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(cover picture) Toepke, Alvaro & Angel Serrano
1998 The Language You Cry In. San Franciso: California Newsreel.

Notes: VHS color, 52 minutes
Reviewed 23 Jul 2008 by:
Jack David Eller <>
Metropolitan State College, Denver, Colorado, USA
Medium: Film/Video
Gullahs - Georgia - Music - History and criticism
Folk songs, Mende - History and criticism
African Americans - Relations with Africans
Burial - Sierra Leone

ABSTRACT:    Starting out like any conventional research project, the discovery of fragments of an African song in a southeastern African-American community leads to the establishment of a historical link between a particular African-American family and a particular West African village—but much more than that, it reunites long-separated kin and opens profound issues of history, identity, and memory.

The greatest achievement of an academic enterprise is to be intellectually informative, politically important, and personally or socially meaningful. It is a goal that we all strive for. It is a goal reached in admirable fashion by The Language You Cry In. On the surface, the film could be just another production in cultural anthropology, or even more obscurely, in the study of music cross-culturally and in Africa in particular. That is a subject that would not excite too many people. However, the production ties together issues of race, history, language, identity, and fieldwork in a thorough but quite moving way.

The program immediately concerns anthropological attempts to trace an African-American song back to its source in pre-colonial Africa. The song was first collected in a Gullah community in coastal Georgia in 1931. More than forty years later, anthropologist Joseph Opala rediscovered the old recording while pursuing other research on the slave trade between West Africa and southeastern U.S. Collaborating with an ethnomusicologist and an African linguist, he identified one specific word from the song that appeared to come from a known dialect in contemporary Sierra Leone. The team circulated among villages in that country playing the song for villagers and eventually located a woman who recognized the song. It turned out that the melody and lyrics were associated with a women’s ceremony of burial and ancestor ritual (since, traditionally, birth and death were women’s business). Subsequently, the film offers a nice description of traditional Mende funerary practices.

For the next step of their investigation, the research team sought to find any present-day member of the Gullah community who still knew the song, and happily they identified the daughter of the original singer in the 1931 recording. The song had been passed down in her family as a lullaby with no realization of its traditional meaning. This discovery led the team to make the connection between the Georgian Gullah family and the Mende village.

Plans to reunite the two long-separated family lines were postponed by the civil war in Sierra Leone, which is poignantly discussed in the video. In fact, the African villagers were somewhat embarrassed to have their lost relative see the contemporary state of their land and country, but they were thrilled to re-establish the kinship connection. The Gullah family (surnamed Moran) is depicted in the film touring Sierra Leone, visiting Bense Island where slaves were stored prior to shipment to the Americas, and even meeting the president of the country. Finally, the long-delayed family reunion occurred in the village, where locals wept for their returned kin and both sides sang their versions of the song that brought them back together.

The Language You Cry In is an account of a fine piece of anthropological sleuthing, but a piece that affected the lives of specific living people more than our work usually does. Of course, it is well to remind ourselves that social/cultural research is always, to some degree, excavating a lifeway, if not an actual life. But the consequences in this case are all the more profound, since the wayward song provides the connection between people otherwise bisected by history and by cultural abuse. The film in the end is less about anthropology, and much less about the song, than about memory: as the narrator explains early in the show, memory is power, and the way to master a human being is to strip him/her of his/her identity, land, culture, and ancestry. The entire presentation is ultimately informed by an old Mende proverb: "You can speak another language, you can live in another culture, but to cry over your dead you always go back to your mother tongue—the language you cry in." In this case, for these people, it truly was the language they cried in, their funerary language, that brought lost kinsmen virtually back from the dead.

Level/Use: Suitable for high school and college courses in cultural anthropology or linguistic anthropology, ethnomusicology, African-American culture as well as for public audiences.