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The most recent issue of Peitho (Volume 24.1, Fall 2021) is now live! Please take some time to enjoy tributes to the late Lisa Ede (contributed by Michael J. Faris, Jessica Restaino, Asao B. Inoue, Vicki Tolar Burton, Tim Jensen, Kristy Kelly, Sarah Tinker Perrault, Ehren Helmut Pflugfelder, and Rachel Daugherty), articles by Zosha Stuckey, Emily January Petersen, Breanne Matheson, Megan J. Busch, and Ashley Canter, Recoveries and Reconsiderations by Mary LeRouge, Jacyln Fiscus-Cannaday, Susan Ghiaciuc, Cathryn Molloy, and Vanessa Rouillon, and Nanette Rasband Hilton’s review of Opportunities for Feminist Research in Rhetoric and Composition edited by Jessica Enoch and Jordynn Jack.
Many thanks to the Editorial Team that made this issue possible: Co-Editors Rebecca Dingo and Clancy Ratliff, Associate Editor Temptaous Mckoy, and Editorial Assistants Kelli Lycke Martin, Stacie Klinowski, Ashley Canter, and Stacy Earp.
In Linguistic Justice: Black Language, Literacy, Identity, and Pedagogy, Assistant Professor of Language, Literacy, and English Education at Michigan State University, April Baker-Bell shows readers she ain’t new to the Black Language (BL hereafter) conversation, but that she true to it. Conversations throughout the field of composition and literacy studies bout the literacy development of Black people within the American Education System been a hot topic and continues today. It ain’t no secret that Black people in America have been the topic of discussion in various conversations. Most of these conversations evolve round Black people…dare I say it…bein Black, literally. For example, the world has witnessed Black Americans of various ages be attacked and murdered by racist white people for doin seemingly normal activities like walkin, runnin, playin music, sleepin, singin outside, and complying with police demands to name a few. Moreover, Baker-Bell’s research on BL and pedagogical suggestions for how literacy educators, researchers, and students can benefit from first examining and then incorporating BL into the writing classroom, makes Linguistic Justice: Black Language, Literacy, Identity and Pedagogy required reading for those who want to know about the conversations regarding the validity of BL and its use by Black and non-Black people alike.
Wit more than 20 years’ experience teaching English at the high school and collegiate level, Baker-Bell blesses readers with six chapters in Linguistic Justice. In chapter one she identifies the purpose of Linguistic Justice in chapter one arguing:
people’s language experiences are not separate from their racial experiences. Indeed, the way a Black child’s language is devalued in school reflects how Black lives are devalued in the world. Similarly, the way a white child’s language is privileged and deemed the norm in schools is directly connected to the invisible ways that white culture is deemed normal, neutral, and superior in the world. (2)
Through this argument, Baker-Bell confronts the catalyst behind the continued conversation of BL and literacy education of Black students who speak and write using BL as it is an integral part of their identity: white supremacy. White supremacist ideologies within the American education system where Black students were and continue to be demeaned and labeled deficient because they don’t use “White Mainstream English” (WME hereafter) is because the idea of WME as the only acceptable form of English has been ingrained into the psyche of educators, parents, and students (3). Therefore, any language spoken or written that don’t mirror WME was/is deemed wrong, inadequate, deficit and the list goes on. As a teacher-scholar-activist, Baker-Bell challenges educators, scholars, and graduate students in various fields dedicated to language and literacy, to fight back against white supremacist ideologies which promote Anti-Black Linguistic Racism and subsequently Anti-Blackness, to Black students across the United States and the world. In addition to this argument, Baker-Bell presents “Linguistic Justice as a Black Language Theoreticum, a theory meets practicum” (8), for its contents expand seemingly traditional models of teaching. In chapter 2, Baker-Bell introduces readers to the theory of Anti-Black Linguistic Racism to show how prejudice against Black language is synonymous with racism against Black people and culture. Moreover, she offers Black Language Pedagogy as a method for students and Antiracist educators to resist and dismantle Anti-Black Linguistic Racism within the classroom, ultimately the world. Chapter 3 highlights the voices of several BL speaking high-school students who Baker-Bell worked with regarding their lived experiences with Black Linguistic Racism in and outside of school. This chapter is unique in that Baker-Bell centers these student voices to show how Anti-Black Linguistic Racism negatively impacts Black students’ identity and agency in and outside of the classroom. Chapter 4 showcases Baker-Bell’s Antiracist Black Language Pedagogy in action. Here, she details examples of lessons and activities she used to teach the high school students at Leadership Academy how to “challenge, interrogate, unlearn, and work toward dismantling Anti-Black Linguistic Racism” (64). In Chapter 5, Baker-Bell shares responses of the students she worked with previously (in chapter 3) on what they learned about Black Language and Anti-Black Linguistic Racism via the activities and lessons she taught using Antiracist Black Language Pedagogy. Finally, Chapter 6 considered a Bonus chapter by Baker-Bell, provides readers with an update on her research with the students from Leadership Academy in addition to activities for English teachers to incorporate Linguistic Justice as a framework within they classes. Specifically, these activities and lessons curated within chapter were developed from award winning Young Adult fiction author, Angie Thomas’ bestseller, T.H.U.G.: The Hate U Give. Through the various chapters, Baker-Bell takes readers on a journey that ain’t for the faint of heart, especially if they goal is to actively practice Anti-Racist Pedagogy and Anti-Racist Black Linguistic Racism.
In Linguistic Justice, readers learn of Baker-Bell’s contribution to the ongoing BL conversation through the foreword that precedes its initial chapters. Michigan State University Professor of English, Emerita, the livin legend herself, Dr. Geneva Smitherman highlighted Baker-Bell’s contribution to the BL and literacy education conversation by continuing da work of those scholars who came before her in the foreword. Smitherman praises Baker-Bell sayin:
At long last, this is the book we have all been waiting for. A book designed to develop our students’ critical understanding of and historical consciousness about Black Language. A book that builds on that critical inquiry to motivate students to formulate ways of impacting and changing the linguistic status quo. As a leading member of a new generation of language and literature scholar-teacher-activists, Dr. April Baker-Bell represents for Black Language and it’s speakers because she gets it. (xii)
Dr. Smitherman’s declaration that Baker-Bell “gets it” is a statement that rings true and is shown throughout Linguistic Justice. As an early-career scholar in composition and applied linguistics whose research centers how Black Women English Teachers-Scholars (BWETS hereafter) navigate the field as BL speakers and writers, Linguistic Justice snatched the teeny tiny bit of edges I had left (my doctoral journey took the majority of them; but that’s a story for another publication).
As mentioned previously, Linguistic Justice challenges not only educators, but ANYONE in the field of English and literacy studies to critically examine they own beliefs regarding BL as well as the ways they intentionally or unintentionally perpetuate Anti-Black Linguistic Racism and Anti-Blackness in they teaching. For example, in chapter 3 “Killing Them Softly” I was forced to revisit my own experiences with Anti-Black Linguistic Racism as a young jawn, when Baker-Bell introduced the counterstories, a womanist practice, of Black students she worked with at Leadership Academy Charter School in Detroit. Specifically, I resonated with the experience of “Janel” who had spent the majority of her life navigating Anti-Black Linguistic Racism from teachers, administrators, Black elders and her own BL speaking family members. Resonating with Janel’s experience reinforced my commitment to actively dismantle Anti-Black Linguistic and Anti-Blackness within myself (ex. checkin myself when I start tryna judge someone’s level of customer service simply because they use BL to communicate). In my teaching, I encourage my students to bring their full selves not only to my course but to the assignments too. I encourage them to write in they home languages in an effort to recognize and honor the validity of languages outside of WME. I model this by usin BL in my syllabus and in the written feedback I provide on papers. I look forward to incorporating Linguistic Justice and Baker-Bell’s use of composite character counter storytelling methodology into my own research on BL speaking and writing BWETS. In chapter 5 “Black Linguistic Consciousness” Baker-Bell calls out language and literacy educators when she says
You can’t be out here saying that you believe in linguistic diversity at the same time of shutting students down as soon as they open their mouths. You have to be about this life for real for real! You have to be ready and willing to challenge everything you once understood about language and what students need in language education. You have to be ready for the messiness that comes with the process. (100)
Baker-Bell urges educators to move beyond talk about bein or becoming Anti-Racist Educators by challenging themselves and their colleagues to actively engage in dismantling Anti-Black Linguistic Racism. For students, Baker-Bell provides them with the academic receipts to protect themselves from and ultimately challenge Anti-Black Linguistic Racism and internalized Anti-Black Linguistic Racism from teachers, administrators, elders, and family members who still privilege WME as the gold standard. While Baker-Bell’s Linguistic Justice calls out educators, researchers, graduate students to focus on undoing Anti-Black Linguistic Racism, in true Black woman fashion, Baker-Bell shows that while she is calling these people out, that she ain’t gon leave em hangin’ to try to carry out this call on they own. Thus, she provided the previously mentioned bonus chapter (see “THUG LIFE”) with sample activities for how language and literacy educators can integrate Antiracist Black Language Pedagogy into they own teaching. Baker-Bell was gracious enough to share seven “Black Language Artifacts” “that can be implemented, altered, or used for inspiration to help teachers think through how to use literature in pursuit of linguistic and racial justice” (104).
Linguistic Justice: Black Language, Literacy, Identity, and Pedagogy ain’t no ordinary theory/research text, it is a movement. Linguistic Justice is a movement in that its content propels language and literacy educators and students to become movers and shakers within the continued fight against Anti-Black Linguistic Racism, Antiracist pedagogy, and Anti-Blackness as a whole—a critical component of womanist practices. Specifically, for the field of composition, Linguistic Justice directly addresses the common question of how to teach about BL as a vital part of literacy education for not just Black students, but non-Black students also. For teachers and scholars of composition, Linguistic Justice serves as a bold reminder of how many were taught to privilege WME as the correct way of writing and speaking within the writing classroom. Therefore, Linguistic Justice should be considered required reading in teacher education programs, as well as professional development for current teachers across the K-16 levels. What’s more, is Baker-Bell’s Linguistic Justice Framework could benefit not just composition but can be included in trainings and curriculums for non-humanities/social science fields. As Smitherman complimented sayin she “gets it”, I truly believe Linguistic Justice was Baker-Bell’s collective homage to the brilliance and beauty of Black Language, Black identity, Black education, Black people, and most of all Black freedom, and she desires for everybody and they mama to “get it” and get it (meaning purchase the book) you should, dear reader.
Asian American Feminisms & Women of Color Politics is a collection edited by Lynn Fujiwara and Shireen Roshanravan. I first read the book in the summer of 2020 in the midst of another wave of Black Lives Matter movement calling for justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many other Black people murdered by the police. This was not only another moment of awakening for me to the racial injustice in this country, particularly against Black people, but also to reflect on my own racialized positionality. Now, I’m reading this collection for a second time, barely a year later, at yet another kairotic moment when six Asian women’s lives were taken by a white terrorist in a racially and sexually motivated crime in Atlanta and the nation is perhaps finally recognizing the racial violence against Asian peoples that has long existed yet particularly heightened due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Drawing from multiple disciplinary perspectives, this collection moves toward theorizing an Asian American feminist praxis, contextualized in transnational and transcultural politics and grounded in intersectional and decolonial approaches. It starts by tracing the history of Asian American feminist genealogies in a global context from the work of third world feminist and Asian decolonization in Grace Kyungwon Hong’s chapter to Judy Tzu-Chun Wu’s efforts in making visible the differences and tensions between radical and liberal strands of Asian American feminisms developed in the 20th century. This history offers a good foundation for readers to engage with the rest of the chapters approaching Asian American feminisms and politics from a multitude of perspectives.
In this review, I highlight important takeaways from each section, without necessarily going through each chapter linearly but thematically, because this journey of learning and growth for me is iterative and recursive, embedded in my own experiences and positionalities as a Chinese permanent resident living in the U.S., a scholar and student of feminist rhetorics.
Several chapters challenge readers to reflect on the labels we use for Asian Diaspora, such as “Asian American” (107) or “Asian Canadian” women (156): how can we perceive this complex identity in all its multifacetedness? Who may be included or excluded by these labels? What gets erased or neglected? Stephanie Nohelani Teves and Maile Arvin critique the use of the term “Asian Pacific Islanders.” They remind us of the colonial history of Pacific Islanders, and argue that Asian Americans need to recognize their own complicity in marginalizing Pacific Islanders and erasing their histories while offer recommendations for teaching and research in Asian American studies.
In discussing the “South Asian Canadian women” cultural position, Sunera Thobani warns us of “colonial ideologies of passive victimhood and patriarchal cultures characterized by misogynist violence” which neglect the struggles South Asian Canadian women experience against social, economic, and political forces (157). Similarly, Thomas Xavier Sarmiento highlights the importance of a descriptive approach to the complex and multiple identities one might embody. Sarmiento looks to diasporic Filipinx literature for a Filipinx American feminist and queer political orientation to challenge colonial oppression and white supremacy, arguing that “gender liberation must be fundamentally queer” (100).
Erin Khuê Ninh’s chapter on sexual violence in the everyday lives of Asian American women is particularly poignant to read in light of what happened in Atlanta. Ninh calls us to attune to the “gender socialization” that Asian American women may experience, arguing that “Asian American women’s experiences of sexual coercion are ‘culturally’ inflected: sabotaged by the model minority paradigm not as stereotype but as subject formation” (76). She argues to “make coercion structural, not inflictive” and emphasizes that the question of consent should not be that of a “yes/no delineation” but instead “How do you feel?” (77).
I especially appreciate the detailed research accounts by authors who lay bare their own vulnerability, self-reflection, and positionality as they approach their research and activist work (Sarmiento; Ninh; Fujiwara; Kimoto). I resonate with the emphasis on how our positionality in any situation may allow us to “approach resistance movements from varying points of entry and belonging” (Fujiwara 247). There isn’t one Asian American subject, as there isn’t one Asian American feminist subject. We are always already embedded in a contextualized network based on interconnected identity markers and values.
Part four of the book presents inspirational activist work and Asian American feminist organizing, demonstrating how this contextualized examination and reflection of positionality is crucial to advancing feminist causes. Ma Vang’s analysis of a refugee community health organization in the U.S. and theorizing of a Hmong feminist praxis of care pushes the limits of feminist epistemology and centers refugees not as passive victims needing help but active agents of change in their own communities who in turn also shape institutional practices and bridge different feminist formations (185). From a transnational perspective, Gina Velasco rejects the moralistic framework often adopted by international organizations and policies that further exploits gendered Philippine migrant workers by focusing almost exclusively on sexual labor as sex trafficking (202).
Similarly, Priya Kandaswamy calls for an intersectional approach to reproductive justice through the analysis of the criminalization of Purvi Patel in the U.S., highlighting the interlocking factors that shape the regulation of reproductive rights as much as gender: race, class, immigration status, and ability. Kandaswamy critiques the portrayals of Patel, by those who supported her, who prosecuted her, and by media in general that fall into stereotyping Asian women as deceptive, manipulative, and lack of agency, victims of their own patriarchal cultures rather than individuals who can make their own choices (223). Across the three chapters in Part four, we can see authors centering the agency of marginalized Asian American women and their own practices of empowerment while revealing the structural and systemic forces that aim to reduce the complex identities of different Asian American women.
A central theme throughout the book is an emphasis on coalitional politics built across the differences of groups of people who identify as Asian diaspora, rather than essentializing any specific group as representing Asian or Asian American community. Many chapters (e.g., Velasco, Thobani, Kimoto, Sarmiento) challenge simplistic politics of representation and call for intersectional attunement not only along gender and racial lines, but also to historical, economic, social, and political contexts. And authors in this collection have demonstrated how this work can be done with care.
Tamsin Kimoto’s chapter brings forth the historical work underpinning the systemic racializing work in the U.S. that pitted Asian Americans against Black Americans. Referencing Sara Ahmed, Kimoto lays out how whiteness is a standard in reference to which the world is conceived, both as “an implicit and coercive goal” that non-white racialized others are oriented toward and “the barometer by which we [racialized others] measure our own successes” (143). This is why a feminist praxis valuing multiplicity is important. Fujiwara writes:
“a coalitional praxis that presumes the multiple interdependent heterogeneous subjectivities of Asian Americans requires us to utilize the lens of multiplicity, a lens that foregrounds racialized neocolonial systems of neoliberalism and globalization to illuminate incommensurabilities within and across Asian America as sites of coalitional consciousness-raising” (245).
Such lens of multiplicity is particularly important as we see Asian American feminisms and politics embedded in and connected with women of color feminisms more broadly. For example, Kandaswamy’s chapter connects the criminalization of Purvi Patel using feticide legislation to the broader prison industrial complex that disproportionate criminalizes people of color by drawing parallel between Patel’s portrayal as a sympathetic victim with the criminalization of Black women as “crack mothers.” This is not to reduce either group’s suffering, but to actually help us see the “common differences” in how the state seeks to control the reproductive rights of women of color (Mohanty, cited in 221).
Using the case of NYPD officer Peter Liang’s murder of Black man Akai Gurley, Roshanravan warns us the “model-minority racial project” (270). As Asian/Asian Americans, we should be reflexive of our own positionality and must not be disillusioned by the allure of model minority or be blind to the relative privilege that perception might afford us. An Asian American visibility must be achieved horizontally across racial interconnectedness in the “racial third space” with other communities of color without mimicking or co-opting other identification of its own cultural specificity (Roshanravan 268).
In our current context, the fight for justice for the murders of Asian American women cannot lead to calls for more police because we must recognize how police brutality has always been a danger to immigrant communities, Asian American communities and Black communities alike. As immigrants, we must resist the simplistic binary of inclusion/exclusion into a national identity of being American, but to actually challenge and transform that nationalistic construct to one that’s based on care for and celebration of differences.
To challenge the ways that Asian Americans have been racialized in proximity to whiteness, I go back to Tamsin Kimoto’s use of “restiveness” in our orientation, which embodies both a meaning to stay in place and to stay on the move.
Restiveness as staying in place may mean staying with the “silence” that’s been associated so much with Asian communities in recognizing both how Asian Americans have been pushed to stay silent throughout history and how that silence has ill served the histories of Asian Americans and other people of color and Indigenous peoples (146). Staying in place in this way means to critically reflect on what has been left unsaid but also what’s been said and amplified. Similar to Kimoto’s example of the “Resistance Auntie” meme of an Asian Trump supporter (147), one might think of the more recent incident where a Texas GOP congressional candidate Sery Kim, a Korean American, made racist comments toward Chinese immigrants (Cole). A “staying-in-place” restive orientation in this case means rejecting both the racist nature of Kim’s comments and recognizing how her positionality is the result of historical and ongoing orientation toward whiteness in this country that has often aimed to pit different people of color communities against each other.
Upon this reflection, Asian Americans can be restive as staying on the move working against the violence toward Indigenous lands and communities in the context of Hawaii (Kimoto 148-149). Similarly, it also behooves Asian American communities to orient toward the struggles of Black communities, such as in the case of Asians4BlackLives campaign (Roshanravan 274). In both situations, we must stay on the move, shifting our investment away from the white heteropatriarchy toward the collective intersectional coalition building across minoritized communities.
I end my review here as I find this dual understanding of “restiveness” a good point of departure for me from this book back to my daily life as a scholar and teacher of rhetoric and composition and technical communication; my positionality as a Chinese woman living in the U.S., researching Chinese feminist rhetorics both in China and globally. As BIPOC researchers and teachers, our positionality in the academy is often already precarious. But our students rely on us, requiring that we be restive, modeling for them a critical understanding and reflection of personal identities contextualized historically, economically, culturally, and politically. For feminist scholars more broadly, this book offers another opportunity to learn about Asian American feminisms and women of color politics, drawing attention to sites where more rhetorical research may be needed.
The fact of the matter is, we wouldn’t have any feminism worth thinking about or writing about without the work of feminists of color. They have pushed feminism to be better and do better since the beginning. However, these feminists often are not afforded the credit they deserve for creating feminist spaces or demanding change within feminist spaces. During the Suffrage Movement it was Sojourner Truth’s speech at the 1851 Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, that demanded we recognize the voices and perspectives of all women. The work that Black women, lesbians and working class women did to push the mainstream white middle class feminism of the 1970s to speak across race, class, and sexuality made feminism stronger. Feminists of color in the 1970s writing in anthologies like This Bridge Called My Back, Home Girls, and But Some of Us Are Brave started building a third wave of feminism before the 1990s gave us yet another wave. It was a young Black and Jewish woman named Rebecca Walker who strongly proclaimed “we are the third wave” and sparked a new generation of feminists. And we won’t even get into the fact that many of the third wave white feminists of the 1990s who rejected their white mothers’ second wave feminism did so using the intellectual and activist work of second wave feminists of color…
It has always been the voices of feminists of color, most specifically, the voices of Black feminists, and even more specifically, the voices of Black lesbian feminists, that pushed feminist movements to realize the radical notion that all womxn are people. When we put out the call for this special issue “On Race, Feminism and Rhetoric,” we were looking for scholarly complications to the discourse around white feminism that critically engaged the idea: Feminism has never really been white. We maintain that people say feminism is white because it is easier than calling out white supremacy. Like Iyanla Vanzant, we and the contributors in this special issue demand that everyone call a thing a thing, beloveds. Like good rhetoricians, we know that words actually mean things. So you are not really doing feminism if your feminism is only concerned with white women. You are practicing white supremacy. PeriodT. If you are a person of color and you want to call out limited agendas masquerading as “feminist” that seem to only take white women’s issues into consideration, don’t call that “white feminism.” Call it racism, because that is not how feminism works.
We hope this special issue pushes the field to recognize that we need more nuanced approaches to dealing with the intersections of race and rhetoric. We need to be able to point out inequities in communities of color and make sure our responses to those inequities do not further marginalize other communities. We need to champion causes that support anti-racist initiatives, but we can not perpetuate discourse around those initiatives that weaponizes dehumanizing rhetoric and action against people of color. We need to hold space for tension and nuance in our discussions of race, feminism and rhetoric. For example, if we take into consideration the most recent incarnation of anti-Asian hate crimes in the United States, we can illustrate the multiple needs for more nuanced conversations. We need rhetorical approaches that are coalitional and anti-racist. We need rhetorical approaches that can help us deal with the role that the white/racist/capitalist/patriarchal nation state played in stirring up anti-Asian hate in its citizens, because that same hate was coming from the mouth and Tweets of the President of the United States. We need rhetorical approaches that help us grapple with the fact that the same white/racist/capitalist/patriarchal nation state will use those hate crimes against Asian communities, that the discordant nation state provoked, in order to police Black and Brown bodies. Our rhetoric needs to recognize and call a thing a thing. All hate crimes are hate crimes. And we can no longer excuse, substantiate, or gloss over the cishet white males citizens who commit hate crimes. Because if it is a Black or Brown teenager assaulting an Asian elder in the street we will rightfully call it a hate crime. But when it is a cishet white guy on a killing spree who walks into massage parlors with his recently and easily purchased guns and murders the Asian women working to support themselves and their families during a global pandemic, then our political rhetoric makes room for excuses like adolescence, white fragility, or he was just “having a really bad day.” We can’t make this shit up, but we can demand that the double standards get called what they are and cultivate rhetorical approaches that help us to call it what it is. We need rhetorical approaches and rhetorical analysis that can hold in tension how quickly the Anti Asian Hate Crime Bill passed and was signed by the President of the United States when we still can’t get any version of an Anti-Lynching Bill passed in this country since the 1900s. We need rhetoric that is not afraid to complicate things and push past niceties and civilities to ask hard questions.
We need to start asking hard questions instead of being scared of answers. The work Ibram X. Kendi is doing around anti-racist education tells us the word “racist” is not a personal characteristic, like having blue or brown eyes, but a word that defines ideas that weaponize marginalization, inequity, and other systems of oppression onto people of color. In February 1837, John C. Calhoun stood on the United States Senate floor and argued that slavery in this country was a “positive good” not because it literally was, but because racism has to be intellectualized. Racism, your racism, is a habit of mind and you can not break those habits by being too scared to face the history they represent. Rhetoricians can not be so afraid of being called a racist that they aren’t recognizing that the linguistic construction of the word doesn’t support their fears–it outlines historic power imbalances that they have the responsibility to change. You want to know how to call a thing a thing? Start by asking better questions. Instead of: who, me? ask what just happened here? Because you will not find the traces of your racism in your fear or in your feelings, you will only find them in your history.
