The pseudo-cosmopolitan Ta-Nehisi Coates is in Paris, working on his French. The lack of English and his fellow students’ firm belief it is the most important language to know get him on the whole empire kick. As in- as you commonly hear from black supremacists- “black people know all about white people, but white people don’t know about blacks.” Having the dominant language and culture means other people know you, but you don’t know them.
This is not, however, true. Coates thinks from observing white society, and knowing its spoken and written language, he sees and knows if not everything, at least all that matters. But there is a secret language he doesn’t know, and probably can never learn.
Years ago I was visiting my father and we went to go see his brother, who was moving to Arizona to play golf. His house was almost completely empty, and as we walked in through the open garage, we saw a rolled-up set of blueprints leaning in the corner. Looking at it, we saw that they were for one of the championship-winning speedboats my uncle built in the 50’s. My dad, being more sentimental than my uncle, took it inside with us and urged his brother to take it with him to his new home.
At a recent family gathering, my dad mentioned my uncle’s secret- “build it strong, but light.” Strictly speaking, that’s not much of a secret, more of a statement of the obvious. It’s easy build something strong, but too heavy to be functional, and easy to build something light that will break easily. Making something strong and light takes skill. If you can build a boat that’s strong and light, and live in a place isolated by water, you can attack others while staying safe yourself. The secret of world domination was right there gathering dust in the corner of my uncle’s garage.
My dad was no builder. He worked on cars out of financial necessity, but that was it. He had one car he was planning to rebuild, but it just sat in the garage for years until he got rid of it. He was a scientist, and scientists don’t do hands-on. I was thinking about this recently. The neighborhood I lived in as a kid had a lot of engineers and scientists. The engineers usually had elaborate workshops in their garages. The scientists never did- just lots of books. I knew a guy in the Marines whose dad was a nuclear physicist. Gesturing to his refrigerator, he said, “My dad could design this refrigerator, but he could just barely open the door.” My dad designed stuff. He worked on rockets. Later he worked for a medical instruments company. I used to work for a Japanese shipping company. They imported very little from the US- only stuff they absolutely couldn’t make themselves. The Japanese are skilled engineers and superb craftsmen, but there are still things only the European imagination can produce. I walked into the warehouse one day, and there crated up was one of the computer-controlled test devices he had helped design. I felt proud of my dad, in spite of all the trouble I had with him, because he was participating at the pinnacle of human achievement.
Coates says English is a dialect with an army. That’s not right- English is a dialect with a navy, a big difference. Dialects with armies- French, German, Russian, even Arabic- all had good runs, sometimes long runs, but all have fallen in the end. The men in the strong, light ships- the “sea wolves”, the English called them, before the sea wolves became English themselves- were an unstoppable force. Svein Forkbeard conquered England. Hrolfr/Rollo/Roland conquered part of France, then his descendants conquered England. England conquered the world- not a good thing in my mind, but it’s the world we live in.
All these men- the Vikings of old, my father and my uncle- spoke the languages Coates knows or is learning or precursors of them. And yet they spoke another language he doesn’t even know exists, wouldn’t admit exists if he did know, and could never learn even if he wanted to.