The Pepper Manual: Towards Situated Non-Western Feminist Rhetorical Practices

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.

Feminist Scholarship in its Global Contexts

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.

African Feminisms: Confronting Context-Specific Exigencies for Feminist Work

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.

“That the Female Pepper will Eventually Ripen, Too”: A Short History of the Pepper Dem Ministries

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.

Manels, COVID-19, and the Ghanaian Society’s Response to a Pandemic

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.

Counter-fliers as Situated Feminist Intervention

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

Conclusion: Chili Pepper as a Culturally Sourced Theoretical Framework for Feminist Activism

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.

Works Cited

  • Abdul-Hamid, Mustapha, and Nana Aba K. Forson. “In Search of Gender Justice: An Analysis of the Arguments of Two Ghanaian Feminist Groups.”    -return to text
  • Alhassan, Tua, Fouzia and Musah, Safia. “Dismantling Manels: The Ghanaian Feminist Agenda.” public,gender%20gap%20in%20the%20country. Accessed 19 May 2021.    -return to text
  • Amadiume, Ifi. Male daughters, female husbands: Gender and sex in an African society. Zed Books Ltd., 2015.     -return to text
  • Bawa, Sylvia. ““Feminists make too much noise!”: generational differences and ambivalence in feminist development politics in Ghana.” Canadian Journal of African Studies/Revue canadienne des études africaines 52.1 (2018): 1-17.     -return to text
  • Bawa, Sylvia. “Paradoxes of (dis) empowerment in the postcolony: Women, culture and social capital in Ghana.” Third World Quarterly 37.1 (2016): 119-135.     -return to text
  • Bawa, Sylvia. “Women’s rights and culture in Africa: a dialogue with global patriarchal traditions.” Canadian Journal of Development Studies/Revue canadienne d’études du développement 33.1 (2012): 90-105.     -return to text
  • Carey, Tamika L. “Necessary Adjustments: Black Women’s Rhetorical Impatience.” Rhetoric Review 39.3 (2020): 269-286.     -return to text
  • Cooley, Suban Ahmed. Hoygaygii Waa Halkee?: A Nomad Seeking the Sensation of Home. Michigan State University. Digital Rhetoric and Professional Writing, 2016.     -return to text
  • Crenshaw, K. (1990). Mapping the margins: Intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color. Stan. L. Rev.43, 1241.     -return to text
  • Dery, Isaac. “A situated, African understanding of African feminism for men: a Ghanaian narrative.” Gender, Place & Culture 27.12 (2020): 1745-1765.     -return to text
  • Donkor, Dorcas A. The Rise of Cyberfeminism in Africa: Pepper Dem Ministries’ Take on Ghana. Diss. Ohio University, 2020.     -return to text
  • Glenn, Cheryl, and Krista Ratcliffe. “Introduction: Why silence and listening are important rhetorical arts.” Silence and listening as rhetorical arts. Southern Illinois University Press, 2011. 1-19.     -return to text
  • Hooks, Bell. Feminist theory: From margin to center. Pluto Press, 2000.     -return to text
  • Khoury, Nicole. “Enough violence: the importance of local action to transnational feminist scholarship and activism.” Peitho J 18.1 (2015): 113-39.     -return to text
  • Ianetta, Melissa Joan, et al. Silence and listening as rhetorical arts. SIU Press, 2011.     -return to text
  • Losh, Elizabeth. “Hashtag feminism and Twitter activism in India.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 3.3 (2014): 11-22.     -return to text
  • Martinez, Aja Y. “A plea for critical race theory counterstory: Stock story versus counterstory dialogues concerning Alejandra’s” fit” in the academy.” Composition Studies (2014): 33-55.     -return to text
  • Moyer, C. A., Sakyi, K. S., Sacks, E., Compton, S. D., Lori, J. R., & Williams, J. E. (2021). COVID‐19 is increasing Ghanaian pregnant women’s anxiety and reducing healthcare seeking. International Journal of Gynecology & Obstetrics152(3), 444-445.     -return to text
  • Oyěwùmí, Oyèrónkẹ́. The invention of women: Making an African sense of western gender discourses. U of Minnesota Press, 1997.     -return to text
  • Osirim, Mary Johnson, Josephine Beoku-Betts, and Akosua Adomako Ampofo. “Researching African women and gender studies: New social science perspectives.” African and Asian Studies 7.4 (2008): 327-341.     -return to text
  • Wang, Bo. “Comparative rhetoric, postcolonial studies, and transnational feminisms: A geopolitical approach.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 43.3 (2013): 226-242.     -return to text

“We Want to Be Intersectional”: Asian American College Students’ Extracurricular Rhetorical Education

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.

Belonging in/to Southern California

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.

Longing to Be Intersectional

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:

  • We want to engage in the celebration of South Asian cultures, but also critiquing them as well
  • Create an open brave and safe space/forum for critical discussions and engagement with other cultures
  • Decolonization – challenge the commonalities and differences between the cultures of the region
  • Create unity between South Asian organizations and students on campus
  • Raise awareness around relevant political issues
  • Provide affordable social events and no-cost membership to everyone.

(“First General Meeting”)

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.

Redefining the Extra/Curricular

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.

End Notes

  1. All names of twenty-first-century student organizations and respondents are pseudonyms.    -return to text
  2. The Combahee River Collective’s 1977 “A Black Feminist Statement” provides the basis for how I define intersectional feminism: “we are actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression, and see as our particular task the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking” (15). As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor writes, we ought to recognize how Black feminism has more recently “reemerged as the analytical framework for the activist response to the oppression of trans women of color, the fight for reproductive rights, and, of course, the movement against police abuse and violence” (13).     -return to text
  3. Throughout this article, I employ “Asian American” to describe the student groups with which I have spent time in order to emphasize their embeddedness in the American university context. I want to note as well the valence of “Asian American” as a politicized identity, which 1960s and 70s activists claimed as an assertion of their belonging within American society and therefore deserving of the same rights afforded to white Americans.     -return to text
  4. In 2016, the number of Asian residents surpassed those of white ones in Irvine. An article in the local news outlet, Orange County Register, asserts that Irvine is “the largest city in the continental United States with an Asian plurality” (Shimura and Wheeler).     -return to text


Basic interview questions:

    1. What motivated you to join this student organization? What has inspired your continued participation?
    2. What role(s) do writing and speaking play in your involvement with this club?
    3. How do you define your club’s cultural orientation?
    4. What are your club’s main goals? For example, how does your club aim to impact individual members, the campus community, or larger local, regional, national, or transnational communities?
    5. Do you see any connections between your club activities and work you’ve done for courses at UCI? Any connections to what’s expected of you in job or internship situations?     -return to text

Works Cited

  • Alexander, Jonathan, and Susan C. Jarratt. “Rhetorical Education and Student Activism.” College English, vol. 76, no. 6, 2014, pp. 525–44.     -return to text
  • Berg, Tom. “Why Westminster? Eleven Reasons the Vietnamese Came to Little Saigon – and Why They Stayed.” Orange County Register, 30 Apr. 2015. Republished on Viet Stories: Vietnamese American Oral History Project, University of California, Irvine,     -return to text
  • Carrillo Rowe, Aimee. “Be Longing: Toward a Feminist Politics of Relation.” NWSA Journal, vol. 17, no. 2, 2005, pp. 15–46.     -return to text
  • Fishman, Jenn, et al. “Performing Writing, Performing Literacy.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 57, no. 2, 2005, pp. 224–52.     -return to text
  • Fraser, Nancy. “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy.” Social Text, no. 25/26, 1990, pp. 56–80.     -return to text
  • Gonzalves, Theodore S. “The Day the Dancers Stayed: Expressive Forms of Culture in the United States.” Kritika Kultura, no. 6, 2005, pp. 42–85.     -return to text
  • Hoang, Haivan V. Writing Against Racial Injury: The Politics of Asian American Student Rhetoric. U of Pittsburgh P, 2015.     -return to text
  • Hsu, V. Jo. “Afterword: Disciplinary (Trans)formations: Queering and Trans-ing Asian American Rhetorics.” Asian/American Rhetorical Trans/Formations, special issue of enculturation: a journal of rhetoric, writing, and culture, no. 27, 2018.     -return to text
  • Lee, Stacey J. Unraveling the “Model Minority” Stereotype: Listening to Asian American Youth. Teachers College P, 1996.     -return to text
  • Mao, LuMing, and Morris Young, editors. Representations: Doing Asian American Rhetoric. Utah State UP, 2008.     -return to text
  • Monberg, Terese Guinsatao, and Morris Young. “Beyond Representation: Spatial, Temporal, and Embodied Trans/Formations of Asian/American Rhetoric.” Asian/American Rhetorical Trans/Formations, special issue of enculturation: a journal of rhetoric, writing, and culture, no. 27, 2018.     -return to text
  • Moss, Beverly J. “Ethnography and Composition: Studying Language at Home.” Methods and Methodology in Composition Research, edited by Gesa E. Kirsch and Patricia A. Sullivan, Southern Illinois UP, 1992, pp. 153–71.     -return to text
  • National Center for Education Statistics. “University of California-Irvine.” College Navigator, Accessed 30 Apr. 2021.     -return to text
  • Rice Paper. Asian American/Pacific Islander student newspaper. 1991–1997. LD 781 I7 E24. Langson Library Special Collections, UC Irvine Libraries, Irvine, CA.     -return to text
  • Royster, Jacqueline Jones, and Gesa E. Kirsch. Feminist Rhetorical Practices: New Horizons for Rhetoric, Composition, and Literacy Studies. Southern Illinois UP, 2012.     -return to text
  • Schell, Eileen E. “Introduction: Researching Feminist Rhetorical Methods and Methodologies.” Rhetorica in Motion: Feminist Rhetorical Methods and Methodologies, edited by Schell and K. J. Rawson, U of Pittsburgh P, 2010, pp. 1–20.     -return to text
  • Shimura, Tomoya, and Ian Wheeler. “Asians Have Grown to Dominant Group in Irvine.” Orange County Register, 2016.     -return to text
  • South Asia and Diaspora Student Association (SADSA). “First General Meeting.” 8 Oct. 2019, University of California, Irvine.     -return to text
  • Taylor, Keeanga-Yamahtta, editor. How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective. Haymarket, 2017.     -return to text
  • Trinh, Justine. “The Beginnings of Activism for the Department of Asian American Studies at UCI.” UCI Libraries, 2017,     -return to text
  • Wells, Susan. “Rogue Cops and Health Care: What Do We Want from Public Writing?” College Composition and Communication, vol. 47, no. 3, 1996, pp. 325–41.     -return to text
  • Young, Morris. Minor Re/Visions: Asian American Literacy Narratives as a Rhetoric of Citizenship. Southern Illinois UP, 2004.     -return to text


I Heard That: The Sociolinguist Reality of the Black Feminist Afrofuture

“The white fathers told us: I think, therefore I am. The black goddess within each of us – the poet – whispers in our dreams: I feel, therefore I can be free”.

― Audre Lorde

When I think about the stories that made me who I am today, the ones that leave whispers in my dreams as Lorde says above, they are stories about the future. Good stories always seem to have rich and important histories working in the background. Speculative fiction, an umbrella term for the genres of science fiction and fantasy that engage the future, conjures a kind of magic when read through African American history. In this article, I argue that we can use Geneva Smitherman’s concept the “sociolinguistically constructed” as the Afrofuturist meaning making method “Black sociolinguist reality”.1 I have described “Black sociolinguist reality” as a charting method that recognizes Black language practices as processes of invention unique to Black linguistics that constructs the multitudinous nature of Blackness in the future. By bringing Afrofuturism to rhetorical studies “Black sociolinguist reality” serves as a method of emergent strategy which allows speculative fiction authors, when they engage in Afrofuturist feminism, to create worlds where racial identity is not a liability and by using tools like “Black sociolinguist reality”, they imagine a world where Black people can all be free.

adrienne maree brown’s concept of emergent strategy is an organizing strategy that speculative fiction authors use to practice a future in their writing that recognizes change is an iterative process. Afrofuturism, as Alondra Nelson explains, is a framework that recognizes we need texts that understand that we matter and that Black life is not an anti-avatar or a platitudinal diversity effort. Nelson’s work on the Afrofuturist listserv in the early 1990’s, before Mark Dery coined the term Afrofuturism, argues that capitalistic chronicles of progress argue that what is new is also in some way improved, but the notion that that means the future is “race free” maligns African diaspora culture. We must recognize that “African diaspora culture [is] grounded in the histories of black communities” and that history is a relational data and interwoven into our futures. (Nelson). Afrofuturist discourse exists as a reflection of Black history that rhetorically heals our collective pasts, present and futures. The ways in which Afrofuturism operates semiotically as a term can only be defined through the work of Black feminist practices because, in order to enact Afrofuturism, you must unapologetically reclaim the bits of history that have been stolen from African American people and make it beautiful once more. That is Black feminist praxis and, as such, an Afrofuturist practice of Black feminism. I define Afrofuturist feminism as an intersectional practice of invention and a Black Feminist praxis. Bridging the gap between the academy and the public, Smitherman’s Talkin and Testifyin makes the case that African American modes of speech do not denote cognitive deficiency. She explains that “Reality is not merely socially, but sociolinguistically constructed. Real-world experience and phenomena do not exist in some raw, undifferentiated form. Rather, reality is always filtered, apprehended, encoded, codified, and conveyed via some linguistic shape.” (Smitherman, 1977). I believe the rhetorical history of Afrofuturism is one such phenomena.

The term “Afrofuturism” was coined by author Mark Dery in 1994 as a way of understanding Black history within the genre of speculative fiction. To Dery, “[s]peculative fiction that treats African-American themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context of twentieth-century technoculture—and, more generally, African-American signification that appropriates images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future—might, for want of a better term, be called ‘Afro-futurism’” (Dery, 1994). This means that Afrofuturism is first and foremost a writing practice. Dery’s distinction that African American authors writing within science fiction and fantasy genres are making definitively different rhetorical moves to render the world from their perspective rather than their white counterparts’ is an important start to the conversation, but it is not the whole picture. By revisiting the work of Geneva Smitherman in African American slave history and the transposition of African languages into an African American language, I argue that Afrofuturism is an axiom. It is a rhetorical philosophy which grounds Black speculative fiction discourse in African American history. Since Afrofuturism is in essence what Alondra Nelson has defined as “African American voices” telling stories about “culture, technology and things to come” Afrofuturism’s function as an axiom defines the words “Black sociolinguistic” reality as more about recognizing those voices whose lived experience makes up the discourse of Afrofuturism; rather than an appropriation of Black cultural understandings that limits how Black people are perceived in the social order. (Nelson, 2002). Coming from the Greek word ἀξίωμα, whose etymology is (axióō), “to think or deem worthy” and‎ -μα (-ma), an axiom loosely means “that which is thought worthy or fit” or “that which commends itself as evident” in a statement or argument. An axiom is a system of logic that is self-evident in nature because those who would use the logic also must experience it, thus it requires no formal demonstration to prove its truth. (“axiom,”2020). With this in mind, Afrofuturism, as an axiom, enables a Black feminist discourse community to have speculative conversations about the “what if, if only, and if this goes on” of Afrofuturist African American culture. Through emergent strategy we can see Afrofuturism demonstrated as a Black Feminist liberation aesthetic which explains how the visibility, judgement, and uptake of Black spoken language and culture reclaims dignity and power of Black language practice for the African diaspora. The semiotic construction of Afrofuturism as an axiom celebrates the use of Black language and cultural experiences to radically imagine the future with the magic of the past. This level of understanding the reality in which our linguistic practices are created would not be possible without Smitherman’s affirmation that Black language is part and parcel to Black history. Most importantly, Afrofuturism as an axiom outlines Dery as the interviewer recording findings about what an outsider to these conversations might perceive as Afrofuturist. Without Black feminist discourse that traces through conversations there is no Afrofuturism.

I argue that when we talk about Afrofuturism we begin with the definitions given to us by the Black women who created the space for its exploration and have produced its seminal texts. Alondra Nelsen, Nalo Hopkinson, and Octavia Butler are our Afrofuturist architects that conjured the axiom. Their writing practices are where our discourse begins. We must look to the tastemakers, content creators, scholars, and artists in that community because they are always already defining their own terms. By imagining Black history as having undiscovered linguistic practices, we can use emergent strategy to define a “Black sociolinguist reality” that demands space for Black language practices within the genres of science fiction and fantasy. Without attention to the sociolinguist reality of Black people in stories, we are often rendered as harmful stereotypes that mimic master-slave narratives, gentrify Black genius, and erase elements of the Black American experience. Black women writing speculative fiction heal this trauma through emergent world building. As such, they have created a discourse that disrupts normalized genres of futurity in ways that are anti-racist. For example, Black people on shows like Star Trek link us to what host of the Women at Warp: A Roddenberry Star Trek Podcast Kennedy Allen calls the Cosmic African diaspora.2 Writing ourselves into this cosmic diaspora is an important part of fully understanding the rhetorical history of the word Afrofuturism and the impact it has had on public discourse. By shaping the definition of this word for ourselves, Black women writing speculative fiction have given the term a sociolinguistic reality grounded in Black history and storytelling practices.

The importance of Black women changing public discourse around Blackness and gender within the genres of science fiction and fantasy can be seen in the life and career of actress Nichelle Nichols who played Nyota Uhura in the late-1960’s version of Star Trek. She is credited with bringing a huge cultural shift in the kinds of characters seen in popular television shows drawing the attention of political leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King who is said to have encouraged Nichols to stay in the role even though she faced racial discrimination on set. It has even been reported that King insisted that seeing a Black woman in that role was helpful to the plight of Black people during the 1960’s civil rights movement. Her presence on the show has inspired fan fiction and cosplay, but she also inspired diversity and inclusion efforts in the work place. The 2019 science fiction documentary Woman in Motion describes Nichelle Nichols’ as an agent of change who allowed science fiction to positively influence reality. Nichols’ character Lieutenant Uhura was the Enterprise’s communications officer, specializing in linguistics and cryptography from hundreds of worlds. The empathy and understanding she brought to the project of discovery throughout the course of the show was grounded in her lived experience. Uhura’s first language is Swahili. As part of her characters development on the show, Nichols portrayed complex human emotions, like fear and love, through the use of Swahili. These moments set a precedent for all Black characters in subsequent Star Trek shows and films, from Benjamin Sisko’s collection of African artifacts on Deep Space Nine to Rafaella Musiker’s elite command on communication technology in Star Trek: Picard. Her willingness to demonstrate the power of Black language through her acting gave Black viewers an inspirational legacy and a concrete example of Black intelligence as thriving in the future, models which were sorely missing from public discourse about Blackness and gender.

