Barry Saunders

‘Talking Black’ documentary has really got people talking – Saunders

N.C. State University professor Walt Wolfram is executive producer of the documentary ‘Talking Black in America.’
N.C. State University professor Walt Wolfram is executive producer of the documentary ‘Talking Black in America.’ NC State University

Can we talk?

A documentary talking about talking had the potential to be a snoozefest, a dry dissertation that had people stampeding up the aisles long before the closing credits rolled. That didn’t happen recently when N.C. State University professors premiered “Talking Black in America,” a documentary devoted to the history of African-American speech, its cultural importance and how it has shaped modern American English.

Walt Wolfram is the William C. Friday Distinguished Professor of English at NCSU and co-author of the book “Talkin’ Tar Heel.” He was also the executive producer and, along with other NCSU faculty members, the brains and heart behind the project.

Wolfram, whom I’ve called countless times over the years with grammar questions, said he started researching how language was used in Detroit’s black community in 1965 “and I’ve been intrigued by it ever since.” His basketball talent – he was all-city in Philadelphia – granted him entree to basketball courts from Harlem to Washington, D.C., where, he said, “people speak in their most vernacular.”

As the son of immigrants, he said, growing up he felt like a “linguistic alien. ... My marginalized linguistic status heightened my sensitivity to the social significance of language, and I studied languages and linguistics in my undergraduate and graduate school education.”

He obviously has no problem with the language now, eh?

The documentary, he said, is the first devoted to African-American speech “even though it’s the most researched – and controversial – collection of dialects in the United States and has contributed more than any other variety to American English.”

And the most diverse, he could’ve added. I declare, on trips to certain parts of Georgia and South Carolina, one can get the impression from the distinct regional dialects that you’re in a foreign country. As kids, when our country selves would visit city relations up north, we’d come back speaking with an accent far different from the one with which we left – and we’d only been gone two weeks!

After the screening, Craig Brookins, an associate professor of psychology at State, and I spoke onstage about the overflow crowd.

“I wasn’t expecting this,” Brookins said. Neither was I. That’s why I arrived about 15 minutes after the scheduled start. Being a veteran of such events, I figured they’d delay the start about that long while waiting to see if more people would saunter in.

Hmmph. When I got there, the James B. Hunt Library auditorium was packed, and I found myself relegated to the back, having to stand and peer around the stair railing just to see the screen.

To Brookins, that was a positive sign, because it showed that “people are interested in learning about our language.”

One of the people who was interested was David Rohrer of Raleigh.

As I ambled to the parking deck on the sensational Centennial Campus after the screening, Rohrer, walking faster than I, caught up to me. He didn’t know who I was when he started talking.

A native of Lancaster County, Pa., Rohrer said, “I grew up with my parents speaking non-standard English. When I went away to college, I thought everyone should learn to speak standard English. I just applied that to everybody.”

After watching the documentary, he said, “I understand that the way some African-Americans talk is more precious and special. ... It’s a way of building community. The dignity of the speech goes beyond just standard and nonstandard.”

Right on.

Spoken word artist Shirlette Ammons, a panelist along with Brookins and Wolfram, said, “One of our greatest exports is language.” She called language “a tool of survival.”

We all know people who use language to show – usually unsuccessfully – how smart they are. I grew up with people who used it to disguise how smart they were, intentionally misusing or mispronouncing words that I knew they knew.

I always figured that was a survival tool.

Rohrer said he was “so glad” that he attended the forum. I am so glad the lady with the microphone during the Q&A session afterward didn’t come near me because I had a question that I sincerely wanted answered.

It was a question that, I fear in hindsight, would have sincerely made me look like an idiot: Who was the first black dude to greet another with “All right, now”?

I, as an amateur linguist, would have dated it to Mr. Platt McRae in Rockingham one night around 1968 when I was returning home from King’s Grocery and passed him in a path. (In those days, a 10-year-old kid had no fear of going to the store at night alone.)

When I passed the friendly man who lived five houses up the street from me, I said, “Hey, Mr. Platt,” and he said, “All right, now.”

That was the first time I’d ever heard that greeting, but I have probably heard and used it a zillion times since then.

I later learned that was his standard greeting, and when he was feeling particularly jaunty, it would be “Alreet, now.”

I have traveled to a few different countries and most states in America, and it is rare that one encounters a black dude, gives him the subtle “I see you, blood” head nod and don’t get an “All right, now” in return.

Try it.

On second thought – don’t.

Wolfram – whose name is perfect for a professor at State and would be for one at UNC – said more editing must be done before the film is finished, but he said he foresees possibly expanding the film to a television miniseries and eventually a series. At a screening at Enloe High School in Raleigh last week, he said, 300 students watched in rapt attention.

“You could’ve heard a pin drop,” he said.

Afterward, he said, “they asked the most interesting questions. It was the first time I’ve ever had a student come up to me and say, ‘Thank you for doing this.’”

All right, now.

Barry Saunders: 919-836-2811, @BarrySaunders9