This contemporary moment, perhaps more than any other, has shown us the relevance and importance of race, feminism and rhetoric. The current global pandemic has put a spotlight on institutionalized inequities around race, class and gender. The ongoing protests and unrest around police brutality and murders have forced us to come to terms with the meaning of solidarity and coalition in the struggle. Extreme nationalism has ripped children from the arms of their parents and placed them in cages, going against every fiber of the founding lies of the United States. The recent election and the fact that yet again over 50% of the white women who voted cast their vote for Donald Trump has made clear that assumed alliances around gender are not to be taken for granted when we add race to the mix. Now more than ever we need to be in nuanced and critical conversations on race, feminism, and rhetoric. This special issue of Peitho is an opening to some of the conversations we might have.
From Fair Fight Now to the Black Lives Matter Movement, Black women have been the driving force behind the change we need in America today. In the wake of the 2020 US elections, we need to have more conversations about how feminists of color combat the normalization of the refusal to transfer power, concede losses, and acknowledge the truth. Like we saw with the Women’s March controversy, we can not continue to tolerate feminists of color being pushed to the margins in the spaces we created. This bridge can no longer be our backs. As ‘The Squad’ on Capitol Hill grows to include even more womxn of color voices, we need to make space for complex conversations around what diversity and equality really means while continuing to hold our leadership accountable to the progress we have made. Now is not the time for half-measures, talking points for views, and conservative approaches. We need to center the voices of feminists of color who are doing the work to ensure our futures.
In their response to the January 6, 2021 violent attempted insurrection on the Nation’s Capital the Rhetoric Society of America Board of Directors wrote: “Rhetoric has long associated its birth as a discipline with the emergent political practice of democracy; however, the historic foundations of both have a disturbing affinity with racism. This embedded and systemic relation has allowed injustices to continue for centuries and cultivated power structures that normalize and justify violences, as grotesquely witnessed currently in the United States, where the mobbing thugs proudly displayed Nazi, anti-Semitic, and white power apparel, where citizens and political leaders led and endorsed a wide range of acts of voter suppression, but most recently in the Georgia elections in DeKalb and Fulton counties where insufficient polling places, proposed roll purges, and accusations of fraud threatened to limit the rights of Black voters.” (Rhetoric Society of America Board of Directors’ Statement Condemning Insurrectional Rhetoric and Resulting Violence 1/6/21) In other words, rhetoric is racist and has been used for ill and we need to own that and fix that. Stat. In order to answer the call that the future demands of us as rhetoricians, we have to take stock of what is really real. That “affinity with racism” that rhetoric has been entangled with since its inception cannot be ignored away. If rhetoric is going to ever be its best self then, just like feminists of color have been pushing feminism to do better since the Suffrage Movement, we need to use these conversations on race, feminism and rhetoric to push rhetoric to be all it needs to be in these times. We hope that the essays in this special issue will help shed light on all the important and nuanced ways that race, feminism and rhetoric intersect across time, in this moment, and around the world.
And because rhetoricians can’t seem to talk about race and rhetoric without an obligatory MLK quote, preferably from the historic “I Have a Dream” speech, we thought we would add one here. On that day in 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King said more than that he had a dream. He also said, “We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take in the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlight path of racial justice. Now is the time.” In the few months since we put out the call for this special issue, things have continued to happen that make the “fierce urgency of now” even more pronounced and pressing. Now more than ever we need to engage these conversations on race, feminism and rhetoric and enact a feminist of color discourse that is more than just lip service.
The senseless killing of Ma’Khia Bryant, the continued freedom and the lack of charges pressed against the cops that murdered Breonna Taylor, Naomi Osaka’s withdrawal from the French Open to protect her mental health, Nikole Hannah-Jones being denied tenure at University of North Carolina, the ignorant and baseless attacks on Critical Race Theory, the failed attempts to censure Congresswoman Maxine Waters, the subjection and liberation of Meghan Markle, the troubling increase in anti-Semitism, the hate crimes against Asian American/Pacific Islanders, the ongoing uprising and displacement of the people of Palestine, and the countless unseen acts of violence against womxn around the globe, all drive home the point of the fierce urgency of this contemporary moment. Now, perhaps more than any other moment, has shown us not just the relevance and importance, but also the urgent need for scholarly complications to the discourse around race, feminism and rhetoric. We better learn to really talk about these issues in ways that move us toward action before it is indeed too late.
In the first season of the HBO comedy sketch show, A Black Lady Sketch Show, there is an ongoing sketch throughout all the episodes that takes place at the end of the world. The end of the world came and the only people left were four Black women because one of them built a fortified house and invited her girlfriends over for an end of the world party. Black women be knowing… In the second season of A Black Lady Sketch Show there is a very similar ongoing sketch with the now five Black women leads in a fortified warehouse at the end of the world. And again they are the only ones left. We find the idea that a group of Black women would be the only ones left at the end of the world compelling because as the world goes to shit all around us, it often feels like Black women are the only ones consistently trying to save us as we fight them every step of the way. We are reminded of Temptaous McKoy’s powerful Watson Conference keynote address: “‘…Had Y’all Simply Listened to Black Women’: A Call for Intentional Listening and Impactful Anti-Racist Action.” McKoy (like many Black women have been telling us in these internet streets #ListenToBlackWomen) made a powerful case for why we need to just listen to Black women before everything goes wrong. In the cover art image of this special issue,“Selfie at the End of the World,” Geneva Bowers brings the point home. The Black woman chucking the deuces and taking a selfie as the world is being destroyed behind her probably tried to tell everyone what was coming… But they didn’t listen. Shrug.
The articles in this special issue recognize the intersectional nature of feminist work around race, politics and rhetoric as a demand that feminist of color voices are the roots that sustain feminism. By sharing these scholars’ work we ensure our desires for change are heard in order to protect our collective futures. We were not surprised by the fact that the majority of our submissions to the special issue came from Black women across the Diaspora. As we have shown, Black women have always been important voices to these conversations and they will no doubt continue to be important voices. But those voices are not monolithic and the articles presented here highlight the variety in those voices and are joined by other feminists of color and white feminists’ voices. Their work is not the end of a conversation, but the beginning of many more conversations that need to be had in our field.
Efe Plange’s article, “The Pepper Manual: Towards Situated Non-Western Feminist Rhetorical Practices,” pushes us to a transnational Black feminist conversation that engages African Feminism and rhetoric that we have not seen in our field before. Her article traces the digital activism technique of creating hashtags and demonstrates an important counter-narrative to the male centered coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic and other public health crises in Ghana during March of 2020. Her article aims to start conversations that illuminate gender-based disparities in Ghanaian society through the digital activism of groups like Pepper Dem Ministries. Ronisha Browdy’s “Black Women’s Rhetoric(s): A Conversation Starter for Naming and Claiming a Field of Study” is an effort to demand the field recognize the naming of the work done by Black women towards making space for Black women’s unique ways of being and knowing as an intersectional, interdisciplinary, and rhetorically distinct sub-field called “Black Women’s Rhetoric(s).” Browdy’s overall goal for her work is to further cultivate power for Black women within the field by naming their shared rhetorical efforts as a distinct rhetorical genre and sub-field of rhetorical studies.
In “‘We Want to Be Intersectional’: Asian American College Students’ Extracurricular Rhetorical Education,” Allison Ann Dziuba makes critical interventions into conversations about Asian American identity, intersectionality, coalition, and group dynamics. Through her ethnographic research Dziuba explores the differences between intersectionality as synonym for diversity and intersectionality, as Kimberlé Crenshaw defines it. She expands on the meaning and use of intersectionality by exploring how it works in the Asian American students she studies, as a key part of the metacognitive meaning-making process in both international and Asian American identifying undergraduate student groups. Kim Fain’s “Black Feminist Rhetoric in Beyoncé’s Homecoming” argues that the global reach of Homecoming through its distribution on Netflix calls for formal recognition of Beyonce as a skilled rhetor. Fain analyzes the rhetorical power of Beyoncé’s work and attests that Homecoming is an important rhetorical artifact of Black feminist discourse. Stephanie Jones’ article, “I Heard That: The Sociolinguist Reality of the Black Feminist Afrofuture” traces the interconnectness of science fiction to Black feminist praxis. By exploring popular science fiction and fantasy stories Jones’ work argues that the term Afrofuturism would not exist if it were not for Black feminist discourse. Jones’ article is the winner of the 2021 Geneva Smitherman Award for Research in Black Language, Literacies, Cultures, and Rhetorics.
“Manifesto of a Mid-Life White Feminist Or, An Apologia for Embodied Feminism” by Tracee L. Howell is a much needed disruption to the cis-male patriarchy coded into white feminist rhetoric. Howell suggests that the feminism she was taught in college in the 1980’s duped her and other white women who identified as feminist into thinking there was a universal experience of gender equality. Reflecting on the ways in which she has ignored the intersections between race and gender throughout her life, Howell provides a narrative history that interrogates mainstream white feminism. “On Testimony, Bridges, and Rhetoric” is a webtext created by La-Toya Scott, Kimberly Williams, Andrea Baldwin, and Laura Gonzales. Together, they have crafted a series of letters that unpack their fears and hopes for the field. Through a mix of prose, poetry, video, testimony, and storytelling their webtext calls for a coalition of love in feminist rhetorical studies. Disrupting the notion that white coded feminism is the origin of this discourse community is a heavy task and illuminating histories of oppression within the field is an even heavier task. The articles in this special issue are up for the task and they provide us with a new understanding of the rhetorical tools that sustain diverse histories across time and space.
We would like to thank Jen Wingard for giving us the opportunity to co-edit this special issue of Peitho. It means so much to us to be a part of the amazing work the journal is doing. Thank you to the phenomenal feminists who reviewed the work published in this special issue. We were heartened by the level of care and thoughtfulness that went into each review. We cannot name the names of these brilliant feminist reviewers because of the double-blind review process. But we just want to say thank you and to let you know we plan to pay the love and labor that forward in the future so that this feminist ethic of care and commitment carries on. Academia would be a better place if all reviewers were like the people who carefully read and offered feedback to the scholars published in this special issue. And finally, we want to thank the artist Geneva Bowers for allowing us to use her “Selfie at the End of the World” as our cover art for the special issue. Her work is breathtakingly powerful and we encourage everyone to go check out more of it on her website: http://www.genevab.com
Those of us who have been around for a while and are accustomed to older vocabularies should welcome the new ideas, new formulations, new vocabularies. Here we should pay tribute to all the young scholars who want to change the field and who want to change the world!
—Angela Davis, “Difficult Dialogues” (110)
It was right around the middle of the Trump presidency when I began to experience it. There had been other flushes of intensity in the years prior: night sweats off and on, a week per month of forgetfulness and loss of words, rapidly irregular cycles, and then one particularly poignant moment when I had to physically restrain myself from getting out of my car and jumping atop the lap of a seedy, hyper-masculinized man sitting on a motorcycle in a grocery store parking lot. Reader, I knew myself to be an animal who is human1 as I forcibly steered my legs, step by step, towards a shopping cart and away from the bike and its man, who seemed to me oozing with ripeness. But even after all the shifting mood swings, with their deepening valleys and ever-higher plateaus, after all the odd moments of bleeding and then none, it wasn’t until one particularly painful day-long cramping session that suddenly I knew it. Rage. In its sheerest form. Unbridled and all-consuming. A fire of obliteration in which I felt myself to be an utter and complete force, the primordial scream. I exist and I. AM. POWER.
The rage I felt, and still feel, was not merely in response to the installation of Donald J. Trump by millions of Americans—including 53% of white women who voted for him—as President. I was shocked by his election, yes. And I think it more than generous to say, as a white woman in the 47%, as the only member of my large, extended family who was not one of his proud supporters, and as a feminist committed to racial justice who teaches within a university setting, that both my personal equilibrium and my professional output have been strained by the Trump presidency and its lingering aftermath. We have collectively witnessed, if not taken part in ourselves, the final unveiling of a new and distinctly American rhetoric, one that values persuasion not through logic but by brutally compelling a physical reaction in the listener. In her discussion of Trumpian rhetoric, Jennifer Saul cites Tali Mendelberg’s influential work on “the dog whistle” in The Race Card: Campaign Strategy, Implicit Messages, and the Norm of Equality. “Dog whistle” is a term, thanks to both the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections, that most of us are very familiar with. As Saul explains, Mendelberg argues that two forces are simultaneously at play in the dog whistle: “a Norm of Racial Egalitarianism, which brands outright expression of racism unacceptable”, and a simultaneous high level of “racial resentment” that is never directly mentioned. Saul writes:
A dogwhistle utterance exploits [these twin forces]: by talking about ‘the culture of the inner city or ‘welfare’ a politician may avoid mentioning race, while still causing voters to bring their racial resentment to bear on their voting decisions. Donald Trump is no dogwhistler: he proudly tosses around racial terms, paired with the most hideous stereotypes. And he rises, and rises, and rises in the polls. (“Donald Trump, Racial Figleaves, and The Breadth of Bigotry”)
Trump re-normalized the public utterance of racist and misogynist terms; as Saul suggests, there are far too many examples to count. His defamation of Black women journalists became a sad refrain at the end of his term, an unsurprising coda to his Mexicans-as-rapists start on the campaign trail in 2015. During the Republican primaries, when he was asked by moderator Megyn Kelly about his use of language in reference to women, he balked, taking it as a threat rather than as a strategic opportunity to rehabilitate his already-infamous misogyny. The day after, he declared on CNN not only that Kelly was “a lightweight,” and that he had “no respect for her as a journalist”, but that she “had blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever” (Yan).
But I must disagree with Jennifer Saul. When it comes to the denigration of people who identify as women, Trump most certainly does employ the dogwhistle (of course he does—white supremacist patriarchal culture makes the degradation of women so easy, with so many code words to be employed). “Blood” is not on its face a misogynistic slur. Yet perhaps especially because it’s been tossed out so casually, so illogically and even absurdly, by its speaker, in the context of referring to a journalist who is a woman, the word “blood” can’t fail to function for the listener as a coded reference to menstruation, to religious sin, to supposed feminine weakness, to hysteria and illogic. Even putting these connotations aside, “blood” suggests harm, suffering, pain, trauma, violence; even death, heroism or sacrifice; and as these meanings resonate within the listener, so the imagined power of the speaker is rather effortlessly reinforced. The particular lack of effort involved in the practice of this rhetoric is Trumpian sui generis, but what makes it an American rhetoric is its inherent reliance upon our national history of violence and trauma. Land of chattel slavery, of proudly televised rape culture, of corralled and fetishized Native peoples, of the semi-automatic, of knees upon Black men, of elderly Asian bodies beat up in the street, America is the land of embodied trauma. Only a rhetoric of force could be born here, only here would one be borne.
How does one counter such a rhetoric? It seems to me that this is the question Americans are left with in the aftermath of that presidency; co-incidentally, it’s also the question we’ve faced throughout the history of this country as well as the one that grounds its formation. It’s a question feminists and anti-racists and social justice activists have been asking for hundreds of years now. Thanks to the ever-present narcissism of president #45, it’s been pretty hard to miss the cartoon-like hatred on display in our own time. It’s as if the white-supremacist-patriarchy-pride-parade has been floating a big, bloated, racist balloon of xenophobia and toxic masculinity over all of our heads for the last five years, complete with celebratory fireworks at Mount Rushmore, in case anyone missed the point (we are power! this land is ours! America is white! God is white! and a man! with a gun!). Now that it’s been exiled to Florida, the big balloon, what do we do—just forget? Tell ourselves that this massive self-exposure of national racism and misogyny wasn’t that bad, that it was a mere blip on the screen? Our history sadly suggests that the majority of us—especially those of us who are white—will go back to pretending it doesn’t exist, perhaps after publishing a few essays about how valiantly the self-aware came together to resist and overcome. Or will this be a moment of true national change? Will the poison be the cure?
Reader, I’m sick of Trump; no doubt you are too. I’ll leave to others the question of his status as Derridean pharmakon. I conjure his presence (ugh) here only because force and rhetoric are central to the larger story I want to tell about my experience of perimenopause, and to the argument I want to make about the white embodiment of feminism. If you haven’t already done so, I do invite you to imagine experiencing the hormonal rollercoaster of full-on perimenopause during the long years of the Trump presidency, with the last-minute addition of a global pandemic thrown in for good measure. The 3-inch long chin hairs, the scaly skin, the brain-fog, the ridiculous bloodflow, sweaty legs and hotflashes, that fucker everywhere I looked fucking up everything I care about: fun. But ultimately the Trumpian exposure of our structural racism and misogyny functioned as fuel rather than cause for this rage; it’s been an almost helpful contextual reminder of what I’ve endured as a menstruating person for the last 40-odd years, a sad backdrop for the show my body puts on for me daily. As I’ll try to explain in greater detail below, the perimenopausal rage I felt (still feel) was a force beyond my experience, it was an entirely new-to-me phenomenon, and, as I’m even now still realizing, a new phenomenology. Seeking answers, or at least communion, I picked up an old feminist favorite, one I’ve not enjoyed in decades, where I found much that rings true to my current situation:
Unleashed and raging, she belongs to the race of waves. She arises, she approaches, she lifts up, she reaches, covers over, washes ashore, flows embracing the cliff’s least undulation, already she is another, arising again, throwing the fringed vastness of her body up high, follows herself, and covers over, uncovers, polishes, makes the stone body shine with the gentle undeserting ebbs, which return to the shoreless nonorigin, as if she recalled herself in order to come again as never before…She doesn’t hold still, she overflows. An outpouring that can be agonizing, since she may fear, and make the other fear, endless aberration and madness in her release. (Cixous and Clément 90-91)
Orgasm? Perimenopause? Neither/and/both? As much pleasure as I found reading this playful, sensuous text in my twenties, ultimately the essentializing of “woman” drove me away, as did my own readerly frustration with the (larger) concept of Cixousian écriture féminine: how the hell do we do that, and who would read it? In peri, those questions now strike me as meaningless, and I laugh, reader, since I am here writing myself right now, both of my body and in my body (either you read me or you don’t, but I’m still here, throbbing, typing, fingering these keys, haw). Am I a “newly born woman” via perimenopause? I don’t yet know, which may indeed be a sign that I am, since “knowing” seems to be undergoing revision for me, a challenge given my profession as a teacher and scholar. I am certain that I have renewed stores of tolerance for mystery and increased impatience with both logic-flouters and logic-deniers. Nothing really makes sense, and so everything does, because how egotistical are we to believe that we can even begin to impose our racist, patriarchally-limited categorizations upon the world, upon ourselves! Perhaps you can see why I found refuge in gorgeously rebellious and revelatory late-twentieth-century French feminism; it’s a relief right now to read such prose as:
And mysterious to herself, something she has been disturbed by for a long time, made to feel guilty for “not understanding herself (taking herself in) or knowing herself (cunt-born), because all around her they valorized a “knowledge” (cunt-birth) as ordained, as a mastery, a “control” (cunt-role) (of knowings! cunt-births!) established on repression and on “capture,” arrest, pub-poenis, confinement. (91)
And it’s true. I am a mystery to myself with this rage, inhabiting a body that is out of my control and that seems to be forcing new experience upon me/within me. That newness in and of itself has been both overwhelming and instructive. That I’ve not experienced such all-embodying rage before is one very real demonstration of the depth of my privilege as a white, middle-class, cis woman. That it took the experience of writing this essay—of sharing stories about my body, of diving into my own shame, of allowing my racism to be reviewed and read—for me to understand this newness as privilege, is another.
Manifesto of a MidLife White Feminist
It’s frankly beyond my writerly ability to adequately describe the rage of perimenopause, or to persuade you that it is both of my body and already beyond it. As I’m at the cusp of menopause, I can’t say whether such rage occurs after the cessation of fertility and its re-settling of hormones, even though we most often hear of menopausal rage.2 But I can state with confidence that not every menstruating person experiences perimenopausal rage; just like any other process, the lead-up to menopause is unique to each menstruating individual. But many of us have, enough for the creation of the many female monsters inspired over time by the disgust held in white supremacist patriarchies for the menopausal woman, at least within Western culture: Medusa,3 the Scylla, Lady Macbeth, Cruella de Vil, Alex Forrest, Catherine Tramell, Maxine Waters, Hillary Clinton, etc.4 I experience this rage as a unique state of being, as power itself, but power without agenda or slant (at least that I am able to discern). It’s of my body, but beyond it. It is simply force itself, it is potential. That it is a force that renders me anew is perhaps the most that I can say, at least here.
For Aristotle, celebrated paragon of Western culture and an ethicist keenly concerned with power and polis, both “potential” and “potentiality” are worthy of specific interest. Since this rage—the overwhelming potential that comes upon me—and its cause, perimenopause itself, originate in my body, its traditional Aristotelian categorization would be phusis, or as Megan Foley explains, a “principle of change that originates from within a given body” (175). Yet my experience of this force is such that I have no control over it; indeed, I experience myself as compelled by this force in that I am conscious of its existence outside of my ability to choose it to act upon me. In Aristotelian terms, such an external force is bia: “the person affected by bia does not have power over his or her own action. Bia is a power that comes from elsewhere” (175). Reader, you may be familiar with bia. Sister to peitho, persuasion, bia has traditionally been defined as bodily force, as violence. How well do these strange sisters relate? Within the rhetoric that sustains a white-supremacist patriarchy, they are seen to be much as we might expect—separate and distinct, segregated from one another. In her insightful analysis of Aristotle’s definition of rhetoric, “Peitho and Bia: The Force of Language,” Megan Foley challenges this separation, taking as her starting point that their unity, “the concept of rhetorical force, although central, has remained a persistent theoretical blind spot” (175). She writes:
Commonly, bia is seen as rhetoric’s radical exterior: negative in both senses, bad and excluded, allowing rhetors and rhetoricians to valorize their art by comparison. The rhetorical tradition has defined itself against violence; persuasion ends where coercion begins. Yet while bia functions as the constitutive exclusion that figures rhetoric, bia is also included within rhetoric to account for its force…In fact, rhetoric has been so identified with force that the phrase “rhetorical force” almost sounds redundant—rhetoric is the name for the force of language. (174)
Rhetoric is never merely non-violent persuasive speech; it is also a compelling, a force that enacts itself upon an external body. We Americans have forgotten this at our peril. Ignoring force as part and parcel of persuasion allows for the cultural dismissal of hate-speech as “mere words”, as “locker-room talk,” as bluster without real-world consequence. Understanding speech as separate and distinct—and thus free—from violence allows for the election of a blatantly racist, misogynistic, homophobic, xenophobe as President of the United States. It is what perpetuates rape culture and what is at the heart of the “all lives matter” retort. For the good of the order and/or ease of living and/or the comfort of ourselves and others and/or simply to survive, we pretend that rhetoric is free of violence even while we know that dogwhistles abound, that force is omnipresent, that rhetoric turns precisely upon force to wreak its transformations. The willful forgetting of how our rhetoric depends on violence is what has allowed systemic oppression to flourish in this country; it’s what allows white people who are not actively, explicitly racist to proclaim their innocence; it is at the core of white privilege and it is what most sustains white supremacy. Even we well-meaning white feminists, or most of us, I will venture to say, continue to live in an imagined community of liberty, justice and safety for all, no matter how many protests we attend. Force, let alone violence, isn’t real for those of us who rarely have to experience it.
This imagined separation of peitho and bia is also what allows feminism to (still) be dominated by white universalism in 2021. Like other institutions in this country, feminism—at least academic feminism—has enacted within its rhetoric this forgetting of force as key to persuasion. Unlike other institutions, feminism has thus enabled the practical erasure of the body even as it has proclaimed its importance as central to its theory. This may seem counter-intuitive, given the recent history of the field. The notion of embodied rhetoric is not new to feminism, nor to rhetorical studies; in its insistence upon a speaking of the body, academic feminism today requires the acknowledgement that bodies are raced and gendered, aged, disabled, etc., and thus bodily experience may not be universalized through a mainstream white lens. But consider: we feminists know this, and many of us who are within academia have produced, studied and embraced “embodied feminism.” And yet, feminism is still pretty dang white. Why hasn’t white privilege been transformed—at least within academic feminism, with all of its insistence upon inclusivity, and its embrace of the diversity of bodies and of bodily experience? We who know better, why have we not done better?
