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They Don’t Speak for Me


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City Journal

The need for free black thought in academia—and beyond

Erec Smith

August 4, 2021

Has this ever happened to you?

You proudly embrace your individuality and freedom of speech, but you work in an environment in which people who neither know you nor agree with your viewpoints are responsible for representing you solely because they look like you. The world treats these “spokespeople” as the de facto experts on what you are all about; when you express a viewpoint that does not align with theirs, they and their listeners see you as an aberration or a misguided soul. Then people start to see you as inauthentic or a cautionary tale of what can happen when someone does not abide by the rules and mandates of the spokespeople.

It is currently happening to me. I’m black, a professor of rhetoric, my environment is academia, and the aforementioned spokespeople are those who insist that they speak for all black academics, if not all blacks, generally. Though such keepers of black authenticity can be found in many places, they present themselves in my field, rhetoric and composition, as proponents of “black linguistic justice.”


This is why my colleagues and I have created Free Black Thought, a website that “seeks to represent the rich diversity of black thought beyond the relatively narrow spectrum of views promoted by mainstream outlets as defining ‘the black perspective.’” If you are a black scholar and do not agree that teaching standard English is “spirit murder,” you are unlikely to be seen as “authentically black,” even if you’re just as concerned about the well-being of black students as anyone else. Free Black Thought seeks to help people discover the diversity of views among people of African descent, whether they are academics, politicians, activists, artists, or entrepreneurs.

Recently, someone observed that the “free” in Free Black Thought can serve as both an adjective and a verb. Yes, black thought should be free, in that it should not be trapped in a narrow orthodoxy. But we also need to heed the imperative to liberate black thought from that narrow orthodoxy. I hope both general readers and my academic colleagues will give our website a look.

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