “aristocratic” pretensions. What possibly can “money” mean to a poor man? And I am not talking now about those courageous products of our permissive society who walk knowledgeably into “poverty” as they would into a public toilet. I mean, The Poor.

I look in my pocket; I have seventy cents. Possibly I can buy a beer. A quart of ale, specifically. Then I will have twenty cents with which to annoy and seduce my fingers when they wearily search for gainful employment. I have no idea at this moment what that seventy cents will mean to my neighbor around the corner, a poor Puerto Rican man I have seen hopefully watching my plastic garbage can. But I am certain it cannot mean the same thing. Say to David Rockefeller, “I have money,” and he will think you mean something entirely different. That is, if you also dress the part. He would not for a moment think, “Seventy cents.” But then neither would many New York painters.

Speech, the way one describes the natural proposition of being alive, is much more crucial than even most artists realize. Semantic philosophers are certainly correct in their emphasis on the final dictation of words over their users. But they often neglect to point out that, after all, it is the actual importance, power, of the words that remains so finally crucial. Words have users, but as well, users have words. And it is the users that establish the world’s realities. Realities being those fantasies that control your immediate span of life. Usually they are not your own fantasies, i.e., they belong to governments, traditions, etc., which, it must be clear by now, can make for conflict with the singular human life all ways. The fantasy of America might hurt you, but it is what should be meant when one talks of “reality.” Not only the things you can touch or see, but the things that make such touching or seeing “normal.” Then words, like their users, have a hegemony. Socially—which is final, right now. If you are some kind of artist, you naturally might think this is not so. There is the future. But immortality is a kind of drug, I think—one that leads to happiness at the thought of death. Myself, I would rather live forever . . . just to make sure.

The social hegemony, one’s position in society, enforces more specifically one’s terms (even the vulgar have “pull”). Even to the mode of speech. But also it makes these terms an available explanation of any social hierarchy, so that the words themselves become, even informally, laws. And of course they are usually very quickly stitched together to make formal statutes only fools or the faithfully intrepid would dare to question beyond immediate necessity.

The culture of the powerful is very infectious for the sophisticated, and strongly addictive. To be any kind of “success” one must be fluent in this culture. Know the words of the users, the semantic rituals of power. This is a way into wherever it is you are not now, but wish, very desperately, to get into.

Even speech then signals a fluency in this culture. A knowledge at least. “He’s an educated man,” is the barest acknowledgment of such fluency . . . in any time. “He’s hip,” my friends might say. They connote a similar entrance.

And it is certainly the meanings of words that are most important, even if they are no longer consciously acknowledged, but merely, by their use, trip a familiar lever of social accord. To recreate instantly the understood hierarchy of social, and by doing that, cultural, importance. And cultures are thought by most people in the world to do their business merely by being hierarchies. Certainly this is true in the West, in as simple a manifestation as Xenophobia, the naïve bridegroom of anti-human feeling, or in economic terms, Colonialism. For instance, when the first Africans were brought into the New World, it was thought that it was all right for them to be slaves because “they were heathens.” It is a perfectly logical assumption.     

And it follows, of course, that slavery would have been an even stranger phenomenon had the Africans spoken English when they first got here. It would have complicated things. Very soon after the first generations of Afro-Americans mastered this language, they invented white people called Abolitionists.     

Words’ meanings, but also the rhythm and syntax that frame and propel their concatenation, seek their culture as the final reference for what they are describing of the world. An A flat played twice on the same saxophone by two different men does not have to sound the same. If these men have different ideas of what they want this note to do, the note will not sound the same. Culture is the form, the overall structure of organized thought (as well as emotion and spiritual pretension). There are many cultures. Many ways of organizing thought, or having thought organized. That is, the form of thought’s passage through the world will take on as many diverse shapes as there are diverse groups of travelers. Environment is one organizer of groups, at any level of its meaning. People who live in Newark, New Jersey, are organized, for whatever purpose, as Newarkers. It begins that simply. Another manifestation, at a slightly more complex level, can be the fact that blues singers from the Midwest sing through their noses. There is an explanation past the geographical, but that’s the idea in tabloid. And singing through the nose does propose that the definition of singing be altered . . . even if ever so slightly. (At this point where someone’s definitions must be changed, we are flitting around at the outskirts of the old city of Aesthetics. A solemn ghost town. Though some of the bones of reason can still be gathered there.)

But we still need definitions, even if there already are many. The dullest men are always satisfied that a dictionary lists everything in the world. They don’t care that you may find out something extra, which one day might even be valuable to them. Of course, by that time it might even be in the dictionary, or at least they’d hope so, if you asked them directly.

But for every item in the world, there are a multiplicity of definitions that fit. And every word we use could mean something else. And at the same time. The culture fixes the use, and usage. And in “pluralistic” America, one should always listen very closely when he is being talked to. The speaker might mean something completely different from what we think we’re hearing. “Where is your pot?’’

I heard an old Negro street singer last week, Reverend Pearly Brown, singing, “God don’t never change!” This is a precise thing he is singing. He does not mean “God does not ever change!” He means “God don’t never change!” The difference, and I said it was crucial, is in the final human reference . . . the form of passage through the world. A man who is rich and famous who sings, “God don’t never change,” is confirming his hegemony and good fortune . . . or merely calling the bank. A blind hopeless black American is saying something very different. He is telling you about the extraordinary order of the world. But he is not telling you about his “fate.” Fate is a luxury available only to those fortunate citizens with alternatives. The view from the top of the hill is not the same as that from the bottom of the hill. Nor are most viewers at either end of the hill, even certain that, in fact, there is any other place from which to look. Looking down usually eliminates the possibility of understanding what it must be like to look up. Or try to imagine yourself as not existing. It is difficult, but poets and politicians try every other day.

Being told to “speak proper,” meaning that you become fluent with the jargon of power, is also a part of not “speaking proper.” That is, the culture which desperately understands that it does not “speak proper,” or is not fluent with the terms of social strength, also understands somewhere that its desire to gain such fluency is done at a terrifying risk. The bourgeois Negro accepts such risk as profit. But does close-ter (in the context of “jes a close-ter, walk withee”) mean the same thing as closer? Close-ter, in the term of its user is, believe me, exact. It means a quality of existence, of actual physical disposition perhaps . . . in its manifestation as a tone and rhythm by which people live, most often in response to common modes of thought best enforced by some factor of environmental emotion that is exact and specific. Even the picture it summons is different, and certainly the “Thee” that is used to connect the implied “Me” with, is different. The God of the damned cannot know the God of the damner, that is, cannot know he is God. As no Blues person can really believe emotionally in Pascal’s God, or Wittgenstein’s question, “Can the concept of God exist in a perfectly logical language?” Answer: “God don’t never change.”  

Communication is only important because it is the broadest root of education. And all cultures communicate exactly what they have, a powerful motley of experience.

© Amiri Baraka, "Expressive Language" from Home: Social Essays, published by William Morrow & Company, Inc. Copyright © 1963 by Amiri Baraka.  Reprinted by permission of Sterling Lord Literistic, Inc.
Originally Published: February 15th, 2010

Poet, writer, teacher, and political activist Amiri Baraka was born Everett LeRoi Jones in 1934 in Newark, New Jersey. He attended Rutgers University and Howard University, spent three years in the U.S. Air Force, and returned to New York City to attend Columbia University and the New School for Social...