Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Verbal Engagement During Black Communication

Written by Azizi Powell

Call & response patterns not only shape and influence African American music. They also shape African American communication. "Verbal engagement" is my term for a call & response pattern of communication that influences African American communication expectations and permeates that communication. "Verbal engagement" is indicated by the words and sounds that a listerner intersperses during a conversation. Those words & sounds confirm that he or she is listening and involved in that conversation. Examples of verbal engagement are words or sentences such as "Yeah", "Yeah?" ,"You got that right", "I know what you mean", and "Get out of here!" "Verbal engagement" is also expressed by tonal sounds such as "Un hun" and "Hun?", Un un-n". If a listerner fails to engage during an African American conversation, if he or she remains silent too often or too long and doesn't add verbal engagement terms to that conversation, it's probable that that person speaking will consider that listerner to be rude or to have disengaged from the conversation.

I believe that these African American rules of verbal engagement are also found throughout African & other African Diaspora cultures. However, it's my sense that those White American and White European cultures may not have the same call & response verbal engagement rules. Instead of interspersing conversations with words, sentences, or tonal language, I gather that White people "wait their turn", waiting to speak after the other person has finished speaking. Also, it seems to me (admittedly from the outside looking in), that White people see no social imperative to signal that they have heard a conversation that they may or may not agree with. Perhaps they might be silent because they are thinking about what was said to determine if they agree or disagree with the whole or parts of that conversation. No rudeness, disinterest, or disengagement might have been intended, but given the different ways that Black people have been socialized to view communication, we may indeed mis-interpret that silence as rudeness, disinterest, or disengagement. The possibility for misinterpretation may also occur during written communication between Black people and non-Black people in online social networks such as facebook. Discussion threads about racism or cultural diversity in which the Black person is "the only one" (meaning the only Black person) or one of few Black people participating in that discussion are particularly ripe for verbal engagement misinterpretations. When I willingly engage in such online discussions often as a result of being asked to do so), I have to remind myself that the lack of confirming, reinforcing, questioning, disputing, or just plain thanking responses doesn't necessarily mean that the White people reading my comment disagree with what I have said. I also have to remind myself not to interpret their lack of response as being rude, disinterested, or disengaged. Instead, I try to remember that they were socialized differently than me, and don't see the need to immediately respond to verbal or written communication if they don't feel that they have anything of value to add to the discussion.

Rules of communication are usually unwritten. People learn those rules as a result of interacting in that particular society. Problems occur when we are raised to believe that our way of communicating, responding during communication, and responding to communication are the only way, or are the only right way. One of the reasons why I wrote this post is to help me remember this.


The following three videos are re-posted as examples of call & response communication styles in certain African American churches. Note that the congregation of these churches are expected to respond during the sermon to the minister's words. Also note that standing up is one socially approved way of responding to what is being said or sung by the minister or what is being sung by the choir and/or the congregation. These same affirming, engaging responses made by many Black people during concerts/performances of most Black secular music and Black people also often stand up & move our body during non-religious performances.

Sermons by Rev C L Franklin

Uploaded by Bohles128 on Apr 10, 2009

[Clarence LaVaughn Franklin (often abbreviated to C. L. Franklin) (January 22, 1915 – July 27, 1984), was an American Baptist minister, a civil rights activist, and father of the legendary soul and gospel singer Aretha Franklin]

Pastor Jerry D. Black Preaching 'Wolf Country' Mean Hearted People [excerpt]

Uploaded by BrothaRollins on Jan 20, 2007

Powerful sermon about living in the midst of wolves and mean people.

In his summary statement the uploader provided information about Pastor Jerry D. Black including the following:
" the age of 21, Reverend Black accepted his calling to preach the Gospel. He was called and served as pastor of the Greater Paradise Baptist Church in Little Rock, Arkansas. During his 15 years of service to Greater Paradise, the church membership grew from 17 members to over 3000. During that time, Pastor Black also had a very popular television and radio ministry in Little Rock..."

"that video was recorded in 2005...
Click to find more information about Pastor Jerry D. Black.

Old Time Preaching, Shouting and Singing

Uploaded by RevSinkiller on Mar 6, 2010

Taken from the [1964] movie "Nothing But A Man." This is a beautiful snapshot of church back in the 1960's, the likes we don't hear as much these days.

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  1. Great post!...It is a misconception that while Black churches are rambunctious, cymbals and tambourines, running around the church, falling out and speaking in tongues, White churches are solemn, still and quiet. Although I’ve never been to a predominately white church I can say I have been to Black churches that are as solemn as they come, so I’m sure on both sides of the fence you’ll find your fair share of both exciting services and dull ones.

  2. You're welcome, Quallan.

    And thank you for your excellent comments.

    As I'm sure you're aware, "getting happy" (moving because you feel the spirit) is another response during the minister's sermon or to a choir's or congregation song.

