Black Women’s Rhetoric(s): A Conversation Starter for Naming and Claiming a Field of Study
Author(s): Ronisha Browdy
Ronisha Browdy is an Assistant Professor in the English Department at North Carolina State University where she teaches courses in rhetoric, writing, and cultural rhetorics. Her primary research centralizes Black women’s naming practices as acts of resistance and self-empowerment in both private and public spaces. Her goal as a scholar is to continue the work of making space for under-represented people, practices, and ways of making and communicating knowledge within (and outside) the field of rhetoric and composition, especially the voices and contributions of people of African descent and women of color. Her work has been published in Reflections Journal, Women and Language, Prose Studies, and multiple edited collections.
Abstract: In this essay, the author generally discusses the collective body of scholarly work at the intersections of Black womanhood, Black feminism, and rhetorical studies that has significantly impacted the field of rhetorical studies over the last 20+ years. Although individual scholars have considered whether or not to identify “Black women’s Rhetoric” as a rhetorical genre, while others have named their individual research and pedagogical work as some variation of “Black Women’s Rhetoric(s),” there has lacked a direct and explicit claiming of “Black Women’s Rhetoric(s)” as its own independent subject area and disciplinary community. Using personal experience, and analysis of two texts identified as African American/Black Women’s Rhetorics, the author argues that Black Women’s Rhetoric(s) must be named and claimed as a rhetorical genre and unique sub-field of rhetorical studies. This essay concludes with a call for collaborative identification and recognition of Black Women’s Rhetoric(s) as a collective, while offering a framework as a starting point for future discussions.Tags: African American, Black women, feminist, naming, rhetoric
In the preface to her groundbreaking book, We Are Coming: The Persuasive Discourse of Nineteenth Century Black Women, Shirley Wilson Logan draws from Herbert Simon’s definition of rhetorical genre to articulate her project on interrogating African American women orators’ rhetorical tradition and practices. Wilson Logan says:
Although I borrow from Simon’s term, ‘distinctive and recurring patterns of rhetorical practice, it is not my intention here to argue for a genre called ‘black women’s rhetoric’ based on the patterns I identify or to apply a scientifically verifiable approach to identify them. So, while I look for reoccurrences, I do not claim that they constitute a genre. Instead, my focus is both singular and collective in that I consider individual speakers and the occasions surrounding particular rhetorical acts but with an eye toward the features of that act that are shared by other rhetorical acts arising from similar but not identical rhetorical situations […] Thus rather than argue for genres, I identify common practices across rhetorical acts that were molded and constrained by prevailing conventions and traditions. (Wilson Logan xiv; emphasis added)
Through her work, readers gain insight into how the sociohistorical context of the 19th century shaped Black women’s oratory choices and discourse, particularly as they were employed around social issues related to Black women’s intersecting racialized and gendered struggles against the abolishment of slavery, women’s rights, mob violence, and racial uplift. Despite Wilson Logan not defining or naming a genre within rhetorical discourse called “black women’s rhetoric” (xiv) within this particular work, her scholarship has been foundational in the development of rhetorical studies that centralizes Black women subjects and speakers, Black female literacies and communication practices, and contextualizing how Black women negotiate, navigate, and use their unique positionalities to make and distribute knowledge across diverse spaces and audiences.
Over the last 20+ years, the influences of Wilson Logan, and others like Jacqueline Jones Royster and her book Traces of a Stream: Literacy and Social Change Among African American Women is represented in the plethora of scholarship by and about Black women’s rhetorical traditions, literacy practices, experiential knowledge(s), language, spaces/places, histories, and activism. This work has been published across the fields of rhetoric and composition studies, communication studies, literacy and language studies, women and gender studies, African American and African Diasporic studies, and education. Often informed by various feminist theoretical traditions, especially Black feminist thought and womanist theories, these works articulate and argue for alternative methods for understanding Black women’s subjectivities and centralizing Black women as rhetorical subjects. Despite the expansive scholarship and undeniable presence of Black women and Black women-centered scholarship within rhetorical studies, there has still yet to be an explicit naming of a collective body of scholarship, disciplinary community, or rhetorical genre called Black Women’s Rhetoric(s).1
In this essay, I argue that there is substantial scholarly work (in print and in progress) at the intersections of Black womanhood, Black feminism, and rhetorical studies and it is time to interrogate this scholarship collectively to consider whether, or not, it should finally be explicitly named and defined as a rhetorical genre and sub-field called “Black Women’s Rhetoric(s).” Given the history of Black women’s experiences, knowledge, and contributions being marginalized, silenced, and/or subsumed under categories that do not equally prioritize their intersecting raced, gendered, and other identities, I consider how naming and identifying a Black women’s rhetorical homeplace (hooks 37) functions as an act of resistance against the racist and patriarchal systems and practices of academia (including rhetorical studies) that continue to omit and/or limit representations of Black women’s rhetorical histories, literacies, languages, spaces/places, and meaning-making practices within program curricula, course syllabi, publication spaces, conferences, etc.
