Language is ubiquitous. It is the metaphorical glue which bonds us to one another, the ability to send thoughts and ideas across spaces. Through language we are able to have civilization, for it is through the production, proliferation and interpretation of information that we are able to learn from one another.
When I was younger, I used to wish I could speak a different language. For years I tried to teach myself various tongues, all of which were chosen relatively arbitrarily, without realizing that I existed within a language reality that I was trained to never acknowledge.
A year ago I was fortunate enough to take a class called “Language and Identity in the African Diaspora.” The class was the first linguistics class that I’ve taken at Swarthmore. The course discussed the ways that language acquisition and socialization affect the performance and interpretation of the Black identity in Africa and the Americas. Interestingly enough, as I was taking “Language and Identity,” I was also taking a History class on the Gullah/Geechee communities of the South Carolina and Georgia coasts. I did not expect the two courses to overlap when I originally picked them the semester before, and over the winter break I mostly forgot about the classes entirely. At the time, I was about to start my second semester of French, as well.
I enjoy watching documentaries because it offers all the information of a book without the labor of reading. Of course, reader, you may be saying “reading is not laborious” but for some people, like me when I was younger, reading was a source of stress. I struggled to read at the paces of my peers, which deterred me from reading altogether. Yet, I was inquisitive and sought to find information through other media, including documentaries. Considering my somewhat heavy course load at Swarthmore, I’ve been watching documentaries in order to augment my readings. In my spare time, instead of watching a tv show on Netflix — which I also do — I’ll put on a documentary which is relevant to my coursework and continue the learning process without straining myself by reading.
Below are five documentaries for students of Africana studies that I’ve watched through online platforms like California Newsreel, a site for which most colleges and universities hold a subscription.
1. Femmes Aux Yeux Ouverts (1994)
Director: Anne-Laure Folly
Femmes Aux Yeux Ouverts (Women with Open Eyes) is a Togolese documentary which discusses contemporary issues facing West African women. Topics include the traditional roles of African women and the construction of the masculine and feminine identities within Senegalese, Beninese, Burkinabé and Malian contexts. The film discusses, above all else, the issue of excision or female circumcision, the process of removing the “unpure” clitoris from young women, and its ramifications on the psychological development of West African women. The film is a must-watch for people interested in gender & sexuality in West Africa as well anyone seeking to study African society and culture.
The film can be watched through Films on Demand, a video streaming service which offers subscriptions to hundreds of colleges and universities.
2. Color Adjustment (1992)
Director: Marlon Riggs
Marlon Riggs is a titan African-American documentarist whose works cover an array of topics, from sexuality to Blacks in media. Color Adjustment highlights the presence of Black actors in television, progressing from the early representations of Black people by whites in radio and film and the consequent addition of Black actors for television adaptations, such as in Amos and Andy. It then progresses through shifting audiences and representations as television progressed into the 1960s, 70s and 80s, stopping at the Cosby Show, a show which sought, among many things, to dramatically address the representation of African-Americans in television. Color Adjustment is a must-watch for anyone studying the presence and representation of African-Americans in media, as well as the construction of racial identities.
Color Adjustment is also available through Films on Demand.
3. God Loves Uganda (2013)
Director: Roger Ross Williams
A more recent documentary, God Loves Uganda discusses the role that Christian evangelism has played in the cultural, legal and social development of Uganda. The relationship between (North) American evangelism and Uganda’s anti-homophobia laws is explored, along with the pervasive strain of Islamophobia at the heart of many Christian missionary agendas in Africa. Definitely a fascinating watch for anyone interested in gender, sexuality & legality in Africa, religion & African society and the role of Christian mission in African history.
The documentary is available on Netflix.
4. 3 1/2 Minutes, 10 Bullets (2015)
Director: Marc Silver
Covering the story of the murder of Jordan Davis, a seventeen year-old African-American high school student by Michael Dunn, a white man, 3 1/2 Minutes, 10 Bullets is a harrowing documentary which combines excellent storytelling with the misery of an ongoing, unresolved and nearby issue of violence against the Black body. The documentary was the impetus for two pieces on this blog, titled Armed & Dangerous, and opened by eyes to the ambiguities of stand-your-ground laws and the pervasive notion of Black criminality within the American conscience. I definitely recommend this film for anyone interested in African-Americans in the American justice system, racial violence, and cultural imaginations.
The documentary is available on HBO Go.
5. The Language You Cry In (1998)
Directors: Alvaro Toepke, Angel Serano
The Gullah are a unique group of African-Americans living on the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia. Renowned for their sweetgrass basket-weaving and tradition of storytelling, the Gullah also are distinguished by their unique creole language. The presence of African retentions in the Gullah tradition were essential towards rewriting the popular narratives of “the Negro past” or the lack thereof. The Language You Cry In tells the story of a funeral dirge retained by Gullahs that was traced back to a tribe in Sierra Leone, effectively drawing a tangible connection between contemporary African-Americans and the African continent from which they hailed. The documentary is touching in its desire to undo accepted ideas of African-American culture as “ahistorical” and is imperative for students interested in studying African-American or Gullah history, African cultural retention and music & culture.
The documentary is available on Films on Demand.
I plan on watching more documentaries during my winter break, so I’ll probably add a follow-up to this post. Stay tuned!