Post literate America

Sam Smith

Sitting in Manhattan across from an editor at one of best regarded publishing houses, I asked, “Does good writing still matter?”

After a long pause, the editor replied, “Yes, I believe it does.”

It would be the extended silence and not the words that would remain with me over the next decade, an exchange serving as a marker of when I began thinking that I might be wasting my time.

An uncomfortable feeling had arisen that perhaps I had chosen a craft – like book illumination or the outfitting of square rigged ships – that might no longer be needed or wanted.

I was confronting growing evidence that while what one wrote might be of interest because of its content, how one wrote it was becoming less important. Indeed, in some environments – including government, business and non-profit organizations – writing well seemed increasingly a handicap. A comforting cliche was worth far more than a novel metaphor.

Lost in this shift was consciousness of the relationship between words and thought, words and judgment, words and meaning, words and understanding. But none of this appeared to matter because there were fewer who considered such a relationship necessary or even desirable.

To be sure, the collapse of language had been going on for some time and not merely owing to the slovenly, uneducated or weak minded. As far back as the early 1980s a research firm in North Carolina, asked to study how schools could combat illiteracy, told the state board of education, “The conceptual framework for this evaluation posits a set of determinants of implementation which explains variations in the level of implementation of the comprehensive project.”

I recently picked up a book from the New Negro Renaissance, the period following World War I that Alain Locke called a “mass movement towards the larger and the more democratic chance – in the Negro’s case a deliberate flight not only from countryside to city, but from medieval America to modern.”

The book, When Washington was in Vogue, was written by Edward Christopher Williams, the first black professional librarian and principal of Washington’s black M Street(later Dunbar) high. It describes a part of Washington located exactly where, 50 years later, the city’s riots would break out upon the death of Martin Luther King.

Yet, beyond geography and the memories of a declining number of present residents, there was little familiar in the book. It tells of a place and a time that no longer exists.

In fact, the culture the book details becomes boring after a while. Emily Bernard, in a commentary accompanying the work, quotes Langston Hughes on the nature of the characters involved:

“The ‘better class’ of Washington colored people, as they call themselves, drew rigid class and color lines within the race against Negroes who worked with their hands, or who were dark in complexion and had no degrees from colleges. These upper-class colored people consisted largely of government workers, professors and teachers, doctors, lawyers, and resident politician. . . They were on the whole as unbearable and snobbish a group of people as I have ever come in contact with anywhere. They lived in comfortable homes, had fine cars, played bridge, drank Scotch, gave exclusive ‘formal’ parties, and dressed well, but seemed to me altogether lacking in real culture, kindness, or good common sense.”

The book’s protagonist, Davy Carr confirms such accusations with comments like these:

“The songs were of a type whose cheapness, vulgarity, banality, and utter lack of wit, humor, harmony, or distinction of any kind, simply defy description. . . .The themes were hackneyed beyond the power of my poor pen to depict, and how any human being with a spark of intelligence – I don’t say decency – could sit and listen to them, except under actual compulsion, is more than I can fathom.”


“I had the exquisite pleasure of being fed from time to time by the loveliest hands in the world – on both sides of me – and if in the process of taking marshmallows from the fingertips of Beauty, I now and then missed the marshmallows and got more than my share of the fingertips, who can blame me?”

Yet pompous and overblown as this language may be, one thing is clear: you will not run into anything similar on U Street today. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find it anywhere in Washington except between covers, mostly likely forgotten on some bookshelf.

But even a contemporary critic of the culture, Langston Hughes, was as comfortable with such language as he was alienated from the purposes to which it was being put. Both sides shared a way with words.

Further, the literacy of black Washington of that era was not a just a miniature preserve, The book was serialized in a black radical, socialist publication called the Messenger, run by the later head of the sleeping car porter’s union and civil rights leader, A. Philip Randolph.

In a 1996 article in City Journal, Tucker Carlson gave some of the context of this extinct black Washington:

|||| By 1920 a 40-block portion of the city, an area now known as the Shaw neighborhood, boasted more than 300 black-owned businesses, including the Ford, Howard, and Dabney movie theaters, a large hotel, three black-owned banks (one, the Industrial Savings Bank, with nearly $500,000 on deposit), black newspapers and pharmacies, a number of successful undertaking businesses, cabarets, billiard clubs, and Ware’s, a black-owned and -managed department store. . . “You had to wear a tie to walk down U Street,” recalls one elderly resident. . .

