Book Review: The Black Side of the River

History of Race, Language and Belonging Reveals Much About Anacostia

Image: Georgetown University Press

The Black Side of the River:  Race, Language and Belonging in Washington, DC  by Jessica A. Grieser

Georgetown University Press, 2022

204 pages /Hardback Edition /ISBN 978-1-64712-152-5

I must say that I was skeptical when given the task of reviewing this book. I was not familiar with “sociolinguistics” and had no inking what it was.  However, after wrangling my way through it the one sure thing I can say about this book is that it is definitely not for laymen.

It is a more than competently written treatise by Jessica A. Grieser, an Associate Professor of English Linguistics in the Department of English at the University of Tennessee,  Knoxville. It is her first book and she clearly hits the mark of establishing herself as knowledgeable and passionate about her subject.

I consider myself reasonably intelligent and well read and in fact have a degree in English myself. However, I had to literally keep the dictionary at hand to get definitions of words I had no inkling of (some I could not even find!). This is definitely an insider’s manual: highly technical, specifically crafted from an extraordinary base of knowledge and very pointed in making examples of her particular ideas and theories.

I have to honestly say that this is more of a written reaction to the book than a review of it. What was most interesting and that stood out for me was what she revealed about Washington, DC’s history and specifically about Anacostia. She referenced the symbolic association of rivers in much of how Black people have settled and made homes for themselves. This was nuanced by her reference to Langston Hughes’ poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”:

“I’ve known rivers:

 I’ve  known rivers ancient as the world            

and older than the 

 flow of human blood in human veins.

 My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

What is now known as Anacostia is situated on lands which belonged to the native Nacotchtank People and their descendants the Piscatawasy Conoy People and the great river that lends its name to the region (which was originally called the East Branch River). She replays how the significance of rivers has played in the history of Black people from Africa to great rivers of the United States: the Mississippi River, the mighty Ohio River and others.

The book explores how the interplay of language, actions and intentions create the situation to which people respond. Learning that Georgetown was once the haven of Black people was surprising and that DC, almost from its inception, provided unparalleled options for African Americans even though it served as one of the major places where enslaved people were moved like chattel.

Anacostia, also commonly referred to as “east of the river,” has a history of being referred to as the poor side of town and the place in DC that has the worst of everything: housing, poverty, education, crime—you name it.  You would think that  there is no sense of community, no pride.

But that has changed. The Anacostia community has begun to really make strides. This is what is possible when the language of description changes and the connection between race and place as well as between race and class can be flipped. Anacostians can use “place” identity by connecting Blackness to place in a positive way that affects the kinds of claims they can make in their space.

There is so much in this book that is interesting and thought provoking, but Ms. Grieser’s way of conveying it is so drenched in the technical jargon it makes it difficult to follow or to fully understand much of what she is saying if you do not have the sociolinguistic background  to parse it. It was interesting, but exhausting and overwhelming.  I may try reading it again to see if I come up with a better appreciation of her amazing scholarship. This was indeed challenging and eye-opening.