Certainly, academia is itself an institution that upholds and perpetually re-inscribes the capitalist white patriarchy, and as such, it resists transformational attempts (pretty deftly, in my experience). And yet, is it only institutional pressure that has kept feminism white? After all, what else is there but institutional pressure? Sara Ahmed suggests that we look to “a phenomenology of whiteness” for answers to the institutionalization of white privilege. Like all institutions, feminism has both been constructed and operates within the “ongoing and unfinished history” of whiteness, and thus it serves to perpetually “orient [our] bodies in specific directions” around whiteness, “so that even bodies that might not appear white still have to inhabit whiteness, if they are to get ‘in’” (150; 158). Yet as Ahmed states, exploring the phenomenology of whiteness “does not teach us how to change [institutional] habits”. There are no quick fixes, no magic spells that will dissolve the dominance of whiteness into a rainbow of equity. In critiquing the whiteness of our feminism, Ahmed argues, we are left, at best and rightly so, with the potential for more work:
“Such an approach to whiteness can allow us to keep open the force of the critique.” (165)
Critique, and self-understanding, are processes; enacting a critique of whiteness leaves us with power, with force, with the capability to carry on. But why “keep open the force of the critique,” why not simply, ‘keep open the critique’? Ahmed’s usage of the term force speaks to the strength of white resistance, certainly, which is part of her larger point. To my mind, the inclusion of the word “force” here is just one small example of how completely we’ve separated our understanding of persuasion—and thus the bulk of our work, which is, after all, persuasive speech, or, rhetoric—from any conception of force, at least within academic feminism. That we must specify that our critiques have force (because we do not see them—or want to see them—as inherently force-ful) speaks to how fully we have fallen into the trap of always-already conflating rhetorical force with rhetorical violence.5 To its detriment, academic feminism in the United States has for far too long taken up this understanding of rhetoric as an instrument free of violence, as the tool with which we counter force. In so doing, we’ve simultaneously dis-empowered and gaslighted ourselves to our own complicity in the maintenance of violent, white supremacist patriarchy. Because we academic feminists choose to see our work as peitho and never as bia, we imagine that we are only ever operating in opposition to force, that our speech is the panacea for violence. Clearly this is problematic.
Taking off from Foley’s argument about the paradoxical valorization of peitho to the detriment of bia,6 I want to suggest that academic feminism re-consider its relationship to force. We might start by hypothetically untangling the term ‘violence’ from its patriarchal/racist connotation. By de-gendering ‘violence,’ so to speak, we may begin to consider the possibility of power that is embodied and pre-political, that is without a hierarchically-posited subject/object. Within a white-supremacist patriarchy, ‘violence’ presupposes a power differential and thus connotes victimization, as it is indeed intended to do. Violence does real harm upon real bodies; it is a main regulating force of oppression and of any systematized hierarchy. Those with greater power routinely employ it, explicitly and implicitly, against and upon those with less power. If we were free of oppression, how might we see “violence”? Rather than a maintenance tool of the patriarchy, in the beloved community as it might exist in a world of equity, might we be free to understand violence as bia, as a non-subjective force acting upon matter, as simply force itself? Such a thought experiment may seem utopian, or simply a power play on the part of white academic privilege, since undertaking it runs the risk of universalizing experience—unless and until we acknowledge and incorporate the variances, disparities and specific differences that occur across human experience, and seek out the information that we do not know.
Consider, for example, the violence of human birth. Generally speaking, humans do not consider a newborn to be a victim of its maternal source, even though that nurturing body forcibly expels it out and away from food, comfort, shelter. Neither do we consider a woman giving birth to be enacting violence upon the newborn even as she applies magnificent force to compel its emergence out and away from her body’s protection. To the suffering of birth “we” ascribe not horror, but profound joy—at least those of us privileged enough to experience a trouble-free pregnancy and delivery. When we confront the reality that, according to the CDC, women of color “are two to three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women,” the ease with which human experience is universalized within dominant white culture becomes glaringly apparent. Yet, there is value in abstraction when it is responsibly employed. In our hypothetical oppression-free community, where violence is understood simply as force, human beings might view themselves—all of us—as capable of giving birth all the time, at any time: to new ideas, new theories, new art, new practices, new methodologies. Sometimes they are themselves re-birthed, awakened by others to new understandings, to new knowledge, to new consciousness. Impossible? Megan Foley traces Aristotle’s usage of bia as connoting possibility itself, writing that “bia makes a body do something it cannot do and become something it cannot be. Bia thus appears as the possibility of impossibility—the actualization of the impossible itself” (175-6).
If feminism’s enduring purpose is ultimately to transform structural oppression into structural potentiality, all feminists could do worse than to take up a consideration of bia. Given our material reality, as well as feminism’s goal to effect practical change within it, how might we understand “actualization of the impossible” as anything other than the siren’s call, especially when we see that sirens are not the monsters we’ve been told, but simply ourselves as viewed through the lens of white patriarchy? Cixous and Clement warn/promise that:
When “The Repressed” of their culture and their society come back, it is an explosive return, which is absolutely shattering, staggering, overturning, with a force never let loose before, on the scale of the most tremendous repressions: for at the end of the Age of the Phallus, women will have been either wiped out or heated to the highest, most violent, white-hot fire. (95)
Force can liberate, force can release—why have we feminists allowed ourselves to lay it down? In any case, we are lying to ourselves if we believe that our work does not cause impact, that we are leaving no trace in our wake. So, how do we employ force to fight the abuse of power without abusing our own power? In the real world, one of structural oppression, how might a rhetoric that acknowledges not only peitho but also bia be ethically, justly, achieved?
I don’t know how many times I’ve taught the Combahee River Collective Statement. There’s no excuse not to, frankly, helpfully included as it is within the Heath Anthology of American Literature. I most often utilize it in literature, philosophy and gender/sexuality/women’s studies courses, but I’ve found it helpful in composition courses, too. Most recently, it was part of a collection of texts I’d randomly assigned to one of several student presentation groups in an American lit survey course. As student presenters, their task was not to offer an airtight analysis, or a perfect summary. It was to help “get us engaged in what the writers have to say; get us all excited to discuss their texts!” That day, the quietest of the three rural white women who comprised the group took us through the Statement, breaking it down by section and pulling out passages that seemed especially important to her. She did this well, hitting on critical points, and imbuing her prepared remarks with what struck an absolutely delighted me as authentic passion. I admit that I was surprised by her level of investment, given her usual silence, though I knew better than to be. Students are always already more than we suppose, and in allowing our assumptions of them to dictate our teaching decisions we only succeed in reiterating the same oppressions we intend to explode. It was the gut-wrenching earnestness of her concluding statement, however, that made my heart leap. She said: “I guess I never really thought about what it’s like to be a Black woman before. They have to fight against racism and discrimination against women, at the same time. It’s way worse than what I ever faced being white and especially now with everything going on, I mean, with Trump.” This speech was made slowly and with a sense of wonder, even sadness. After a brief moment of silence, three things then happened all at once: her two white presentation partners looked down at their hands, a self-identified Trump fan abruptly left the class session, and the three Black women in the class simultaneously began to contribute to the discussion. Clearly, manifestos make a difference.
As gratifying as this story may be, especially since it appeared to be truly transformative for two of the three Black women, who never again held back their voices, I must provide an addendum: the white woman who spoke with such passion retreated back into silence, never again referencing this moment, even in her later writing for the course. Was this because she received my follow-up question, what does it mean to challenge the seeming centrality of the white perspective, as a threat, as too much, as an unwelcome force? Did I push too hard? In our thought experiments involving bia, above, I was careful to stipulate an absence of power differential. In real life, of course, hierarchies are always in operation, and we ignore them at our peril. While both of us were white women in the room, the young white student’s silence is understandable in the face of my authority as Professor. Yet, the three Black voices responded to this same query with tales of their own experiences as female students at our small, primarily white, rural college. What accounts for this difference? Perhaps the fact that Black women in America have been forcibly compelled to submit to white culture for hundreds of years. Even in academia, Black women are never permitted to forget their bodies in order to distance themselves from the trauma of the Diaspora, from the suffering of slavery. Force is a part of everyday life for women of color, and especially Black women, because systemic racism polices their bodies to such an extent that in March, 2020, three white men can forcibly—and mistakenly—enter the home of Breonna Taylor, shoot her dead, and face no penalty.
Here is where the importance of embodied feminism lies for the critique of white feminism, I think; it’s also where my perimenopausal rage comes into play. It’s near impossible to truly interrogate the significance of one’s own raced-ness when one is deeply invested in consistently denying one’s own physical identity. If I’m not living in relation with my own body, chances are slim that I will succeed in understanding the experience of living “race,” especially the one that masquerades as invisibility, as a body in the world, even when the stakes are high. I am indeed speaking from own experience, and for the purposes of diagnosis rather than justification. I have lived most of my life as the now stereotypical “body-conscious” white woman, and usually an overweight one—or morbidly obese, as the medical establishment and insurance actuarial tables have it. I’m extremely skilled in distancing my “self” from my body. It’s been my most basic social survival strategy and I’ve spent decades doing it (not to mention that, like many body-avoidant people, I’m a perfectionist to boot). While I’ve never hated my body, I’ve certainly taken pains to hide it, not only from others but from myself. Don’t get me wrong, reader, there have been sustained periods of time when I’ve devoted myself wholly to nurturing my body with healthful eating and dedicated exercise, both of which I love. I’ve spent years slowly unwrapping myself free of extra and unnecessary flesh, often successfully enough to enjoy the simple but exquisite pleasure of being in love with muscle and skin and the sheer pleasure of moving as a physical being through the world, and tremendously grateful for the ability to do so. But I’ve also spent years hiding within my flesh, denying it and myself, re-wrapping myself up in its comfortable yet socially-degraded embrace, all the better to be the invisible white woman, and so an accepted woman within mainstream American culture, and so a being free from violence and shame within American culture.
Mostly I’ve struggled to inhabit my body as consciously as I do my mind, much as I love Cixous. It’s always been one or the other, for me, it seems; either I’m a bookworm or a gym rat, a runner or a writer, a tire-flipping warrior or a writing whiz. Balance has heretofore been my downfall, and on the whole, I’ve found my body far too easy to ignore, especially in favor of the many delights of narrative, the teaching of which rather conveniently happens to be my profession. Like big heads at the cinema or one’s cat plopping down upon a book, bodies do tend to get in the way of a good story, unless they are the story, and I’ve taken pains to ensure mine isn’t, because of course far too often it has been. “I’ve never seen a stomach that big,” announced my white high school boyfriend. “Your boobies are showing,” taunted a white middle-school enemy. “Pleasingly plump,” pronounced my white male pediatrician. “I won’t be made responsible for your size,” said my white mother. “Does she have to eat in public?” asked my white father. “Your face is so pretty! I’ll cover your membership at the corporate gym, as long as you actually go,” said my boss, a white woman stockbroker. “You shouldn’t wear a bathing suit in public,” said my white, once-partner. “Just get rid of the blanket, it’s too hot and I don’t mind,” said a white male lover maybe twenty-five years ago. These are the easy ones to tell; the more complicated stories I have of living within my body are deeply buried. But they pretty much all boil down to this—and it’s only my experience of perimenopause that allows me to admit it, let alone share it: I struggle to confront my body. It’s difficult for me to integrate my materiality into my larger sense of self because I’ve never known what it is to be a body without also being shamed by that body.
Well, join the club, white woman, you may well be thinking. Try inhabiting the shame of the denigrated Black body, the fetishized Asian body, the pitied disabled body, the white-woman-appropriated brown body. There’s nothing unique about embodied shame, but certainly the reasons we inhabit it, and the ways in which we confront it, vary vastly across our group identities. When we think of embodied feminism, what comes to mind is communicating the value of the unique, individual’s bodily experience, both to honor that body, and to de-center the white body as dominant referent, to deconstruct its hegemonic hold upon the cultural imagination. This is important work that must continue. But as a white woman, I cannot begin to relate in a meaningful way to the experiences of women of color, no matter how beautifully told or persuasively written, if I have not first honestly confronted my own experience of being white. Without a personalized investment in the critique of whiteness—at the level of one’s own body—white feminists enable themselves to commit to the work of feminism in theory only, ensuring the continued dominance of white feminism. When we shy away from accepting what it means to be white in our practice of embodied feminism, we white feminists merely pay linguistic lip service to the centering of the Black body, no matter how wonderfully conversant in Black theory we may be. The price white feminists pay for our privilege is the never-ending bargain we make to uphold the white supremacist patriarchy’s definition of socially acceptable somatypes. In short, we pledge to patrol their borders and keep the unworthy Other well and truly out. We agree to re-inscribe racism and gender violence, even within ourselves; we agree to kill and to be killed, even by our own hands.
Not even this, the thought of inhabiting the function of a killer, a terrorist, could convince me to confront my own racism. So I don’t imagine that my essay, and the stories I offer here, will compel any white reader to confront theirs. I present my experience of perimenopause precisely because I’ve been an example of the failure of mainstream—white—feminism. I’ve been too thoroughly wrapped up in my own victimhood, my own shame, to see that my feminist praxis has for decades served only to reinforce the universalizing of the white body. For me, it has only been the rage of perimenopause that has forced the first confrontation of my own physicality that I absolutely cannot ignore, including my white skin and the privilege it provides. Peri has been a jolt to my blissfully ignorant system, a compulsory intervention in bodily presence and in the reality I live as a white woman. When so many of us white women declare ourselves to be actively anti-racist, how can it be that so few of us undertake a serious interrogation of whiteness? Why aren’t there more fearless explorations of whiteness conducted by white feminists? I won’t mince words; to my mind the fault lies mainly with my generation. We were the first gen to be told that (white) women could be anything we wanted to be; we were also part of a gen that somehow, somewhere, lost its voice. Or perhaps gave it up, convinced that nothing matters anyway.
As of this writing, I am 51. Born at the tail end of 1969, I was identified in my youth by the marketeers as part of Gen X, that lost and abandoned generation of misfits, the “latch-key kids.” While I scorned such reductive categorization then, I now see value in its use as a kind of zeitgeist-descriptor of the dominant white culture of the time. As the Gen X story goes, it is undeniably the case that television was my most constant nanny and teacher, always present to shape my worldview and sense of self, especially in the absence of my working parents. Sesame Street taught me to read. Benny Hill taught me to feel uncomfortable as a person with breasts. As it is for most generations, music was everything, and our music came with images. I was in sixth grade when we got MTV at my house. If you don’t identify as Gen X, reader, take a moment now to imagine the scene in a small, white, lower-middle class household when Boy George first appeared upon the screen. Picture white, hetero, cis-male anger and elaborate displays of disgust for a man who would dare to wear make-up, who purposely subverted norms of gender expression, and then sang about love. Thankfully, my musical mother adored “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?” and stopped my dad from changing the channel whenever it played. If you’ll permit me a couple of generalizations on the dominant white culture spanning two different generations, it strikes me that Baby Boomers were slow to conceive of the power of visual media as cultural incubator. We, their children, grew up enlightened by the glow of the cathode ray, surrounded by its buzz, and did our best to make sense of the multimedia rhetoric we were fed. We were very aware of the power of words and of their connection to violence in the world, and as a result, hyper-conscious of ourselves as different from our parents and their idea of culture. Thus and therefore, we mostly kept our mouths shut, especially when it came to our own experiences of any kind of difference. After all, we reasoned, along with one of 1990s most popular mainstream hits, words “can only do harm,” and so we counseled ourselves and each other to turn inward and “Enjoy the Silence”.
While I didn’t buy the Gen X moniker, I self-identified as a feminist both before I knew the term and after I studied its theoretical underpinnings in college. In those days of (white) feminism, we women/womyn/wimmin fought against the reductive notions of biological determinism ceaselessly applied to gender. This battle served as the frontline of mainstream feminism, and it presented first and foremost as universally experiential, a fight for all women. It may be difficult to imagine today, but back then we heard constantly that women were crazy, dumb, only good for sex. Mainstream white media portrayed white women as such, as any casual survey of 80s films readily shows; Black women weren’t often portrayed. The “locker room talk” defense of misogynistic Trumpian rhetoric was more the rule than the exception, it was truly commonplace;7 it was also culturally depicted as both entertaining and as universally applied to all women. Biology, that is, “sex,” as the core defining principle of a human being’s identity, was presented as the most fundamental oppressive principle for all women. And so, white feminism told us, it was our first and foremost fight to destroy it.
My intention is not to provide a defense of late 20th century white feminism. I bring up the notion of biological determinism purposely, but for reasons other than to justify the actions of white, mainstream feminists of the 80s and 90s. For any critique of white feminism, it’s important for us today to understand just how powerful that referent once was within mainstream second-wave feminism. If I might borrow Sara Ahmed’s cogent argument for a phenomenology of whiteness, and suggest that we apply it to the grounding of biological determinism within white feminism, I believe we might better “notice institutional habits” within academic feminism and bring “what does not get seen as the background to social action, to the surface” (165). At the least, let us here consider biological determinism as the central and enlivening structure through which many of us experienced mainstream (that is to say, white) feminism at the end of the last century. My own understanding of mainstream feminism during this time was squarely centered within the fight against biology as social determinant of my entire identity. Since I didn’t buy the Gen X malaise, as a feminist in the world I took action: just because I bled every month didn’t mean I couldn’t work in the factory machine shop during the summer as did the white sons of my father’s work colleagues to earn money for college. But it did mean that I would be assigned to sweep the floor every damn day while the boys went off to assist the full-time mechanics, all men, all white. Until, that is, I resisted in both word and deed.
One day I beat the boys to the tools and presented myself as ready to accompany the workers. This was easily done because the boys were chronically late. When they did arrive, the air was satisfyingly thick with their surprise until one said with a sneer, “Thanks for getting our tools out for us. Your broom’s over there.” The supervisor doling out the assignments knew then that he had a problem, and I knew that he believed the problem to be me. So I replied, calmly and in the lingua franca, “Fuck you, Louie. You do the sweeping. Or, get here tomorrow on time in order to get the tools.” I spoke out of instinct, with force and fire, and my speech rendered the problem at hand—the absurdity of the social construction of gender and our strict insistence upon its norms—as one not of feminism or social justice, but that of employee conscientiousness. Given this context, the supervisor suddenly had an out with the summer college boys and with any full-time worker unwilling to accept a college woman as their assistant on the job. Specifically, what really impressed the supervisor, as I found out later that evening from my father, was my utterance of “fuck.” Apparently, my usage of the “F word,” delivered with as much casual power as any man in that male domain employed on a daily basis, was what most impressed the mid-aged male supervisor. It may be a bit much to say that thanks to my unabashed, unashamed adoption of “male” rhetoric, my wielding of gendered power, I secured my liberation and a gender norm was shattered, especially because the two cis-gender straight men then took to calling me “lesbo” as a slur whenever no one else was around (that fight is a story for another essay). But damn it felt good, it worked, and it taught me an incredibly valuable lesson about language and power.
This all too common denigration of gay identity brings me to my second reason for discussing biological determinism. It was in this time-period, the late eighties/early nineties, when its central place as the enemy phrase within (white) feminism became very complicated. These were also the days when HIV/AIDS ran rampant, decimating the gay male community and intensifying blatant acts of violence against LGBTQ+ folk. To be clear, this acronym was not widely in use then, when T stood for Transvestite, the only available referent for gender non-conforming folks, other than drag queen, a term reserved for performance. Transgender people received little to no understanding; the mainstream white, male, gay community provided little acknowledgement of trans experiences, and the bountiful terminology we employ today in the queer community for a multiplicity of trans (and cis) identities was yet decades away. While plenty of people lived trans-lives, and plenty of people lived gender-fluid lives, the phenomenology of biologic determinism necessarily limited our linguistic and conceptual recognition of that reality. We lived and thought and reacted to and against the prevailing notion of two “sexes,” with distinctive, biologically-rooted ways of being in the world.
With the explosion of AIDS/HIV, white mainstream feminists who fought against gay discrimination faced a philosophical dilemma. If biology doesn’t determine identity, does that mean that being gay is a choice? If being gay is a product of biology, how do we fight against sexism? As people began to grapple with these questions, white feminism necessarily stretched to a more inclusive understanding of both gender expression and sexuality. This was of course not some overnight transformation, but a process, one advanced by philosophers, activists, researchers, artists, and by the persistent replication and presentation and amplification of new ideas within popular culture as well as the university. Each change opens up potential for subsequent epistemological shifts. This has at least been the case with the 21st century shift from gay culture to queer culture, which took place in the wake of the 20th century shift in white feminism I describe below. While we may not always experience it ourselves, the capacity for change is inherent in feminism, if we make it so. Angela Davis argues that:
it is the very capacity of feminism to embrace more and more complexity in response to historical circumstances that renders it so exciting. This is what renders it so radical. This is what keeps the field in a perpetual state of instability; sometimes verging on crisis. This instability and these crises should not be eschewed. Instability and crisis can be productive if we are willing to dwell within the interstices of the instabilities. (193)
We, all of us, can take heart in feminism’s ability to enlarge, to deepen, to refresh its terminology, perspectives, ideals. As Davis suggests, this is a never-ending state, a process always in motion, whether we acknowledge it or not. Again, I speak from experience. I was in college at the height of the 20th century shift within white, mainstream feminism, and so, as its central raison d’etre changed from The Fight Against Sex Discrimination to Gender is Socially Constructed, I had a front-row seat to the instability and crises that Davis mentions.
Mine was a women’s college, Bryn Mawr, predominantly white, where there was much discussion, much frustration, much heat surrounding the topics of gender and identity. This heat came to a boiling point when Judith Butler came to campus in September, 1990. She’d been invited to give a talk about Gender Trouble; the book had been out about a year and was causing ripples amongst feminist scholars and critical theorists alike. This was intended to be a small talk; the invitation was issued to students taking the brilliant Diane Elam’s8 Intro to Feminist Theory course, as I was, and any others who might like to come. As news of Butler’s appearance spread, so did the heated discussions, which ramped up until a rumor flew around campus that several self-identified radical dykes were a.) very angry by the invitation extended to Judith Butler and b.) would be in the audience that night to confront her9. One student was apparently vowing to get up in the middle of Butler’s remarks and punch her. You needn’t have any personal knowledge of life at a women’s college to guess that this news increased the audience for Butler’s appearance exponentially. Indeed, the room was over-packed that evening. To the best of my knowledge, no punches were thrown, and as I recall Judith Butler gave a pretty darn, if brief, clear presentation of her thesis as expressed in GT, explaining that we feminists had been conflating sex and gender and thus fighting against ourselves despite our best intentions; that gender is performative even as biological bodies exist. I think I remember her saying at the end of her remarks that she was unhappy with a lack of clarity in the book and was in fact working on a further elaboration of her ideas on the status of biological bodies. I definitely remember her look of genuine shock during the Q and A when the would-be assailant asked how any self-respecting lesbian could state that identity was a choice given the real-world violence that gay people face every day. I can’t be sure, but I like to think that this night was among those that Butler would later cite when crediting discussions with students as the impetus for clarifying and refining her explanation in Gender Trouble10.
Reader, you may well point out that I’ve told you a story about a white woman’s invitation to share her scholarship causing some trouble amongst a few white women at a (white) women’s college in the early 1990s. That Kimberlé Crenshaw, another important scholar of the time-period, wasn’t the woman invited to my campus is a reminder of the structural strength of white supremacy. Late second-wave academic feminism, in the main, focused itself upon gender all that this new conceptual shift in understanding socially-identity entailed, rather than prioritizing a fight against the oppression of “race” as biologically determined—even as that very work was being done by Black feminists done by Black feminists. How might intersectional feminism operate today had mainstream white academic feminism celebrated Crenshaw’s social work as central to its mission in the last century? That the shift in white feminism I’ve described did not center either intersectionality or the experiences of women of color—despite all the reverence publicly held for BIPOC feminist writers by white feminists at the end of the 20th century—is a demonstration par excellence of white resistance to the interrogation of privilege. While I share my experiences here not with the intention of re-inscribing white experience as universal, but towards an embodied rhetoric of liberation, the fact is that I am white. White feminists, take note: The retelling of white experience, when uncomplicated by an awareness of its own structural dominance and the refutation of the same, will serve only to reinforce white power and privilege. “Liberation rhetoric,” writes Mikki Kendall, “cannot be lubrication for the advancement of one group of women at the expense of others” (9). And yet, as scholar-activist Angela Davis reminds us, feminism is never static, it is always in flux. Once unimaginable, social media now allows unparalleled if imperfect access to new feminist formulations, critiques, and methodologies11. For human beings and their creations, the process of growth and of change can be bumpy, imperfect, troubling, uncomfortable, even at times violent; it can also be exhilarating, especially if we keep the faith.
The third reason I raise what seems now almost an archaic term and an equally dusty old premise, biological determinism, is to state clearly that its centuries-long cultural power must function neither as excuse for perpetuating racism, nor as justification for white feminism’s persistent failure to confront its own rhetoric of racial exclusion. It is the case that my 21-year-old-self believed the issue of “sex discrimination” to be first and foremost an issue of the acceptance of biology as destiny. While I was aware enough to realize that Black women fought this battle on two fronts, that of social limitations placed on them due both to skin color and gender, I could not see that my understanding of the primacy of gender was not necessarily shared by all women, or indeed all feminists. Even though I lived my own outsider’s syndrome as a first-generation, lower-middle-class student who had gained entry to an elite college, I downplayed the class discrimination I faced, certain it was nothing compared to gender discrimination. Even though I witnessed one of my very first friends experience several acts of explicit racial hatred in our first year, I still personally believed that gender discrimination was every woman’s first and overarching fight.12 As Mikki Kendall writes, “mainstream white feminists ignore their own harmful behavior in favor of focusing on an external enemy” (8). There is no excuse for the fact that we white, mainstream feminists universalized the experience of being a woman, and so everything that followed, all the theoria, all the praxis, all of the activism, the fundamental fight, everything was necessarily framed to support the survival and flourishing of white women only. The whole fucking enterprise was entirely exclusionary, as unified in our fight we white feminists thought all women were, as all about the advancement of inclusionary humanism we believed our feminism to be.
