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Orientation Reading Assignment

Please read "Speaking in Tongues" written by Zadie Smith, an English novelist and essayist. This essay originated as a lecture given at the New York Public Library in 2008 and first appeared in print in The New York Review of Books in February, 2009, which explains its references to the then-recently-elected Barack Obama. As you will see, though, Smith uses Obama to launch a more extended discussion of cultural and linguistic assimilation, its effect on the language(s) one speaks, the flexibility with which one thinks, and ultimately, our dreams for the future.

Write a paragraph or two, typed and double-spaced, on a sentence or short passage that you think best reveals Smith’s ways of thinking on her subject. Be sure to talk about key language from the quotation, explaining why it reveals what you say it reveals. Avoid taking a stand on the issues and ideas Smith raises—that is, don’t simply agree or disagree. Instead, write about what the essay asks us to think about and the implications of the essay for contemplating your upcoming project: getting a college education. Be prepared to discuss this reading during orientation weekend, and be prepared to hand-in your writing at this time, as well (probably at the Sunday meeting). Please be aware that some first-year seminar faculty may choose not to focus on the essay until after Orientation week-end.

Reading Questions

Feel free to use any of the questions below as your starting point for writing, although you are not required to do so.

  1. In the early part of the essay, in reference to her own life, Zadie Smith argues that assimilation is real, and potentially a threat: you can lose your multilingualism and be left stranded, like Eliza Doolittle, between two identity groups. On the other hand, the essay also discloses a lot of anxiety about what Smith calls “the concept of the unified black voice.” As she remarks, the “the impossible injunction ‘keep it real’”—which was intended to produce “unification,” a single black voice—“is a sort of prison cell.” How does the essay work out this dilemma?

  2. The word “dream” is a key repetition in this essay. Most immediately, the essay is a meditation on race in response to Obama’s memoir, Dreams from My Father. The term resurfaces with the idea of “Dream City,” which initially refers to the self-created persona of the actor Cary grant, “The Man from Dream City.” And later Smith attaches the term to the statesman of the Privy Council, Halifax (“he sounds like the man from Dream City”). Study the sentences throughout the essay in which the dream language occurs. What values are attached to it? What key terms does Smith oppose to “dream”? What ultimately is the essay’s point of view on dream?

  3. Why does Smith distinguish the “land” of the imagination from the usual presidential terrain? At the very end of the essay, for example, she refers to two voices, the one that utters “I love my country” and the one that says “It is a country, like other countries.” To what extent are these the voices, respectively, of the statesman and the artist? Why, in any case, is uniting them so important for Smith in this essay?

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