Nichelle Nichols’ empowering demonstration of Black language practices is central to Afrofuturism and Black women’s storytelling practices. Today, the Star Trek franchise features a Black female lead, Sonequa Martin-Green who plays Michael Burnham, captain of the starship Discovery. During Star Trek: Discovery’s New York Comic Con panel, Black female astronaut Mae Jemison asked Sonequa Martin-Green about meeting Nichelle Nichols at the show’s premiere. Martin-Green admitted: “She said, ‘Enjoy this moment—this is yours now.’” With Martin-Green’s character becoming the reluctant captain of the starship Discovery at the close of season three, fans of the franchise are seeing diversity and inclusion in the show like we have not seen it before. I believe this is because when the audience is introduced to Michael Burnham, she is still finding her voice. According to April Baker-Bell, “African American females’ literacy tradition, storytelling reflects Black women’s multiple consciousnesses and is one of the most powerful language and literacy practices that Black women possess” (Baker-Bell, 2017). To affect public discourse about the impact of Black women as central to the world building of science fiction and fantasy, Burnham’s character invokes a social justice ethos—much like that of Anna Julia Cooper—because she invokes social change by embodying what it means to make a difference. She is not a superhero and she does not heedlessly sacrifice herself for the good of others. Instead she listens to her mother and she embraces her double consciousness—that of her intertwined Vulcan and Human cultural background—so that there can be a future. Being the first human raised and educated on the planet Vulcan she possesses a superior command of logic known to be attributed to the Vulcan race, but it is grounded in humanity. This allows her to hold both logic and compassion with equal measure when making decisions. This is explored in Discovery as Burnham’s ability to time travel. In previous versions of the show, time travel is banned and against the code of ethics established by Starfleet called the Prime Directive. By decoding the messages that unlock the ability to travel through time, Burnham discovers that the technology for time travel was created by her mother. She has the ability to disconnect time travel from its nefarious logical conclusion, an event called the Time Wars in previous versions of the franchise, and instead sees it as a lifesaving technology.3 Burnham’s unique positionality as an individual who holds the legacy of time travel technology within her is, I believe, a homage to the character Uhura and the legacy her character left in the series as a gift finally being fully realized. Uhura is often rendered as an anti-avatar or a raceless individual who’s, as Nelson described, African diasporic culture is a relic of the past rather than in integral part of her humanity. For example, in the episode “The Changeling” Uhura’s mind is erased by a 21st century Earth interstellar probe. The probe does this because it does not understand the meaning of a song Uhura is singing and rather than allowing her to explain it in her own words the probe takes her ability to utilize language. While this seems like a fascinating situation to have a communications officer in, there are precious few scenes throughout the episode for Uhura and we do not see her recovery on screen. There is one scene where Uhura regains her command of African dialects, but it is dismissed as an incorrect use of language. Throughout the series there are several moments when Uhura’s Blackness is a liability, or she is expected to be raceless in her responses. Burnham’s characterization and Sonequa Martin-Green’s performance through the Discovery series are a decided step away from what Uhura goes through. From her natural Black hairstyles to her captain catch phrase, Burnham is fly and Black and she makes no apologies for who she is. Her characterization recognizes her humanity and Burnham strives to do that for others as well through her ability to understand the importance of time and her compassion for others. For those of us who longed for more episodes from Uhura’s perspective and a deeper understanding of how she came to know so many languages we now have Burnham. Thinking of Burnham’s abilities as ancestral gifts in this way connects her character to the stories of so many other people in the Star Trek franchise that were overlooked or undervalued. An example of this would be Burnham’s adversary throughout the show Osyraa, the leader of the evil syndicate The Emerald Chain, who belongs to a race called the Orion. In the original series, Captain Kirk discovered that the Orion are a race of slave women who are used to entertain male guests of the planet and Kirk does nothing to help them. In contrast, in the universe Burnham has written through her understanding of time travel, Osyraa is given the power to fight back against her oppressors and although she falls victim to the darker allures of that power, her presence in the series makes space for other people like her to have their stories told. This further proves that when and where Burnham enters the Star Trek universe, all of the forgotten, erased, and marginalized stories from the previous series’ enter with her. As a Black feminist rhetorician, I appreciate the relationship between Uhura and Burnham to be a linguistic strategy of emergence. The sociolinguist reality time travel has allowed to be made between these two characters cultivates both a healing from anti-avatar renderings of Black life and a promise of the recognition of Black humanity in the future.

As a pathway forward for Black feminist rhetoric I believe we can use Smitherman’s concept “Black sociolinguist reality” in the same ways Burnham’s linguistic invention practices are used as a technology of liberation. The first step would be to trace story-telling practices as emergent strategies that champion “Black sociolinguist reality” through the work of Black women writers of speculative fiction. Without their contributions to the genre, characters like Burnham would not be possible. I believe our most salient example of this is the life and work of Octavia Butler. In particular, Butler’s book Kindred uses time travel to demonstrate how Blackness is constructed across time in a very different way than whiteness.

Working towards tracking the rhetorical and historical significance of Afrofuturism in Butler’s Kindred, Smitherman’s take on linguistic social realities is important because it centers the lived experience of people whose methods of speech are deviant from standardized forms. As rhetoricians and teachers of writing, the word-work4 we use can be just as important as the work itself. Smitherman’s call for us to change the sociolinguist shape world by disrupting language power dynamics is a good place to start. In a 2012 interview, Smitherman described her work as “[u]plifting the linguistic souls of Black folks…[t]o help us understand who we are linguistically-culturally, to understand why and how we say the things we say as well as why we say the thangs we don’t say…[t]o recover and reclaim the Black Language psyche from the psycho-social distortions and warped myths that done been inflicted on us during our journey here” (Alim, 2012). This message is extremely important to Black scholars, especially those like myself who are just starting out, because it embraces the redirection of our energies back toward linguistic diversity. Afrofuturist writing practices, like world-making, celebrates our lived experiences by centering linguistic diversity. When Black women writing speculative fiction engage in world building we see and hear stories that disrupt normalized genres of futurity in order to embrace and celebrate the full potential of thriving Black futures. Smitherman’s work codifies that point by explaining that white American linguistic reality is largely monolithic and does not allow room for other Englishes to be anything other than otherized. Specifically, she attests that the power of Black languages and the recovery of a “mother tongue” is central to doing work that matters. Hearing our stories from us, by us, and for us is an important disruption because language is a catalyst for change. “Black sociolinguist reality” provides us with a method to recognize the importance of Black women writers writing our community alive using Afrofuturistic linguistic practices to render undiscovered social realities.

Smitherman’s take on linguistic social realities is also important because it centers the lived experience of people whose methods of speech are deviant from standardized forms. Smitherman’s call for us to change the sociolinguist shape of our world by disrupting language power dynamics is an important place to start. To change the landscape of our scholarship, we need to take a human-centered approach to understanding Afrofuturist writing practices—we need to bring wreck to these normalized genres that have no love or recognition for the way Black people experience story. As Gwendolyn Pough describes in her book Check it While I Wreck it: Black Womanhood, Hip-hop Culture, and the Public Sphere, “Bringing wreck is a decided act, not an unavoidable breaking point…women of the Hip-Hop generation who enact a rhetoric of wreck do so after making a conscious decision to speak out. They are bringing wreck in order to create change” (Pough, 2004). Afrofuturism, as a platform for Black exploration and expression imagines unbound futures in order to disrupt how Blackness is engaged within normalized genres of futurity. These important changes liberate Black life from anti-avatars to central characters—creating narratives of freedom for our communities. Seeing liberated Black women at the center of speculative fiction stories is the wreck we need to see change within normalized genres of futurity. Afrofuturist feminist storytelling then is an African diasporic community space that “values the power of creativity and imagination to reinvigorate culture and transcend social limitations [and t]he resilience of the human spirit lies in our ability to imagine”(Womack 317) a liberated society where Black lives do matter.

Looking back to Butler’s Kindred stories with Black female protagonists who not only liberate their people, but are at the center of creating new worlds where everyone can imagine themselves as free, bring wreck because they are effective ideological vehicles. Formulating societies, real or imaginary, speaks powerful truth to the lives of everyone instead of an elite few. As Ytasha Womack further explains in her book Afrofuturism: the World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture “[t]he imagination is a tool of resistance. Creating stories with people of color in the future defies the norm. With the power of technology and emerging freedoms, black artists have more control over their image than ever before.” (Womack 319). The protagonist of Kindred is Dana, who uses her voice to bring change to the people she meets when she time travels from the 1970’s to the early 1800’s. An ancestral connection forces Dana to time travel from her present day to early 1800s in Maryland in order to explore a narrative history of her linage and its connections to African American enslavement. Many things marked Dana as different during her time travels, but one of the dangers she faced trying to survive during American slavery was the way she speaks. A young slave boy name Nigel explains to Dana that talking better than white people is dangerous for her to be doing because it put ideas of freedom into the minds of slaves. (Butler 73). Dana explains that her mother was a teacher, but the fact is dismissed as unrealistic. Butler’s attention to detail in the way Dana is characterized is one of my favorite parts of the novel. The fact that Dana can travel across time and space and still her voice, the only tool she can rely on to get here through this dangerous situation, is also the thing that can get her killed. Her strategy of trusting Nigel with a truth from the future creates the iterative data we need to hear and understand that the voices of Black women lead to freedom. Butler makes the deliberate choice to have Dana speak the future in the past because stories make up the majority of what a lot of Black people know about their family histories. The oral tradition allows Dana to time travel through her history exploring the “Black sociolinguist reality” speaking freedom into existence makes. Ultimately, the word-work Butler’s Kindred does is a performance in honor and representing Black histories of resistance. In this way, time travel is an emergent strategy—one that writes the future in the past, so we can disrupt normalized notions of futurity in ways that are anti-racist now.

As a way of incorporating how the disruption of public discourse can be humanizing into Afrofuturist feminisms, I use adrienne maree brown’s concept of emergent strategy outlined in her book Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds. Thinking about the missing pieces in African American history as artifacts we can liberate with emergent strategy can create links to stories we never knew before by allowing us to ask more complex questions. To start, emergence out of erasure would allow those of us who do not have connections to our history through land to ask questions like: what if we are digging through a past that does not have a physical location? How then do our artifacts signify our history if they are uncovered in soil that never was? The first step toward answering these questions is humanizing the subjects. Black bodies are always already political objects because of our ties to labor as the means and mode of production in America. As ways to engage critical consciousness and imagine methods of social action in the future brown calls for the use of emergent strategy; one that explains “the way complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions” and allow us to imagine ourselves in these systems differently. (brown, 2017). As brown further explains: “Imagination is one of the spoils of colonization, which in many ways is claiming who gets to imagine the future for a given geography. Losing our imagination is a symptom of trauma. Reclaiming the right to dream the future, strengthening the muscle to imagine together as Black people, is a revolutionary decolonizing activity” (brown, 2017). I believe imagination is an iterative process for most Black people. As a strategy of emergence Black women writing speculative fiction are often left with imagination as the only place to go to for information about African American history. The Afrofuturist worlds they build are the ones we can only explore through narrative, but the importance of our stories is embedded in the way Black people have experienced history. Going back to Butler’s Kindred, Dana demonstrates that telling Black stories creates the realities we need to sustain freedom in the future. Her Black Girl Magic is teaching others to move towards freedom, which is what she saw in Rufus, because those lessons travel across space and time in our oral histories. brown goes on to say this moment we are in now is a celebration of Black Girl Magic in all its forms: “Now it is our work, and the exciting thing about this time is that we are learning to name ourselves, our distinctions and solidarities. Our afrofuturisms. Developing enough of a common dream language that we can be that much more explicit about the real futures we are shaping into existence.” (brown, 2017).

This is a fundamental message in Afrofuturists’ writing because our call to action when thinking about African American history is to remember. Remember those who have been erased by violent legislation and white supremacy. Remember those who were killed for telling stories in their mother tongues. Black women writing speculative fiction demand we remember through emergence of forgotten history and the strategy of writing themselves into the stories of the past in order to write themselves alive in the present. I see speculative fiction as an African American intersectional practice that rhetorically imbues the history and language of Black feminist thought into public discourse, so that readers may come to recognize and remember African American history as integral to stories that imagine the future. Black women writing speculative fiction helps us understand that without Afrofuturist feminism, there is no future.

Reclaiming Our Time

As cultivators of a discourse community, Black women writing speculative fiction use Afrofuturist feminism as a meaning making method that is an emergent cyclical process of coalescing data. This data celebrates how speculative fiction reclaims the narrative power of Black life by shifting how we are depicted in stories. According to adrienne maree brown, this is visionary fiction—which I am defining as a rhetorical method of building Black stories from a history of heartbreak and pain into rhetorical practices that build lasting change. I believe this is a unique rhetorical practice, born from the Black experience, that needs to be explored as a way to diversify the language of futurity currently present in public discourse.

In brown’s book Emergent Strategy she explains that she created this philosophy of emergence as strategy for those who want to liberate the world from colonial thought processes. Inspired by Angela Davis’ “Let Us All Rise Together” brown describes emergent strategy as for anyone who “wants to radically change the world…to tap into the most ancient systems and patterns for wisdom” and create new knowledge systems in order to build an Afrofuturist world. (brown, 2017). I see a need for the disruption of how we build knowledge around the word Afrofuturism. Thinking of Afrofuturistic pursuits as emergent cyclical process of coalescing data extends Nelson’s ideas that we must disrupt notions of capitalistic chronicles of progress moving us towards a “race-free” future to include the speculative alongside “technologically driven chronicles of progress” in order to construct Blackness in the future in ways that reflect the fullness of our humanity. (Nelson 2002). Time travel in speculative fiction, such as we see in Butler’s Kindred, is one such example of an emergent strategy to coalesce history with the oral tradition and the sustaining force of education as data that can theorize a future where Blackness is constructed by the stories we tell about ourselves not by our relationship to capitalistic chronicles of progress. We already have a wealth of scholarship exploring how Black women experience time travel. Brittney Cooper explains in her 2016 TEDTalk The Racial Politics of Time that in this political moment we are facing the “racial struggles we are experiencing are clashes over time and space” because time has a race and that race is white. She states:

William Faulkner famously said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” But my good friend Professor Kristie Dotson says, “Our memory is longer than our lifespan.” We carry, all of us, family and communal hopes and dreams with us. We don’t have the luxury of letting go of the past. But sometimes, our political conditions are so troubling that we don’t know if we’re living in the past or we’re living in the present. Take, for instance, when Black Lives Matter protesters go out to protest unjust killings of black citizens by police, and the pictures that emerge from the protest look like they could have been taken 50 years ago. The past won’t let us go. But still, let us press our way into the present. (Cooper, 2016).

I understand this to mean that, in order to explore what time means for those who have been marginalized through narrative, authors must recognize that time must be redefined through our collective experiences. Cooper, citing theorists like Hegel, explains that time was racialized by white people in an effort to commodify and demonize Africa, thus robbing Black people a chance at defining their own future. The further contextualizes the argument that in order to speculate on what Black futures look like we must first honor the past. She closes her talk by crediting Woodrow Woodson for the founding of Negro history week, now Black History Month, as one way to recognize the past and reconcile American Black history. I feel this is an important example because the designation of a calendar month, a unit of time that we all experience, could have, at that time been seen as Woodson exploring the future as Black speculative fiction. Cooper’s example here outlines the same tools I define as Black speculative fiction language created in celebration of Black life by using the reclamation of time as world building, connecting the magical roots of Black history, and celebrating Black activism as central to our survival. It gives us back our time by outlining a space to celebrate who we are as Black people. This same rhetorical construction of time is central to the world building of Black women writing speculative fiction.

Further rhetorical examinations of the term Afrofuturism, as it is used by speculative fiction writers practicing Afrofuturist feminisms, are needed because the popularity of it as a concept has brought it away from the authors that created it in ways that are problematic. Outlining a framework for Afrofuturist feminisms began for me with this idea of a prism. I knew Dery’s term was not working for my community because so many authors were trying to redefine it or reclaim it for themselves. Ytasha Womack’s Afrofuturism: the World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture is a good example of this. The book reads like a timeline attempting to stick together the histories that created Afrofuturism. I argue Afrofuturist feminism does more than that because it gives context to those lost histories using their authorship as race radical futurity. I believe the way Black women craft speculative fiction stories is why Afrofuturism exists in the first place. Without a framework that recognizes the contributions Black artists that substantiate the rhetorical makeup of the word Afrofuturism, we risk the continued co-opting of a genre that is, in fact, our culture.

When wielded by Black women, the sociolinguist reality of words is the process of world building that teaches us how to dream of the future. Sociolinguistic reality, as it is articulated in the work of Geneva Smitherman, is a practice of tracing the significance of Afrofuturism through the context behind an author’s words or diction. Understanding Smitherman’s take on linguistic social realities is important because it centers the lived experience of people whose methods of speech are deviant from standardized forms. In her 1977 book Talkin’ and Testifyin she explains that our social realities have a linguistic shape that imbues things, like historical meaning, into our lived experiences. In her 2006 follow-up book, Word from the Mother: Language and African Americans, Smitherman codifies that point by explaining that American linguistic reality is largely monolithic and does not allow room for other Englishes to be anything but otherized. Specifically, she attests that the power of Black languages and the recovery of a “mother tongue” is central to doing work that matters. She writes: “The wisdom of the Elders demands that we stay steady on the case. In research and pedagogy…the Elders and the sacrifices of many thousands gone, the role of the linguist—indeed the role of all scholars and intellectuals—is not just to understand the world, but to change it” (Smitherman. 2006). Afrofuturist Feminisms is such a project. Smitherman’s call for us to change sociolinguistic reality by disrupting language power dynamics is a good place to start.

