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When I was elementary school, I dreaded the Black history lectures, even though they were short. Most of the lectures were limited to slavery and civil rights, and I felt small and insignificant until the topic turned to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Very few of my teachers, many of them African American like me, went further than the short book paragraphs to describe the people behind the word slave, or my preferred term, enslaved Black American.
The history books from K-12 never went into detail about the diaspora of Black Africans turned Black (North, Central, South and Caribbean) Americans who had suffered the worst atrocities imaginable—had also created a language.
Recently there has been some buzz online about a language called Tutnese, or Tut, which is a language created by enslaved Black Americans. It is a language based on phonetical spelling wherein each consonant letter is replaced by a phonetic sound. The language was coded in order to prevent white slavers, oppressors from understanding their communication. The way they structured it also helped them learned to spell, and later read and write—a courageous act that was illegal and often punished by death.
It is a fading language. Very few people speak it because there is no longer a life-or-death need for it. It has not been passed on by all families, perhaps out of the desire to assimilate by only speaking English. This is a phenomenon shared by immigrants who choose not to teach their children the native tongue.
Gloria McIlwain, likely relatively unknown in recent years, is hopefully signing publishing contracts to reissue her text, Tut Language, the only text that I have found on the topic. [8/25/21update: I am unable to determine Gloria McIlwain’s current status or location]. The existence of the Tutnese language helps all of us understand that enslaved Black Americans were highly intelligent people who were denied the rights to the American dream. It supports the importance of Critical Race Theory, which “critiques how the social construction of race and institutionalized racism perpetuate a racial caste system that relegates people of color to the bottom tiers.” It also reminds me that I should never have been ashamed of my ancestors’ plight through the period where it was legal to buy and sell human beings. The shame has never been mine; instead, it belongs to the oppressors—those of yesterday and today.
As we live through what is referred to as the Black Lives Matter era, we recognize that Black Americans are still facing oppression from policing, racism and lack of economic access. I am grateful that there are non-Black Americans who, though they do not share our plight, understand it and are working alongside us as allies. I hear people say that anything done to lift up Black Americans will lift America. I think they are right.
Two Talk LPS will begin holding free Tutnese language learning and practice sessions beginning in September 2021. We will practice communicating in the language and also share Black History topics. Interested? Sign up today!