“Talking Black in America” Opens Minds, Gets People Talking

By Setota Hailemariam

“All of us have been indoctrinated that there’s a right and wrong in language,” sociolinguist and professor at North Carolina State University Walt Wolfram said in his movie “Talking Black in America,” which sums up the key theme in a few words.

Wolfram, the executive producer of the documentary, was one of the many people present Sept. 12, at its DMV premiere in the Stamp Student Union’s Hoff Theater, hosted by the Maryland Language Science Center.

The film explores African American Vernacular English and its origins, and delves into the stigma around it.

That stigma, according to the film, arises from black Americans’ deviance from what society considers to be “standard English” — a term Wolfram says he frowns upon.

The documentary highlights AAVE in all of its many facets. Regional differences are brought up, as one interviewee shares an anecdote about the different meanings of “what’s up” in Mississippi versus in New York — the former interpretation of the phrase being conversational and the latter being confrontational.

Hip-hop’s presence is also discussed, and how it has been influenced by AAVE, not the other way around, which many believe.

A film like this would not be complete without looking into the origins of the dialect. Experts talked about its evolution from the Gullah tongue, a language similar to Creole originally spoken by Africans brought to coastal Georgia and South Carolina by the slave trade.

Most importantly, though, “Talking Black in America” fights tooth and nail for AAVE’s place as an acceptable form of language.

John R. Rickford, a linguist at Stanford University, gives a short grammar lesson to emphasize that it has rules and conventions just like any other language. He explains what he calls “the habitual be,” which shows that a behavior is continual; for example, “John be studying.”

Other linguists interviewed in the film expound on these grammar rules, using the example “he tall” to show how in AAVE, the verb is dropped. Conversely, saying something like “I tall” would be improper grammar.

An audience Q&A with Wolfram after the screening revealed much about the producer’s goals for the film and plans for the future. He shared that the film will soon be shown on TV, though the details about particular networks are still getting worked out, and a four-part mini series is also soon to come.

The mini series will detail issues not covered in the film, such as the differences between black and white American Sign Language usage, which is comparable to the distinctions between black and white speech, Wolfram said.

He also charged the University of Maryland, and all other universities, with the task of including linguistic diversity in pre-existing diversity training. At NC State, this has already begun to be implemented at student orientations, he said.

Audience members proved to be real-life examples of how the movie hits close to home. One student shared how she feels that she cannot express herself in the way that she wants to in the classroom, especially in her business classes.

“We tend to teach English as if it’s this monolithic entity,” Wolfram said. In the future, he hopes that people will think about AAVE differently, and believes that “Talking Black in America” will open the minds of many.

Featured Photo Credit: TALKING BLACK in AMERICA’s Facebook.

Setota Hailemariam is a sophomore journalism major and can be reached at setotah98@gmail.com.

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