I argue that Afrofuturism is a Black Feminist discourse and, as such, a feminist practice—because isn’t it just like a Black woman to have the power to create the past and the future with a word? Afrofuturist Feminisms hear the beauty that is Black life in the past, present, and future as a liberation project. To change the landscape of Rhetoric and Composition to adequately recognize the power of Afrofuturist feminism, we need to take a human-centered approach to understanding speculative fiction as a race radical recovery project through emergent strategy that engages a rhetorical journey to recover Black women’s power to craft their sociolinguistic reality, in order to write their own stories.

In my research for this article, I have identified that the first step in an Afrofuturist feminist rhetorical analysis should be the examination of what a hero’s journey narrative or mythologies coded as white are, and how it bars Black mythology from existing within the current American storytelling boundaries. Modern worlds explored in science fiction and fantasy usually reify white explorations of the future. As Toni Morrison explains in her essay, “I wanted to carve out a world both culture specific and race-free,” African American stories that are “race-free” do not erase Blackness, but work toward building a world where definitions of Blackness do not come from white imagination. I see significant strides being made towards this liberation in Black women writing speculative fiction because they have reimagined the genre by challenging its white supremacist tropes. For example, science fiction and fantasy stories are largely based in shared mythologies that are coded as white. Usually science fiction stories have some sort of science in them—either real or imagined—and the stories are that of discovery; like a hero saving his people from evil. White supremacist tropes are reinforced through these narratives as manifested destiny or a divine right that enables the protagonist to succeed; which is central to the Star Wars universe like we see in the conclusion of the most recent trilogy where we learned that the only way to be a Jedi was through lineage. Grounded in white escapism, the Star Wars universe can only be protected by true Jedi which further perpetuates the idea that some people, in the case of Star Wars white males, are the only ones who can be divinely ordained with the power to save the universe. These stories share a mythology that, as author N.K. Jemisin describes, does not include the lived experiences or African mythologies of Black people because they do not have to. The mythology is coded so that only particular individuals can achieve greatness or save their people and since the mythology is shared it does not really leave any room to explore if anyone else’s lives matter. Jemisin stresses that even if canonical science fiction and fantasy stories evoke myths that limit the ways the world can imagine Black people, such as being cast as barbaric races such as goblins or orcs in Lord of the Rings or Stormtroopers with no home or family history in Star Wars. She explains further that “[d]reaming is impossible without myths. If we don’t have enough myths of our own, we’ll latch on to those of others—even if those myths make us believe terrible or false things about ourselves. Tolkien understood this…Depending on the myths we believe in, those boundaries can be magnificently vast or crushingly tight” (Jemisin, 2018). By rhetorically shaping the discourse to one of Afrofuturist Feminism in this way, Black women writing speculative fiction and exploring uncharted Black history are enacting Afrofuturism by bringing us all into the space. As a liberation project, an Afrofuturist feminist framework outlines pathways which help to answer questions that are central to exploration of Black life in the future because they seek to address our myths and our reality as cyclical. I believe the best way to do this work is to draw on questions from the Black Lives Matter movement. Afrofuturist feminist rhetorical analysis looks at a text as an archive that recovers missing connections between our understandings of African American language practices, symbols, and art as cyclical in nature and connected to Black mythology. This means that, in order to fully understand how Black women make sense of and communicate life and life experiences in the future through critical imagination, we must look at the past as central to imagining the future. This is similar to the technology written into the Black Lives Matter hashtag. Using that hashtag demands you recognize the humanity of Black people. In the same way, Black women writing speculative fiction are not just writing science fiction or fantasy stories, but building worlds grounded in “Black sociolinguist reality” that demand you see and speak the truth of Black history. Shaping our culture through the cultivation of sociolinguist reality, Black authors like Octavia Butler stop the gentrification of Black genius by demanding space for the recognition of our history within the worlds they build.

Octavia Butler coined the term “Histofuturity” to embody a practice of writing that reflected history in a scientific way. One of a few Black people writing science fiction, Butler embraced working within the genre differently than her male counterparts. In an interview for the New York Times given in 2000, Butler was asked: “Why do you place black women at the heart of so much of your work?” Butler’s reply was straightforward: “I certainly wasn’t in the science fiction. The only black people you found were occasional characters…I wrote myself in, since I’m me and I’m here and I’m writing. I can write my own stories and I can write myself in”(Marriott). This is an example of Afrofuturist feminism in action because, when the interviewer asked Butler to give a fragmented answer to a complex question, she responded by signifying her personhood in its totality. Butler wrote about this more extensively in her 1980 essay “The Lost Races of Science Fiction” for Transmission Magazine. She describes this essay as “a protest against racism” because she knew “too many bright, competent blacks who have had to waste time and energy trying to reason away other people’s unreasonable racist attitudes; in effect, trying to prove their humanity.” The essay covers a lot of what was happening within the genre during that time, but what stood out was her reaction to the Star Wars franchise and her response to America’s male chauvinist customs we are unwilling to address. She writes:

Back when Star Wars was new, a familiar excuse for ignoring minorities went something like this: “Science fiction is escapist literature. Its readers/viewers don’t want to be weighted down with real problems.” War, okay. Planet-wide destruction, okay. Kidnapping, okay. But the sight of a minority person? Too heavy. Too real. And, of course, there again is the implication that a sprinkling of blacks, Asians, or others could turn the story into some sort of racial statement. The only statement I could imagine being made by such a sprinkling would be that among the white, human people; the tall, furry people; the lumpy, scaly people; the tentacled people; etc., were also brown, human people; black, human people, etc. This isn’t a heavy statement—unless it’s missing. (Butler 1980).

The distinction that the lack of acceptance within the genre is more a problem of customs that refuse to recognize that they are part of the change is central to Butler’s Parables series; which came out in the early 1990 after this essay was written. Butler was clearly a prophetic writer and her term Histofuturity is just one way of understanding the unique and important ways she rhetorically shaped the beauty of Black life. Thinking of speculative fiction as discourse that critically engages the places in time where humans and technology intersect as a method of interrogating history, we can see Butler’s writing practices as a bridge to the future she was trying to carve out within the genre of science fiction. Moya Bailey and Ayana Jamieson describe Butler’s writing process as that of as “radio imagination,” or an imagination that hears the future. Additionally, thinking of Moya Bailey’s work in Black women’s resistance to misogynoir in digital spaces helps us to understand why Black women are often used as anti-avatars in science fiction and fantasy. This is central to the development of the Parables series main character. Lauren/Oya Olamina created the community of Arcon where she teaches the parables of Earthseed. Rather than a religion, Earthseed is a formula of living your life with persistence, enthusiasm, and deliberate adaptability. It is through these “books of the living” that her community seeks to recode the world’s thinking through changing common thought patterns around religion, politics, and economics. The foremost parable of Earthseed is “All that you touch You Change. All that you Change Changes you. The only lasting truth Is Change. God Is Change.” (Butler, 2019). This is because Lauren/Oya is a Shaper, meaning that the futurist power she wields makes the world a better place. Thinking about Lauren/Oya as a sonic response to the popularity of Star Wars makes the linguistic reality of Earthseed an expression of Afrofuturist feminism. The legacy she leaves us with through Earthseed helps us both see and hear the future in spaces that overlook our lived experiences as systems of knowledge. Butler’s unique understanding of what it means to be an outsider and a Black woman gives a linguistic nuance to her work that is best described in the terms she created for herself. If we consider Butler’s contributions as a way to both see, with her use of time travel, and hear with her use of radio imagination, the future then we can better understand the ways in which Black women are still experiencing exclusion within science fiction and fantasy fan bases. More specifically, we must consider radio imagination and Lauren/Oya’s experiences as a form of resistance to “misogynoir” in popular science fiction and fantasy at the time Butler was writing and today.

In her body of work, Butler sought alternative ways of understanding Black people’s relationship to their own histories that were not centered around slavery. This should not be confused with a whitewashing of history that divorces white people from the atrocities of American history. In her pursuit of visible histories, Butler created the term “Histofuturity” as a way to use the resources of history as a method of invention. She would meticulously record the world around her in journals, then reinvent a new world from the perspective of her characters. In her Earthseed series, an unfinished trilogy consisting of Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, Butler’s main character Lauren Oya Olamina crafts the community and religion Earthseed as an acknowledgment of the beauty found in the sociolinguistic reality of African American spiritual connections to the divine.

Remembering that to enact Afrofuturist feminism is to unapologetically reclaim the bits of history that have been stolen from African American people and make it beautiful once more, taking a closer look at the rhetorical power behind Butler’s writing strategies reveals her dedication to the liberation of Black women. Butler’s writing process is that of crafting sociolinguist realities through sonic writing. From her archives we have learned Butler often listened to the radio as she wrote. This is a sociolinguistic technology of invention because Butler is using her ability to learn sonically to translate history into a world that recognizes Black humanity in the future. My personal journey into the rhetoric of Afrofuturism started with Butler’s work and thinking about her distinct writing practices as a representation of the magic needed to write oneself into the future. From Sami Schalk’s work we know Butler may have had dyslexia; as such, her particular sociolinguist reality is deeply connected to the trauma of Black language being seen as inferior. Butler’s work demonstrates a dedication to developing Black characters that represented our potential to heal from our collective trauma, as Schalk explains, “what has come to constitute disability literature is not based primarily or exclusively on the identity of the author, but also on the content of the narrative.” Since Butler was, according to Schalk’s account, a person with disabilities, “her dyslexia and various physical and mental health concerns she experienced throughout her life” were central to understanding her writing practice. I believe it is important to consider Butler’s sociolinguist reality as dedicated to a future where all forms of learning, but especially the ways in which Black women find ways to define the world for ourselves, are championed and respected. Schalk goes on to explain that Butler’s research was fundamental to her writing process. In a motivational note to herself in 1976, she writes, “Speak and write only of things you’ve earned the right to speak and write about through experience and/or study.” This is particularly important when considering Butler’s use of the sonic writing and her self-perception. The ability to use sonic writing as a tool for self-definition is something Butler gives to her characters as well. I found this to be a transformative technology and expression of emergent strategy in the characterization of the protagonist in Butler’s Parables series Lauren Oya Olamina. Butler calls Lauren a shaper; I took her meaning of this to be that she holds the power within herself to shape the world. Lauren explains how she became a shaper to her brother Marc in Parable of the Talents, but he believes her religion, Earthseed, is “made up.” However, Lauren responds by explaining how all of the tenants of Earthseed are inspired by real events; in particular they are responses to events from their childhood and American politics. Her translation of these events into text created the language of Earthseed and the lifesaving technology of the community that embraces it. As an expression of her power over her sociolinguistic reality, Lauren’s task as a shaper is to change the world for others. Her relationship with her brother Marc, who is unable to embrace any kind of change, is a perfect example of the kind of technology needed to change the world. Through Earthseed, people are given the language of liberation, but they also have the space to choose what that liberation looks like in their own lives. For those oppressed in Butler’s universe, this kind of social justice is seen as threatening because ignorance has become a kind of currency that allows corporations to use and drug the masses towards their own selfish goals.

Through Earthseed we see an Afrofuturist feminism that liberates Black people from how they are currently being imagined. This ability to hear and recognize Black life through Afrofuturist feminism discourse as having a linguistic reality is similar to the phrase I heard that. When a Black woman says I heard that, they aren’t just listening to you. Saying I heard that is a linguistic recognition that acknowledges shared experiences without flattening the perspective of the speaker. Mirroring that same recognition within the linguistic reality of a text as an archive of the Black experience is a felt sense or a feeling that the author is envisioning the Black experience across time and space. In this way, saying I heard that is a rhetorical representation of the Afrofuturist mental gymnastics Black women are always already doing. Afrofuturism is a situated knowledge that can only be wield by authors dedicated to Black feminist practices of liberation. The restorative power of telling our own stories decenters the violent inception of African American history that has been our burden since the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. We can lay down that burden and explore our history differently through Afrofuturist exploration. Black Feminist Afrofuturists are uniquely situated in that we have tapped into the power that allows us to write ourselves into the kind of stories that don’t just teach us how to live, but how to dream. A Black Feminist Afrofuturist discourse demands an intellectual and sympathetic comprehension towards those whose “freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression” by writing ourselves into the future (Combahee River Collective, 1986). For example, the first time a teacher called me “colored” I was young enough to think she meant I was full of rainbows. Naive enough to be so mislead by her false characterization of my tiny personhood that I repeated what she said to my father, thinking he would see that I was full of all the colors and lights I imagined myself to be full of too; just like the bright rainbow-filled characters in my favorite tv show. It wasn’t until I saw the pained look on my father’s face that I learned I had made a mistake in understanding what my teacher had meant, and it would be much longer before I realized the mistake was hers. Even before this injustice, I had learned the mental gymnastics of putting myself into a story because I wanted to be alongside all the characters I loved, on their adventures. What that teacher really took advantage of was not my innocence towards racial violence, because she was not the first or the last educator to weaponize my body to prove a violent point, but my need to belong in the story. What I would learn from this experience many years later is that I am not the only little Black girl to grow up this way. What I know now is that I have the power to resist my body being storied for me, and I get that power from Afrofuturist Feminisms. I have also learned in researching different genres of storytelling that I am not the only Black girl with a story like this one. Through speculative fiction, Black people writing stories can regain their storytelling power from genres that have historically not loved us as much as we might love them. Telling our own stories is a radical recovery project of the invisible histories that make Black people whole.

An Afrofuturist Tomorrow: Conclusion

Ultimately, this article is an interdisciplinary exploration into Afrofuturist feminist ways of being and knowing. A deeper understanding of Black linguistic practices through Afrofuturist feminism helps understand how Afrofuturism informs temporality, myth-making, and Black linguistic justice in ways that liberate the construction of Blackness from its marginalization within normalized genres of futurity in ways that are anti-racist. To be able to take a break from the world and dive into a book where your voice, your body, and your experiences are represented is invaluable in America’s current political climate. In order to protect our peace in these spaces we have to be critical of how futurity is being defined. Dery’s “Afro-futurism” comes from a short article that precedes a series of interviews he conducted with Black science fiction artists, authors, and scholars Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose. He defines the interviews as a map that represents the “largely unexplored psychogeography of Afrofuturism” (Dery, 1994). A rhetorical examination of these interviews would suggest that while Dery started the conversation that bore the term Afrofuturism, it would not exist without significant contributions from Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose. His interdisciplinary approach to the conversation would suggest that the concept of Afrofuturism is largely dependent on multiple voices commenting on a shared experience of the world. Dery suggest this shared experience comes from the “search for legible traces” of African American history as it relates to mapping any possible future. I argue that this is a gross oversimplification. Without a consideration of the “Black sociolinguist reality” of Afrofuturism through Alondra Nelson and Nalo Hopkins’ work with the Afrofuturist listserv we do not get a full picture of the lived experiences that inform Afrofuturism. Dery’s assertion is more in line with the anti-avatars Nelson describes. For example, his assessment of US Slavery history as a barrier to the potential to thrive in the future only further marginalizes Black people. His labeling of Afrofuturism as a “subalternate” or “technoculture” ignores our lived experiences and perpetuates the idea that we cannot thrive unless the future is somehow new and “race free;” which is exactly the problematic absence Butler warns us about. As a reader of his series of interviews I could not help but think “What would Octavia Butler have said about this?” Dery notes the only woman writing within the genre conventions of science fiction at the time of these interviews as Octavia Butler.(Dery, 1994). The absence of her voice in the interviews is then problematic when you consider his conclusion that African American writers of science fiction are engaging in a kind of “subalternate” “technoculture” that replicates the present in the future.(Dery, 1994). Butler’s body of work demonstrates explorations in our shared humanity. In her essay “The Only Lasting Truth” about Butler’s career and their friendship, author Tananarive Due explains Butler’s work as “a prism through which she examines ills in American society”(Due, 2015). Butler’s deep dedication to social justice actively engages with questions that recognize African American history.

With this in mind, I argue that for Black women writing ourselves into stories is where the sociolinguist reality of African American culture, particularly myths and customs, must begin with a liberated process of invention: emergent strategy. This, like much of Butler’s work, asks the question: “What if we continue to ignore the lived experiences of Black women?” instead of the more reductive approach Dery was exploring of “Can African American people tell stories in the future?” In order to articulate a discourse that recognizes the future of African Americans as containing multitudes untarnished by the erasure and violence of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, Black women speculative fiction writers, like Butler, use Afrofuturism as a future focused telescope to recontextualize African American life across space and time. This is the language of Afrofuturist feminism. The purpose of an Afrofuturist telescope is to use speculative fiction to illuminate forgotten, stolen, and unrealized histories through speculations of possible futures. Afrofuturism feminism is a process of understanding the world, a prism whose coalescing faces show the past, the present, and the future as the light is refracted onto American culture through time and space. As guiding force, Afrofuturist feminisms shows us what we could not see before, what we ignore, and helps us to see more clearly. The flexibility of the term is foregrounded in speculative inquiries while also allowing other genres of fiction and research to inform the world these writers explore. Not belonging to the genre of science fiction or fantasy, speculative fiction is an intersectional term for the process of imagination that allows artists to create fictional worlds through art to render time and space when and where they enter the field in Black futuristic complexity. An Afrofuturist lens thus shines on all rhetorical frameworks of African American discovery. As articulated by Adam Banks and Keith Gilyard, the project of Afrofuturism is a discourse deeply connected to African American history. They attest that our ability to navigate imagined terrain and negotiate our linguistic reality defines the shape of African American rhetoric’s impact. The following is an exploration into how each author uses Afrofuturist Feminisms to define their own terms. Banks and Gilyard’s articulation is inspired by Geneva Smitherman’s articulation of “nommo” or the power of the word. (Gilyard &Banks, 2018).