Speaking from my own personal experience, I begin with a story about my connection to this topic, and my own articulation of this inexplicitly recognized—although clearly present and identifiable—sub-field of rhetorical studies. My purpose is to illustrate my own difficulties in locating and accessing scholarship that prioritizes Black women’s rhetorical perspectives because of the ways it is typically situated under various identifiers, e.g., “women’s/feminist rhetoric,” “African American/Black rhetorics,” “cultural rhetorics,” and “hip-hop rhetorics.” Also, since this work is highly interdisciplinary, it is common that scholars producing this scholarship see the influences and implications of their work as contributing within and beyond the realms of rhetorical studies, which leads to them publishing broadly across disciplinary communities like communication studies, women and gender studies, education, language studies, technical and professional writing, African and African American studies, as well as alternative and online spaces. From my experience, the complexities of how Black women-centered rhetorical scholarship is situated across many spaces, for many reasons, with various different names, makes it difficult to access as a cohesive, interconnected network of knowledge. Furthermore, this broad distribution of “Black Women’s Rhetoric(s)” scholarship makes it difficult to bring all of these scholars and scholarship together as one collective body of knowledge with its specifications on subject matter and points of inquiry, methods and methodologies for conducting research, and functions for various audiences (including intersecting sub-fields and the entire rhetorical studies community). For students and scholars newly interested in this specialized area of study, these are important aspects of “Black Women’s Rhetoric(s)” that need to be more thoroughly articulated beyond the realms of individual scholarship. I use my story as reasoning for why there needs to be a collaborative and collective naming and mapping out of this sub-field.
Next, I will interpret two texts that clearly identify their work as “Black/African American Women’s Rhetoric,” that is, Deborah F. Atwater’s African American Women’s Rhetoric: The Search for Dignity, Personhood, and Honor, and a multi-modal course and pedagogical space called “The Black Women’s Rhetoric Project” created, taught, and publicly shared by Carmen Kynard. Through my analysis of Atwater and Kynard’s individual representations of “Black Women’s Rhetoric,” I consider how their explicit naming of their research and teaching may serve as a guide for how this larger body of Black women-centered rhetorical work may also be named and formally recognized as “Black Women’s Rhetoric(s).” Drawing on the Black feminist concept of self-definition (Collins 107; Lorde 45), I argue that naming this rhetorical scholarship that emphasizing Black women’s subjectivities, unique practices, and thinking is important in fully affirming this area study and avoiding intentional and unintentional acts of erasure of Black women’s knowledge and labor.
I conclude offering sketch of a framework for defining and describing “Black Women’s Rhetoric(s).” My purpose is to prompt conversation about what are major themes of, or bridges across, “Black Women’s Rhetoric(s)” while also honoring the many contributors and influencers of this unofficially named field. These scholars that have made it possible to better understand how “Black Women’s Rhetoric(s)” can be “traced” back to a legacy, a “stream” if you will, of Black women speaking and doing for the betterment of themselves and their communities (Royster 4). I aim to spark a conversation about how participants, students, teachers, and contributors of this field might name this collective body of work that allows us all to better understand and celebrate how Black women “make space” for their unique knowledges and ethos even within “tight spaces,” or historical contexts and situations that attempt to deny them their humanity and equal opportunity (Atwater 2-3). This work allows us to consider how Black women use their mother wit as literacies to “protect and serve” themselves and others, “bring wreck” in the most spectacular way on those that disrespect and attempt to deny them a voice within their own communities, while still negotiating the power of “getting crunk” with other Black women to empower each other and work together to make visible complex narratives of Black women’s experiences and interpretations of the world.2
I believe that it is necessary to consider the possibilities of formalizing Black women-centered rhetorical scholarship under a collective banner with its own name, and/or to consider how the existing ways of naming this work might be more explicitly connected as a network of interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary scholarship. In “Disciplinary Landscaping, or Contemporary Challenges in the History of Rhetoric,” Royster calls for the shifting of the disciplinary landscape, a shift that has made Black women more visible as rhetorical subjects (158). I believe naming this scholarly work—or saying its name (or multiple names in tandem)—can be the next step in making a “shifting” disciplinary landscape “shake.”
A Reflection: Looking for and Locating Rhetoric by/on Black Women
In her chapter “Looking for Zora” in In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens, Alice Walker describes her quest to locate the grave of anthropologist, folklorist, and writer, Zora Neale Hurston. Seeking the unmarked grave of her self-proclaimed ‘illegitimate aunt,’ Walker ventures to the location of the gravesite in South Florida. Walker, accompanied by her equally determined travel-companion, Rosalee, cautiously searched a deserted cemetery for Hurston’s burial place. When their eyes, their ability to physically see the location of Hurston’s grave, failed them, Walker resorted to another method of finding Zora. Walker called out to Zora. She describes this moment as follows:
Finding the grave seems positively hopeless. There is only one thing to do:
‘Zora!” I yell, as loud as I can (causing Rosalee to jump). ‘Are you out here?’
‘Zora!’ I call again. ‘I’m here. Are you?’ […]
‘Zora!’ Then I start fussing with her. ‘I hope you don’t think I’m going to stand out here all day, with these snakes watching me and these ants having a field day. In fact, I’m going to call you just one or two more times.’ On a clump of dried grass, near a small bushy tree, my eye falls on one of the largest bugs I have ever seen. I walk toward it, and yell ‘Zo-ra!’ and my foot sinks into a hole. I look down. I am standing in a sunken rectangle that is about six feet long and about three or four feet wide […]
‘Well,’ I say, […] ‘Doesn’t this look like a grave to you?’ (105).
A majority of my formal education in rhetoric and composition has left me feeling like I, too, am cautiously stepping through a deserted cemetery filled with the remains of dead White men. Upon closer examination, I can read their names and list of credentials and achievements. Their contributions are undeniable, their works are unforgettable, what I learn from them is/was useful in my pursuit of understanding this field and term rhetoric, and yet, I’m still left longing for more. Within each institution in which I studied, I found myself searching, looking, listening, and waiting for some sense of familiarity and belonging.
