Tag Archives: African American Rhetorics

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.





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Royster, Jacqueline Jones Traces of A Stream


Methodologies:  “uses trends and practices in rhetorical criticism, discourse analysis, ethnographic analysis” and autobiography to argue for recognition of a long history of AA women rhetoricians for social justice and social action (283).


African American elite (well-respected) women used literacy “systematically as a variabl tool” to fight for social justice (5). 


Site:  AA women essayists and orators who have overcome obstacles, reconstituted themselves and left traces of stream (4) .  these women as foremothers to alice walker and bell hooks were committed and had deep level of rhetorical prowress.  These women used oral strategies from classical rhetoric in their written essays.  They used their understanding of rhetorical triad of context, ethos formation, and rhetorical triangle.  Royster examines African cultural traditions used in women’s rhetorics which lead to community action.  Example: alice walker—In search of our mother’s garden—use of narrative, storytelling, description, dialougue, poetry, powerful images, to appeal to ethos, pathos, logos. 


At end, royster reminds us to articulate our research interests and relationships to the work before writing about any project.—self reflexivity—critical awareness of need to read across cultural difference, figure out one’s subject position affects meaning making of rhetorical object,


Three major sections:

Rhetorical view—describes genre of essay, which reflects discursive flexibility and rhetorical awareness, and its significance to literacy practices and social advocacy in work of elite 19th century women—maria stewart, ana Julia cooper, Josephine st. Pierre ruffin; these women attempted to save lives through work; make sense of their experiences and the world; develop agency and authority to intervene in patriarchial and racist society—literacy and social action linked.   –link of literacy and orality create rhetorical competence—the “skill, the process, the practice of ‘reading’ and being articulate about ‘men and nations’” (61).  Rhetorical competence uses to as empowerment to take social action.  Ex.)  situated ethos and invented ethos used for mixed audiences.



Historical view—gives historical account of role of storytelling, religious beliefs, etc. and posits them as intellectually and rhetorically astute intentional reactions to poltical and social exigencies.  Also maps how these female rhetors educated themselves and postioned themselves in workplace to develop rhetorical prowress.  Black women’s club movement for instance was integral…as were national association of colored women, spelman and Oberlin colleges, African American periodicals.


  Ideological view—role of self-reflexivity in research and scholarship

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Bacon, Jacqueline

“Reinventing the Master’s Tools:  Nineteenth-Century African-American Literary Societies of Philadelphia and Rhetorical Education” Jacqueline Bacon and Glen McCish


In this article, Bacon and McCish analyzes six speeches delivered by African Americans at literary society meetings held in Philadelphia to promote rhetorical education in the 1820 and 30s.  Their analyses finds that traditional Anglo-American principles of 19th century university rhetorical education on theory and pratice, particularly the work by Blair, Smith, and Campbell, were “infused with new purposes, deployed for radical ends, and reinvented in ways that transform and redefine nineteenth- century rhetorical practice” (19).  Thus adaptation, revision(reinvention), and appropriation were key rhetorical strategies, which “help to emphasize that when a group gains power through the mastery of the oppressor’s discourse, lanlguage use itself—originally one of the master’s tools—becomes a weapon with which to fight oppression” (21).  Archival work allowed Bacon and McCish to stumble upon surviving, fragmented texts of these societies, which were originally published in pamphlets, African-American and anti-slavery newspaper articles.  Their work thus reaffirms Linda Ferriera-Buckley’s call for more archival research and contributes to the archival work and rhetorical analysis of Shirley Logan and JJ Royster.  It callenges others to continue to locate texts of African-American rhetors who have yet to be studied but are important pieces of 19th century African American Rhetorics. 

