The Language You Cry In

The Language You Cry In

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.

These dramatic clues were taken up again in the 1980s by Joseph Opala, an American anthropologist lecturing at Sierra Leone’s Fourah Bay College. Studying Bunce Island, an 18th century British slave castle in Sierra Leone, Opala discovered that it sent many of its African captives to South Carolina and Georgia where American rice planters were willing to pay high prices for slaves from the African “Rice Coast,” including Sierra Leone. The modern Gullah people, the descendants of those rice-growing slaves, have preserved more of their African culture than any other black community in the United States. In 1989, Opala helped organize a gala Homecoming by a Gullah group anxious to meet their long-lost brothers and sisters in Sierra Leone. That moving journey was documented in an earlier California newsreel release, Family Across the Sea.

Realizing history and linguistics were pointing the same way — toward a link between Sierra Leone and the Gullah — Opala turned to American ethnomusicologist Cynthia Schmidt to help him find Turner’s recording of Dawley’s song. Obtaining it from a music archive in the United States, they presented a copy to a Sierra Leone music group that performed it for the Homecoming group and their African hosts. Both were astonished that a song in Mende had come from coastal Georgia. Then, after the Homecoming, Opala, Schmidt and Sierra Leonean linguist Tazieff Koroma set out to find Amelia’s song in Sierra Leone. “If it came from Mende country 200 years ago,” Opala says, “then the question was: Would it still exist there today? Would we be able to find it in Mende country today?”

Their task was formidable. The Mende are the largest ethnic group in Sierra Leone, numbering in the millions, but fortunately Koroma recognized a dialect word in the song, pointing to a specific area. The researchers played the recording in village after village, but after no one recognized it, they were at the point of giving up. Then, Schmidt found a woman named Baindu Jabati in the remote interior village of Senehun Ngola. Jabati knew a song with strikingly similar lyrics, an ancient Mende funeral dirge performed during a graveside ceremony called teijami, or “crossing the river.” “Her grandmother taught her the song,” she said, “a women’s song, as birth and death rites are women’s responsibilities in Mende culture.” Jabati’s grandmother had made the uncanny prediction that there would be a homecoming in their village one day, a return of lost family, and that the old funeral song would link them to their returned kinsmen.

Recognizing that the song “could mean a great deal to someone in America,” as Schmidt says, she and Opala traveled to Georgia in 1990 where, with the help of a member of the Homecoming group, they found Amelia’s daughter, Mary Moran, then 69. To their relief, Mary still knew the old song that, in the context of American plantation life, had become a play song mothers sang for their small children. Thus, there was change, but also continuity — the song had passed down through women on both sides. A second Homecoming was planned, but had to be postponed because of Sierra Leone’s devastating rebel war that left millions homeless, including Baindu, herself. Finally, Mary and her family arrived in Sierra Leone in 1997, and after a painful visit to Bunce Island, were received with jubilation in Senehun Ngola.

To mark the occasion, Baindu and the other village women recreated the ancient teijami ceremony, which had not been performed in Senehun Ngola since about 1920, when Islam and Christianity took root in the area. Although Baindu knew the old song, she relied on 90-year-old blind chief Nabi Jah to show her how the funeral ceremony, of which the song was a part, was originally performed. Mary’s homecoming was, thus, a catalyst for Mende people to rediscover their own past. When Opala asked Nabi Jah why a Mende woman exiled 200 years ago would have taken that particular song to America, and not another, he said the answer was obvious. “It was the most valuable thing she could take,” he said. “Just by singing it, it would connect her to all her ancestors who were buried with it in Africa 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 great benefits of multi-disciplinary research, in this case involving history, linguistics, anthropology, and ethnomusicology. It is also 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 interpreting their own history as a “usable past.” Meaning, thus, emerged from the deliberate clash of present and past. As we watch Mary and Baindu reunited in a tearful rendition of the ancient song they share, we realize what 20th century scholarship and media technology can contribute to restoring family bonds seemingly shattered forever by the Middle Passage and African Diaspora.