Ghostwriting for Racial Justice: On Barbara Johns, Dramatizations, and Speechwriting as Historical Fiction
Author(s): Zosha Stuckey
Zosha Stuckey is an Associate Professor at Towson University in Baltimore, Maryland—a Baltimorean through & through—working in the areas of rhetorical theory and history, community engagement, social justice, professional writing, and disability studies. Her book, A Rhetoric of Remnants: Idiots, Half-Wits, and Other State-Sponsored Inventions from SUNY Press can be found here: http://www.sunypress.edu/p-5911-a-rhetoric-of-remnants.aspx. She helped to create the Diversity Faculty Fellows Program at Towson and iw also an active member and facilitator of Intergroup Dialogue. She founded and coordinated the GIVE (Grantwriting in Valued Environments) project where students write grants for community partners in Baltimore City.
Abstract: In line with movements that aim to realign power, decentralize whiteness, and employ more nuanced, coalitional approaches to race and rhetoric (Pough and Anderson), this article places the work of two black women at its center: Barbara Johns' 1951 nowhere-to-be-found speech that compelled a school walk out and eventually led to the landmark case of Brown v. Board and Dr. Cassandra Newby-Alexander's ghostwriting of that speech. Johns' speech does not exist in original form—there are no transcripts or audio of it. In making explicit the process of ghostwriting, 1) I explain—via an interview with her—how Dr. Cassandra Newby-Alexander, historian and Dean of Liberal Arts at Norfolk State University, composed the text of Johns' speech in preparation for its re-enactment; 2) I lay out how other writers have composed and might compose similar projects that involve critical imagination via oral histories and assemblages; 3) and finally, I devise how one might go about using this method as a pedagogical assignment. This method is an attempt to refigure knowledge collection by partially stepping aside as a white scholar; inherent in this move is tension around who should be collecting what knowledge as well as who should be refiguring how we collect that knowledge.Tags: African American rhetoric, archives, Black Women's Rhetoric, civil rights, feminist pedagogy, gaps, ghostwriting, performance, racial justice, reparative historiography, silence, speeches, Virginia, youth rhetoric
…rhetoric is racist and has been used for ill and we need to own that and fix that. Stat. –
—Gwendolyn Pough and Stephanie Jones (Peitho, eds. of special issue on Race, Feminism, and Rhetoric)
As a willing dupe of the white male patriarchy, I have been an enemy to Black women, to all women, and to myself. I don’t want to continue to be an enemy of feminism. White woman, do you?
—Tracee Howell (Peitho, “Manifesto”)
…The concept of amnesty frames appraisal decisions as intentional and issues a call-out charge to archivists to work against white supremacist bias. By refusing to accept that gaps and vagaries in the historical record are accidental or coincidental, but are instead an extension of clemency and amnesty, archivists can better address these gaps and vagaries—archivists and critical archival scholars must first name the problem, and then work collectively with marginalized and vulnerable communities to correct it. (20)
—Tonia Sutherland, “Archival Amnesty: In Search of Black American Transitional & Restorative Justice”
The work below is about Prince Edward County, Virginia in 1951, but, more broadly, I wish to—as Gwendolyn Pough and Stephanie Jones urge in “On Race, Feminism, and Rhetoric: An Introductory/Manifesto Flow… “—”center the voices of feminists of color who are doing the work to ensure our futures” (n.p.). We must, as white women, first be honest with ourselves about how we perpetuate racism in our research and curriculum and, second, figure out how to decentralize whiteness without inflicting further harm. I also wish to manifest my menopausal rage and use force or “bia” to move aside, make room, and go beyond lip service as it concerns decentering whiteness (Howell n.p. ). As Tracee Howell puts it:
WAKE UP. WAKE UP. WAKE UP AGAIN, WHITE WOMAN.
It’s urgent that we, as white scholars and teachers, figure out how to do the anti-racist and coalitional work Pough and Anderson ask us to do and to do it better. The case study below is one attempt to earnestly dislodge a white supremacist bias by “refusing to accept that gaps and vagaries in the historical [and rhetorical] record are accidental or coincidental” and to apply “bia” (force) to fill those gaps in our curriculum (Sutherland n.p.). We need to support black women and black women’s scholarship and we need to center it in our classrooms. To work towards this, I have studied and recorded the method that a historian outside our field has used to recover—to literally re-write—an erased voice. This ghostwriting method is not my own, and I hope that the voices of the two women I write about here are louder in some respects than my own. In sharing and expounding upon this method, I hope what is clearly one of many “nuanced approaches to dealing with the intersections of race and rhetoric” will contribute to our feminist futures (Pough and Jones n.p.). I yield to “Black Women’s Rhetoric(s)” (see Browdy; if that is what is decided upon as the name of the field), and while I recognize that my attempts to do this work are flawed, I am invested in doing more and doing better.
This move towards decentering whiteness gives us a more accurate representation of our rhetorical past, and it is part of a project in rhetoric and composition that has been ongoing for some time; I put this work in conversation with scholars in rhetoric and composition doing this work (, Adam Banks, Ronisha Browdy, Jessica Enoch, Candace Epps-Robertson, Keith Gilyard, Cheryl Glenn, Tracee Howell, Ronald Jackson, Stephanie Jones, Carmen Kynard, Shirley Wilson Logan, Aja Martinez, Malea Powell, Gwendolyn Pough, Michelle Bachelor Robinson, Elaine Richardson, Joy Ritchie, Kate Ronald, Jacqueline Jones Royster, Vershawn Young) and those outside the discipline (N.D.B. Connolly, Thomas Couser, Cheryl Dunye, Nirmala Ervelles, Emma Perez, Tonia Sutherland). In what follows, I place Black rhetors and Black scholars at the center, decenter white master narratives, and expand the archive to include re-enactments and an oral performance tradition in order to consider rhetoric that may not have been recorded or transcribed. I also offer caution to other white radicals doing racial justice work as participants of a racist academic culture where imagination often acquiesces to, as Malea Powell puts it, the imperial project of collecting knowledge (116). The discussion as to who should be collecting what knowledge is important as well as how our methods can also aim to do things other than that.