Founded in 1870, Dunbar High was the country’s first black secondary school, and for almost 100 years the best. Dunbar was the Groton of black Washington, educating the sons and daughters of the black aristocracy to rule its portion of the segregated city. . . By 1964, for instance, almost every predominantly black public school in the city’s generally well-regarded school system was run by a Dunbar alumnus – no fewer than 32 principals and superintendents.

Working with a tiny budget and under the limits of segregation, Dunbar sent its graduates to the best colleges in America. From 1918 to 1923, for example, 15 students went on to graduate from Ivy League schools. In 1949 Dunbar sent one graduate each to Colby, Columbia, Dartmouth, Georgetown, Harvard, MIT, Smith, and Yale. A total of five went to Bates and NYU. One hundred fifteen went to Howard University. Of the 310 students who graduated from Dunbar that year, 267 went to college, five joined the military, and only 37 went immediately to work. ||||

Now let us leap forward to some of the more popular black literature of today, the sort of thing you might hear booming from a car near the same U Street where Davy Carr lived. This, for example, is from the collected works of P Diddy:

Aiyyo, you ready?
Let’s do
Mmm, yeah, uhh..
Yeah, uhh.. c’mon

I’m the definition of, half man, half drugs
Ask the clubs, Bad Boy – that’s whassup
After bucks, crush cruise after us
No gaze, we ain’t laughin much
Nothin but big thangs, check the hitlist
How we twist shit, what change but the name?
We still here, you rockin wit the best
Don’t worry if I write rhymes, I write checks (ahh!)
Who’s the boss? Dudes is lost
Don’t think cause I’m iced out, I’ma cool off
Who else but me? (who else?) And if you don’t feel me
that mean you can’t touch me, it’s ugly, trust me
Get it right dawg, we ain’t ever left
We just, moved in silence and rep to the death (yeah)
It’s official, I survived what I been through
Y’all got drama, “The Saga Continues…”

We ain’t, go-in nowhere, we ain’t, goin nowhere
We can’t be stopped now, cause it’s Bad Boy for life
We ain’t, go-in nowhere, we ain’t, goin nowhere
We can’t be stopped now, cause it’s Bad Boy for life

And this from 50 Cent:

uhh..uh huh uh huhh…uh huh uh huhh…uh huh uh huhh..uh uh uh uh
uh huh uh huhh…uh huh uh huhh…uh huh uh huhh..uh uh uh uh

Money make a pimp, pimp hoes, hustlas sell dope, thugs gun smoke
Money make the world go round, as the world turns
Money make the world go round, as the world turns
Nigga I need money to main-tainn
Hustalin aint a gamee
Nigga go and gets the grainn
Gon’ get tore out the framee
T.Vs in the Rangee
I’m in ta nice thanggs I slang weed (snort)
Coc-ainee and Herio-anee
50 Cent
Thats my namee
Nigga I bring the painn
You thought shit stay the samee
Nigga shit gon’ change
Put a bullet in your brainn
Nigga at close range
Run away wit ya rollie, your rings, and your motherfuckin chainn

If you examine the latter work, you find the most commonly mentioned non-pronouns are money and nigga. Only five of the over 200 words have three or more syllables and only one – motherfuckin – has four.

Writing for Black America Web, Gregory Kane reports, “One of my white students at predominantly white and Asian Johns Hopkins University wrote an essay in which she revealed she’s taking a course called ‘The American Autobiography.’ When the professor asked the class how many had read “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” only three students raised their hands. When the professor asked how many had read Karrine Steffans’ “Confessions of a Video Vixen,” 10 hands shot up.

“So, more than likely, the only autobiography about black folks most of these white and Asian students have been exposed to is the one by Steffans, the very one that perpetuates the stereotype of all black folks — especially black women — as an oversexed, lusty folk who can’t control their passions.”

The situation is so out of control in Kane’s view that “Something needs to be done, because today’s rappers have left me pining away for reruns of the ‘Amos ‘n Andy’ television show. Yes, that show was criticized for perpetuating the very stereotypes I’ve been complaining about. But that television show had one redeeming quality: On each episode there were black folks who were either doctors, lawyers, judges, businessmen or other professionals, all talking impeccable English.”

