I am a self-styled language cop, especially as it relates to criminal justice language, how it has been used not only to dehumanize and stigmatize people with criminal justice involvement, but also to control the narrative, how such people with criminal justice involvement in their history are perceived, and thus how they are treated.
Recently, I re-read “The Willie Lynch Letter: The Making of a Slave.” This time, I focused on the section where he writes about “controlling the language.” In fact, Lynch writes about creating and “institut[ing] a new language that involves the new life’s work of both,” that is, controlling the “nigger slave.” Part of the process of “making a slave,” was to sever the people from their original beginning. Among other things, this meant to “completely annihilate the mother tongue.” This also meant to keep the people illiterate. (Ever wonder why it was a crime to teach an enslaved person to read?) Lynch is clear: if you teach a slave “all about your language, he will know all your secrets, and he is then no more a slave, for you can’t fool him any longer.” Think the Haitian Revolution, the very same words, Liberté, fraternité, égalité, ou la mort, that inspired the French revolutionaries, inspired Haitian revolutionaries and ignited the Haitian Revolution. Think also the three major slave rebellions in the United States, led by Denmark Vesey, Nat Turner, and Gabriel Prosser. These ministers of the Gospel knew, using the very same Bible slave masters used to justify and rationalize slavery, that God did not mean for them to be slaves. A totally different reading of the Word and exegesis than the slave masters’!
Not surprisingly, there is a connection between slavery and imprisonment. Look closely at the language of slavery and the language of law enforcement, and you will see this connection, how similar they are.
One thing though is clear from the Lynch Letter as it relates to language: control the language and you control the narrative. You also assume a great deal of control over how you are perceived and treated.