Afrofuturism’s popularity—which rose significantly with the release of the Marvel film Black Panther—has become a significant part of the African American cultural lexicon. There is a substantial amount of scholarship being done around the film Black Panther, but I wanted to take a different approach to my work because, while it is inclusive, the Marvel Universe is built upon Eurocentric myths and folklore. The popularity of the term Afrofuturism and the film Black Panther seems to have solidified the concept of Afrofuturism as an aesthetic of African technology that embraced the development of Black intelligence in the future. However, I found this narrative troubling and incomplete. Wakanda is a place that exists within erasure. It was not touched by war, slavery, or any of the other violence Black people who lived beyond its walls experienced. As such, even in this technological paradise for Black creativity, its promise of freedom is out of reach for Black characters who are not from there and they are labeled as defiant, deviant, and problematic outsiders. We need more data to figure out what is necessary to build the Afrofuture. “Black sociolinguist reality” helps us to synthesize that data into emergent strategies that recognize the Black experience in its totality. Going forward, especially in our current political climate, where words are being weaponized to malign vulnerable communities daily, we need more scholarship that is embodied by members of those communities and that attends to how all this vitriol will have lasting effects on our identities. We need to be the loudest voices on what is reasonable to say in public spaces. The affectual nature of hate speech has been unreasonably disconnected from the harm it does to those the hate speech is meant to reflect. The idea that political office or a level of affluence divorces a person from the responsibility of how that speech impacts sociolinguist reality is directly counter to Smitherman’s work and completely absurd. I believe that the best way forward towards outlining the shape of our impact as rhetoricians is to produce scholarship and pedagogy that is grounded in rhetorical frameworks that are built to fight injustices in the same ways Black women writing speculative fiction build worlds where we can all be free.

End Notes

  1. Concept derived from the work of Geneva Smitherman. By identifying the term as a “Black sociolinguist reality” I am honoring Smitherman’s scholarship and complicating it with an Afrofuturist sensibility.     -return to text
  2. Allen says this in a video that is part of the article “Afrofuturism is all around us and we don’t even know it” by Elizabeth Wellington published in The Philadelphia Inquirer in 2020. The larger conversation in this video centers different definitions of Afrofuturism in regards to when and where each person being interviewed enters the world of science fiction.     -return to text
  3. This is different from previous explorations of time in Star Trek, such as an episode of the series Voyager where the character Seven of Nine can only save her fellow crewmates by killing victims of the Time Wars using time travel. Additionally, in the series Enterprise, time travel is used as the major part of a plot about ethnic cleansing. As such, Burnham is the show’s first character to use time travel as its inventor intended.     -return to text
  4. Concept from Toni Morrison Nobel Laureate speech.     -return to text

Works Cited

  • “axiom, n.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, March2020, /view/Entry/14045     -return to text
  • Alim, H. S. “Interview with Geneva Smitherman.” Journal of English Linguistics, vol. 40, no. 4, 2012, pp. 357-377.     -return to text
  • Bailey, Moya, and Trudy. “On Misogynoir: Citation, Erasure, and Plagiarism.” Feminist Media Studies, vol. 18, no. 4, 2018, pp. 762-768.     -return to text
  • Baker-Bell, April. “For Loretta: A Black Woman Literacy Scholar’s Journey to Prioritizing Self-Preservation and Black Feminist–Womanist Storytelling.” Journal of Literacy Research, vol. 49, no. 4, 2017, pp. 526-543.     -return to text
  • Brown, Adrienne M. Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds. AK Press, Chico, CA, 2017.     -return to text
  • Butler, Octavia E. Kindred. Boston: Beacon Press, 2003. Print.     -return to text
  • “In 1980: Octavia Butler Asked, Why Is Science Fiction So White?” Garage, 4 Sept. 2018,     -return to text
  • —. Parable of the Sower. New York: Warner Books, 1995.     -return to text
  • —. Parable Of the Talents . New York :Seven Stories Press, 1998.     -return to text
  • Combahee River Collective. The Combahee River Collective Statement: Black Feminist Organizing in the Seventies and Eighties. Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, New York, NY, 1986.     -return to text
  • Dery, Mark. Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994. Print.     -return to text
  • Due, Tananarive. “The Only Lasting Truth” Octavia’s Brood: Science fiction stories from social justice movements. AK Press& Institute for Anarchist Studies. 2015. E-book.     -return to text
  • Fuller, Bryan and Alex Kurtzman, creators. Star Trek: Discovery. CBS Television Studios in association with Secret Hideout, Roddenberry Entertainment, and Living Dead Guy Productions, 2017.     -return to text
  • Gilyard, Keith, and Adam J. Banks. On African-American Rhetoric.2018. E-book.     -return to text
  • Nelson, A. (2002). “Making the Impossible Possible.” Social Text, 20(2), 97–113.     -return to text
  • Nelson, Alondra. “Introduction: Future Texts.” Social Text, vol. 20 no. 2, 2002, p. 1-15. Project MUSE     -return to text
  • Jemisin, N.K. “Dreaming Awake” Well-Read Black Girl: Finding Our Stories, Discovering Ourselves. Ballantine Books. E-book. 2018.     -return to text
  • Pough, Gwendolyn D. Check It While I Wreck It : Black Womanhood, Hip-Hop Culture, and the Public Sphere. Northeastern University Press, 2015. E-book.     -return to text
  • Smitherman, Geneva, Talkin and Testifyin: The Language of Black America. Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1977.     -return to text
  • Smitherman, Geneva, Word From the Mother : Language and African Americans. Routledge, 2006.     -return to text
  • Wellington, Elizabeth. “Afrofuturism Is All around Us and We Don’t Even Know It: Elizabeth Wellington and Raishad Hardnett.” Https://, The Philadelphia Inquirer, 2 Feb. 2021,     -return to text
  • Womack, Ytasha. Afrofuturism: the World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture. Lawrence Hill Books, 2013.     -return to text

Review of Black or White: Anti/Racist Campus Rhetorics

Louis M. Maraj. Black or Right: Anti/Racist Campus Rhetorics. Logan: Utah State UP, 2020. 193 pages.

“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.” So opens the call for papers for this issue of Peitho, which goes on to elaborate on the claim and to insist that “we need to center the voices of feminist of color . . . to ensure our feminist futures.” In Black or Right, Lou Maraj answers this call, using the Black feminist philosophy of literacy as the practice of freedom and focusing throughout on how Black relational feminist methodologies and ecologies work to establish Black rhetorical agency as one means of disrupting (“mashin’ up de place” xiii) in order to counter white (institutional and individual) defensiveness—and a whole lot more.

Maraj’s book mixes and bends genres, languages, disciplines, and methods to participate in what Christina Sharpe calls “wake work”—undisciplined, disruptive, fracturing, paradoxical resistances that rupture the “immanence and imminence” of Black death both aesthetically and materially “to move toward Black rhetorical agency” (8). Black or Right embodies Maraj’s personal journey to such agency, opening with the “story of arrival” from his home in Trinidad to the “American dream” at a small northeastern liberal arts college, where he learns that a joint newspaper assignment seems to require a white male to accompany his white female partner and him (“It’s strange. Is this what Americans call a ‘date’?”) to cover the story–and that his freshman English teacher would not recognize, much less value “the lavish prose I was brought up on in the British Caribbean education system. . . Americans want a thesis” (4) Maraj quickly moves to provide a thesis as well as the other accoutrements of white academic discourse—but as this book so richly demonstrates, he learned not just to resist but to unlearn such structures as he “grapples with notions of Blackness in white institutional spaces to theorize how Black identity operates with/against neoliberal ideas of difference” (9) and leads the way to proactive antiracist practices.

The first chapter, “’Are you Black, though?’” explores one such practice, an autoethnographical approach, defined as “an application of African indigenous methodological ‘self-knowledge’” to explore the dynamics at work in one of his classrooms. Recently graduated from his primarily white undergraduate institution, Maraj is now a graduate student instructor teaching a second-year writing class at primarily white Midwestern State University, a class with only three Black-identified students, including “T,” who persistently challenges Maraj, asking him on more than a few occasions “Are you Black?” Maraj uses such encounters to frame a careful analysis of Blackness, informed by Black feminist and indigenous African understandings of relationality and to put forward the concept of Black autoethnography as a rhetoric “to theorize Black, potentially antiracist, agency within rhetoric, writing, and literacy studies” (25). You’re going to want to read Maraj’s full account, as T makes it clear that in his view Maraj’s position “at the front of the classroom” at this mostly white institution calls his Blackness into question–and as he and T negotiate layers and definitions of Blackness and of Black agency; like so much of the rest of the book, this chapter is a page-turner. The Black autoethnographical approach featured in this chapter includes a helpful review of this tradition in rhetoric and literacy studies—in the work of Geneva Smitherman, Keith Gilyard, Jacqueline Jones Royster, Carmen Kynard, Vershawn Young, and June Jordan. These and other “griots-as-scholars” use autoethnography, performativity, and relationality as they theorize, often in narrative ways that contrast with the “standard fare” of academic research.

Chapter 2, “Composing Black Matter/s,” offers hashtagging as another potentially Black-centering and anti-racist practice. In Maraj’s analysis, hashtags “make and remake,” they “permeate” they “code and decode,” representing a “marginalized out of school literacy” (44, 54). Drawing on deep analysis of Black Twitter as well as on scholarship surrounding activities on this site, Maraj argues that hashtags offer a space for Black students to practice resistance at primarily white institutions while at the same time reshaping what we think of as writing and reading—and even thinking. Situating this discussion in the long historical context of commonplace collections/commonplace books, Maraj shows how hashtagging can both challenge and remediate these tools for shaping understandings of the world. My grandmother, whose father fought on the side of the Union in the Civil War, kept a commonplace book that she gave recitations from on “elocution days” in her elementary school. My mother kept a commonplace book all her life, pasting in inspirational passages she wanted to “know by heart” and collecting wisdom she wanted to pass on to her children. Understanding hashtagging as a continuation of this tradition but also and more importantly as a challenge to and reshaping of it—that is, understanding hashtagging as “a creative, analytic composition process with potentials to build, curate, archive, protest, and continue histories that interact with, and themselves constitute, social acts”—well, that’s a brilliant move that I believe will inspire teachers and student writers across the country. Building on Jay Bolter’s concept of “remediation,” Maraj shows how remediated commonplace books/hashtagging can help Black students resist dominant ideologies through communal practices to shape what counts as knowledge even as they guard against co-optation by white institutional ideology. “We’ve heard the fake news,” Maraj says. “Let’s unmake it,” Finally, this chapter also includes a thorough description of Maraj’s “Tumblr as Commonplace Book” assignment, brilliantly illustrated, as well as a provocative discussion of #blacklivematter and #BlackLivesStillMatter, highlighting the dialogic potential of hashtagging, which draws on the historical importance of African-based oral, dialogic traditions.)

#blacklivesmatter plays an important role in Chapter 3, “’All My Life I Had to Fight’” as Maraj reshapes and reimagines literacy events as digital and embodied as well as print or textual and then explores the #blacklivesmatter movement through the lens of what he terms inter(con)textual reading, a practice that looks at the dense web of associations among three particular literacy events: Alicia Garza’s 2014 “A Herstory of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement,” rapper Lamar’s 2016 performance of “Alright,” and a Black Lives Matter Syllabus created by NYU’s Frank Leon Roberts in 2016. This inter(con)textual reading of these literacy events

helps us to not only see connections but also gaps, offering possibilities for meaning to create, fill, and exceed them, or compelling us to seek other texts, subjects, or rhetorical bodies as related foci for analysis. In these ways, Black inter(con)textualality reads/writes Blackness dynamically. (99-100)

This inter(con)textual reading is, as Maraj rightly notes, deeply rhetorical, but its framing within Black feminist relational thinking shows, in his words, “the outside-inside-ness of Blackness in white worlds” and its potential for destabilizing those spaces.

Black Inter(con)textual reading provides a method for carrying out the rhetorical reclamations featured in chapter 4 of Maraj’s book. Defined as “acts of turning stigmatizing racialized attention mapped onto Black identities back onto the gaze of historically white institutions to publicly question/critique their power in moment of fracture,” such reclamations illuminate Black agency at work in white spaces to counter white defensiveness. This multilayered chapter showcases Black disruption through an analysis of three particular literacy events: Black Lives Matter in Classrooms events; a series of public safety alerts; and a YouTube Video (“Administration Threatens Expulsion”), all occurring in the spring of 2016 at Midwestern State University, the not-so-anonymous campus where Maraj was teaching at the time. The detailed description of these events makes for a deeply depressing and distressing—though not surprising—demonstration of just what Maraj means by “white defensiveness,” in this case white institutional defensiveness that every reader of Peitho will recognize. In every instance, Black students speak the truth of racism, clapping back and speaking back to create a rupture or fracture that then allows for rhetorical reclamation of the meanings and instrumentalities of Blackness: “the student protester rallies race conceptually in critiquing the very idea of racialization, in antiracism” in one memorable instance. Especially chilling is Maraj’s discussion of the “public safety” announcements, all of which are deeply racist, and which are resisted and at least partially reclaimed through Black rhetorical agency that rearticulates the “situations we are put with/in in Black non/Being,” where “we were never meant to survive” (131-32).

Maraj’s conclusion, a meditation on “De Ting about Blackness,” takes him back home for the first time since beginning his tenure track position at Pittsburgh—home with its familiar furniture and photos and memories, and with his Mother—where he receives a message from a departmental administrator who wants to make sure that his upcoming undergrad course, “Projects in Black Rhetoric,” is “global” or “transnational” enough to market to other departments. “How Black are you in these fractures?” Maraj wonders: “De ting about Blackness is that thing that also surrounds it, co-constitutes it with its ghosts.” (134) Maraj’s meditation on the word “ting” in Trinibagonian usage shows it to be a verb, noun, pronoun, or “what have you,” and maps its amorphous and elastic qualities that allow for Being and for Doing. This sense of being and doing inside/out, with/in, in/between, both/and are signs of Black disruption and of its “generativity, its polysemy, a multiplicity of possibilities for Blackness to mean and how Blackness could mean” (144). Throughout this meditation, as throughout the entire book, the foundation of Black feminist thinking and practice holds strong, supporting and enabling Maraj as he tries to “undiscipline,” to “mind fractures to find the kind of rest that keeps me waking up as de ting about Blackness always outside of me, asking, other/wise/.” (147). Maraj ends this book with words from Fanon, urging a “true leap” to introduce “invention into existence.”

It seems to me that this is precisely what Maraj has done in Black or Right—introduce invention into existence in a whole panoply of ways. Adding to the work of Royster, Logan, Smitherman, Kynard, Gilyard, Banks, Young, and other griot/scholars, Maraj’s book brings us closer to perceiving and understanding the contours of a complete and robust African American rhetoric, one that is thoroughly theorized as well as practiced

This realization is nothing short of thrilling: I have learned so much from reading and engaging this text, in trying to read it rhetorically, inter(con)textually when possible, to not just hear what Maraj is saying but to listen to his voice and the voices of all the Black feminists who echo through these pages—and to listen to all their messages with purposeful, striving intention. For an old(er!) white woman, it has not been easy to listen in this way. But oh has it been worth the effort.

Work Cited

  • Sharpe, Christina. On Blackness and Being. Duke UP, 2016. Print.    -return to text

DIY Invitational Rhetoric: Engaging with the Past, Promoting Ongoing Dialogues, and Combating Racism

Although invitational rhetoric’s roots reach back to 1995 when Sonja K. Foss and Cindy L. Griffin published “Beyond Persuasion: A Proposal for an Invitational Rhetoric,” invitational rhetoric merits only a brief mention in many composition and communication publications. In fact, Susan Kirtley noted that “for all of its value, invitational rhetoric rarely appears in composition textbooks. When it does come into focus, it is highlighted only briefly as an alternative to argument, and sometimes, in contrast with Foss and Griffin’s description, as merely a less adversarial argument” (340).  Foss and Griffin define invitational rhetoric as a type of rhetoric grounded in “equality, immanent value, and self-determination” that involves audience members “listening to and trying to understand the rhetor’s perspective and then presenting their own” (5). The goal is not simply to exchange ideas. Ideally, “the rhetor and the audience alike contribute to the thinking about an issue so that everyone involved gains a greater understanding of the issue in its subtlety, richness, and complexity (Foss and Griffin 5). As a result, rhetors do not assume their position is superior to their audience’s beliefs. In fact, rhetors “view the choices selected by audience members as right for them at that particular time, based on their own abilities to make those decisions” (Foss and Griffin 6).

Despite invitational rhetoric’s steps toward peaceful communication, two major obstacles diminish the effectiveness of dialogues via invitational rhetoric. The first obstacle involves a lack of engagement with past rhetors. Invitational rhetoric focuses only on present dialogue between living rhetors. Without engaging the past, dialogues remain within the bounds of living rhetors’ knowledge and experiences. Contentious issues often rooted in the past require rhetors to engage with the past to be well informed of the history of an issue. A failure to engage with past rhetors diminishes diverse perspectives that fuel the meaning making process of invitational rhetoric.

The second challenge is a lack of a mechanism to generate ongoing dialogues. Contentious issues deserve more than a “one and done” approach to dialogue. By making private dialogues public, rhetors foster ongoing dialogues that extend beyond their social circles. Diversity resulting from an ongoing dialogue with an increasing number of participants multiplies perspectives while amplifying understanding and meaning making. Ongoing dialogues taking place over a long period of time allow for reflection periods between dialogues. The cumulative dialogues over a long period assist rhetors in articulating their position in the current time and permit them to shift positions as they uncover new meanings in future dialogues.

With the aforementioned challenges in mind, in this article, I argue for a more useful type of invitational rhetoric as I reconsider Foss and Griffin’s theory of invitational rhetoric through a new application that I refer to as DIY invitational rhetoric and utilize Jasmine Sanders’s New York Times article “A Black Legacy, Wrapped Up in Fur” to illustrate DIY invitational rhetoric’s efficacy. In the concluding section, I highlight DIY invitational rhetoric’s value as a feminist rhetorical strategy for combating racism.

