Dr. Geneva Smitherman

DR. GENEVA SMITHERMAN is University Distinguished Professor Emerita, Department of English, Co-Founder, Core Faculty and former Acting Director, African American and African Studies, and Core Faculty, African Studies Center, at Michigan State University (MSU), in East Lansing, Michigan. She began her life-long commitment to the education and development of Black youth while still a teenager, serving as a high school teacher of English and Latin in the Detroit Public Schools (DPS). Early on, in her work in the academic vineyards of Black Studies, students dubbed her "Dr. G," in recognition of her academic accomplishments-"Dr."-and in celebration of her having remained their girl-"G." She proudly answers to and is nationally and internationally known as both "Dr. G" and "Dr. Smitherman."

As a member of the Black Power Generation and a pioneer in Black Studies, in 1971, Dr. G became a member of the first group of faculty in Harvard University's "Afro-American Studies" (as the Department was known in those days) which had been born out of the struggles and sacrifices of Harvard's Black students. A few years later, she left Harvard to work in the newly-established Wayne State University Center for Black Studies in Detroit, where she served, from 1974-1989, as Program Coordinator, Associate Director, Director, and Director of Research.

Dr. Smitherman began her education at the age of four, under the tutelage of Miss Earline in a one-room schoolhouse in Brownsville, Tennessee. She is the oldest of seven children. Her family became part of the great urban migration of Blacks from the rural South, living in Chicago for a few years before finally settling in Detroit where she graduated from DPS's Cass Technical High School. She has one child, Robert Anthony ("Tony") and two grandchildren, Anthony and Amber.

Dr. G earned a B.A. and an M.A., with majors in English and Latin, from Wayne State University and received the Ph.D. in English, with a specialization in sociolinguistics and education, from the University of Michigan. As a language scholar-activist, Dr. G's research and publications focus on African American Language and language rights for disenfranchised communities in the U.S. and around the globe. She celebrates the beauty of Black Language and dedicates her work to reaffirming that beauty. Committed to raising awareness and educating the public about linguistic imperialism, she writes about language as used in the real world, eschewing technical linguistic terminology, in an effort to craft a message accessible to an audience beyond linguists and other academics. Her signature communication style reflects the flava of African American Language throughout her books, articles and speeches. Her first journal publication remixed an excerpt from Don L. Lee's (now Haki Madhubuti) 1970 poem, "Blackman/an unfinished history." She titled that publication, "English teacher, why you be doing the thangs you don't do?" (English Journal, January, 1972). Amidst voluminous works on Black speech by Whites during the 1960s and '70s, her first book, the classic, award-winning Talkin and Testifyin: The Language of Black America (Houghton Mifflin, 1977), stands alone as the major contribution to the subject by a Black scholar during that period. According to Dr. G, this book and all her subsequent work, "intends to celebrate the community that gave me birth and to educate those in the community charged with molding the next generation. My work seeks to blend the Black Intellectual Tradition with the wisdom and wit of testifiers and toasttellers."

From 1977-79, Dr. Smitherman worked as the chief advocate and expert witness for the children in King v. Ann Arbor. This Federal court case effectively established that it is not Black children's language, but teacher attitudes and improper classification of Black children as learning disabled, that constitute the barrier to educational opportunity for Black children and youth. Through her activism from 1987 to present, as Chair of the Language Policy Committee, she lobbied for the support of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) and the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) to launch campaigns and policies, such as the National (multilingual) Language Policy, in opposition to oppressive "English-Only" legislation around the country. She was a tireless worker and outspoken member of the 1972-1976 CCCC "Students' Right to Their Own Language" Committee-which formulated a language policy, initially for CCCC, and since 2003, for NCTE, that has had a major progressive impact on instruction in high school and college English and communication courses.

In 1991, Dr. Smitherman, with her comrade, the late Dr. Clifford Watson, and other committed Detroiters, established Malcolm X Academy, an African Centered predominantly male PreK-8 school within DPS. It was the first public African Centered elementary school in the country. In 1996, Third World Press published Watson and Smitherman's Educating African American Males, which detailed the struggle to establish Malcolm X Academy and celebrated the educational achievements of its students. In 1990, inspired by Dr. Watson's vision, Dr. G founded My Brother's Keeper (MBK), a mentoring program for Sixth to Eighth Grade Detroit males, with MSU students serving as mentors. The Program currently serves DPS's Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy, bringing mentees to the MSU campus on Saturdays and for overnight stays during summers. In January of 2011, Dr. G passed the MBK torch to current Director, Dr. Austin Jackson, whom she trained, both as an MBK mentor and as a doctoral student in MSU's African American and African Studies Program.

Since 1995, Dr. G has worked in South Africa in a range of capacities related to post apartheid South Africa's Constitutional provision for eleven official languages, which for the first time in the country's history, recognizes African languages alongside English and Afrikaans. In keeping with this new language policy, she established a faculty training program (in collaboration with MSU colleague, Dr. Susan Gass) at the University of Bophuthatswana (aka "Bop"), located in one of South Africa's former homelands, now renamed Northwest University-Mafikeng. She brought the entire English Department faculty to MSU for a summer training institute, and for several years, she periodically traveled to "Bop" to meet with and conduct workshops for the teachers in the program. She has given talks and organized workshops around the country, including the University of Cape Town, the University of Limpopo (formerly the University of the North), the University of Zululand, and the University of Witwatersrand. She has also worked extensively with Dr. Neville Alexander, Founder and recently-retired Director of PRAESA (Project for Alternative Education in South Africa) at the University of Cape Town. She recently began work to establish an international partnership between the Centre for the Community School at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in Port Elizabeth and DPS's Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy, whose new Principal, Dr. Jeffery Robinson, was taught and mentored by Dr. G as an undergraduate in the early 1990's and, more recently, as her doctoral student in African American and African Studies at MSU.

Dr. Smitherman is author and editor/co-editor of 15 books and monographs and over 125 articles, essays, and published opinion pieces. In 2006, she published Word from the Mother: Language and African Americans. Her latest work, Articulate While Black: Barack Obama, Language and Race in the U.S. (forthcoming 2012, Oxford University Press), was co-authored with Dr. H. Samy Alim, Associate Professor at Stanford University, whom she mentored as an undergraduate and graduate student dating back to 1997.

Dr. G is a member of several organizations, among them, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority (Beta Mu Chapter, Wayne State University, 1959) and the Michigan Women's Forum (since 1989).

On a mission to educate the public, Dr. Smitherman has appeared in numerous local and national media venues, including Oprah, CNN, CBS Reports, People Magazine, National Public Radio, and Today. Her many awards and honors include the Spirit of Detroit Award, the Marcus Garvey Foundation 50th Anniversary Award, the Educational Press Association Award for Excellence in Educational Journalism, the Richard Wright-Woodie King Award for Drama Criticism, and the NCTE James R. Squire Award, for her "transforming influence" and "lasting intellectual contribution" to the field of English Studies.