How Black language in America can tell stories of a culture

Thandie Brown

Online Editor

Emmy-nominated, decade-transcending, culturally engrained is Walt Wolfram’s film, “Talking Black in America – The Language and Life Project.”

Traveling fluidly through the complexities of Black language – its birth, influence, code, application and/or similarity to other diasporas of African descent – the delivery of this 60-minute film is one that leaves viewers pondering for days.

Wolfram, a linguist who teaches at North Carolina State University, is the executive producer of this film that features African American Language (AAL) with linguists across America. From those in Hawaii to those of South Carolina’s Gullah Geechee residents, the inclusion of linguists who have been in the field for decades and unofficial linguists like high school literature teachers helped deliver the film’s completion. They translated the work of recognizing AAL as a language of born culture as opposed to a language of developed through error.

Early in February, Wolfram was invited to show this work to students that hailed from different educational pathways. It was a collaboration brought together by Professors Robert Morris, Rhonda Bobb and Cornelius Brownlee; an event that intersected speech, linguistics and history.

Though only showing about 17 minutes to ignite a conversation for this event, the film was one that still brought life into the eyes of the professors who were interviewed in the days following.

Bobb, assistant professor of English says, “Those that really need to hear it should and this taps into that avenue. Discuss it, break it down, utilize the language as there is an accountability for it as well because other races view [AAL] as a different entity.”

In collaboration with Brownlee, she reported that the goal was to elevate a higher-learning curve for the students to engage.

In the way this film is organized, it travels through the smaller differences of regional slang and of how AAL is the result of intentional destruction from the Atlantic Slave Trade. As a first-generation American, being the witness of two/three dialects of the same English is a confirmation that AAL is the product of resilience amongst the diaspora.

Morris, professor of History, moderated the engagement highlighted the importance of the film in essence of Black culture was by asking, “in our years of formal education, when has there ever been a discussion around Black language within Black History Month?” No one in the room could answer.

These educators gave that time to ponder and connect the importance of Black language back to the students of Broward College with this film screening.

The discussion to follow had educators who attended like Professors Regine Darius, Rudy Jean-Bart and Michael Hurlburt as engaged as the students who sat in their chairs.

Though not apart of the panel, Jean-Bart, who advises BSU and Food for Thought, says, “I immensely enjoyed the conversation and feel that it is needed. I do not feel that we explore what it means to be black, whether it be language or otherwise. We also don’t discuss nearly enough the fact that whiteness and blackness are social constructs and I believe that language should be a part of that discussion.”

He challenged the audience with questions like, “When is [AAL] appropriate to use? Why is there a divide? When does the appreciation transition to exploitation,” as time was winding down.

Hurlburt says, “many folks pick neat ways to express themselves and I’m thrilled that we got to learn how these patterns emerge.”

Wolfram, who has studied linguistics for over 50 years, understood more than us within the crowd that 60 minutes was not enough time to break-down and highlight how important AAL in American culture is.

The film shows that without the individuality of AAL, there would be no Hip-Hop/Rap as a musical genre. Also showing the likeness of Caribbean/West Indian speech and the mannerisms of culture that do not change between those regions and the U.S., the film distinguishes the cultural independence of Black language.

Wolfram says TV specials to follow the film focus on Sign Langage, Diaspora, Performance and Social and Political Applications

Darius says, “For those of us who can’t step outside of our identity, it is not fair to see those  who can slide through those avenues.”

As an assistant professor of English her commentary rounded off the invigorating event by giving more context to the many opinions that surround the language of Black people.

The film provides additional interactive resources from their website:

Because it is so enamoring, this film is one to watch more than once.


Talking Black in America                                                            Photo Courtesy of