Prince Edward County, Virginia, 1951
One of the countless examples of “intentional or unintentional acts of erasure” (Browdy n.p.) includes how most of us don’t yet know to credit Barbara Johns (a.k.a. Barbara Rose Johns Powell) as an early originator of the Civil Rights Movement. But she was. And if we fail to credit Johns, we award the racist Prince Edward Country, VA School Board of the 1950s and 1960s archival amnesty, a concept Sutherland describes as “a homogeneity that privileges, preserves, and reproduces a history that is predominantly white and that silences the voices and histories of marginalized peoples and communities” (17). On April 23, 1951, at age 16, Johns delivered a sobering speech to the student body of Moton High School in Prince Edward County, Virginia that catalyzed a walk-out and strike to protest the unequal conditions (overcrowding, disrepair of buildings, lack of resources, etc.) at their all-black high school. But that’s not all. Once securing the support of the NAACP, the students at Moton went on to file Davis v. Prince Edward County, which became the only student-led initiative consolidated into the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision (Epps-Robertson 14-15; Green 37-56; Kanefield 19-38; Kluger 452-8).
It may come as no surprise that the walk-out speech, which led to a school strike, that Johns’ delivered to over 400 of her high school peers was not recorded. By the early 1950s, we had only just begun what’s called the “magnetic era” in sound recording in which bulky magnetic tape recorders became the norm for consumer and broadcasting markets but likely would not have been available to students at Moton (Kimizuka 197). It was curious to me also, as I began to learn more about this lesser-known part of our past, that not only was there no audio but the original transcript of Johns’ speech was nowhere to be found—whether it be text hand-written by Johns on lined, loose-leaf paper or drafts rehearsed throughout the pages of her diary.
As I embarked on a “deep dive” into this exciting herstory that points to an earlier date to the start of the civil rights movement, historiographic grooves and troughs emerged that not only attend to Sutherland’s call but also to Connolly’s “Black Power Method,” which impels us to further consider how archives can imbibe cultural exclusion. That is, I discovered that I could in fact access Barbara Johns’ transcript from the speech—but without any original recording or transcript, I could only access an oral performance tradition as a re-creation or re-enactment that was pieced together from oral histories and other sources. A documentary film made in 2012 by New Millennium Studios and actor-director Tim Reid about the 1951 student protests became the source from which I could study the historic speech and walk-out as dramatizations (“Behind-the-Scenes”). Tim Reid, as it turns out, reached out to Dr. Cassandra Newby-Alexander, an accomplished and respected historian, to author (a form of ghostwriting) a version of the Johns’ speech that was to be part of the film he produced which is now available for educational purposes at the Moton Museum (which is on the exact site of the school).
But how does a writer go about composing such a re-creation? How can this help us continue to refigure the field’s racist cultural heritage by shifting our sources and rhetors? How might one go about teaching a historiographic activity such as ghostwriting the past or creating dramatized even imaginary archives in order to increase awareness of lesser-known rhetorical histories? In the essay, I am less concerned with the rhetoric of the speech, though that is still important; rather, my focus is on 1) deciphering—via an interview with her—how Dr. Cassandra Newby-Alexander, historian and Dean of Liberal Arts at Norfolk State University, composed the text of Johns’ speech in preparation for its re-enactment; 2) how other writers have composed and can compose similar projects that involve critical imagination and reparative historiography via oral histories and assemblages; 3) and finally, how one might go about using this method as a pedagogical assignment (in the appendix).
Barbara Johns & the Walk-out
Barbara Johns was born in 1935 on 129th Street in Harlem, but her family went back generations to Darlington Heights in Prince Edward County, Virginia which lay half-way between Lynchburg and Richmond. This southwestern sector of the county was known as Black Bottom (possibly because the land had been tapped out of its nutrients from hundreds of years of tobacco farming), and Barbara and her five siblings went to live with her maternal grandmother Ma (Mary) Croner while her father served in World War II. Ma Croner recalls that “[Barbara] didn’t have a lot of put-on airs about her. She was a country girl, not some flirty thing worrying about her clothes” (Kluger 452-4). Eventually, the family would reunite and move into an attached apartment to the store that Vernon Johns, who has been documented as being her biggest influence, owned. Barbara would wait on customers and, like her uncle, is said to have reserved no respect for the white man.
By all accounts, Barbara Johns was a pioneering youth leader at a time before youth leadership had fully gained national traction as it would in the 1960s. Formed in 1935, an organization called the American Youth Congress produced a Declaration of Rights of American Youth, which they presented in front of the U.S. Congress and which did include advocacy for civil rights for black people; however, young African Americans, though part of that movement, were not its leaders. Historian Sekou Franklin, who charts the black-led youth movements in the twentieth century, lists the NAACP Youth Council (1936-present) and the Southern Negro Youth Congress (1937-1949) as two organizations which precede the Moton speech and walk-out. In looking for connections between the Moton walk-out and national movements, Franklin does list the Youth March for Integrated Schools (1958-9) which, though seven years after the Moton walk-out, took place in Washington D.C. and included addresses by Dr. King. Additionally, connections can be made to contemporary youth activism where children and youth carry on the tradition of positing themselves as agents who produce their own discourse. For too long, our scholarship in rhetoric has tended to not only erase voices of color but has also undervalued the rhetoric of children and youth (Applegarth; Ryder).
Because Johns was highly influenced by her uncle, Reverend Vernon Johns, it is likely that she was indeed aware of these precursor youth organizations. She also was likely aware of how black people in Prince Edward County had been petitioning the school board as early as 1882 (which would mean for the past 69 years) (Epps-Robertson 14) and how Black Colleges had been revolting against ideological, curricular and material white domination on their campuses since the 1920s (Wolters). Barbara’s uncle held a master’s degree from University of Chicago, was known as the “father” of the civil rights movement, and as the “apostle of armed racial self-defence” (Luker 29). He had preceded Dr. King as Pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, led an uncompromising campaign for civil and human rights, and had preached many progressive even radical sermons that his niece no doubt heard such as “It is Safe to Murder Negros in Montgomery” (Branch 54). Due to his honest rhetoric, the family had been under fire, literally, before Barbara led the strike. Protest was not only a survival technology but also a tradition (Banks 18).
Barbara recalled her relationship with her uncle, who it was said “stimulated her mental development” (Kluger 456): “We’d always be on opposite sides in an argument. I’m afraid we were both very antagonistic” (Kluger 601). She read Up From Slavery and Native Son, and after graduating from the one room, wooden schoolhouse that stood on the perimeter of her grandmother’s land, she began to make her way every morning ten miles to Robert R. Moton High School in Farmville. That is, after completing all the lady-of-the-house chores (mending, farm work, child-rearing; her mother had left for D.C. in order to find work), she caught the segregated school bus, which took her to the all-black school. Often, the bus broke down. Or, if she missed the bus, the white bus would pass her by, and she’d have to walk the ten miles. Soon after joining the chorus, drama group, and New Homemakers of America, Barbara began to express dissatisfaction with the inequality she experienced at the segregated school. Students experienced overcrowding, disrepair of buildings—rain coming through the roof—inadequate heat, inadequate transportation to school, and a general lack of resources. Johns explains:
I decided to tell music teacher Ms. Inez Davenport. I told her how sick and tired I was of the inadequate buildings and facilities and how I wished to hell—profane in speaking t0 her, but that’s how I felt—something could be done about it. After hearing me out, she asked simply, ‘Why don’t you do something about it?’ I didn’t ask her what she meant—I don’t know why. Soon the little wheels began turning in my mind. I decided to use the student council” (Kluger 468; Robert R. Moton exhibit, 2019).
