1st Edition

My Soul Look Back in Wonder Memories from a Life of Study, Struggle, and Doin Battle in the Language Wars

By Geneva Napoleon Smitherman Copyright 2022
    210 Pages 10 Color Illustrations
    by Routledge

    210 Pages 10 Color Illustrations
    by Routledge

    This is the story of Dr. Geneva Smitherman, aka "Dr. G," the pioneering linguist often referred to as the "Queen of Black Language." In a series of narrative essays, Dr. G writes eloquently and powerfully about the role of language in social transformation and the academic, intellectual, linguistic, and societal debates that shaped her groundbreaking work as a Black Studies O.G. and a Womanist scholar-activist of African American Language.

    These eleven essays narrate the development of Dr. G’s race, gender, class, and linguistic consciousness as a member of the Black Power Generation of the 1960s and 70s. In My Soul Look Back In Wonder, Dr. G links the personal to the professional and the political, situating the struggles, and successes, of a Black woman in the Academy within the historical experiences and development of her people.

    As Dr. G enters her eighth decade, in this Black Lives Matter historical moment, she seeks to share the meaning and purpose of a life of study and struggle and its significance for all those who seek racial and social justice today.

    List of Plates


    Chapter One Steppin Out on Faith

    Chapter Two "When Do You Plan on Getting Married And Starting A Family?"

    Chapter Three Quest for Knowledge and Liberation

    Chapter Four Who We Be: The Language Wars In And Outside Of The Academy

    Chapter Five Doin Battle In The Language Wars: Black Language And The Academy

    Chapter Six Doin Battle In The Language Wars: Black Language And The Law

    Chapter Seven Maintaining My Authentic Self

    Chapter Eight The Good, The Bad, The Ugly: Reparations and Affirmative Action

    Chapter Nine African American Language and Literacy Program and Black Studies In The Twenty-First Century

    Chapter Ten "What Is Africa To Me?": Longing And Looking For Home

    Epilogue The Rhyming Tonal Semantics of History



    Dr. Geneva Napoleon Smitherman is University Distinguished Professor Emerita at Michigan State University, USA. A former high school English and Latin teacher in Detroit and a scholar-activist in Black Studies, she has been at the forefront of the struggle for language rights since the 1960s. She is author of six books, including Black Language and Culture (1975), Talkin and Testifyin (1977), Talkin That Talk (2000), and Routledge Linguistics Classic Word from the Mother (2021). She is co-author or editor of ten books, including Articulate While Black (with Dr. H. Samy Alim, 2012).



    This is a marvelous and moving account of the life and work of an extraordinary Black woman who is one of America’s leading language scholars. Born in Jim Crow America, Geneva Smitherman was part of the Great Migration as her family moved from rural Tennessee to urban Detroit. Motivated mainly by her working-class father’s emphasis on education, she graduated from Wayne State University, earned a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan, taught at Harvard, and became a University Distinguished Professor at Michigan State University.

    But this is more than the story of an accomplished academic and her quest to demonstrate that Black speech is an authentic language and means of communication. While she waged war for her scholarly views and principles in the academic trenches, she also maintained a presence as an unrelenting and fiery activist as she provided leadership and inspiration to countless people on the campuses and in the communities where she has taught and lived.

    Through heartfelt recollections and often graphic anecdotes, Smitherman recounts the episodes and the people whom she sometimes confronted but more frequently embraced. Add Smitherman’s book and life to those of other African American women who have contributed so much to creating a better society for all of us.

    Darlene Clark Hine, John A. Hannah Distinguished Professor of History, Michigan State University, USA. Past President of the Organization of American Historians and Member, American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Editor of the three-volume set, Black Women in America, Co-Editor, Black Europe and the African Diaspora, and Co-Author, The African American Odyssey.

    Geneva Smitherman is a legendary intellectual and teacher! This powerful and beautiful memoir is a timely and needful force for our hearts, minds and souls in such a decadent time! Don’t miss it!

    Cornel West, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Professor, Union Theological Seminary, USA. Author of Race Matters and Democracy Matters.

    Dr. Geneva Smitherman is my shero in Black Language and Linguistics and now she is also my Queen of all of that in addition to Black Culture, History, and Life just as Aretha Franklin is the Queen of Soul, Sorrow, and Salvation. Queen G (an elevation from her current affectionate moniker of "Dr. G") has told a memoir to us that reverberates with the soulful moans and groans like Queen Aretha so moved us with for decades. There is a spirit that moves us beyond words so that all we can do is moan and say "Amen." Queen G gave us the name "African American Language," but now she has given us African American life and boldness with My Soul Look Back in Wonder. No one does it like Queen G in sharing and celebrating Blackness in its full glory, stature, and struggle. And no one has battled so much for the revelation that our stories, our language, our people, are more than enough for we shall not be moved. Hail to the Queen!

    Sonja L. Lanehart, Professor of Linguistics and Affiliate Faculty, Africana Studies, University of Arizona, USA. Author of Sista, Speak! Black Women Kinfolk Talk about Language and Literacy and editor of The Oxford Handbook of African American Language

    Dr. G shares a spellbinding personal journey of a life filled with devotion and heart wrenching survival. Punctuated, often poetically, with an eloquent vernacular voice, she describes childhood, family, love, loss, the Black church, educational mistreatment, and a glorious succession of iconic scholarly milestones through her singular contributions that tirelessly championed Black linguistic liberation worldwide.

    John Baugh, Margaret Bush Wilson Professor, Washington University, USA. President, Linguistic Society of America and Member, American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Co-editor of African-American English: Structure, History and Use.

    I know Geneva Smitherman personally as both mentor and mother. And after reading My Soul Look Back and Wonder, I now know what must have been in her chest as she struggled from youth until now with revolutionary purpose to make real the passionate prophecy of judgment that insists that Black Language matters. This deeply moving and beautifully written account of study, struggle, and the language wars speaks at once to the heart and soul of silenced whispers that are as loud as Black tears and screams that erupt quietly from Black joy. Each word is intentional and grips you with the same cadence of Black discourse that preachers use to move congregants. Each word is relevant because it speaks presciently to the issues that matter today: Black identity, the politics of Black rage, the expression of Black dissent, the politics of Black power, and the importance of consolidating Black varieties of expression and bringing them together under a banner that waves freely in the whirling dance of Black breath.

    David E. Kirkland, Professor of Urban Education, New York University, USA. Executive Director, NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and The Transformation of Schools. Author of A Search Past Silence: The Literacy of Young Black Men.

    Dr. Geneva Smitherman is a huge figure in the study of African American Language, a pioneer and pacesetter, and people will be eager to know the inside story of the issues and developments with which she is associated.

    John Russell Rickford, Professor of Linguistics, Stanford University. Author of Speaking my Soul: Race, Life and Language and co-editor of African-American English, now available as a Routledge Linguistics Classic.