Week One Additional Readings

Keith Gilyard, Introduction:  Aspects of African American Rhetoric as a Field from African American Rhetorics:  Interdisciplinary Perspectives

Manning Marable and Leith Mullings, Introduction:  Resistance, Reform, and Renewal in the African American Experience, from Let Nobody Turn Us Around

Geneva Smitherman, “How I Got Ovuh:  African World View and Afro-American Oral Tradition” from Talkin that Talk:  Language, Culture, and Education in African America

Jaquiline Jones Royster, Forward to African American Rhetorics: Interdisciplinary Perspectives

In the forward to African American Rhetoric(s) Royster does a couple of different things.  First, she establishes that the cultural frameworks that create A.A. rhetoric are ancestrally African.  Next, she discusses how A.A. rhetoric has been characterized by a long-running trend of discursivity that is tied to struggles for individual freedom.  The reader also embraces the idea that A.A. rhetorics are more than expressive processes – in fact, they are also knowledge making events.  The collection is broken up into three sections: historicizing, pedagogy, and research.

As A.A. rhetoric as scholarly work is relatively untapped, Royster notes that the anthology is geared toward reclaiming some of the achievements and legacies of A.A. rhetors.  In reclaiming these traditions, Royster recommends that the reader understand three concepts:

1.  a view of culture, as influenced by African ancestral traditions, as an appropriate factor in analyzing performance.

2.  a critical exploration of the ways in which strategies and practices participate dynamically in knowledge-making enterprises.

3.  closer attention to the specific material conditions out of which rhetorical practices come – in this case the struggle for freedom.

The overarching goal of the collection is to disrupt the Eurocentric conception of cultural traditions.  In disrupting this notion, the collection looks to, through reclamation, reconceptualize the theory and practices of rhet/comp as a field.

Keith Gilyard, Introduction:  Aspects of African American Rhetoric as a Field from African American Rhetorics:  Interdisciplinary Perspectives

Gilyard’s introduction to Richardson and Jackson’s work is an extensive cataloguing of the rhetorical scholarship on Black discourse that has taken place since the Civil War (or thereabouts).  He begins the article with the admission that:

1.  Black folks (and their discourses) have asserted their collective humanity in the face of enduring White supremacy and tried to persuade, cajole, and gain acceptance for ideas relative to Black survival and Black liberation.

Gilyard’s analysis concedes that many of the early studies on Black rhetoric attempted to frame Black discourse in terms of Aristotelian rhetorical frameworks.  This, of course, left out many aspects of Black expression.  First, in addition to the classifications of judicial, deliberative and epideictic, Black discourse needed to also be categorized in terms of “Christian pulpit oratory.”  Religious oratory, as a central tenant of the A.A. rhetorical tradition, was neglected in the early studies of Black discourse.  After the acceptance of Black religious oratory as a classificatory schema, much work was done by Pipes and other scholars to classify this form.  Characteristically, these scholars used Aristotelian schemas (invention, disposition, style, delivery, etc.) to explain this rhetoric.  Again, a mapping of Eurocentric rhetorical tradition on African-derived Black discourses.

Moseberry discussed Black religious oratory in terms of “jubilee rhetoric.”  This form “consists of a series of ideas containing a major undertone of tragedy, alternating with a contrasting jubilant response.”  This is most effectively put to use in pieces like Douglass’s 1853 “Fifth of July Oration.”

Beyond Black religious oratory, study of A.A. rhetorical discourse began to center around the plight of A.A.’s as oppressed individuals.  As such, a schema developed for understanding how to explain A.A. discourse in relation to the events of the Civil Rights era.  Boulware notes that this liberatory rhetoric is composed of the following parts: 1)protest grievances, 2) state complaints, 3) demand rights, 4) advocate cooperation, 5)mold racial consciousness, 6) stimulate racial pride.  As the civil rights era got underway in earnest, White America began to try and find answers to the rhetorical conventions of Black speakers like King, X, and others.  This resulted in an explosion in A.A. rhetoric scholarship.  Of particular note is Smith’s work on the “agitational rhetoric” of A.A. speakers.  Agitational rhetoric, according to Smith, is comprised of the following parts: 1)vilification (create an antihero that represents domination), 2) objectification (blame an ill-defined group – such as “whitey”), 3) Mythification (use of ‘suprarational’ forces – such as God – to support your cause, and 4) legitimation (justify your action’s in light of the vilification of the objectified.