Johns explains how her thinking transpired:
The plan I felt was divinely inspired because I hadn’t been able to think of anything until then. The plan was to assemble together the student council members….From this, we would formulate plans to go on strike. We would make signs and I would give a speech stating our dissatisfaction and we would march out [of] the school and people would hear us and see us and understand our difficulty and would sympathize with our plight and would grant us our new school building and our teachers would be proud and the students would learn more and it would be grand…. (Robert R. Moton exhibit).
Shortly before 11am on April 23, 1951, the plan began with a fictitious call and request to Principal Jones asking him to come down to the Greyhound bus station to deal with two students who were in trouble with the law. Meanwhile, the strike committee sent notes to each classroom so that students would assemble in the auditorium, and soon approximately 450 students and 25 teachers gathered to hear what Barbara Johns had to say…
Walk-Out Speech by Barbara Johns, April 23rd, 1951
Transcript of Re-enactment, written by Dr. Cassandra Newby-Alexander, 2012
1 Would you all pls stand and join me in the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag. I would now like
2 for all the teachers to please be excused. This is a meeting for the students to talk about the
3 bad conditions here at Robert R Moton High School. I ask that all the teachers please leave.
4 Before we begin, we don’t want any of you to get in trouble with the school board or lose your
5 jobs. So, before we begin, please leave.
6 May I have your attention please. Fellow students. Many of you know me. I am Barbara
7 Johns. For too long, we have quietly accepted the hand me downs that end up in this school. I
8 say no longer. My uncle Dr. Vernon Johns always told me that all right minded people must
9 stand up and demand that they will no longer remain second class citizens. For years, our
10 parents, teachers, ministers, and community leaders have tried to convince the school board
11 to provide us with a decent place to learn. Some of you don’t know how bad our school is
12 compared to even other colored schools. I’ve been to Huntingon High School and Newport
13 News and Soloman Russel High School in Lawrenceville and I can tell you we’ve been given
14 crumbs from the table. These schools have cafeterias, lockers, showers, a gymnasium and
15 enough classrooms for all of their students. Some of them even have science labs and a
16 boiler room to heat the entire school. And what do we have? We have leaky roofs, wood
17 burning stoves and overcrowded classrooms. How can we sit back and be satisfied?
18 Farmville HS sits a few blocks away but it might as well be another country. What the county
19 leaders provide the white students is what we can only dream of at Robert R Moton High
20 School. There are some who tell us that we should be content with what we have. That some
21 day in the future things will be better. When will that day happen? For five years,
22 superintendent Mackelwayne promised that we would have a new school. But for us here in
23 Farmville, the money is never there while it’s poured into the white schools. Some of our
24 boys from the vocational program visited the shop at Farmville High. I heard them talking
25 about what that school had and how angry they were because of all of the equipment,
26 supplies and space there. For days, I layed in bed thinking how unfair it was. And then I
27 remembered the most dangerous thing we can do is sit back and say that we have no problem.
28 I’ve prayed for help and decided that it was time to strike.
29 Three years ago, When the adults confronted the school board about the continuing delay
30 about the rebuilding of our school, what happened? What did they give us? Tar paper shacks?
31 That is what they make chicken coops out of. Are we animals deserving nothing better than a
32 chicken coop? As citizens don’t we deserve better? Do you want to spend the rest of your
33 highschool years trying to learn in crowded classrooms and tar paper shacks? Why should we
34 shiver in class with coats on or have to use umbrellas in the classroom when it rains while the
35 others student are surrounded by warm, clean, dry modern brick buildings? Why should we
36 have to leave for school an hour early every day because we have so few buses that are small,
37 second hand and hardly run? Why do we have to crowd into this school while on the other
38 side of town, white students have lockers and adequate heating and a cafeteria and all that is
39 expected of a public school?
40 Aren’t you tired of these conditions? Aren’t you tired of us getting all these broken down
41 desks and worn books? Who will come to our rescue? Not the white people of this town. Do
42 they care about us? Not the teachers whose jobs depend on their acceptance of this unequal
43 system. And it can’t be our parents because they are at risk if they challenge how we are
44 treated in this town.
45 It is we who must come to our own rescue. We are the future of the colored race. We must
46 find within ourselves the courage to say no to those who say we must remain content with
47 these conditions. Our parents tell us to be good students. In church we are told to read the
48 bible. The bible says that a little child will lead. I say that now it is the time that children
49 must lead. Because I believe that god is on our side. And, the bible says we that must take
50 our inheritance. I believe our inheritance includes decent schools that are just as good as the
51 schools here in Prince Edward County. Weren’t we taught that the Declaration of
52 Independence says all of us are created equal? It’s time we stood up and made people in
53 Farmville listen to us.
54 The Farmville jail is not big enough to hold us all. And if you will join with me, together we
55 can challenge these injustices. Only with one voice can we hope to change the system.
56 Together we can show the world that we will no longer live like slaves in America. We will
57 no longer suffer in silence. With injustice all around us while whites blindly ignore our
58 misery and yet pledge liberty and justice for all. I call upon you, my classmates, to step out
59 with the courage and the belief that god is on our side. Let the people here in Prince Edward
60 County hear our cries. I believe the others will join us. The NAACP may come and once they
61 see how determined we are, not to fear and never give up until we have equality in our
62 schools. We must have no fear. Let our action be a symbol for others. But it is only together
63 that we can achieve this goal. Join me and let us make for a better future. Don’t be afraid.
We 64 must walk out we must walk out now and not come back until the school board honors our
65 promises. We must strike for a better education. Follow us. Just follow us out now.