As a Black woman student seeking a sense of belonging within a space where, to use words the words of Royster again in her CCCC Chair Address, “when the first voice you hear is not your own,” I needed an academic version of a “homeplace.” bell hooks describes the history of homeplaces in Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics as a kind of physical and spiritual space within the domestic households of enslaved Black women that served as “a site where one could freely confront the issue of humanization, where one could resist” (37). These homeplaces recognized Black subjectivities, uplifted the minds and hearts of the Black community, and served as a space of both resistance and affirmation (hooks 37). Although I do not recall screaming out like Walker, hollering the names of any particular Black woman rhetorician, scholar, or speaker, I do remember feeling like my eyes—what I could physically see before me within program curricula, course syllabi, and faculty—were deceiving me. I asked myself, “Where are the Black women? Is what I see all there is to rhetorical studies? Where is my home?”
I started using my other senses, calling for who and what I was missing. My screaming and calling out happened while walking through the library stacks searching for books that no one informed me existed. I fussed while scrolling through pages of online databases as new names and voices became my unofficial teachers of a knowledge and rhetorical history that had been omitted from my formal education. I celebrated (with smiles and tears) as this new academic home formed around me, welcoming me in and opening up space for my own voice, too. These women were my illegitimate, intellectual aunts, sisters, and cousins—my home/community/family.
And like family, it is necessary to come together. To unite under a collective banner, not to erase our differences, but to embrace them, and offer spaces of support and solidarity across differences. What I was looking for as an inductee into this legacy of Black women making, studying, and doing rhetoric was a shared name for what they/we were doing that encapsulated these histories, sacrifices, action, activism, creativity, and labors of love. Although I came to call what I was seeking and trying to identify as “Black Women’s Rhetoric(s),” I noticed that this was not a shared name across scholarship, and it certainly was not a term I saw being used around me in academia. Instead, what I saw was what I called “Black Women’s Rhetoric(s)” subsumed under the disciplinary umbrellas of African American rhetoric(s) and/or feminist rhetorics, or existing on the borders of rhetorical studies and other intersecting disciplines, like women’s studies, communication studies, literature, literacy studies, linguistics and language studies, education, history, or African and African American studies. Although I could see and understand how this work dispersed and distributed across my own field and many others linked together to form a network of knowledge about Black women’s rhetorical legacy, I desired then—and still do now—formal recognition of this discourse as its own space by those making and publishing this work, as well as the larger field. For instance, there are book collections, special issues of journals, and conferences dedicated to broadly interrogating and defining African American rhetoric(s), feminist rhetorics, and cultural rhetorics. Within these spaces, Black women and Black women-centered scholarship are often represented, demonstrating the diversity and inclusivity of these sub-fields particularly as they make space for Black women’s rhetoric(s) in ways that traditional rhetorical studies does not always do. My concern is that because this work is often deeply merged with these other sub-fields, but is not explicitly named and identified as its own rhetorical genre and disciplinary community, Black women’s rhetorical scholarship is simultaneously visible and invisible.
In other words, rhetorical scholarship that centers Black women’s experiences, traditions, and practices is clearly represented within dominant rhetorical studies, and it has greatly shaped sub-fields of rhetorical studies including influencing the how these fields function and describe their identities as unique scholarly spaces. But, since “Black Women’s Rhetoric(s)” has not identified itself as its own discourse within and outside these other disciplinary spaces, it functions in ways that help to inform and contribute to others without fully claiming and affirming itself. I believe this contributes to the appearance and representation of “Black Women’s Rhetoric(s)” as a culmination of individual works (with various different names) and individual scholars doing this work in various places and spaces, as opposed to a body of interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary scholarship that collectively linked together, informs each other, and follows similar guiding principles, purposes, and practices no matter where it is located, published, taught, or spoken.
As a student of “Black Women’s Rhetoric(s),” and still now as a junior faculty who identifies myself as a part of this community, I desire for this discourse that is predominately produced by Black women rhetorical scholars, about Black women rhetorical subjects/topics to officially have a name and space as its own disciplinary community within rhetorical studies. Can we give this scholarly area a name, so that future Black women scholars roaming through metaphorical cemeteries of deceased old White men, can say its name and find a home? Furthermore, can we give this discourse a name so that others within academia can acknowledge it, say its name, and put some respect on it?
In the sections that follow, I discuss the concept of self-definition and its significance to Black women’s rhetorical scholarship. Under this Black feminist naming framework, I introduce two texts in which authors explicitly name their scholarship as African American/Black women’s rhetorics: Deborah Atwater’s, African American Women’s Rhetoric: The Search for Dignity, Personhood, and Honor, and Carmen Kynard’s, “Black Women’s Rhetoric Project/BlackWomynRhetProject.” Through a brief analysis and introduction of these works, I consider the potential and power in having a shared name to describe Black women-centered rhetorical scholarship, as well as consider opposing arguments for identifying “Black Women’s Rhetorics(s)” as its own sub-field. I conclude with themes that I locate across Black women’s rhetoric(s) that may be used as a start to a much larger conversation about the uniqueness of this genre/sub-field, how it functions, and how it might be identified and described by those within, across, and outside of it.
