Speaking his soul: John Rickford to speak at Distinguished Alumni Lecture

Distinguished Alumnus John Rickford returns to campus for a reading of his memoir

John Rickford graduated UC Santa Cruz in 1971 with the highest academic honors from Stevenson College and designed his own major in sociolinguistics.

John R. Rickford suffered five ischemic strokes on the left side of his brain in 2019.

The ordeal left Rickford in the hospital for seven days with difficulty speaking and time to reflect. He decided it was time to write his memoir and document his life as an immigrant from Guyana who came to the U.S. to pursue higher education. Rickford was the first to graduate with a B.A. in sociolinguistics from UC Santa Cruz, and underwent a transformation in his racial identity.

Rickford wrote Speaking my Soul: Race, Life, and Language through the COVID-19 pandemic and Routledge published it in 2022. The compelling 180-page memoir highlights the life of Rickford–a trailblazing scholar and activist.

The UCSC distinguished alumnus will return to Stevenson College on Feb. 28 for a distinguished alumni lecture, where he will read the ninth chapter of his memoir, “University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC), and the summer of 1969.” The event will take place at the Stevenson College Library at 3:30 p.m and will be followed by a reception.

“I hope people will see the important role that UC Santa Cruz played in my life,” Rickford said. “It made a major impact on my life. The courses I took and the people I met, both the students and faculty, had a profound influence.”  

Rickford said he wants to share his story and is excited to do so at his alma mater.

“Stevenson College was a wonderful place for me, and I really loved it at UCSC,” Rickford said in a previous interview. “UCSC gave me the freedom to design my own major and the opportunity to learn how to use linguistics to solve real problems in education.”

Attending the University of California, Santa Cruz

“UCSC was not on my university dream list”—the ninth chapter of Rickford’s memoir starts. 

A young scholar in Guyana, Rickford had his eyes set on UC Berkeley. He was encouraged to pursue UCSC—a newfound institution with a small student population—since it would be a similar size to what he was used to in the small South American country of Guyana. Upon his first year at UCSC, Rickford quickly decided that it was the school for him and stayed until he graduated in 1971. 

Rickford arrived at the newly opened UC Santa Cruz campus in 1968 on a Fulbright undergraduate scholarship. By the time he graduated, Rickford had earned highest academic honors from Stevenson College and designed his own major in sociolinguistics. 

Rickford says he was grateful for the small class sizes, impactful professors like Roger Keesing and J. Herman Blake, and his involvement as President of the Black Student Alliance. Classes taught by Keesing and Blake and activist movements spearheaded by the BSA led Rickford to grapple with his racial identity as a Black man in America. 

“In Guyana, I was considered mixed race, but in America, theoretically, even a drop of blood would make you a Black person,” Rickford said. (He is actually 34% African and 13% East Indian, as later DNA data show.) “When I attended UC Santa Cruz, there was only Stevenson, Cowell, Crown, and Merrill Colleges, so there weren’t many Black students (about 25) on campus. In that smaller environment, I began to explore the Black community and consider myself a part of it for the first time.”

Upon graduating from UCSC, Rickford earned his Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of Pennsylvania and has been on the faculty at Stanford since 1980. 

Rickford has spent more than 50 years studying varieties of English spoken by African American and Caribbean Creole speakers—examining how they are structured, how they evolve, and what impact they have in classrooms and courts that discriminate against, deny or disparage them. 

He is author or editor of more than 15 books, and his publications have been recognized by an American Book Award, a Language and the Public Award, and the Best Paper in Language Award, among other honors. He served as President of the Linguistic Society of America in 2015.and was elected to membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2017, and to the National Academy of Sciences and the British Academy in 2022. 

The Stevenson Distinguished Alumni Lecture is co-sponsored by The Humanities Institute, the Department of Linguistics, and the Stevenson Programs Office.