This definitive call to action accomplishes an intertextual feat that defers to cultural legacies. As Elaine Richardson and Ronald Jackson put it, these “persuasive strategies [are] rooted in freedom struggles by people of African Ancestry in America” (xiii). Newby-Alexander joins with Johns to orchestrate a multi-voiced rhetoric that has strength and directness, not fear, not kowtowing, not wavering. We might identify Johns’ tenaciousness and determination as “bringing wreck,” or, as Pough tells us, those “moments when Black women’s discourses disrupt dominant masculine discourses, break into the public sphere, and in some way impact or influence the United States imaginary” (12). It is clear that she is nowhere near as fiery as her uncle, Reverend Vernon Johns, but is just as impassioned. Not only does the rhetoric look back, but it also compels the action (the walk-out) while foretelling another great rhetor, Fannie Lou Hamer, and her mantra of “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired” without actually saying that. Because Johns speaks to an all-black audience, there is little indication of the rhetorical practice of signifyin(g) or use of coded language other than her not saying outright how sick and tired she is.
As Royster notes, “over the generations, African American women’s achievements as language users have been surprisingly consistent” (Traces 5). Elaine Richardson and Ronald Jackson comment that African American discourse is “already polyphonous” (xiii). Many more African American rhetorics emerge from Johns’ (Newby-Alexander’s) plea to action, including a rhetoric of: “it’s up to us” or “only we can do this.” This discourse of “racial uplift’s inward gaze” (Logan 153) is present explicitly in the lines “we must come to our own rescue.” The multi-voiced call to action utilizes accumulation, climax, rhetorical questions, antithesis, anaphora, parallelism, polysyndeton, metonymy and more, which can be viewed as coming from the Greek tradition in name but are also tracible to repetition and other schemes that derive from African-based knowledge (Ampadu 137;143).
As they begin the speech using “I,” there is a quick transition into “we” to spotlight the fact that unity is necessary—but it is the in-the-room “we” who share common interests, not the “we” of the white elite (Cliett 171). Also, the indicators of time which include phrases like “few blocks,” “for years,”and “three years ago,” all lead up to the “we must walk out now.” This operates as the data that propels climax and accumulation into action. There is much descriptive detail of the injustice at hand which attempts to rouse emotion but also to shore up objectivity since description is, to a certain extent, “fact” (Logan 71). As Newby-Alexander will explain in the following section, the decisions she made were relevant to how she understood Johns as an individual, as an individual within the historical moment, and as an someone whose acts are immersed in cultural legacy.
Ghostwriting the Speech Re-enactment/Dramatization
The speech, however, is not the original text Johns had written that day and delivered to over 400 students at Moton High School. Rather, it is the words of a ghostwriter. The ghostwritten text was used for a dramatization in a 2012 documentary film. In the next sections, I will offer some context as to how this ghostwriting came to be via knowledge gained from my interview with the writer, and then I will delve into the re-enactment itself and its rhetoric. On the exact site in Farmville where Barbara Johns led the walkout now stands a National Historic Landmark and museum which “preserves and constructively interprets the history of Civil Rights in Education, specifically as it relates to Prince Edward County, and the leading role its citizens played in America’s transition from segregation toward integration” (Moton Museum). Actor/writer/director Tim Reid (Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings, Greenleaf, Treme, WKRP in Cincinnati, and more) directed Strike: A Call to Action: The Dramatic Story of the 1951 Student Strike (2012), an educational documentary for the museum that retells the story of student protest against segregation in Prince Edward County—the film includes a dramatization of the Barbara Johns’ speech and walk-out. But because the author of the speech re-enactment was not credited at the end of the film, at first it wasn’t an easy feat to identify who the author was.
Thankfully, Cainan Townsend, who is Director of Education and Public Programs at the Moton Museum, directed me to one Dr. Cassandra Newby-Alexander, who was indeed the writer of the re-enactment speech. By the time I finally had the honor of interviewing her in June of 2019, I was overjoyed. Dr. Newby-Alexander—an accomplished and respected historian—is a Professor of History, Dean of the College of Liberal Arts, and Director of the Joseph Jenkins Roberts Center for African Diaspora Studies at Norfolk State University, as well as the author of many monographs, two of which include An African American History of the Civil War in Hampton Roads (2010) and Virginia Waterways and the Underground Railroad (2017). Tim Reid had reached out to Dr. Newby-Alexander to author a version of the Johns’ speech that was to be part of the film he produced. A clip of the making of the re-enactment can be viewed here (“Behind the Scenes”). The transcript follows:
My interview with Newby-Alexander, the author/ghostwriter of Johns’ speech, reveals a method replicable for other writers who want to ghostwrite speeches. Newby-Alexander appears to proceed along a trajectory that includes the following steps:
- identify main motivating factors in the rhetor
- identify main influences in the life of the rhetor
- spend time with the people who were closest to them; listen deeply to them
- gather and absorb sources (primary documents like diaries, newspaper articles, oral histories, biographical material written by secondary sources ***all the above have the main goal of trying to understand who the rhetor was.
- attempt to channel the rhetor
- take leaps.
Newby-Alexander works to figure out what guides Johns’ life; she asks why she did what she did. She explained to me that she not only tried to understand Johns’ motivations but also to listen deeply to those around her including her siblings. She explains:
I’m always asking the question why. Why would a person do this? What motivate you differently than the other. The siblings were close, and so there’s a similarity in their that I thought she would say what she said. (Newby-Alexander )
Johns’ uncle, Reverend Vernon Johns, loomed large in the life of the rhetor, and therefore traces of him would make sense to include in the speech. Newby-Alexander’s thinking is key to historical ethnography as conceived by Jacqueline Jones Royster, where the writer and researcher tries to make sense of lives and experiences (Royster 257). Newby-Alexander explains,
[Reid] had his producer send me a number…of presentations talking about what [the students’] objective was. Everything else was from other people talking about that event, and so I read all of that and I remember thinking this was giving me an understanding of what happened overall but it’s not telling me what she [Barbara Johns] said. It’s not telling me what motivated her because she was a very quiet, studious and unassuming individual. She wasn’t a rabble rousing; you kind of expect her to rabble rouse, but that wasn’t her. And so there was some mention by her in what I was reading that talked about how her uncle [Reverend Vernon Johns] had influenced her. And so I looked up info about her uncle and I started reading what he had said…and I realized she was very much influenced by him. That his position resonated with her in a way that probably motivated her to do what she did. Not that he was in control of any of it, but rather he inspired her.
Newby-Alexander is tapping into sasa time, the culturally imprinted voice known by those still alive as well as those past (Traces 79). The rhetoric is embedded and passed on in practices (Traces 88). Newby-Alexander continues to explain that,
…all of us are influenced by one or two people at our core. I’ve interviewed 200 to 300 people over the years and filmed 40-50 interviews with the Supreme Court of Virginia [as part of] an oral history project. And when you find out [who influenced them], you see how it guides their lives, perception, interpretation, philosophy.
