Enjoy black speech on the silver screen and live at the Denton Black Film Festival

A single word can pack a powerful punch. It can sweep you off your feet. It can transport you to a world miles away, years distant. A handful of words scattered into the wind can settle around your feet and fall into a mosaic, a patchwork quilt, rich with collective meaning. Language is our cultural heritage. It represents a people, a place, a snapshot of time.“They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but you know, I feel like I grew up in an environment where a person could use a few words and it felt like a thousand pictures.”  These lines by a young interviewee open the discussion on African-American language in the 2017 documentary, "Talking Black in America."

Our voice can extend beyond our body and carry over radio waves. The distant listener is forced to imagine the mouth behind the words and form a thousand mental pictures from a few phrases. A radio DJ used to be able to hide his or her face within the anonymity of the sound booth; looks didn't matter as long as the voice was pleasant. Now we Google our favorite radio hosts to satisfy our curiosity: Does the voice match the image I've conjured in my mind?

A still from the Talking Black in America documentary, showing Friday, Jan. 26 at the Denton Black Film Festival.

If there was no biography nor photo accompanying this post, would you be able to guess who I am? My work revolves around written translation, limited to flat black-and-white words, and so I relished the opportunity to see vibrant speech spring into life in this documentary on language and linguistics. Now, what if I had recorded this into an audio file? Oral language provides many more clues than written text, giving away perhaps the gender, age, occupation, and race of the speaker. There is a certain cadence in the voices of black speakers that gives a clear hint to their identity.

African American languages have a decidedly oral tradition, and the roots can be traced in history. The chains binding tribesmembers in Africa were broken by dividing the clans along language lines before being chained as slaves bound for America. Separating and silencing was key to conquering. Muting their ability to communicate would ensure no mutiny during the Middle Passage. Once in America, slaves were forbidden from learning to read or write. But oh, they would talk! And they would dance! An African proverb I love is about escalating the verbs: “If you can talk, you can sing; if you can walk, you can dance.”

Slaveowners deprived them of every shred of humanity, but the urge to enunciate, to express one's humanity, pushed the slaves to find a way to communicate with their Negro neighbors who spoke a different tongue. So they created a new language, built upon the common ground of a foreign land, forged in hushed tones while their backs bent over the silent soil. And when they didn't yet have the precise words, they relied on the beat, the stamp of feet in unison, the pounding of the drums. The rhythm of black speech is punctuated by body movements. An interviewee in the documentary poked fun of the barely turning "talking heads" of white TV news anchors. The screen would have to zoom out to catch the whole communication of black hosts: speech plus body language paints the full picture.

A still from the Talking Black in America documentary, showing Friday, Jan. 26 at the Denton Black Film Festival.

Today, spoken black English continues to act as the bond that connects its speakers among racial lines, despite the many variations and nuances that create deviations among different generations, professions, and geographical areas. Plentiful examples of such diversity are peppered throughout the documentary's interviews, and this topic is explored in detail by linguists with as varied of backgrounds. The documentary cut a representative swath across the U.S., hitting east and west coasts, urban and rural areas in north and south, and even dipping further south into the broader Americas to sample Caribbean Creole culture. Filming took place in Harlem and Oakland, Atlanta and Detroit, and islands of South Carolina and The Bahamas. You will hear dialects distinctive of each of these sites. You may even pick up some tips on how to greet someone differently on the streets of these cities. (Hint: "what up" could be interpreted as a friendly hello or a challenge to a duel.)

Choose carefully your words, for they can be the passcode that grant you access into a tight-knit society, or they can erect a barrier that excludes those who don't know the "correct" way of talking. What is right? What is wrong? The film also explores ebonics, education, grammar, and historical divisions. Native Americans were chosen by the U.S. government during World War II to be code talkers to mystify army eavesdroppers, and African Americans today make the choice to code switch. Talk in one style at a job interview, quite another at a family reunion. The right way of talking is simply whatever way allows you to communicate effectively.

There is effective communication that elicits a polite nod from the listener, and then there is speech that gets you and the audience shaking your head, sucking in your breath, softly snapping your fingers, sighing out a contented "mmmhhhmmm" or whistling your shrill approval. My favorite part of the film showed what I most enjoyed about last year's Denton Black Film Festival: spoken word and poetry slams. This often rapid-fire delivery of verbal wizardry is thought provoking, metaphor bending, political correctness spinning, and perception shifting. In a scene from the documentary, a group of young black men stand with wide intimidating stances and quick glances around the circle. Though they may wear dark shades and gold chains, they come to exchange witty insults, not gunfire. Our perception of "thug" appearances is turned on its head as we hear what comes out of their mouths. Be slow to judge, be quick to listen and learn.

Get a foretaste of the nuggets of speech you'll be able to savor live at this year's Denton Black Film Festival by watching the documentary "Talking Black in America."


Talking Black in America runs 66 minutes and will be shown Friday, January 26 at 3 p.m. as part of Denton Black Film Festival. To purchase tickets at the online box office, click here.