Except to verify our own assumptions, and perhaps to certify our own moral superiority as warriors for the good, we white women never confronted race. While my generation was told that we’d “come a long way, baby,” our daily experience told us that our bodies still served to function within patriarchal society as an inviolable argument for the inequitable segregation of women. We white feminists saw this and only this as our fight probably because, as so many Black women have so rightly pointed out, it’s the only suffering that many of us ever experienced. No matter how well-intentioned we are, white women, no matter how well-read and/or well educated, no matter our activist endeavors, our daily devotions to self-reflection, here’s the truth: We are always already trapped within the bounds of our own experience. I will speak here only for myself. I could not see that I was part of the problem that I fought; I could not see that I clung to the white social power and privilege that I had, still do have. Even now, as I struggle to see, I cling on nonetheless. 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?
Thirty years later, as I approach menopause, when I think of the stubborn constancy with which I fought against the tiniest suggestion that my ‘self’ was in any way defined by my biological being, I can’t help but roll my eyes. Take it from a white, mid-age woman: the mattering of bodies tends to catch up with one. As I near the cessation of my ability to reproduce, I am fully in the midst of an epistemological shift—not because my identity is tied irrevocably to my fertility, as the patriarchy would have it. But because after years of denying biology’s power to define, I now cannot deny that I am in the throes of biological transformation. Perimenopause, this biological process, undeniably impacts the self that I know to be me. “I” am indeed socially constrained and, yes, constituted—if only in part—by the real-life mess of surprise mid-cycle bleeding: I am the person rushing to the bathroom at the academic conference, the woman hogging the stall and all of the TP. I am the teacher who sometimes can’t think of really simply words in the middle of class, the one who will cry when a student says something beautiful. I am the horndog who almost ran over, first by car then by her body, some man on a motorcycle. My body’s hormonal fluctuations are so perpetually ramped up that they affect my behavior, my thinking, my writing, even my understanding of self. No matter the fights of my youth, this is now my truth. It has become, for me, the very grounding of truth itself, of being. How do I know I exist? I know I exist because I am perimenopausing.
Lest this sound all a bit too transcendental, consider living with significant bodily instability for anywhere between 5-10 years. Perimenopause, researchers are realizing, can last up to 10-15 years. My personal estimate is that I’ve been living it the better part of the last decade. My knowledge is experiential, borne of physical pain, and it is also everything else I’ve ever reasoned, imagined, created. Most importantly, it’s always in a state of change, never finished and never complete. Like bodies themselves, like ideas, like feminism. As for myself, at age 51, I am consciously embodied in a way I’ve never been. I am my body. I am also beyond it. Being forced to confront myself as a bodied individual in the world compelled me to recall my animal commonality with other bodies—bodies that also may suffer, that also do suffer. I’ve been snapped back into a critical awareness of material co-being, of communion and of community. Given my birth within the feminism inspired by biological determinism, that I now see feminism enlivened through a critical study of biological (et al) processes and their impact within and upon the body, is just another of the wonderful ironies of midlife.
With this suggestion of perimeopausal phenomenology, I bring together the very beginning of this essay and its final turn, a brief call for the praxis of embodied feminism to embrace critical menstrual studies. Beyond the obvious objective of forcing a revaluation of a process that has been established as the signification of sin itself, the curse, at least within cultures rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition; beyond righting the real and ongoing degradation of menstrual bodies, real and imaginary; I believe, as do an increasing number of theorists, that menstruation as a field of inquiry provides the potential for rich new feminist work. Angela Davis argues that:
feminist methodologies, both for research and for organizing, impel us to explore connections that are not always apparent, they drive us to inhabit contradictions and discover what is productive in these contradictions and methods of thought and action; they urge us to think things together that appear to be entirely separate and to disaggregate things that appear to belong naturally together. (193)
While neither every feminist nor every woman menstruates, in allowing for the exploration of an epistemology that does not gender but rather embodies knowledge, and in presenting a phenomenological model of self-aware, intersectional, embodied consciousness, the burgeoning new field of critical menstrual studies may enable us to construct and employ multidisciplinary methodologies that neither universalize women’s experiences nor deny acknowledgement to any being who identifies as feminist. Every opportunity for feminism to open itself to new potential discovery, and to potential itself—as a rhetorical term in operation within the larger body politic we inhabit—is worthy of exploration. A critical menstrual studies (CMS) requires a centering of the body; it positions the body at the discursive center of scholarly endeavor. Because not all bodies menstruate and because those that do experience it in vastly differing ways, by definition CMS must eschew universality in favor of the wide spectrum of lived experience. The Palgrave Handbook of Critical Menstruation Studies provides an overview of current work and an introductory indication of how CMS might force feminism to stretch, shift and change. For change is imperative if we are to realize an embodied feminism that grounds us in our specific bodies of matter while honoring our larger common goals. L’écriture feminine? A writing of the body? Of bodies? Think of the writing we can do together, when we truly are together.
I’ll end on this note, reader, with “A Black Feminist Statement,” a manifesto, given to us in 1977 by an actively engaged, committed, and forward-looking collective of Black women:
As black feminists we are made constantly and painfully aware of how little effort white women have made to understand and combat their racism, which requires among other things that they have a more than superficial comprehension of race, color, and black history and culture. Eliminating racism in the white women’s movement is by definition work for white women to do, but we will continue to speak to and demand accountability on this issue.
(Combahee River Collective 3277)
White readers, we must begin to hold ourselves and each other accountable for the work which we do and that which we don’t. We can start with our own rhetoric. Since our watered-down understanding of persuasion hasn’t seemed to be enough for us, perhaps it is time we white feminists—and those who have internalized white feminism—receive the call for action issued by Black feminists time and time again not simply as peitho, but also as bia, as a persuasive force compelling us to act. The onus is on us, however, white folx, to greet this force and to stop resisting its impact for fear that ego-violence may be done, or that we may indeed actually change as a result.
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.”
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.
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 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 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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
With respect to Black women’s rhetorical practices, in terms of agency, empowerment, intersectionality and inclusion, Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé (2019) communicates theories of Black feminism. For the two-hour and seventeen-minute musical/concert film, behind-the-scenes narration of rehearsal footage, spoken quotes from African American icons, and Beyoncé’s narration are interweaved in between Coachella concert footage (Homecoming). As the black and white scene footage features Beyoncé’s narration of her process, as both the headline performer and primary creator, Beyoncé’s high energy singing and dancing foregrounds Homceoming’s band, drumline, choir, and dancers. As the writer, director, and executive producer, Beyoncé plays multiple roles conveying her impact as a rhetor to convey powerful messages to her various audiences. Furthermore, she is a socially conscious rhetor that is aware of the social impact of her discourse, as a Black woman celebrity, in private and public spaces.
Scholar Melissa Harris-Perry is useful for understanding the hypersexualized and asexual stereotypes that are used to shame celebrities and everyday Black women in politics and media. Due to those types of negative categorizations, multi-faceted aspects of Black women’s sexual identity are flattened into one-dimensional stereotypes. Like scholar Melissa Harris-Perry says, “the internal, psychological, emotional, and personal experiences of black women are inherently political” (5). In other words, Beyoncé’s Homecoming reflects experiences of Black woman that are also inherently political. Thus, her aural/visual production reflects those internal, emotional, and personal experiences. According to Harris-Perry, Black women’s experiences “are political because black women in America have always had to wrestle with derogatory assumptions about their character and identity” (5). For instance, Beyoncé subverts the Black inferiority trope by featuring talented Black performers chosen to represent the Historical Black College and University (HBCU) annual homecoming experience. By featuring dancers and a band that reflect HBCU students, Homecoming exhibits Black pride by centering Black people and making Black culture visible. Additionally, she subverts the Black Women Are Ugly trope by featuring herself, performance ensemble, sister/singer/songwriter Solange, and best friends/former Destiny’s Child members in her legendary performance. Confidently, these women express their provocative dance moves with their diverse hair textures, skin tones, and sizes. By elevating diverse images of Black bodies, Beyoncé rejects negative notions of Black women’s visual appeal and sexuality as ugly, hypervisible, or invisible.
Unapologetically, Black women’s diverse appeal and sexuality is another means of expressing Black womanhood, which emphasizes Black women’s self-acceptance as a form of inclusion within the Black community. Within the production of Homecoming, inclusion does not reflect a desire for white or male acceptance. Instead, I argue that Beyoncé stresses that defeating marginalization is about including diverse and talented Black bodies, in public and private spaces. Beyoncé is an acutely aware rhetor, in terms of understanding that the liberated movement of Black women’s bodies represents both resistance to white social norms and nonconformity to Black men’s standards of beauty. With Homecoming, Beyoncé compels Black women to accept their own discursive practices and rhetorical expression. By scripting, narrating, directing, and executively producing Homecoming, Beyoncé exhibits rhetorical control over how Black women’s bodies are portrayed and the language used to portray them. Beyoncé’s epic agency and empowerment over the intertexual relationship between the behind-the-scenes commentary, narration, famous quotes, and performance lyrics communicate this message of self-acceptance (Homecoming).
Homecoming also features a message of community acceptance via the visual and emotional appeal of the HBCU experience. Beyoncé’s rhetorical style involves multiple texts, working in conjunction with one another, persuasively, to sway her audience that the Black Homecoming experience, as representative of HBCU greatness, impacts lives by transforming culture. Based on the empowering messages of Homecoming, Beyoncé demonstrates that her songs are for more than popular consumption and enjoyment. By using her rhetorical agency to feature black and white narrated, behind-the-scenes footage, Beyoncé connects themes of Black womanhood, sexuality, and empowerment to Black feminist rhetoric via her song lyrics and dynamic performance at Coachella. Thus, since Beyoncé seeks community change, the Black feminist rhetoric of Homecoming is about more than individual empowerment. Beyoncé seems to have every intention of modeling Black feminist rhetorical practices, in an effort to inspire the entire Black community to resist negative messages of disempowerment.
In this article, I address how Beyoncé, a Black woman with a celebrity platform persuades audiences to transform their concepts of Black women, Black people and Black culture. As a matter of experiencing Black womanhood, the Homecoming audience relates to Beyoncé’s truthful acceptance of diverse Black bodies via visual storytelling. Therefore, Gwendolyn Pough’s Check It While I Wreck It and “Personal Narratives and Rhetorics of Black Womanhood in Hip-Hop” inform my discussion of the use of storytelling or truth telling to evoke change in personal and social circumstances. By applying Pough’s theories of storytelling and truth telling in Beyoncé’s Homecoming performance, this explains how Beyoncé impacts her audience even though her storytelling and truth telling is rooted in the Black woman’s experience.
In the process of building on Pough’s theorization of storytelling or truth telling as rhetorical methods for Black feminist expression, I look to Charlene Carruthers’s Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements and Brittney Cooper’s Eloquent Rage: A Black Woman Discovers Her Superpowers. As I interpret the ethos of Beyoncé’s Black feminism, Carruthers and Cooper assist with my analysis via a queer lens. Both Carruthers and Cooper theorize the term queer and express the significance of trans inclusion within the meaning of Black feminism. Their discussion deepens our understanding of the Janet Mock and bell hooks “Are You Still a Slave?” panel debate. When interpreting Beyoncé’s impact on audience members—such as Mock and hooks—Carruthers and Cooper remind us to widen our Black feminist discussions beyond centering cisgender women. By including a queer lens within our interpretation of Black feminism, we resist internalized homophobia and transphobia.
With respect to Homecoming’s Black feminist impact on the world, I look to Elaine Richardson and Gwendolyn Pough’s “Hip Hop Literacies and the Globalization of Popular Culture.” According to Richardson and Pough, hip-hop’s expression of Black language, identity, and culture have a global impact. Hip-hop has influenced the “freedom movement, human rights, and social inequality” due to “the globalization of Black popular culture” (131). Beyoncé’s Homecoming represents how liberatory messages from hip-hop have a worldwide reach. Since the African diaspora includes Black people around the world and Black feminism is expressed by women around the world, global impact is not determined by a white male gaze or audience. Even though Homecoming centers Black women and the HBCU experience, the film has been a monumental global success. Homecoming was “No. 1 in over 40 countries, including the U.S., Australia, Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Nigeria, Spain, and Turkey. Talk about star power” (Carter, “Surprise!).
Due to the global reach of the Netflix streaming platform, international attendees of the Coachella performance, and Beyoncé’s unprecedented notoriety as a performer, she embodies how Black Women’s rhetorical practices are impacting the world. Homecoming symbolizes a social and cultural movement beyond local California and national implications. Since Beyoncé experiences worldwide popularity, it’s unrealistic for her to create a text that does not receive viewership from diverse audiences. Especially, since the Homecoming film is featured on Netflix’s international streaming platform, Beyoncé’s audience shares her message with the world. As a cultural icon, Beyoncé has both a Black audience and a non-Black audience. Even though Beyoncé is aware of the white male gaze, as a Black feminist, she is not preoccupied with it. Thus, this article’s analysis reflects the same audience that Beyoncé centers and prioritizes—Black women.
Homecoming is an exemplar text in terms the theoretical and methodological application of the impact of Black feminist rhetoric. To discuss Beyoncé’s expression of Southern Black womanhood via her behind-the-scenes narration, I refer to past studies—such as Kinitra D. Brooks and Kameelah L. Martin’s Lemonade Reader to emphasize Homecoming’s Black feminist social impact. Brooks and Martin’s text features interdisciplinary contributors, including Alexis McGee’s “The Language of Lemonade: The Sociolinguistic and Rhetorical Strategies of Beyoncé’s Lemonade.” McGee’s analysis functions as the framework for Beyoncé’s use of African American Women’s Language (AAWL), as a Southern Black woman in Homecoming to shape and evoke change in private and public spaces, navigate multiple discursive communities and communicate Black feminist theories of agency, empowerment, intersectionality, and inclusion. According to McGee, “the public presence of Lemonade makes space available for Black women to evoke change and validate collective struggle and identity” (55).
Ultimately, Homecoming builds on the social impact of Lemonade by communicating Black feminist rhetorical themes of Southern Black womanhood, empowerment, agency, and sexuality. As a result, Beyoncé demonstrates how Black women’s rhetorical expression transcends entertainment to promote activism, healing, and shape social movements.
Prior to interrogating the Black feminist rhetorical elements of Beyoncé’s Homecoming, it’s necessary to consider the rhetorical situation, such as exigence, audience, and various constraints. Based on the epic nature of Homecoming’s ensemble performances, Beyoncé is engaged in multiple rhetorical situations with multiple rhetors. However, my focus will remain on Beyoncé’s rhetorical effect as the main rhetor and producer of the primary messages. Although Beyoncé has wide-reaching popularity that reaches both a primary and secondary audience (non-Black), Beyoncé’s messages center Black women as her primary audience. Considering how media platforms and networks are realizing the connection between popularity and profit, I will explain how focusing on Black women audience members does not adversely impact Beyoncé’s global reach.
Homecoming represents the first film of a $60 million “mega three-project deal with global superstar Beyoncé Knowles” (Obenson, “Beyoncé $60 million”). This deal with Beyoncé represents a “rise in demand for . . . exclusive access to African American content creators” (Obenson, “Beyoncé $60 million”). Between 2017 and 2019, Black women creators—such as Shonda Rhimes, Ava Duvernay, Lena Waithe, Issa Rae, Courtney Kemp, Oprah, and Tiffany Haddish—have inked deals with Netflix, Showtime, HBO, STARZ, or Apple (Obenson, “Beyoncé $60 million”). In fact, there have been “recent launches of new networks targeting specifically African American women” (Obenson, “Beyoncé $60 million”). Cleo TV, OWN, “BET Networks, TV One, and traditionally non-black TV networks” are beginning “to realize the profit potential of that historically underserved market” (Obenson, “Beyoncé $60 million”). Since content produced by Black women for Black women audiences is seen on both Black and non-black networks, Black women’s rhetorical practices have a global impact due to a non-Black secondary audience viewership.
To address why it’s important to consider the interaction and shared feelings between Beyoncé and her audience, I apply Biesecker’s analysis of the rhetorical situation to Homecoming. Based on Beyoncé’s method of addressing Black women that share her intersectional identity, Homecoming is rhetorical because of the engagement that occurs between Beyoncé and her audience (Biesecker 113). Thus, when she encourages her audience to express themselves via her lived experience and personal narratives, her rhetorical engagement becomes evident. Through Beyoncé’s songs and narrative interludes, she inspires her audience by expressing Black feminist ideology. In other words, it is not enough that her audience responds to her messages by singing along and dancing. Based on Biesecker’s analysis, Beyoncé as a rhetor motivates her audience to act on their similarly held beliefs, as opposed to changing their beliefs.
Hence, I’m building on that rhetorical engagement between Beyoncé and her audience by using “‘She Made Angry Black Woman Something That People Would Want To Be’: Lemonade and Black Women as Audiences and Subjects” (Toone, et. al.) to discuss the relationship between the rhetor, message, and audience. For Beyoncé’s Homecoming, the exigency is created by the need to communicate the everyday struggle of Black women regardless of celebrity status. Despite her notoriety and awarded talent, it does not shield her from the pain of living while Black. Toone et. al. notes this distinction by citing Alice Walker. In Walker’s “groundbreaking discussion of Womanism, Black women often bring entirely different problems, concerns, and interests to the table from White women and other women of color” (Toone et. al. 207). Hence, the urgency of Homecoming reflects the divergent life experiences of Black women and White women due to intersectional oppression. Since Black women are impacted by multiple sites of oppression—such as race, gender, and sexuality—the urgency of their issues may differ. Womanist rhetoric (e.g., Black feminist rhetoric) strives for “the freedom and wholeness of an entire people—male and female” (Pough 69). Pough reminds us that womanist rhetoric is about “saving a life, a people, or indeed the world. And it is always linked to an activist project and agenda—that is, it is about change” (Pough 70). By drawing on Pough’s discussion of womanism, this expounds on how the concerns of Black and White women may differ due to Black women’s experiences with intersectional oppression. Furthermore, this explains why Black feminist rhetorical messages of healing are concerned about both the individual and the community.
When Beyoncé features healing songs in Homecoming, she’s speaking directly to Black women. Regarding the change that Beyoncé wishes to evoke, Beyoncé features scenes of her rhetorical process via the struggles she faces as a mother, in terms of finding time for her newborn twins and elder daughter. Despite her need to fit into her costumes for the upcoming Coachella performance, she hopes to heal and inspire everyday Black women who struggle, too. Brooks and Martin state how Beyoncé expressed similar rhetorical intentions with Lemonade: “The urgency of the moment—the multivalent dialogues about black women’s emotional labor, joy, and healing in love—relationships—propels us toward . . . numerous paths along black feminism” (1). For Beyoncé, joy and healing is about personal and communal Black feminist expression. As a result of Lemonade’s “trailblazing visual text,” academia is compelled “to reconsider how black feminists engage in the popular world and scholarship simultaneously” (Brooks and Martin 1). To thoroughly address Beyoncé’s rhetorical messages, this Homecoming analysis is a continuum of interpreting similar Black feminist themes explored in Lemonade.
Since Beyoncé’s messages target Black women, her style of communication resonates within the Black community. For instance, since Beyoncé’s unapologetically Black belief in self is rooted in her Southern Black womanhood, the traditions and images of HBCUs Homecoming may primarily create a change in those who support Black women empowerment. As audience members, people of color often negotiate their standpoints based on being “underrepresented and overly stereotyped in popular media, Black audiences often work within the dominant structure of representation to read and understand media on their own terms” (Toone, et. al. 207). Therefore, Beyoncé’s Black feminist expression and healing subject matter is relatable to her target Black women audience. With “complex projects like self-help,” rhetors “advance African American communities” (Richardson, “Carey, Tamika L. Rhetorical Healing” 401). Theorizing “African American rhetorical traditions as a set of action-taking, knowledge-making, and community-sustaining resources is to figure out how we can put projects such as Black women’s healing into everyday, critical use” (Carey 146). Mainly, because those messages of love as a method of healing resonate with an audience that’s not accustomed to seeing themselves accurately depicted in an aural/visual manner. With Homecoming, Black women see themselves and their stories centered as a method of healing the community.
Although the accessibility of the Netflix platform may place constraints on Homecoming’s message of self-healing, I will explain how Beyoncé persuasively communicates with her audience. Audience members must have access to a free trial or subscription to access Beyoncé’s message. Since Homecoming is a filmed production of a live performance, the excited utterances and unexpected discourse from the audience members comes from people that attended the live production. However, even with the excited utterances and discourse from the concert attendees, the film audience views recorded and edited images. As a result, the call and response method of communicating with her audience occurs at the live concert site only. Since the Coachella audience is present with Beyoncé, the immediacy of the moment creates awareness for the rhetor. However, upon circulation, Beyoncé’s awareness of the rhetorical impact from the Homecoming audience occurs in the following ways. Based on Beyoncé’s consistent expression of Black feminist ideology in her work, her awards, critical acclaim, Netflix film ratings, and continued appeal, this provides a level of awareness that her multi-layered messages evoke positive and impactful change on her audience.
Despite her empowering message of Black women’s sexuality, within the video arrangement of Lemonade’s “Formation,” critics wondered if Beyoncé was “becoming too political—especially after her tribute to the Black Panther Party at Super Bowl 50 in 2016” (B. Johnson 236). Beyoncé’s critics did not dismay her. She proudly features “Formation” in Homecoming. Perhaps, some critics are unable to widen their lens beyond the grown ass woman who is now aware of her sexuality. If critics had paid attention to her integration of hip hop within her R&B lyrics, they would have realized that Beyoncé was keeping it real by constructing her Black woman identity, while sending social-political messages about Black woman empowerment and agency alongside her sexuality for some time.
In the midst of difficult circumstances, truth telling and keeping it real is emblematic of hip-hop, as a representation of this rhetorical music genre. Pough writes in Check It While I Wreck It that African Americans truth telling is rooted in slave narratives such as W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folks and other autobiographies (104). In fact, Pough refers to this desire to evoke change in society with narrative storytelling as an illocutionary force. Other narratives such as “Malcolm X’s autobiography, Angela Davis’s autobiography, and Huey P. Newton’s Revolutionary Suicide” exhibit this illocutionary force (Pough, Check It 104). Like in the past, the purpose of these personal stories was to evoke change in racial, cultural, and political circumstances. Since hip-hop is rooted in the struggle of the Black experience, inevitably this genre shares similar intentions. However, Pough stresses that in the past, hip-hop commentary centered males writing from a male perspective. Yet, when theoretical analysis omits Black women, this is not the full picture of the hip-hop genre.
Like Pough, I wish to analyze the socio-political elements of hip-hop from a Black feminist rhetorical perspective. By taking into account rejections of preconceived notions of Black womanhood, audience members will interpret hip-hop from a Black feminist lens that incorporates the complex nature of Black women. Pough refers to this as the “rhetoric of Black womanhood” by examining how Black women “use the language of the past and present to construct their identities as Black women and create a rhetoric of wreck that claims agency and encourages self-definition not only for themselves but also for contemporary young Black women” (Check It 105-106).
While Beyoncé narrates her story leading up to Coachella and reads the quotes from African American icons in Homecoming, this is clearly a strategy to express how she utilizes her agency to construct her identity and engage in self-definition. As Beyoncé narrates her story as a performer, Black woman, and Black mother, she’s centering her life experiences as she brings the story of HBCU Homecomings to Coachella and Netflix. Ultimately, she is hoping to inspire transformative change in Black women’s feelings about themselves, and the socially oppressive milieu in which Black women must live. Beyoncé does this, in part, by including brief narratives of her dancers, some of whom are also mothers. Despite Beyoncé’s celebrity privilege of having access to caregivers, she makes a racial-gender connection to her performers. By featuring their stories as Black mothers, despite class differences, their intersectional status establishes a communal connection between them. Thus, like Pough says, Beyoncé as a Black woman, “claims agency and encourages self-definition” as both a personal and communal act (Check It 106).
