Carnegie Mellon University

Danica Cullinan

March 09, 2018

Film Screening: Talking Black in America

By Shilo Rea

African-American language is widely misunderstood. The first feature-length documentary devoted to African-American speech, “Talking Black in America: The Story of African American Language,” attempts to remedy these misconceptions and the marginalization they cause.

The film will screen for the first time in Pittsburgh on Wednesday, April 11, 2018 at 4:30 p.m. in Carnegie Mellon University’s Rashid Auditorium (Gates-Hillman Center 4401). Walt Wolfram, executive producer and the William C. Friday Distinguished University Professor at North Carolina State University, will introduce the film.

“When I first saw a preview of ‘Talking Black in America,’ I knew that we needed to bring it to Pittsburgh,” said Barbara Johnstone, professor of English and linguistics in the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences. “It opens your eyes to important issues that affect African-American children in school and adults in the workplace. It also shows how language can be deeply connected to identity.”

The film explores African-American ways of talking from Harlem, Charleston, Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, rural Mississippi, the Bahamas and more. It features supporting commentary from linguists, historians and other experts, and unpacks persistent controversies surrounding African-American language — such as the controversy about the Oakland Unified School Board’s decision to recognize African American Vernacular English in their curriculum in the late 90s.

“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,” said Wolfram. “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.” 

A panel discussion will follow the screening, featuring:

  • Fred Brown
    President and CEO, Homewood Children’s Village
  • Waverly Duck
    Associate Professor, Department of Sociology, University of Pittsburgh
    Visiting Associate Professor in the Center for African American Urban Studies & the Economy (CAUSE), CMU

The screening and panel discussion are free and open to the public. The events are sponsored by Carnegie Mellon’s Department of English, Language Technologies Institute and CAUSE, and the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Education, Center for Urban Education and Department of Linguistics.

The Pittsburgh Community Broadcasting Group (WESA/WYEP) is the media sponsor.

Watch the film’s trailer