Now you might well write off Kane as Langston Hughes wrote off the snobs of his time or as many dismiss Bill Cosby’s complaints about black culture. But the issue here is not the judgment on culture but an observation about literacy. Just as hip hop and rap barely use the available and nearly infinite musical spectrum, so they reduce the vast plains of language and the joys and pain of experience to what amounts to an elementary school level linguistic ghetto with a few slurs and obscenities thrown in for flavor. Whatever values you wish to project – from decadent aristocracy to ghetto street life – you do them no favor by eliminating the very words that might best describe them. In fact, it has the opposite effect; it makes a parody out of the real.

And it need not be a function of class at all, witness the lyrics of the blues, including one of most enduring descriptions of Washington – a bourgeois town – that came not from a scholar or a journalist but from Leadbelly:

The white folks in Washington
They know how,
Chuck a colored man a nickel
Just to see him bow

Or consider the words of playin’ the dozens such as these on just one topic culled from the 1994 collection, Snaps:

– Your house is so cold, the roaches can skate across the living room.

– There are so many roaches in your house, you should make them sign a lease

– Your house is so poor they tore it down to make a slum.

– Your house is small, you have to go outside to change your mind.

– Your family is so poor, your house has a kickstand.

– I went to your house, stepped on a cigarette and your mother screamed, “Who turned off the heat?”

The last comes from Ice-T, for even rap performers have borrowed from a tradition that, like most good literature, has an appeal far beyond a single subculture and makes use of metaphor, irony, imagery and humor in manner hard to accomplish when you’re relying heavily on obscenities.

Today, things in DC are a bit different than in Langston Hughes’ day. In the blackest wards, about half the residents are illiterate. And on U Street, the language is changing. This is not a result of education, however, but of gentrification. The median value of a house in the area has gone up 88% in three years.

But the language of white Washington, while different, is not doing all that well either.

Take, for example, the speeches and thoughts of Theodore Roosevelt or Woodrow Wilson and lay them alongside those of George W. Bush.

Or consider this 2005 report from Lois Romano in the Washington Post: “Only 41 percent of graduate students tested in 2003 could be classified as ‘proficient’ in prose — reading and understanding information in short texts — down 10 percentage points since 1992. Of college graduates, only 31 percent were classified as proficient — compared with 40 percent in 1992.”

Or this 2004 report from the NEA:

“A Survey of Literary Reading in America reports drops in all groups studied, with the steepest rate of decline – 28 percent – occurring in the youngest age groups. The study also documents an overall decline of 10 percentage points in literary readers from 1982 to 2002, representing a loss of 20 million potential readers. The rate of decline is increasing and, according to the survey, has nearly tripled in the last decade. . .

“Literary reading declined among whites, African Americans and Hispanics. . . By age, the three youngest groups saw the steepest drops, but literary reading declined among all age groups. The rate of decline for the youngest adults, those aged 18 to 24, was 55 percent greater than that of the total adult population. . .

“Reading also affects lifestyle, the study shows. Literary readers are much more likely to be involved in cultural, sports and volunteer activities than are non-readers. For example, literary readers are nearly three times as likely to attend a performing arts event, almost four times as likely to visit an art museum, more than two-and-a-half times as likely to do volunteer or charity work, and over one-and-a-half times as likely to attend or participate in sports activities. People who read more books tend to have the highest level of participation in other activities.”

The New English Review adds:

“Carol Iannone, citing a National Endowment for the Arts survey, reports ‘For the first time in modern history less than half the adult population of the United States had read even a bit of poetry, fiction or drama in the entire year. While in 1982, almost 57 percent of Americans were literary readers’ – those who read literature on their own, not for school or work – that percentage had shrunk to less than 47 percent in 2002.'”

In short, regardless of ethnicity or class, America is losing its literacy.

And there are more than enough suspects.

Our schools – with aid of the government – have turned their interests away from the magic and effectiveness of the good teacher towards a corporate bureaucracy, which – like all such systems – can’t do what it sets out to do. Words have been mainly reduced to mere facts, easy to test but boring to learn. Far less valued are words as keys to unlock the imagination, as translators of meaning and feelings, as things to love, play with, turn into jokes, or use to convince someone of something.