With another text, Pough theorizes the rhetoric of Black womanhood in terms of the dual messaging of storytelling as truth telling. In Pough’s text, “Personal Narratives and Rhetorics of Black Womanhood in Hip-Hop,” she provides a framework for examining how Black women in hip-hop communicate messages. Pough states that there are some rappers who “articulate community issues and concerns via their lyrics” (“Personal Narratives” 111). Furthermore, rappers could be considered “self-designated tellers of the people’s suffering and deliver messages that otherwise might not be heard” (“Personal Narratives” 112). As previously discussed in Check It While I Wreck It, Black women’s experiences are oftentimes invisible or omitted from hip-hop discourse. Grounded in Pough’s discussion in Check It While I Wreck It and her chapter on personal narratives, I’d argue that Homecoming is in the Black autobiographical tradition of seeking revolutionary change in Black women’s thinking about themselves and how society responds to their revelatory thinking.
Based on the rhetorics of Black womanhood, performers that create autobiographical texts for a societal change, they seek to subvert “stereotypical images and constructions” (Pough, “Personal Narratives” 112). During the behind-the-scenes narration, Beyoncé expresses how she is aware of society’s negative viewpoints. Thus, I argue that she presents her Coachella/Homecoming production as tangible proof that those misconceptions of Black womanhood are in error. Beyoncé engages in the politics of #CiteBlackWomen, when she makes a point of quoting Black women icons, which are spoken in their own voice during Homecoming. During these scenes, where Beyoncé includes quotes from African American iconic educators, writers, and activists such as Audre Lorde and Maya Angelou, in between her narration, Beyoncé uses “language of the past and present to construct” her identity as a Black woman and creates “a rhetoric of agency and self-definition” (Pough, “Personal Narratives” 112). In the process of creating rhetorical agency and self-definition, since these stereotypes don’t mirror their lives, Black women hope to replace viewpoints that are harmful to them and their communities.
When Black women “tell their stories,” they’re able to offer “social commentary” (Pough, “Personal Narratives” 112). By providing social commentary intertwined with their life stories, Black women further reiterate how the personal is political. The personal experiences of Black women impact the community. And the community’s experiences impact the Black woman. As result, Pough states that these “texts serve dual functions as life stories and message texts, with each author attempting to uplift and heal others through the telling of her story” (“Personal Narratives” 112). Within this process of reconstructing Beyoncé’s identity, she attempts to empower other Black women by inspiring feelings of positivity. Furthermore, based on the empowering messages she sends, Beyoncé reshapes her image and how other Black women are perceived. By changing how one sees oneself, one can redefine themselves for themselves. Ultimately, Beyoncé is an aware rhetor that realizes her uplifting messages have the power to transform Black women’s thinking and feelings about themselves and their community.
In the process of interpreting how Beyoncé communicates with her audience, it’s imperative to address her ethos as a credible Black feminist rhetor. Unsurprisingly, Beyoncé’s dance lyrics and seductive movements have led to problematic readings, which cause some critics to miss the Black empowerment and socio-political elements of her message. To express how Beyoncé’s rhetorical messages impact Black feminism beyond a heteronormative lens, I include commentary from Charlene Carruthers and Brittney Cooper to theorize the importance of queer body inclusion. Charlene Carruthers’s Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements writes that the term queer “represents a continuum of possibilities outside of what are considered to be normal sexual or gender identities and behaviors” (Carruthers 10). It’s important to note that “even black cisfeminists who want to be transinclusive can fail to make room for trans sisters” (Tinsley 158).
Black feminist theorist Brittney Cooper also rejects a narrow understanding of Black feminism that is limited to cisgender women. Cooper refutes arguments that exclude trans women from the “general category of woman” (29). Cooper says it’s important not to exclude women based on race. But, also to consider that while “cis, gender nonconforming, trans, queer, bi, or straight might have different experiences,” they are all women (Cooper 29). To Cooper, this is an area that Black feminism needs to clarify. Unless all women’s concerns are addressed, “particularly the most marginalized women’s concerns, aren’t taken seriously,” the spirit of feminism is not fulfilled (Cooper 29). By incorporating Carruthers’s and Cooper’s theories of trans inclusion, we deepen our analysis of Beyoncé’s Black feminism via a queer lens.
On a panel with trans woman activist Janet Mock, bell hooks expressed her issues with Beyoncé’s performance in a discussion from The New School “Are You Still a Slave?” in 2014. In response to bell hooks previous criticisms of Beyoncé, Janet Mock explains how Beyoncé influenced her to feel more positive about her body. Mock notes, how in this rarefied space of sexual freedom, Beyoncé exhibits power and independence from the patriarchal influences of her father, Matthew Knowles, Destiny’s Child’s creator and her husband, rap mogul Jay-Z. Mock states:
But also having ‘Partition’ come out . . . when I’m writing about . . . issues with my body my sexuality it was freeing to have Beyoncé showing her ass and owning her body and claiming that space that meant a lot to me . . . it gave me the okay as someone I look up to since I was fifteen to have that . . . but I do think there is power in her leaving her father and I don’t think she’s going straight to Jay-Z’s hands . . . but that documentary [Beyoncé: Life Is But a Dream] was about leaving her father and saying I will not let you give this distilled image of me of me anymore and that resonates with me on so many levels, too.
(“bell hooks – Are You Still a Slave?” 46:33-47:15)
Here, Mock communicates the power of Black feminist rhetoric to have authority over one’s bodily expression and the spaces a Black woman inhabits. Mock’s response to Beyoncé as a viewer, Black woman feminist, and trans woman activist emphasizes Beyoncé’s wide-reaching impact on her audience. Not only does Beyoncé’s musical freedom impact cisgender Black women. As she expresses her sexuality, Beyoncé’s claiming of sexual freedom in various spaces is also an inspiration to queer Black bodies. Meaning, when claiming space, Beyoncé’s lyrics and movement affirm the inclusion of queer bodies in both her personal and communal quest for Black women empowerment and agency. Instead of delving deeper into Mock’s insightful interpretation of Beyoncé’s agency over her own body, despite strong male celebrity influences in her life, hooks’s commentary takes a problematic turn.
Without blinking an eye, hooks states “I see a part of Beyoncé that is in fact anti-feminist. That is assaulting. That is a terrorist . . . especially in terms of the impact on young girls . . . I actually feel like the major assault on feminism in our society has come from visual media” (“bell hooks – Are You Still a Slave?” 47:37-47:59). And, perhaps, there is value in hooks discussion of the media’s assault on feminism. Yet, she does not justify her argument for interpreting Beyoncé’s rhetorical expression as anti-feminist and terroristic. Quite frankly, this response to Mock’s expression of sexual-gender inclusion is removed from both Beyoncé’s message and Mock’s response to that message as an audience member.
In Roxane Gay’s article entitled “Beyoncé’s Control of Her Own Image Belies the bell hooks ‘Slave’ Critique,” she responds to hooks unbridled criticism of Beyoncé as destructive to the concept of feminism. According to hooks, Beyoncé’s presentation is contradictory and is devoid of expressing a “liberatory image”. hooks claims, “This rhetoric of women ‘enslaving themselves’,” becoming ever more beholden to the patriarchy when they present themselves sexually, is common” (Gay “Beyoncé’s Control of Her Own Image”). However, this interpretation of Beyoncé as having a lack of agency over her own image demonstrates a lack of acknowledgement of Beyoncé as a cultural producer. Gay notes, Beyoncé has “long acted as her own manager, produced and directed a documentary about her life and made many a lucrative business deal” (Gay “Beyoncé’s Control of Her Own Image”). Meaning, Beyoncé exhibits behind-the-scenes agency, which is far removed from hooks likening Beyoncé to a slave beholden to the patriarchy. Embracing one’s sexuality includes liberation from divergent generational interpretations of sexuality. If the goal is to improve the lives of other women, there is no one-way to be feminist. Thus, without evaluating Beyoncé’s positive impact on Black women and the community, for the purpose of drawing negative conclusions, hooks’s second wave feminism narrowly interprets Beyoncé’s rhetorical expression.
In fact, feminism is the freedom to embrace one’s own sexuality, under her own terms. As feminists, “[W]e have to trust that women can be feminists, good role models and embrace sexuality. We have to believe that we can hold different points of view without labeling each other bad feminists” (Gay “Beyoncé’s Control of Her Own Image”). Gay and Mock’s intuitive response to hooks’s narrow view of feminism reflects Black feminist rhetorical principles. As a manner of communicating sexual freedom and authority over one’s body, the language Black feminists use to speak of each other should demonstrate a belief that sexuality may be expressed differently. Exposing or hiding one’s body does not necessarily denote acquiescence to male patriarchal influences. In fact, when a woman such as Beyoncé determines how an audience will see her and has intention behind the delivery of her own messaging, she is exhibiting how Black feminist rhetoric leads to agency. Judging by the various roles that Beyoncé plays, such as managing, producing, and directing her own documentary, Homecoming, she demonstrates rhetorical control over how her own image and the messages she distributes, while impacting her audience.
Beyoncé’s Coachella performance in Homecoming can be described as “a pep rally for Beyoncé’s imagined black college or university” (Kornhaber, “Beyoncé Masters”). However, a more introspective examination reveals that the message of Homecoming is far more than an aesthetic endeavor. Within “this portrayal of an African American educational tradition were call-outs to other legendary institutions of black excellence—the Nubian kingdom (the bleachers formed a pyramid), and Southern hip-hop” (Kornhaber, “Beyoncé Masters”). This use of hip-hop by Beyoncé represents “An artistic, social, and cultural movement, it is diverse and reflects the local histories, cultures and concerns of its worldwide practitioners, while adhering to hip-hop’s ideological and aesthetic imperatives” (Richardson and Pough 129). Meaning, Beyoncé’s use of hip-hop represents how the messages of Homecoming emerge from the African American community into global spaces. Beyoncé demonstrates her understanding of her audience’s history, culture, and concerns by interweaving the hip-hop tradition with her R&B lyrics, expressive movements, and costumes. With Homecoming, Beyoncé artistically, socially, and culturally moves the audience with images rooted in the African and African American community.
When Beyoncé’s Coachella performance opens, she walks the stage in her Queen Nefertiti outfit. By adorning this cultural homage to African royalty, Beyoncé exhibits Black feminist rhetorical principles because her Black body becomes a site of historical knowledge. In this stage outfit, Beyoncé reminds the audience of a real African queen who ruled Egypt. Thus, the representation of Nefertiti is simultaneously a site of historical knowledge and rhetorical agency because Beyoncé is sending a message of empowerment to Black women. Since Beyoncé’s “cape featured an emblazoned . . . image of Nefertiti” (Borge, “The Meaning”), the message is effectively communicated to her audience. Amid this cultural homage to African history and culture, she builds on this message: “Beyoncé’s larger-than-life hat is similar to one researchers discovered on the bust of Nefertiti in 1912” (Borge, “The Meaning”). Furthermore, “Beyoncé’s dancers wore catsuits that . . . had images of the Sphinx from ancient Greek lore” (Borge, “The Meaning”). With audience’s eyes on them, Beyoncé’s dancers perform sorority Greek-like steps, with Black Panther beret hats (Homecoming 2:15-2:30). Thus, this ideological message that Black power is knowledge of Black women leaders such as Queen Nefertiti is converged. By subverting notions of Black inferiority and elevating the aesthetic beauty of African history, Beyoncé is evoking an ideological sense of Black pride.
For the second weekend of Beyoncé’s Coachella performance, she adorns “an all-silver take on the Nefertiti ensemble” (Borge, “The Meaning”). On the back of this epic outfit, are the Greek letters Beta Delta Kappa. This intentional nexus between Egyptian history and Greek sororities are a method of connecting African heritage with the rhetorical missions of HBCUs. Martin Bernal’s Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization argues for a reevaluation of the connection between Africa and Greece (Welch 46). Rhetorical historiography offers an opportunity to redress past absences of African and African American influence in academia. Beyoncé’s use of both Egyptian and Greek symbolism demonstrates her understanding of this connection. Her use of Egyptian and Greek imagery evokes community pride in the HBCU experience. Drawing a rhetorical historiographical connection between African and Greek history is symbolic of double consciousness. Effectively, Homecoming maintains an academic connection to Black historical figures such as W. E. B. Du Bois that theorized the duality of the Black American experience.
It’s fitting, then, that Homecoming is now an extension of this artistic double consciousness (and notably quotes W. E. B. Du Bois, who coined the term). Throughout the documentary, Beyoncé weaves in text and audio snippets from multiple black authors, historians, and public thinkers, most often culling from moments when they spoke directly to black audiences. The nearly two-and-a-half-hour production, which Beyoncé wrote, directed, and executively-produced, is as much a celebration of black-intellectual history as it is a concert film.
(Giorgis, “Beyoncé’s Black Intellectual Homecoming”)
In other words, there is a rhetorical correlation between African history, HBCUs, and Black intellectuals. When Beyoncé pays homage to Queen Nefertiti, she evokes a Black feminist rhetorical message of Black women empowerment. However, when she introduces Greek sorority life to the audience, she’s sending a message that history and intellect represents an artistic, social, and cultural movement of advancement that is reflective of Black feminist rhetorical ideology. Knowledge of Black history equates to Black power. Meaning, the knowledge of self comes from knowledge of African history. Thus, Beyoncé’s homage to Queen Nefertiti is a site of knowledge. When Beyoncé promotes the rhetorical words of Black intellectuals who were educators, writers, and activists—such as W. E. B. Du Bois, Toni Morrison, Marian Wright Edelman, and Audre Lorde—she further transforms Homecoming into a site of intellectual and textual production.
In Homecoming, when Beyoncé discusses the nexus between her artistic endeavors and intellectual growth, her personal story connects with her Black audience. Even for Blacks who have gone to public white institutions, in terms of this African American intellectual-cultural tradition, they are generally aware of the HBCU Homecoming experience. Since W. E. B. Du Bois attended Fisk University, by Beyoncé stating in Homecoming that her father attended Fisk University, as well, she’s connecting her personal history to our African American intellectual history. Growing up, this “Houston-born singer” was raised “near Prairie View A&M University and spent much of her early career rehearsing at Texas Southern University” (Giorgis, “Beyoncé’s Black Intellectual Homecoming”). Due to the success of her musical career, she was unable to experience college life at an HBCU. Since Beyoncé says her “‘college was Destiny’s Child,’” she “channeled the institutions’ distinct vibrancy” (Giorgis, “Beyoncé’s Black Intellectual Homecoming”). Beyoncé says, “I wanted a black orchestra. I wanted the steppers. I needed the vocalists. I wanted different characters; I didn’t want us all doing the same thing” (Homecoming 18:12-18:22). In essence, Beyoncé sought to create the Black experience onstage for her fans. For those reasons, her band and dancers reflect the African American heritage of the average HBCU student. To accurately express the authenticity of the HBCU experience, Beyoncé creates a safe space for historically marginalized individuals. Not to mention, African Americans see a reflection of themselves onstage.
At the close of Homecoming, Beyoncé includes a rhetorical message of activism. A black background features the following words in white: “So many people who are culturally aware and intellectually sound are graduates of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, including my father. There is something incredibly important about the HBCU experience that must be celebrated and protected” (Homecoming 2:12:38-2:12:46). By featuring this message, at the end of Homecoming, Beyoncé creates a call to action for her audience. Through her performance, ensemble dancers, behind-the-scenes narration, and intertwined quotes from Black intellectuals, Beyoncé communicates the message that celebrating HBCUs is about generational legacy and saving African American culture. When Beyoncé requests a monetary response from her Homecoming audience, she exhibits her primary rhetorical intention, which is to highlight the intellectual, social, and artistic impact of HBCUs on American culture. Quite frankly, HBCUs have produced a significant number of Black activist-intellectuals and professionals.
Rhetorically, Beyoncé is aware of the power she has as an artist and Black feminist. Beyoncé fuses Black women language practices with her Black identity, which includes the use of hip-hop to communicate with her Black audience. More than likely, Beyoncé is aware that “hip-hop’s global impact is unequivocally linked to a rooted commitment to local language practices, identities and expressive cultures” (Richardson and Pough 130). This intertwining of music and intellectual production is a manifestation of Black feminist rhetoric in the hands of Beyoncé. Homecoming is Beyoncé’s opportunity to demonstrate what Richardson and Pough refer to as an “interconnectedness of the Black American feminisms” on a global scale (Richardson and Pough 131). Beyoncé’s Homecoming demonstrates Black feminist rhetorical principles by featuring how “hip-hop feminism” functions “as a politic of solidarity and mutual empowerment for Black women and girls throughout the Americas” (Richardson and Pough 131). When Beyoncé is the headlining performer at an international festival such as Coachella, she is centering Black women and our power to lead, in this case a musical production, on a global scale. Therefore, when Beyoncé makes her plea to support HBCUs at the conclusion of Homecoming, for the purpose of supporting future great Black leaders, she is using her rhetorical agency to evoke an emotional response that will lead to monetary support for Black intellectualism, history and culture.
Behind-the-scenes of the glittery costumes and ensemble performers, Beyoncé exhibits profound understanding of the relationship between herself, her message, and her audience. Within this cultural production, she creates a rhetorical atmosphere that evokes both emotions from her screaming fans and behind-the-scenes commentary revealing her profound understanding of the rhetor-audience relationship. However, the attendees at Coachella didn’t have the privilege of hearing the behind-the-scenes commentary. This is a message constraint that’s not placed on the Netflix Homecoming audience. Therefore, for the purpose of interpreting Homecoming, I look to Alexis McGee’s Lemonade analysis of Beyoncé’s communicative practices as a Southern Black woman navigating “multiple discourse identities” (56). Even though my discussion is devoted to Homecoming, Alexis McGee’s “The Language of Lemonade: The Sociolinguistic and rhetorical strategies of Beyoncé’s Lemonade,” provides a framework for interpreting the behind-the-scenes language of this aural/visual film. Intentionally, Beyoncé situates both Lemonade and Homecoming in Black feminist discourse and language mirroring the Black woman experience. McGee expresses how Beyoncé’s Southern Black identity is part of her intersectional identity as a Black feminist. Moreover, Beyoncé demonstrates in Lemonade how Black women evoke change with their expression of lived experience: “This rise of Beyoncé as a mother, sister, daughter, and unapologetically Black woman from the South who is also a worldwide performer and entrepreneur has shown us various sides of this Black woman music artist from Houston” (McGee 55). Therefore, Lemonade lays the groundwork for discussing how Southern Black womanhood is expressed in Homecoming.
In the process of analyzing the effect of Beyoncé’s rhetoric, as she addresses her Homecoming audience, it’s important to identify her discursive practices. According to McGee, “Beyoncé’s explicit inclusion of AAWL markers like codes-witching [sic], signifying, and nonverbal sonic rhetorics—’hush harbors’ or silence—shows her navigation of constructing intersectional identities” (61). Using McGee’s analysis, I explain how I format statements from Beyoncé’s behind-the-scenes narration. For instance, I use ellipses to represent moments of brief anecdotal pauses or silences by Beyoncé. In fact, even the commas separating clauses and periods separating sentences work in conjunction with moments of intersentence or interclause silences. As Beyoncé engages in code-switching, by enunciating each word and refraining from the use of Southern English, her pauses demonstrate her navigation of her intersectional identities. Moreover, as part of this nonverbal sonic rhetoric, she resists public and communal exclusion perpetrated by mainstream society, which negatively impacts Black women, as individuals, in the private sphere. Beyoncé knows that this rejection of self comes from society’s rejection of Black women’s communicative expressions. Thus, Beyoncé’s manner in which she delivers her message uses silence to address the systemic issues of marginalization experienced by her audience.
As Beyoncé narrates these words, she features images that support themes of Black feminist rhetoric; each visual image emphasizes Beyoncé’s agency, empowerment, and sense of inclusion. When Beyoncé says that it mystifies her that she’s “the first African American woman to headline Coachella,” (Homecoming, 1:07:18-1:07:25) located on a table, there is a humongous white binder with the following words on the cover: BEY – CHELLA 2018.
To center her experience, Beyoncé uses the name Beychella. As a result, when she expresses her behind-the-scenes commentary, she transforms Homecoming into a site of rhetorical agency. Within this site of agency, as a trailblazer, Beyoncé expresses her desire for visible cultural and social change. Since Beyoncé has the celebrity power and authority to write, direct and produce her Homecoming film, when she uses language to express this experience, she exhibits Black women empowerment and agency. According to McGee, “This agency through language describes her maneuvering of multiple identities, politics, and locations for our consumption and reflection” (58). In this behind-the-scenes moment, despite cultural politics that barred other successful Black women performers before her, Beyoncé conveys her position as a pioneering first. As part of her expression of agency, as a Black woman pop cultural icon, she has the freedom to use language that conveys the complexity of her multiple identities and discourse communities. The image of that BEY – CHELLA white binder expresses her behind-the-scenes agency, in the private sphere. And the Homecoming movie itself expresses Beyoncé’s agency in the public sphere.
In the following black and white image, while wearing her Nefertiti costume, the Homecoming audience views Beyoncé in the public/private sphere. As she enters the side door of a building, holding her daughter Blue Ivy’s hand, her stage performers patiently wait for Beychella a. k. a. Beyoncé to enter first. The image further conveys Black feminist rhetorical themes of agency and empowerment. Beyoncé narrates the following words in this scene: “It was important to me . . . that everyone that had never seen themselves represented . . . felt like they were on that stage with us” (Homecoming 1:07:26-1:07:33). The audience is privy to the behind-the-scenes message of Beyoncé. Since she is a cultural producer, she wants to arouse feelings of Black kinship amongst members of the community. By wanting the audience to feel like “they were on that stage” with she and her dancers, Beyoncé redefines both herself and what it means to be a Black woman. Beyoncé exhibits rhetorical agency, in a manner that “enables us to redefine ourselves in order to work on behalf of self and community in the midst of our social realities” (K. Johnson 162). As Beyoncé continues to redefine herself, partially with renaming practices like the name Beychella, her Homecoming film also signifies a reframing of Coachella experiences, which were previously headlined by whites. Using her cultural power, she encourages her community to transcend their social reality within a system of oppression.
Beyoncé relates her Black feminist rhetorical message of community to her personal experience as a performer and to her communal experience with her ensemble cast of performers. Within this behind-the-scenes narration, Beyoncé’s language associates her with various discursive communities. According to McGee, Beyoncé’s “rhetorical use of AAWL signifies” how “Bey is more than a public pop-culture icon; she is also part of the audience, part citizen who is disproportionately misrecognized as other by a solipsistic nation” (59). Beyoncé’s discursive practices create a nexus between her and her Black woman audience. Her iconic pop-culture status does not exclude her from participating in this Coachella experience as both a rhetor/performer and an audience member. Beyoncé is a Black woman citizen that has a sense of equality by wanting her audience to experience what she and her stage performers are experiencing. Lastly, Beyoncé acknowledges that her personal experience is not isolated. As she and her dancers are emotionally moved, she hopes to redefine her audience’s vision with regard to their own possibilities. Meaning, the Coachella experience and the Homecoming film are a communal celebration of redefining Black womanhood and blackness for an international audience.
While the next rhetorical scene unfolds, prior to the big band performance, Beyoncé’s oral storytelling continues. Prior to the start of the dress rehearsal, Beyoncé stands in the foreground, at the base of the stage. Meanwhile, her dancers sit mostly in silence, waiting to be addressed. Beyoncé speaks the words, “As a Black woman, I used to feel like the world wanted me to stay in my little box. And Black women often feel . . . underestimated” (Homecoming 1:07:35 -1:07:43). When Beyoncé communicates these words of marginalization and invisibility, her figure is visible. However, she is intentionally featured as a black silhouette due to the lighting. Then, as she discusses further how to make those who are marginalized feel more visible than invisible, she continues to communicate her rhetorical intentions. Beyoncé says, “I wanted us to be proud of not only the show . . . but . . . the process. Proud of the struggle. Thankful for the beauty that comes with . . . a painful history and rejoice in the pain” (Homecoming 1:07:47-1:08:57). As Beyoncé speaks those words, the camera focuses on the performers, as they sit in the bleachers. Some fine tuning their trumpets, horns and violins.
However, when she speaks of the inclusion of Black bodies, the camera focuses on images of her Black women dancers in yellow leotards, white boots, and white gloves. As colorful images of her performers flash by, Beyoncé says “And I wanted everyone to feel grateful for their curves . . . their sass . . . their honesty, thankful for their freedom” (Homecoming 1:08:03-1:08:10). By expressing Black feminist rhetorical principles of inclusion of diverse Black bodies and forms of expression, she engages in the sociolinguistic and rhetorical strategies that McGee talks about. During this narration, Beyoncé’s Southern dialect is barely detectable. However, the tone and tenor of her speech still conform to African American Women Language principles. Beyoncé is “communicating meaning, agency, support, and resistance to normative practices and/or policies that may be in opposition to the betterment of one’s self” (McGee 61). In other words, Beyoncé uses her Coachella platform to subvert negative images of Black bodies. By including performers of diverse sizes, she’s expressing the importance of including all-sized bodies as part of our communal agency. When Beyoncé includes feeling grateful for our sass and honesty, she resists negative commentary of Black women’s attitudes and wants us to celebrate our honesty as truthtellers. Lastly, Beyoncé promotes the idea that resisting normative practices that seek to control Black women’s bodies and methods of expression is in the best interest of self.