As scholarship in A.A. rhetoric progressed past the Civil Rights Era, special attention began to be paid to the role of “African” ways of knowing, speaking and expression.  This is particularly obvious in the work of Smith, Smitherman, Cummings and Daniel, and Jackson.  Of particular interest was the West African concept of “Nuomo” or the mystical associations and powers of the word.  Nuomo, as understood by Jackson, is comprised of an 8-part process whose parts feed off one another.  They are: 1) Rhythm (the rhetor must be in tune with the audience), 2) Soundin’ (signifyin’), 3)Stylin’ (speaker has combined rhythm, excitement, and enthusiasm, 4) Improvisation (spontaneity in light of White organization), 5) Storytelling (arousal of epic memory), 6)Lyrical Code (preservation of the word through a highly codified system of lexicality, 7) Image making (tapping into myths), and 8)Call and response (the core tenant of West African rhetorical practice).

Manning Marable and Leith Mullings, Introduction:  Resistance, Reform, and Renewal in the African American Experience, from Let Nobody Turn Us Around

Marable and Mullings begin by noting that, “Throughout their entire history as a people, African Americans have created themselves. . . . They constructed their cultural identity and notions of humanity in a country that denied them citizenship and basic human dignity for hundreds of years.  Like West, Gilyard and others, M&M agree that the history of African American existence in the colonial/new world era has been one of repression.  All that being said, the oppressors were not successful in completely silencing A.A. thought or production.  As M&M clearly note, social and political theory has developed in A.A. communities as a result of the oppression and repression of their peoples.  These theories are the central concern of their book.

M&M make a point of stating that “social and political theory are not merely reactive.”  In fact, in addition to being a reaction to social institutions and structures of power, A.A. social and political theory is also a search for meaning and voice.  In this search for meaning, a couple of interesting themes/strands develop.

Integrationist – Nationalist – Transformationist

With a few exceptions, most A.A. social and political theory – and it’s related actions – have been taken up by one of these three strands.  Integrationists, like MLK Jr., sought to “expand the limited boundaries of American democracy to include people of African descent. . . full unalienable rights to own property, access to public accommodation and schools, and the right to hire themselves out for a fair wage.  The only limitations on any individual’s success would be determined by intellect and ambition” (XIX).  In other words, after equality, the adoption of the bootstraps narrative.

Nationalists sought to undermine the white supremacist patriarchy by working in collusion with its rules.  As such, the nationalists sought to work in Black communities for Black communities.  This position assumes the continued existence of White supremacy; furthermore, it also supports the idea of A.A. identity as one of permanent African in exile.  M&M claim that these two positions – integrationist and nationalist – have shared the dominant position in response to the socio-political climate of the age.  Times of violent action – like the 1920s and 1960s – against A.A.’s has resulted in more nationalist sentiments and vice-versa.

In contradistinction to the integrationist and nationalist position is the transformationist.  In essence, this position is one of socialist solidarity.  As a way to get around some race issues, groups like the African Blood Brotherhood and the Sleeping Car Porters used their positions as wage earners to fight simultaneously for the demolition of racial discrimination.

While the Integrationist – Nationalist – Transformationist camps were/are the dominant forms of A.A. social and political organization, the triply oppressed position of A.A. women has also been theororized for good reason.  As struggles against white patriarchy were framed in predominately masculine terms, black women also began to explore their position as triply oppressed individuals.  While many women – Sojourner Truth, Claudia Jones, et. al. – noted their triple oppression early in the race/gender movements toward equality, this debate picked up a lot of steam in the 1980s and 1990s.  Unfortunately, the late coming of this discussion might point exactly to its claims of triple oppression.  A.A. women’s rhetoric sought to critique their oppression in terms of race and gender, but also as a rejection of essentialist European descriptions of femininity.

