Black Mandarin: Critical Speculations on Language and Power

I was in a writer’s group meeting, critiquing the work of a fellow member, whose sci-fi novel-in-progress takes place some 100+ years in the future, where the U.S. no longer exists as such, though its legacy is still apparent. One of his main characters is a black woman, and for the mere fact that the writer is a white man, I have been particularly scrutinizing of how he depicts her. Artistic license means he can write her however he wants, but it’s been my goal to encourage him to draw from the actual experiences of black women projected into this imaginary future. After all, it is easy enough to create a phenotypic black woman and instill her with a white American affectation, which in sci-fi, as in reality, often reflects a veritable absence of culture.

In this future world, the writer explained, black people adopted Latin and Greek as second languages, after some academic initiative to teach inner city students the so-called “Classics”. I immediately objected on a number of grounds. First and foremost, it sounded like presumably white educators swooped down into the hood to offer black students the “gift” of their superior wisdom, which as in so many white savior fantasies completely robs black people of their agency. Having gotten to know this writer and his intentions in casting a black protagonist, I realized he merely did not see this theme for what it was, as probably most creators of white savior fantasies do not. He accepted the critique gracefully.

Scene from the film “Freedom Writers”

My second objection was to the choice of Latin and Greek as some medium for revolutionary literacy. One dead language, the other very localized, regardless of their significance to Western intellectual heritage, struck me as extremely impractical choices. This was especially jarring because black people in the U.S. tend to be, as a matter of necessity, a matter of survival, extremely pragmatic. Such an initiative, therefore, could’ve only been spearheaded by white people—well meaning white liberals, no doubt—which only reinforced my grievance around the lack of black agency.

My third objection came from my ideological position as an educator, feeling that both curriculum and content must be culturally relevant in order to be effective. In an imagined future world, why couldn’t it be Swahili, or any of the hundreds of other languages from Africa? Then I thought, coming back to black Americans’ severe practicality, the more obvious choice would be Mandarin. Because it is the language of nearly one-sixth of the entire world’s population, and the most widely spoken language on the planet—yes, more than both English and Spanish. Because it will inevitably become the next “globish” of international communication.

I thought of Black-Asian-American cultural conclaves, an exchange of language, culture, and ideas catching fire in Chinatowns across the country. I thought of black people, anticipating the full emergence of China as a dominant power, learning Mandarin as a means of better positioning themselves in a rapidly changing world, and giving themselves an essential tool of subversion against the next hierarchy that would see them remain at the bottom. I thought of black people manipulating Mandarin as they have English, code-switching between the traditional language and radical new permutations, both as a tactic of subversion, and because that’s just how we do.

Agency. Pragmatism. And for those, plausibility.

The other group members echoed each other that this idea was material for a story in its own right. I was inclined to agree, except that being so sharply focused on my current novel, I don’t really have the mental space to write that story. But something else soon occurred to me. That black people learning Mandarin en masse is indeed a story worth creating. Not in print, or digitally, but rendered unto reality.

As of now, Mandarin is not offered in most schools in the US—public or private—which suggests a rather glaring lack of foresight, or a disconnect between education and the state of world affairs. But education, when delivered well, has revolutionary potential. Were black students—regularly underserved, miseducated, deprived of resources and quality instructors, struggling daily against white supremacy, told implicitly and explicitly that their lives don’t matter, succumbing to stereotype threat, and for all these reasons consistently marked as under-performers by the skewed and inherently racist metrics of “achievement”—to be placed on the cutting edge, picking up Mandarin as a second (or third after Black Vernacular English) language, they might for once be poised to have a social advantage. It would be a strategic and highly practical long-term investment into these students’ future, and thereby the future of communities of color as a whole.

The economic benefits would be obvious, as China is the largest and one of the fastest growing economies on the world stage. But as revolutionary action mandates thinking outside of a market-centric model, Mandarin would not be taught just to enable black students to better navigate existing systems, but as I suggested earlier, to subvert them. I envision this new generation of black students speaking perfect Mandarin only to receive blank stares in return, communication blocked not by a language barrier, but a color barrier. Because fluency in the new language of power would not suddenly erase the anti-black racism running rampant worldwide—in few places as virulently as in China—the teaching of Mandarin would need to be coupled with explicit anti-capitalist ideals. It stands to reason that as China’s influence spreads, this anti-blackness current—with no significant counter—will only be reinforced. Much like the changing languages of the colonial masters did little to affect the status of enslaved Africans throughout the Americas, black people have no reason to assume that the rise of China signals any change in status for us.

A black boy being objectified in China for his skin and hair

Beyond allowing black people to have more mobility within a new power structure, fluency in Mandarin would serve the perhaps even more important purpose of allowing us to spread our own influence. Our revolutionary spirit, historically maligned, placated, or stamped out as a matter of policy, writ large to resonate with people around the world, much like hip-hop has become symbolic of resistance in places as disparate as Japan and Palestine. And speaking of music, imagine a new generation of Jazz, Blues, Hip-hop, Soul, weaving rhythmically back and forth between English and Chinese, amplifying our collective voice and creative genius. A proliferation of Black culture by our own hand, rather than through appropriation. Authentic global presence that would immediately render the harmful media misrepresentations—including the blackface minstrelsy that is all the rage around the world (especially in Asia)—obsolete, and out of touch with the new reality.

Blackface on South Korean Television

Right now this idea falls in the category of speculative fiction, if only just, because I personally do not have the resources, influence, logistical knowledge, or financial means—nevermind zero aptitude in Mandarin—to see it realized. Still, it is conceivable that such an initiative could be started, preferably on a local, community level first, rather than top-down from the Department of Education—or worse, the private sector.

As a speculative fiction writer, my realm of possibility is probably greater than most, but what do you think? Would teaching Mandarin to black kids improve their social, economic, and political prospects as they become adults in a world increasingly influenced by China? Or is it merely the stuff of hopeless idealism, with no plausible real world application?