As the camera flashes on the bleachers again, the focus becomes all of her performers, which includes both women and men. Beyoncé says the words, “It was no rules . . . and we were able to create a free, safe space where none of us were marginalized” (Homecoming 1:08:12-1:08:20). Beyoncé’s discursive practices and the language used to communicate her rhetorical intentions is how Black women “subvert power structures and assert or validate experiences through developing and sustaining particular identities, individually and communally” (McGee 61). As a cultural producer, Beyoncé uses her rhetorical agency and power to affirm the humanity of those who have been both historically hypervisible and invisible. Within this oppressive system that perpetuates dehumanizing images, Beyoncé creates a space behind-the-scenes and onstage that negates demoralizing images of Black bodies. Ultimately, Beyoncé uses her cultural power to include and demarginalize diverse identities for her dancers in both an individual and communal sense.
In June 2015, Florence Warmate’s book club in Abuja, Nigeria read and discussed Chimamanda Adichie’s We Should All be Feminists. The book was based on Adichie’s viral TED Talk video of the same title. Excerpts from this same talk had also featured in Beyoncé’s 2014 pop hit song, “Flawless.” According to Ms. Florence, an area sales manager, the book/talk—which highlights everyday sexism in Nigeria—is what set the tone for members of the book club to share their experiences as women in Nigeria. The discussion of the book was extended to Twitter under the hashtag #BeingFemaleInNigeria. To raise awareness, Nigerian Twitter users were invited to share their lived experiences as females in the country. Women and girls living in Nigeria honored the call and posted tweets that spoke to certain specific cultural manifestations of the system of patriarchy in Nigeria, such as a traditional widowhood rite which required a widow to “sleep with her dead husbands’ corpse for days” to prove she didn’t kill him; landlords refusing to rent out apartments to single/unmarried women, forcing some to “present fake husbands” during apartment searches; and a general culture of male insubordination toward female authority, like a hired male steward who informed his boss that he didn’t mind being rebuked; “just not by/in front of a woman.”
Although many people would argue that feminists come up against patriarchal systems regardless of wherever they may be, the manifestations of these patriarchal structures vary by culture, time, and place. While the examples above might not register as frequent or even plausible occurrences for and within Western feminist circles, they are common in certain non-Western contexts such as Nigeria. This would explain why shortly after the #BeingFemaleInNigeria hashtag trended, versions of it sprung up in other African and non-Western countries, including Bangladesh with #BeingFemaleInBangladesh, Zimbabwe with #BeingFemaleInZimbabwe, and Ghana (my home country) with #BeingFemaleInGhana (BBC, 2015). What these tweets reveal about the suppression of women in some African countries are lingering pre-colonial paternalistic ties and the legacies of Victorian-era colonial values of womanhood and femininity. As such, this social experiment by Warmate’s book club makes a good case for the need for non-Western feminist rhetorics.
As a growing number of feminist scholars argue: to enrich our understanding of feminist rhetorical practices, especially in understudied contexts, there is the need to focus attention on non-Western feminists’ scholarship (Amadiume 1987; Bawa 2012; 2018; Oyěwùmí 1997; Royster and Kirsch 2012; Wang 2013). These calls, according to Bawa, contest “Western feminist universalizing discourses on women’s oppression” in order to develop “context-specific” notions of empowerment (2). Attention to these context-specific feminist concerns and interventions in non-Western cultures are necessary beyond the simple case for inclusion. More significantly, due to the uniqueness of the social settings, histories, and geographical locations, the tactics and strategies women in these cultures adopt to confront their subjugation offer rich insights that have the potential to stretch the boundaries of feminist rhetorical studies.
In this paper, therefore, I focus on one such manifestation where Ghanaian feminists within the Pepper Dem Ministries (PDM) movement, of which I am a part, use a range of homegrown tactics to challenge the erasure and suppression of women’s voices in Ghana. PDM, as an organically-formed online digital movement, showcases how Ghanaian feminists use tactics of culturally situated humor and sarcasm, all the while falling on little-known cultural resources for a resistance strategy that is engendered by flipping scripts and creating counter-narratives. Specifically, I examine the group’s digital activism around the problem of manels— a description for a tradition of all-male panels in political, civic, and social discussions on radio, TV, and conferences—and the creation of counter-fliers as a response to this phenomenon. The analysis identifies an instance of feminist advocacy situated in an African context where a specific cultural manifestation of women’s subjugation, particularly, women’s exclusion in public debates and erasure of women’s perspectives on national issues as well as issues pertaining to them was being addressed by reclaiming spaces that allow them to participate in governing their own bodies.
I approach this analysis as a Western-trained feminist rhetorician who is also engaged in feminist activist work in Ghana, specifically with PDM. As one of the movement’s founding members, I use this essay as an opportunity to reflect on the exigences driving our advocacy, as well as the impact of some of our tactics. In the cases I analyze here, the online genre of counter-fliers demonstrated the effectiveness of culturally sourced resources in drawing attention to the sexism in the manels and to reveal the counternarrative power of our responses to it. By so doing, I show that to broaden our study of feminist rhetorical strategies, it is crucial to examine non-Western rhetorical practices in ways that inform our field’s global perspectives. Such an analysis also allows us to appreciate unique lived experiences of women in non-Western societies in order to erase the “networks of assumptions” (Wang 2013) that are all too often brought to global discourses on feminism.
I focus on a period between March 2020 when Ghana recorded its first COVID-19 cases and May 2020 when there had been a number of state-of-the-nation addresses by the President of Ghana on the pandemic. While all-male panels on critical national, social, and political issues are commonplace in Ghana, the impact of the pandemic produced a series of back-to-back discussions within short intervals. Several non-COVID-19 related events also had to be rescheduled to online platforms in accordance with the pandemic protocols, increasing creative online publicity strategies. The focus of the paper is on the narratives and the discussions in digital spaces that draw attention to them, as well as its implications and how these narratives function as a symptom of a larger problem in Ghanaian society. Through a visual rhetorical analysis of the counter-fliers and the narratives they highlight, I demonstrate how flipping scripts through counter-fliers and the platform of Facebook can be used to actively resist the status quo of patriarchal norms and expectations of women in Ghana.
Ultimately, in response to increasing interest within feminist rhetorical studies about studying non-Western rhetorical practices, my paper draws from these lines of scholarship to examine the relationship between rhetoric and gender and how gender conventions can be disrupted and the power imbalance, changed. The question informing this paper then is: How does rhetoric and gender intersect in activist politics in the Ghanaian society? To answer this question, the paper examines what these counter stories tell us about gender expectations in Ghanaian society and to argue that in Ghana, rhetoric and gender intersect to make certain disparities in the society more visible to the public.
By non-Western I am referring to: (1) events in Ghana that call for feminist interventions and (2) tactics used in Ghana for feminist work. In summary, I draw attention to the specific practices of feminists located in Ghana and the knowledge-mediation processes involved in responding to specific feminist concerns in the Ghanaian context. Specifically, the overarching argument here is that feminist rhetoric studies needs to be more inclusive of (and culturally literate about) global Black feminist practices. In what follows, I explore scholarship in feminist rhetorical studies calling attention to non-Western feminist rhetorics in order to situate my analysis.
Increasing calls to recognize the global dimension of feminist rhetorical practices demands that the activist strategies of women in various places (and different cultural orientations) be recognized to push the boundaries of the feminist movement (Glenn and Ratcliffe 2011; Glenn 2018; Hooks 2003; Oyenwumi 1997). These calls stem from the recognition that Black women have always contributed to feminist theories and practices, often deviating from White and Eurocentric strategies, scopes, and approaches. Significantly, they draw attention to nuances that tend to be easily overlooked due to the impact of certain socio-cultural factors (Crenshaw 1990). And, while mainstream Western feminism has always been perceived as radical in nature, the racial dimensions that add another layer of oppression to Black women’s lived experiences offer rich insights into where the scope of rhetorical feminism can be stretched (See, for instance, Khoury 2015; Logan 1999; Pough 2004).
In her article, “Necessary Adjustments: Black Women’s Rhetorical Impatience,” Tamika Carey makes a case for Black women’s social and structural responses to various forms of microaggressions which have been negatively stereotyped as “loud,” “ghetto,” “rude,” or “aggressive.” Here, Carey contends that Black women’s rhetorical impatience, often exhibited in their unapologetic stances and in the need for performance/spectacle, is evoked for self-preservation. She argues that these bodily, tonal, and verbal performances that culturally raised Black women enact “reﬂect knowledge-making traditions and discursive practices that… foreground the assumption that equity and justice for one’s self, Black women, and Black communities is already overdue and, thus, requires speed and decisive action” (270). This re-purposing of “haste” by Black women to ensure discipline and to demand respect with racially-biased people and the oppressive systems they interact with is a good example of the knowledge-making opportunities embedded in the intersectional positionality of research by Black women and on Black women’s experiences.
Even when Black feminists engage established feminist rhetoric concepts, they enrich these concepts with their unique lived experiences. For instance, consider Suban Nur Cooley, a black woman of Somali descent and her personal narrative on migration. Cooley’s work draws on Sarah Ahmed’s queer phenomenology to explain the migrant orientation which involves “the lived experience of facing at least two directions: towards a home that has been lost, and to a place that is not home yet” (par. 4). Cooley notes her deliberate dissociation of “movement” from “migration” to depict an experience that transcends physically traversing from one point to another, to instead an experience that is “embodied in the daily practice of existence.” As such, her idea of “home” is a “sensation,” one that can be found in her memories and in her lived experiences. This re-imagination of “movement” and “migration” also draws on Royster and Kirsch’s (2012) call for feminist scholars in the West to engage in a “whole body experience” and use their “critical imaginations” to appreciate the lived experiences of women of color. Suban’s narrative as an African immigrant who spent the most part of her developmental years shuttling between several countries and across different continents, offers a unique perspective on immigration in general, when we consider the dominance of Mexican/Hispanic/Latino experiences on immigration in the US.
Aside the implicit case being made for the inclusion of Black feminist scholarship to enrich the field, there’s work explicitly making this call, too. An example is Aja Martinez’ work on Critical Race Theory counterstory that recognizes that “the experiential and embodied knowledge of people of color is legitimate and critical to understanding racism that is often well disguised in the rhetoric of normalized structural values and practices” (37). Counterstories, as a methodology, work to Center the perspectives of those who have been Othered in research. Similarly, in Feminist Rhetorical Practices, Jacqueline Jones Royster and Gesa Kirsch insist on the globalization of feminist rhetorical analyses and feminist theory, calling for a focus on the global dimensions of feminist rhetorical practices. Beyond the calls for inclusion, I extend this argument to include the case for how the global dimensions of feminist rhetorical practices provide insights into the unique lived experiences of women in places with complex histories.
As more work by Black feminists, specifically contributions from non-Western feminists gain public recognition, there’s also the potential for cross-fertilization of ideas which can inform feminist work globally (Glenn 2018; Khoury 2015; Losh 2014). This is because, although some feminist concerns are similar across the globe, peculiarities of patriarchal systems in different geographical locations and cultural orientations often produce unique experiences for women in specific contexts. Put differently, while women are subject to patriarchal structures wherever they find themselves, the manifestations of those structures differ; therefore, the strategies women adopt outside the US and other non-Western contexts in engaging culturally-specific patriarchal systems are important to understanding the global dimensions of feminist rhetorical practices (See, for instance, an important work on Ghanaian women’s relationship with traditional beads by Mavis Boatemaa Beckson ).
It is for this reason that growing studies on rhetorical silence and listening couldn’t be more relevant. In their book Silence and Listening as Rhetorical Arts Cheryl Glenn and Krista Ratcliffe not only reclaim silence and listening to dissociate them from the contexts of “passivity” or “quietism”; but they also posit silence and listening as rhetorical arts that can enhance cross-cultural communication between dominant and marginalized groups. Ultimately, this is a call for dominant groups to engage in rhetorical listening to recognize (and learn about/from) the silence and silencing of historically marginalized groups to transform our societies. Therefore, as rhetorical feminists embracing the work of Black feminists, we need to broaden our study to be more inclusive of the scope of the strategies that black women elsewhere other than in the West are adopting to challenge, correct, change societal narratives around women, and make a case for their rights. In addition to including the voices of non-Western feminists, we can equally learn from insights from their research and how these perspectives can inform, extend, and enrich studies on feminist rhetorical practices more generally. In the next section I look specifically at African feminist practices and female justice activism on the continent.
Figure 1: The women behind the tactful 1929 Aba Women’s Riots in Nigeria
African women have historically organized and acted to make societal changes. Colonial legacies from interaction with the West and the continued dominance of the West have created an even bigger exigency for feminist interventions and advocacy on the continent too (Amadiume 1987; Oyěwùmí 1997). Some notable historical events showcasing African women’s organizing power in challenging oppressive systems in their cultures include: the 1929 “Aba Women’s Riots” also known as the “Aba Women’s War” in Nigeria; the 1956 Women’s March in Pretoria, South Africa; and the “National Federation of Gold Coast Women,” preceding Ghana’s (formerly known as the Gold Coast) independence in 1957. Nonetheless, we shouldn’t also lose sight of some forms of female subjugation and imbalanced male privileges that already existed in the traditional systems in these cultures that may have also been intensified by colonial influences, thereby necessitating feminist organizing and advocacy.
For instance, in Male Daughters, Female Husbands: Gender and Sex in an African Society, Ifi Amadiume writes extensively on the complex organization and performance of gender in her Igbo culture in Nigeria. She discusses a salient example where although land inheritance typically went to sons, the role of a son could be occupied by the first female child (male daughters), and while women couldn’t own land, a wealthy older woman (female husbands) could marry wives in order to benefit from their reproductive abilities. The sons these wives produce then offer these wealthy older women claim to certain resources. This audacious work, dissociating masculine attributes from men and female attributes from women, challenged the Western binary notions on sex, gender, and sexuality. In contemporary times, this complex organization on gender, sex, and sexuality has been exploited in these Igbo cultures and have foregrounded some oppressive systems in Nigeria where women and girls are excluded completely without a regard for their nuanced applications in pre-colonial times. As such, in more recent feminist advocacies over the last few decades on the continent, a lot of attention has been dedicated to addressing these issues with huge strides being recorded.
In light of these unique cultural experiences, there are ongoing debates among scholars for the implementation of the feminist movement, feminist advocacy, and feminist scholarship on the continent (Davies and Graves 1986; Bawa 2018; Oyěwùmí 2003; 1997). These debates are predicated on two main concerns: First is the reality that the term feminism invites a lot of resistance in many African societies because it is widely perceived as “un-African” and merely another imperial threat from the West to destroy Africa’s socio-cultural bonds, beginning with the family unit. Resistance to the term is also largely due to how feminist activist work on the African continent is dominated by highly educated and mostly Western-trained individuals. Hence, the term feminism courts immediate suspicion and hostility, even causing several organizations and individuals doing feminist work on the continent not to define their work as feminist or even take up the feminist tag/identity in order not to detract attention from the essential work they are doing. Bawa thus notes in her work tracing feminist work in Ghana:
In Ghana, feminism (as a “new” name/term for women’s rights organising) as a movement epitomises tensions, contradictions and misconceptions often associated with the threat of the women’s movement’s ability to disrupt the “normal” socio-cultural and political landscape. It is important to distinguish between those who do feminist work (social justice for women) and fear that the label will detract from important social justice work and decide not to label themselves as such, and those who consciously, aware of the political stance they take by naming their activism feminist, call themselves feminists. African feminists cannot escape the charge of elitism given that one would typically have to have learned about feminism in an institution of higher learning to subscribe to it and to label oneself as such. Nevertheless, most of these women grew up poor and experienced life in the peripheries before obtaining tertiary education. Their varied life-experiences and challenges impact the type of feminist politics they engage in (5).
The second reason scholars have advocated for the localization of feminist concerns on the continent is that the Western origins of feminism and the dominance of Western feminist scholarship creates a challenge by not accounting for the role of race dynamics and precolonial traditional norms that greatly impact the lived experiences of women in non-Western cultures. Thus, what some scholars are concerned with is not necessarily the irrelevance of feminism in Africa, but rather concerns about the cultural implications of using the term “feminism” to engage women’s rights in Africa. As Bawa and others have contended, then, there’s the need to historicize the oppression of women on the continent. What these concerns essentially emphasize is the need for contextually-driven analyses in feminist theories and its applications, as well as a re-definition of the term to properly account for these nuances.
Following these epiphanies, feminist scholars in Africa and of African descent draw attention to an element of the movement on the continent that specifically regards the participation of men in order to achieve its tenets (Dery 2020). This element is driven by the shared colonial experiences of both men and women on the continent and the combined and unified efforts of both genders in fighting for independence from Western imperial rule for their countries. Bawa puts it more eloquently in her distinction between attitudes of older generation women’s rights activists and younger generation activists in Ghana, when she observes “a strong connection between women’s rights movements and nationalism and nation-building” (8)—a result of fighting hand-in-hand with men to challenge Western colonial imperialism on the principles of equality and self-determination (8). As such, feminist organizations, and self-identified individuals in places like Ghana are preoccupied with presenting a “male-friendly” advocacy, sometimes even going at lengths to center men in their work and public utterances.
An instance, where this uniquely Ghanaian brand of African feminism was manifested is when a former Minister for Gender, Children, and Social Protection, Madam Hajia Alihu-Mahama, who embarked on a nation-wide campaign to soothe the tempers of male traditional leaders about her commitment to stop a clause in the parliamentary proposed Domestic Violence Bill which was seeking to criminalize, among other things, marital rape. In a culture that perceives sex to be the birthright of men and enabled by the existence of the “bride price” in traditional marriage ceremonies, there was an immediate resistance to that clause in the bill because it sought to deprive men of their privileges. An effect of the concept of the bride price, which I argue, suggests ownership of wives through the exchange of monetary or other forms of gifts/payments to the woman’s family. This exchange then permits most husbands to commodify their wives, even though that isn’t the intended purpose of the concept. More recently, the first public interview of Ghana’s immediate past Minister of Gender, Children, and Social Protection following her appointment, was an affirmation of this cultural inflection of the feminist movement in Ghana. The then minister, Cynthia Morrison, announced that she “came for the men as well”, an affirmation that was necessary to calm the fears of an already tensed atmosphere from a new wave of vibrant digital Ghanaian feminist activism.
This cultural dimension of involving men in feminist activist work in places like Ghana is further complicated by generational gaps in women’s rights activism. Here, I draw on the work of Bawa, Opewumi, and Ampofo, Beoku-Betts, and Osirim who suggest that the lack of inter-generational conversations and collaborations in women’s social justice advocacy has created an instance where there currently exists three main attitudes informing people’s feminist identities and reception of the term and concept. We have, first, those who see the term as “un-cultural” and almost regard it as being in opposition to their religious principles and/or African and Ghanaian identity, and therefore choose not to identify with it, reject it, and remain skeptical of it. The second group includes those who, due to the unnecessary antagonism the term feminism evokes, choose not to label themselves or their work as feminist even though their life choices and social justice concerns reflect feminist ideals. There is a genuine and plausible case for this attitude which, as already stated, is to ensure that attention is directed to the essential work these individuals are doing, as the term tends to detract. Essentially, this group is more likely to lean toward the term “women empowerment” (Bawa 2018).
Then, there is a final group encompassing what some have described as the new wave of Ghanaian feminism or feminist work in Ghana. This group, despite being fully aware of the negative associations with the feminist tag, and also being at the receiving end of resistance tactics, choose to deliberately take on the tag and label their work/advocacy/activism as feminist. There is an underlying goal which is aimed at not feeding into the negative tags associated with feminism by rejecting the tag, as well as to challenge stereotypes around feminists. I argue this point on my positionality as a trained feminist rhetorician in the US who is also engaged in digital feminist activism in Ghana. Furthermore, in a little while when I look at the PDM movement, I place the movement within this group of Ghanaian feminism.
Responding to the call, then, to localize and legitimize the use of feminism to describe activist work on the continent, Davies and Graves (qtd. in Bawa) offer a more encompassing and culturally relevant definition of African feminisms. This definition describes a distinctive ideology that is preoccupied with decolonizing gender and sexuality (Opewumi 1997; Amadiume 1987), is deliberate about including men in the discourse for more sustainable results (Dery 2020; Akinbobola 2020), exposes patriarchy as a system that impedes democracy, emphasizes context because the existence of multiple ethnicities produce unique varieties and different levels of female subjugation, and finally, reclaims certain traditional notions of femininity/womanhood/motherhood. Davies and Graves (qtd. In Bawa) assert that:
African feminism … recognizes a common struggle with African men for the removal of the yokes of foreign domination and European/American exploitation. It is not antagonistic to African men but challenges them to be aware of certain salient aspects of women’s subjugation which differ from the generalized oppression of all African peoples … [it] recognizes that certain inequities and limitations existed/exist in traditional societies and that colonialism reinforced them and introduced others…. It acknowledges its affinities with international feminism, but delineates a specific African feminism with certain specific needs and goals arising out of the concrete realities of women’s lives in African societies … [it] examines African societies for institutions which are of value to women and rejects those which work to their detriment and does not simply import Western women’s agendas. Thus, it respects African woman’s status as mother but questions obligatory motherhood and the traditional favoring of sons … it respects African woman’s self-reliance and the penchant to cooperative work and social organization … [it] understands the interconnectedness of race, class and sex oppression (2).
To demonstrate the knowledge-making process of such an embodied definition of feminist advocacy, in what follows, I draw on the digital activism of feminists within the African context of Ghana to demonstrate tactics based on cultural resources that effectively highlight Ghanaian women’s challenges and upend cultural notions of women’s contributions in public discussions. Specifically, I will look at the work of PDM, an online activist group that aims to expose power imbalances through the strategy of flipped scripts.
In the last decade, feminist activism in Ghana has seen a switch in strategies and tactics. Not only are feminists resorting to social media; they are becoming bolder, creative, and touching into culturally sensitive topic areas. In October 2017, two random events on the Ghanaian social media scene set the tone for the Pepper Dem Ministries (PDM) agenda, forming a spontaneous and organic new wave of Ghanaian digital feminist work in Ghana. The first event concerned fracas that involved two senior male journalists who engaged in antagonistic public outbursts on TV and Facebook. The second event involved a female media personality whose private intimate photos with a lover in bed were leaked online by her ex-husband. Ghanaian women’s frustration with the society’s double (moral) standards for different genders regarding how emotional outbursts and antagonism among women are perceived, as well as normalized societal perceptions on spousal infidelity, began trending under the hashtag #PepperDemMinistries; a playful hashtag that was already in use by a small group of Ghanaian female acquaintances who bonded over women’s issues on Facebook.
Under this hashtag, Facebook commentaries by women employed humor and sarcasm, through a tactic of “flipped scripts.” The flipped scripts simply took on normalized gendered narratives in the Ghanaian and African society and replaced “him” with “her,” “man” with “woman,” or “boy” with “girl.” The strategy essentially reversed dominant narratives by presenting them as mirrors for society to reevaluate and change them, to wit, “what’s good for the goose is also good for the gander.” These flipped scripts have since capitalized on the shock effects from the misplaced receiving gender to draw attention to the unfair, imbalanced, and sometimes outright ridiculous expectations for women in Ghanaian society. Due to the high-profile nature of the figures involved in these two cases, the hashtag gained significant popularity and launched the nature of this style of gender commentary into an identity of its own. So far, sexist, misogynistic views such as #MenAreTheirOwnEnemies (Women are their own enemies) and #HandsomeWithBrains (Beauty with brains) as well as ridiculous expectations of women to be chaste, ignore infidelity in their partners, take on domestic chores, and acquiesce to rape culture through the normalization of rape jokes online etc., have been highlighted through the fearless activism of members and allies of the movement. This activism was a feat which earned the movement mainstream and international media attention (BBC Africa), as well as a radio talk show that ran for a year in 2018.
