Decoding Language in the Service of Social Justice

Steven Palmer reflects on Brian Purnell's workshop, which explored questions about when and where oral historians should enter products of oral history.  This talk took place on Thursday, November 6, 2014.

Brian Purnell, Professor of Africana Studies at Bowdoin College in Maine, worked in a 30-minute interview with OHMA students before his lecture titled “Can the Oral Historian Speak?” at Columbia University on November 5th, 2014.  Not wanting to duplicate his proposed lecture, I reviewed Professor Purnell's website and found a fantastic lecture Professor Purnell gave to a class he taught called, "The Wire": Race, Class, Gender, and the Urban Crisis” that aired on C-Span's American History channel on 2/1/12.  Professor Purnell utilizes the TV series, The Wire, as a reference point to discuss the "crisis" of cities from the 1960s to the 1990s. Here is a clip from his lecture that captured my imagination and provided the material for my discussion below. 

When watching Purnell's lecture, I was intrigued how he discussed terms like "race relations", "race riots", "black migration", and "ghetto".   Purnell's approach is effective:  He does not clobber students over the head with political correctness.  When discussing ghettos, he says, “People don’t live in ghettos, they live in communities.”  Purnell turns the noun, “ghetto” into a verb, “ghettoization”.  He says, "Think of it [ghettos] as a process, not necessarily a place, though there are spatial characteristics to racial segregation, poverty, joblessness...the white noose around the black neck."  His manner is very thoughtful and though his explanation is stark with its visual of the noose, he then employs humor.  He goes on to say “It’s not as if you cross into the south side of Chicago and there’s a sign that says ‘Welcome to the ghetto’” at which point he laughs and his students laugh with him.  He then says, “I would encourage you to think of it as a process.” I found myself surprised -- this rethinking of terms is crucial and, honestly, until he brought it up in this context, I hadn't considered that those terms were problematic blind spots in my own vocabulary.  To me, the term "ghetto", constituted a location.  I understood there were inequalities of society that lead to the creation of ghettos, but his reframing and redefining the idea of ghetto is pointed -- it takes the onus off of the people living in ghettos as creating their realities and instead puts that onus on the factors that lead to ghettoization in the first place.

When I prepared for Purnell's lecture, I jotted down notes and started to write about how Purnell addresses "the problem of race in America."  Purnell never uses those words -- "the problem of race in America" -- it was my summation of his talk.  I caught myself, in no small measure as a result of Purnell's discussion of racial terminology, and thought, "Wait a minute, what does that mean?"  What on earth is the "problem of race in America?”  I wondered whether that grouping of words informed the American psyche by suggesting that blacks are the problem -- that something about blacks as a race is an organic problem -- it arises from them, not as a result of the societal context they find themselves in.   This leads to the incorrect conclusion that society has to, as Purnell points out, “fix the way that they act” in order to fix the problem.  I came to understand these terms, and described them to Purnell as linear vectors of implied meaning, aimed at the black community, imbued with negative connotations but never revealing where those vectors originated from which is from a history of racism.  These negative terms are conflated, incorrectly, with the population that has been victimized, not with the perpetrators that victimized the population.

Decoding language isn't going to bring around social justice, but it can help.  And getting back to the title of Professor Purnell’s talk, “Can the Oral Historian Speak?” my personal experience says that we can speak and that decoding language is imperative in order to clarify what the narrator means.  For example, in an interview I conducted about gays and hippies in San Francisco in the 1960s, the narrator referred to “sweater queens”, a term I had never heard before so I asked him to clarify before proceeding with the interview. He meant uptight gay men whose lives were bourgeoisie and socially conforming in the same ways as straight people at that time.  The narrator’s explanation was vital to the context of the interview which would’ve been subject to speculation had I not stopped him.  We have unconscious assumptions about many terms, whether describing race or something else, and we need to allow those terms to come to full consciousness so that they can start to unravel.  In doing so we will recognize that they are dynamic, roiling with meaning passed down through the generations, and begin to uncover the several layers of context and/or prejudice that brought them into being.


Watch the entire lecture on C-Span.

Columbia University’s Oral History Master of Arts Program sponsors a workshop series that is free and open to the public. Join us next time.