Talking Black in America

Documentary, “Talking Black in America,” explores and traces the history of Black English in American culture.

Language purists might deem Black English as error-ridden, basic and uneducated. For the Black community, Black English is a creative variant of the language, rich with oral tradition, agency, and imagination that has greatly permeated mainstream American culture, without being properly acknowledged. The documentary, “Talking Black in America,” sets out to celebrate and trace the nuanced history of Black English and highlight its place in American history. Several Florida International University students and faculty flocked to the Graham Center’s auditorium Tuesday evening to watch a screening of the documentary, meets its producers, and talk about the legacy of Black English in America. The screening was sponsored by the university’s Center for the Humanities in an Urban Environment.

Executive produced by sociolinguist and North Carolina State professor, Walt Wolfram with the help of New York University linguistics professor, Renee Blake, “Talking Black in America” is the result of 50 years of intense linguistic research. The documentary traces Black experience through the lens of language, resilience, breaking oppression and the fight for equality.

“The status of African-American speech has been controversial for more than a half-century now, suffering from persistent public misunderstanding, linguistic profiling and language-based discrimination,” Wolfram said, who’s been working on the film for three years.

The documentary takes audiences to places rich in Black history such as Harlem, Mississippi and South Carolina as linguistic professionals and everyday people detail their experiences using Black English in various settings.

‘We wanted to address that and, on a fundamental level, make clear that understanding African-American speech is absolutely critical to understanding the way we talk today," Wolfram said.

“Talking Black in America” explores the fashion in which Black oral traditions have influenced the English language and culture at large, as seen with hip-hop, and the global impact it has had as the art form moved from the streets of New York City to the homes of white suburbia. It also explains the complexity of code-switching and how Black people have to adapt their speech to communicate with others that are judgmental of Black English. Code-switching occurs when a speaker alternates between two or more languages, or language varieties, in the context of a single conversation.

Many of the students at the screening expressed frustration with concepts such as code-switching but commended the professors for bringing the conversation to the limelight and changing the negatives narratives attached to Black English.

“We are hungry for these conversations; we need you all here,” said Janay Hill, an English major raised in Broward. As a working teacher in Broward’s educational system, she said many of her students struggle with the concept of code-switching, especially as they move from predominantly Black spaces to broader spaces where Black people are the minority. “You have to learn how to move through the spaces,” she said is her advice to her students, but some of her students still struggle to understand the concept.

Though Black English is more acceptable than before, there is still a lot of ground left to cover, said professor Blake, who also is an instrumental part of the documentary.

“What [Hill] shares with us is profound, but I also see the ways that we are so indoctrinated that we have to work through our ideologies about where this language, and the brilliance of this language, is allowed,” Blake said. “I want us to acknowledge that for class reasons, and other reasons, some people cannot always code-switch. I hope that we can find a space where we recognize that using Black English is brilliant, and I don't think we are there yet.”

Overall, the students were inquisitive during the discussion that followed the screening and many said they left with a new sense of agency and a better understanding of their culture and history.

“As a young, Black person, I was able to find a lot of power and inspiration,” said Frederick Aurellen, an English major raised in New York City. “There’s a lot of people that feel like they have to bleach themselves,” he said. As a New Yorker, he would poke fun of other Black people and the way they spoke, Aurellen said. “But looking at the documentary, and understanding the origins, made me have a different kind of respect and integrity for it.”

And that is the point of the documentary, to use it as a platform to heal, inform, and celebrate the legacy of Black English in America, Wolfram said.

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