The question as to how Barbara Johns asked the teachers to leave the room (see lines 3-5 of the speech) is unsettled. It may be only one of two approximations in the Newby-Alexander’s reconstruction that I noticed from my research where slightly contradictory narratives existed on the subject. Did Johns shout at the teachers when asking them to leave the auditorium so that she could deliver the speech without their presence? Or did she politely ask them to leave? Taylor Branch writes, “I want you all out of here! she shouted at the teachers, beckoning a small cadre of her supporters to remove them from the room” (76). But Newby-Alexander comments that,
I felt that she was a very respectful person. And so the challenge was how to get her to say get out of the room. You know, that’s now what she would say.
And how would this young girl be able to convince teachers to leave? That was probably the toughest part of what I wrote because I was trying to figure out how would she have asked them to leave. And so everything that I read led me to think that she probably would have phrased it like that. But nobody actually said that in all the oral accounts and people’s memories. They all said she asked them to leave, and they left, but nobody said what she said to them to get them to leave. And so I was really stretching out on that one. That was the toughest part.
Branch interprets Johns as having a fiery temperament like her uncle (76), yet John Stokes, one of the strike committee members says “she had a quietness” but was persuasive (Kluger 468, Newby-Alexander). In addition to not knowing how, for certain, the teachers were asked to leave, Newby-Alexander concluded that the speech she ghost-wrote may have been a “little preachy,” which would certainly align with the fact that Barbara Johns’ biggest influence was considered one of the greatest African American preachers of all time, her uncle Vernon Johns.
In situating the speech within the Black Jeremiad tradition, it evokes a multitude of African American rhetorical topoi such as, but not limited to: assemblage/mixed tape (Banks), emphasis on solution, optimism, call and response, protest/defiance/agitation, the chosen ones, hypocrisy of dominant white culture, common enemy, emphasis on tradition, posting grievances, stories/fabrication (Gilyard, 3-17). This last topos of fabrication-as-a-boon edifies what Newby-Alexander is doing as the ghost-writer. The re-invention of the speech is a fabrication but not a falsehood. Her method of using critical imagination and deep listening to fill in gaps is part of the requisite work needed if we are going to “locate” (Connolly) and “correct the past” (Sutherland). Assemblage is also important for Newby-Alexander. She explains that:
I felt that I had gotten all the pieces together and I wrote from what I could, and that I could understand who she was and what motivated her because nobody had recorded the speech. You know, they only mention that she had excused the teachers from the room. And I thought, given how she was how would she have actually asked them to leave? So much of this, stories don’t have a opportunity to be historically created…I knew I had to take some real serious leaps, but strangely I felt comfortable doing that once I read all that I could about her and her uncle and the world she lived and the people around her. I listened to the interviews with her brother and her sister. I felt like I had gotten close to understanding. (Newby-Alexander)
What Newby-Alexander speaks of is similar to Royster’s method of historical ethnography where Royster perfects the research process of triangulating and cross referencing (257; 282-3). Akin to this is the “rhetoric of remnants” developed in Stuckey’s work where rhetorics of the past must be woven together from disparate and incomplete, sometimes even absent, evidence. Often we have to reconcile an incomplete or inconsistent historical record.
Newby-Alexander reveals that she was moved to “channel” her subject. She goes on to explain:
So I took that [inspiration she must have received from her uncle Vernon Johns], and in a kind of weird way, I almost thought that I was channeling her—the memory of what she did as I wrote this.
I knew her brother and sister were [at the opening of the film] and some of the friends…I was so ecstatic when I heard [them say], ‘well, yea, that is how it happened, that’s what she said.’ I was happy that I was somehow able to capture her essence and to some degree who she was.
Did Barbara Johns have a podium as the film depicts? Probably. Did she slam her shoe against it to get everyone to quiet down? Maybe. In the monumental film entitled Africa’s Great Civilizations (“The Atlantic Age” episode), Henry Louis Gates uses the term “approximate” to describe doing the work of uncovering histories. Royster speaks of “presence & traces” (Traces 4). We must continue to adjust our methods in these ways to be sure we do history equitably.
Archival Ghostwriting, Imaginary Archives, & Dramatizations
Like doing “approximate” histories, ghostwriting is also nothing new. According to Brown and Riley, ghostwriting not only has been around since antiquity but also has direct ties to the origins of rhetoric (711). In their study delving into perceptions of ghostwriting, they discover that people generally approve of it but that nearly all of the responsibility for what is in a ghostwritten speech lies with the speech giver/rhetor, not the writer (718). That may be true for ghostwriters of politicians. However, in a case study such as that of the Barbara Johns’ re-creation and others like it, the notion of responsibility reverses, and we begin to understand how much responsibility the writer and researcher does indeed hold. Thomas Couser names this kind of work “autobiographical collaboration” (335). He concedes that, of course, there are different kinds and degrees of collaboration, but in autobiographical collaborations, most often one member supplies the “life” while the other provides the “writing” (335). We can also view collaboration and re-creation as a sort of—what Emma Perez calls in The Decolonial Imaginary—“dialectics of doubling” (32-3). Newby-Alexander does a certain kind of doubling of Johns where a new, imagined history is created through the performative act of ghostwriting. While Perez discusses the Yucatan Feminist Congresses of 1916 and “voiced grievances,” we’re both examining the creation of a “third space” where enunciation (rhetoric) happens (Perez 32-3).
So many more examples of “doubling” exist in women’s rhetoric. In “Imaginary Archives: A Dialogue,” Julia Bryan-Wilson interviews Cheryl Dunye, film-maker and artist known for her 1996 film entitled The Watermelon Woman, where Dunye herself plays a young Black lesbian who tries to make a film about a lesser-known Black actress named Fae Richards from the 1930s but discovers there is not enough factual evidence for a documentary. Dunye thus creates a fictional photo archive (78 prints by Zoe Leonard) of the actress after discovering that the Lesbian Herstory Archive had no African American women in Hollywood in it and the Library of Congress had African American women in Hollywood but no lesbians (Bryan-Wilson 83). The fictitious images “appear to be actual historical documents, including everything from her promotional headshots to casual snapshots of her with friends, family, and lovers. Leonard’s images are poignant re-creations of a life we have scant evidence of” (83).
