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Friday, October 11 • 5:45pm - 7:00pm
Blake: 'When black people laugh they scatter’: Embodied communication and social perception

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'When black people laugh they scatter’: Embodied communication and social perception

John R. Rickford and Angela E. Rickford’s (1976) work on “Cut-Eye and Suck-Teeth: African Words and Gestures in New World Guise,” describe a visual and oral gesture, respectively, as cultural talk within Black Diasporic communities across West Africa, the Caribbean and the United States. More than 30 years have passed since this important paralinguistic work that highlighted the body in Black communication. In this talk, I expand on this work in embodied sociolinguistics and present analyses of black gestural embodiment in United States contexts. I focus on gestures as “central to the production, perception, and social interpretation of language.” (Bucholtz and Hall 2016). I argue that studying the body in Black expression, while focused on agentive beings engaged in face-to-face interactions, must be framed within histories in which Black bodies are subjected to historical systems of oppression (hooks 2013).

Three decades after Rickford and Rickford’s seminal work, there have been few sociolinguistic studies on African American expression regarding embodied styling of speech and related indexical meanings (Barrett 1999, Goodwin and Alim 2010). This is in contrast to the study of spoken African American Language, particularly regarding linguistic variation and change, which has blossomed into an intellectual forest of sorts across social categories including sex, gender, age and their intersections, as well as style, contact, religion and education. As Bucholtz and Hall (2016) note, the logocentric nature of linguistic inquiry has led to work on the spoken word overshadowing work on the body, which is generally viewed in linguistics as secondary in communication. One exception to this has been studies of Black ASL, in which “the body supplies the grammar for the entire linguistic system.” (McCaskill, et al. 2011). Moreover, while prosody/intonation is arguably integral to the information structure of spoken language, when viewed as the integration of spoken language and the body, there has been a growing body of research on African American English prosody/intonation (Tarone 1973, Loman 1975, Wolfram and Thomas 2002, Thomas and Carter 2006, Holliday 2016, McLarty 2018).

I analyze embodied cultural and linguistic practices in Black communities via new forms of data made available through advances in commuter mediated communication. And I offer a community-based approach to the body that includes the Black ASL community. This work highlights the possibilities of conflict or oppositionality in face-to-face interactions, but also reveals critical elements of communitas. While gestures are viewed as performative acts at the intersection of styling blackness and stancetaking, I argue that they can be use by the media and in face-to-face interactions to reify social categorization (e.g., ghetto girls, thugs), as well as to challenge and break such notions and perceptions.


Renée Blake

New York University

Friday October 11, 2019 5:45pm - 7:00pm PDT
Straub 156