Inspirations and Reasons for Naming Black Women’s Rhetoric
Self-definition is a literacy with strong connections to Black women’s ways of being. Concepts like “mother tongue” and scholarship on Black women’s unique language and literacy practices that consider their mastery of signification and styles of communication, such as “loud-talking,” “polite assertiveness,” and “strategic silence,” make it clear that Black women and girls wield language to make space for their experiences and knowledge (Smitherman; Troutman; Richardson; Etter-Lewis). This includes using language to identify and define their humanity, labor, and experiences.
Self-definition and self-determination are also intimately linked to Black feminist theory. According to Audre Lorde in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches and Patricia Hill Collins Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, self-definition is an essential component for Black people to survive and thrive in the midst a range of human-blindness (Lorde 45), and self-definition is a part of a part of a Black woman consciousness that is tied to Black women’s authority to name their own selves. Collins says:
The insistence on Black women’s self-definitions reframes the entire dialogue from one of protesting the technical accuracy of an image…to one stressing the power dynamics underlying the very process of definition itself. By insisting on self-definition, Black women question not only what has been said about African-American women but the credibility and the intentions of those possessing the power to define. When Black women define ourselves, we clearly reject the assumption that those in positions granting them the authority to interpret our reality are entitled to do so. Regardless of the actual content of Black women’s self-definitions, the act of insisting on Black female self-definitions validates Black women’s power as human subjects. (125-126)
In this sense, self-definition is not just about a person defining themselves. Instead, it is an interrogation of power—the possession of power and authority to interpret one’s own reality. In the case of rhetorical scholarship that centralizes Black women subjectivities, literacies, languages, cultural practices, etc., how individual scholars doing this work name and define their work, as well as themselves as creators and wielders of this knowledge, is an act of power. Furthermore, it is through these names—these individual self-definitions—bridges can be built across similar scholarship. Each name given to Black women-centered scholarship acts as a node within a larger interconnected web of knowledge that serves as irrefutable proof that this genre and discourse does exist, although the parameters and particularities of it have yet to be articulated.
What I am posing here as a concern is that these individual self-definitions and names for individual scholarship are so vast that it can make it difficult to understand how all of this work comes together to form one complex discourse at the intersections of Black women (identity) and rhetoric (disciplinary field). As stated above, scholarship that centralizes the rhetorical and literacy practices of Black women extends across rhetorical subfields and interdisciplinary communities. This work goes by so many names, ranging from explicitly calling it “Black/African American Women’s Rhetorics” to some version of “Rhetorics of Black Womanhood,” “Black Feminist Rhetorical Practices,” as well as combinations of “African American women + rhetoric/persuasion + some more specific area of focus (e.g., hip-hop, technology, history, embodiment, aesthetics, space/place, politics, a specific person(s), etc.). Because of these wide-ranging labels, not to mention the equally diverse platforms and publication spaces in which this work lives, it can be difficult to easily locate Black women-centered rhetorical scholarship. This includes locating and acknowledging the labor of individual scholars doing this work.
What I am arguing for is to finally creating a disciplinary home for this work and those doing it—and giving it a name so that it can be recognized as its own scholarly space within the system of academia that emphasizes the compartmentalization/departmentalization of knowledge and outside of it. Put simply, there is strength in numbers and power in naming and claiming one’s own space and disciplinary home, especially within societies and institutions with histories and deeply rooted practices of erasure, omission, and silencing of women and BIPOC communities. By officially bringing Black women-centered scholarship together under one banner—one self- and group-affirming name—this subfield can continue to be interdisciplinary by drawing from, working with, and contributing to other fields and sub-fields, while also finally being recognized as its own sustainable sub-field. This naming of “Black Women’s Rhetoric(s)” opens up the possibility of for broader recognition of this subject areas in the form of book collections, special issues, conferences, core and elective course(s) in undergraduate and graduate department curricula, a specialization for graduate students, and specifically identified area of research interest in job advertisements for the hiring of faculty.
If this is a potential course of action, and it truly is necessary for Black women-centered rhetorical scholarship to name and claim its own space, then an appropriate follow up question might be, “What shall we call it?”
In the following paragraphs, I’ll introduce two works that utilize African American/Black women’s rhetoric to name their individual scholarship. I consider how each scholar uses and presents their version of “African American/Black Women’s Rhetoric,” and how their similar choices of naming their individual work serves as representations of how we might officially name a “Black Women’s Rhetoric(s)” collective.
Deborah Atwater’s African American Women’s Rhetoric
Deborah Atwater’s book, African American Women’s Rhetoric: The Search for Dignity, Personhood, and Honor is a historiographical text that interrogates the lives and rhetorical practices of historical and contemporary African American women speaking, writing, and performing within their unique socio-political contexts throughout history. Atwater uses her discussion of these women’s lives, and her analysis of their rhetoric, to consider how each woman widens for herself and others “tight spaces,” or situations, circumstances, boundaries, and systems of oppression, meant to limit their abilities to be respected and treated equally as human-beings. What Atwater argues is that Black women have resisted such systemic and social barriers, widening tight spaces with their rhetoric (speeches, autobiographies, and other writings), which they have used to reimagine Black women’s ethos.
In the title of her book, Atwater clearly names her scholarship as “African American Women’s Rhetoric.” Although she does not explain what she means specifically by “African American Rhetoric,” offering no explicit breakdown of the term, it is assumed from the content of her book that focuses exclusively on African American women political activists, businesswomen, journalists, educators, and entertainers across various historical contexts—from Sara Baartman to Maria Stewart to Fannie Lou Hamer to Mary J. Blidge and so many other women in between—Atwater is interested in interrogating the stories and rhetorical practices of highly visible African American women writing, communicating, and performing within public spaces. Atwater’s “African American Women’s Rhetoric” is also interested in how Black women navigate systems of inequality such as racism and sexism, as well as negative stereotypes and perceptions of Black womanhood.
