WHEN WORDS DISAPPEAR

March 22, 2017

 

     HER tiny hand reached for the fare box. She ran the smartcard against the reader. Then, smiling, she looked up at her father for approval. Riding buses brings as much pleasure to young children as many of their treasured toys. She wasn’t any exception.

 

Her father gently took her hand in his and guided her to a seat next to a Latina. The mid-afternoon crowd forced him to sit behind his daughter.

 

The Latina stopped reading the book that seemed to have held her spellbound for blocks as we snaked through traffic. She glanced down at her small and lovely seat mate, who wore a pink hooded sweater and matching pants.

 

“Hola.” The woman flashed a warm and bright smile.

 

The little girl, looked up, but said nothing.

 

“Say Hola.”  Her father touched her arm, hoping to prompt a response.

 

Still, the little girl observed with the intensity permitted only to children. Had an adult stared without blinking or turning away, there undoubtedly would have been an irritated verbal exchange that began with “What are you looking at.” There is never any of that bravado when children silently explore. People often react with smiles, silly silly faces, or with questions about their names and ages. The woman fell into the latter category.

 

“What’s you name,” she asked in Spanish.

 

The little girl, now drinking from a no-spill cup, filled with milk provided by her father, doesn’t respond. She is fully into the drink.

 

“Angelina,” he father replies, telling the woman his daughter is three years old. And so the conversation becomes more adult: The reader and the father, who asserts with pride that his daughter, whom he just picked up from daycare, speaks Spanish. But his nephew, who is twelve years old, does not.

 

“He don’t speak no Spanish,” laments the father. “None of his friends speak Spanish. That is sad, no?”

The reader closes her book. She turns to him and tries to explain it’s important that his nephew and his daughter speak English. “They want to make it here. They must know the language.”

 

“They can know. But they still should speak Spanish. They can’t forget where they from.”

I understand his quiet lament.

 

     When I was a young girl growing up in New Orleans, my great grandmother, who we called “Nanan,” and my grandmother, who we called “Honey” often spoke bits of Creole, a French patois native to the city and Louisiana. It wasn’t simply a reflection of the state’s history. My grandfather’s mother had been French; other parts of our family tree were Spanish. The ethnic and racial mixtures that made New Orleans unique were common to my family and me.

 

I loved the sound of the language; it brought a certain comfort, anchoring me in rituals of home and family. I took formal French classes in school, hoping to hold onto the memories of those days when my grandmothers whispered secrets in a familiar and familial tongue.

 

As they grew older, their stories became locked in their minds. Even if they wanted to share narratives, magical and romantic, they could not. My great grandmother’s last stroke left her speechless. My grandmother simply fell to the floor one evening; her heart attack came sudden leaving her without any time to share some Creole tale or incantation for my unborn children that would conjure family members at a moment’s notice.

 

            Language is an adhesive, binding us to our history and culture. When the native tongue becomes foreign, things vital to a lineage disappear—not suddenly but gradually, like the erosion of soil or the encroachment of the ocean on the shoreline.

 

How can we protect the mainland?

 

The father on the bus does not know the answer any more than I did as a young girl. How do you retain a language when everything around you demands and anticipates its destruction or at least its disappearance, behind a locked door, or inside an aging mind unable to hold the threads of culture and history regardless of their beauty and value?

 

America has always been a creolized society—though only now has that been acknowledged. Hispanics, the demographers tell us, are the fastest growing minority population. Soon, they may even outnumber whites. That reality had an impact, at least partially, on the 2016 presidential election, leading to the selection of a man who, with his supporters, want to reverse that trend. Despite their unprecedented efforts, including deportations of innocent immigrants that have stripped mothers and fathers from their families, the trajectory will not likely be halted.

 

Still the worry of the father is valid: Are the demographic changes also the beginning funeral of his culture—his Spanish culture—in America?

 

     During the “Black Arts Movement” of the 1960s and 1970s, we were urged by poets, actors and musicians to reach back to Africa—“The Mother Land.” Suddenly, everyone was speaking Kiswahili or Twei or Portuguese, which I never understood; Portugal had been a colonizer. A whole new holiday, allegedly with roots in a country most of us had never and would never visit, was created and marketed: Habari Gani?!   

 

These cultural activists embraced and advocated “Ebonics.” They were misguided linguists, who said that was the native language of blacks, particularly those from the inner-city ghettos. I was never a fan of that movement.  Ebonics was a bastard, born somewhere between the middle passage, the plantation, and backwater towns filled with the stench of discrimination and poverty.  

 

Still, I understand the irrational grasping for something to restore a people’s connection with each other—their history and their culture.  Who wants to walk through the world alone, without links to a place, an era or a mission?

 

But even if we had found the path home, with multicolored flags, cornrows and drumming, would we have spoken the same language? Probably not.

 

            Oddly, as the years have passed, I have come to realize that the words and symbols and rituals we advanced back then were not the ones that had brought comfort to me as a child. What eased my worries was hearing the language of home: my grandfather’s alto saxophone on those evenings he played his horn after working a long day as a chauffeur; the laughter of my aunt and uncle during the weekends I spent in their home on Louisa Street; and the broken French my grandmother and her mother spoke as they sat on the sofa in our den, watching a television program, remembering an occurrence from their history together. I may not have understood their story but I knew I was part of it.

My regret, these days is that I did not make a sufficient effort to learn their language. When I tell my granddaughter the story of her people, I wish I could use their original words. But I cannot. I am certain the father on that bus whose conversation I overheard does not want his child, someday in the future, to be in the same position.

 

Sadly, some things truly are lost forever.

 

 

 

 

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