Speak loudly a culture

(I make the humble promise to you all that, some day, I’ll stop doing rabbit trail blog posts and stick to a point.  That day is not today.)


When I was 7 years old my mother read me a newspaper article from our local paper about an old man who lived somewhere in our area who was thought to be the last person who spoke the language he spoke. When he died the language would die with him. I didn’t get it, at all, when I was 7. How could a language die? How many languages were there? I’d always pictured somewhere in the two dozen range… that seemed about right. I had no idea that there were thousands upon thousands of languages. It made me sad to think of a language dying. It didn’t understand it, but it made me sad.

This story refused to leave my mind, popping back to me at the strangest moments – in the supermarket, on the bus, driving to the top of my favorite mountain, and many nights laying in bed, listening to traffic, or the lack thereof. I had this image in my mind of an old man, sitting alone, looking out a window. He had a whole culture trapped in his mind that he couldn’t express. Not just words, but a culture. There is a poet I absolute adore, Shailja Patel, who has a poem titled Dreaming Gujurati.

Words that don’t exist in Gujurati:

And then later she says

If we cannot name it
does it exist?
When we lose language
does culture die? What happens
to a tongue of milk-heavy
cows, earthen pots
jingling anklets, temple bells,
when its children
grow up in Silicon Valley
to become

Language IS culture. Sitting there, fumbling to describe a word or concept, trying to drag a word out of another language when the word is not to be had. Eventually you give up. It simply does not exist to other people. Simply is not in their minds as a word. It’s yours. Your word, your culture. Sometimes a word becomes known in other languages; words seep, languages morph, people adapt. Every day I use words that aren’t English; Spanish was my first language as a toddler, quickly replaced with English, but Spanish still seeps into my mind. It will always be a lavanderia, not a laundry mat, adios before goodbye, mercado before market. I never say these things now, but they come first to my mind when I think.

Other languages seeped in when I was older. I kvetch all the time, when moving recently I had a box labeled Tchotchkes and Important Papers, and often I will use ASL to sign along to myself to keep from getting distracted during something and to help me remember. Sitting on the train the other day I heard conversations happening in 4 different languages at the same time. Language, culture, is everywhere.

It is everywhere and it’s more accessible than ever. When I was in 9th grade, in Spanish class, our teacher pulled up an internet translator, typed in “The house is blue.” and translated it to Spanish, then Greek, and a couple of other languages, and then back to English. At that point it had become something ridiculous like “Blue barn is therein.” His point was “don’t try to use online translators to do your work.” But now you can get online, pull up Google Translate, type in a sentence, pick the “to” and “from” languages, and it will usually give you a fairly good translation and pronounce the end result for you. I just tried the “The house is blue.” experiement and after cycling through English, Spanish, Greek, Mandarin Chinese, Portuguese, and Hebrew the end result was… “The house is blue.”

I can’t help wondering if that is better though. Is it better to have “everything” so accessible and easy without having to work for it? I grew up after the melting pot idea. Distinction was good, culture was good, language was good. One monolithic culture was bad. We sang Christmas Carols, Hanukkah songs, Kwanzaa songs, and a revamped version of “this little light of mine” that somehow related to the solstice in one particularly memorable, and insufferably long, Winter Holiday Song Festival when I was in 1st grade. We were going to Celebrate Different Cultures, damnit, and we were going to like it. Complete with paper crowns and the lilting voices of 58 six year olds.

Every so often, though, that is what church feels like. I’ve been watching a lot of old General Assembly videos, especially the worship services. Celebrating cultures is fabulous and fantastic. Picking and choosing the fun bits isn’t so OK. In watching these videos I’ve seen African American Spirituals, Nordic chanting combined with Sufi poetry set to music, and a couple of incredibly painful attempts at singing in other languages. I’ve seen a Indian story of a rich man and something to do with heaven and multiple gods. And I just find myself sitting there (or laying there – let’s be honest, I watch these in bed when I can’t sleep) thinking “… that makes me uneasy.”

We celebrate the fun parts of cultures. Cornucopia for Kwanzaa! Fun dinner with botched Hebrew for Passover! It feels like we are taking holidays, songs, cultures, picking them apart for the fun shiny parts that translate well to a 18 minute sermon and leaving out the inconvenient history that doesn’t fit in. When it’s children singing songs celebrating every culture it’s OK, but when we are condensing hugely significant pieces of cultures to Picture Books for Adults? It makes me, well, uneasy.

I seriously doubt that many UUs are melting pot theorists. If you threw out the phrase “melting pot” at coffee hour I have no doubt that you’d hear everything from “vegetable soup!” to “salad!” to “mosaic!” and definitions of those things as what we believe, likely with connections to our principles and sources. But vegetable soup/salad/mosaic/bread sticks means more than saying “This is an African American Spiritual!” it means having the education, somewhere, explaining what African American Spirituals really were, where they came from, and why (most importantly, I think) we are singing it. Because it is pretty? Sure! Because it’s fun? Yes! But also, and this is what’s so important, because we have learned, we respect, and we want to grow as people, as congregations, and as a denomination into a more vibrant, diverse, beautiful thing, and culture is part of that. And education is part of that. And learning beyond picture books is part of that. And recognizing that we have the PRIVILEGE to learn is a really big giant part of that.


5 Responses to “Speak loudly a culture”

  1. Andy–

    One day, when the time is right, you are going to make one hell of a preacher. 🙂


  2. This is (another) nice piece, Andrew. As a long-ago anthropology major who considered going on in linguistic anthro, these are ideas and questions that have always resonated for me, too. BTW, I’m sorry I didn’t have a chance to say goodbye before you left Maine, but I look forward to following your posts.

  3. I think I get this. Not sure why or how I missed it when you first wrote it, but I saw it tonight and it resonated with me. That sort of dabbling almost feels like cultural tourism in which we never get off our safe UU bus, but drive through quaint villages with locals gathered at the well and bickering in the market. We never dig deep enough to really experience the ugly things, the sad things, the bitter and brutal histories. We get the postcard at the gift shop in July, but don’t ever imagine what February looks like in a summer tourist town. We look at poor farmers like they are noble stewards of the soil instead of broke and desperate to try to eke a living out of the dirt while acid rain and Monsanto screw with everything. We look at poverty like we’re reading Steinbeck, we see Porgy & Bess and think we can speak with understanding about race, we read The Beans of Egypt, Maine or Bastard out of Carolina and think we understand rural poverty and addiction and dysfunctional families. We can be so smug and so enlightened.


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