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Rhetoric and Ethnicity edited by Keith Gilyard

In his preface to this edited collection, Gilyard explains his intention for this collection was to explore “how ethnic rhetorics might function as generative sites of difference, how  they intersect with social movements, how they might shape composition instruction, and how they should related to presentations of the rhetorical tradition” (v).  Ethnic rhetoric is rhetoric with ethnic inflections, which creates a study of the way “verbal forms and discursive strategies [are] unique or characteristic of particular ethnic assemblages” (v). More precisely, he is interested in mapping the “distinctive forms of discourse generated by ethnic groups—and the knowledge encoded in those forms—that can be preserved, retrieved, revitalized, and efficiently used in progressive social, political, and educational campaigns” (vi). 


He leans on Joseph Hraba’s definition of ethnic groups—“self-conscious collectivities of people, who on the basis of a common origin or separate subculture, maintain a distinction between themselves and others” (qtd on vi).  He reminds us the ethinicity is a social and political process full of intent to construct identity, authorship, and significance (vii).   Gilyard advocates for what he calls critical ethnicity—search for the elements in various ethnic narratives that have the most political potential in a push for a more humane society….it is a project of examiniation, but also one of reclamation, and reflects the idea that the most generative ethnic activity…is the building outward from subcultural understandings” (ix).



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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….


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“Histories in the Spaces Left:African American Presence and Narratives of Composition Studies”–Jackie Jones Royster and Jean C. Williams

Royster and Williams begin and end this essay with the following aphorism: “History is important, not just in terms of who writes it and what gets included or excluded, but also because history, by the very nature of its inscription as history, has social, political, and cultural consequences.” Royster points out that historical accounts of compositon studies can not dismissed from inscribing such consequences. As Berlin and others have noted, histories of composition studies are never comprehensive, definitive or inclusive and are always driven by ideology, which distorts one’s interpretation. Although Royster and Williams (R and W) affirm importance of scholars locating their positions and contextualizing their work, so as to minimilize gaps in limitations in their historical narratives, R and W place heavier responsibility (perhaps) on scholars to “re-articulate those gaps and limitations” in their own narratives, a critical perspective they model in the duration of this essay (564). In particular, R and W say the following limitations should be noted: “limitations in terms of the ideological location of the scholar who has produced the narrative, where he sets his gaze, the particluar historical experiences on which he draws, and the intersecting experiences of others whom he does not ntice but who could, nevertheless, be writtten into the story” (565)

Following is a list of some gaps and limitations R and W notice in “prime” historical accounts of composition studies:

Kitzhaber, earliest written historical account of comp. studies 1850-1900: points out that one major event that affected comp studies was rise of land grant institutions, yet neglects to mention “1890 Institutions”–the second round of land grants which permitted federal funds to be used to establish seperate land grant institutions for African American states (South) (565).

Berlin and North: failed to identify politics of location. Even though this practice wasn’t common at the time, their narratives definitely represent the dominant perspective and thus normalize their mainstream historical narratives, which then systematically suppress exluded groups in a naturalized manner (565).

Susan Miller: TEXTUAL CARNIVALS–focuses on “the engendering of composition teaching and the implications of other power relationships,” but fails to “craft a space” for the voices of people of color (566).

Brereton’s THE ORIGINS OF COMPOSTION STUDIES IN THE AMERICAN COLLEGE–crafts a space for others, but does not “fill the space, substantially credit African American viewpoints of it, or permit it to enrick, refine, or redefine what he is suggesting is the ‘larger,’ publicaly documentable story” (566).

Sheryl Fontaine and Susan Hunter, editors of “Writing Ourselves into the Story: Unheard Voices from Composition Studies”–acknowledge absence of ethnic minority voices but claim they tried and had no submissions because of lack of interest or “savvy” in publication, which is evidence for their powerlessness (567). R and W point out numerous problems with this explanation and then raise questions about editors choices to solicit contributions and responsibility for ensuring inclusion of other voices (568).

