David Foster Wallace’s Problematic Tenses

Foster Wallace claimed James Baldwin’s support for ‘Standard White English’ — yet the latter dismissed it long before


in Features • Illustrated by Alex Hotchkiss


In “Tense Present,” an essay published in Harper’s Magazine in 2001 and later reprinted as “Authority and American Usage” in Consider the Lobster and Other Essays, David Foster Wallace makes what today might be considered a startling admission: While working as an English professor at Illinois State University — and perhaps also earlier as an adjunct at Emerson College — Foster Wallace compelled his Black students to write in “Standard White English,” as he describes it, despite their complaints of racism. While English departments and their instructors now hopefully concede a more nuanced approach to language, Wallace was echoing the orthodoxy of his time. Summarizing the lecture he delivered during private conferences with students, Foster Wallace writes:

In class — in my English class — you will have to master and write in Standard Written English, which we might just as well call “Standard White English,” because it was developed by white people and is used by white people, especially educated, powerful white people . . . You can believe it’s racist and unjust and decide right here and now to spend every waking minute of your adult life arguing against it, and maybe you should, but I’ll tell you something: If you ever want those arguments to get listened to and taken seriously, you’re going to have to communicate them in SWE, because SWE is the dialect our country uses to talk to itself.

In an effort to portray his classroom policy as more than just white supremacy being enforced by a white man, Foster Wallace goes on to claim that even prominent Black writers like James Baldwin accepted the necessity of SWE. Vaguely referencing the published works of Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, and others, Foster Wallace insists upon SWE as a kind of linguistic respectability politics, reinforcing the idea that no one could — or maybe even should — take seriously arguments made in other “dialects.”

But Baldwin himself wrote on the subject of “Black English,” as he describes it, decades earlier — and disagrees with Foster Wallace entirely. Baldwin argues that Black English is as essential to the survival of African Americans as Gaelic is to the Irish and it is suppressed by people like Foster Wallace for much the same reasons.

In 1979, Baldwin wrote an opinion piece for The New York Times entitled “If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?”, which was later included in The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction, 1948-1985. Twenty-two years before Foster Wallace described coercing his Black students into writing in SWE, Baldwin acknowledged the already ongoing “argument concerning the use, or the status, or the reality, of black English” and argues that “it is late in the day to attempt to penalize black people for having created a language that permits the nation its only glimpse of reality.” He practically predicts, and refutes, Foster Wallace’s claim that SWE is the language that the United States uses to talk to itself, citing examples like the Jazz Age and Beat Generation as white cultural trends which drew not only their substance from Black art, but their very terminology — “jazz me, baby” and “beat to his socks,” respectively — from Black expressions.

Baldwin further argues that contemporary attempts to relegate Black English to a dialect — and presumably those to come as well, like Foster Wallace’s — are not at all about education, but about power. He writes:

The brutal truth is that the bulk of the white people in America never had any interest in educating black people, except as this could serve white purposes. It is not the black child’s language that is in question, it is not his language that is despised: It is his experience . . . A child cannot be taught by anyone whose demand, essentially, is that the child repudiates his experience, and all that gives him sustenance, and enter a limbo in which he will no longer be black, and in which he knows that he can never become white.

Considering Baldwin’s perspective, it’s unsurprising that, in Foster Wallace’s words, a “couple” of Black students complained about his private conferences with them. The real surprise, when considering the overt repression of Black culture being enforced by Foster Wallace, is that all of the students who received his little talk did not complain. Because if we accept Baldwin’s argument, then Foster Wallace’s attempt to coerce Black students into using SWE is in actuality an attempt to disempower them by dangling the ever-elusive carrot of white acceptance before them, while simultaneously threatening them with the stick of academic failure. Foster Wallace is not only reinforcing the existing power structure privileging white culture, and therefore white people, over Black culture and people, but he is also implicitly attempting to quash the gains of the Black Power movement, which since the 1970s had sought equality for African Americans on their own terms, rather than through the adoption of white culture.

