AFRICAN AMERICAN RHETORIC(S) Edited by Elaine Richardson and Ronald Jackson

African American Rhetorics—study of culturally and discursively developed knowledge-forms, communicative practices, and persuasive strategies rooted in freedom struggles by people of African ancestory in America.


Essays in this book attempt to:

a.)   broaden contemporary conceptionalization of AAR

b.)   dileneate debates within our field, African American lit and crit, and African American studies

c.)   explore the development, meaning, themes, strategies, and arguments of AAR as well as their connections to culture, rhetoric, poetics, comp, and literacy.


Introduction by Keith Gilyard:


In this introduction, Gilyard sketches a particlar body of rhetorical scholarship beginning with Carter G. Woodson’s (1925) documentation and catalog of African American oratory, of which Christian pulpit oratory played a major part alongside abolition oratory, slave narratives, progressive oratory.  Religious oratory was so important from the outset of African American rhetorical tradition because it was the “primary channel by which millions of Blacks came to comprehend and speculate about the social world of which they were part” (4).  From there, Gilyard describes the work of Lowell Mooseberry who analyzed a broader array of black oratory and identified the African American rhetorical tendancy to move away from the use of induction, deduction, casual reasoning  and instead what Mooseberry identifies jubilee rhetoric, which ocillates between tragedy and jubilant responses.  Gilyard then introduces the work of Boulware, who was the first to treat AAR in 20th century.  Boulware identifies 6 goals of black oratory during this period:

1.)   protest grievances

2.)   state complaints

3.)   demand rights

4.)   advocate racial cooperation

5.)   mold racial consciousness

6.)   stimulate racial pride.


The work of the Basmajians as well as Scott and Brockriede was also important Gilyard claims because they framed their analyses of AAR within the rhetorical and historical campaigns of the civil rights movements.  Smith’s work was especially important as it provided the most in-depth work in AAR and focused on what Smith called “agitational rhetoric”.  Smith identifies a four part strategic structure of long term agitation campaigns:

1.)   vilification—create antihero by attacking ideas, actions, and being of opposition, dominant group

2.)   Objectification—blame specific, but ill-defined group

3.)   Mythication—suggest “supranational” forces and employ religious symbolism to convey proof of spirital support  in collective efforts

4.)   Legitimation—justify one’s own actions or fellow activist’s actions by reversing blame an citing the oprressor’s “original  sin”


Smith also identifies four part thematic structure of secular agitational rhetorics:

1.)   all blacks face a common enemy

2.)   conspiracy exists to violate black manhood

3.)   pervasive American hypocrisy exists

4.)   black unity is requisite for Black liberation


Smith and Robb were also first to identify Nommo—african belief in pervasive, mystical, transformative, even life-giving power of the Word.  


Gilyard next points to the work of Golden and Rieke, who identified various poltical goals and rhetorical issues in AAR, and the work of Geneva Smitherman, who popularized Black modes of discourse of signification, call-response, tonal semantics, and narrative sequencing as well as conceptualized AAVE, which encompasses signification, personalization, tonal semantics, and sermonice tone. 


Gilyard touches on the work of others such as Shirly Logan and JJRoyster and then explains Jackson’s Afrocentric model in which Nommo is posited as center revolved around by eight other elements:  rhythm, soundin’, stylin’, improvisation, storytelling, lyrical code, image making, and call and response (17-18). 


Noted is Geneva Smitherman’s Talkin and Testifyin: The Language of Black American (1977/1986).  “Although primarily considered a linguist, Smitherman is perhaps most responsible for popularizing the “Black Modes of Discourse,” vernacular conceptions that are invaluable with respect to rhetorical analysis” (14).  The modes are (1) call-response, a series of spontaneous interactions between speaker and listener; (2) signification, the art of humorous put downs; (3) tonal semantics, the conveying of meanings in Black discourse through specifically ethnic kinds of voice rhythms and vocal inflections; and (4) narrative sequencing, the habitual use of stories to explain and/or persuade.  “Smitherman (1995) alternately conceptualizes an African American Verbal Tradition (AAVT) the encompasses (1) signification, (2) personalization, (3) tonal semantics, and (4) sermonic tone” (15).  For example, Smitherman suggests that AAVT was at play during the Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill incident, and it made Thomas a “more sympathetic figure.”


Keith Gilyard presented an array of African American rhetorical accomplishments, strategies, methods, publications, and cultural style that shows the richness of the rhetoric field.  “. . . Stylin’ is the notion that a speaker has combined rhythm, excitement, and enthusiasm which propel a message and the audience. . . . Improvisation is a stylistic device which is a verbal interplay, and strategic catharsis often resulting from the hostility and frustration of a white-dominated society.  It is spontaneity. . . . Storytelling . . . is often used by a rhetor to arouse epic memory. . . . Lyrical Code is the preservation of the word through a highly codified system of lexicality.  It is the very dynamic lyrical quality which provides youth to the community usage of standard and Black English” (17).   Elaine B. Richardson and Ronald L. Jackson, II’s African American Rhetoric(s) continues the tradition and conversation.





Filed under cultural rhetorics exam, historiography exam

3 responses to “AFRICAN AMERICAN RHETORIC(S) Edited by Elaine Richardson and Ronald Jackson

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