R and W then point out that narratives of comp studies are not student centered. Claim instead, many narratives refer to stock student who is the struggling basic writer. Never are successful writers included. R and W claim conflation of race and basic writers has become embedded in our literature (571). Also points out problems with scholarly work that does included students:

Helmer’s “Writing Students: Compositional Testimonials and Representations of Students” for not telling specific gender or ethnic background of students and thus creates a generalized student (568).

Valerie Balester’s “Cultural Divide: A Study of African American College-Level Writers”–positions successful students who incorporate BEV in productive ways, but positions them as outsiders and “basic writers” (569)** Plus, if race admitted, class is dismissed. Balester’s work demonstrates conflation of race and basic writing (569).

Mina Shaughnessy’s ERRORS AND EXPECTATIONS: R and W claim Shaughnessy does not include race as characterization of basic writers in her work, but rather points out continued oppression of black students due to black students’ tendencies to develop negative perceptions of language (571). R and W claim this conflation is wrong because basic writers were identified long before 1960s (572).

After pointing out these gaps and limitations in scholarly historical accounts of comp studies, R and W set gaze upon 19th century to get better understanding of African American presence in acedemia and comp studies (572).

R and W focus gaze on:

1. Three major events that influence comp studies that should be taken into historical accounts:

John B. Russworm–first college graduate (1828)
Oberlin College admits Black americans, women, and others (1833)
African American Men and Women graduate from college

2. Two major historical moments that need to be acknowledged here:

Wilberforce and Lincoln University are first to admit black Americans
Second Morrill Act which led to creation of first A. Am. college and universities (574).

3. Presence of Howard University in Higher Ed.

4. Recovery of contributers to comp. studies by African American scholars and teachers:

Alain Locke–first Rhodes scholar, Harvard Phd, founder of African Union Society, pioneer in ethnic studies, author of THE NEW NEGRO, which documents cultural and social progress of A. Amer. in creative writing and literary scholarship (576).

Hallie Quinn Brown–Dean of Tuskegee Institute, Professor of Elocution, and charismatic speaker. Created pedagogical materials, which focused on “embodied rhetoric,” rhetoric located within a specific community and thus connected school and home knowledge. (577)

Hugh Gloster–PhD at NYU. Establish Association of Teachers of English in Negro Colleges, which worked to sustain agenda dedicated to encouraging publishers to include A. Amer. writers in anthologies and provide space for A. Amer scholars to flourish, but later morphed into CLA. (578)

Implications according to R and W:

1. Demonstrated how in primacy narratives, viewpoints of A. Amer are invisible, misreprented, or dealth with peripherally for referentally (579)
2. identified positive ways A. Amer. are experienced in comp studies–begin historical view of A. Amer. in higher ed in 19th century, representations of student are not associated with basic writers, and recoveries of influential scholars in comp. studies (579)

**R and W says we must avoid naturalized offical narratives–primacy narratives–that do not insist on presence of A. Americans because:

1. conflicts over agency, authenticity and interpretive authority arise (580)
2. conflicts over mainstream and alternative histories arise (581)

R and W say we must create historical narrative from non-dominant perspectives so that we have opportunity to:
1. subvert negative effects of primacy
2. develop critical view, shift locations and gazes, raise previously unasked questions, all of which lead to a fuller understanding

***At the end of their essay R and W summarize call for better actions in presenting historical accounts:

1. A systematic committment to resist the primary of “officialized” narratives.
2. A search for richer and wider interpretive frames which account for participation and achievments of many rather than few and new methodologies for seeing gaps and limitations and generating research to fill those gaps.
3. A genuine interest in #1 and #2 to help broaden range of students to perform at higher levels of achievement (582-3).

Questions that arise:

What can Roysters and Williams argument teach us about conducting researh and scholarship?

What areas for potential scholarship do they point to?

Would literacy narratives be more inclusive?

What are some of the questions that have been previously unasked in terms of the history of comp studies?

What possible methodologies might exist for seeing gaps in knowledge and generating research that can fill those gaps?

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