Speaking my Soul Race, Life and Language
Speaking My Soul is the honest story of linguist John R. Rickford’s life from his early years as the youngest of ten children in Guyana to his status as Emeritus Professor of Linguistics at Stanford, of the transformation of his identity from colored or mixed race in Guyana to black in the USA, and of his work championing Black Talk and its speakers.
This is an inspiring story of the personal and professional growth of a black scholar, from his life as an immigrant to the USA to a world-renowned expert who has made a leading contribution to the study of African American life, history, language and culture. In this engaging memoir, Rickford recalls landmark events for his racial identity like being elected president of the Black Student Association at the University of California, Santa Cruz; learning from black expeditions to the South Carolina Sea Islands, Jamaica, Belize and Ghana; and meeting or interviewing civil rights icons like Huey P. Newton, Rosa Parks and South African Dennis Brutus. He worked with Rachel Jeantel, Trayvon Martin’s good friend, and key witness in the trial of George Zimmerman for his murder—Zimmerman’s exoneration sparked the Black Lives Matter movement.
With a foreword by poet John Agard, this is the account of a former Director of African and African American Studies whose work has increased our understanding of the richness of African American language and our awareness of the education and criminal justice challenges facing African Americans. It is key reading for students and faculty in linguistics, mixed race studies, African American studies and social justice.
List of Illustrations
Foreword by John AgardPrologue: The gift of Stroke
1 Youngest of ten, and my monkey and rabbit
2 Forebears and cousins
3 Baby Wade, my mum
4 Siblings: Patricia(s) and Peter
5 Queen’s College (my high school)
6 Friends and Girlfriends
7 Johnny and Johnny (Agard) and the police
8 Going to America
9 U of California, Santa Cruz & summer 1969
10 Forgive me, my son, Thank you my parents
11 How I fell in love with Linguistics & Black Talk
12 The Sea Islands: Dashiki in suitcase if required
13 Rosa Parks at Stanford
14 Stanford in Oxford: David Dabydeen & Dennis Brutus
15 African and African American Studies, Learning Expeditions, Kongo Cosmograms
16 Ebonics, Rachel Jeantel, Trayvon Martin, Black Lives Matter
Epilogue: The gift of Love
Speaking my Soul: Race, Life and Language is a fascinating account of a life that started in colonial British Guiana (now Guyana) but is transformed by emigration to the United States in the turbulent late 1960s. Arrival here as a college student challenges Rickford to the core. The embracing Black Power movement presents him with a chance to discover a self essentially misled in British Guiana; seizing that chance, he exorcises some of the main colonialist demons, especially those involving the privilege of possessing a "light" skin color that is often a barrier between him, and others like him, and the black masses. Finding in the study of sociolinguistics a field of inquiry that reinforces his new self-perception, he becomes an expert above all on the dignity and integrity of "Black English." In a crucial way, this is an act of love, and love is a crucial feature here: above all, love of family and love of academia but also love of the masses of people everywhere. This is a notable, instructive story of a remarkable life and career.
Arnold Rampersad, author of biographies of Jackie Robinson, Langston Hughes, and Ralph Ellison, and co-author of Arthur Ashe: Days of Grace, a Memoir
In this remarkable and compelling story about love, family, poetry, language, education, activism, and the evolution of identity and acceptance, John R. Rickford illuminates the transatlantic ties that bind Caribbean, African, and African American cultures, and the complexities of race that informed his own journey from Guyana to the U.S.
Tracey L. Weldon, author, Middle Class African American English
Rickford is not just one of the first scholars of color to study modern sociolinguistics. His model as an educator, family member, and friend has made our profession more humble, kinder, and more caring. He is a transformative figure who has written a captivating account of his journey from the single bedroom with nine kids in Guyana to the leader of the sociolinguistic world. A riveting, inspirational account!
Walt Wolfram, author of Dialects and American English, Appalachian English, and Talkin’ Tar Heel
Speaking my Soul: Race, Life and Language is such a moving memoir—at once a highly personal family story, and yet one with insights that make this book also an invaluable contribution to Black Studies, Diasporic Studies, and the emerging field of Critical Mixed Race Studies. Rickford’s intimate family account of his own complex racial heritage, paired with an insider’s view of a field of research that he himself shaped, is a wholly engrossing read. The divine irony that this world-renowned pioneer in sociolinguistics temporarily lost his speech after a stroke makes this memoir an even more poignant reflection on life and language.
Michele Elam, author of The Souls of Mixed Folk and editor of The Cambridge Companion to James Baldwin
This moving and honest memoir is crucial to understanding the wider reaches of identity in a multi-racial former British colony, and by extension, to the much- discussed question of identity in today’s instantly connected global world. Having himself in 2019 suffered an unexpected stroke (an illness that had killed his father), Rickford was motivated to further explore his family tree…This leads Rickford to discover a web of ancestral connections (African, East Indian, Amerindian, Scottish) that bear witness to Guyana’s diverse racial heritage. … in this memoir, Rickford invites us to sit with the unseen ancestors that inhabit his house of memory.
From the Foreword by John Agard, author of Half-Caste, numerous other books of poetry, and winner of the 2012 Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry
…it is Rickford’s humanity that shines through these pages, showing how diversity is one of the world’s most valuable resources, how diversity arises from the chances and challenges of ordinary people’s lives, and how academic study, far from meaning elite confinement in an ivory tower, can show how knowledge is not only power but enrichment of everybody’s lives.
Michael Mitchell, University of Warwick, UK
Dr. John Rickford is the heart of Black language and linguistics scholarship because of what you see and feel in Speaking My Soul from the very beginning: family and friends. I am glad John made his way from Guyana to the U.S. and developed his "Black complex" that led him to expand our knowledge and understanding of Black languages and Black lives. The homage to his award-winning book co-authored with his son only serves to enshrine him as the heart and soul for those of us who do (Black) language. And though he may have often been the "runt of the litter" in various instances in his life, he is definitely our rock. Thank you for speaking to my soul.
Sonja L. Lanehart, 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