Geneva Smitherman, “How I Got Ovuh:  African World View and Afro-American Oral Tradition” from Talkin that Talk:  Language, Culture, and Education in African America

In this chapter, Smitherman attempts to situate A.A. rhetorical conventions and expressions in the context of an African world view.  In making this connection, Smitherman takes the first couple of pages to establish the primacy of orality in “preliterate” (a Western, charged term) African societies.  She notes that

Until contemporary times, Black America relied on word-of-mouth for its rituals of cultural preservation . . . . the core strength of this tradition lies in its capacity to accommodate new situations and changing realities.  If we are to understand the complexity and scope of black communication patterns, we must have a clear understanding of the oral tradition and the world view that undergirds that tradition.

Smitherman identifies a couple of different defining characteristics of the African worldview.  First, she notes that there is a fundamental unity between the spiritual and material aspects of existence.  As such, the divide that is often noted in Eurocentric conceptions of experience is somewhat artificial for African-influenced subjects.  In making this claim, she relies on the power of the word – or nuomo – or the magical, mystical power of the word.  In addition to nuomo, she also notes that the two principles – spiritual and secular – in African communities are the defining strands of existence.  For the African, according to Smitherman, the more powerful of these strands is certainly the spiritual.

Connected to this spiritual supremacy is the value of lived experience.  Hence, the spiritual and the elderly tend to have social control over those secular and less experienced (read younger).

Working under this spiritual/secular framework, Smitherman goes on to extend her analysis into the lives of A.A.’s.  Specifically, she spends a bit of time emphasizing the importance of the oral in communal African life.  As orality is the undergirding ontology of African experience, the role of the orator is especially important in A.A. culture.  Smitherman adeptly compares the oral adroitness of multiple figures ranging from Sundiata the mythical West African king to Richard Wright and H. Rap Brown.  In so doing, she emphasizes the primacy of the spiritual over the secular; however, this binary is a false one.  As Smitherman notes, the tension between the secular and the spiritual is really, when conceived spatially, a continuum between the two rhetorical frameworks.  While the spiritual has it’s roots in the church, the secular utilizes it’s rhetorical moves and vice versa.

In her analysis, Smitherman explores a couple different forms of African signification.  Her analysis includes boastful raps, love raps, black sermons (church raps and their inherent “sacred style”, and street raps “dozens, toasting, etc.”).  Her analysis also highlights the meaningful interdependence of the spiritual in all aspects of A.A. life – not just for the floor stomping, church going types.  This is a result of Black spirituality as a coping mechanism for the white supremacist orientation of this world.

Finally, Smitherman attempts to create a rhetorical qualities with which to view Black discourse in contemporary times.  In her analysis, she includes the following:

1.  Exaggerated Language – Sprinkling talk with uncommon words and rarely used expressions.

2.  Mimicry – Deliberate imitation of the speech and mannerisms of someone esle for authenticity, ridicule, or rhetorical effect.

3.  Proverbial statements – The use of Black proverbs to tap into the “wisdom and power” of nuomo.

4.  Punning – The use of puns that are relatable to the pronunciation of Black speech.

5.  Spontaneity – The use of unstructured argument/speech in order to more fully embrace the natural nature of the universe (chaos?)

6.  Image-making – The use of picture metaphor for representations of reality.

7.  Braggadocio – Often misunderstood by Whites, this enhances the ethos of the rapper.

8.  Indirection – This rhetorical tactic is linked, in Smitherman’s analysis, with the African discourse strategy of evasion.  This absolves logical (in the Aristotelian sense) inconsistencies within the rapper’s speech.  See Achebe’s Unoka for example.

9.  Tonal Semantics – The variation of sound to create rhetorical/verbal power.

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