Her interpretations of African American women’s rhetoric emphasizes ethos, particularly how the women in her study, as well as how she as a researcher and teacher of this scholarship, present, represent, and describe African American women. She situates African American women’s rhetoric as an act of “widening tight spaces,” or resisting and redefining narrow and negative depictions of African American women’s realities (Atwater 141). In Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America, Melissa Harris-Perry draws from cognitive psychology to discuss the concept of the “crooked room” in relation to Black women’s navigation of racism and sexism. Harris-Perry says in regards to this concept that “[w]hen they confront race and gender stereotypes, black women are standing in a crooked room and they have to figure out which way is up. Bombarded with warped images of their humanity, some black women tilt and bend themselves to fit the distortion” (29). This concept of a “crooked room” is useful in understanding Atwater’s “African American Women’s Rhetoric” in that she closely examines the stories and actions of African American women within public discourses to consider how they manage to negotiate the “crooked rooms” each African American woman had to negotiate and navigate within their historical context to make visible the individual strategies they used to still manage to identify and present themselves respectfully, positively, and powerfully, i.e., “stand-up straight in a crooked room” (Harris-Perry 29).
Similar to Wilson Logan, Royster, and others, Atwater articulates a historical and feminist project that aims at centralizing Black women’s rhetorical choices and strategies. Atwater is engaging African American women’s rhetoric throughout history with a keen awareness of context and how it impacted Black women’s access and abilities to use rhetoric, pointing to the similarities in each rhetor’s rhetorical practices and choices despite differences. The culmination of these two lenses allows her to articulate her own defined and explicitly named space for interrogating African American women as makers and users of rhetoric. This space is centered around African American women’s actions and activism, while acknowledging the ways in which these actions served themselves, their children, Black men, and other women.
Ultimately, Atwater’s naming of her individual research as “African American Women’s Rhetoric” opens a conversation to consider what the parameters of her study are under this label, along with how it connects to similar historical rhetorical research that centers Black women. Her use of “African American Women’s Rhetoric” and how she illustrates it within her work also creates space to consider the possibilities of this kind of historically-driven work and how it might be extended or taken in new directions, as well as how it might be linked to significantly different Black women-centered rhetorical research where history and historiography are not primary methodologies.
Carmen Kynard’s BlackWomynRhetProjct
Carmen Kynard’s open, digital classroom and multi-modal pedagogical space called “Black Women’s Rhetoric Project” (or BlackWomynRhetProjct Channel on YouTube) is another phenomenal and empowering work of scholarship that explicitly named Black Women’s Rhetoric. It was composed to reach and teach undergraduate students about the rhetorical histories of Black women. It also utilizes digital platforms, including a blog space, course website, and YouTube, along with Black music, art, and oral speaking to offer an engaging and reflective space for students (and passersby observers like myself) to, as Kynard says in her blog post “Teaching Black Women’s Rhetoric: (Re)Hearing Feminist Discourses,” “re-hear black women by examining their multiple rhetorics” (n.p.).
Through the combination of both naming her course and digital space “Black Women’s Rhetoric,” and her visible and accessible presentation of Black feminist teaching and everyday practice—Kynard demonstrates how Black Women’s Rhetoric functions as a standalone subject matter and course. Her advancement of her curriculum to a social media platform (YouTube) is an example of how pedagogically we might broaden the limited representations of Black women identities and knowledges in rhetoric spaces and classrooms, as well as think critically about what this representation looks, sounds, and feels like. Kyndard’s “Black Women’s Rhetorics Project” makes space for her students within the confines of her classroom, and for the diverse audiences that engage this work, to understand how not only the written and printed texts of Black women, but also their voices, images, stories, and live performances can be recognized as rhetorical sites of inquiry and knowledge. Kynard’s description and dynamic image of “Black Women’s Rhetoric” is one that situates this discourse that has an embodied, multi-vocal, political and personal legacy that can, and must, be seen (and re-seen), heard (and re-heard), and felt (over and over again).
Name It and Claim It: Building Bridges Across a Multi-vocal Sub-field
The examples of Atwater and Kynard are two interpretations of a “Black Women’s Rhetoric.” In Atwater’s book “Black/African American Women’s Rhetoric” is a historiographical retelling on Black women public figures who navigated the constraints of their historical, social, and political position in time, and resisted negative stereotypes about Black women, to make space for themselves. They utilized their individual literacies—writing, speaking, stories, relationships, education, talent, etc.—strategically to assert and affirm their humanity, demand dignity and respect, and claim their authority as rhetorical subjects and makers of knowledge.
Similarly, Kynard’s undergraduate course—“Black Women’s Rhetoric Project”—and YouTube Channel (BlackWomynRhetProj) combine to showcase this history of Black women as rhetorical figures. Moving beyond the realms of essays, speeches, and other written texts, Kynard allows her students and other audiences to also witness through her digital platforms the creative, embodied, oral, musical, artistic, and political texts of Black women rhetors. Her representation of a Black Women’s rhetoric, like Atwater and others, is historical and allows one to map an extensive legacy of Black women’s rhetorical action and impact, yet Kynard uniquely presents this discourse as a multi-modal and poly-vocal rhetorical genre that engages all of the senses. In Kynard’s version, Black women’s rhetoric is not only a subject of study, it is an experience—something to not only learn, but live.
