Thirty Years of Influence: A Look Back at Geneva Smitherman's Talkin and Testifyin

By DoBell, Daniel C. | The Journal of Negro Education, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Thirty Years of Influence: A Look Back at Geneva Smitherman's Talkin and Testifyin


DoBell, Daniel C., The Journal of Negro Education


Thirty years after its publication, Geneva Smitherman's seminal work, Talkin and Testifyin continues to influence scholars, policymakers and practitioners. This article takes a look at Smitherman's work by first providing an overview of the sociolinguistic theoretical foundations that led to its publication. This is followed by a reception history of Talkin and Testifyin; first in general terms as a scholarly work followed by an examination of Smitherman's impact on a select group of disciplines. Finally, conclusions are presented that demonstrate how this important work has not only bridged scholarly disciplines, but also, extended the understanding of African American English to the world at large.

INTRODUCTION

It seems appropriate that after 30 years of Geneva Smitherman's Talkin and Testijyin that one looks at how this seminal work came to be and how it has subsequently influenced a generation of scholars, practitioners and policymakers. Published in 1977, Talkin and Testijyin has been described as a "wide-ranging" piece "constrained by no single disciplinary framework" (Kernan, 1979, p. 253). As such, it has been used by a variety of practitioners and scholars in several different ways. Practitioners, for example, have referred to Smitherman when articulating a culturally based pedagogy (Banks, 1993; Bennett, 2001; Delain, Pearson & Anderson, 1985; Hillard, 1992; Lee, 1995) while legal scholars have cited Talkin and Testijyin in the analysis of case law (Ainsworth, 1993; Austin, 1989; "Black English," 1980; Spitzer, 1991). Sociologists have used Smitherman's work to describe how Blacks and Whites use different communication styles to create and sustain culture (Baugh, 1983; Croghan, 2000; Decastro-Ambrosetti, 2003; Gates, 1983; Johnson, 1979) and policy analysts have found it useful in bolstering policy arguments aimed at equal rights (Morgan, 1994; Sanders, 1997; Smitherman, 1987; Smitherman & Baugh, 2002; Wright, 1998).

This article provides a brief glimpse into the broad impact of Smitherman's important work over the years and across disciplines. It begins with a focus on the sociolinguistic foundations that provided the theoretical basis for Talkin and Testifyin. This is followed by a discussion of the subsequent development of the discipline as theory and how it became embroiled in public policy debates. Next, a reception history of Smitherman's work is presented in general terms, as a groundbreaking piece of scholarship looking at the recurring themes found in the broad base of literature. From there Talkin and Testijyin is examined more closely by reviewing how it has been used within a select group of disciplines and how Smitherman has helped to shape both theory and practice. Finally, conclusions are presented summarizing how Smitherman has served to further the understanding of African American English as a rich, complex discourse worthy of recognition and understanding.

THE SOCIOLINGUISTIC FOUNDATIONS OF AFRICAN-AMERICAN ENGLISH

Early Foundations

According to Smitherman and Baugh (2002), the first scholarly examination of African American language came in 1884 with J. A. Harrison's study titled, Negro English. It was Harrison's contention that the "African-derived aspects were evidence of intellectual inferiority" (Smitherman & Baugh, 2002, p. 6) brought on by "the absence of books and teaching" (Harrison, 1884, p. 233). This notion of cognitive deficiency continued into the early twentieth century with works from J. Bennett (1908), George Phillip Krapp (1924), and H. L. Mencken (1936). Bennett (1908) described the language of African Americans as "intellectual indolence or laziness, mental and physical" that manifested in "the shortening of words, the elision of syllables, and modification of every difficult enunciation" (pp. 40, 45). Similarly, Mencken (1936) described African American English as "the worst English in the world" (p. 264). It was not until the mid-twentieth century that these notions of cognitive deficiency came into question. …

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