Chapter 5: “Ties that Bind: A Comparative Analysis of Zora Neal Hurston’s and Geneva Smitherman’s Work” by Kimmika L. H. Williams

In this chapter, Williams analyzes the similar rhetorical features of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) that Hurston and Smitherman identified in their research nearly forty years apart form one another and situates them within African American Rhetoric(s) (AAR). Their findings, Willliams points out, are consistent with several prevailing theories in AAVE:
• Language spoken by African Americans is language in of itself
• Historical language use of diverse multilingual ethnic groups informs contemporary AAVE
• Language of AAVE originated in forced contact language situations which necessitated specific communicative acts
• Cultural referents of African linguistic traditions inform contemporary AAVE

After pointing out that all discourse of AAR is linked to verbosity and theatricality of oral expression and influenced by African oral tradition, Williams identifies several unique styles of African American expression and persuasion that incorporate multiple “showy” modes of discourse such as:
• exaggerated speech (which Smitherman calls “verbal interplay” and Hurston calls “drama”) that rely on imagery and “pictures”, metaphors and simile
• signification
• call and response in secular verbal forms such as “You go girl!”, sacred verbal forms such as “Do Jesus,” and nonverbal forms such as “high fives,” handshakes, and rolling of one’s eyes, which lead to constant reinvention of new affirming sounds, gestures, words, and phrases
• speaking in tongues
• cirucumlocution
• and rhythmicality.

More specific stylistic rhetorical strategies employed in AAR that are particular constructs of AAVE identified by Hurston and/or Smitherman are:
• Mimicry, mocking, and imitation
• Expression of one’s part in “the drama of life,” the articulation of the African worldview, which emphasizes and creates a sense of interconnectedness and establishes a collective ethos, and use of “Nommo”—“the African belief in the pervasive, mystical, transformative, even life-giving power of the Word” (93).
• Use of serial negatives as evident in the phrase “Ain’t never had none either”
• Tonal semantics of rhyme
• Integration of sacred and secular communicative events–linguistic rules from traditional Black church heard in daily expressions
• Proverbial statement making
• Indirection—making a point through power of suggestion and innuendo
• Narrative and storytelling, which encompass:
o Integration of the private life into public discourse
Pointing to African traditions and African American community for survival or
o Improvisation
o Insults used for humor, to make a point, to talk about somebody, or to tell off without really hurting anyones feelings
o Phenomenon of the will to adorn or “accessorizing” through use of metaphor, simile, double descriptive, and use of verbal nouns or nouns form verbs
o Dialect

Toward the end of her article, Williams points out that while Hurston and Smitherman agreed on similar features particular to AAVE, they did not agree on the reasons behind the development of AAVE. Hurston, writing before the language of African American was recognized as a language in and of itself, claimed variations and adaptations of English by African Americans were “dictated by physiology and the desire to achieve a better comfort level while producing vocal sounds” (102). Hurston is often criticized for discussing phonetic features of AAVE from anthropological and physiological perspectives. Smitherman has received her own criticisms namely for not revealing her qualitative methods, identifying who her informants were and how data was collected (103). Nonetheless, both Hurston and Smitherman are accrediting for developing discourse on AAVE and AAR, which laid foundation for contemporary AAVE and AAR, and are credited as being outstanding rhetors in and of themselves.

Thoughts and Questions:

One thought I had when reading this chapter is that the rhetorical strategies identified in this chapter demonstrate how useful cultural rhetorics can be for facilitating cross-cultural understanding. Too often, I don’t think we understand the rhetorical strategies that are particular to specific cultures. As a result, we often misinterpret certain verbal and nonverbal communicative acts, make negative judgments due to our ignorance of their rhetorical nature, in some cases, act out in negative ways based on our misunderstandings and ignorance. Developing a deeper understanding of the rhetorical practices specific to culture can help us resist such problematic thoughts and actions.

I raise this next issue because I need clarification on it. Growing up white and privileged in the south, my life is a constant process of unlearning deeply seated racist ideologies that were inculcated by my community. Thus, me offering up this concern is a way for me to continue that unlearning process.