By closely examining these two individual pieces of scholarship that share similar names/titles, my aim is to consider how they might inform how we might name and describe a larger disciplinary community collectively called “Black Women’s Rhetoric.” The fact that these works, along with the extensive body of rhetorical scholarship that centralizes African American/Black women’s stories, literacies, languages, histories, art, music, beauty, and various texts, spaces/places, other methods of making and communicating knowledge, exist should be enough proof that this is a sub-field and there is a rhetorical genre called Black women’s rhetoric. Ultimately, I do not believe it is a matter of proving that Black women’s rhetorics exists—it clearly does—my concern is that there has yet to be an explicit, public assertion of its existence, as its own field of study, as its own disciplinary community existing outside of the realms of other sub-fields within rhetorical studies, like African American Rhetorics or feminist rhetorics.
As a counter-argument, there are understandable reasons for why this naming of “Black Women’s Rhetoric(s)” as a rhetorical genre and sub-field has not happened, and why there might be some resistance to such an act. Essentially, I am calling for a labeling of both a cultural and disciplinary community, and therefore, grouping individual scholars and their research within a category that they may, or may not identify with, or use to describe who they are and what they do. This is unlike the contentious relationship that Black women for decades have had with the word “feminism,” opting out of such labeling of their writings, stories, music, and other modes of expression and communication as “feminist” because of its connection to white feminism. Also, there may be some who might agree with the need to name Black women-centered rhetorical scholarship as a sub-field, but may not agree with the term “Black Women’s Rhetoric(s),” preferring another name, or multiple names to describe this discourse. For example, Atwater used “African American Women’s Rhetoric” to describe her work, while Kynard preferred “Black Women’s Rhetoric” to name hers, and there are many other variations, such as Keith Gilyard and Adam Bank’s in On African American Rhetorics use of “Rhetorics of Black Feminism” to describe the influences of Black feminist theory within African American rhetorical scholarship. This potential lack of consensus on a name is a reminder of the long-term debates over the terms Black feminism versus womanism. Finally, this call to distinguish “Black Women’s Rhetorics” as both a part of various disciplinary communities and sub-fields, but also its own unique and independent scholarly entity may be perceived by mixed audiences as separatist. This call may be drastically misunderstood as Black women-centered rhetorical scholarship severing ties with other intersecting sub-fields and disciplines, isolating itself from other cultural rhetorical spaces and people, limiting who can and cannot participate and contribute to this discourse, and strictly binding scholars and scholarship within a “Black Women’s Rhetoric” labelled box that only minimally describes the scope and academic and non-academic significance of this work.
As a Black woman researcher, teacher, and participant of this community, I understand these concerns, and the many others that this call for naming a Black women’s rhetorical genre and sub-field might pose, and respect these positions and arguments. To be clear, my intention is not to impose labels or categories on anyone or their work, or to limit the possibilities of what the name for this scholarly community might be called, or to suggest that one name is better than any other. My intentions are not to place impenetrable boundaries around “Black Women’s Rhetoric(s)” that would prevent it from being the inclusive, interdisciplinary, multi-functional scholarly community that it already is, or to suggest that any scholarship that might be identified as “Black Women’s Rhetoric(s)” cannot be recognized in all of its multiplicity and fluidity.
What I am saying is that “Black Women’s Rhetoric(s)” needs its own clearly identifiable seat at the rhetorical studies table. Individual scholars and teachers have built this scholarly discourse and given it many names for their own purposes, yet within mainstream and sub-fields of rhetoric there has not been a space to collectively acknowledge this rhetorical scholarship, its methods and methodologies, its scope, its implications within and outside rhetoric/academia, and—most importantly—the people (i.e., primarily Black women) producing and teaching this work.
Within our current socio-political context, it is still common practice to see Black women’s labor, contributions, and lives be erased, omitted, and forgotten (see the herstory of the Black Lives Matter Movement, #MeToo movement, and #SayHerName for real-life and real-time examples). Academics are not immune to these acts, subsuming, using, and inserting Black women and Black women’s scholarship into curriculum, syllabi, and textbooks when it is convenient, and swiftly forgetting them when they are not explicitly being called to do so. In other words, when gentle nudges at inclusion are no longer a priority. Given these realities, I believe the time for explicitly naming and identifying “Black Women’s Rhetoric” as a rhetorical genre and sub-field is now.
Towards a Black Women’s Rhetoric Framework
Although mapping out the unique tenets of a “Black Women’s Rhetoric(s)” as its own body of scholarship and disciplinary community cannot be properly considered within the scope of this essay, or by one person, I would like to end by offering a starting point for considering four major themes I identify as part of Black Women’s Rhetoric(s). These are shared ideas, practices, and influences that can be located across this body of scholarship, and they may be a starting point for articulating the disciplinary principles, purposes, and practices of this sub-field.
Re-centers Black Women as Rhetorical Subjects and Agents
The first theme of this rhetoric is that Black Women’s Rhetoric(s) scholarship centralizes Black women subjectivities, stories, and experiences, histories, traditions, and cultural practices, languages, literacies, and various modes of composing and communicating. Often guided by Black feminist theories, it recognizes the ways Black women have historically been pushed to the margins of society rendering Black women’s knowledge invisible. As a part of feminist historical rhetorics, it acknowledges how historical and contemporary Black women compose, speak, and perform as rhetorical agents. Similarly rooted in African rhetorical traditions, Black women’s rhetoric asserts that the everyday lives and meaning-making practices of Black people matter. In so doing, it often interrogates head-on how racism, sexism, patriarchy, and white supremacy have denied Black women equal access to human and civil rights, accurate representation, and a voice within movements and spaces meant to uplift and empower Black people and women. While calling out injustice and misrepresentation is essential to this rhetoric, action is its ultimate power, as scholars interrogate how, why, where, and by what means Black women negotiate barriers of oppression, speak-up and act up, subvert power dynamics (or flip the script), and invent new rules and standards for understanding and judging their actions.