Defining DIY Rhetoric

So, how is DIY invitational rhetoric different from Foss and Griffin’s invitational rhetoric? Underscoring the significance of DIY, I build on Foss and Griffin’s theory by adding two new steps that emphasize actions individual rhetors complete before and after dialogues, Before engaging in a dialogue on a specific topic, individual rhetors engage in dialogues with past rhetors through what Jacqueline Jones Royster and Gesa Kirsch refer to as “critical imagination” (71 (1)). To describe critical imagination in action, Royster and Kirsch provide the example of engaging with historical women: “. . . this process involves interrogating the contexts, conditions, lives, and practices of women who are no longer alive to speak directly on their own behalf. We use critical imagination as a tool to engage, as it were, in hypothesizing, in what might be called ‘educated guessing,’ as a means for searching methodically, not so much for immutable truth but instead for what is likely or possible, given the facts in hand” (71 (2)). Using critical imagination, rhetors engage in primary research to listen to the voices of past rhetors as well as formulate questions and possibilities while linking the past with the present. Critical imagination as a DIY process serves as a type of self-education. Questions, patterns, and understandings that emerge through critical imagination unleash fruitful insights that prove useful in dialogues with living rhetors.

Extending the definition of DIY rhetoric, I note the final DIY step I have added to Foss and Griffin’s invitational rhetoric. To promote ongoing dialogue, private dialogues must be made public in order to reach beyond the social circles of a small group of rhetors. For scholars, professional publications serve as outlets for sharing dialogues with a large group of readers that possess the potential to keep the dialogue going orally with their colleagues and in a public written response. For those inside and outside of academia, social media, blogs, podcasts, online videos, and websites serve as mechanism for cascading conversations. Online outlets provide an asynchronous space for rhetors to reflect on cumulative dialogues that have taken place over a long period to arrive at new understandings and maintain a fluid position that continues to evolve with each new dialogue.

Applying DIY Invitational Rhetoric

I now turn to Jasmine Sanders’s “A Black Legacy, Wrapped Up in Fur” to illustrate the efficacy of DIY invitational rhetoric. During an interview with NPR’s Robin Young, Sanders recognizes a need for dialogue. Considering she will one day inherit furs, Sanders contemplates how she will feel about owning her mother’s elegant, beloved fur coats during a time when PETA’s powerful antifur messages permeate social media and television. She recalls the words of her mother, Vivian Jarrett-Irving: “We live on the south side of Chicago. I don’t see those people [PETA] here. They don’t seem to want to be speaking to me anyway” (Sanders, “The Significance”(1)). Sanders echoes her mother’s sentiments by citing a quote from Paul Marie Seniors’s mother: “As soon as black women could afford to buy mink coats, white society and white women said fur was all wrong, verboten, passé” (“A Black Legacy,” D1(1)). The two mothers’ comments illustrate a lack of communication between some African American women, PETA, and others in white communities who hold strong positions related to using animal fur in fashion. In reality, it seems impossible for Sanders to bring the diverse parties together for an actual dialogue, so she engages in invitational rhetoric as she holds her own discussions with African Americans, PETA, and the Zimbals, Wisconsin mink farm owners. Throughout her individual dialogues with the aforementioned groups, Sanders practices Foss and Griffin’s theory of invitational rhetoric as she and her fellow rhetors engage in listening, presenting their positions, trying to understand each other’s perspectives while refraining from persuading with the intention to change the others’ perspectives (5). To illustrate DIY invitational rhetoric’s efficacy, I will focus on Sanders’s use of two DIY steps: engaging with past rhetors via critical imagination and making private dialogues public for ongoing dialogue and meaning making amongst a large group of diverse rhetors.

Prior to engaging in dialogues with PETA and mink farmers, Sanders engages with the past rhetors. Sanders’s mother, Vivian Jarrett-Irving, provides a starting place for Sanders’s research as she reveals the cultural significance of fur for many African American women. For Jarrett-Irving, fur coats, imbued with cultural significance for many African American women, served as a “personal luxury item,” “an important investment,” and reminder of the “six million black migrants who were propelled north by the tenuous hope of something better” (Sanders, “A Black Legacy” D1(2)). Jarrett-Irving, remembering her own mother’s inability to own a home in the early nineteenth century, states, “Federal housing codes that barred fair loans from being offered to black people, as well as other forms of housing discrimination, rendered home-ownership impossible for many black families, and arduous for those who could attain it. So money was put toward other markers of personal prosperity, the kind that retained value and could be passed down to the next generation” (Sanders, “A Black Legacy,” D1(3)). Like houses and land, fur became a vehicle for social mobility in its representation of prosperity that could be passed down to future generations.

To further illuminate her understanding of many African Americans’ position on fur, Sanders explores eighteenth century to the mid-twentieth-century resources and employs critical imagination to uncover questions and possibilities that enrich her understanding and transform her into an informed rhetor. From her research, Sanders learns about the role enslaved and freedmen played in the fur economy and notes fur’s significance in the Harlem Renaissance and its worth in terms of self-expression for modern famous public figures such as Diana Ross and Aretha Franklin (“A Black Legacy” D1(4)). Sanders unearths past voices to deepen her understanding.

Delving into the past through critical imagination allows Sanders to “interrogat[e] the contexts, conditions, lives, and practices” of past Africans Americans’ connections with fur (Royster and Kirsch 71(3)). Through Sanders interrogation of the past rhetors, she uncovers racist practices in the fashion industry. As noted above, Sanders recalls Paul Marie Seniors’s mother saying, “As soon as black women could afford to buy mink coats, white society and white women said fur was all wrong, verboten, passé” (“A Black Legacy” D1(5)). The abrupt shift in fashion trends moving away from fur highlights the role racism plays in fashion. Fashion serves as a dividing force that separates people of color from whites, and sudden changes in fashion prevent many women of color and lower-class women from wearing the latest fashions. The fashion industry through price and frequent shifts in fashion control what people of color wear and the meanings attached to their clothed bodies.

Through uncovering past racist practices via critical imagination, Sanders becomes an informed rhetor equipped with a foundation for improving her understanding of complex present perspectives and practices. In “A Black Legacy, Wrapped Up in Fur” Sanders addresses PETA’s position as she recounts footage from their advertisements and includes the following statement from PETA’s past senior international media director, Ben Williamson: “We like to think of ourselves as P.R. for animals” (Sanders, “A Black Legacy” D1(6)). Although Sanders disapproves of PETA’s cruel letter to Aretha Franklin for wearing fur and their juxtaposition of marginalized people’s suffering and animals’ suffering in commercials, Sanders communicates her understanding of PETA’s position. In turn, PETA expresses an interest in Sanders’ position, so Sanders meets with a spokesperson from PETA to discuss her position. She tells PETA’s spokesperson as well as NPR’s Robin Young that she is “fur ambiguous” (Sanders, “The Significance”(2)). Justifiably, Sanders’s “fur ambiguous” position stems from her acknowledgement of the complexity of the issue (“The Significance”(2)).  As a person who values conservation and veganism, Sanders could easily assume an anti-fur position, but through critical imagination and dialogue, she recognizes the complexity of the issue.

In applying the final DIY strategy, making private dialogues public, Sanders ensures dialogues continue with diverse groups. Sanders shares information about her dialogues in “A Black Legacy, Wrapped Up in Fur” in The New York Times and in an NPR interview with Robin Young. NPR invited listeners to voice their perspectives on NPR’s online forum. By making private dialogues public through publication and providing an online forum for ongoing dialogue, Sanders exemplifies DIY invitational rhetoric’s relevance in twenty-first century. Dialogue involving contentious issues deserves more than a “one and done” approach. Ongoing dialogue amongst diverse improves rhetors’ understanding of complex issues.

As diverse rhetors listen and contribute their own perspectives, the online forum serves as a space for “giving the world a chance to explain itself” (Barrett 147). In this example of DIY invitational rhetoric, Sanders’s readers and listeners are invited to enter multiple rhetors’ worlds to enhance their understanding and share their own perspectives in NPR’s online forum. Dialogues taking place amongst listeners around the world in the online forum showcase a diverse range of truths as rhetors articulate their positions regarding racism and fashion, animal cruelty, and environmental concerns related to the faux fur production. With each new post, rhetors weave together new strands of discourse as their positions and understandings continue to evolve.

Closing Remarks

To conclude, I want to recognize two ways that DIY invitational rhetoric serves as a vehicle for feminist intervention in the deteriorating public discourse of our time by combating racism.

Ethical Representation and Giving Voice to the Oppressed 

DIY invitational rhetoric’s emphasis on engaging with past rhetors via critical imagination and making private dialogues public for ongoing conversations provides an opening for rhetors to ethically represent the oppressed and fight racism. As mentioned earlier, Sanders’s mother along with other African American women were never afforded the opportunity to explain to those outside of their culture why they wear and value fur. Invitational rhetoric allowed Sanders to listen and attempt to understand her mother’s position as well as past rhetors’ positions. Through her work, Sanders serves as a “negotiator, someone who can cross boundaries and serve as a guide and translator for Others” (Royster 34). As a translator, her work with DIY invitational rhetoric helps to produce ethical representations of communities misrepresented due to racism. To outsiders, African American fur enthusiasts appear as proponents of animal cruelty. However, Sanders’s research and dialogues disclose many African Americans’ historical ties to fur as tool for social mobility in a racist world that impeded their social mobility. Through a published dialogue and interview, Sanders, as a negotiator, crosses boundaries as she translates African Americans’ connection to fur for readers outside of African American communities.


Helping to combat racism, DIY invitational rhetoric’s emphasis on engaging with the past assists white rhetors in self-education prior to engaging in dialogues related to race. In “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle to Master’s House,” Audre Lorde emphasizes the need for self-education: “Women of today are still being called upon to stretch across the gap of male ignorance and to educate men as to our existence and our needs. This is an old and primary tool of all oppressors to keep the oppressed occupied with the master’s concerns. Now we hear that it is the task of women of Color to educate white women . . .” (113). Lorde underscores the need for individuals, specifically white men and women, to do their own racial and cultural work, meaning work to educate themselves instead of relying on others to serve as educators. Engaging with past rhetors via critical imagination gives current rhetors valuable insight prior to engaging in dialogues centered on race.

Works Cited

  • Barrett, Harold. Rhetoric and Civility: Human Development, Narcissism, and the Good Audience. State U of New York P, 1991.     –return to text
  • Foss, Sonja K., and Cindy L. Griffin. “Beyond Persuasion: A Proposal for an Invitational Rhetoric. Communication Monographs, vol. 62, no. 1, 1995, pp. 2-18.     –return to text
  • Lorde, Audre. “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Crossing Press, 1984, pp. 110-13.     –return to text
  • Kirtley, Susan. Considering the Alternative in Composition Pedagogy: Teaching Invitational Rhetoric with Lynda Barry’s What It Is. Women’s Studies in Communication, vol. 37, no. 3, 2014, pp. 339-57.     –return to text
  • Royster, Jacqueline Jones. “When the First Voice You Hear is not Your Own.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 47, no. 1, 1996, pp. 29–40.     –return to text
  • Royster, Jacqueline Jones, and Gesa E. Kirsch. Feminist Rhetorical Practices: New Horizons for Rhetoric, Composition, and Literacy Studies. Southern Illinois UP, 2012.     –return to text (1), (2), or (3)
  • Sanders, Jasmine. “A Black Legacy, Wrapped in Fur.” New York Times. 4 Mar. 2019, p. D1.      –return to text (1), (2), (3), (4), (5), or (6)
  • —. “The Significance of Black Women Owning Fur.” Interview by Robin Young. WBUR, 4 Mar. 2019,      –return to text (1) or (2)

Review of Black Women in Politics: Demanding Citizenship, Challenging Power, and Seeking Justice

Jordan-Zachery, Julia S., and Nikol G. Alexander-Floyd. (2018). Black Women in Politics: Demanding Citizenship, Challenging Power, and Seeking Justice. SUNY P, 2018. 275 pages.

Introduction: Personal Intersections

Many years ago, I covered local politics for a progressive newspaper in a mid-sized, progressive Southern town. I reported the election of its first female mayor and, a few years later, its first Black mayor — Terry M. Bellamy, who was also the town’s youngest mayor ever. Soon after her election, a white, male reporter at the mainstream newspaper asked Bellamy how she was going to balance motherhood, a private-sector career, and the part-time job of mayor. She countered, “If I was a man, would I be asked this question?” The unspoken answer was, and still is, of course not. In my own later interview with the mayor, we laughed about the incident. We did not, however, talk about its racialized, class-based subtext. The town’s first female mayor came from modest privilege, a housewife-activist whose children were grown, her husband a prominent doctor. I am a white, queer woman with working-class roots. Our experiences with sexism and misogyny were by no means exchangeable. What, then, does it mean to call ourselves feminists in the 21st century?

My current research project, for example, explores the rhetorical ecology in which #nastywoman rhetorics wrangle with election-season representations of Kamala Harris, the first Black / South Asian woman to become vice president of the United States of America. For this project, I have visited such works as Deborah Atwater’s history-oriented overview, African American Women’s Rhetoric, and Gilyard and Banks’s On African-American Rhetoric. My search also steered me toward an anthology edited by two leaders in political science and gender studies: Julia S. Jordan-Zachery and Nikol G. Alexander-Floyd, editors of the interdisciplinary, activist tome, Black Women in Politics: Demanding Citizenship, Challenging Power, and Seeking Justice. In this review, I offer intersectional reflections and summaries of the book. That is, rather than proceed chapter by chapter, I begin with an overview of the book’s scope and purpose; move on to discuss the book’s thematic yet topical structure; discuss several exemplary chapters; and finish with a short reflection.

Overview: Intersectionality as Activism

I say “activist” because Jordan-Zachery and Alexander-Floyd cast the collection with Black feminism’s explicit call for social justice, supported by intersectionality as a “generative” framework. In the co-written introductory chapter, “Black Women’s Political Labor,” they seed this ground with a Zora Neale Hurston-inspired metaphor of Black women tilling the soil not for others but for themselves. Jordan-Zachery and Alexander-Floyd describe how Hurston situates Janie, a fictional character in Their Eyes Were Watching God, at the intersection of race, class, and gender. As Jordan-Zachery and Alexander-Floyd briefly demonstrate, a Black feminist, intersectional analysis reveals how Janie deals with multiple, multidimensional oppressions and how she becomes a woman tilling the land for herself. They extend the metaphor to academia, asking:

“Black women academics and others have asked: For whom are Black women tilling? Is their labor for their liberation or solely to be used as part of the liberation efforts of others? And how do Black women [scholars as well as others] envision the manifestations of their political labor?” (xv)

Their answer is Black Women in Politics. From section to section and chapter to chapter, the editors present topics as wide-ranging as Black women’s health in the UK, Black nationalist women’s work in a World War II-era US newspaper, author Toni Morrison’s democratic-literary praxis, and former first lady Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity campaign. Such topics are arranged by section, such as Black Feminist Policy Analysis (see Table 1). Jordan-Zachery and Alexander-Floyd also present a variety themes, including “Black Women’s Self-Actualization” and “Moving from Silence to Voice” (see Table 2). The women who explore such topics and themes come from diverse disciplines — historian Keisha N. Blain, scholar-activist K. Melchor Hall, health educator Jenny Douglas, political scientist Keesha M. Middlemass, and English professor Judylyn S. Ryan. Though I was mildly disappointed to find no works by rhetoric or composition scholars, Jordan-Zachery and Alexander-Floyd’s collection opens new and fertile ground, giving us both a rich, interdisciplinary resource as well as a challenge for continued research.

To orient readers to these aspects of the book, in the co-written introduction, they remind us that intersectionality was defined by Black feminists in the 1960s and ’70s and later formulated by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 as three-dimensional (structural, political, representational). As such, it has long been focused on “investigating the multiple dimensions of Black political women” (xix), from community activists to elected officials to women affected by (and affecting) public policies and practices. Reaffirming intersectionality’s Black feminist roots, Jordan-Zachery and Alexander-Floyd cast the collection around citizenship, power, and justice. That is, they not only center the selected works on Black women’s political labor but also on the labor of Black scholars committed to tilling new academic fields. Such co-labor is needed, they argue, because most of the research related to Black women has been limited to descriptive, often one-dimensional work. Worse, say Jordan-Zachery and Alexander-Floyd, most of the Black women working in masculinized fields like political science have been invisibilized, their research inadequately supported, their findings omitted or tokenized.

In one of her two solo chapters, Jordan-Zachery declares, “Research is a political act” (30). It matters whose work gets published, what their research is about, and whether other scholars cite those works. Therefore, research should not only expand our knowledge but make a difference in the policies and practices that affect Black women as well as the representation of Black women in a variety of forums. Thus, Black Women in Politics is an academic anthology but also a political act.

That is, Jordan-Zachery and Alexander-Floyd’s specific activist aim is to create a garrett, which they define as a productive space promoting “justice as the goal of academic inquiry” (xxxiii). Such a space allows allies and Black women scholars alike to examine the issues that Black women face and respond to, from crime and punishment in the US to the masculine geopolitics of the Caribbean (xxxiii). The garrett is also a place in the sense of a site for mentoring and fostering scholars at various levels in their career, for sharing knowledge across disciplines, and for inspiring new inter- / intra-disciplinary work. On the other hand, Jordan-Zachery and Alexander-Floyd acknowledge that intersectionality has been critiqued as too focused on identity politics and its activist inclination somewhat diminished by popularity and misuse. They insist, nonetheless, that intersectionality “has always been aimed at assessing and challenging those forces that impeded full expression of political participation and facilitating personal, social, and communal well-being” (xviii). It is more than a multidimensional framework, in other words. Reconnected with its Black feminist roots, intersectionality is a social-justice project.

Structure: Sections, Chapters, and Themes

If readers drop into one chapter initially, as I did, they may miss an added element of the book as a whole: The editors arrange it as an intersectional matrix from the first chapter to the last. That is, the arrangement of sections, chapters, and themes supports their arguments about intersectionality, Black feminism, and interdisciplinarity. The arrangement is further supported by the variety of disciplines and perspectives represented by the authors of individual chapters. Thus, Jordan-Zachery and Alexander-Floyd offer multiple entry points into the collection. First, they divide the book into four topic-based sections. These sections are intersected by four broad themes explored via various disciplines, for a total of 12 chapters. Sections converge and diverge, inviting readers to trace themes, delve into sections, or focus on specific areas (such as history, literature, politics, or public-health policy). Section titles group the featured works at a topical or content level: “Black Woman Doing Intersectionality Work,” “Black Feminist Policy Analysis,” “Diasporic Black Women and the Global Political Arena,” and “Discourses, Movements, and Representations” (see Table 1).

