Throughout the United States there are a plethora of dialects. On Wednesday, April 4, one dialect African American English, or AAE, was the main focus of the event “Talking Black in America.” Taking place in Sykes Student Union Theatre from 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m., the event featured a film and panel discussion with Assistant Professor Michael Burns, Associate Professor Margaret Ervin, Professor Cherise Pollard and Assistant Professor Joshua Raclaw. It was sponsored by the linguistics minor, the African/African-American literature minor, the Ethnic Studies Institute and the Frederick Douglass Institute at West Chester University.
The film, directed and produced by Neal Hutcheson and Danica Cullinan, follows the descendants of African American slaves and how their ancestry and country’s history influenced their dialects. The film’s synopsis states: “Speech varieties from the African American community reflect the imprint of African language systems, the influences of regional British and Southern American dialects and the creativity and resilience of people living through oppression, segregation and the fight for equality. Filmed across the United States, ‘Talking Black in America’ is a startling revelation of language as legacy, identity and triumph over adversity.”
Executive Producer Walt Wolfram said the following about the film: “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. 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.”
Upon the film’s release in 2017, there were no screenings in this part of Pennsylvania. WCU faculty sought to change this.
Raclaw, a professor who teaches courses such as Dialects of American English and Introduction to Linguistics, organized the event. He reached out to North Carolina’s Language and Life Project, the group that released the film, and he said they made the process very easy to arrange a showing. With the help of the event’s sponsors, Raclaw was able to gather approximately 100 attendees from WCU and Cheyney University, the U.S.’s oldest historically black college.
Going into this event, Raclaw hoped the film would diminish preconceived notions about AAE. “The film did a lot of work to dispel these stereotypes by discussing how the grammar of AAE is just as logical and rule-governed as what we think of as Standard English,” said Raclaw. “For example, in most varieties of AAE the word “ask” is pronounced like “aks,” but “aks” was actually the original pronunciation of that word when it entered the English language over 1,000 years ago! So there’s no such thing as ‘bad English,’ just different Englishes, and I hope students left the event with that in mind.”
One reason Raclaw was interested in hosting this event was because he feels that negative perceptions of AAE lead to unjust consequences.
“John Rickford, a linguist at Stanford University who was interviewed for the film, has published research showing how negative perceptions of AAE affected jurors’ (and the public’s) perception of the eyewitness testimony in the Trayvon Martin case,” said Raclaw. “John Baugh, a linguist at Washington University who was also interviewed for the film, has done research showing how dialect discrimination has been a factor in rental discrimination cases. There have been a number of landmark court cases showing how teachers in the U.S. have unfairly discriminated against students in part due to their use of AAE. So much of this language-based discrimination is tied to larger practices of structural racism and racial injustice in the United States, and dispelling myths about the ‘incorrectness’ or ‘illegitimacy’ of dialects like AAE is one step we can take toward addressing these larger issues in our society.”
Casey Tobias, senior communication studies and women and gender studies major at WCU, echoed Raclaw’s sentiments concerning the real world impact on AAE users. “I learned more about the struggle African-American people face when it comes to code-switching,” said Tobias. “I already knew that many white people don’t really recognize AAE as being ‘proper’ or ‘correct.’ But when I heard personal accounts from the audience, like how one person was suspended when they were younger just for speaking with their hands, I was still a bit taken aback. The thought of white instructors punishing their African-American students for something they don’t even grasp is infuriating.”
Tobias hopes that WCU will continue to hold events similar to this one in the future. They said, “one of the white panelists admitted they used to try and correct African-American students’ speech, but they showed that they had learned and changed.”
Tobias then continued, “And if they can learn and change, then I would like to believe others can also learn and change. So when events like these are held, I hope white people attend as well so they can listen, learn about perspectives outside of their own and consequently recognize the privileges they hold.”
Raclaw can be reached at JRaclaw@wcupa.edu.