Claims Black Women’s Lived Experience as Method and Theory
A second theme is informed by the understanding that Black Women’s Rhetoric(s) are rooted in Black women’s daily realities. This includes everyday experiences of micro-aggressions, coping with trauma including physical violence (and threats of violence), and systemic racism and sexism. Informed by Black feminist epistemologies, where lived experiences are valid points of inquiry (Collins), Black Women’s Rhetoric(s) challenges the private and public dichotomy that often situates rhetoric as an outward, visible, and public performance. Instead, rhetorical sites in Black Women’s Rhetoric are also subversive and silent acts taking place both in public spaces and places (from television, social media, film, concert arena, and political stage), as well as private spaces (the hair salon, kitchen table, home garden, living room, or amongst home girls). In other words, the everyday is a major contextual space from which Black Women’s Rhetoric(s) stems, or goes back to, affirming Black women’s ethos as authorities of their own lives, well-being, histories, and stories. Black Women’s Rhetoric(s) roots understanding in Black women’s thought processes and languages instead of imposing outside theories on Black women’s bodies and minds. Thus, Black Women’s Rhetoric recognizes that part of Black women’s struggle for freedom includes being free from stereotypes and controlling images that undermine Black women and Black womanhood on a daily basis. By engaging everyday experiences, actions, and literacies, Black Women’s Rhetoric(s) asserts and affirms both the ordinary and extraordinary of Black womanhood, girlhood, and sista-hood, while making space to theorize the past and present experiences of Black women that have the potential to positively or negatively impact Black women’s futures.
Employs All Available Means for Necessary Action
Black Women’s Rhetoric(s) is disruptive, resistant, alternative, and creative because it has to be. Although it is often subsumed under African American rhetorics, feminist rhetorics, cultural rhetorics and/or a more institutionalized disciplinary branch like rhetoric, composition and communication, African American studies, or Women and Gender Studies, Black Women’s Rhetoric has an ability to combine, appropriate, and readapt the conventions of these other fields and disciplines to interrogate the under-represented knowledges of Black women. As a disciplinary perspective of its own, it shifts subject matter within these more formalized spaces, but it also demands that the practices, methods, and structures of these spaces also shift so that Black women and other under-represented groups can claim their rightful spot at the table, or even more so, finally be acknowledged for already being there. This disruption is often enacted by any and all communicative, embodied, vocalized, non-verbal, digital, and multi-modal methods available and relevant for their particular historical moment and context. It is important to note that upon initial examination, the methods and modes of expression employed within Black Women’s Rhetorics may not be deemed “appropriate,” or aligning with scholarly decorum, according to dominant academic standards. But, for participants within this discourse fighting for freedom, respect, and equality, all means are necessary.
Multi-consciousness and Multi-voiced Meaning-making
Since it is informed by Black women’s lived experiences, Black Women’s Rhetoric is founded on an awareness that those experiences are informed by Black women’s intersecting identities, contradicting and unequal positions of power, multi-lensed ways of seeing and understanding the world, and multi-vocal ways of theorizing and communicating that understanding to others. In other words, Black Women’s Rhetorics interrogates and performs many consciousnesses and voices simultaneously, always with an understanding that the contradictions, incommensurable data, and complexities that get in the way of neatly packaged outcomes are expected. In other words, better understanding how, why, where, and for what purpose human-beings make meaning is a messy endeavor. It takes time, patience, and care (for subjects and self) to do this work that more than likely will, at some point, include discussions of historical trauma, racially and culturally-centered pain, sexism and misogyny, and distorted images of what it means to be Black and female at the same time. Multiple awareness of the truths of Black womanhood, as well as awareness of the hateful acts and reasoning for destroying those truths, are often vocalized within Black Women’s Rhetoric(s). These multi-conscious and multi-voiced representations are a part of what allows this work to speak across, and be useful to, multiple and mixed audiences.
In this essay, I have that is time for Black Women’s Rhetoric(s) to be officially named as its own rhetorical genre and sub-field of rhetorical studies. Given its roots in Black feminist theory, it is necessary for Black Women’s Rhetoric(s) to employ practices of self-definition to collectively name and institute a disciplinary community that has been here, but has yet to be explicitly and independently acknowledged. As illustrated through my own story, the reluctance to clearly identify Black Women’s Rhetoric(s) as its own rhetorical genre and sub-field can leave those new, or unaware of this discourse, feeling disconnected from a potential scholarly homeplace. Drawing inspiration from Atwater and Kynard who both name their individual works “African American/Black women’s rhetoric,” I consider how this same terminology could be used to name a collective scholarly community that centralizes Black women’s histories, communication, literacies, and other knowledges within rhetorical theory and studies. Although I acknowledge some possible concerns and hesitancies for naming this sub-field, I ultimately argue that identifying a Black Women’s Rhetoric(s) creates opportunities for advancing this scholarship, especially making it and the labor of Black women contributing and inspiring this discourse more visible within other intersecting sub-fields and the broader rhetoric field. I conclude by offering a start to a much larger conversation about potential themes that constitute a Black Women’s Rhetoric(s).
