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
• 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
• 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 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
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….