Black History Month: About Robert Lee Williams II

About Robert Lee Williams II

“Cars is whips and sneakers is kicks
Money is chips, movies is flicks”

  • Big L., ‘Ebonics’

The word ‘Ebonics’ didn’t exist before 1973, when Dr. Robert Lee Williams II took the word ‘ebony’ and the word ‘phonics’, combined the two, and coined a brand new term for “linguistic and paralinguistic features which on a concentric continuum represent the communicative competence of the West African, Caribbean, and United States slave descendants of African origin." His 1975 book Ebonics: The True Language of Black Folks, traced the roots of Ebonics to Africa, arguing against the prevailing prejudiced opinion that Ebonics was just slang, or bad English.

Dr. Williams was born in Arkansas in 1930, and enrolled in Dunbar Junior College at the age of 16. He dropped out after only one year, having become quickly disillusioned upon being asked to take an IQ test. The results of the test suggested he was more suited to manual labour than he was to more intellectual pursuits. While this test had a huge impact on his self-esteem, racial bias in standardized testing later became the driving force behind some of his most important work. In particular, the Black Intelligence Test of Cultural Homogeneity, or BITCH-100, which he created in 1972 to account for the cultural factors affecting Black Americans differently than White Americans.

Dr. Williams obtained his Ph.D in clinical psychology in 1961 from Washington University, and in 1968 was a co-founder of the Association of Black Psychologists, later serving as its second President. The ABP was created as an alternative to the American Psychological Association, which was criticized for intentional and unintentional support of a structurally racist American society. The ABP’s membership saw themselves as “Black people first, psychologists second”.

He went on to found the first department of Black Studies at Washington University, where he worked as a professor of psychology, African studies, and African-American studies from 1970-1992. He continued to maintain a high profile through media appearances supporting his books – 1981’s The Collective Mind: Toward an Afrocentric Theory of Black Personality, 2007’s “Racism Learned at an Early Age through Racial Scripting”, and 2008’s History of the Association of Black Psychologists: Profiles of Outstanding Black Psychologists.

Dr. Williams was married to his wife, Ava Kemp, for 70 years until she died in 2018. He passed away in 2020 at the age of 90. He had eight children, four of whom went on to become psychologists.