What is Language Justice?

My grandmother was born on the Lower East Side of New York City, following the emigration of her parents, my great grandparents, from Russia.  Their only child, she often told the story of the rabbi in their town telling her father he could annul the marriage if he wished “because her mother was barren.”  Her father replied that he loved Suri, her mother.  They left for America together.  My grandmother’s story of her origins as a love child conceived on the boat in defiance of patriarchy.

The words of this personal creation myth were Yiddish, the language of Eastern European Jews.  My grandmother spoke it exclusively until she started school in the first grade.  She never called it “Yiddish,” though; she like many of her generation called it “Jewish” — that close was it to her sense of her identity.  She never really accepted that I did not have it.  My father kept its music out of my ears while I was growing up, and likely out of his, too, when he could.

My grandmother and I were important to one another, though we always lived far apart. Her fierce, bottomless love made a floor for me during a rocky childhood.  She used to repeat something I once said when I was little about why she and I liked many of the same things: “That’s because we’re related.”   Our daughter studies Yiddish now.

“You have to be ready and willing to challenge everything you once understood about language and what students need in a language education.”  — April Baker Bell in the 2020 book, Linguistic Justice: Black Language, Literacy, Identity, and Pedagogy. When I first became an English teacher, I was assigned by my department head to coach a student preparing a Shakespearean monologue for competition in an English-Speaking Union contest.  What??

Used throughout the history of colonization, enslavement, and genocide to rob people of their relations (stories, culture, family), this language I write in, my mother tongue but not my grandmother’s, is a terrain of struggle, force, and grief.  Not denying that English is home to some of the world’s people, I am calling attention to the knot of language, culture, knowledge, and power along which it, and worse, a narrow variant of it — academic, edited, standardized, and white — is made standard.  Teachers of English, yes, but also of everything since education is a language game — its players possessed of a great range of cultural identities that education must respect rather than sort, rank, punish, and seek to obliterate — must recognize that to compel students to speak English only, or to speak only one style through only one history of English, is violent.  What is language justice? This recognition, and the mobilization — pedagogical, political, and recuperative — that follows from it.  And the music.