Speaking in Tongues (Zadie Smith, 2009)

“…many thousands of [British] men and women…have sloughed off their native dialects and acquired a new tongue.” – George Bernard Shaw

In the opening line of Big Changes in Black America, his brilliant appraisal of Toure’s Who’s Afraid of Blackness: What it Means to be Black Now, for the New York Review of Books, Darryl Pinckney references an essay by Zadie Smith that had appeared in the same journal in 2009 (based on a lecture given at the New York Public Library in December 2008.) Entitled Speaking in Tongues, he refers to it as “stunning”.

So, I read it. And yes, it is. It is a wonderful, rare piece of writing. One that explores connections between speech, voice, class, race and language; the “complicated back stories, messy histories [and] multiple narratives” that most of us carry; the generational, public and private conflicts over language within societies, and especially black society; pride, shame, diversified race and cultural heritage; pragmatism and “ideological heroism”; the flexibility of the voice.

Smith draws on Shakespeare, Shaw, Keats, even Cary Grant, but pivots around the extraordinary figure of Barack Obama, of whom she writes “seems just the man to demonstrate that between [those] two voices there exists no contradiction and no equivocation but rather a proper and decent human harmony.”

It is a colossal, brilliant, emotional piece of writing.

It is here. Read it.


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