- Linguistics in pursuit of justice by John Baugh
I have read all of John Baugh’s books. He is a brilliant writer and thinker. I admire him and his work. However, of all of his publications, this one has had an emotional impact because it seems to be so personal. I was moved by this book in a way I have not been by his others. It is not because he starts with a personal story or reflection—most of his work does that. I think it is because this book hits home for him and for so many of us who are victimized because of the color of our skin and the history of racism and injustice in America—and because we have Black children. That is a scary thing in the world today with the reemergence of unabashed and unchecked White nationalism. The case has been made by many scholars that linguistic discrimination is about not the language but rather the people, so this further supports what critical race theory scholarship has already affirmed: racial injustice is embedded in the very fabric of our society—including its laws and legal system. As such, it is business as usual but it is also very personal.
Read the preface of Linguistics in pursuit of justice (LPJ). In it, B lays the foundation for more than twenty years of his work and life. LPJ is a compilation of what may be seen by some as the behind-the-scenes work that B engaged in. Instead, it really is the work he has been doing. I tell my students to do what matters to them and what brings them joy and purpose. I advise them to pursue a thesis or dissertation topic that personally matters to them, because that is what will see them through to the end. In order to sustain themselves, what they do must matter to them. Otherwise, either they will sicken of it and not do it justice, or it will get the better of them and they will need to abandon it. LPJ reveals a life’s work of purpose that starts from the very first page. Read on.
Ch. 1 lays the sociocultural and historical foundation for B’s journey. While we may have thought Black street speech (Baugh 1983) was the beginning, it was really his being a Black person in a racialized space and understanding that experience even better once he went to college at Temple University in 1970. B says that LPJ ‘explores various ways in which alternative forms of linguistic experimentation and evaluation could advance human equality throughout the world. Yes, the goal is ambitious, but it is commensurate with the urgent need to enlist linguistic tools in support of unique and collective efforts to enhance the human condition worldwide’ (1). We should all try to do as much. The pictures alone in Ch. 1 are convincing enough. I did not know the history of the Black Panther Party in Philadelphia, but I do know how it has been represented as a terrorist organization in American history—but not my history. Like B, I saw the good the Black Panther Party did in my community during my summers as a child in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. They fed us every day. They loved us—Black people in poor communities that White society and schooling wanted to leave behind. Unfortunately, as B clearly shows us, being Black and proud in America is equated with terrorism and cause for alarm by White society. If you do not know the history, LPJ provides a great introduction.
Ch. 2, ‘Linguistics, life, and death’, follows with a good introduction to the accidental birth of forensic linguistics by Roger Shuy in 1979 and shows why maybe we should talk to people sitting next to us on the airplane. Being from Texas, I was familiar with the Cullen Davis case and the legendary attorney Racehorse Haynes. (It helped that they made a television movie about the murder and that my mom always insists on...