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Making The Film

The Language You Cry In

Film by Angel Serrano, Alvaro Toepka
Produced by Alvaro Toepke, Angel Serrano
Cinematographer: Anibal Landazuri
Sound: Miquel Roma
Editing: Anibal Landazuri, Alvaro Toepke, Angel Serrano
Copyright: 1998, Inko Producciones SL. & Taller de Imagen de la Universidad de Alicante S.A.
52 minutes, Color
Original format: 3/4 inch videotape: U-matic, 1998
Distributor: California Newsreel
More Film Facts
Home streaming only. For other permissions apply to Angel Serrano, Alvaro Toepka or to the distributor, California Newsreel.


Preview one minute trailer - Comment on film


The Language You Cry In tells an amazing scholarly detective story reaching across hundreds of years and thousands of miles, from 18th century Sierra Leone to the Gullah people of present-day Georgia. It shows how African Americans have retained powerful links to their African past despite the horrors of the Middle Passage and the long years of 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 the powers to connect those who sing it with their roots, their silent history.” The story begins in the early 1930s with Lorenzo Turner, an African American linguist who cataloged more than 3,000 names and words of African origin among the Gullah people of coastal South Carolina and Georgia. Turner also made the spectacular discovery that some Gullahs could recite texts in African languages handed down for generations. Among these linguistic gems, Turner’s widow recalls, he especially cherished a five-line song that he learned from Amelia Dawley, a woman from a remote Georgia fishing village. Although Amelia did not know which language the song was in, a Sierra Leonean graduate student in the United States recognized it as Mende, his native tongue. Amelia’s song is almost certainly the longest text in an African language known to have been preserved by a black family in the United States.

The complete film is available on high quality DVD from newsreel.

"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


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