Overall, I hope that this conversation will be taken up, furthered, and complicated, especially by scholars who may or may not name or see their work as a part of a collective body of Black Women’s Rhetoric(s) scholarship, or who have differing opinions about whether such naming of a sub-field or rhetorical genre is necessary at all. I also would call those who do recognize that a Black Women’s Rhetoric(s) sub-field and scholarly community exists to either continue, or start, writing, teaching, publishing, presenting in ways that make this scholarly space visible.
In all cases, my purpose is to spark dialogue as I speak from the position of a Black woman scholar who does rhetorical work. In my own academic journey, locating Black women rhetorical scholars and Black women rhetorics scholarship was not readily available to me within institutional spaces, which made locating my voice as a member of this field even more difficult and complicated. I found myself wandering through rhetorical studies, and similar fields of study, looking for voices that sounded like my own and research that engaged subject matter relevant to my own growth and freedom as a Black woman. Because Black women’s experiences and Black women scholars still remain under-represented on college syllabi and curriculum pages, the opportunities to locate a field called “Black Women’s Rhetoric(s)” is oftentimes the tedious efforts of those who may not have a name, or a map pointing them to this academic space, but who rely on their instincts, intuition, and faith that if they call out—Black women will answer.
- In this essay, I will primarily use the term Black Women’s Rhetoric(s) to name both a genre of rhetorical studies and a disciplinary community, or subfield of rhetorical studies, that centralizes Black women rhetorical subjects, histories, discourse communities, spaces/places, languages and literacies. My reasoning for using “Black Women,” as opposed to African American women is twofold. First, I am aligning my naming practices with Wilson Logans word choices cited on the previous page. Wilson Logan did not want to explicitly name a “black women’s rhetoric” at the time, but I aim to claim this identification while honoring a major influencer to my argument in this essay. Secondly, by choosing “Black Women’s Rhetoric(s)” my intention is to use an inclusive term that does not limit this rhetorical perspective to the experiences. This scholarly discourse includes African American women, as well as all women of African descent. “Black Woman” is meant to refer to all women across the African Diaspora and rhetoric(s) is meant to acknowledge all of our culturally and ethnically diverse ways of understanding and doing rhetoric. -return to text
- These are indirect references to well-known Black women’s rhetorical scholarship, including Elaine Richardson’s CCC article “To Protect and Serve: African American Female Literacies,” Gwendolyn Pough’s iconic book Check It, While I Wreck It: Black Womanhood, Hip-Hop Culture, and the Public Sphere, and the collaborative digital and print work of Brittany Cooper, Susana Morris, and Robin Boylorn in The Crunk Feminist Collective. -return to text
- Atwater, Deborah. African American Women’s Rhetoric: The Search for Dignity, Personhood, and Honor. Lexington Books, 2009. -return to text
- Collins, Patricia. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. Routledge, 2000. –return to text
- Cooper, Brittany, Susana Morris, and Robin Boylorn. The Crunk Feminist Collective. Feminist Press, 2017. -return to text
- Etter-Lewis, Gwendolyn. “Standing Up and Speaking Out: African American Women’s Narrative Legacy.” Discourse & Society, vol. 2, no. 4, 1991, pp. 425-437. -return to text
- Gilyard, Keith and Adam Banks. On African American Rhetoric. Routledge, 2018. -return to text
- Harris-Perry, Melissa. Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America. Yale University Press, 2011. -return to text
- hooks, bell. Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural politics. South End Press, 1999. -return to text
- Kynard, Carmen. An Open, Digital Classroom on Gender, Intersectionality & Black Women’s Rhetorics. Web. http://www.blackwomenrhetproject.com/black-womens-rhetorics.html -return to text
- Kynard, Carmen. BlackWomynRhetProjct. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCSEjUiSEJlu7Xtw0xHIicLw?feature=emb_ch_name_ex -return to text
- Kynard, Carmen. “Teaching Black Women’s Rhetoric: (Re)Hearing Feminist Discourse.” Web. http://carmenkynard.org/teaching-black-womens-rhetoric-digitally -return to text
- Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde. Crossing Press, 2007. -return to text
- Pough, Gwendolyn. Check It While I Wreck It: Black Womanhood, Hip-Hop Culture, and the Public Sphere. Northeastern University Press, 2004. -return to text
- Richardson, Elaine. “To Protect and Serve: African American Female Literacies.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 53, no.4, 2002, pp.675-704. -return to text
- Royster, Jacqueline. “Disciplinary landscaping, or Contemporary Challenges in the History of Rhetoric.” Philosophy & Rhetoric, vol.36, no. 2, 2003, pp. 148-167. -return to text
- Royster, Jacqueline. Traces of a Stream: Literacy and Social Change Among African American Women. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000. -return to text
- Smitherman, Geneva. Talkin and Testifyin: The Language of Black America. Wayne State University Press, 1986. -return to text
- Smitherman, Geneva. Word From the Mother: Language and African Americans. Routledge, 2006. -return to text
- Troutman, Denise. “Attitude and Its Situatedness in Linguistic Politeness” Poznań Studies in Contemporary Linguistics, vol. 46, no. 1, 2010, pp. 85-109. -return to text
- Walker, Alice. In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose. Harcourt Books, 1983. -return to text
- Wilson Logan, Shirley. We Are Coming: The Persuasive Discourse of Nineteenth Century Black Women. SIU Press, 1999. -return to text