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52 minutes, 1998, Sierre Leone / Spain Producer/Directors: Alvaro Toepke and Angel Serrano, Narrator: Vertamae Grosvenor in English and Mende with English subtitles
ABOUT THE FILM
The Language You Cry In tells an amazing scholarly detective story that searches for -and finds- meaningful links between African Americans and their ancestral past. It bridges hundreds of years and thousands of miles from the Gullah people of present-day Georgia back to 18th century Sierra Leone. It recounts the even more remarkable saga of how African Americans have retained links with their African past through the horrors of the middle passage, slavery and segregation. The film dramatically demonstrates the contribution of contemporary scholarship to restoring what narrator Vertamae Grosvenor calls the "non-history" imposed on African Americans: "This is a story of memory, how the memory of a family was pieced together through a song with legendary powers to connect those who sang it with their roots."
The story begins in the early 1930s with Lorenzo Turner, an African American linguist who cataloged more than 3000 names and words of African origin among the Gullah of coastal Georgia and South Carolina. He discovered that some Gullah could recite texts in African languages, including almost certainly the longest, a five-line song he learned from a woman living in a remote Georgia fishing village, Amelia Dawley. Although Amelia did not know the meaning of the syllables in the song, a Sierra Leonean graduate student in the U.S. recognized it as Mende, his native tongue.
These dramatic clues were taken up again in the l980s by Joseph Opala, an American anthropologist at Sierra Leone's Fourah Bay College. Studying Bunce Island, an 18th century British slave castle, Opala discovered that it sent many of its captives to Georgia and South Carolina where American rice planters paid a premium for experienced slaves from Africa's "Rice Coast." The comparative coherence of this slave community may account for the high degree of African cultural retention among the Gullah. In 1989 Opala helped organize a gala homecoming for a Gullah delegation to their long-lost African sisters and brothers documented in an earlier California Newsreel release, Family Across the Sea.
Opala joined with ethnomusicologist Cynthia Schmidt and Sierra Leonean linguist Tazieff Koroma in an arduous search to see if Amelia Dawley's song was still remembered anywhere in Sierra Leone. Although the Mende are the largest ethnic group in Sierra Leone, Koroma recognized one word as unique to a dialect spoken only in southern Sierra Leone. On their last day in the area, Cynthia Schmidt discovered a woman, Baindu Jabati, living in the remote interior village of Senehum Ngola, who had preserved a song with strikingly similar lyrics, a dirge performed during a graveside ceremony called Tenjami or "crossing the river." Her grandmother taught her the song because birth and death rites are women's responsibilities in Mende culture. At the same time she made the uncanny prediction that there would be a return of lost kinsman and that Baindu would recognize them through this song.
Schmidt and Opala then went to Georgia where they found Amelia Dawley's daughter, Mary Moran, age 69, who remembered her mother singing the song. Though transformed in plantation culture to a children's rhyme, there was also continuity since the song was passed down by women on both sides. A reunion between Mary and Baindu had to be postponed because of a devastating rebel war in Sierra Leone which left millions homeless, including Baindu herself. Finally in 1997, Mary Moran and her family could travel and, after a painful visit to Bunce Island, were received with jubilation in Senehum Ngola. The village's blind, 90 year old chief, Nabi Jah, organized a teijami ceremony for Mary, even though it had been in desuetude since the introduction of Christianity and Islam earlier in the century. Thus Mary's homecoming became a catalyst for Mende people to rediscover a part of their own past. When Opala asked Nabi Jah why a Mende woman exiled two hundred years ago would have preserved this particular song, he replied that the answer was obvious. "That song would be the most valuable thing she could take. It could connect her to all her ancestors and to their continued blessings." Then he quoted a Mende proverb, "You know who a person really is by the language they cry in."
The Language You Cry In shows the significant benefits of multi-disciplinary research. It also is a striking example of scholars working with their informants as colleagues; the "research subjects," African and American, were not just observed but actively recruited into researching and analyzing their own histories. Events, sometimes national in scope, were organized so that individuals and communities could make new research findings their own as part of a "usable past." Meaning thus emerged out of the deliberate clash of present and past. As we watch Mary and Baindu reunited in a tearful rendition of this ancient song, we realize how 20th century scholarship and media technology are making their own modest contribution to preserving bonds within the African Diaspora.
Ah wakuh muh monuh kambay yah lee luh lay tambay Ah wakuh muh monuh kambay yah lee luh lay kah. Ha suh wileego seehai yuh gbangah lilly Ha suh wileego dwelin duh kwen Ha suh wileego seehi uh kwendaiyah.
Everyone come together, let us work hard; the grave is not yet finished; let his heart be perfectly at peace. Everyone come together, let us work hard: the grave is not yet finished; let his heart be at peace at once. Sudden death commands everyone's attention, like a firing gun. Sudden death commands everyone's attention, oh elders, oh heads of family Sudden death commands everyone's attention, like a distant drum beat.
(translated by Tazieff Koroma, Edward Benya and Joseph Opala)
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"Informed by the expertise of anthropologists and linguists, and with echoes of Alex Haley's Roots, this film is the kind of breath-taking detective story that will not let you go. And thus long after the dramatic ending, The Language You Cry In simply will not leave you alone. See it! And be moved!"
Johnnetta Cole, President, Bennett College
"They all come together in this deeply moving filmthe intellectually trained and driven investigators, the cultural carriers, and survivors of a people on two continents. And this film becomes the griotstaying outside of the story so that the narrative flows, touching me in the deepest places, creating spiritual sacred ground watered with my tears."
Bernice Johnson Reagon
"While historians seek change over time, linguists and anthropologists (thank goodness) have an eye and an ear for continuities. The Language You Cry In links Africa and America, past and present, in a compelling story that helps us to examine violence and redemption, then and now. I am delighted that this moving and well-made documentary is just the right length to show to my History classes; it will prompt students to think about our collective past in fresh ways."
Peter H. Wood, Professor of History, Duke University
"The Language You Cry In is a timeless story of how people struggle to preserve their memory of who they are against the great odds of time, distance, destruction, and exile. This program presents the most inspiring and poignant story I have heard in a very long time."
Michael Montgomery, Professor of English and Linguistics, University of South Carolina
"That a Mende burial song has survived among the Gullah people and can be traced to a particular location in Sierra Leone is a testament to the remarkable tenacity and spirit of an enslaved people. It also took impressive scholarly sleuthing to recover the precise links between an African village and a diaspora population in lowcountry South Carolina and Georgia. A moving and gripping film."
Philip Morgan, Editor, William and Mary Quarterly
"The Language You Cry In is an informative and important scholarly document. Effective mix of images, instrumental music, song, and narrative comprises a touching and masterly presentation of facts surrounding the search for a lost song, its history, and its implications for our understanding of relationships between aspects of African-American and African culture."
Samuel A. Floyd, Jr., Director, Center for Black Music Research, Columbia College Chicago
"The Language You Cry In leads its viewer on an adventure of reunion and healing with a bittersweet finale: the joy of knowing one's roots-and the pain of understanding ancestral perseverance through suffering. Meticulous historical, ethnomusicological, and linguistic research support this beautifully-crafted film. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and will use it in my classes."