Moreover, Dunye’s method of re-creation is similar to what Tonia Sutherland explores in “From (Archival) Page to (Virtual) Stage: The Virtual Vaudeville Prototype.” Sutherland explains how if we privilege more than just text-based documents, as we often do, we exclude those histories and communities that have produced temporal events like performances (393). She describes a project created by David Saltz called “Live Performance Simulation System Virtual Vaudeville Prototype” that uses digital technology with real actors to re-create the live performance that no longer exists in the archive. This way, those performances can be both experienced and archived (396). Like virtual reality, live immersive reality can fill gaps in history and rhetoric too. In “Performing the Archival Body: Inciting Queered Feminist (Dis)locational Rhetorics Through Place-Based Pedagogies,” Bentley and Lee concur with the idea that the “traditional archival paradigm” must be contested. They facilitate pop-up archival performances that do not privilege “perfect” or “pure” tellings of history (191).
A few more projects to mention include the University of Minnesota’s “Ancient Greek Rhetoric in Immersive Virtual Reality,” which aims to “produce and evaluate accurate virtual reconstructions of ancient Greek sites of rhetorical performance” (the term “accurate” is contestable when considering history as rhetorical) and North Carolina State University’s Virtual Martin Luther King Project, which includes re-enactments of the delivery of Dr. King’s speeches and more. Well known examples of approximations and refigurings include Glenn’s work on Aspasia and Ronald and Ritchie’s discussion of Truth’s “Ain’t I A Woman.” Mandzuik and Fitch expand on “the rhetorical construction of Sojourner Truth” by theorizing how both transformation (redefinition) and transfiguration (exultation and abstraction) are products of the “double layer of facts and happenings surrounding her character with no accounts of her own to balance them” except for her Narrative which was told to a white friend (120-1).
Not to mention, we’re seeing more African American history in pop culture (e.g., Watchmen re-works the Tulsa Race Riot; To Kill a Mockingbird on Broadway gives voices to both Calpurnia and Tom Robinson when Lee’s original novel does not). The Underground Railroad TV series re-imagines an hour long speech by Harriet Tubman to white abolitionists. There exist many other virtual and augmented reality, immersive technology, and performance and collaborative projects that I am unable to fully explore here. See a short list of additional sources in the appendix, including more on methods. Aja Martinez’s dramatization of her in conversation at the table of Octalog I is another such method that is what she calls “counterstory” (71-2). Clearly, ghostwriting, critical imagination, and dramatizations are key to creating a more equitable archive and present moment. As Sutherland reminds us, “If archives are to mitigate vagaries in the cultural record by utilizing digital tools and new media technologies, archivists and researchers must create the space needed for variable cultural forms and expressions to coexist within the same systems” (413).
It is clear that we must persist in our efforts to identify lesser-known histories and rhetorics so that we can continue to refigure our cultural heritage. Equally, if we fail to credit or know Barbara Johns, we award the racist Prince Edward Country, VA School Board of the 1950s and 1960s archival amnesty (Sutherland). We cannot allow the field of rhetoric to continue to operate by giving amnesty to what feels like an unrelenting white supremacy. Case in point: although the Moton students had in fact received a new building in 1953, these federal civil rights victories made white people resist even more. In 1956, Virginia adopted a policy called “Massive Resistance”—whose main advocate, U.S. Senator Harry F. Byrd, still has a highway in Virginia named after him (McRae). This particular white supremacist movement gained strength in Prince Edward County when the white-led School Board voted in 1954 to close all public schools rather than integrate them. To circumvent federal law, white people then diverted funds from the closed public schools in order to open an all-white private school while Black students in the county were left without state supported education for the five years (see Epps-Robertson). To fill the gap—where only the most fascist states in the world failed to provide free education to youth—the Black communities rallied to create Prince Edward County Free School Association. Finally, in 1964, a supreme court decision ruled against the Prince Edward County school board and ordered the opening and integration of all county schools.
But 13 years before that Barbara John’s delivered her speech to 450 classmates. This was before Claudette Colvin, at age 15 ,was arrested for resisting bus segregation in 1955. This was nine months before Rosa Parks, before the Little Rock Nine in 1957 (students aged 15 to 17), before Ruby Bridges (at age 6, escorted by federal marshals to integrate all-white school in New Orleans, 1960), before John Lewis (at age 20, founding member of SNCC, leader of 1960 Nashville sit-in movement), before Diane Nash (at age 22, chairperson of the 1960 Nashville sit-in movement), before the Children’s Crusade (1963) where 100 Black children marched in Birmingham.
While most of our timelines put the modern civil rights era between 1954-1968, it is clear that Barbara Johns should be “Overlooked No More” (Booth). Branch writes, “Had the [Moton] student strike begun ten or 15 years later, Barbara Johns would have become something of a phenomenon in the public media. In that era, however, the case remained muffled in white consciousness, and the schoolgirl origins of the lawsuit were lost as well on nearly all…outside Prince Edward County” (65). The first ever Barbara Johns day was celebrated in Virginia on April 23, the day of the speech and walk-out. A building in Capitol Square which houses the Office of the Attorney General in Richmond was named for her. Her statue is central to the Civil Rights Memorial in Richmond in Capitol Square, and yet another statue will soon replace the Robert E. Lee monument that had been inside the Capitol building since 1909. This is all part of de-centering whiteness. Ghostwriting and imaginative reconstruction can serve important social and racial justice aims in and out of the classroom when there are gaps and silences which need to be filled. It’s a call to de-centralize the white rhetorical imaginary via counterstories (Martinez 404). This work is part of the urgent call for truth and reconciliation in rhetoric.
Agnew, Vanessa. “History’s Affective Turn: Historical Reenactment and Its Work in the Present.” Rethinking History, vol. 11, no. 3, 2007, pp. 299-312.
Ampadu, Lena. “Modeling Orality: African American Rhetorical Practices and the Teaching of Writing.” Richardson and Jackson, pp. 136-54.
“Ancient Greek Rhetoric in Immersive Virtual Reality.” University of Minnesota, https://www.msi.umn.edu/research/ancient-greek-rhetoric-immersive-virtual-reality.
Applegarth, Resa. “Children Speaking” Agency and Public Memory in Children’s Peace Statue Project.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly, vol. 41, no. 1, 2017, pp. 49-73.
Banks, Adam. Digital Griots: African American Rhetoric in a Digital Age. Southern Illinois UP, 2011.
“Behind-the-Scenes: Recreating the 1951 Barbara Johns. Speech.” YouTube, uploaded by motonmuseum, April 19, 2010, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z9u039ruKj0&t=145s
Bentley, Elizabeth and Jamie A. Lee with FARR. “Performing the Archival Body: Inciting Queered Feminist (Dis)locational Rhetorics Through Place-Based Pedagogies. Peitho, vol. 21, no. 1, 2018, pp. 183-210.
