Silence and Opression in Discourse
The narrative of the mother and her newborn daughter, printed on the left side of the page and running vertically down, is literally on the margins. When asked about the distorted positioning of this narrative by Barbara Carey, Phillip comments that it “symbolizes the way Black women, and all women, have been positioned in society: there is a gap between the main text and the woman’s story, and to read the woman’s story you have to make an effort – a physical effort” (Carey, cited by Milz). Therefore, the marginal position of the mother-daughter story represents women’s marginal position in patriarchy.
Yet, it is from the margins that some people find expression. Phillip also wanted to “take up the physical space on the page refused to the woman writer” and to disrupt the “man-made spatial order which allows women to take up physical space only when they are pregnant” (Carey, cited by Milz). While the story is positioned on the margins, it is printed in capital letters, which emphasizes its importance. Thus, the story is a form of literary resistance against Western patriarchal discourse.
In European male literary tradition, women are peripheral and when they are written about, they are depicted in terms of their relationships to men. The narrative displaces European literary tradition by foregrounding the intimate relationship between mother and daughter and depicting the transferal of a matriarchal language from mother to daughter. In this story, the tongue is depicted as an organ of nurturing and empowerment. The mother licks the child clean of the “creamy white substance covering its body” (354).
Taken within the context of the poem, this “creamy white substance” can be read as a symbol for colonial power. Through the act of licking her child clean, touching her tongue to her child’s tongue, and blowing the “her words, her mother’s words, those of her mother’s mother, and all of her mothers before” (356) into her daughter’s mouth, the mother emancipates her daughter from colonial power and breathes into her a new life and language. This story reclaims the female gender from the negative images of women in colonial discourse.
Here, the mother figure is depicted as a figure of resistance and empowerment. The poem establishes a mother/father tongue dichotomy. English is aligned with the violent, invasive, logical, and oppressive paternal, and the reader is led to conclude that English, therefore, is a father tongue because “A mother tongue is not a foreign lan lan lang/language/l/anguish/anguish– a foreign anguish” (lines 4-8). In contrast, the lost mother tongue, which is presumably the native language of the speaker’s culture, is aligned with the loving, nurturing, and mythical maternal.
The gender binary onto which the two languages are mapped also reflects the power dynamics between colonizer and colonized. Just as woman is the subordinate Other to man, the colonized is the subordinate Other to the colonizer and oppressed by Western patriarchy. The poem also makes a connection between the physical tongue and the mother/tongue dichotomy by showing the different contexts for the usage of the tongue: depending on the situation, the tongue can speak, nurture, give edicts, explain the world, and so on.
This is reinforced by the sarcastic rendition of a multiple-choice exam at the end of the poem, which associates the tongue with the lip and jaw, and forces the reader to associate the “principal organ of articulate speech” with “the principle organ of oppression” (357). One of the challenges that the poem addresses is the articulation of the subjectivity of the marginalized, which is repressed within Western patriarchal language and ideology.
The central voice of the poem acknowledges the difficulty of doing so: the father tongue leaves her “dumb-tongued” (line 32); the racist and sexist ideology embedded in the language suppresses her subjectivity. The poem sheds light on how Western language and ideology isn’t as innocent and value-neutral as it appears. By talking about colonialism, the silencing of slaves, the eradication of the mother tongue, and scientific racism and sexism, the poem makes the reader conscious of the ways in which Western discourse, ideology, and knowledge making is biased against women and people of colour.
As well, the poem has the reader empathize with the agony of silence and oppression of the marginalized. However, the poem is not merely about oppression and silencing. Through the mother-daughter story printed on the left margin of the page, Phillip explores new ways of using the language in ways that do not perpetuate the norms and ideology of Western patriarchy. The mother-story’s unusual positioning relative to the other texts represents going against convention in order to create a new literary tradition to empower articulate the subjectivities of women of colour.
Discourse on the Logic of Language expresses a subjectivity that has been repressed by Western ideology and language by examining its power relations and violent history, and exploring new ways of writing. The poem, through its critique of the father tongue, colonialism, and science, uses English to talk back to the colonial masters – it dismantles the master’s house with the master’s tools and envisions new ways of expression.
Kalat, James W. Biological Psychology. 9th ed. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth, 2007. 435.