Due to the immediate national and international attention that the movement received, the founding members made a decision to use the opportunity for some deliberate intellectual education on gender and feminist advocacy. A Facebook page was officially launched a few days after the hashtag gained mainstream media attention in Ghana in October. In addition, some conscious efforts were employed to situate the movement within the Ghanaian context by strategically falling on little-known cultural resources during the process of designing a logo for the movement. By cultural resources, I refer to the traditional Adinkra philosophy inspiring the work of PDM. The specific cultural scope informing this tactic is the “Mako” Adinkra symbol (Twi language translation for “chili pepper”), which informs the group’s name and logo. Mako is a symbol of inequality and unequal resources or uneven development.
The Adinkra symbols are a set of signs with ingrained ancient philosophies that were used to govern the society. They are usually printed in fabric, architectural designs, and artifacts for communication purposes. In contemporary times, Adinkra symbols have become popular in corporate logos, as a way for brands to assert their legitimacy, authenticity, and exude an authentic Ghanaian identity. While there were several symbols within the Adinkra that could communicate the ideals of the PDM advocacy, the process to finally settling on the Mako symbol is what makes this tactic theoretically relevant. This is because, although the Adinkra symbols, as a cultural trope, generally are popular, individually some of the symbols are more popular and therefore easily recognized than others. Finding and deciding on the Mako symbol then was an entire process that took time and extensive research. It would explain why the launch of the logo and its explanation courted skepticism and even accusations of lying about the symbol and its meaning. Some Ghanaian online users thus questioned the legitimacy and existence of this particular symbol—Mako—and the claim to culture and tradition of this particular brand of Ghanaian feminism.
The Mako Adinkra symbol is sourced theoretically from and is shorthand for the Akan proverb “Mako nyinaa mpatu mmere,” to wit, “All peppers (presumably on the same tree) do not ripen simultaneously.” The implicit wisdom here is that in life and society, growth/advancement/actualization is not simultaneous for everyone; some people get ahead of others due to certain privileges. By extension to larger social issues, the proverb evinces the reality produced from social engineering during the brawn age which accounts for power being in the hands of men: structurally, socially, politically, economically, and culturally. By adopting the mako Adinkra signifying inequality and uneven resources, the group’s advocacy is situated contextually and culturally to advocate for “balance” and equity in sharing whatever socio-economic, cultural, and political resources that are available. The ultimate goal, then, is that the female pepper will eventually ripen too. This metaphor of the ripening pepper works to inspire the ultimate goal of our advocacy—equality, a situation where equal opportunities exist for boys and girls, male and female and where society develops equal standards and representation for each. This tactic of locating gender imbalances through the lens of this Adinkra philosophy reflects a layer in Davies and Graves’ definition of African feminisms that seeks to point out how existing inequalities have been exploited by the impact of Africa’s interaction with Western imperial rule.
Figure 2: PDM logo featuring the “Mako” Adinkra symbol in red
Pepper is also a metaphor for truth, an inflection drawn from a West African slang “Pepper Dem!” It invokes the uncomfortable burning sensation of the chili pepper which is still enjoyed in typical African meals to mean: “Raw and undiluted,” “Say it as it is.” Although there exist sweet varieties of peppers around the world, in typical African cultures like Ghana, they are mostly known for and sourced for their burning sensation. What is central here is the truth being sought in itself (uncomfortable issues being addressed) and the truth spoken to power (society and its systems of discrimination, subjugation, and benevolent sexism). PDM’s advocacy, according to our official Facebook page, “is rooted in exposing how society and its systems have not treated women as importantly as men; of how more value is placed on being male than female instead on both genders; of how differences in biology have essentially come to mean superior, more ideal rather than complementarity and equal value on each life.” Another dimension to our identity addresses society and the concept of democracy, by speaking to the systems, tools, practices, and agents of the structural inequalities in Ghanaian society. At the core of these is mindsets which are harbored and operationalized in sometimes treating women differently from men. The ultimate resolve is that, until women participate and are represented fully in the Ghanaian political and economic systems both qualitatively and quantitatively, Ghanaian democracy is a pseudo-democracy.
In summary, PDM functions as a theoretical framework which is focused on addressing inequalities in Ghanaian society between the genders. As a metaphor, it is a tool speaking to, exposing, and unveiling the mindsets that enable and promote the inequalities that pertain. One such problematic phenomenon that PDM enforced the ripening pepper framework and the methodology of flipped scripts to expose the manifested inequality was the issue of manels. In the next few sections of this paper, I discuss electronic fliers promoting some media events and public debates during the beginning stages of the COVID-19 pandemic in Ghana to show the rhetorical exigence of feminist tactics employed by the women of the PDM movement engaged in feminist advocacy in Ghana. I then proceed to demonstrate, through the analysis of two sample counter-fliers created to tackle the problem of gender representation in public discourses. These counter-fliers employ rhetorical tactics to flip gender scripts to shock audiences into (1) realizing the gender bias and lack of representation that pervades the culture and (2) acting for change. Finally, I point to implications of how the analysis can be useful for exploring feminist rhetorical practices in non-Western contexts.
Representation is central to feminist scholarship and advocacy and this section explores PDM’s response to the lack of female representation in Ghanaian public discourses through the normalization of manels—a problem that I argue became more pronounced during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic for a number of reasons. The earliest conception of the term manels was about five years ago by Finnish feminist researcher, Dr. Saara Särmä (Alhassan and Musah 2020). This came from her observation of discussions being solely led by men on multiple platforms and events. As the critique suggests, male-only panels are a symptom of a much bigger problem and in Ghana, manels are commonplace. Majority of political discussions on radio, television and conferences are dominated by men, leading to and ensuring/maintaining the erasure of women’s perspectives.
Ghana recorded its first Coronavirus case on March 12, 2020 and was not excluded from our forced new normal ways of living under the recommended safety protocols. Soon after, the seat of government mandated a partial lockdown in principal cities of the country for about a month and then relaxed the restrictions to allow some essential services to run. The insecurities around the pandemic forced weekly state of the nation addresses from the president, during which timely updates on recorded cases, recoveries, and deaths were announced, and new measures and recommendations for the public made known. The president, as of December 7, 2020 had given a total of five COVID-19 state of the nation addresses. As an exigent outcome, public debates on traditional Ghanaian media platforms centered the contents of the president’s addresses after each of his addresses. In addition, private and public institutions have held conversations around preventive and containment measures which have since featured government officials, health experts, and private groups and individuals. Media programs were forced to move from more physical and enclosed facilities to online spaces due to imposed restrictions on social gatherings, which was subsequently eased in June 2020.
As such, primetime discussions on TV and radio competed amongst themselves to capture much of public attention by gathering high-profile personalities and experts to grace these discussions. Traditional media houses have been turning to social media to circulate and promote their talk shows in hopes of capitalizing on the anxieties surrounding the pandemic. One way traditional media in Ghana promoted these primetime discussions was through electronic fliers that mostly featured the guest speakers, the show host, topics, dates, and times of the shows. While all-male guest speakers are a normalized optic in these debates, Ghanaian women on social media have begun addressing the gender disparities in representation on these panels by intentionally calling out journalists and TV/Radio talk show producers, as well as organizers of conferences.
The fliers that were promoted became visual evidences of the absence and erasure of women’s voices and perspectives, due to the frequency of these COVID-19-centered discussions coupled with people staying at home from restrictions and being glued to their TV and other electronic devices. The problem of manels, hence, became more pronounced. Furthermore, the physical, social, and economic implication of the COVID-19 protocols were too relevant to women for them to be excluded from these discussions. Take, for instance, a quantitative research conducted by Moyer et. al on how the pandemic was increasing anxiety levels in pregnant women in Ghana. The study found that a significant percentage of pregnant Ghanaian women had missed scheduled antenatal care and had cancelled hospital birth appointments in place of home births for fear of catching the virus. Due to how influential these debates are on government policies, disregarding women’s experiences on a critical issue like the COVID-19 pandemic has dire consequences on not just women, but children and the family unit as well.
In response to this problem which points to the absence of women’s lived experiences on issues of national concern, PDM and its allies adopted a version of their flipped scripts tactic by creating electronic fliers around make-believe events that were exaggerated to drive home some critical points: first, attention to the manels helps to expose the problem, in general, of centering national issues exclusively on and from the perspectives of men; and second—and perhaps more critical to the point being discussed here—that for an issue such as reproductive health with enormous consequences for women, an all-male view erases and ignores much-needed views from women. PDM, informed by the Mako Adinkra philosophy to ensure that the female pepper ripens too, flipped the scripts on manels and put together all-female panels to also dominate conversations pertaining to men. To use Martinez’s term, they created a counterstory to call attention to the problem of male dominance in civic debates. The next section of this paper examines the counter-fliers that were produced to tease out the context-specific narratives that that informed this particular tactic.
Figure 4. A manel discussion on World Menstruation Day; A day set aside to break myths about periods.
On May 28, 2020, World Menstrual Hygiene Day was observed under the theme, “#NoMoreLimits – Empowering Women and Girls Through Good Menstrual Hygiene.” In Ghana, controversy surrounding one of the commemorative events was a manel discussion on menstruation. It was a virtual event (due to COVID-19 safety protocols) put together by a non-profit organization run by women (See Figure 4). Despite the event acknowledging women’s health, the pictorial evidence of the erasure of Ghanaian women’s experiences and voices was apparent. As such, it was the significance of the day that registered as the utmost insult to an already existing problem. The organizers of the event argued that their intention was to raise men’s interest in women’s private affairs and break the mold on a taboo subject. While well-intended, the timing of the event added to the tensions that were already being raised around manels by Ghanaian feminists involved in digital activism.
The defense the organizers gave is also limiting when we consider that the men/panelists ought to be informed and not perpetuate positions that entrench damaging narratives around women. And so as predicted, some members of the manel showcased tone-deaf views about menstrual hygiene and produced comments that rather contributed to the mystification and stigmatization of periods and women’s reproductive health rather than recast menstruation as an aspect of healthy womanhood. As Alhassan and Musah recall in their article “Dismantling Manels: The Ghanaian Feminist Agenda”, “It was condemnable, and Ghanaian feminists rightfully called it out” (par. 5). The intention also sought to fulfil a specific unique cultural dimension to feminist advocacy work in Africa; the obligation/expectation to include/involve men and present a male-friendly approach. As such, it was a very innocent error on the part of the organizers, who were females. Nonetheless, this error/expectation/obligation also reveals how complicated feminist activism can be in non-Western contexts like Ghana. As evident from this case study, female social justice interventions are burdened with the pressure to root their work in a set of cultural expectations in order to gain legitimacy for their work. Navigating this can sometimes backfired and rather harm the overarching goals of feminist activism.
Following the manel discussion on World Menstruation Day, the critiques were multilayered. First, apart from one panelist whose professional background is in the field of health, none of the other three male panelists were remotely experienced in health, let alone, women’s reproductive health. The ethos of these men (pastor, journalist) hinges on their expertise in all other endeavors but feminism, women’s reproductive health, or competence in issues having to do with women. What is taken for granted here is that once their expertise in pastoral work or journalism is recognized, that somehow suffices for everything else, including their gender which poses them as automatic authorities in critical debates. But more significantly, this also points to the role and cultural relevance of religion in upholding the narratives that sustain women’s oppressive positions.
Furthermore, the theme “It’s a Mense World” which sought to play on the words, “Men” and “Menstruation,” and the phrase “It’s a man’s world” was a tad tone deaf as periods are already very culturally sensitive topics. Again, women and girls have not been given enough avenues to speak to the physical, emotional, and economic impact of this biological phenomenon and other issues pertaining to them. It was therefore triggering to log on to social media platforms and be met by this evidence of male dominated civic discussions (regardless of its good intentions) and to be confronted by the sheer audacity of men with unrelated expertise, both by nature, nurture, and training, to speak to a topic like menstruation and on a day set aside to demystify it.
In response to this worrying trend of all-male panels gradually eating even into women-centered topics, Ghanaian online feminist activists employed humor, sarcasm, and exaggeration, and created counter-fliers that used the methodology of the flipped scripts. Figure 6 (below) is an example of one such counter-fliers created by some members of the PDM movement in response to the infamous “It’s a Mense World” event and flier in Ghanaian digital feminist activism circles.
Figure 5. A counter-flier created by some Ghanaian online activists
It features four female activists of the PDM Movement (myself included) as panelists of a fake day set aside with fictional profiles to commemorate Blue Balls, a phenomenon associated with the male sexual experience. The strategies employed here include Humor as a form of critique where sarcasm is used as an inventional tool that subverts and upends the very technique used by men in discussing women’s issues. The goal here is to draw attention to the ludicrousness of the thinking that women—by association, by familial ties to men, by observation—know what men’s issues are. Secondly, the counter-flier touches on the knowledge-by-proxy criterion which usually informs the selection of male panelists. As such, expertise here (on blue balls) isn’t by education, credentials, experience, or training of any sort, but by mere association. In addition to this is the intentionality in the coining of the themes that explicitly present the displeasure of these women who do not want to tolerate the idea of men’s dominance on issues not pertinent to them.
Another such counter-flier (See Figure 6 below), also brought together some more gender activists, with irrelevant expertise to commemorate prostate cancer, an illness that affects men only. This counter-flier also employed sarcasm and humor and exaggerated profiles. For instance, the designation “PhD Holder in Ghanaian Prostate Mythology” was culturally situated because in Ghana, male religious leaders are allowed to assume an almost all-round authority, often speaking to issues they know very little about—here again, rather than expertise, folks easily draw on folk knowledge about specific topics. The words “Prostate enthusiasts” address how mere enthusiasm about things doesn’t equate to knowledge about it. Finally, the hashtag used here #womenforprostates critiques “allyship” and allyship is inferred here to address how men draw on allyship to escape criticism and to uphold their own versions of the narrative.
Figure 6: Another counterflier that was created to challenge manels
In her book Rhetorical Feminism and This Thing Called Hope, Glenn describes rhetorical feminism as a “tactic” and more specifically, a “theoretical stance” that is “responsive to the ideology that is feminism and to the key strategy that is feminist rhetoric” (4). Rhetorical feminism exists to first, counter hegemonic ideals on rhetoric while simultaneously “reshaping,” rereading, and redefining traditional rhetorical appeals. In the same vein, I argue that African feminisms exist to push our understanding and possibilities of the feminist agenda because of the ethical pressure to navigate complex social settings, histories, and experiences of women in these contexts. The experiences of women in these contexts are unique, therefore, the strategies they adopt for feminist interventions have a lot to offer scholarship on digital feminist work and PDM’s digital feminist rhetorical activism is testament to this.
First, the strategy of falling not just on any cultural resource but little-known (even to many members of Ghanaian society) or less familiar ones like the mako Adinkra symbol is an excellent way to tackle the resistance to feminist work as “un-African” or “un-cultural” in places like Ghana. To identify female social justice activism as a value embedded in Ghanaian traditional ancient ancestral wisdom silences antagonism that lays its claim to the notion of “tradition.” Therefore, PDM’s approach situates their advocacy in a cultural context, thereby decolonizing feminist knowledge-making and rhetorical practices and ultimately debunking the perceived notion that feminism is “unAfrican.” My analysis provides a useful heuristic with which feminist rhetoricians can conceptualize the activism of communities in which ideas about “what is” are in contention with those of “what used to be” or “what should be.”
Secondly, the methodology of the flipped scripts borrows the Ghanaian conservative religious value of “treating your neighbor as yourself.” By reversing these narratives, men (society) are invited to process the idea of being at the receiving end of these imbalanced narratives that society maintains for women. The responses from the public to the problem of manels raised through the counter-fliers might be very useful in future research, to explore the psyche of the society and establish some concrete arguments about how manels represent a mere microcosm of a phenomena that is endemic in societies like those analyzed here. Television, radio, and online platforms are important influential spaces where the unique perspectives of women particularly around their own issues could potentially influence national policies and change societal mindsets. Flipping the script of manels was therefore necessary to show stakeholders that women deserve rhetorical spaces that allow them to contribute unique perspectives to nation-building.
Finally, the use of humor and sarcasm stands in stark contrast to the negative stereotypes around feminists in Ghana as “bitter” and “angry” women. These tactics therefore serve a dual purpose by revealing the ludicrousness of Ghanaian societal gender narratives, while also challenging certain negative stereotypes around feminists. Significantly, the effectiveness of PDM’s digital activism is evident in the movement’s popularity locally and internationally. Quite frankly, I wasn’t even aware of the extent of the impact of our advocacy until I began research for this paper. I have since come across several academic articles, op-eds, and news features that speak to the effectiveness of these tactics (See, for instance, work by Donkor 2020; Abdul-Hamid and Forson 2020).
In this light, I join the host of feminist rhetoric scholars in the US and globally, calling for more scholarly research on under-researched communities, particularly in the Global South, to enrich conversations and studies of feminist rhetorical strategies more generally. I insist on a focus on cultural resources, and more attention to contextual cues that can yield productive, more nuanced analyses. PDM’s activism also invites individuals and organizations involved in female justice activism in Ghana and other African contexts to explore the uses of similar cultural resources and social media for the study and performance of digital feminist activism in Ghana. Ultimately, I propose that feminists, and especially Western feminists, continue to learn from the activism of their Global South, African friends/colleagues/sisters to employ outrageous displays of humor, irony, and performance to flip scripts in our continued effort to see female peppers in every society ripen, too.
At a recent meeting of UC Irvine’s South Asia and Diaspora Student Association (SADSA),1 two members presented their research on the demographic characteristics of the eight South Asian countries along with details about the living conditions of queer, Indigenous, and undocumented populations there. As one presenter noted, they called attention to how these different positionalities interact with nationality because they “want[ed] to be intersectional.” Joining the meeting as a graduate student researcher, I noted this interesting use of “intersectional.” I have applied this descriptor to a specific intellectual legacy: rooted in Black women’s theorizing and activism, an intersectional feminist approach asserts that categories of oppression, such as race and gender, are imbricated and thereby create particular material conditions.2 “Intersectionality” was famously coined by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989. The term has since traveled beyond feminist and legal criticism and has, at times, been applied as a clumsy alternative to BIPOC or minoritized—as in, recruiting “intersectional people” to meet institutional diversity goals. However, the SADSA members’ use implied an orientation to experience and knowledge aligned with the term’s Black feminist origins. I interpreted “being intersectional,” then, to mean approaching the world with the foundational assertion that elements of a person’s positionality (e.g., South Asian, college student, woman, biological sciences major, able-bodied) co-constitute that person’s relationships to systems of power. SADSA’s collective exploration of South Asian nations, therefore, recognized the heterogeneous experiences of “nationality” as inflected by histories of migration, colonization, and marginalization.
In this article, I explore how three Asian American3 student groups, including SADSA, work to create spaces of intellectual and social belonging through their longing “to be intersectional.” I argue that these student groups’ efforts are forms of extracurricular rhetorical education: each group employs “intersectionality” (although only SADSA names it as such) to understand their positions as speaking and writing subjects who are always already embedded within systems of power. “Intersectionality” serves as an epistemological and discursive method that is core to how these students relate to one another and to their experiences in university settings. Not all the students and groups I spent time with connected their extracurricular efforts to intersectional feminist analysis and its foundations in Black feminism. My interest in their use of “intersectionality,” then, resides in their desire to collectively produce knowledge that is informed by their lived experiences as raced, gendered subjects.
The construction “be intersectional” resembles the imperative of Aimee Carrillo Rowe’s “be longing”: “two words, placed beside each other, not run together, phrases a command. The command is to ‘be’ ‘longing,’ not to be still, or be quiet, but to be longing” (16). Carrillo Rowe calls this a “resistive hailing,” turning Louis Althusser’s formulation on its head. She continues, “So the command of this ‘reverse interpellation’ is to call attention to the politics at stake in our belonging, and to envision an alternative” (16). For instance, SADSA members long to belong to one another. They recognize not only that their coalition of South Asian students claim different countries of origin but also that blanket characterizations of these origins can mask uneven distributions of power—hence, a longing to “be intersectional.” In enacting resistive hailings, the three student groups discussed here instantiate their belonging to each other, the campus, and the U.S. nation-state through collective rhetorical practices. By identifying these students’ activities as self-sponsored rhetorical education, I aim to extend scholarship that considers how and where people learn strategies for civic-engaged writing and speaking, especially among those who have been historically marginalized in traditional sites of education. For example, in their article on the UCI Muslim Student Union’s activism, Jonathan Alexander and Susan Jarratt trace these students’ rhetorical genealogies and examine the various influences—mostly non-curricular—on their perspectives and tactics. In my research, I have found that students’ rhetorical educations are formed dialogically between the curricular and extracurricular.
Also significant in this analysis is the concept of counterpublics: student group gatherings and communications become spaces to critique totalizing narratives of Asians in America and to generate alternative knowledges about Asian American history and current conditions, within the university environment and beyond. Nancy Fraser includes material conditions and physical spaces alongside the circulation of written discourse in her conception of subaltern counterpublics; she counts bookstores, research centers, and conventions as part of a U.S. feminist subaltern counterpublic (67). Because my study centers the immediacy of embodied experience in student groups’ extracurricular activities and knowledge production, I am also building upon work that has linked student performance and writing. Jenn Fishman et al. show that through activities from “spoken-word events and slam poetry competitions to live radio broadcasts, public speaking, and theatrical presentations . . . [students’] embodying writing through voice, gesture, and movement can help early college students learn vital lessons about literacy” (226). My research participants’ mutual education practices represent learning that influences their formal college educations but also extends into their social and professional lives. Through these club gatherings—embodied assemblages of learners, teachers, and collaborators—students reflect critically on their positionalities as twenty-first century Asian American college students.
The findings presented in this article are selected from a larger, IRB-approved ethnography that I conducted during academic years 2018–19 and 2019–20. My study asked how and whether extracurricular student groups serve as sites for literacy learning. Foregrounding this research is my own positionality: I identify as Asian American, specifically hapa or mixed-race Asian; my undergraduate extracurricular activities, in groups like the Hapa Club, were significantly in dialogue with my curricular learning. I contacted UCI student groups who focus on aspects of Asian America and racial, cultural, and national affiliations. After receiving permission to attend meetings, I functionally joined several groups, introducing myself to club members as both a graduate researcher and a fellow club participant. I attended (and in SADSA’s case helped staff) special events, such as culture nights. I further followed up with individual club members, often leaders, for one-on-one interviews to discuss their reasons for club involvement (see Appendix for my basic interview questions).
My research process and my discussion here employ a feminist rhetorical framework. Per Jacqueline Jones Royster and Gesa E. Kirsch, the personal and professional come together in how we narrate our research: my extracurricular experiences initially led to my inquiry into Asian American clubs. As such, my scholarly participant observations are inextricable from my affinity with these groups of students. Building on Beverly Moss’s insights about ethnographies of communication, and specifically about studying communities of which the ethnographer is a part, I have endeavored to mark how my personal investments influence my findings but also to look with an analytical eye—to both make the strange familiar and the familiar, strange. I believe that ethical scholarship of this sort means that I should not be the only one to benefit (along these lines, see Eileen Schell on what makes feminist rhetorical studies feminist). I financially supported the clubs I spent time with by paying membership fees or buying tickets to their events, and I offered to share my academic experiences with those club members who expressed interest in graduate study. In my analysis, I am committed to centering voices and spaces that contest white heteropatriarchy. Even though I include individual interviewees, my focus is on the student groups’ collective work, and thereby I aim to reflexively challenge any singular narrative.
Feminist scholarship teaches us that feminist theory is inextricably bound to feminist activism—the two are dyadic, shaping and reshaping one another. We cannot talk about feminist thought absent feminist practice—in fact, lived experiences are crucially part of the theorizing process. My ethnographic research provides evidence of this, as student groups strive “to be intersectional” and, in the process, refigure identity formations. My study participants show that rhetorical education is similar: it is necessary to understand whether and how the tools we, as teachers, share with our students operate in the spaces our students choose to occupy and create for themselves. This is not to say that university courses do not present real rhetorical contexts, but we must acknowledge, as Susan Wells writes, “that the writing classroom has no public exigency: the writing classroom does important cultural work for the million and a half students it serves each year, but it does not carry out that work through the texts it produces” (338). We must therefore attend to how students deploy and reshape their rhetorical learning when there is public exigency, for example, when their rhetorical positioning bears on how they interact with identity, community, history, and politics. The following discussion provides a brief sketch of the historical and political experiences of Asian Americans in Southern California; I then examine how the embodied gatherings of student clubs nurture mutual education practices; I conclude with the tensions between knowledges valued in extracurricular and in curricular spaces.