Booth, Lance. “Overlooked No More: Barbara Johns, Who Defied Segregation in Schools.” New York Times, May 8, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/08/obituaries/barbara-johns-overlooked.html.
Bormann, Ernest G. “Ghostwriting and the Rhetorical Critic.” Quarterly Journal of Speech, vol. 46, no. 3, 1960,pp. 284-288. Branch, Taylor. Parting the Waters: American in the King Years, 1954-1963. Simon & Schuster, 1998.
Browdy, Ronisha. “Black Women’s Rhetoric(s): A Conversation Starter for Naming and Claiming a Field of Study.” Peitho, vol. 23, no. 4, 2021.
Brown, Stuart C. and Linda A. Riley. “Crafting a Public Image: An Empirical Study of the Ethics of Ghostwriting.” Journal of Business Ethics, vol. 15, no. 7,1996, pp. 711-720.
Bryan-Wilson, Julia and Cheryl Dunye. “Imaginary Archives: A Dialogue.” Art Journal, vol. 72, 89. 2 2013, pp. 82-89.
Cliett, Victoria. “The Rhetoric of Democracy: Contracts, Declarations, and Bill of Sales.” Richardson and Jackson, pp. 170-86.
“Declaration of the Rights of American Youth.” American Youth Congress, 1936. https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Declaration_of_the_Rights_of_American_Youth
Epps-Robertson, Candace. Resisting Brown: Race, Literacy, and Citizenship in the Heart of Virginia. UP of Pittsburgh, 2018.
Franklin, Sekou. “Black Youth Activism and the Reconstruction of America: Leaders, Organizations and Tactics in the Twentieth Century and Beyond.” Black History Bulletin, vol. 79, no. 1, 2016, pp. 5-14.
Gandy, Samuel Lucius ed., Human Possibilities: A Vernon Johns Reader. Hoffman, 1977. Out of print.
Gilyard, Keith. “Introduction.” Richardson and Jackson, pp. 1-18.
Glenn, Cheryl. “Sex, Lies, and Manuscript: Refiguring Aspasia in the History of Rhetoric.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 45, no. 2, 1994, pp. 180-99.
Green, Kristen. Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County. Harper, 2015.
Howell, Tracee L. “Manifesto of a Mid-Life White Feminist Or, an Apologia for Embodied Feminism.” On Race, Feminism, and Rhetoric, special issue of Peitho, vol. 23, no. 4, 2021.
Kanefield, Teri. The Girl from the Tar Paper School: Barbara Rose Johns and the Advent of the Civil Rights Movement. Abrams, 2014.
Kimizuka, Masanori. “Historical Development of Magnetic Recording and Tape Recorder.” National Museum of Nature and Science. Survey Reports on the Systematization of Technologies, vol. 17, 2012.
Kluger, Richard. Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America’s Struggle for Equality. Knopf, 2004.
Logan, Shirley Wilson. “We Are Coming:” The Persuasive Discourse of Nineteenth-Century Black Women. Southern Illinois UP, 1999.
—. With Pen and Voice: A Critical Anthology of Nineteenth-Century African-American Women. Southern Illinois UP, 1995.
Luker, Ralph E. “Murder and Biblical Memory: The Legend of Vernon Johns.“ The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 112, no. 4, 2004, pp. 372-418.
Martinez, Aja. “Core-Coursing Counterstory: On Master Narrative Histories of Rhetorical Studies Curricula.” Rhetoric Review, vol. 38, no. 4, 2019, pp. 402-16.
—. Counterstory: The Rhetoric and Writing of Critical Race Theory. NCTE, 2020.
McRae, Elizabeth Gillespie. Mothers of Massive Resistance: White Women and the Politics of White Supremacy. Oxford UP, 2018.
Newby-Alexander, Cassandra. Personal Interview. June 19, 2019.
Perez, Emma. The Decolonial Imaginary. Indiana UP, 1999.
Pough, Gwendolyn. Check It While I Wreck It: Black Womanhood, Hip-hop Culture and the Public Sphere. Northeastern UP, 2015.
Pough, Gwendolyn, and Stephanie Jones. “On Race, Feminism, and Rhetoric: An Introductory/Manifesto Flow…” On Race, Feminism, and Rhetoric, special issue of Peitho, vol. 23, no. 4, 2021.
Powell, Malea. “Dreaming Charles Eastman: Cultural Memory, Autobiography, and Geography in Indigenous Rhetorical Histories.” 115-127. Beyond the Archives: Research as a Lived Process, edited by Gesa E. Kirsch, Liz Rohan, and Lucille M. Schultz, Southern Illinois UP, 2008.
Robert R. Musso Moton Museum. http://www.motonmuseum.org.
Richardson, Elaine and Ronald Jackson, editors. African American Rhetoric(s): Interdisciplinary Perspectives. Southern Illinois UP, 2004.
Ritchie, Joy and Kate Ronald. Available Means: An Anthology of Women’s Rhetoric(s). U of Pittsburgh P, 2001.
Royster, Jacqueline. “Disciplinary landscaping, or Contemporary Challenges in the History of Rhetoric.” Philosophy & Rhetoric, vol. 36, no. 2, 2003, pp. 148-67.
—. Traces of a Stream: Literacy and Social Change Among African American Women. U of Pittsburgh P, 2000.
Ryder, Phyllis Mentzell. “Beyond Critique: Global Activism and the Case of Malala Yousafzai.” Literacy in Composition Studies, vol. 3, no. 1, 2015, pp. 175–87.
Strike: A Call to Action: The Dramatic Story of the 1951 Student Strike. 2012. Written, edited, and produced by Tim Reid. All rights reserved, Robert R. Musso Moton Museum.
Stuckey, Zosha. A Rhetoric of Remnants: Idiots, Half-Wits, and Other State-Sponsored Inventions. SUNY Press, 2014.
Sutherland, Tonia. “Archival Amnesty: In Search of Black American Transitional and Restorative Justice.” Special Issue of Journal of Critical Library and Information Studies,. From (Archival) Page to (Virtual) Stage: The Virtual Vaudeville Prototype. edited by. Michelle Caswell, Ricardo Punzalan, and T-Kay Sangwand, 2017.
The American Archivist, vol. 79, no. 2, 2016, pp. 392-416.Wolters, Raymond.
The New Negro On Campus: Black College Rebellions of the 1920s. Princeton UP, 1975.
Young, Vershawn Ashanti, and Michelle Bachelor Robinson. The Routledge Reader of African American Rhetoric. Routledge, 2018.