The reason why more students may not have complained about Foster Wallace could be found in the power differential between them: the relative powerlessness of a student before a teacher, compounded in this case by race, potentially gender, and especially class, as Foster Wallace became a literary celebrity upon the publication of Infinite Jest just three years after he joined the faculty of Illinois State University. David Mura is a longtime writing instructor and author of A Stranger’s Journey: Race: Identity, and Narrative Craft in Writing, which examines contemporary diversity in US literature and pedagogy. Mura also dissects Foster Wallace’s and Baldwin’s contrasting perspectives on writing in his own essay, “White Writing Teachers (or David Foster Wallace vs. James Baldwin),” published in Journal of Creative Writing Studies in 2016. According to Mura:

Foster Wallace wants to say, “Well, this is freshman English, we shouldn’t have to deal with those issues [of race] here, my job is teach you SWE,” and he thinks by saying this, he’s eliminating or bracketing the political, when the very move he’s making is political and is an assertion of his power as a white heterosexual male who speaks in SWE. The Black student understands that that power dynamic — which is political — simply doesn’t vanish because Foster Wallace says he’s banishing it, since his ability to do is based on that power dynamic: She [the student] can’t question him, can’t critique him or his pedagogical methods.

Foster Wallace could believe, in the supreme naivete of a white man, that white supremacy in the United States had been overcome in the time since Baldwin was writing — if only he himself did not repeatedly acknowledge otherwise. His essay, “Tense Present,” is shot through with comments describing SWE as “racist,” “racially insensitive,” and “an instrument of . . . . racial discrimination,” both from Foster Wallace and others. Yet rather than taking any of this criticism to heart, Foster Wallace insists that there is no alternative, and so soldiers on, forcing his Black students to use SWE as if he were distributing Bibles to the savages, his own personal white man’s burden.

Of course, Foster Wallace is not alone in this, functioning as he does within the larger power structure of race in US society at large. The 1990s United States in which Foster Wallace was then teaching was inundated with the popular image of the white savior coming to the rescue of the poor, invariably Black and brown youth. Foster Wallace’s attempt at projecting himself as a no-nonsense, yet ultimately beneficent teacher echoes the 1995 film Dangerous Minds, in which Michelle Pfeiffer plays a retired Marine turned public school teacher who uses her toughness to win the respect of her students and thereby advance their education. While it was panned by critics (Roger Ebert unfavorably compares the film’s white-washing to his real-life experience teaching Black students in apartheid-era South Africa), Dangerous Minds was nevertheless a box office success, illustrating how attractive the image of the white savior was to the US public at the time — including, it appears, Foster Wallace.

Where insult is perhaps added to injury is that Foster Wallace is insightful enough to admit the existence of the white power structure, but not inclined to challenge it even within the confines of his own classroom. Instead, he takes a reactionary stance, joining the chorus bemoaning social justice as “political correctness,” which also began to rise in the 1990s.

Rather than even entertaining an alternative to SWE, Foster Wallace attacks what he deems “Politically Correct English.” Without a trace of self-reflective irony — which would be justified, if not necessary, from someone who had mere paragraphs earlier admitted to forcing subordinates to write in a prescribed fashion — Foster Wallace bemoans the “Language Police.” He caricatures efforts to make language more inclusive or less discriminatory as “arguing over whether a poor person should be described as ‘low-income’ or ‘economically disadvantaged’ or ‘pre-prosperous.’” While the trappings of identity politics can be real, it becomes apparent that Foster Wallace cannot grasp the significance of language as power itself.

Foster Wallace’s insistence on SWE would not be as tragic had Baldwin not predicted its inevitability. Not knowing Foster Wallace nor his circumstances, Baldwin yet manages to anticipate his rejection of Black English. Tracing the origin of Black English, Baldwin describes the need of enslaved Africans, kidnapped from all over the continent, to find a common language to persevere through their bondage in the United States. They gleaned English from the Bible thrust into their hands by slaveholders but developed it further themselves with the desperate hope of the Black church and brutal necessity of avoiding the whip. These conditions created a language that white men like Foster Wallace could not understand, not only because it was meant to elude them, but because its acceptance would force them to confront the awful truth of their complicity in white supremacy. After all, if you acknowledge that the people around you have had to create their own “secret” language in order to avoid your monstrous wrath, you are that much closer to understanding the monster you’ve become. As Baldwin writes:

There was a moment, in time, and in this place, when my brother, or my mother, or my father, or my sister, had to convey to me, for example, the danger in which I was standing from the white man standing just behind me, and to convey this with a speed, and in a language, that the white man could not possibly understand, and that, indeed, he cannot understand, until today. He cannot afford to understand it. This understanding would reveal to him too much about himself, and smash that mirror before which he has been frozen for so long. •