African American Linguists (AAL)

Promoting World Languages in the African-American Community

 

Historical Linguists

In western culture, African-Americans are vastly underrepresented in world languages. Historically, Africans have mastered tribal, local, and national languages. Even after colonization, Africans continued to speak diverse tribal languages. Given this rich linguistic heritage, African-Americans have mastered world languages with relative ease, some even before the Civil War! Enjoy the journey.

 AAL welcomes admissions to this page. If you are aware of any historical linguist who is of African descent, submit his/her name here to be researched and posted.

Charles Reason

  • 1818-1893
  • Professor; 1849 became first African-American to hold professorship at a predominantly white American college
  • Professor of Belles Lettres, Greek, Latin, French & Mathematics
  • 1852, First principal of Institute of Colored Youth, Now Cheyney University

Lewis Howard Latimer

  • 1848-1928
  • scientist, inventor, and patent expert
  • Assisted Alexander Graham  Bell (telephone) & Thomas Edison (light bulb)
  • Spoke fluent French & German

Mary Church Terrell

  • 1863-1954
  • Champion of human & women's rights
  • Spoke fluent German, French & Italian

W.E.B. Dubois

  • 1868-1963
  • Educator, Activist, Writer
  • First African-American to receive Ph.D from Harvard University; Founder of NAACP
  • Taught French, English & Literature

James Weldon Johnson

  • 1871-1938
  • Author, lawyer & diplomat; Wrote "Lift Every Voice & Sing"
  • Spoke fluent Spanish

Carter G. Woodson

  • 1875-1950
  • author, editor, publisher, historian
  •  "Father of Black History," lived, worked and launched "Negro History Week" in 1926; now Black History Month
  • Received Doctorate in History from Harvard in 1912
  • Spoke fluent French

Joel Augustus Rogers

  • 1880-1966 (born in Jamaica, came to USA in 1917)
  • Anthrophotojournalist; Researched the history of blacks around the world
  • Mostly self-educated
  • Spoke French, German, Portuguese, and Spanish
  • "But no man living has revealed as many important facts about the Negro race as has Rogers." W.E.B. Dubois

Lillian Evanti

  • 1890-1967
  • First opera singer to perform with organized opera company in Europe
  • Established the National Negro Opera Company in Pittsburg, PA
  • Spoke fluent French

Bessie Coleman (Queen Bessie)

  • 1892-1926
  • First African-American Woman to earn pilot's license
  • Denied entrance to flight school in USA, studied for license in France
  • Spoke fluent French

Paul Robeson

  • 1898-1976
  • Multi-lingual American actor, athlete, bass-baritone concert singer, writer, civil rights activist, Communist sympathizer, Spingarn Medal winner, and Stalin Peace Prize laureate.
  • Conversant with 20 languages, fluent or near fluent in 12

Lois Mailou Jones

  • 1905-1998
  • Painter; Studied in France
  • Studied French

Josephine Baker

  • 1906-1975
  • Parisian dancer and singer; American expatriate
  • In 1937 officially became French citizen
  • Spoke fluent French

Elizabeth Catlett Mora

  • b. 1915
  • Sculptor & Painter
  • 1962 married Mexican painter-engraver Francisco Mora
  • Became Mexican Citizen; Fluent in Spanish

Shirley Chisholm

  • 1924-2005
  • Elected in 1968; First black woman to serve in the House of Representatives
  • Spoke fluent Spanish

James Baldwin

  • 1924-1987
  • Writer, noted for his novels on sexual and personal identity, and sharp essays on civil-rights struggle in the United States. Baldwin also wrote three plays, a children's storybook, and a book of short stories.
  • Spoke fluent French: Baldwin spent most of the remainder of his life in France. In 1986, the French government made him a commander of the Legion of Honor, France's highest civilian award. He died at his home in France, on November 30, 1987, at the age of 63. 

Andrew J. Foster

  • 1925-1987
  • Instrumental in founding twenty-two schools and an equal number of religious programs for deaf children in more than twenty African countries

Dr. Maya Angelou

  • 1928-present
  • Maya Angelou is a poet, historian, author, actress, playwright, civil-rights activist, producer and director. 
  • Dr. Angelou speaks French, Spanish, Italian and West African Fanti.

 

Nina Simone

  • 1933-2003
  • Best known for her songs about racial justice recorded during the height of the civil rights movement
  • Recorded and performed primarily in Europe
  • Spoke fluent French

Angela Y. Davis

  • b. 1944
  • Activist/Educator/Author
  • B.A. in French from Brandeis University (Spent junior year in France)
  • Studied philosophy in Frankfurt, Germany.
  • Taught in the philosophy department at UCLA

 

 

Assata Shakur

  • b. 1947
  • Activist/Author
  • Member of Black Liberation Army
  • Currently living in exile in Cuba
  • Spanish translator

 

Nehanda Abiodun

  • b.-
  • Veteran of African American independence struggle
  • Currently living in exile in Cuba
  • Speaks Spanish

Comments from AAL Members

  • I feel as though I am on a mission.  My mission is to eliminate the belief that people of African descent are not inclined to want to speak other languages.  My mission does not only involve educating other cultures about how many languages are spoken by many people who come from Africa, but my mission also involves helping young African-American students to realize that if our ancestors could master multiple languages so can you. I tell my clients and students to find joy in all languages.  I tell them how liberating it is to really know another language while maintaining your birth identity. Candice Chambers, OH
  • We gain more respect and more opportunities worldwide the more we become fluent in other languages. Plus, we've been cut off way too long from fellow Blacks who speak French, Dutch, Spanish, Arabic, Creole, Patois etc. Dive in and avoid the temptation to be intimidated by the task. It is well worth the effort. African-Americans have been speaking world languages for a long time. If other folks can do it, we can as well. Danton Wilson, MI

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