Table 1: Sections in Black Women in Politics
Introduction (“Black Women’s Political Labor”)
Section I: Black Feminists Doing Intersectionality Work
Section II: Black Feminist Policy Analysis
Section III: Diasporic Black Women and the Global Political Arena
Section IV: Discourses, Movements, and Representation

Jordan-Zachery and Alexander-Floyd describe these sections as “content areas” that deal with “various cases and a wide range of methods to analyze how Black women, nationally and globally, are working or ‘tilling’ in service of themselves’” (xxxiii). For example, cases include Jamaica’s first woman president in Section III (“Diaporic Black Women”) and US public policy regarding HIV/AIDS orphans of color in Section II (“Policy Analysis”). Methods vary from interviews to discourse analysis, examining measurable data as well as detailing the broader contexts not just in the US but in the UK, the Caribbean, and Central America. In the opening section, for example, Jordan-Zachery and Alexander-Floyd explore a topic (“Black Feminists Doing Intersectional Work”) by quantifying the lack of published scholarship and sharing their own experiences.

Themes, on the other hand, weave through sections and chapters: “Moving from Silence to Voice,” “Invisibility and Unmasking Power Structures,” “Black Women’s Self-Actualization and Black Masculinist Politics,” and “Space Making and Self-Actualization” (see Table 2). For example, the “Voice” theme describes Middlemass’s chapter on post-incarceration Black women. As the second article of the second section, its overall theme concerns “locating and giving voice to diverse Black women,” say Jordan-Zachery and Alexander-Floyd, while its overall topic, content, and section “explore[s] policy boundaries and how Black women respond to such” (45). Black women are often silenced, individually and by group, overtly and covertly; this erasure affects how Black women deal with public policies, cultural stereotypes, and so forth. In terms of both section/topic and theme, therefore, Middlemass introduces readers to women like “Eve and Janaye … who poignantly articulate how policies consistently fail them and other previously incarcerated Black women” (xxv). Their powerful stories, which Middlemass delves into via phenomenological methods well suited to interviews, surface the failure of the policies and practices that these women encounter at the intersection(s) of being Black, female, and a felon navigating post-incarceration, everyday life.

Table 2: Critical themes in Black Women in Politics
Moving from Silence to Voice
Invisibility and Unmasking Power Structures
Black Women’s Self-Actualization and Black Masculinist Politics
Space Making and Self-Actualization

Content: A Chapter Sampling

The Middlemass chapter represents one entry into the book, but I was first drawn to Grace E. Howard’s Section IV chapter on former first lady Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity campaign. The section includes Ryan’s analysis of author Toni Morrison’s oeuvre and Tonya M. Williams’s examination of activism and reproductive justice in three Southern states. Morrison, in her chapter, covers all major themes presented in the book. She undertakes a discourse analysis of Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign by exploring the intersection of Black stereotypes, media representations, masculinized political arenas, and the (quite white) cultural constraints of being a first lady. For example, Howard examines gendered, racialized characterizations of Michelle Obama in mainstream media; the characterizations stem from long-standing tropes about Black women as “the obese Mammy … [or] the sexually voracious Jezebel … [or] the Welfare Queen” (224). Howard argues that Michelle Obama “deracializes” or distances herself from such tropes, thus establishing her own space (self-actualization) but in many ways reifying white, elitist, masculine hierarchies. Howard’s work, as all the chapters do, demonstrates depth and complexity.

Another rich work comes in the “Diasporic” section from Thame, who looks into the political rise and fall of Jamaica’s first female president, Portia Simpson-Miller. Thame documents how Simpson-Miller, aka “Mama P,” rose through the ranks of a very masculinized political system in which she made space for herself as both nurturing mother and disciplinarian, ultimately failing to “shift the context of gender power” (155). While similar to the triple bind faced by Black US women running for public office, Simpson-Miller’s case is particular to Jamaican culture and socioeconomics — a point that reinforces the editors’ assertion that Black women’s actions and experiences are not monolithic.

The book hits its most powerful stride with chapters on public policy. I group four chapters in this vein, which Jordan-Zachery calls “intersectionality-based policy analysis” or IBPA: Jenny Douglas’s examination of Black women’s health policies in the UK, Jordan-Zachery’s own research on HIV/AIDS orphans in the US, Middlemass’s “Hiding in Plain Sight,” and Tanya Williams’s work on Black Women’s reproductive-justice activism. Three of these works are situated in the analysis-oriented Section III, while Williams’s work is in the final section (“Discourses, Movements, and Representation”).

Douglas, whose background encompasses women’s studies, virology, and sociological research, focuses on how Black Caribbean-born women in the UK are marginalized by racialized and gendered discrimination in the workplace, their communities, and the country’s healthcare system. For instance, both male and female Black Caribbeans are at high risk of hypertension, but males are more likely to receive treatment in the UK, while the women are not even included in studies that might inform a workable approach to their health concerns. A key strength to Douglas’s work is that she provides valuable background on Black Caribbean culture in the UK, historic migration patterns, the UK health system, and much more. In short, she demonstrates the interconnectedness and multiple dimensions of the topic.

Jordan-Zachery explores a similarly complex field in her solo “Lost Tribes” chapter, using intersectionality to critique policy and practice gaps. In particular, she points out that the US pays more attention to HIV/AIDS orphans in other countries than it does at home, and that non-positive Black children, found at the intersection of already marginalized, stigmatized, often poor Black women, are particularly invisibile in the system.

Williams’s chapter, on the other hand, takes an alternative approach to IBPA: She looks at the issue from the perspective of activists and nonprofits that “always resist” — Black women and Black women-led groups fighting for reproductive justice in the context of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (i.e., “Obamacare”). Williams draws on interviews with activists in Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas but also provides an in-depth look at the ACA’s application in three Southern states. This approach allows Williams to dissect the mainstream, single-axis approach to health policies and practices that are overly focused on Black women’s limited access to health services while ignoring the entangled issues of poverty, environmental issues, and health literacy.

In another example of giving voice by way of interviews, Hall did extensive fieldwork in Honduras for her research about the Garifuna women who turn communal bread making into political action. An overarching theme of her findings is “Space Making,” set in the “Diasporic Black Women” section. The Garifuna women — whose people were dubbed “Black Carib” by British occupiers, classified as “Negro” by the state, yet recognized by the World Council of Indigenous People — practice “nontraditional political resistance” (118). That is, without engaging directly with the Honduran state, they make, sell, and market their ereba (cassava) bread. This communal practice enables them to push back against land-grabs of their ancestral homes, against masculine-feminine delineations within their own culture but also in government, and against a socioeconomic, political system that favors mestiza women at the expense of indigenous and/or Black women. Making bread also very much supports the transmission and preservation of their culture.

Another aspect of cultural transmission comes in Ryan’s chapter on author Toni Morrison’s work as political engagement. Ryan first situates Morrison’s body of work in the broader context. For example, she says that Morrison, like Ralph Ellison, demonstrates a “literary preoccupation with US democracy” (196) but, on the other hand, represents a cast of Black women connected in some way with the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s (Audre Lorde and Alice Walker, for example). In particular, Morrison demonstrates a commitment to presenting characters “who would otherwise … be considered marginal” (198). In A Mercy, for example, Morrison’s portrayal of a Black woman character writing during the early colonial period in the US helps explore aspects of slavery, class, and trauma that we (Americans) tend to forget or whitewash.

Writers far less known are the subject of Blain’s chapter on the Black nationalist women who wrote for New Negro World from 1940-1944. These women supported “universal Black liberation” (165) but labored in a field dominated by men. Furthermore, where current scholarship tends to focus on the many mainstream Black-owned and Black-run publications of the day, Blain focuses attention on Black nationalist women who “articulated a vision of Black emancipation and endorsed Pan-Africanism.” That is, they aligned with John Garvey’s controversial version of “Black pride, African redemption, economic self-sufficiency, racial separatism, and political self determinism” (168, 170). Blain, in short, recovers a little-known history of Black women carving out a space for themselves in a masculinized movement.


Earlier in this review, I mentioned disappointment that no rhetoricians or compositionists were featured in Black Women in Politics. However, I took a cue from Alexander-Floyd’s quantification of political science research and scanned the past year’s issues of Rhetoric Society Quarterly: I found only one article title including the words “Black woman,” three that mention “women” or “woman,” and only one that includes the word “racist.” A more detailed review would likely show that scholarship about or by Black women in rhetoric is just as scarce as their scholarship in political science. As Jordan-Zachery and Alexander-Floyd argue, there’s work to be done. Rhetoricians, compositionists, graduate students, advanced undergraduates, and other researchers should be inspired by Black Women in Politics to till new fields or help expand the garrett. Like me, such readers and scholars will find Black Women in Politics very helpful for understanding the power and potential of intersectionality in the 21st century.

Review of Feminist Connections: Rhetoric and Activism Across Time, Space, and Place

Fredlund, Katherine, Kerri Hauman, and Jessica Ouellette. Feminist Connections: Rhetoric and Activism Across Time, Space, and Place. University of Alabama Press, 2020. 290 page.

In feminist rhetorical studies, there is a long history of interest in both historical rhetoric and digital rhetoric. However, as Katherine Fredlund, Kerri Hauman, and Jessica Ouellette demonstrate in their edited collection Feminist Connections: Rhetoric and Activism Across Time, Space, and Place, these two subfields have had limited overlap in recent years. The editors introduce a new methodology, Rhetorical Transversal Methodology, to provide a mechanism for identifying and investigating the shared rhetorical practices that emerge across historical and digital work. The collection, which features essays that span a wide range of eras, locations, media, and contexts, invites us to find compelling parallels between current feminist activism and antecedent feminist rhetorical work. This collection is an invaluable contribution to the field of feminist rhetorical studies (FRS), and builds successfully on previous works, such as Royster and Kirsch’s Feminist Rhetorical Practices.

Feminist Connections is made up of thirteen essays that explore feminist rhetorics from a wide range of locations, time periods, and modes. Tarez Samra Graban, in the foreword “Writing Against Reactionary Logics,” frames Feminist Connections, noting that the contributors’ cross-historical approach allows us to reframe our understandings of both feminist and digital rhetorics; Graban writes that, through this collection, “readers can gain insight into how historical conversations about the feminist and the digital came to be subsumed under nonfield paradigms” (xv). Graban also introduces the importance of including interstitiality in feminist research, explaining that interstitiality provides a frame to “recognize what occurs between organizations, their archives, their practices, and their beliefs that cause some figures to come perpetually under erasure due to systemic ways of looking” (xii). Like Royster and Williams, Feminist Connections pushes us to consider and attend to the “spaces left” in both the historical record and our contemporary work.

In their introduction, “Exposing Feminist Connections,” the editors present the collection’s central intervention, Rhetorical Transversal Methodology (RTM), and explain how this methodology provides a way to draw connections between digital and historical feminist work in rhetoric and composition. Using RTM, researchers can find pathways and common ground between rhetors that might not share time, space, or place. This methodology emerged out of the editors’ realizations that despite the disconnections between these two subfields, “the same rhetorical practices” have been discussed in both of these subfields (3). RTM works to illuminate the rhetorical strategies and practices that connect digital and historical work, with the goal of “allowing researchers to uncover rhetorical practices that are used repeatedly by specific groups with specific goals (across time, space, social identity markers, technology, etc.)” (4). This methodology aims to decenter “linear conceptions of time, fixed ideas about space, and a privileging of content and media,” and has uses both in and outside of feminist rhetorical studies (5-6). Each chapter in Feminist Connections takes up this methodology, finding shared threads through time and space. In the nonlinear spirit of RTM, Fredlund, Hauman, and Ouellette have chosen to organize the collection according to “three feminist rhetorical frameworks: revisionary rhetorics, circulatory rhetorics, and response rhetorics,” rather than by time period, or “by rhetor or purpose” (12-13). This organization of the collection clearly expresses the editors’ intervention, and the essays that make up Feminist Connections work together to demonstrate the efficacy of finding parallels across feminist rhetorical strategies throughout history.

Revisionary Rhetorics

Kerri Hauman introduces the first section, “Revisionary Rhetorics,” writing that this group of essays “acknowledges and builds on the fact that revision is something FRS scholars have been doing for decades in order to expand the definitional and location scopes of rhetorical action” (17). The four essays in this section attend to complexities of temporality; Hauman writes that these chapters “provide FRS scholars with additional models of revisioning intended to build on and reckon with past feminist rhetorical action as well as cautionary tales intended to benefit future feminist rhetorical actions” (21). The section begins with Jill Swiencicki, Maria Brandt, Barbara LeSavoy, and Deborah Uman’s “Seneca Falls, Strategic Mythmaking, and a Feminist Politics of Relation,” which interrogates the importance of Seneca Falls as a feminist “origin myth” through a description of the Seneca Falls Dialogues, a two-day event that aims to make “feminist connections…that account for and acknowledge past injustices and engage in activities that create different, more just relations” (23, 25). The authors examine their practice of “strategic mythmaking” that both acknowledges the symbolic power of Seneca Falls and simultaneously “transforms the epistemic privilege of that place, valuing the interstitial spaces that contemporary, intersectional feminist connections require” (36). Next, Tara Propper’s “Epideictic Rhetoric and Emergent Media: From CAM to BLM,” examines both the activism of the Say Her Name movement as part of “a much longer history of black women’s use of emergent media and public memorialization as a means of interrogating and participating in in the public spaces, resources, or spheres of representation that were historically denied to black citizens,” including Pauline Hopkins’s Famous Women of the Negro Race column, which appeared in the turn-of-the-century periodical Colored American Magazine (41). More specifically, Propper highlights the epideictic nature of both of these forms of public memorialization, and argues that “feminist media activists then and now have been able to navigate such hurdles by appropriating technologies of literacy, including mass media and social media outlets, to recuperate a history of black stories, experiences, and activism, allowing readers to see themselves as part of a larger public sphere of actors” (57). In “Recruitment Tropes: Historicizing the Spaces and Bodies of Women Technical Workers,” Risa Applegarth, Sarah Hallenbeck, and Chelsea Redeker Milbourne analyze recruitment rhetoric that encouraged women to take up jobs as telegraphers, stenographers, and coders at various points in history and argue that “recruitment discourse…contributes to gendered divisions within emerging proessional fields” (60). The authors use RTM to highlight patterns in recruitment discourse through time and caution that “we must be wary of how recruitment tropes sometimes draw loosely from feminist discourses of empowerment but produce long-term effects that are disempowering” (71). The section concludes with Kellie Jean Sharp’s essay “Take Once Daily: Queer Theory, Biopolitics, and the Rhetoric of Personal Responsibility,” which studies how the birth control pill “has mediated current understandings of gender of sexuality” to better understand how medications such as the HIV preventative Truvada may “influence bodies, identities, and sexualities now and in the future” (76). Sharp argues that while these medications have had positive effects for many individuals, the author’s analysis is also “a caution against relying on one resource or tactic in the fight for sexual liberation” (86). Collectively, these essays explore ways scholars in FRS can expand our understanding of revisionary histories and rhetorics, in order to better connect historical and digital work.

Circulatory Rhetorics

Section two, “Circulatory Rhetorics,” features another four essays that employ a framework of circulatory rhetorics that Ouellette describes as a framework that “speaks to the evolving nature of rhetorical encounters and interactions” and “investigate[s] those interactions and intentions through analyses of the rhetorical practices and strategies employed by and between feminists of different spaces, places, and eras” (90). Essays in this section engage with the participatory nature of digital media, while also “reflecting on, remediating, and revisiting feminist strategies of the past” (90). First, Kristin Winet’s chapter, “She’s Everywhere, All the Time: How the #Dispatch Interviews Created a Sisterhood of Feminist Travelers” argues that in addition to viewing interviews as a method, feminist rhetorical studies should consider “the interview as genre…that can foster a space for coalition building” (96). Using both historical and contemporary digital travel media interview series as a lens through which to view interviews as a feminist practice, Winet concludes that “the interview series is a tale of circulation, of solidarity, and of community building” and that “we must critically examine the ways in which our everyday communities use interview series to ideologically shape, constrain, and ignite social relations in digital spaces” (105). Building on Winet’s description of feminist rhetorical practices in digital spaces, Kristin E. Kondrlik’s essay “From Victorian Noves to #LikeALadyDoc: Women Physicians Strengthening Professional Ethos in the Public Sphere” draws parallels nineteenth-century writing about female physicians’ ethos and the 2016 #LikeALadyDoc conversation on Twitter. Through analysis of both popular fiction and digital media, Winet demonstrates that “both nineteenth-century and contemporary women physicians engaged popular media to circulate re-articulations of what it means to be a physician and a woman in a time of shifting gender norms” (123). In “Feminist Rhetoric Strategies and Networked Activist Movements: #SayHerName as Circulatory Activist Discourse,” Liz Lane explores the Say Her Name movement’s blending of social media discourse with “traditional black rhetorical strategies such as the African tradition of nommo (a performative naming tactic), the discursive practice of call-and-response (a circulatory tool), and the Greek storytelling practice muthos (a narrative mechanism)” (127). In combining these rhetorical strategies in a digital space, Lane argues that “networked hashtags create kairotic, decentralized social movements that circulate feminist identities” (139). To round out the section, Lisa Blankenship’s “From US Progressive Era Speeches to Transnational Social Media Activism: Rhetorical Empathy in Jane Addams’s Labor Rhetoric and Joyce Fernandes’s #EuEmpregadaDoméstica (I, Housemaid)” works to connect two women dedicated to labor rights, turn-of-the-century American reformer Jane Addams and contemporary Brazilian labor and women’s rights activist Joyce Fernandes, and “explores how rhetorical empathy functions in the labor rights rhetoric of these two complex, compelling women, one hundred years00and in terms of digital technology—light years removed from one another” (146). Using both Addams’s Columbian Exposition speech and the stories Fernandes has shared on social media from domestic workers, Blankenship shows that while “both Fernandes and Addams compel their audiences to view domestic workers as individuals with lives and histories of their own,” juxtaposing these two figures reveals “a significant shift within intersectional, transnational women’s rhetorical practices” (156-157). The essays in this section of Feminist Connections highlight the ecological nature of feminist rhetoric—the complex networks inherent to all communication and rhetorical engagement.

Response Rhetorics

The collection’s third section, “Response Rhetorics,” contains the final five essays, which expand our understanding of response. Fredlund writes that “the chapters in this section use RTM to consider how those without power use rhetoric to respond to those with power—recognizing that our theories of rhetoric all too often fail to consider how hostile or unreceptive audiences impact rhetorical choices and effects” (161). The section starts with Skye Roberson’s chapter “‘Anonymous Was A Woman:’ Anonymous Authorships as Rhetorical Strategy,” which connects women’s anonymous writing in Victorian-era periodicals and on Reddit. Roberson asserts that this chapter “demonstrates how women resist the traditional boundaries of authorship by subverting our ideas about authorial identities, agency, and silence” (169). In “Tracing the Conversation: Legitimizing Mormon Feminism,” Tiffany Kinney examines similar rhetorical strategies employed by Mormon feminists in both the 1970s and 2010s to “forge connections among women and establish Mormon women’s legitimacy” (182). Kinney asserts that these women’s rhetorical invention processes and delivery strategies work to create legitimacy both for “long-term change” and to “forge pathways to immediate incremental changes” (194). Next, Clancy Ratliff examines commonplaces in the images of the suffragist movement and in early feminist blogging in “The Suffragist Movement and the Early Feminist Blogosphere: Feminism and Recent History of Rhetoric.” Ratliff argues that RTM should be applied to “work in the recent history of rhetoric,” and that “we can also study online discourse as feminist histories of rhetoric, not only as digital media artifacts or pedagogical strategies” (197). In “Mikki Kendall, Ida B. Wells, and #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen: Women of Color Calling Out White Feminism in the Nineteenth Century and the Digital Age,” Paige V. Banaji highlights Mikki Kendall’s creation of the #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen hashtag and Ida B. Wells’s critique of Frances Willard’s lack of support for the antilynching movement, demonstrating that “in these two stories, two women of color, separated by over a century, engage in the feminist response rhetoric of calling out” (215). Banaji argues that “calling out and listening are necessary rhetorics of response to white feminism” and that these strategies are also important for the “health” and “growth” of feminism overall (224-226). Bethany Mannon’s “The Persuasive Power of Individual Stories: The Rhetoric in Narrative Archives” examines three collections of personal narratives—letters that appeared in Ms. magazine, Moraga and Anzaldúa’s This Bridge Called My Back, and the digital storytelling project My Duty to Speak—to explore how personal narratives “connect generations of feminist activism” (232). Mannon writes that “personal narratives have been a productive way to bring dissension and conflict to the activist table” and that these narratives “respond to existing power structures” (242). Taken together, the five essays in this section show the wide range of strategies employed by feminist rhetors to respond to challenging audiences or exigencies.

Conclusion: Looking Across Time, Space, and Place

To conclude the collection, Kristine L. Blair’s afterword, “(Techno)Feminist Rhetorical Action: Coming Full Circle,” reflects on the collection, noting that Feminist Connections works to “triangulate three diverse modes of inquiry, the historical, the feminist, and the technological, simultaneously deploying concepts of interstitiality and intersectionality to avoid essentializing both women and feminists as universal groups” (246). Blair also highlights how successfully this collection allows the past and present to “speak to each other…grounded in an emphasis on revisionist, circulatory, and responsive rhetorics that call readers to action” (250). This interconnectedness sets Feminist Connections apart and demonstrates the value of RTM to scholars in FRS and other disciplines. In my own work, I anticipate using RTM to connect my interests in both digital rhetoric and in archival research. As a graduate student, I have “tried on” both of these subfields as I begin to narrow my research interests and identify long-term projects. For example, though my interest and research regarding ethics and representation has primarily been focused on archives up until now, these same concerns are replicated in the rhetoric of social media and digital media. While these threads have previously felt disparate, Feminist Connections and Fredlund, Hauman, and Ouellette’s methodological intervention provides a way to take these projects on together and find pathways between historical and digital rhetorics.

Other readers of Feminist Connections might take up this new methodology and incorporate it into new and emerging research projects, as RTM provides an opportunity to frame projects in both historical and digital rhetorical research, especially those related to activism and social movements. Moreover, readers can enact RTM in ongoing research projects; the methodology might uncover novel ways of approaching an existing research site or present a fresh approach to research questions. This collection will be valuable to scholars in FRS and beyond—perhaps even in fields such as women’s studies or history. In addition, Feminist Connections would fit well in any number of graduate-level classes, especially those focused in the history of rhetoric, feminist rhetoric, or research methods.

Feminist Connections is a timely collection of important work in feminist rhetorical studies. The editors’ new methodology, Rhetorical Transversal Methodology, provides an excellent framework for rhetorical research both in FRS and in the wider field of rhetoric and composition. Rather than remaining tied to chronologically- or geographically-bound strategies of organization, Fredlund, Hauman, and Ouellette’s RTM offers a new way to approach research in rhetoric and composition, and allows us to locate “transversals” between historical and contemporary rhetors. RTM makes room for broadening our research beyond traditional boundaries of time, space, and place.

Works Cited

  • Royster, Jacqueline Jones, and Gesa Kirsch. Feminist Rhetorical Practices: New Horizons for Rhetoric, Composition, and Literacy Studies. Southern Illinois University Press, 2012. -return to text
  • Royster, Jacqueline Jones, and Jean C. Williams. “History in the Spaces Left: African American Presence and Narratives of Composition Studies.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 50, no. 4, 1999, pp. 563–584. JSTOR, -return to text

Review of The Borders of AIDS: Race, Quarantine, and Resistance

Chavez, Karma R. The Borders of AIDS: Race, Quarantine, and Resistance. University of Washington Press, 2021. 246pp.

Cover art of book being reviewed

As I sat down to record my reflections on Karma Chávez’s new book, The Borders of AIDS: Race, Quarantine, and Resistance, news broke that the Biden administration had directed the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement (HSS) to hold unaccompanied migrant children at the detention camp in Carrizo Springs, Texas. Originally built to shelter oil field workers, the Carrizo Springs facility will now serve as a COVID-19 quarantine station for more than 700 unchaperoned teenagers, many of whom are fleeing conflict and climate catastrophe in Central America (Foster-Frau). The proposed ten-day quarantine period has been met with opprobrium by migrants’ rights advocates, immigration lawyers, and human rights activists who argue the policy breaks US law, which states that minors can only be held at the border for 72 hours before being transported to another facility or reunited with family (Amnesty International). While government officials maintain that this coerced, unlawful quarantine is a temporary pandemic containment measure, rumors abound that the HHS is looking to reopen another notorious child detention camp, this time in Homestead, Florida, which was unceremoniously shuttered in 2019 due to unsanitary living conditions, rampant abuse allegations, and corruption (Foster-Frau).

Borders. Containment. Disease. Quarantine. These are the recurrent themes in news reports of the country’s shameful treatment of migrants. They are also all central foci of Chávez’s immediately urgent and immensely creative monograph. Continuing her career-defining interest in the rhetorical dynamics and transformative political potential of transnational, queer coalition building, The Borders of AIDS is a rhetorical history of the HIV/AIDS epidemic that centers the experiences of groups typically obscured by mainstream and queer histories of the AIDS crisis: migrants, Black sex workers, and HIV-positive Haitians. Spanning the first 12 years of the crisis in the United States (roughly 1981 – 1993), Chávez contributes important additions to the AIDS archive by shifting focus from the work accomplished by mostly white, mostly middle class, cosmopolitan AIDS activist groups like AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or ACT UP. Instead, Chávez draws from queer of color, migrant, and feminist traditions to recover an alternative history of AIDS, one that is attuned to how the epidemic affected (and continues to affect) those on the borders of civic and national belonging.

Despite being written largely before the beginning of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, The Borders of AIDS provides a prescient conceptual framework for understanding how the real or imagined threat of contagious disease inheres diffuse (trans)national struggles over the nature of belonging, citizenship, and the stability of the nation state’s ideological and material boundaries. Wisely, when Chávez does reflect on the COVID-19 pandemic in her book’s prologue, she avoids and, indeed, even urges against the impulse to make easy, reductive comparisons between the AIDS crisis and our immediate moment. “There are some important ways that AIDS can help us understand COVID-19 that do not require analogies,” she maintains, favoring a more measured, contemplative approach that looks for ways that the AIDS epidemic helps us “understand the deep logic of white supremacist, anti-Black, settler colonial nation-states like the United States” (vii). And, in fact, as her book demonstrates so well, when we refrain from engaging in over-motivated comparison, we are able to notice how contagion simultaneously powers and articulates the dynamic, exclusionary violence undergirding the hegemonic machinations of democratic citizenship itself.

Chávez convincingly argues that the segregating, exclusionary, and necropolitical forces that emerged during the early AIDS epidemic were manifestations of a larger organizing principle, which she names “alienizing logic.” For Chávez, an alienizing logic “refers to a structure of thinking that insists that some are necessarily members of a community and some are recognized as not belonging even if they physically reside there” (5). Readers will likely find ample areas of overlap between Chávez’s notion of alienizing logic and existing radical democratic critiques of liberal democracy. However, whereas that scholarship often limits itself to the properly political realm, Chávez’s alienizing logic is more dexterous and portable. Alienizing logic contours both the political and the quotidian. In fact, the utility of her term comes precisely from its mobility, or, to use her phrasing, its “blurriness” (5). Alienizing logics don’t fortify firm, concrete, unchanging borders between those enveloped within the ambit of legally legitimized citizenship and those positioned outside of it. Instead, alienizing logics structure flexible exclusions that are concerned more with one’s imagined fit within the white supremacist, anti-Black, heterosexual, cis nation state. Alienizing logic can be attached to any minoritized and queer(ed) subject, though this attachment manifests and is experienced differently. Throughout her book, Chávez takes pains to distinguish between those who are alienized as the result of non-conferred legal status and those who, despite possessing legal legitimacy, are nonetheless rendered “alienized citizens” (9). Theorizing and tracing the implications of alienizing logic are Chávez’s most important additions to feminist and cultural rhetoric’s critical repertoire. A sensitivity to the scalar operations of alienizing logic compels a cultivated sensitivity to how the shifting privileges conferred by the nation state both reinforce and destabilize traditional societal divisions. Indeed, it is in the space between reinforcement and destabilization that unexpected coalitions can be forged as groups work toward greater solidarity with those positioned across diverse continua of oppression.

The Borders of AIDS charts the various ways that immigration and citizenship status come to “matter as additional sites of power and oppression that impact people’s experiences with HIV/AIDS and the ways that HIV/AIDS becomes an opportunity to enact alienizing logic” (p. 11). The book develops over the course of five chapters, which are broken into two sections. The first section, “Alienizing Logic and Structure” outlines how official and mainstream discourses coalesced to render both the quarantining and banning of people living with HIV/AIDS as a natural, commonsense response to the problem of AIDS. Section two, “Resisting Alienizing Logics,” tells the story of the surprising and sometimes turbulent coalitions built by queer and otherwise marginalized activists as they struggled against alienizing HIV/AIDS quarantine policies. Together, these two sections weave poignant, richly contextualized case studies to recover a necessary history of how America’s pernicious, exclusionary citizenship practices get activated in moments of biomedical crisis.

Chávez uses the first chapter to establish her book’s historical and conceptual foundations, presenting readers with an expansive rhetorical history of quarantinism in the United States. Rather than accounting for the epidemiological legitimacy of quarantine as a disease mitigation strategy, Chávez is more concerned with unpacking the term’s “symbolic baggage.” “Quarantine,” Chávez argues, “raises specters of plagues, leper colonies, yellow warning flags nailed to the doors of the infected, and deadly epidemics” (23). Putting into conversation more than two hundred years of official and popular texts about the mitigation of infectious disease, Chávez demonstrates that the impulse to quarantine runs parallel to more defuse geopolitical anxieties about the promiscuous (trans)national movement of people, practices, goods, and intimacies. As Chávez points out, the alienizing impulse of quarantine is inherent in its definition. Unlike its close associate, isolation, which denotes the cornering off of people actively displaying signs of sickness, quarantine technically refers to the preemptive segregation of those who might have been exposed to a contagious disease (21). While seemingly slight, this semantic difference has important implications for the book’s critical orientation: calls for quarantine operate along familiar lines of social exclusion, where a group’s proximity to pathologized social conditions such as Blackness, poverty, foreignness, and sexual difference, functions diagnostically to warrant coerced confinement or, worse, expulsion from the nation state itself. Chávez suggests that the widespread use of the word quarantine to describe both the isolation of the sick and the containment of the possibly ill attests to the persistent strength of alienizing logics as well as contagion’s capacity to subject differently marginalized groups to continued biopolitical discipline and surveillance under the auspices of public health (22).

Chapter two, “AIDS and the Rhetoric of Quarantine,” queries how it was that the quarantining of those newly diagnosed with AIDS became a popular, though never truly realized, AIDS mitigation strategy, despite early scientific agreement that AIDS was not transmitted through casual contact. Chávez argues that the force of AIDS quarantine rhetorics resulted not as much from a desire to prevent the spread of AIDS but rather from the impulse to discipline recalcitrant socio-sexual behavior. That the criminalization of AIDS resulted from sex negativity has long been a staple of gay and queer accounts of the AIDS crisis. Chávez veers from these familiar critiques, however, by studying how powerful political actors used the epidemic to exaggerate the threat posed by Black HIV-positive sex workers. As a mode of disciplinary visibility, quarantine relies on perpetual surveillance and monitoring. The felt intensity of quarantine is amplified when it targets those already deemed deviant. Chávez explains that “Black women’s lives are frequently subject to surveillance, scrutiny, and confinement” (53). The possibility of an AIDS quarantine, therefore, puts the vulnerable, already over-surveilled Black sex worker at risk in two ways: first, it would shine light on labor practices that rely on opacity; second, and relatedly, it would further isolate Black sex workers from larger AIDS activist networks, making coalition building difficult. Through deftly handled, pathos laden accounts, Chávez challenges her readers to notice how quarantine rhetorics perpetuate Black social death. Crucially, however, she does this without rendering HIV-positive Black sex workers inert and non-agentive (49). By centering the complexity, vibrancy, and humanity of HIV-positive Black sex workers, Chávez constructs a work of recovery in the truest sense, providing rhetorical scholars with a clarifying rubric for how to work against the pervasive anti-Blackness found within domestic alienizing logics.

While the alienzing logic surrounding HIV/AIDS was not strong enough to warrant the quarantining of people diagnosed with HIV/AIDS as a domestic public health policy, it did shape immigration law. In chapter three, “National Common Sense and the Ban of HIV-Positive Migrants,” Chávez again demonstrates the malleability of alienizing logic, this time as it structured the debates surrounding the eventual codification of a blanket exclusion of HIV-positive migrants from pursuing legal recognition or entering the United States. Despite widespread disagreement about whether or not a ban would sufficiently lower staggering national HIV/AIDS rates, Chávez shows how seemingly incommensurate positions were bridged with appeals to what she terms “national common sense.” Chávez’s national common sense announces an inherently nativist impulse within the social imaginary that “encourages judgements that ‘everyone’ knows are good for the nation,” namely “the protection of national borders and the protection of the proper citizenry” (76, emphasis in original). Of course, this “everyone” indexes only those who are granted legitimate recognition within the nation state. Chávez demonstrates that bipartisan appeals to a national common sense alibied the canard that AIDS was a foreign disease that penetrated the membranes of the national body and thus “reinforced deeply conservative views about the importance of national borders and the limits of belonging to a national community” (76).

In chapter four, “Boycotts and Protests of the International AIDS Conference,” Chávez pivots from explicating the various ways that alienazing logic structured the US’s domestic and foreign policy, drawing attention instead to the unexpected, transnational coalitions that formed in resistance to the decision to host the 1990 and 1992 International AIDS Conference (IAC) in the United States. Both international AIDS activists and leading AIDS researchers threatened to boycott the IAC in protest of the US’s ban on HIV-positive migrants. Chávez persuasively argues that these collective efforts attest to the rhetorical value of boycotts as an agitational protest tactic that uses “moral and political pressure,” not just economic incentives, to affect change (108). Beyond recuperating the boycott as a legitimate strategy for forging coalitions across difference, the chapter also productively intervenes in unnuanced mainstream histories that pit AIDS activists against members of the medical establishment. Chavez’s reading of the IAC boycotts shows how activists ushered both IAC’s organizers and AIDS experts into a rhetorical protest space, one that used “the threat of possible death through withdrawal of participation” to send a “powerful message” to politicians about the urgent need to overturn the immigration ban (129).

Chapter five, “AIDS Activist Media and the ‘Haitian Connection,’” continues Chavez’s investigation of transnational coalition building by studying how queer alternative media (re)presented the plight of HIV-positive Haitians. The chapter works toward two ends – one historical, the other conceptual. First, Chávez makes a much-needed contribution to the early AIDS archive by recovering the implications of the so-called “Haitian Connection,” which is a euphemism for the popular, acutely racist idea that AIDS somehow originated in Haiti. By reading together initial media reports on AIDS in Haiti and the eventual indefinite quarantining of HIV-positive Haitian refugee seekers at Guantánamo Bay, Chávez shows that Haitians were targets for both constitutive elements of alienizing logic: quarantine and ban (133). Second, the chapter functions as a case study in alternative media’s capacity to fashion transnational solidarity among differently marginalized groups (134). Without diminishing the tremendous consequences of queer media’s pervasive whiteness, Chávez considers how queer outlets like the New York Native and ACT UP’s DIVA TV challenged the alienization of HIV-positive migrants. She argues that queer media reflected the geopolitical and cultural complexity of AIDS in Haiti in a way that was absent from scant mainstream coverage. More specifically, Chávez zeros in on the ways that members of the queer media sought to build solidarity with HIV-Positive Haitians by articulating the racist, contradictory as well as militarized and criminalized treatment of Haitians (150). Chávez thus makes a compelling case for the historical importance of alternative media, especially as it makes visible the conditions of subalternity that are obscured in the official, public memory of the AIDS crisis (156).

The potency of Chávez’s alienizing logic is in full display in her book’s conclusion, “Against the Alienizing Nation.” If the preceding chapters evidence the term’s heuristic value by showing readers how the threat of contagious disease affected the multiply marginalized, then this final chapter pushes us to imagine ways of organizing against alienization. An exemplar of critical rhetorical analysis that could be taught on its own, the chapter probes the expansiveness of alienizing logic, showing that “alienizing potential” is at the heart of the United States’ political imaginary, where the only “inalienable right” bestowed to the nation’s chosen sons is the “right to alienize” (164).

Chávez writes that one of her hopes was that “by thinking through alienizing processes, we will begin to grasp the ‘alien’ as a coalitional position that incorporates seemingly disparate groups within its purview” (159). The “alien” refuses tidy distinctions between self and other, inside and outside, citizen and foreigner. The “alien” reveals the material and ideological violence perpetrated by white supremacist, cisheteropatriarchal nationalism while holding itself accountable to the unequal distribution of that violence. It shows us that emerging out of the dire consequences of alienizing logic are the mutually inflected forces of agitational resistance and coalitional networks of (trans)national care. Ultimately, while I agree that the HIV/AIDS epidemic and the COVID-19 pandemic are not analogous, when viewed from the coalitional stance of the “alien,” they both have the potential to remind us of something important: if contagious disease belies the impossibility of the nation state’s boundaries, then the networks of solidarity, aid, and fellow feeling that also grow out of biomedical crises are themselves boundless.

As a white gay man, I have grown accustomed to emplotting myself within a static AIDS narrative. This narrative begins in 1981 when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention first identified signs of advanced immune collapse in men who looked like me, acted like me, and had sex like me. It ends around 1996 with the introduction of highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART), the so-called AIDS cocktail. Along the way, these same men who looked, acted, and had sex like me protested, marched, lived, fucked, loved, and died by the tens of thousands to demand government action and public attention. While the indomitable influence of these efforts cannot be denied, this crude narrative itself circulates an alienizing logic that suggests AIDS and AIDS activism somehow belongs to white gay men. Recently, Jih-Fei Cheng, Alexandra Juhasz, and Nishant Shahani have urged for a pluralized understanding of the AIDS crisis, contending “[t]he Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) is not merely a crisis in epidemiological terms; rather it is an uneven and varying spatialization and temporalization of crises” (1, emphasis added). Through her development of alienizing logic, Chávez offers rhetorical critics a way to pluralize and track the turbulent distribution of not just the crises surrounding HIV/AIDS but also the crises that structure the conditions of life and struggle under contemporary liberal democratic regimes.

Works Cited

    • “Carrizo Springs Detention Facility Cannot Become Status Quo for Children.” Amnesty International USA, -return to text
    • Foster-Frau, Silvia. “First Migrant Facility for Children Opens under Biden.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 24 Feb. 2021, -return to text

Disturbing White Perfectionism in the Graduate Student Habitus

As we work together to restore hope to the future, we need to include a new and strange ally—our willingness to be disturbed. Our willingness to have our beliefs and ideas challenged by what others think. No one person or perspective can give us the answers we need to the problems of today. Paradoxically, we can only find those answers by admitting we don’t know. We have to be willing to let go of our certainty and expect ourselves to be confused for a time. (Margaret Wheatley 34)

It may be easy for antiracist feminist graduate students and faculty to agree with the opening epigraph, even to feel its truth deeply. Yet, for graduate students especially, in a university context whose primary function in society is to house and produce knowledge, “admitting we don’t know” and allowing ourselves to “be confused for a time” can be challenging to embody. Despite important feminist epistemological interventions that have challenged academic norms of objectivity, impartiality, and certainty (Wynter and McKittrick, Collins, Haraway) and despite the simple fact that being a scholar should imply a positive stance towards lifelong learning, contemporary academic cultural norms still demand the steady performance of mastery and certainty. Navigating one’s performance within this paradox can be especially difficult for the university’s newest professional initiates, the graduate students. In a recent study investigating impediments to success in the field of composition, Dana Lynn Driscoll, S. Rebecca Leigh, and Nadia Francine Zamin found that despite not asking interviewees about imposter syndrome directly, over 40% volunteered their (negative) experiences of it. To survive an intimidating environment, graduate students learn to hide away vulnerability and present a knowledgeable front while striving for perfection.

The problem that occupies this short essay is that perfectionism in the graduate classroom1 impedes graduate students’ ability to engage in the vulnerable, imperfect, often deeply uncomfortable self-work of antiracist personal transformation. There is a growing body of scholarship that seeks to make antiracist transformation in higher education not only theoretically acceptable, but actionable (see Condon and Young). This essay invites consideration of actionable transformation at the level of the graduate student habitus, an area that is undertheorized in the larger feminist project of institutional transformation for justice. I will briefly demonstrate the connection between perfectionism and White2 supremacy culture before considering what it might entail for the feminist faculty of rhetoric and composition to disentangle (White) perfectionism from its complicated place in the graduate student habitus.

White Supremacy Culture in the University Habitus

White supremacy culture has always been the dominant culture in the United States and thus has also dominated within United States institutions of higher education. Dismantling Racism Works defines “White supremacy” as “the idea (ideology) that White people and the ideas, thoughts, beliefs, and actions of White people are superior to People of Color and their ideas, thoughts, beliefs, and actions.” With White supremacy culture’s immanent presence in the United States, those residing in its spaces absorb its beliefs, suspicions, preferences, and “intuitions” inescapably and continuously with varying degrees of awareness. The university offers no escape. At the university, as Barbara Tomlinson writes in Undermining Intersectionality,racist premises and perceptions are always at work, operating “invisibly and institutionally through a series of taken-for-granted procedures and commonsense positions” (24). These “taken-for-granted procedures” and “commonsense positions” help to produce the habitus, a concept I draw from Pierre Bourdieu to reference the always-in-process interaction and interconnection of culture, normalized behaviors, habits, dispositions, ideology and even the socialization of emotions. I maintain that engaging in antiracist transformation is extremely difficult for individuals to do when White norms continue to dominate their community’s habitus. Thus, I argue, an important step in facilitating the conditions for antiracist transformation in the field of rhetoric and composition requires disentangling White norms like perfectionism from its habitus.

Practicing White Perfectionism in the Graduate Classroom

While critiques of perfectionism are likely familiar to feminist scholars, the re-vision for which this essay advocates entails understanding perfectionism as specifically White—a pillar of White supremacy culture—and recognizing how normalizing perfectionism obstructs antiracist transformation in the graduate student habitus.

As a graduate student myself, one especially influential site where I see (White) perfectionism cultivated in ways that forestall antiracist transformation is in the kind of criticism graduate students often learn to practice in the graduate classroom. I suggest that there is a connection between the normalization of what Karen Barad describes as a “destructive” rather than “deconstructive” practice of academic criticism and the perfectionistic lens through which graduate students learn to critique themselves and others. In New Materialism: Interviews & Cartographies, when asked “Why has critique run out of steam?,” Barad responds:

Critique is all too often not a deconstructive practice, that is, a practice of reading for the constitutive exclusions of those ideas we cannot do without, but a destructive practice meant to dismiss, to turn aside, to put someone or something down—another scholar, another feminist, a discipline, an approach, et cetera. (Dolphijn and van der Tuin 49)

While it is unlikely that graduate educators intentionally teach destructive practices of criticism, in the absence of explicit “deconstructivist” instruction, and perhaps also because of contemporary “cancel culture”3 outside the classroom, graduate students often resort to finding fault with assigned texts. In Tomlinson’s words, problematic practices of criticism contribute to the “unarticulated fears and social dangers” that “pervade academic culture,” as “graduate students learn to rely on reading practices that attack and disparage texts rather than analyze them” (11). Reading to find fault with the text is White perfectionism as practiced through reading.

Destructive criticism easily transfers to other perfectionistic habits of mind that perpetuate White supremacy culture in graduate student contexts. In “White Supremacy Culture,” an antiracist transformation guide for organizations, Tema Okun explains that in institutions where perfectionism dominates, “little appreciation [is] expressed among people for the work that others are doing.” What is “more common is to point out either how the person or work is inadequate.” Further, “mistakes are seen as personal…i.e. they reflect badly on the person making them as opposed to being seen for what they are – mistakes.” When graduate students apply this thinking to themselves and others, consciously and/or subconsciously, it obstructs collective sociality, preserves existing norms and hierarchies, and prevents students from being willing to make the inevitable mistakes required to unlearn internalized racism in community with each other. Damaging in part because they are “used as norms and standards without being pro-actively named” (Okun), naming White supremacy characteristics in the graduate classroom is an important first step towards challenging them. What would happen if faculty invited discussion of these perfectionistic practices and challenged their place in academic norms?

Left unnamed, destructive criticism enables and feeds off “white fragility.” Robin DiAngelo defines white fragility as a “state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves” (103). The perfectionistic classroom practices described above—being hyper critical of one’s self and others, looking for fault, confusing “making a mistake” with “being a mistake,” and the threat of being defined by one’s ignorance—breed, I argue, precisely this fragility. Fragility then shows up in the room as defensiveness and as emotional intolerance for “being wrong,” which prevents the norms themselves from being challenged. Though it may not be visible to faculty, graduate students are often tense in the classroom, hypervigilant of how they suspect others are judging their and everyone else’s contributions. Unfortunately for antiracist transformation, hypervigilance and the willingness to be disturbed are mutually exclusive mentalities. One cannot approach the deeply uncomfortable work of introspecting on one’s White supremacist socialization from the perfectionist, competitive, fragile, and fearful disposition that graduate culture often engenders.

Proposing An Anti-Perfectionism Intervention

To dismantle White perfectionism’s long-standing place in the academic habitus, graduate educators will need to reconsider revered concepts like criticism, productivity, and mastery. In what follows, I propose four ideas for how graduate faculty might disturb the grip of perfectionism and instead cultivate conditions that would enable students and by extension, departments, to undertake antiracist transformation.

To counter White perfectionism, Okun proposes cultivating a culture of appreciation. Patriarchy may have coded the concept of “appreciation” as feminine, soft, frivolous, and unacademic in its binary opposition with the tough, cool, masculine rationality of “criticism,” but perhaps for this very reason an appreciation of appreciation may be the antidote feminist academics need to cultivate in a historically patriarchal institution. While the suggestion may seem elementary to seasoned feminist educators, what may be new is the connection between appreciation and antiracist transformation. To read “for the constitutive exclusions of those ideas we cannot do without,” as Barad suggests, faculty could guide graduate students to first summarize and discuss aspects of the text they find useful and only then consider how scholars might build on the work. Historicizing readings for how they contributed in their original context can help students see the processual, always-ongoing nature of scholarly production as well. Students who internalize the practices of a culture of appreciation rather than perfection will likely feel less defensive or “fragile” when confronting their complicity in a problematic system.

If another driving force of perfectionistic culture is faculty’s sense of obligation to help students gain “mastery over” a subject area, perhaps the concept of “mastery” deserves reconsideration. I suggest faculty re-imagine “mastery” to reflect existing feminist scholarship about the importance of positionality and partiality to knowledge production and acquisition. Feminist faculty often already teach graduate students the importance of continually interrogating how their positionalities influence their research perspectives. How might faculty apply this existing praxis to revise what “mastery” means in their department? What if the how of approaching scholarship became as important as the what a graduate student must know? Once subject area mastery requires graduate students to demonstrate a thoughtful, nuanced understanding of their own positionality with respect to their subject area to avoid reproducing oppressive structures, then antiracist training could become a more exigent part of graduate training.

Disentangling perfectionism from graduate culture to enable antiracist work might also be aided by bringing mindfulness into the graduate classroom. The work of transformation, whether in the classroom or outside of it, requires individuals to sit with the discomfort of having longstanding, internalized hegemonic ideologies disturbed. Mindfulness practices can cultivate the conditions necessary to sit with discomfort. Similar to “appreciation,” the language of “mindfulness” might raise the hackles of those who have been enculturated to prize “rigor” and “rationality.”4 But I would argue that a mindful approach to learning and being in the classroom enhances one’s ability to think “rationally” and “rigorously” about one’s positionality and the epistemological frameworks in which they have been conditioned to think.

In addition to mindfulness, explicitly championing a “growth mindset” is another way graduate faculty might actively foster a disposition necessary to engage in personal antiracist transformation. A growth mindset sees making mistakes and getting things wrong as necessary to the messy process of learning and growth (Dweck). The contrasting “fixed” mindset that typically results from the American education system prioritizes being or looking “right” over taking the risks required to learn and grow. Imposter syndrome combined with a fixed mindset can leave graduate students unwilling to reveal what they don’t know for fear of exposing themselves as “frauds”. Naming the importance of growth mindset in the graduate classroom could help impart positive affect rather than fear to students’ willingness to “be disturbed,” to engage in difficult conversations, and to interrogate their own complicity in structural harm. In short, growth mindset can help make the classroom a space of antiracist transformative potential.

An Invitation for Further (Re)Consideration

My goal throughout this essay has been to consider how the conditions for antiracist transformation can be created in an environment (the university) whose habitus of perfectionism normally prevents students from being able to take on antiracist transformation as individuals, scholars, and educators. While I hope to have offered some meaningful suggestions to these questions throughout this short essay, my goal, as the call for this subsection of Peitho suggests, is not so much to answer the questions I raise as to provoke their further (re)consideration.

Given that perfectionism functions as a pillar of White supremacy culture, what would it mean for each of us, as scholars, leaders, and educators, to actively push back against our internalized perfectionism in an institution that demands perfectionistic habits? How can graduate programs cultivate in graduate students the humility, the willingness to be vulnerable in community, and the “willingness to be disturbed” that is required for the imperfect process of antiracist transformation?

End Notes

  1. In this essay, I refer primarily to “the graduate classroom” as a shorthand for all of the spaces and sites where graduate students’ academic habitus forms. I encourage readers to consider spaces outside the classroom that contribute to the perpetuation of perfectionism as well. -return to text
  2. In this essay, I capitalize the “W” of “White” to signal that despite perhaps well-meaning intentions to downplay the presence of a coherent White culture, White culture indeed exists and its norms usually dominate in traditionally White institutions like the university. This paper hopes to make the connection between White supremacy culture and the White norms of American universities clear and to provoke readers to challenge White norms that perpetuate White supremacy in American universities. By capitalizing the “w”, I underscore that Whiteness and White ideology are not neutral and require confronting. -return to text
  3. “Cancel culture” is the contemporary American cultural practice of shaming and/or ostracizing a member of the public or of a particular community– professional or otherwise– for making offensive remarks, for engaging in offensive behavior, or for having remarked or behaved offensively in the past, whether intentionally or not. Social media has made it possible for anyone with a social media account to “cancel” anyone else publicly at an unprecedented pace and scale and with an unprecedented permanence. I believe this pervasive cultural practice has seeped into the collective consciousness of at least the current generation of graduate students who may consciously or not self-censor remarks that they fear may be perceived as offensive rather than risk the danger of saying the wrong thing in front of classmates. This also means that making remarks that “cancel” is safer than making remarks that risk being canceled. Cancel culture has quite suddenly made the stakes of even inadvertently offensive speech dire, particularly in professional settings. To be clear, I do not mean to suggest that offensive remarks should go unchallenged, only that they should be treated as useful opportunities for learning and dialogue, rather than result in immediate ostracism. The process of learning requires that learners can become aware of what they don’t know and interrogate their existing understandings in order to reconsider and come into better understanding. Cancel culture, in my opinion, hinders learning, growth, and dialogue. -return to text
  4. I enclose these favorite terms of academic culture within quotation marks in order to trouble commonsense assumptions about their meaning and value. -return to text

Works Cited

  • Bourdieu, Pierre. “Structures, habitus, practices.” The logic of practice (1990): 52-65. -return to text
  • Collins, Patricia Hill. Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment. routledge, 2002. -return to text
  • Condon, Frankie and Vershawn Ashanti Young, editors. Performing Antiracist Pedagogy in Rhetoric, Writing, and Communication. WAC Clearinghouse, 2017. -return to text
  • Diab, Rasha, Thomas Ferrel, and Beth Godbee. “Making commitments to racial justice actionable.” Condon, Frankie, and Vershawn Ashanti Young, editors. Performing Antiracist Pedagogy in Rhetoric, Writing, and Communication. WAC Clearinghouse, 2017. -return to text
  • DiAngelo, Robin. White fragility: Why it’s so hard for White people to talk about racism. Beacon Press, 2018. -return to text
  • Dismantling Racism Works, DRworksBook, -return to text
  • Dolphijn, Rick & Iris van der Tuin. “Interview with Karen Barad.” New materialism: Interviews and cartographies (2012): 48-70. -return to text
  • Driscoll, Dana Lynn, S. Rebecca Leigh, and Nadia Francine Zamin. “Self-Care as Professionalization: A Case for Ethical Doctoral Education in Composition Studies.” College Composition and Communication 71.3 (2020): 453. -return to text
  • Dweck, Carol S. Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House Digital, Inc., 2008. -return to text
  • Haraway, Donna. “Situated knowledges: The science question in feminism and the privilege of partial perspective.” Feminist studies 14.3 (1988): 575-599. -return to text
  • Okun, Tema. “White Supremacy Culture Characteristics.” DRworksBook, -return to text
  • Tomlinson, Barbara. Undermining Intersectionality: The Perils of Powerblind Feminism. Temple University Press, 2018. -return to text 1 or 2
  • Wheatley, Margaret. (2002). Turning to one another: Simple conversations to restore hope to the future. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers. -return to text
  • Wynter, Sylvia, and Katherine McKittrick. “Unparalleled catastrophe for our species? Or, to give humanness a different future: Conversations.” Sylvia Wynter: On being human as praxis (2015): 9-89. -return to text