“Youth March for Integrated Schools.” 1958-1959. https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/youth-march-integrated-schools
Additional Sources & Projects
“Ancient Greek Rhetoric in Immersive Virtual Reality.” University of Minnesota’s Supercomputing Institute. https://www.msi.umn.edu/research/ancient-greek-rhetoric- immersive-virtual-reality
Auslander, Mark. “Touching the Past: Materializing Time in Traumatic ‘Living History’ Reenactments.” Signs and Society, vol. 1, no. 1, 2013, pp. 161-83.
Bordo, Susan. “When Fictionalized Facts Matter.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. 6 May 2012). https://www.chronicle.com/article/When-Fictionalized-Facts/131759.
Bowman, Doug, Aaron Johnson, David Hicks, David Cline, and Eric Ragan. “If This Place Could Talk: Using Augmented Reality to Make the Past Visible.” Social Education, vol. 81, no. 2, 2017, pp. 112-6.
Connolly, N.D.B.. “A Black Power Method.” http://www.publicbooks.org/nonfiction/a-Black-power-method.
Couser, G. Thomas. “Making, Taking, and Faking Lives: The Ethics of Collaborative Life Writing.” Style, vol. 32, no. 2, 1998, pp. 334-50.
Enoch, Jessica. “Changing Research Methods, Changing History: A Reflection on Language, Location, and Archive.” Composition Studies, vol. 38, no. 2, 2010, pp. 47-73.
Gutenson, Leah DiNatale and Michelle Bachelor Robinson. “Race, Women, Methods, and Access: A Journey through Cyberspace and Back. Peitho, vol. 19, no. 1, 2016, pp. 71-92. https://cfshrc.org/article/race-women-methods-and-access-a-journey-through-cyberspace-and-back/
Mandziuk, Roseann M., and Suzanne Pullon Fitch. “The Rhetorical Construction of Sojourner Truth.” Southern Journal of Communication, vol. 66, no. 2, 2001, 120-38.
Sims, David. “A New Way of Looking at To Kill a Mockingbird.” The Atlantic. 17 Dec. 2019. https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2019/12/aaron-sorkin-finds-new-edge-to-kill-mockingbird/603652/
Sutherland, Tonia. “Restaging the Record: Opportunities for Collaboration in Event-Based Archivy,” Annual Review of Cultural Heritage Informatics, edited by Samantha K. Hastings, 2014.”Virtual Martin Luther King, Jr. Project.” North Carolina State University. https://vmlk.chass.ncsu.edu/experience/historical/archive/
Woods, Carly S. “Barbara Jordan and the Ongoing Struggle for Voting Rights.” Quarterly Journal of Speech, vol. 106, no. 3, 2020, pp. 291-298.
I.: Pedagogical Assignment –
From this research, ideas for classroom exercises emerged. How could I re-create some of Dr. Newby Alexander’s methods in a rhetoric and writing classroom? How would her method help writing and rhetoric students understand how critical imagination and ghostwriting work in historiography? What ethical issues would arise? Would it work to have students brainstorm historical figures whose rhetoric had been forgotten or sidelined so the students could then re-imagine, re-create or ghostwrite a historically accurate speech that would write that person back into history?
I’d highly recommend this assignment which can work well alongside rhetorical and stylistic considerations, such as audience, constraints, dialect, purpose, but even more importantly, alongside a curriculum that decenters whiteness. Anti-racist teaching must saturate this assignment. Ethical considerations will, no doubt, arise such as having to decide if students are able to write across identities. Contemplating writing “as” others must coincide with discussion of risks and problems inherent in that. I have used this as a lesson in discussing “who can and should write for whom?” This usually leads into a discussion of how Hollywood needs to hire more writers of color to coincide with their needing to be more characters of color on film and tv. Another question that might emerge is “who is at will to take leaps in understanding?” This can become an exercise in acknowledging one’s inability to fully understand others and the ethical urgency for not just more diverse representations but a knowledge-making that evolves from more diverse origins. After spending some time studying rhetoric from the standpoint of gaps, silences, counterstories, and anti-racist refigurings, here’s how I pitched this work:
Speechwriting Mini-Workshop on Imaginative Reconstruction
For this activity, you will choose an event and a person/character, then you will deliver a short speech of 250 words or less. The process, which will be recursive, will include:
- researching the person and event
- planning the speech
- composing it
- revising it
- practicing the delivery
- delivering it
1. Choose a historical event and a central character.
Choose someone or something that will fill in a gap in history. You are the ghostwriter for someone. I’d prefer it was a real person, but a fictional (though believable) character and event is an option as well. Try to keep it connected to some of the themes we’ve discussed so far, or you can connect it to your research project (if you know what that is).
Example: Historians recently found a speech written by Phyllis Wheatley, the eighteenth century poet, that condemns her mistress for enslaving her.
Example: Oprah is entering the Presidential race and giving a speech to the nation announcing her candidacy.
Example: Kittur Rani Chennamma, a nineteenth century Queen from Mysore, India gives a speech before she goes into battle against the British.
Example: Agnes Sampson, a woman killed for witchcraft in the North Berwick witch trials of 1591 in Scotland, gives a speech from the stake.
Example: Shirley Chisholm is still alive and writes an election speech in 2020.
Example: Mrs. Margaret Park of Wigan giving a speech in England against the 1842 Act that prohibited “Pit-Brow” women from working in the mines.
Brainstorm and research background details about the historical event. Spend some time researching the event and person. Take notes and keep a record of sources to include in your transcript.
Describe the rhetorical and material situation. Who are the audiences? What are the constraints? What is the purpose? Where is the setting? Describe the time and place of the setting, as well as the time in which the person lives. What other historical or material context exists that will impact the speech?
Describe the person or character. What is the person like? Their traits, tendencies, values, etc.?
Describe the language and style they’d most likely use. What are their speech patterns? What words might they use? Syntax and rhetorical figures?
As you compose, consider:
- Write to be spoken; not a policy paper
- Give one or two ideas, not ten
- Give them two or three takeaways
- Be Memorable
- Have a structure
- Don’t waste the opening
- Strike the right tone
- Repeat yourself with variability – hammer things home
- Use transitions (signal phrases)
- Include theatrics
- End strong
How might the person read a speech? What volume would they speak with? What bodily movements or gestures might they make?
In practicing, find a partner to read it to more than once. Go back and revise where needed. Follow guidelines from our readings:
- Be fully present when giving it
- Be sincere; have oral authenticity
- Emphasize words and phrases
- Use eye contact
- Look around the room
- Pause when needed; pause frequently