    I'm Baptist, and was raised in New Jersey. In my home church (the church I attended during my childhood and teen years before I moved away to attend college) people didn't get happy like they did and still do in some other Black (and integrated) churches. My church was kinda saditty. We thought that we were too middle class to let ourselves go too much. So it was very uncommon for people to do any kind of holy dance or walk around the church as an expression of feeling the spirit. We didn't do as much verbal engagement "Amens" and "Preach!" like some other churches. But I was aware of and still respected and still respect hat form of verbal engagement in churches filled with the spirit.

  3. African American responses may only be more direct and outspoken (if I may). Whites do often interject quiet, non-interrupting phrases, "I see" or "Yes," etc. They also show visual signs of paying attention such as intense eye-contact or head nodding/shaking. But I agree this could easily be misinterpreted by blacks _or_ by whites as disinterest.

    Another possible stumbling block in inter-racial communication is the "negotiated" style of speech used. I know we all use different personas in different circumstances (to a boss, child, parent, friend, etc) but I try to use the same speech style speaking to anyone. Many blacks may be "forced" to defer to my style in response. I prefer that - I feel they are better able to speak TV Amer-English than I am to speak in a less familiar style. I do the same with whites who have a distinctive style/accent. So I'm more comfortable as a result but not necessarily very kind in the process.

    Your comment welcome.

    Abby Sale

  4. Thanks for your comment, Abby.

    I agree with your first paragraph, but I'm not sure that I understand your second paragraph. If you mean that in settings with White people -especially in formal settings-many Black people adopt mainstream communication styles and don't usually expect people to intersperse verbal engagement words, sentences, or tonal sounds such as "un hun" into the conversation, I agree. I also agree that this may be a less comfortable way of conversing for Black people since we are used to (and may prefer) more interactive call & response conversational styles. However, if I'm reading your comment correctly, I would disagree that this style of communication is something foreign to most Black people. Instead, I contend that we are bi-cultural and can easily "code switch" from one style of communication to another.

  5. No, no, I meant just the opposite; that I think it's easier for most groups to switch to mainstream style, especially in the radio/TV age, than it is for those of us with more impoverished customs to switch to ""dialect." But whether most blacks (or others) are truly bi-cultural - equally as comfortable in the one as the other is a matter for sociologists to study. Surely a matter of habit and depth/length of usage counts.

    And if the non-mainstream group (awkward phrase) is at all out of comfort/custom then there is at least some disadvantage and inevitably some failure of communication.

    Note I've used "some" and "most" as often as I possibly could. :-)

    Abby Sale

  6. Okay, Abby.
    I believe I now understand what you wrote.

    When you refer to "dialect", I suppose you are talking about African American English. That term has become standard among academics who generally refer to mainstream English as Standard American English (SAE). I don't believe that those two forms of English are that far apart, for a number of reasons including the fact that SAE constantly adds words & phrases to its vocabulary that come from AAE. While African American English may indeed be a dialect, I suppose I don't think of my use of it that way.

    I use African American English slang much more than I use its grammatical features. For instance, although double negatives (such as "I ain't got no") are part of AAV, I don't use speak or write like that unless I'm purposely do so for one reason or another. And I think that quite a number of other African Americans do what I call "putting on the blackness" or "going downhome" when we want to signal our race in online or offline discussions and when we want to show off a bit. For example, in YouTube video comment threads about a Gospel video, instead of writing "That woman can sing!", an African American might write "That sista can Sang!" (with "sista" or "sistah" being used as a referent for a Black woman, and with "sang" being purposely used in the present tense for "sing really well".) And when a Black person of certain ages or cultural leanings (or a hip person of another race/ethnicity in those age ranges/cultural leanings) were to post a comment on YouTube to convey that he or she really likes a certain (usually secular) song, he or she might write "That's sick!" Or "That's ill". Again, the source for that languaging is Black (African American) culture. But people who might not know this might believe regarding the first example that the person was using the incorrect tense, and regarding the second example that the person didn't like the song.

    So yes, I would imagine that it would be difficult for most White people to understand a lot of AAVE if they haven't been around African Americans and have no means of keeping up with that form of vernacular English. And yes, I agree that it would be a disadvantage if African Americans didn't know how to code switch to Standard American English (the kind that is used on American television).

    While I'm glad to be having this conversation about African American English, the post I wrote which prompted these comments was actually my opinions about an aspect of AAE that may not be recognized or well understood outside African American culture. I wanted to share my sense that racial/ethnic differences in what I call "verbal engagement" in spoken and written communication may lead to misunderstandings and resentment. If indeed there are differences in the ways that we Black Americans and White Americans (and Americans of other races) have been taught to engage each other during conversations, that adds to the complexity of our communications and lack of communications.

    1. I just found this comment which was inadvertently added to my spam file.

      My sincerest apologies to Abby Sales and to other readers of this discussion.