The Book of Human Language

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The Oath.jpg

I. Violence

I have always considered myself a product of the Crack Era, despite having never slung a rock, smoked a pipe, or fired a gun. The violence of the late 80s and early 90s was a nuclear bomb--we remember those who died in the blast, but so many more walked away, done different and irradiated. 

I was nine-years old the first time I got jumped. When I was ten, I watched another boy in the parking lot of a 7-11 pull out on one of my fifth grade classmates. It was a kind of magic and I recall that moment in cinematic slow-motion...

The boy is jawing with another kid from my school. He is from Pimlico...

His friends are holding him back.. 

And when he reaches into his dip, into his jacket, I take it to be the same pantomime that so many boys of that era enacted...

Except this is really happening... 

And what is unveiled is not simply a gun, but an iron scepter, a symbol of the boy's primacy in all our small affairs...

I was not a gangster. I wasn't even a fighter. I was slow to anger. I didn't simply fear being hurt, I actually didn't like hurting other people. I only changed because it was made clear that  the quickest path to peace was, in fact, a sharp, immediate demonstration of violence. 

More, I came to understand that there were principles beyond the immediate safety of my person. The basic code held that it was fine to catch a beat-down, this was all in the game. You could even run if seriously outnumbered. But you always shot the fair one. And you never never left a friend in arms to the gentle clutches of some other crew. 

The acceptance of this violence was framed by still greater violence. For all of us it was the violence parents did to children. But for many of us it was more--sexual violence, the violence adults did to each other, the violence brought out by addiction, the constant presence of the police. This greater violence influenced our principles, which themselves were premised on other implicit, unstated principles. Among them: That the world was--and would always be--violent. That we were powerless to alter this fact. 

Violence was a language in the crack era. I have never, in my life, been as scared as I was on the first day of middle school. What petrified me was that the boys--most of whom were older--spoke the language of violence. Violence shaped how they walked. Violence shaped who they walked with. Violence shaped when they laughed and what they laughed at. Violence shaped how they wore their Starter caps. Violence told them when to give dap and when to give the ice-grill. It was an entire range of cues, an intricate dance, all designed to either protect your person, or dramatize the effort. 

Learning the language of violence as a child, has a way of  putting all of life's normal adult fears into perspective. But it does not banish them. You remember the overpowering darkness of it all--and you remember this (the not knowing) even more then you remember the bumrush.

Only twice in my life have I felt as lost as I did on that first day at Lemmel: When I moved to New York and when I started studying French. The obvious point is that "not knowing" on the streets carries a kind of consequence which "not knowing" in French class does not. And yet the fear--the darkness--is still powerful.  Violence isn't simply physically painful, it is degrading and humiliating. The worst part about getting jumped was my helplessness. This is how I have experienced learning French. 

I walk into a room and the Power in the room refuses--with very few exceptions--to speak a common language. More she speaks to me in such a way, and with such a manner, that I am supposed to understand. Even the rules of that foreign language are given in a foreign language. And when she calls on you, it's with the expectation that you will understand. And you never do. I experience this as a bumrush, as a rain of blows from all directions. It is humiliating because I am helpless to respond. My intellect is injured. My strutting manhood is made irrelevant.

The only way forward is that path I found as a young boy--principles. To learn French you must accept that you will be humiliated--you are helpless to stop it. But as surely as you once committed to shooting the fair one, to swinging your hapless and errant blows, you now commit to spouting what little French you have at your command. You commit to sounding like a fool, much as you once committed to looking like one. And this will always be true. No matter how good you get, there will always be someone sneering at your awful accent. You are helpless to change those facts. They simply must be endured.

It is odd to take in that lesson so young, and in such a way. When I was a boy, I did not understand. More, I did not understand that not understanding was how it al  happened. I was left in the dark--and then  forcibly remanded to a strange immersion. And yet I learned the syntax, the vocabulary, the sounds. And I came to like the sound. I got fluency and then fraternity. I walked outside. And then I got love.

*The painting is Jacques-Louis David's "The Oath of the Horatii." Info here.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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