I’ve been thinking about James Baldwin’s question to himself, “Do I really want to be integrated in a burning house?” One way to understand the “burning house” is to see it as our society, our nation. After witnessing a violent crowd run amuck through the halls of our Capitol, we can no longer blithely claim to be “one nation under God indivisible.” Those words went up in smoke on Jan. 6.
In our economic life, we find the slow burn of wage erosion and disappearing jobs are consuming that hardy perennial, the America middle class. These realities would reinforce Baldwin’s doubts about integration.
Another way to understand “burning house” is a place where cultural burning occurs: My family provides a case in point. My grandfather, Bill Hartigan, belonged to the Irish Fenians, a fractious, violent group working in the 1800s to liberate Ireland from British rule. Family lore has it that my grandfather swam the River Shannon to escape capture and flee to the United States. Though a fierce Irish nationalist, he gained a kind of notoriety for tirelessly exhorting his fellow immigrants to “get rid of the brogue,” a distinctly Irish speech pattern. The Irish did learn to eliminate the brogue, along with spoken Gaelic. This was the necessary price to gaining employment in a time when job notices included the phrase, “No Irish need apply.”
Certain fragments of Gaelic survived in my mother’s language like fossils from the distant past: shemajah I understood as a smart-aleck girl. I knew that an omadhaun was a fool.
Irish playwright Brian Friel, in his play Translations, tells the story of the British civil engineers who replaced the traditional names for Irish crossroads with their own terms.
Novelist Elena Ferrante in her Neapolitan novels explores the necessity of abandoning the neighborhood dialect to gain acceptance.
Phlilologist Daniel Walden writes, “We have language precisely in order to invite others into our own interiority, to tell them our story.” To tell our story, we need our language. When we speak of desiring diversity in our communities and organization, we need to take care that we are not unconsciously requiring of those we invite to join us that they pay the price of losing their language.
Tesse Donnelly, Oak Park