Anyway, another thought I had when reading this chapter that I hesitate to put out in cyberspace concerns the role of essentializing in cultural rhetorics and social history.
I am defining essentializing as a specific kind of overgeneralization that assumes the existence of some kind of inner “essence” shared by a group that is in reality diverse. Do the authors in this collection essentialize by claiming an essence of African American rhetorics practiced by African Americans? Do they, in other words, use essentialism as methodology? If so, can we think of essentializing as a useful methodology and rhetorical strategy in the development of culture identity and cultural rhetorics?

Nunley’s article raises the issue of essentializing that is pertinent here. Nunley writes, “too often the slightest assertion of a distinctive African American identity and knowledge is met with a vogue statment that elides as much about the discourse of race and gender as it reveals: you are essentializing” (237). I am very curious about the notion of essentializing because from Nunley’s position, it seems that by my asking about essentializing, I am thinking of it in a negative term, which could be labled by some as me voicing a privileged, critically unreflective position. I think what I am trying to get at is if essentialzing can be appropriated as a useful methodology. Or is what Nunley trying to get at is that my using the term “essentializing” is inherently racist. Perhaps, essentializing is the wrong term for the generalizations I see occuring in this chapter, which I see are necessary and useful for identifying African American Rhetoric(s). I am confused by all of this…

Off to sleep….



Filed under cultural rhetorics exam

5 responses to “Chapter 5: “Ties that Bind: A Comparative Analysis of Zora Neal Hurston’s and Geneva Smitherman’s Work” by Kimmika L. H. Williams

  1. legries

    Responding to myself. Here is what Joy Harjo and Gloria Bird say about why essentialism is so problematic: It is “a convenient term that is used to undermine native people’s unique legal and political position to determine for themselves who are their members” (REINVENTING ENEMY’S LANGUAGE 27). That makes sense to me. I see how the charge of essentialism is part of rhetorical imperialism now….

  2. revasias

    Hi L. My blog response has a mind of its own. I hope you got the last message. I had not finish writing the response before it blinked out, but I hope you can understand my question. R.

  3. revasias

    Hi L. Cyberspace! I wanted to read my first response for your Williams articles, only to find out that I either forgot to post for lack of sleep or another cyber error.

    I loved you summary of William’s Hurston and Smitherman. As an African American and lover of words, reading William’s entry has an effect of taking me back to “rememberance” of similar setting of praise and understanding. Remembering my being in church and responsing to the Word with claps, singing, crying, Amens! and Say that as my pastor Said It! I am a witness.

    What brings me back to your entry is your questions of “essentializing.” I am reading Keith Gilyard and Vorris Nunley’s _Rhetoric and Ethnicity_, which is a Multicultural Rhetoric collection, and this week we read Victor Villanueva’s “On the Rhetoric and Precedents of Racism.” He too bring up essentializing but suggests that the word may have a negative and position usage. I thought of you. You questioned if essentializing could be used as a methology? After the readings and the Baca lecture, are you any closer to an answer?

  4. legries

    I think what Harjo and Bird said about essentializing, that it is “a convenient term that is used to undermine native people’s unique legal and political position to determine for themselves who are their members” (REINVENTING ENEMY’S LANGUAGE 27) really resonates with me. By that I mean that I realize that “essentializing” is a negative term that is used to undermine the solidarity needed to create presence, identity, uniqueness, traditions, etc. Therefore, I am letting go of that term because of its negative connotations and instead simply acknowledging that while every member of a certain culture may not enact the rhetorical practices described as belonging to the rhetorical tradition of that culture, in order to give presence to a rhetorical tradition within specific cultures, common rhetorical practices enacted among members of a specific culture must be identified. I am not sure what one word would encapsulate that process nor why I feel the need to name that methodology…..What do you think, R??

  5. legries

    Okay, perhaps, I finally found what I was thinking of: “strategic essentialism,” a term I just encountered in Morris’ “Queering Public Address. Don’t laugh at me for quoting Wikipedia here: “Strategic essentialism is a major concept in postcolonial theory. The term was coined by the Indian literary critic and theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. It refers to a strategy that nationalities, ethnic groups or minority groups can use to present themselves. While strong differences may exist between members of these groups, and amongst themselves they engage in continuous debates, it is sometimes advantageous for them to temporarily ‘essentialize’ themselves and bring forward their group identity in a simplified way to achieve certain goals.”

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