Television has also hurt, limiting our words and how they are used, and – for the very young – taking time away from real conversation with real humans, away from practicing instead of just listening and from repeating what you’ve heard instead of just hearing it once and then hearing something else.

Then there is something we don’t talk much about: the contemporary relationship between the words we use and our success and survival. Whether applying for a non-profit grant from a foundation, describing a program at a conference, making a sales pitch or applying for a job, we have been taught to use a declining number of words deemed acceptable for the purpose.

Ken Smith, in two books, calls it junk English:

“Junk English takes many forms. It is the salesperson who describes a product as high quality and a real value, the coworker who writes of the positive side of consumer equation, the politician who speaks of sensible reform, the television analyst who talks of anomalous paradigms, your best friend who says ‘Lets do lunch!’. . .

“Junk English is much more than sloppy grammar. It is a hash of human frailties and cultural 1icense: spurning the language of the educated yet spawning its own pretentious words and phrases, favoring appearance over substance, broadness over precision, and loudness above all. It is sometimes innocent, sometimes lazy, sometimes well intended, but most often it is a trick we play on ourselves to make the unremarkable seem important. Its scope has been widened by politicians, business executives, and the PR and advertising industries in their employ, who use it to spread fog before facts they would rather keep hidden. The result is Edmund Burke’s tyranny of the multitude merged with George Orwell’s Newspeak, a world of humbug in which the more we read and hear, the less we know.”

In a sense, we have all become rappers: George Bush no less than Ice T, the difference being in the words but not in the intent to reduce reality to as few of them as possible.

What suffers here is not just our language but our reality. It becomes a cartoon of itself whether it is P Diddy on the topic of pimpin’ or a think tanker on the subject of globalization.

We thus find ourselves in an environmental crisis not just because we failed to do something. We also find ourselves in this bind because too many with too much power used words as weapons to turn reality into a world they preferred. Symbolism triumphing over science until, that is, the heat became unavoidable.

The same is true with Iraq, a war based on a verbal parody of reality, with massive idioms of deception substituting for massive weapons of destruction.

In such ways do words matter far beyond the credit we give them. Too many believe that we can use unreal language and still have real results. One can, for example, already feel the nation sinking into the semiotic fantasyland of a presidential election, treating verbal symbols as substance and mushy abstractions as hardened intent.

We will pay a price for that just as we have with the environment and with Iraq.

As Confucius observed, “If language is not correct, then what is said is not what is meant; if what is said is not what is meant, then what must be done remains undone.”

We can keep rapping our cliches, our pet phrases, our junk English and keep assuming that facts will adjust accordingly.

Or we can recognize how the limited words that post-literate America uses have deceived us, put away our mission statements and marketing messages, and return to a language that says what it means, serves as what Emerson called “a conduit of the spirit;” gives form to memory, breath to experience; passion to love; suffering to pain; laughter to happy thoughts; and provides a window overlooking our existence.

6 thoughts on “Post literate America

  1. Thank you, Sam, for this thoughtful, articulate, and rather poignant essay. Are you at all familiar with Charlotte Thompson Iserbyt's important book, *The Deliberate Dumbing Down of America*, as well as John Taylor Gatto's works (especially his superb *The Underground History of American Education*)? Here we are accelerating pell-mell super-exponentially toward the Singularity, and yet the corporate-feudalist mandarins are dumbing down our kids…Orwell, as well as Jefferson and Madison, must be puking in their graves…Keep up the good work…

  2. It's hardwired: we get the behaviors we reward. Evolutionary processes guarantee it. We mightn't get it for long, depending on how self-destructive it is, but we damnsure get it.So if we want something different, we better change the rules about what gets rewarded. But will we?

  3. This pusilanimous statement might have some significance for the problem, Sam:"We were very deferential because…it's live, it's very intense, it's frightening to stand up there. Think about it, you're standing up on prime-time live TV asking the president of the United States a question when the country's about to go to war. There was a very serious, somber tone that evening, and no one wanted to get into an argument with the president at this very serious time."Anyone who could even think that way should not pretend to be a journo!

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