As of fall 2019, about 36 percent of the UCI student body identified as Asian (National Center for Education Statistics). UCI is recognized by the federal government as an Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander–Serving Institution. This sizeable and diverse segment of the student body is located within an Asian-majority city4 and a U.S. region that generations of Asian immigrants and their descendants have called home. According to the UCI library archives, Chinese laborers constituted the majority of Asian immigrants to California during the nineteenth century; farm workers found employment in Orange County. Notably, the year 1965 saw the founding of UCI as well as the national Immigration Act, which lifted quotas on non–western European countries and allowed family members abroad to join their sponsors in the U.S. The immigrant population diversified in the latter twentieth century: some 50,000 Vietnamese refugees arrived at Camp Pendleton in northern San Diego County after 1975, and, as a result of housing availability, the location of resettlement agencies, and job opportunities, among other factors, many Vietnamese immigrants ultimately made their homes in Westminster and Garden Grove (Berg). Today, the “Little Saigon” neighborhood is the largest Vietnamese enclave in the U.S.
Despite this regional history, Asian American students have struggled to find belonging within university spaces. In spring 1991, around 400 students representing various clubs affiliated with the Cross-Cultural Center protested Asian Heritage Week. An article in Rice Paper, the student newspaper geared toward the Asian/Pacific communities, recounts the disruption of scheduled cultural performances, noting that a Pilipinx-American club “withdrew their dances and music entirely because they felt that Asian Heritage Week has been used as the jewel on the crown by the administration which constantly claims diversity yet in substance are unwilling to support Asians with Asian American Studies.” The club president is quoted in the article, explaining his group’s decision: “We feel it would be hypocritical for us to perform. Our performance supposedly celebrates the diversity present on the campus. … we are seen as a token for this university and it is very difficult for us to go up on stage acting as if we are satisfied when in actuality we are not, due to the lack of Asian American studies in our current curriculum.” The push for Asian American studies continued for the next two years, culminating in two occupations of the university chancellor’s office in April and June 1993 and a hunger strike, and resulting in the administration’s hiring of three faculty members to teach courses in Asian American studies (Trinh).
Michelle Ko, writing in the same 1991 issue of Rice Paper, tracks the history of ethnic studies activism. She describes the movement’s beginnings at San Francisco State University in the 1960s and Asian American students’ pivotal role. She entreats readers to remember the past as they agitate for a fairer future. Ko, like the twenty-first-century students in my study, is confronted by the wide-reaching effects of the model minority myth, a stereotype of Asian passivity notably propagated by a 1966 U.S. News & World Report article (Lee). In the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, the myth was leveraged against interracial solidarity, pitting Asian Americans against African American, Latinx, and Indigenous populations, who supposedly were not making good on the so-called American Dream. While popular representations of Asians as smart, law abiding, and economically successful appear complimentary, they mask anxieties about foreign contamination of white America. The model minority myth can be understood as a colonial containment strategy: U.S. imperialism can claim Asians simultaneously as valuable members of society and as perpetual outsiders who are racially and culturally Other. Ko’s article, then, performs a resistive hailing: she asserts Asian American-ness that includes political activism and coalitional work with other racially marginalized groups.
Scholarship on Asian American rhetorics provides an important point of orientation for situating the experiences of Asian American rhetors at UCI, past and present. LuMing Mao and Morris Young characterize Asian American rhetoric as a rhetoric of becoming: it is performative, generative, transformative, and heterogeneous. Despite their use of the singular “rhetoric,” they insist on Asian American rhetoric’s inherent dynamism:
While we very much want to claim that Asian American rhetoric commands a sense of unity or collective identity for its users, we want to note that such rhetoric cannot help but embody internal differences, ambivalences, and even contradictions as each and every specific communicative situation—where Asian American rhetoric is invoked, deployed, or developed—is informed and inflected by diverse contexts, by different relations of asymmetry, and by, most simply put, heterogeneous voices. (5)
Writing ten years later, Terese Guinsatao Monberg and Young further define the potential of studying Asian American rhetoric: “this work has had to account for histories of immigration; the comparative, cultural, and national contexts for rhetoric; or the development of innovative rhetorical practices in response to constructions of otherness.” The Asian American rhetorical practices I discuss here exist at the intersection of embodied, racialized experience; cultural upbringing; and performative—and thereby dynamic—assertions of self. In her study of Vietnamese American undergraduates, Haivan Hoang builds on Judith Butler’s notion of performative identity, arguing that the students in her ethnography reconfigure “Americanness” through their performances. Indeed, the Asian American students in my study—through their use of multilingual repertoires and self-sponsored education in Asian history, for instance—assert that these are all distinctly American activities. That said, to make the blanket assertion that these students, with their UCI-branded sweatshirts and weekend trips to Disneyland, are “as American as anyone else” would be to render invisible the layered tensions of national belonging and racial/ethnic identification stemming from different histories of Asian immigration to California. The UCI student population includes many from mainland China. International students who arrive on campus days before classes begin will likely feel that they are “Asian” and “American” in proportions different from their peers whose predecessors made the west coast their home in the nineteenth century, and again different from those whose families emigrated from outposts of American imperialism in the mid-to-late twentieth century. As Guinsatao Monberg and Young assert, Asian American “rhetorical actors negotiate across and within different positions rather than in opposition to one location/identity or another, or from a hybrid third position.” These student groups’ belonging, then, is inherently transnational, in continual movement—much as their longing to “be intersectional” describes the ongoing navigation of differential power relations.
In bringing trans theory to bear in Asian American rhetoric, V. Jo Hsu describes a core principle of intersectional feminist analysis: “Individual stories have political significance … as acute, felt insight into the violence and oversights of our institutions. Although discussions so often compartmentalize elements of our identities, we don’t live single-issue lives.” The three UCI student groups’ activities offer rich examples of their members’ multidimentional lives, particularly vis-à-vis power structures. SADSA’s leadership explicitly states this orientation in their goals:
These objectives demonstrate the group’s intellectual and social justice commitments, providing opportunities for cultural sharing but with attention to the structural forces (for instance, colonialism) that can stymie solidarity. Student group members teach and challenge one another to belong differently to American society—to “be intersectional” in discussions of their own privileges and oppressions. As Mao and Young write, “For Asian Americans, as with others often placed on the margins of culture, language provides the possibility to realize the rhetorical construction of identity and write oneself literally into the pages of history and culture” (6). The leadership team noted SADSA’s strides toward enacting its vision, among them philanthropic projects and recognition from UCI for their charitable fundraising. “Being intersectional” further speaks to how these undergraduate students bring academic concepts to bear on their extracurricular activities and alludes to tensions these students see between their formal education and their lives beyond the classroom. SADSA frequently discusses the need to pluralize Asian American representation at UCI, where academic offerings on Asia often focus on East and Southeast areas. Zee, one of SADSA’s co-founders, reflected, “. . . a lot of the learning I experienced at UCI did not come from the classroom unfortunately. My club’s values and goals didn’t always align with what I was learning.” While SADSA publicly claims its commitments to intersectional feminist analysis, the other two groups I highlight here did not do so explicitly. However, I recognize significant feminist rhetorical moves in their efforts as employing some of the same structural critiques as SADSA’s outlined above.
The Pilipinx-American Club (PAC) has been a presence on campus since UCI’s early years, forged during the state-wide and national movements for ethnic studies. Initially part of the university’s umbrella Asian/Pacific student organization, PAC grew in membership and ambition and became an independent student group in the 1990s, the same era that saw student agitation for Asian American studies. Compared with Pilipinx-American student groups at other Southern California colleges, PAC “is old,” accruing political and social clout because of its influential alumni community (including a high-level UCI administrator). The club’s position within the region is conscientiously embedded within the transnational, diasporic community. For example, club members begin meetings by singing the Philippines national anthem in Tagalog. According to Matthew, an Asian American studies major and active participant in club governance, PAC aims to share Pilipinx history, particularly within the Southern California context: there are annual field trips to Filipinotown in LA, with stops including Unidad Park, the Pilipinx-American Veterans Memorial, and a Pilipinx-American church. This curated tour, typically organized by the club’s cultural chair, demonstrates the Pilipinx-American community’s “substantial, physical history” here in the region, a history that Matthew contends is often forgotten. Matthew, born and raised in the Philippines, explained that he wants to “pop the UCI bubble” in order to facilitate PAC’s engagement with the various histories of Pilipinx-Americans beyond academic institutionalization. Matthew shared a memorable adage: “k(no)w history, k(no)w self.”
Other members of PAC similarly touted the organization’s politically engaged aims, but their comments demonstrated how “intersectionality” continues to be aspirational for their club at large. Ligaya, a rank-and-file member, joined PAC hoping to raise awareness about the systematic erasure of Pilipinx-American history, both at UCI and in broader U.S. consciousness. In our email correspondence, she wrote, “Pilipinx involvement in the advancement of workers’ rights by organizers such as Larry Itliong alongside Cesar Chavez during the 1960’s strikes against grape growers remains largely untold.” She included the titles of articles documenting this forgotten figure of the labor movement, evidencing Ligaya’s self-sponsored investigation into Itliong’s legacy. She explained that October is Pilipinx-American History Month and that she hoped PAC would address issues of historical erasure in their programming.
Max, PAC’s community advocacy coordinator, is responsible for staying abreast of political issues and current events that are relevant to the Pilipinx-American community at UCI. She also coordinates volunteer opportunities, such as with national advocacy group Justice for Filipino-American Veterans. As a self-described military brat, Max lived in Guam, Virginia, Fresno, Sacramento, and Southern California, and encountering different regional contexts and populations helped her recognize her own privileges and informed her political intentions. Max has organized general meetings of PAC in which she has tried to challenge the larger membership to consider issues that she feels are not usually discussed. For example, one meeting featured an interactive group game to help members think about the layers of their identity and privilege. Max said that she wants to host another meeting to discuss the Asian model minority myth, particularly to address how Pilipinx-Americans can be both oppressed and oppressors of other minority groups. Max said she is committed to making PAC more political, adding that many Asian Americans are reluctant to participate in politics because they feel that their voices do not matter. She cited her own parents, whose focus on providing for the family and assimilating to American life often eclipsed direct political engagement. In her efforts to mobilize Pilipinx-Americans at UCI, Max held a voter information session before the 2018 midterm elections (she noted, unfortunately, that attendance was low).
For Matthew, Ligaya, and Max, bringing their outside knowledges to PAC constitutes their efforts to belong. Speaking and writing from distinct positionalities, they long to “be intersectional” in how they discursively define being Pilipinx-American. For instance, Max connected her experiences in student government and activism to her agenda for PAC. Discussing her involvement with a campus climate initiative, she said that she wants all her peers to feel safe, supported, and welcome. She has attended student leadership conferences and applied lessons learned, particularly from workshops that addressed anti-blackness in Asian American communities. She has also canvassed for Congresswoman Katie Porter. Max explained that her experiences have collectively informed how she tries to confront the model minority stereotype and the social divisions it causes.
The weekly meetings of both SADSA and PAC typically involve presentations or activities prepared by club leaders along with small group conversations. The Asian Americans for Christ (AAC), in contrast, structures gatherings around the more conventional pedagogical modes of textual study and lecture. At each fellowship meeting, AAC student coordinators greet the full group from the front of the lecture hall, using PowerPoint slides to support their verbal announcements. They also introduce the week’s guest pastor, who delivers remarks based on AAC’s theme for the academic year (the theme for 2018–19 was “being rooted”). I interviewed two of the coordinators, who explained that they generally prepare a short script to introduce guest speakers and read these notes verbatim from their smartphones. Coordinators are also responsible for summarizing the sermon and sharing these notes with the club membership. While AAC membership is open to all, from what I have observed guest pastors frequently self-identify as Asian American and speak to the particular experiences of Asian American college students.
Based on my time with AAC, I see theirs as a narrower desire to “be intersectional,” one that is built on certain assumptions of common racialized and gendered experience. Whereas SADSA and PAC seek feelings of belonging first through cultural and national affinity and then unpack how that affinity can mask heterogeneity, AAC finds belonging across particularities by asserting narrative universality. AAC members are encouraged to join small groups, which function as Biblical reading and peer support groups. Students may join small groups based on their year in school (first-years or upperclassmen/women) and gender. I interviewed one small group leader who remarked that meeting in gender-specific groups allowed her to feel more comfortable; she sees this as a more open and honest space to bond with her female peers over shared experiences and emotions. She went on to describe how she leads, with one other club member, the first-year women’s group. All small groups work through the same sections of the Bible or other book each quarter, but each small group’s leaders decide how to orient the discussion and draft questions that help to relate the reading to the small group’s experiences and to connect them with God. My interviewee elaborated on her process: she reads the passage multiple times, prays for understanding and insight, annotates the passage in a journal looking particularly at the verbs and nouns that are used, and develops questions based on this in-depth reading. She aims to facilitate others’ understanding of the text and active reading of the Bible. She tries to prompt the small group to consider what the passage might mean for their own lives. She shared a couple sample discussion questions: “What does it look like to rely on God for help in these situations [such as those described in the reading]? How do you know if you are relying on God and not just having really good self-control?” These gender- and class-level-exclusive groups seem to reify assumptions about sexuality (e.g., that being in an all-female group would eliminate possible romantic distractions) and academic status (e.g., that first-years are younger and coming out of high school)—so by extension, assumptions about how power affects these categories of identification. At the same time, these group spaces can provide relative safety, allowing participants to frankly unpack how being, say, an Asian American woman and graduating senior informs one’s hopes and fears about applying for jobs. In this way, small group participants long to be surrounded by “likeminded peers,” a phrase one member used to explain why he was drawn to AAC.
Connections between text and personal experience are highlighted during a quarterly event called Testimony Night, in which student speakers take the place of guest pastors. When I attended a Testimony Night, three students took turns addressing the full group; each selected a worship song to lead as an introduction to their story. The first two of three speakers referred to notes on their smartphones while speaking; one explained that she had written her statement out ahead of time and had shared it with the club coordinators, “just so they know what to expect.” The third speaker of the evening improvised more, aware of how her delivery would emotionally affect her listeners: “I wrote down my testimony, but I’m also going to speak from my heart. . . . I hope this will move you. . . . I don’t want you guys to lose hope.” All of the testimonies included metacognitive reflection on the composition of the speeches, usually involving “a lot of prayer.” They all recounted the speakers’ lives up until that point: upbringing, family arrangements, struggles faced, how they ultimately came to Christ and AAC and what they value in both.
These “I once was lost but now am found” stories demonstrated the students’ (perhaps implicit) understanding of the conversion narrative genre as well as highlighted their rhetorical awareness of their own and their audience’s positionalities as Asian American Christian college students and how one might be grappling with these overlapping spheres of belonging. For instance, one student said his adolescence in Taiwan was analogous to the idol-worshipping life in Athens referenced in Thessalonians. Students explicate how their racial, national, and religious affiliations interact with their positions within the university: all of the Testimony Night speakers talked about the need for Asian American Christians to support one another and to build lives of faith despite what they perceive as the vices of college life (e.g., alcohol, drugs, sex). This version of longing to “be intersectional,” then, explores how young, Christian Asian Americans face particular struggles but falls short of identifying how historical power asymmetries inform these struggles. The student speaker who aimed to move her listeners addressed gendered expectations within the context of her family life and the pressure to be an obedient daughter, but she did not relate her experiences to, say, the constraints of patriarchy or stereotypes of Asian women’s passivity. Her testimony might have cited the support of her all-female small group in her spiritual transformation; instead, she framed her story as one of self discovery. None of the speakers at the Testimony Night I attended directly connected their classroom learning to the task of addressing AAC peers. Other student group participants, most notably in SADSA and PAC, did share how their curricular and extracurricular educations inform one another.
Several times each quarter, SADSA hosts discussion spaces called Chai Nights: students gather in a small classroom, circle up the desks, and enjoy chai and snacks provided by the club leaders. Each Chai Night prompts attendees to discuss a different aspect of South Asian identity and experience. The club has considered mental health among South Asian populations in the U.S., dating and relationships, and distinctions between cultural appropriation and appreciation. I volunteered to help take notes on the white board during the erasure discussion (see Figure 1). “Erasure” has been variously used to describe whitewashing in Hollywood or the elision of Asian American experiences through reliance on racial stereotypes. SADSA explored their own particular iteration of this idea in fall 2018. Topics ranged from the visibility of South Asian characters in popular media to the use of heritage languages and the proper pronunciation of students’ names.
Figure 1: Notes from SADSA’s Chai Night discussion of erasure.
The group of around 10 students considered critically how India-centric depictions of South Asian identity can erase ethnic and historical differences. As this coalition of students identifies their roots in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, they regularly reflect upon the issue of regional hegemony. At its founding, the club faced some pushback from South Asian nation–specific student clubs, who felt the coalition would siphon off campus resources and student membership. This particular dimension of erasure, which describes the uneven distribution of power within affinity groups, further informs this organization’s sense of where they fit in the university ecology. Their mission statement recognizes the club’s commitment to intersectional analysis: “We want to work with other communities to combat issues, such as LGBTQ+ rights, anti-blackness, media representation, color politics, and the list goes on.”
In the weeks following my attendance at this Chai Night, I interviewed Sithunada, a graduate student who helped found SADSA while he was an undergraduate. He explained that the club endeavors to create a space to discuss academic topics, like South Asian erasure, but in an approachable way—hence the creation of Chai Nights. Club leaders aim to create a welcoming environment where students can learn, informally but meaningfully, from one another. Sithunada added that the club draws upon curricular resources and cultivates university partnerships. For example, a previous Chai Night focused on colorism and anti-blackness and was co-facilitated by a professor in African American Studies; in fall 2018, the club was listed as one of the official sponsors of a campus dance festival, which featured guest performers. The blending of co- and extracurricular efforts highlights how these students perform academic literacies: the club’s examination of erasure demonstrates how cultural studies–style analyses inform their self-sponsoring learning. What’s more, these analytical skills are employed to critique institutional learning, as club members explained how many of their college courses have provided only passing reference to South Asian and diasporic histories.
Another of SADSA’s founders whom I quoted earlier, Zee, explained that the club’s work is fundamentally collaborative, citing knowledge and communication as the club’s driving forces and the importance of participants’ shared wisdom. Zee further explained that SADSA looks for opportunities to support campus, local, and international organizations, as shown in SADSA’s fundraising mentioned earlier. Through my own participation in group meetings and activities, I have seen SADSA amplify other South Asian student organizations by advertising and showing up for their events. SADSA members have also coordinated with student groups whose missions align with SADSA’s intersectional analytical stance, including student advocates for labor rights and students against apartheid in Palestine.
SADSA serves to fill a gap in many of its members’ formal educations by addressing the erasure of South Asian–specific histories and concerns. Simultaneously, as demonstrated through my interviews with club leaders and my observations of how club discussions are facilitated like humanities seminars, curricular learning crucially informs SADSA’s activities. This push and pull with the university often shows up in club members’ offhanded comments. While SADSA phased out membership dues in fall 2019, club members were expected to pay quarterly fees to help keep the organization running during the 2018–19 academic year. Explaining the need for funding, a club leader said, “When you start a club, they charge you!” (with “they” referring to university administration).
SADSA, PAC, and many other affinity groups organize culture nights as a way of making visible their learning to the broader campus and local communities. Occurring in the spring quarter, these events typically showcase student-written and -directed skits along with original dance and musical numbers. Hoang explains how these events have more rhetorical significance than immediately meets the eye: “What Culture Nights demonstrate is that performance is potentially performative in terms of constituting (not expressing) ethnic identity and cultural memories” (144; original emphasis). She specifically comments on the Vietnamese Students Association, a college student group with which Hoang spends significant time:
Even if the Culture Night audience’s response is largely unknown, what makes the student production performative is that it constructs what culture is on this Culture Night. Vietnamese and Vietnamese American culture, in this performance, is based on intergenerational, familial relationships and experiences. VSA’s stated purpose in producing Culture Night clarifies the performance’s performative purpose: to reconstruct cultural memory and thereby foster solidarity. (146; original emphasis)
Planning and executing a culture night involves substantial logistical efforts (e.g., reserving a space on campus, fundraising, advertising) and creative energies. I interviewed the PAC coordinators, who shared with me that the annual event traditionally features several dance suites that span regions, ethnic groups, and histories of the Philippines; the dance suites are original pieces choreographed and directed by the students. The main thread running through the culture night performances is a skit, which engages some aspect of Pilipinx-American identity. Theodore S. Gonzalves writes that culture nights provide opportunities to learn Pilipinx history—and for many student participants, history that they otherwise would not encounter. PAC’s event marked an anniversary year for the club, so the skit was set in the 1970s at the club’s founding at UCI. The story followed first-year students from both Southern California and the Philippines who are struggling to find Pilipinx community in their new university environment. Culture nights, in tandem with other more frequent student gatherings and performances, show how college students are rhetorically asserting their belonging—to the cultures with which they identify, to the university community, and to one another. These groups’ self-sponsored, embodied learning privileges the knowledges that these students find important, sometimes in contrast to what they feel their coursework has valued.
Matthew of PAC aspires to be an Asian American studies professor, and so he sees his club participation (e.g., public speaking, organizing and leading educational events) as part of his career path into academia. He said that he observes his professors’ teaching styles and reflects on how he might apply these approaches in PAC. Matthew explained that his personal, extracurricular, curricular, and professional commitments overlap, saying, “It means a lot to pass on this knowledge.” One of AAC’s coordinators also reflected on how his coursework has altered his perceptions of extracurricular activities. He commented that the Asian American churches he knows are “fairly conservative, so we don’t talk about issues like race, for example. . . . Asian American Christians don’t talk about social issues.” He had become more aware of this disconnect recently through his college coursework and said that he wished these issues were talked about more in the Asian American Christian spaces, including AAC, that he frequents.
Max’s curricular learning productively informs her efforts with PAC. In a general education course called Protests, Revolutions, and Movements, Max began to recognize the possible pitfalls in activist organizing. She explained that these lessons have informed how she leads PAC: at the club’s mental health workshop, she realized that it would be crucial to connect members to resources and people from UCI’s counseling center. In one of her lower-division writing courses, Max reflected on her racial and ethnic positionalities and argued for the need for better data on Asian American and Pacific Islander populations in the U.S. She explored issues of domestic violence among particular Asian communities and Asian American groups’ differential relationships to colonization. She noted that, despite these illuminating classroom experiences, she did encounter pervasive curricular Euro- and white-centrism.
Students’ efforts to combat what they see as cultural erasure generate opportunities for belonging. In this desire to “be long” to one another and within the university and social fabric, students often discover that they in turn desire to “be intersectional” in order to better understand and communicate their concerns. SADSA’s t-shirt design speaks to these impulses (Figure 2). Featuring landmarks and symbols from each of the eight South Asian nations, the pictorial elements emphasize SADSA’s position as a transnational coalition of students. The quotation from Indian-American filmmaker Mira Nair highlights collectivity and literacy: if “we” (the student group members) don’t “tell our stories” (e.g., educate one another and work for spaces and feelings of belonging) “no one else will.” Morris Young characterizes this transformative power of narrative as a re/visioning. For example, he describes how his students’ experiences of reading and writing literacy narratives “provides them with a way of understanding that literacy, race, and citizenship are both personal and public experiences, intertwined intimately and inextricably” (166). UCI student club members’ activities often rewrite cultural scripts to increase members’ understandings of self but also to circulate more nuanced depictions of Asian Americans.
Figure 2. SADSA’s t-shirt design.
Since I conducted my study, there is renewed exigence for examining how Asian American students rhetorically position themselves. The U.S. continues to see high profile instances of anti-Asian sentiment and violence spurred in part by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, this prejudice is knit into the fabric of U.S. race relations, even when it fails to make headlines. Crucially, Asian American activists are connecting these incidences to the historic and current oppression of Black Americans. In early 2021, I followed up with Ligaya, who had refocused her extracurricular efforts into labor organizing over the past two years. She acknowledged her privilege as an Asian American at protests in that she does not face the same threats of arrest and violence as her Black peers. She also emphasized the importance of understanding that activist efforts extend beyond the time during which students may participate, saying there can be “years of organizing before we even get a glimpse of a movement.” Ligaya’s rhetorical education mirrors that of her UCI predecessors, such as Rice Paper writer Michelle Ko: both young, Asian American women long to belong to a broader community of social justice advocates.
SADSA, PAC, and AAC all aim, to varying degrees, not only to pluralize representations of Asian Americans but also to struggle collectively with the ways these plural positionalities run up against systems of power. This is what makes their efforts to “be intersectional” aspirational. Student club members continually revise intragroup and external positions—a process of navigation that constitutes their self-sponsored rhetorical education. While we, as scholar-teachers, cannot replicate precisely the complexities of this education, we would do well to remember that our students are communicators in multiple settings, with different motivations, strategies, and goals. Attending to the local and regional context, especially as it bears on racial and cultural histories, is also crucial to a feminist pedagogy. When we make space for outside knowledges within our classrooms, we affirm the value of the extracurricular to the curricular, and vice versa, enriching what we and our students learn from and with one another.
Basic interview questions: