Black Women’s Rhetoric(s): A Conversation Starter for Naming and Claiming a Field of Study

In the preface to her groundbreaking book, We Are Coming: The Persuasive Discourse of Nineteenth Century Black Women, Shirley Wilson Logan draws from Herbert Simon’s definition of rhetorical genre to articulate her project on interrogating African American women orators’ rhetorical tradition and practices.  Wilson Logan says:

Although I borrow from Simon’s term, ‘distinctive and recurring patterns of rhetorical practice, it is not my intention here to argue for a genre called ‘black women’s rhetoric’ based on the patterns I identify or to apply a scientifically verifiable approach to identify them. So, while I look for reoccurrences, I do not claim that they constitute a genre. Instead, my focus is both singular and collective in that I consider individual speakers and the occasions surrounding particular rhetorical acts but with an eye toward the features of that act that are shared by other rhetorical acts arising from similar but not identical rhetorical situations […] Thus rather than argue for genres, I identify common practices across rhetorical acts that were molded and constrained by prevailing conventions and traditions. (Wilson Logan xiv; emphasis added)

Through her work, readers gain insight into how the sociohistorical context of the 19th century shaped Black women’s oratory choices and discourse, particularly as they were employed around social issues related to Black women’s intersecting racialized and gendered struggles against the abolishment of slavery, women’s rights, mob violence, and racial uplift. Despite Wilson Logan not defining or naming a genre within rhetorical discourse called “black women’s rhetoric” (xiv) within this particular work, her scholarship has been foundational in the development of rhetorical studies that centralizes Black women subjects and speakers, Black female literacies and communication practices, and contextualizing how Black women negotiate, navigate, and use their unique positionalities to make and distribute knowledge across diverse spaces and audiences.

Over the last 20+ years, the influences of Wilson Logan, and others like Jacqueline Jones Royster and her book Traces of a Stream: Literacy and Social Change Among African American Women is represented in the plethora of scholarship by and about Black women’s rhetorical traditions, literacy practices, experiential knowledge(s), language, spaces/places, histories, and activism. This work has been published across the fields of rhetoric and composition studies, communication studies, literacy and language studies, women and gender studies, African American and African Diasporic studies, and education. Often informed by various feminist theoretical traditions, especially Black feminist thought and womanist theories, these works articulate and argue for alternative methods for understanding Black women’s subjectivities and centralizing Black women as rhetorical subjects. Despite the expansive scholarship and undeniable presence of Black women and Black women-centered scholarship within rhetorical studies, there has still yet to be an explicit naming of a collective body of scholarship, disciplinary community, or rhetorical genre called Black Women’s Rhetoric(s).1

In this essay, I argue that there is substantial scholarly work (in print and in progress) at the intersections of Black womanhood, Black feminism, and rhetorical studies and it is time to interrogate this scholarship collectively to consider whether, or not, it should finally be explicitly named and defined as a rhetorical genre and sub-field called “Black Women’s Rhetoric(s).” Given the history of Black women’s experiences, knowledge, and contributions being marginalized, silenced, and/or subsumed under categories that do not equally prioritize their intersecting raced, gendered, and other identities, I consider how naming and identifying a Black women’s rhetorical homeplace (hooks 37) functions as an act of resistance against the racist and patriarchal systems and practices of academia (including rhetorical studies) that continue to omit and/or limit representations of Black women’s rhetorical histories, literacies, languages, spaces/places, and meaning-making practices within program curricula, course syllabi, publication spaces, conferences, etc.

Speaking from my own personal experience, I begin with a story about my connection to this topic, and my own articulation of this inexplicitly recognized—although clearly present and identifiable—sub-field of rhetorical studies. My purpose is to illustrate my own difficulties in locating and accessing scholarship that prioritizes Black women’s rhetorical perspectives because of the ways it is typically situated under various identifiers, e.g., “women’s/feminist rhetoric,” “African American/Black rhetorics,” “cultural rhetorics,” and “hip-hop rhetorics.” Also, since this work is highly interdisciplinary, it is common that scholars producing this scholarship see the influences and implications of their work as contributing within and beyond the realms of rhetorical studies, which leads to them publishing broadly across disciplinary communities like communication studies, women and gender studies, education, language studies, technical and professional writing, African and African American studies, as well as alternative and online spaces. From my experience, the complexities of how Black women-centered rhetorical scholarship is situated across many spaces, for many reasons, with various different names, makes it difficult to access as a cohesive, interconnected network of knowledge. Furthermore, this broad distribution of “Black Women’s Rhetoric(s)” scholarship makes it difficult to bring all of these scholars and scholarship together as one collective body of knowledge with its specifications on subject matter and points of inquiry, methods and methodologies for conducting research, and functions for various audiences (including intersecting sub-fields and the entire rhetorical studies community). For students and scholars newly interested in this specialized area of study, these are important aspects of “Black Women’s Rhetoric(s)” that need to be more thoroughly articulated beyond the realms of individual scholarship. I use my story as reasoning for why there needs to be a collaborative and collective naming and mapping out of this sub-field.

Next, I will interpret two texts that clearly identify their work as “Black/African American Women’s Rhetoric,” that is, Deborah F. Atwater’s African American Women’s Rhetoric: The Search for Dignity, Personhood, and Honor, and a multi-modal course and pedagogical space called “The Black Women’s Rhetoric Project” created, taught, and publicly shared by Carmen Kynard. Through my analysis of Atwater and Kynard’s individual representations of “Black Women’s Rhetoric,” I consider how their explicit naming of their research and teaching may serve as a guide for how this larger body of Black women-centered rhetorical work may also be named and formally recognized as “Black Women’s Rhetoric(s).” Drawing on the Black feminist concept of self-definition (Collins 107; Lorde 45), I argue that naming this rhetorical scholarship that emphasizing Black women’s subjectivities, unique practices, and thinking is important in fully affirming this area study and avoiding intentional and unintentional acts of erasure of Black women’s knowledge and labor.

I conclude offering sketch of a framework for defining and describing “Black Women’s Rhetoric(s).” My purpose is to prompt conversation about what are major themes of, or bridges across, “Black Women’s Rhetoric(s)” while also honoring the many contributors and influencers of this unofficially named field. These scholars that have made it possible to better understand how “Black Women’s Rhetoric(s)” can be “traced” back to a legacy, a “stream” if you will, of Black women speaking and doing for the betterment of themselves and their communities (Royster 4). I aim to spark a conversation about how participants, students, teachers, and contributors of this field might name this collective body of work that allows us all to better understand and celebrate how Black women “make space” for their unique knowledges and ethos even within “tight spaces,” or historical contexts and situations that attempt to deny them their humanity and equal opportunity (Atwater 2-3). This work allows us to consider how Black women use their mother wit as literacies to “protect and serve” themselves and others, “bring wreck” in the most spectacular way on those that disrespect and attempt to deny them a voice within their own communities, while still negotiating the power of “getting crunk” with other Black women to empower each other and work together to make visible complex narratives of Black women’s experiences and interpretations of the world.2

I believe that it is necessary to consider the possibilities of formalizing Black women-centered rhetorical scholarship under a collective banner with its own name, and/or to consider how the existing ways of naming this work might be more explicitly connected as a network of interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary scholarship. In “Disciplinary Landscaping, or Contemporary Challenges in the History of Rhetoric,” Royster calls for the shifting of the disciplinary landscape, a shift that has made Black women more visible as rhetorical subjects (158). I believe naming this scholarly work—or saying its name (or multiple names in tandem)—can be the next step in making a “shifting” disciplinary landscape “shake.”

A Reflection: Looking for and Locating Rhetoric by/on Black Women 

In her chapter “Looking for Zora” in In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens, Alice Walker describes her quest to locate the grave of anthropologist, folklorist, and writer, Zora Neale Hurston. Seeking the unmarked grave of her self-proclaimed ‘illegitimate aunt,’ Walker ventures to the location of the gravesite in South Florida. Walker, accompanied by her equally determined travel-companion, Rosalee, cautiously searched a deserted cemetery for Hurston’s burial place. When their eyes, their ability to physically see the location of Hurston’s grave, failed them, Walker resorted to another method of finding Zora. Walker called out to Zora. She describes this moment as follows:

Finding the grave seems positively hopeless. There is only one thing to do:

‘Zora!” I yell, as loud as I can (causing Rosalee to jump). ‘Are you out here?’

‘Zora!’ I call again. ‘I’m here. Are you?’ […]

‘Zora!’ Then I start fussing with her. ‘I hope you don’t think I’m going to stand out here all day, with these snakes watching me and these ants having a field day. In fact, I’m going to call you just one or two more times.’ On a clump of dried grass, near a small bushy tree, my eye falls on one of the largest bugs I have ever seen. I walk toward it, and yell ‘Zo-ra!’ and my foot sinks into a hole. I look down. I am standing in a sunken rectangle that is about six feet long and about three or four feet wide […]

‘Well,’ I say, […] ‘Doesn’t this look like a grave to you?’ (105).

A majority of my formal education in rhetoric and composition has left me feeling like I, too, am cautiously stepping through a deserted cemetery filled with the remains of dead White men. Upon closer examination, I can read their names and list of credentials and achievements. Their contributions are undeniable, their works are unforgettable, what I learn from them is/was useful in my pursuit of understanding this field and term rhetoric, and yet, I’m still left longing for more. Within each institution in which I studied, I found myself searching, looking, listening, and waiting for some sense of familiarity and belonging.

As a Black woman student seeking a sense of belonging within a space where, to use words the words of Royster again in her CCCC Chair Address, “when the first voice you hear is not your own,” I needed an academic version of a “homeplace.” bell hooks describes the history of  homeplaces in Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics as a kind of physical and spiritual space within the domestic households of enslaved Black women that served as “a site where one could freely confront the issue of humanization, where one could resist” (37). These homeplaces recognized Black subjectivities, uplifted the minds and hearts of the Black community, and served as a space of both resistance and affirmation (hooks 37). Although I do not recall screaming out like Walker, hollering the names of any particular Black woman rhetorician, scholar, or speaker, I do remember feeling like my eyes—what I could physically see before me within program curricula, course syllabi, and faculty—were deceiving me. I asked myself, “Where are the Black women? Is what I see all there is to rhetorical studies? Where is my home?”

I started using my other senses, calling for who and what I was missing.  My screaming and calling out happened while walking through the library stacks searching for books that no one informed me existed. I fussed while scrolling through pages of online databases as new names and voices became my unofficial teachers of a knowledge and rhetorical history that had been omitted from my formal education. I celebrated (with smiles and tears) as this new academic home formed around me, welcoming me in and opening up space for my own voice, too. These women were my illegitimate, intellectual aunts, sisters, and cousins—my home/community/family.

And like family, it is necessary to come together. To unite under a collective banner, not to erase our differences, but to embrace them, and offer spaces of support and solidarity across differences. What I was looking for as an inductee into this legacy of Black women making, studying, and doing rhetoric was a shared name for what they/we were doing that encapsulated these histories, sacrifices, action, activism, creativity, and labors of love. Although I came to call what I was seeking and trying to identify as “Black Women’s Rhetoric(s),” I noticed that this was not a shared name across scholarship, and it certainly was not a term I saw being used around me in academia. Instead, what I saw was what I called “Black Women’s Rhetoric(s)” subsumed under the disciplinary umbrellas of African American rhetoric(s) and/or feminist rhetorics, or existing on the borders of rhetorical studies and other intersecting disciplines, like women’s studies, communication studies, literature, literacy studies, linguistics and language studies, education, history, or African and African American studies. Although I could see and understand how this work dispersed and distributed across my own field and many others linked together to form a network of knowledge about Black women’s rhetorical legacy, I desired then—and still do now—formal recognition of this discourse as its own space by those making and publishing this work, as well as the larger field. For instance, there are book collections, special issues of journals, and conferences dedicated to broadly interrogating and defining African American rhetoric(s), feminist rhetorics, and cultural rhetorics. Within these spaces, Black women and Black women-centered scholarship are often represented, demonstrating the diversity and inclusivity of these sub-fields particularly as they make space for Black women’s rhetoric(s) in ways that traditional rhetorical studies does not always do. My concern is that because this work is often deeply merged with these other sub-fields, but is not explicitly named and identified as its own rhetorical genre and disciplinary community, Black women’s rhetorical scholarship is simultaneously visible and invisible.

In other words, rhetorical scholarship that centers Black women’s experiences, traditions, and practices is clearly represented within dominant rhetorical studies, and it has greatly shaped sub-fields of rhetorical studies including influencing the how these fields function and describe their identities as unique scholarly spaces. But, since “Black Women’s Rhetoric(s)” has not identified itself as its own discourse within and outside these other disciplinary spaces, it functions in ways that help to inform and contribute to others without fully claiming and affirming itself. I believe this contributes to the appearance and representation of “Black Women’s Rhetoric(s)” as a culmination of individual works (with various different names) and individual scholars doing this work in various places and spaces, as opposed to a body of interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary scholarship that collectively linked together, informs each other, and follows similar guiding principles, purposes, and practices no matter where it is located, published, taught, or spoken.

As a student of “Black Women’s Rhetoric(s),” and still now as a junior faculty who identifies myself as a part of this community, I desire for this discourse that is predominately produced by Black women rhetorical scholars, about Black women rhetorical subjects/topics to officially have a name and space as its own disciplinary community within rhetorical studies. Can we give this scholarly area a name, so that future Black women scholars roaming through metaphorical cemeteries of deceased old White men, can say its name and find a home? Furthermore, can we give this discourse a name so that others within academia can acknowledge it, say its name, and put some respect on it?

In the sections that follow, I discuss the concept of self-definition and its significance to Black women’s rhetorical scholarship. Under this Black feminist naming framework, I introduce two texts in which authors explicitly name their scholarship as African American/Black women’s rhetorics: Deborah Atwater’s, African American Women’s Rhetoric: The Search for Dignity, Personhood, and Honor, and Carmen Kynard’s, “Black Women’s Rhetoric Project/BlackWomynRhetProject.” Through a brief analysis and introduction of these works, I consider the potential and power in having a shared name to describe Black women-centered rhetorical scholarship, as well as consider opposing arguments for identifying “Black Women’s Rhetorics(s)” as its own sub-field. I conclude with themes that I locate across Black women’s rhetoric(s) that may be used as a start to a much larger conversation about the uniqueness of this genre/sub-field, how it functions, and how it might be identified and described by those within, across, and outside of it.

Inspirations and Reasons for Naming Black Women’s Rhetoric 

Self-definition is a literacy with strong connections to Black women’s ways of being. Concepts like “mother tongue” and scholarship on Black women’s unique language and literacy practices that consider their mastery of signification and styles of communication, such as “loud-talking,” “polite assertiveness,” and “strategic silence,” make it clear that Black women and girls wield language to make space for their experiences and knowledge (Smitherman; Troutman; Richardson; Etter-Lewis). This includes using language to identify and define their humanity, labor, and experiences.

Self-definition and self-determination are also intimately linked to Black feminist theory. According to Audre Lorde in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches and Patricia Hill Collins Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, self-definition is an essential component for Black people to survive and thrive in the midst a range of human-blindness (Lorde 45), and self-definition is a part of a part of a Black woman consciousness that is tied to Black women’s authority to name their own selves. Collins says:

The insistence on Black women’s self-definitions reframes the entire dialogue from one of protesting the technical accuracy of an image…to one stressing the power dynamics underlying the very process of definition itself. By insisting on self-definition, Black women question not only what has been said about African-American women but the credibility and the intentions of those possessing the power to define. When Black women define ourselves, we clearly reject the assumption that those in positions granting them the authority to interpret our reality are entitled to do so. Regardless of the actual content of Black women’s self-definitions, the act of insisting on Black female self-definitions validates Black women’s power as human subjects. (125-126)

In this sense, self-definition is not just about a person defining themselves. Instead, it is an interrogation of power—the possession of power and authority to interpret one’s own reality. In the case of rhetorical scholarship that centralizes Black women subjectivities, literacies, languages, cultural practices, etc., how individual scholars doing this work name and define their work, as well as themselves as creators and wielders of this knowledge, is an act of power. Furthermore, it is through these names—these individual self-definitions—bridges can be built across similar scholarship. Each name given to Black women-centered scholarship acts as a node within a larger interconnected web of knowledge that serves as irrefutable proof that this genre and discourse does exist, although the parameters and particularities of it have yet to be articulated.

What I am posing here as a concern is that these individual self-definitions and names for individual scholarship are so vast that it can make it difficult to understand how all of this work comes together to form one complex discourse at the intersections of Black women (identity) and rhetoric (disciplinary field). As stated above, scholarship that centralizes the rhetorical and literacy practices of Black women extends across rhetorical subfields and interdisciplinary communities. This work goes by so many names, ranging from explicitly calling it “Black/African American Women’s Rhetorics” to some version of “Rhetorics of Black Womanhood,” “Black Feminist Rhetorical Practices,” as well as combinations of “African American women + rhetoric/persuasion + some more specific area of focus (e.g., hip-hop, technology, history, embodiment, aesthetics, space/place, politics, a specific person(s), etc.).  Because of these wide-ranging labels, not to mention the equally diverse platforms and publication spaces in which this work lives, it can be difficult to easily locate Black women-centered rhetorical scholarship. This includes locating and acknowledging the labor of individual scholars doing this work.

What I am arguing for is to finally creating a disciplinary home for this work and those doing it—and giving it a name so that it can be recognized as its own scholarly space within the system of academia that emphasizes the compartmentalization/departmentalization of knowledge and outside of it. Put simply, there is strength in numbers and power in naming and claiming one’s own space and disciplinary home, especially within societies and institutions with histories and deeply rooted practices of erasure, omission, and silencing of women and BIPOC communities. By officially bringing Black women-centered scholarship together under one banner—one self- and group-affirming name—this subfield can continue to be interdisciplinary by drawing from, working with, and contributing to other fields and sub-fields, while also finally being recognized as its own sustainable sub-field. This naming of “Black Women’s Rhetoric(s)” opens up the possibility of for broader recognition of this subject areas in the form of book collections, special issues, conferences, core and elective course(s) in undergraduate and graduate department curricula, a specialization for graduate students, and specifically identified area of research interest in job advertisements for the hiring of faculty.

If this is a potential course of action, and it truly is necessary for Black women-centered rhetorical scholarship to name and claim its own space, then an appropriate follow up question might be, “What shall we call it?”

In the following paragraphs, I’ll introduce two works that utilize African American/Black women’s rhetoric to name their individual scholarship. I consider how each scholar uses and presents their version of “African American/Black Women’s Rhetoric,” and how their similar choices of naming their individual work serves as representations of how we might officially name a “Black Women’s Rhetoric(s)” collective.

Deborah Atwater’s African American Women’s Rhetoric

Deborah Atwater’s book, African American Women’s Rhetoric: The Search for Dignity, Personhood, and Honor is a historiographical text that interrogates the lives and rhetorical practices of historical and contemporary African American women speaking, writing, and performing within their unique socio-political contexts throughout history. Atwater uses her discussion of these women’s lives, and her analysis of their rhetoric, to consider how each woman widens for herself and others “tight spaces,” or situations, circumstances, boundaries, and systems of oppression, meant to limit their abilities to be respected and treated equally as human-beings. What Atwater argues is that Black women have resisted such systemic and social barriers, widening tight spaces with their rhetoric (speeches, autobiographies, and other writings), which they have used to reimagine Black women’s ethos.

In the title of her book, Atwater clearly names her scholarship as “African American Women’s Rhetoric.” Although she does not explain what she means specifically by “African American Rhetoric,” offering no explicit breakdown of the term, it is assumed from the content of her book that focuses exclusively on African American women political activists, businesswomen, journalists, educators, and entertainers across various historical contexts—from Sara Baartman to Maria Stewart to Fannie Lou Hamer to Mary J. Blidge and so many other women in between—Atwater is interested in interrogating the stories and rhetorical practices of highly visible African American women writing, communicating, and performing within public spaces. Atwater’s “African American Women’s Rhetoric” is also interested in how Black women navigate systems of inequality such as racism and sexism, as well as negative stereotypes and perceptions of Black womanhood.

Her interpretations of African American women’s rhetoric emphasizes ethos, particularly how the women in her study, as well as how she as a researcher and teacher of this scholarship, present, represent, and describe African American women. She situates African American women’s rhetoric as an act of “widening tight spaces,” or resisting and redefining narrow and negative depictions of African American women’s realities (Atwater 141). In Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America, Melissa Harris-Perry draws from cognitive psychology to discuss the concept of the “crooked room” in relation to Black women’s navigation of racism and sexism. Harris-Perry says in regards to this concept that “[w]hen they confront race and gender stereotypes, black women are standing in a crooked room and they have to figure out which way is up. Bombarded with warped images of their humanity, some black women tilt and bend themselves to fit the distortion” (29). This concept of a “crooked room” is useful in understanding Atwater’s “African American Women’s Rhetoric” in that she closely examines the stories and actions of African American women within public discourses to consider how they manage to negotiate the “crooked rooms” each African American woman had to negotiate and navigate within their historical context to make visible the individual strategies they used to still manage to identify and present themselves respectfully, positively, and powerfully, i.e., “stand-up straight in a crooked room” (Harris-Perry 29).

Similar to Wilson Logan, Royster, and others, Atwater articulates a historical and feminist project that aims at centralizing Black women’s rhetorical choices and strategies. Atwater is engaging African American women’s rhetoric throughout history with a keen awareness of context and how it impacted Black women’s access and abilities to use rhetoric, pointing to the similarities in each rhetor’s rhetorical practices and choices despite differences. The culmination of these two lenses allows her to articulate her own defined and explicitly named space for interrogating African American women as makers and users of rhetoric. This space is centered around African American women’s actions and activism, while acknowledging the ways in which these actions served themselves, their children, Black men, and other women.

Ultimately, Atwater’s naming of her individual research as “African American Women’s Rhetoric” opens a conversation to consider what the parameters of her study are under this label, along with how it connects to similar historical rhetorical research that centers Black women. Her use of “African American Women’s Rhetoric” and how she illustrates it within her work also creates space to consider the possibilities of this kind of historically-driven work and how it might be extended or taken in new directions, as well as how it might be linked to significantly different Black women-centered rhetorical research where history and historiography are not primary methodologies.

Carmen Kynard’s BlackWomynRhetProjct

Carmen Kynard’s open, digital classroom and multi-modal pedagogical space called “Black Women’s Rhetoric Project” (or BlackWomynRhetProjct Channel on YouTube) is another phenomenal and empowering work of scholarship that explicitly named Black Women’s Rhetoric. It was composed to reach and teach undergraduate students about the rhetorical histories of Black women. It also utilizes digital platforms, including a blog space, course website, and YouTube, along with Black music, art, and oral speaking to offer an engaging and reflective space for students (and passersby observers like myself) to, as Kynard says in her blog post “Teaching Black Women’s Rhetoric: (Re)Hearing Feminist Discourses,” “re-hear black women by examining their multiple rhetorics” (n.p.).

Through the combination of both naming her course and digital space “Black Women’s Rhetoric,” and her visible and accessible presentation of Black feminist teaching and everyday practice—Kynard demonstrates how Black Women’s Rhetoric functions as a standalone subject matter and course. Her advancement of her curriculum to a social media platform (YouTube) is an example of how pedagogically we might broaden the limited representations of Black women identities and knowledges in rhetoric spaces and classrooms, as well as think critically about what this representation looks, sounds, and feels like. Kyndard’s “Black Women’s Rhetorics Project” makes space for her students within the confines of her classroom, and for the diverse audiences that engage this work, to understand how not only the written and printed texts of Black women, but also their voices, images, stories, and live performances can be recognized as rhetorical sites of inquiry and knowledge. Kynard’s description and dynamic image of “Black Women’s Rhetoric” is one that situates this discourse that has an embodied, multi-vocal, political and personal legacy that can, and must, be seen (and re-seen), heard (and re-heard), and felt (over and over again).

Name It and Claim It: Building Bridges Across a Multi-vocal Sub-field

The examples of Atwater and Kynard are two interpretations of a “Black Women’s Rhetoric.” In Atwater’s book “Black/African American Women’s Rhetoric” is a historiographical retelling on Black women public figures who navigated the constraints of their historical, social, and political position in time, and resisted negative stereotypes about Black women, to make space for themselves. They utilized their individual literacies—writing, speaking, stories, relationships, education, talent, etc.—strategically to assert and affirm their humanity, demand dignity and respect, and claim their authority as rhetorical subjects and makers of knowledge.

Similarly, Kynard’s undergraduate course—“Black Women’s Rhetoric Project”—and YouTube Channel (BlackWomynRhetProj) combine to showcase this history of Black women as rhetorical figures. Moving beyond the realms of essays, speeches, and other written texts, Kynard allows her students and other audiences to also witness through her digital platforms the creative, embodied, oral, musical, artistic, and political texts of Black women rhetors. Her representation of a Black Women’s rhetoric, like Atwater and others, is historical and allows one to map an extensive legacy of Black women’s rhetorical action and impact, yet Kynard uniquely presents this discourse as a multi-modal and poly-vocal rhetorical genre that engages all of the senses. In Kynard’s version, Black women’s rhetoric is not only a subject of study, it is an experience—something to not only learn, but live.

By closely examining these two individual pieces of scholarship that share similar names/titles, my aim is to consider how they might inform how we might name and describe a larger disciplinary community collectively called “Black Women’s Rhetoric.” The fact that these works, along with the extensive body of rhetorical scholarship that centralizes African American/Black women’s stories, literacies, languages, histories, art, music, beauty, and various texts, spaces/places, other methods of making and communicating knowledge, exist should be enough proof that this is a sub-field and there is a rhetorical genre called Black women’s rhetoric. Ultimately, I do not believe it is a matter of proving that Black women’s rhetorics exists—it clearly does—my concern is that there has yet to be an explicit, public assertion of its existence, as its own field of study, as its own disciplinary community existing outside of the realms of other sub-fields within rhetorical studies, like African American Rhetorics or feminist rhetorics.

As a counter-argument, there are understandable reasons for why this naming of “Black Women’s Rhetoric(s)” as a rhetorical genre and sub-field has not happened, and why there might be some resistance to such an act. Essentially, I am calling for a labeling of both a cultural and disciplinary community, and therefore, grouping individual scholars and their research within a category that they may, or may not identify with, or use to describe who they are and what they do. This is unlike the contentious relationship that Black women for decades have had with the word “feminism,” opting out of such labeling of their writings, stories, music, and other modes of expression and communication as “feminist” because of its connection to white feminism. Also, there may be some who might agree with the need to name Black women-centered rhetorical scholarship as a sub-field, but may not agree with the term “Black Women’s Rhetoric(s),” preferring another name, or multiple names to describe this discourse. For example, Atwater used “African American Women’s Rhetoric” to describe her work, while Kynard preferred “Black Women’s Rhetoric” to name hers, and there are many other variations, such as Keith Gilyard and Adam Bank’s in On African American Rhetorics use of “Rhetorics of Black Feminism” to describe the influences of Black feminist theory within African American rhetorical scholarship. This potential lack of consensus on a name is a reminder of the long-term debates over the terms Black feminism versus womanism. Finally, this call to distinguish “Black Women’s Rhetorics” as both a part of various disciplinary communities and sub-fields, but also its own unique and independent scholarly entity may be perceived by mixed audiences as separatist. This call may be drastically misunderstood as Black women-centered rhetorical scholarship severing ties with other intersecting sub-fields and disciplines, isolating itself from other cultural rhetorical spaces and people, limiting who can and cannot participate and contribute to this discourse, and strictly binding scholars and scholarship within a “Black Women’s Rhetoric” labelled box that only minimally describes the scope and academic and non-academic significance of this work.

As a Black woman researcher, teacher, and participant of this community, I understand these concerns, and the many others that this call for naming a Black women’s rhetorical genre and sub-field might pose, and respect these positions and arguments. To be clear, my intention is not to impose labels or categories on anyone or their work, or to limit the possibilities of what the name for this scholarly community might be called, or to suggest that one name is better than any other. My intentions are not to place impenetrable boundaries around “Black Women’s Rhetoric(s)” that would prevent it from being the inclusive, interdisciplinary, multi-functional scholarly community that it already is, or to suggest that any scholarship that might be identified as “Black Women’s Rhetoric(s)” cannot be recognized in all of its multiplicity and fluidity.

What I am saying is that “Black Women’s Rhetoric(s)” needs its own clearly identifiable seat at the rhetorical studies table. Individual scholars and teachers have built this scholarly discourse and given it many names for their own purposes, yet within mainstream and sub-fields of rhetoric there has not been a space to collectively acknowledge this rhetorical scholarship, its methods and methodologies, its scope, its implications within and outside rhetoric/academia, and—most importantly—the people (i.e., primarily Black women) producing and teaching this work.

Within our current socio-political context, it is still common practice to see Black women’s labor, contributions, and lives be erased, omitted, and forgotten (see the herstory of the Black Lives Matter Movement, #MeToo movement, and #SayHerName for real-life and real-time examples). Academics are not immune to these acts, subsuming, using, and inserting Black women and Black women’s scholarship into curriculum, syllabi, and textbooks when it is convenient, and swiftly forgetting them when they are not explicitly being called to do so. In other words, when gentle nudges at inclusion are no longer a priority. Given these realities, I believe the time for explicitly naming and identifying “Black Women’s Rhetoric” as a rhetorical genre and sub-field is now.

Towards a Black Women’s Rhetoric Framework

Although mapping out the unique tenets of a “Black Women’s Rhetoric(s)” as its own body of scholarship and disciplinary community cannot be properly considered within the scope of this essay, or by one person, I would like to end by offering a starting point for considering four major themes I identify as part of Black Women’s Rhetoric(s). These are shared ideas, practices, and influences that can be located across this body of scholarship, and they may be a starting point for articulating the disciplinary principles, purposes, and practices of this sub-field.

Re-centers Black Women as Rhetorical Subjects and Agents

The first theme of this rhetoric is that Black Women’s Rhetoric(s) scholarship centralizes Black women subjectivities, stories, and experiences, histories, traditions, and cultural practices, languages, literacies, and various modes of composing and communicating. Often guided by Black feminist theories, it recognizes the ways Black women have historically been pushed to the margins of society rendering Black women’s knowledge invisible. As a part of feminist historical rhetorics, it acknowledges how historical and contemporary Black women compose, speak, and perform as rhetorical agents. Similarly rooted in African rhetorical traditions, Black women’s rhetoric asserts that the everyday lives and meaning-making practices of Black people matter. In so doing, it often interrogates head-on how racism, sexism, patriarchy, and white supremacy have denied Black women equal access to human and civil rights, accurate representation, and a voice within movements and spaces meant to uplift and empower Black people and women. While calling out injustice and misrepresentation is essential to this rhetoric, action is its ultimate power, as scholars interrogate how, why, where, and by what means Black women negotiate barriers of oppression, speak-up and act up, subvert power dynamics (or flip the script), and invent new rules and standards for understanding and judging their actions.

Claims Black Women’s Lived Experience as Method and Theory

A second theme is informed by the understanding that Black Women’s Rhetoric(s) are rooted in Black women’s daily realities. This includes everyday experiences of micro-aggressions, coping with trauma including physical violence (and threats of violence), and systemic racism and sexism. Informed by Black feminist epistemologies, where lived experiences are valid points of inquiry (Collins), Black Women’s Rhetoric(s) challenges the private and public dichotomy that often situates rhetoric as an outward, visible, and public performance. Instead, rhetorical sites in Black Women’s Rhetoric are also subversive and silent acts taking place both in public spaces and places (from television, social media, film, concert arena, and political stage), as well as private spaces (the hair salon, kitchen table, home garden, living room, or amongst home girls). In other words, the everyday is a major contextual space from which Black Women’s Rhetoric(s) stems, or goes back to, affirming Black women’s ethos as authorities of their own lives, well-being, histories, and stories. Black Women’s Rhetoric(s) roots understanding in Black women’s thought processes and languages instead of imposing outside theories on Black women’s bodies and minds. Thus, Black Women’s Rhetoric recognizes that part of Black women’s struggle for freedom includes being free from stereotypes and controlling images that undermine Black women and Black womanhood on a daily basis. By engaging everyday experiences, actions, and literacies, Black Women’s Rhetoric(s) asserts and affirms both the ordinary and extraordinary of Black womanhood, girlhood, and sista-hood, while making space to theorize the past and present experiences of Black women that have the potential to positively or negatively impact Black women’s futures.

Employs All Available Means for Necessary Action

Black Women’s Rhetoric(s) is disruptive, resistant, alternative, and creative because it has to be. Although it is often subsumed under African American rhetorics, feminist rhetorics, cultural rhetorics and/or a more institutionalized disciplinary branch like rhetoric, composition and communication, African American studies, or Women and Gender Studies, Black Women’s Rhetoric has an ability to combine, appropriate, and readapt the conventions of these other fields and disciplines to interrogate the under-represented knowledges of Black women. As a disciplinary perspective of its own, it shifts subject matter within these more formalized spaces, but it also demands that the practices, methods, and structures of these spaces also shift so that Black women and other under-represented groups can claim their rightful spot at the table, or even more so, finally be acknowledged for already being there. This disruption is often enacted by any and all communicative, embodied, vocalized, non-verbal, digital, and multi-modal methods available and relevant for their particular historical moment and context. It is important to note that upon initial examination, the methods and modes of expression employed within Black Women’s Rhetorics may not be deemed “appropriate,” or aligning with scholarly decorum, according to dominant academic standards. But, for participants within this discourse fighting for freedom, respect, and equality, all means are necessary.

Multi-consciousness and Multi-voiced Meaning-making

Since it is informed by Black women’s lived experiences, Black Women’s Rhetoric is founded on an awareness that those experiences are informed by Black women’s intersecting identities, contradicting and unequal positions of power, multi-lensed ways of seeing and understanding the world, and multi-vocal ways of theorizing and communicating that understanding to others. In other words, Black Women’s Rhetorics interrogates and performs many consciousnesses and voices simultaneously, always with an understanding that the contradictions, incommensurable data, and complexities that get in the way of neatly packaged outcomes are expected. In other words, better understanding how, why, where, and for what purpose human-beings make meaning is a messy endeavor. It takes time, patience, and care (for subjects and self) to do this work that more than likely will, at some point, include discussions of historical trauma, racially and culturally-centered pain, sexism and misogyny, and distorted images of what it means to be Black and female at the same time. Multiple awareness of the truths of Black womanhood, as well as awareness of the hateful acts and reasoning for destroying those truths, are often vocalized within Black Women’s Rhetoric(s). These multi-conscious and multi-voiced representations are a part of what allows this work to speak across, and be useful to, multiple and mixed audiences.

Conclusion

In this essay, I have that is time for Black Women’s Rhetoric(s) to be officially named as its own rhetorical genre and sub-field of rhetorical studies.  Given its roots in Black feminist theory, it is necessary for Black Women’s Rhetoric(s) to employ practices of self-definition to collectively name and institute a disciplinary community that has been here, but has yet to be explicitly and independently acknowledged.  As illustrated through my own story, the reluctance to clearly identify Black Women’s Rhetoric(s) as its own rhetorical genre and sub-field can leave those new, or unaware of this discourse, feeling disconnected from a potential scholarly homeplace. Drawing inspiration from Atwater and Kynard who both name their individual works “African American/Black women’s rhetoric,” I consider how this same terminology could be used to name a collective scholarly community that centralizes Black women’s histories, communication, literacies, and other knowledges within rhetorical theory and studies. Although I acknowledge some possible concerns and hesitancies for naming this sub-field, I ultimately argue that identifying a Black Women’s Rhetoric(s) creates opportunities for advancing this scholarship, especially making it and the labor of Black women contributing and inspiring this discourse more visible within other intersecting sub-fields and the broader rhetoric field. I conclude by offering a start to a much larger conversation about potential themes that constitute a Black Women’s Rhetoric(s).

Overall, I hope that this conversation will be taken up, furthered, and complicated, especially by scholars who may or may not name or see their work as a part of a collective body of Black Women’s Rhetoric(s) scholarship, or who have differing opinions about whether such naming of a sub-field or rhetorical genre is necessary at all. I also would call those who do recognize that a Black Women’s Rhetoric(s) sub-field and scholarly community exists to either continue, or start, writing, teaching, publishing, presenting in ways that make this scholarly space visible.

In all cases, my purpose is to spark dialogue as I speak from the position of a Black woman scholar who does rhetorical work. In my own academic journey, locating Black women rhetorical scholars and Black women rhetorics scholarship was not readily available to me within institutional spaces, which made locating my voice as a member of this field even more difficult and complicated. I found myself wandering through rhetorical studies, and similar fields of study, looking for voices that sounded like my own and research that engaged subject matter relevant to my own growth and freedom as a Black woman. Because Black women’s experiences and Black women scholars still remain under-represented on college syllabi and curriculum pages, the opportunities to locate a field called “Black Women’s Rhetoric(s)” is oftentimes the tedious efforts of those who may not have a name, or a map pointing them to this academic space, but who rely on their instincts, intuition, and faith that if they call out—Black women will answer.

End Notes

  1. In this essay, I will primarily use the term Black Women’s Rhetoric(s) to name both a genre of rhetorical studies and a disciplinary community, or subfield of rhetorical studies, that centralizes Black women rhetorical subjects, histories, discourse communities, spaces/places, languages and literacies. My reasoning for using “Black Women,” as opposed to African American women is twofold. First, I am aligning my naming practices with Wilson Logans word choices cited on the previous page. Wilson Logan did not want to explicitly name a “black women’s rhetoric” at the time, but I aim to claim this identification while honoring a major influencer to my argument in this essay. Secondly, by choosing “Black Women’s Rhetoric(s)” my intention is to use an inclusive term that does not limit this rhetorical perspective to the experiences. This scholarly discourse includes African American women, as well as all women of African descent. “Black Woman” is meant to refer to all women across the African Diaspora and rhetoric(s) is meant to acknowledge all of our culturally and ethnically diverse ways of understanding and doing rhetoric.     -return to text
  2. These are indirect references to well-known Black women’s rhetorical scholarship, including Elaine Richardson’s CCC article “To Protect and Serve: African American Female Literacies,” Gwendolyn Pough’s iconic book Check It, While I Wreck It: Black Womanhood, Hip-Hop Culture, and the Public Sphere, and the collaborative digital and print work of Brittany Cooper, Susana Morris, and Robin Boylorn in The Crunk Feminist Collective.     -return to text

Works Cited

  • Atwater, Deborah. African American Women’s Rhetoric: The Search for Dignity, Personhood, and Honor. Lexington Books, 2009.     -return to text
  • Collins, Patricia. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. Routledge, 2000.     –return to text
  • Cooper, Brittany, Susana Morris, and Robin Boylorn. The Crunk Feminist Collective. Feminist Press, 2017.      -return to text
  • Etter-Lewis, Gwendolyn. “Standing Up and Speaking Out: African American Women’s Narrative Legacy.” Discourse & Society, vol. 2, no. 4, 1991, pp. 425-437.     -return to text
  • Gilyard, Keith and Adam Banks. On African American Rhetoric. Routledge, 2018.     -return to text
  • Harris-Perry, Melissa. Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America. Yale University Press, 2011.     -return to text
  • hooks, bell. Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural politics. South End Press, 1999.     -return to text
  • Kynard, Carmen. An Open, Digital Classroom on Gender, Intersectionality & Black Women’s Rhetorics. Web. http://www.blackwomenrhetproject.com/black-womens-rhetorics.html     -return to text
  • Kynard, Carmen. BlackWomynRhetProjct. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCSEjUiSEJlu7Xtw0xHIicLw?feature=emb_ch_name_ex     -return to text
  • Kynard, Carmen. “Teaching Black Women’s Rhetoric: (Re)Hearing Feminist Discourse.” Web. http://carmenkynard.org/teaching-black-womens-rhetoric-digitally     -return to text
  • Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde. Crossing Press, 2007.     -return to text
  • Pough, Gwendolyn. Check It While I Wreck It: Black Womanhood, Hip-Hop Culture, and the Public Sphere. Northeastern University Press, 2004.     -return to text
  • Richardson, Elaine. “To Protect and Serve: African American Female Literacies.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 53, no.4, 2002, pp.675-704.     -return to text
  • Royster, Jacqueline. “Disciplinary landscaping, or Contemporary Challenges in the History of Rhetoric.” Philosophy & Rhetoric, vol.36, no. 2, 2003, pp. 148-167.     -return to text
  • Royster, Jacqueline. Traces of a Stream: Literacy and Social Change Among African American Women. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000.     -return to text
  • Smitherman, Geneva. Talkin and Testifyin: The Language of Black America. Wayne State University Press, 1986.     -return to text
  • Smitherman, Geneva. Word From the Mother: Language and African Americans. Routledge, 2006.     -return to text
  • Troutman, Denise. “Attitude and Its Situatedness in Linguistic Politeness” Poznań Studies in Contemporary Linguistics, vol. 46, no. 1, 2010, pp. 85-109.    -return to text
  • Walker, Alice. In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose. Harcourt Books, 1983.     -return to text
  • Wilson Logan, Shirley. We Are Coming: The Persuasive Discourse of Nineteenth Century Black Women. SIU Press, 1999.     -return to text

 

Black Feminist Rhetoric in Beyoncé’s Homecoming

With respect to Black women’s rhetorical practices, in terms of agency, empowerment, intersectionality and inclusion, Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé (2019) communicates theories of Black feminism. For the two-hour and seventeen-minute musical/concert film, behind-the-scenes narration of rehearsal footage, spoken quotes from African American icons, and Beyoncé’s narration are interweaved in between Coachella concert footage (Homecoming). As the black and white scene footage features Beyoncé’s narration of her process, as both the headline performer and primary creator, Beyoncé’s high energy singing and dancing foregrounds Homceoming’s band, drumline, choir, and dancers. As the writer, director, and executive producer, Beyoncé plays multiple roles conveying her impact as a rhetor to convey powerful messages to her various audiences. Furthermore, she is a socially conscious rhetor that is aware of the social impact of her discourse, as a Black woman celebrity, in private and public spaces.

Scholar Melissa Harris-Perry is useful for understanding the hypersexualized and asexual stereotypes that are used to shame celebrities and everyday Black women in politics and media. Due to those types of negative categorizations, multi-faceted aspects of Black women’s sexual identity are flattened into one-dimensional stereotypes. Like scholar Melissa Harris-Perry says, “the internal, psychological, emotional, and personal experiences of black women are inherently political” (5). In other words, Beyoncé’s Homecoming reflects experiences of Black woman that are also inherently political. Thus, her aural/visual production reflects those internal, emotional, and personal experiences. According to Harris-Perry, Black women’s experiences “are political because black women in America have always had to wrestle with derogatory assumptions about their character and identity” (5). For instance, Beyoncé subverts the Black inferiority trope by featuring talented Black performers chosen to represent the Historical Black College and University (HBCU) annual homecoming experience. By featuring dancers and a band that reflect HBCU students, Homecoming exhibits Black pride by centering Black people and making Black culture visible. Additionally, she subverts the Black Women Are Ugly trope by featuring herself, performance ensemble, sister/singer/songwriter Solange, and best friends/former Destiny’s Child members in her legendary performance. Confidently, these women express their provocative dance moves with their diverse hair textures, skin tones, and sizes. By elevating diverse images of Black bodies, Beyoncé rejects negative notions of Black women’s visual appeal and sexuality as ugly, hypervisible, or invisible.

Unapologetically, Black women’s diverse appeal and sexuality is another means of expressing Black womanhood, which emphasizes Black women’s self-acceptance as a form of inclusion within the Black community. Within the production of Homecoming, inclusion does not reflect a desire for white or male acceptance. Instead, I argue that Beyoncé stresses that defeating marginalization is about including diverse and talented Black bodies, in public and private spaces. Beyoncé is an acutely aware rhetor, in terms of understanding that the liberated movement of Black women’s bodies represents both resistance to white social norms and nonconformity to Black men’s standards of beauty. With Homecoming, Beyoncé compels Black women to accept their own discursive practices and rhetorical expression. By scripting, narrating, directing, and executively producing Homecoming, Beyoncé exhibits rhetorical control over how Black women’s bodies are portrayed and the language used to portray them. Beyoncé’s epic agency and empowerment over the intertexual relationship between the behind-the-scenes commentary, narration, famous quotes, and performance lyrics communicate this message of self-acceptance (Homecoming).

Homecoming also features a message of community acceptance via the visual and emotional appeal of the HBCU experience. Beyoncé’s rhetorical style involves multiple texts, working in conjunction with one another, persuasively, to sway her audience that the Black Homecoming experience, as representative of HBCU greatness, impacts lives by transforming culture. Based on the empowering messages of Homecoming, Beyoncé demonstrates that her songs are for more than popular consumption and enjoyment. By using her rhetorical agency to feature black and white narrated, behind-the-scenes footage, Beyoncé connects themes of Black womanhood, sexuality, and empowerment to Black feminist rhetoric via her song lyrics and dynamic performance at Coachella. Thus, since Beyoncé seeks community change, the Black feminist rhetoric of Homecoming is about more than individual empowerment. Beyoncé seems to have every intention of modeling Black feminist rhetorical practices, in an effort to inspire the entire Black community to resist negative messages of disempowerment.

In this article, I address how Beyoncé, a Black woman with a celebrity platform persuades audiences to transform their concepts of Black women, Black people and Black culture. As a matter of experiencing Black womanhood, the Homecoming audience relates to Beyoncé’s truthful acceptance of diverse Black bodies via visual storytelling. Therefore, Gwendolyn Pough’s Check It While I Wreck It and “Personal Narratives and Rhetorics of Black Womanhood in Hip-Hop” inform my discussion of the use of storytelling or truth telling to evoke change in personal and social circumstances. By applying Pough’s theories of storytelling and truth telling in Beyoncé’s Homecoming performance, this explains how Beyoncé impacts her audience even though her storytelling and truth telling is rooted in the Black woman’s experience.

In the process of building on Pough’s theorization of storytelling or truth telling as rhetorical methods for Black feminist expression, I look to Charlene Carruthers’s Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements and Brittney Cooper’s Eloquent Rage: A Black Woman Discovers Her Superpowers. As I interpret the ethos of Beyoncé’s Black feminism, Carruthers and Cooper assist with my analysis via a queer lens. Both Carruthers and Cooper theorize the term queer and express the significance of trans inclusion within the meaning of Black feminism. Their discussion deepens our understanding of the Janet Mock and bell hooks “Are You Still a Slave?” panel debate. When interpreting Beyoncé’s impact on audience members—such as Mock and hooks—Carruthers and Cooper remind us to widen our Black feminist discussions beyond centering cisgender women. By including a queer lens within our interpretation of Black feminism, we resist internalized homophobia and transphobia.

With respect to Homecoming’s Black feminist impact on the world, I look to Elaine Richardson and Gwendolyn Pough’s “Hip Hop Literacies and the Globalization of Popular Culture.” According to Richardson and Pough, hip-hop’s expression of Black language, identity, and culture have a global impact. Hip-hop has influenced the “freedom movement, human rights, and social inequality” due to “the globalization of Black popular culture” (131). Beyoncé’s Homecoming represents how liberatory messages from hip-hop have a worldwide reach. Since the African diaspora includes Black people around the world and Black feminism is expressed by women around the world, global impact is not determined by a white male gaze or audience. Even though Homecoming centers Black women and the HBCU experience, the film has been a monumental global success. Homecoming was “No. 1 in over 40 countries, including the U.S., Australia, Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Nigeria, Spain, and Turkey. Talk about star power” (Carter, “Surprise!).

Due to the global reach of the Netflix streaming platform, international attendees of the Coachella performance, and Beyoncé’s unprecedented notoriety as a performer, she embodies how Black Women’s rhetorical practices are impacting the world. Homecoming symbolizes a social and cultural movement beyond local California and national implications. Since Beyoncé experiences worldwide popularity, it’s unrealistic for her to create a text that does not receive viewership from diverse audiences. Especially, since the Homecoming film is featured on Netflix’s international streaming platform, Beyoncé’s audience shares her message with the world. As a cultural icon, Beyoncé has both a Black audience and a non-Black audience. Even though Beyoncé is aware of the white male gaze, as a Black feminist, she is not preoccupied with it. Thus, this article’s analysis reflects the same audience that Beyoncé centers and prioritizes—Black women.

Homecoming is an exemplar text in terms the theoretical and methodological application of the impact of Black feminist rhetoric. To discuss Beyoncé’s expression of Southern Black womanhood via her behind-the-scenes narration, I refer to past studies—such as Kinitra D. Brooks and Kameelah L. Martin’s Lemonade Reader to emphasize Homecoming’s Black feminist social impact. Brooks and Martin’s text features interdisciplinary contributors, including Alexis McGee’s “The Language of Lemonade: The Sociolinguistic and Rhetorical Strategies of Beyoncé’s Lemonade.” McGee’s analysis functions as the framework for Beyoncé’s use of African American Women’s Language (AAWL), as a Southern Black woman in Homecoming to shape and evoke change in private and public spaces, navigate multiple discursive communities and communicate Black feminist theories of agency, empowerment, intersectionality, and inclusion. According to McGee, “the public presence of Lemonade makes space available for Black women to evoke change and validate collective struggle and identity” (55).

Ultimately, Homecoming builds on the social impact of Lemonade by communicating Black feminist rhetorical themes of Southern Black womanhood, empowerment, agency, and sexuality. As a result, Beyoncé demonstrates how Black women’s rhetorical expression transcends entertainment to promote activism, healing, and shape social movements.

The Musicality of Impassioned Civil Discourse

Prior to interrogating the Black feminist rhetorical elements of Beyoncé’s Homecoming, it’s necessary to consider the rhetorical situation, such as exigence, audience, and various constraints. Based on the epic nature of Homecoming’s ensemble performances, Beyoncé is engaged in multiple rhetorical situations with multiple rhetors. However, my focus will remain on Beyoncé’s rhetorical effect as the main rhetor and producer of the primary messages. Although Beyoncé has wide-reaching popularity that reaches both a primary and secondary audience (non-Black), Beyoncé’s messages center Black women as her primary audience. Considering how media platforms and networks are realizing the connection between popularity and profit, I will explain how focusing on Black women audience members does not adversely impact Beyoncé’s global reach.

Homecoming represents the first film of a $60 million “mega three-project deal with global superstar Beyoncé Knowles” (Obenson, “Beyoncé $60 million”). This deal with Beyoncé represents a “rise in demand for . . . exclusive access to African American content creators” (Obenson, “Beyoncé $60 million”). Between 2017 and 2019, Black women creators—such as Shonda Rhimes, Ava Duvernay, Lena Waithe, Issa Rae, Courtney Kemp, Oprah, and Tiffany Haddish—have inked deals with Netflix, Showtime, HBO, STARZ, or Apple (Obenson, “Beyoncé $60 million”). In fact, there have been “recent launches of new networks targeting specifically African American women” (Obenson, “Beyoncé $60 million”). Cleo TV, OWN, “BET Networks, TV One, and traditionally non-black TV networks” are beginning “to realize the profit potential of that historically underserved market” (Obenson, “Beyoncé $60 million”). Since content produced by Black women for Black women audiences is seen on both Black and non-black networks, Black women’s rhetorical practices have a global impact due to a non-Black secondary audience viewership.

To address why it’s important to consider the interaction and shared feelings between Beyoncé and her audience, I apply Biesecker’s analysis of the rhetorical situation to Homecoming. Based on Beyoncé’s method of addressing Black women that share her intersectional identity, Homecoming is rhetorical because of the engagement that occurs between Beyoncé and her audience (Biesecker 113). Thus, when she encourages her audience to express themselves via her lived experience and personal narratives, her rhetorical engagement becomes evident. Through Beyoncé’s songs and narrative interludes, she inspires her audience by expressing Black feminist ideology. In other words, it is not enough that her audience responds to her messages by singing along and dancing. Based on Biesecker’s analysis, Beyoncé as a rhetor motivates her audience to act on their similarly held beliefs, as opposed to changing their beliefs.

Hence, I’m building on that rhetorical engagement between Beyoncé and her audience by using “‘She Made Angry Black Woman Something That People Would Want To Be’: Lemonade and Black Women as Audiences and Subjects” (Toone, et. al.) to discuss the relationship between the rhetor, message, and audience. For Beyoncé’s Homecoming, the exigency is created by the need to communicate the everyday struggle of Black women regardless of celebrity status. Despite her notoriety and awarded talent, it does not shield her from the pain of living while Black. Toone et. al. notes this distinction by citing Alice Walker. In Walker’s “groundbreaking discussion of Womanism, Black women often bring entirely different problems, concerns, and interests to the table from White women and other women of color” (Toone et. al. 207). Hence, the urgency of Homecoming reflects the divergent life experiences of Black women and White women due to intersectional oppression. Since Black women are impacted by multiple sites of oppression—such as race, gender, and sexuality—the urgency of their issues may differ. Womanist rhetoric (e.g., Black feminist rhetoric) strives for “the freedom and wholeness of an entire people—male and female” (Pough 69). Pough reminds us that womanist rhetoric is about “saving a life, a people, or indeed the world. And it is always linked to an activist project and agenda—that is, it is about change” (Pough 70). By drawing on Pough’s discussion of womanism, this expounds on how the concerns of Black and White women may differ due to Black women’s experiences with intersectional oppression. Furthermore, this explains why Black feminist rhetorical messages of healing are concerned about both the individual and the community.

When Beyoncé features healing songs in Homecoming, she’s speaking directly to Black women. Regarding the change that Beyoncé wishes to evoke, Beyoncé features scenes of her rhetorical process via the struggles she faces as a mother, in terms of finding time for her newborn twins and elder daughter. Despite her need to fit into her costumes for the upcoming Coachella performance, she hopes to heal and inspire everyday Black women who struggle, too. Brooks and Martin state how Beyoncé expressed similar rhetorical intentions with Lemonade: “The urgency of the moment—the multivalent dialogues about black women’s emotional labor, joy, and healing in love—relationships—propels us toward . . . numerous paths along black feminism” (1). For Beyoncé, joy and healing is about personal and communal Black feminist expression. As a result of Lemonade’s “trailblazing visual text,” academia is compelled “to reconsider how black feminists engage in the popular world and scholarship simultaneously” (Brooks and Martin 1). To thoroughly address Beyoncé’s rhetorical messages, this Homecoming analysis is a continuum of interpreting similar Black feminist themes explored in Lemonade.

Since Beyoncé’s messages target Black women, her style of communication resonates within the Black community. For instance, since Beyoncé’s unapologetically Black belief in self is rooted in her Southern Black womanhood, the traditions and images of HBCUs Homecoming may primarily create a change in those who support Black women empowerment. As audience members, people of color often negotiate their standpoints based on being “underrepresented and overly stereotyped in popular media, Black audiences often work within the dominant structure of representation to read and understand media on their own terms” (Toone, et. al. 207). Therefore, Beyoncé’s Black feminist expression and healing subject matter is relatable to her target Black women audience. With “complex projects like self-help,” rhetors “advance African American communities” (Richardson, “Carey, Tamika L. Rhetorical Healing” 401). Theorizing “African American rhetorical traditions as a set of action-taking, knowledge-making, and community-sustaining resources is to figure out how we can put projects such as Black women’s healing into everyday, critical use” (Carey 146). Mainly, because those messages of love as a method of healing resonate with an audience that’s not accustomed to seeing themselves accurately depicted in an aural/visual manner. With Homecoming, Black women see themselves and their stories centered as a method of healing the community.

Although the accessibility of the Netflix platform may place constraints on Homecoming’s message of self-healing, I will explain how Beyoncé persuasively communicates with her audience. Audience members must have access to a free trial or subscription to access Beyoncé’s message. Since Homecoming is a filmed production of a live performance, the excited utterances and unexpected discourse from the audience members comes from people that attended the live production. However, even with the excited utterances and discourse from the concert attendees, the film audience views recorded and edited images. As a result, the call and response method of communicating with her audience occurs at the live concert site only. Since the Coachella audience is present with Beyoncé, the immediacy of the moment creates awareness for the rhetor. However, upon circulation, Beyoncé’s awareness of the rhetorical impact from the Homecoming audience occurs in the following ways. Based on Beyoncé’s consistent expression of Black feminist ideology in her work, her awards, critical acclaim, Netflix film ratings, and continued appeal, this provides a level of awareness that her multi-layered messages evoke positive and impactful change on her audience.

The Rhetoric of Black Womanhood

Despite her empowering message of Black women’s sexuality, within the video arrangement of Lemonade’s “Formation,” critics wondered if Beyoncé was “becoming too political—especially after her tribute to the Black Panther Party at Super Bowl 50 in 2016” (B. Johnson 236). Beyoncé’s critics did not dismay her. She proudly features “Formation” in Homecoming. Perhaps, some critics are unable to widen their lens beyond the grown ass woman who is now aware of her sexuality. If critics had paid attention to her integration of hip hop within her R&B lyrics, they would have realized that Beyoncé was keeping it real by constructing her Black woman identity, while sending social-political messages about Black woman empowerment and agency alongside her sexuality for some time.

In the midst of difficult circumstances, truth telling and keeping it real is emblematic of hip-hop, as a representation of this rhetorical music genre. Pough writes in Check It While I Wreck It that African Americans truth telling is rooted in slave narratives such as W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folks and other autobiographies (104). In fact, Pough refers to this desire to evoke change in society with narrative storytelling as an illocutionary force. Other narratives such as “Malcolm X’s autobiography, Angela Davis’s autobiography, and Huey P. Newton’s Revolutionary Suicide” exhibit this illocutionary force (Pough, Check It 104). Like in the past, the purpose of these personal stories was to evoke change in racial, cultural, and political circumstances. Since hip-hop is rooted in the struggle of the Black experience, inevitably this genre shares similar intentions. However, Pough stresses that in the past, hip-hop commentary centered males writing from a male perspective. Yet, when theoretical analysis omits Black women, this is not the full picture of the hip-hop genre.

Like Pough, I wish to analyze the socio-political elements of hip-hop from a Black feminist rhetorical perspective. By taking into account rejections of preconceived notions of Black womanhood, audience members will interpret hip-hop from a Black feminist lens that incorporates the complex nature of Black women. Pough refers to this as the “rhetoric of Black womanhood” by examining how Black women “use the language of the past and present to construct their identities as Black women and create a rhetoric of wreck that claims agency and encourages self-definition not only for themselves but also for contemporary young Black women” (Check It 105-106).

While Beyoncé narrates her story leading up to Coachella and reads the quotes from African American icons in Homecoming, this is clearly a strategy to express how she utilizes her agency to construct her identity and engage in self-definition. As Beyoncé narrates her story as a performer, Black woman, and Black mother, she’s centering her life experiences as she brings the story of HBCU Homecomings to Coachella and Netflix. Ultimately, she is hoping to inspire transformative change in Black women’s feelings about themselves, and the socially oppressive milieu in which Black women must live. Beyoncé does this, in part, by including brief narratives of her dancers, some of whom are also mothers. Despite Beyoncé’s celebrity privilege of having access to caregivers, she makes a racial-gender connection to her performers. By featuring their stories as Black mothers, despite class differences, their intersectional status establishes a communal connection between them. Thus, like Pough says, Beyoncé as a Black woman, “claims agency and encourages self-definition” as both a personal and communal act (Check It 106).

With another text, Pough theorizes the rhetoric of Black womanhood in terms of the dual messaging of storytelling as truth telling. In Pough’s text, “Personal Narratives and Rhetorics of Black Womanhood in Hip-Hop,” she provides a framework for examining how Black women in hip-hop communicate messages. Pough states that there are some rappers who “articulate community issues and concerns via their lyrics” (Personal Narratives” 111). Furthermore, rappers could be considered “self-designated tellers of the people’s suffering and deliver messages that otherwise might not be heard” (Personal Narratives” 112). As previously discussed in Check It While I Wreck It, Black women’s experiences are oftentimes invisible or omitted from hip-hop discourse. Grounded in Pough’s discussion in Check It While I Wreck It and her chapter on personal narratives, I’d argue that Homecoming is in the Black autobiographical tradition of seeking revolutionary change in Black women’s thinking about themselves and how society responds to their revelatory thinking.

Based on the rhetorics of Black womanhood, performers that create autobiographical texts for a societal change, they seek to subvert “stereotypical images and constructions” (Pough, “Personal Narratives” 112). During the behind-the-scenes narration, Beyoncé expresses how she is aware of society’s negative viewpoints. Thus, I argue that she presents her Coachella/Homecoming production as tangible proof that those misconceptions of Black womanhood are in error. Beyoncé engages in the politics of #CiteBlackWomen, when she makes a point of quoting Black women icons, which are spoken in their own voice during Homecoming. During these scenes, where Beyoncé includes quotes from African American iconic educators, writers, and activists such as Audre Lorde and Maya Angelou, in between her narration, Beyoncé uses “language of the past and present to construct” her identity as a Black woman and creates “a rhetoric of agency and self-definition” (Pough, “Personal Narratives” 112). In the process of creating rhetorical agency and self-definition, since these stereotypes don’t mirror their lives, Black women hope to replace viewpoints that are harmful to them and their communities.

When Black women “tell their stories,” they’re able to offer “social commentary” (Pough, “Personal Narratives” 112). By providing social commentary intertwined with their life stories, Black women further reiterate how the personal is political. The personal experiences of Black women impact the community. And the community’s experiences impact the Black woman. As result, Pough states that these “texts serve dual functions as life stories and message texts, with each author attempting to uplift and heal others through the telling of her story” (“Personal Narratives” 112). Within this process of reconstructing Beyoncé’s identity, she attempts to empower other Black women by inspiring feelings of positivity. Furthermore, based on the empowering messages she sends, Beyoncé reshapes her image and how other Black women are perceived. By changing how one sees oneself, one can redefine themselves for themselves. Ultimately, Beyoncé is an aware rhetor that realizes her uplifting messages have the power to transform Black women’s thinking and feelings about themselves and their community.

The Ethos of Beyoncé’s Black Feminism

In the process of interpreting how Beyoncé communicates with her audience, it’s imperative to address her ethos as a credible Black feminist rhetor. Unsurprisingly, Beyoncé’s dance lyrics and seductive movements have led to problematic readings, which cause some critics to miss the Black empowerment and socio-political elements of her message. To express how Beyoncé’s rhetorical messages impact Black feminism beyond a heteronormative lens, I include commentary from Charlene Carruthers and Brittney Cooper to theorize the importance of queer body inclusion. Charlene Carruthers’s Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements writes that the term queer “represents a continuum of possibilities outside of what are considered to be normal sexual or gender identities and behaviors” (Carruthers 10). It’s important to note that “even black cisfeminists who want to be transinclusive can fail to make room for trans sisters” (Tinsley 158).

Black feminist theorist Brittney Cooper also rejects a narrow understanding of Black feminism that is limited to cisgender women. Cooper refutes arguments that exclude trans women from the “general category of woman” (29). Cooper says it’s important not to exclude women based on race. But, also to consider that while “cis, gender nonconforming, trans, queer, bi, or straight might have different experiences,” they are all women (Cooper 29). To Cooper, this is an area that Black feminism needs to clarify. Unless all women’s concerns are addressed, “particularly the most marginalized women’s concerns, aren’t taken seriously,” the spirit of feminism is not fulfilled (Cooper 29). By incorporating Carruthers’s and Cooper’s theories of trans inclusion, we deepen our analysis of Beyoncé’s Black feminism via a queer lens.

On a panel with trans woman activist Janet Mock, bell hooks expressed her issues with Beyoncé’s performance in a discussion from The New School “Are You Still a Slave?” in 2014. In response to bell hooks previous criticisms of Beyoncé, Janet Mock explains how Beyoncé influenced her to feel more positive about her body. Mock notes, how in this rarefied space of sexual freedom, Beyoncé exhibits power and independence from the patriarchal influences of her father, Matthew Knowles, Destiny’s Child’s creator and her husband, rap mogul Jay-Z. Mock states:

But also having ‘Partition’ come out . . . when I’m writing about . . . issues with my body my sexuality it was freeing to have Beyoncé showing her ass and owning her body and claiming that space that meant a lot to me . . . it gave me the okay as someone I look up to since I was fifteen to have that . . . but I do think there is power in her leaving her father and I don’t think she’s going straight to Jay-Z’s hands . . . but that documentary [Beyoncé: Life Is But a Dream] was about leaving her father and saying I will not let you give this distilled image of me of me anymore and that resonates with me on so many levels, too.

(“bell hooks – Are You Still a Slave?” 46:33-47:15)

Here, Mock communicates the power of Black feminist rhetoric to have authority over one’s bodily expression and the spaces a Black woman inhabits. Mock’s response to Beyoncé as a viewer, Black woman feminist, and trans woman activist emphasizes Beyoncé’s wide-reaching impact on her audience. Not only does Beyoncé’s musical freedom impact cisgender Black women. As she expresses her sexuality, Beyoncé’s claiming of sexual freedom in various spaces is also an inspiration to queer Black bodies. Meaning, when claiming space, Beyoncé’s lyrics and movement affirm the inclusion of queer bodies in both her personal and communal quest for Black women empowerment and agency. Instead of delving deeper into Mock’s insightful interpretation of Beyoncé’s agency over her own body, despite strong male celebrity influences in her life, hooks’s commentary takes a problematic turn.

Without blinking an eye, hooks states “I see a part of Beyoncé that is in fact anti-feminist. That is assaulting. That is a terrorist . . . especially in terms of the impact on young girls . . . I actually feel like the major assault on feminism in our society has come from visual media” (“bell hooks – Are You Still a Slave?” 47:37-47:59). And, perhaps, there is value in hooks discussion of the media’s assault on feminism. Yet, she does not justify her argument for interpreting Beyoncé’s rhetorical expression as anti-feminist and terroristic. Quite frankly, this response to Mock’s expression of sexual-gender inclusion is removed from both Beyoncé’s message and Mock’s response to that message as an audience member.

In Roxane Gay’s article entitled “Beyoncé’s Control of Her Own Image Belies the bell hooks ‘Slave’ Critique,” she responds to hooks unbridled criticism of Beyoncé as destructive to the concept of feminism. According to hooks, Beyoncé’s presentation is contradictory and is devoid of expressing a “liberatory image”. hooks claims, “This rhetoric of women ‘enslaving themselves’,” becoming ever more beholden to the patriarchy when they present themselves sexually, is common” (Gay “Beyoncé’s Control of Her Own Image”). However, this interpretation of Beyoncé as having a lack of agency over her own image demonstrates a lack of acknowledgement of Beyoncé as a cultural producer. Gay notes, Beyoncé has “long acted as her own manager, produced and directed a documentary about her life and made many a lucrative business deal” (Gay “Beyoncé’s Control of Her Own Image”). Meaning, Beyoncé exhibits behind-the-scenes agency, which is far removed from hooks likening Beyoncé to a slave beholden to the patriarchy. Embracing one’s sexuality includes liberation from divergent generational interpretations of sexuality. If the goal is to improve the lives of other women, there is no one-way to be feminist. Thus, without evaluating Beyoncé’s positive impact on Black women and the community, for the purpose of drawing negative conclusions, hooks’s second wave feminism narrowly interprets Beyoncé’s rhetorical expression.

In fact, feminism is the freedom to embrace one’s own sexuality, under her own terms. As feminists, “[W]e have to trust that women can be feminists, good role models and embrace sexuality. We have to believe that we can hold different points of view without labeling each other bad feminists” (Gay “Beyoncé’s Control of Her Own Image”). Gay and Mock’s intuitive response to hooks’s narrow view of feminism reflects Black feminist rhetorical principles. As a manner of communicating sexual freedom and authority over one’s body, the language Black feminists use to speak of each other should demonstrate a belief that sexuality may be expressed differently. Exposing or hiding one’s body does not necessarily denote acquiescence to male patriarchal influences. In fact, when a woman such as Beyoncé determines how an audience will see her and has intention behind the delivery of her own messaging, she is exhibiting how Black feminist rhetoric leads to agency. Judging by the various roles that Beyoncé plays, such as managing, producing, and directing her own documentary, Homecoming, she demonstrates rhetorical control over how her own image and the messages she distributes, while impacting her audience.

The Arrangement and Style of Beyoncé’s Homecoming

The Rhetoric of Social Activism

Beyoncé’s Coachella performance in Homecoming can be described as “a pep rally for Beyoncé’s imagined black college or university” (Kornhaber, “Beyoncé Masters”). However, a more introspective examination reveals that the message of Homecoming is far more than an aesthetic endeavor. Within “this portrayal of an African American educational tradition were call-outs to other legendary institutions of black excellence—the Nubian kingdom (the bleachers formed a pyramid), and Southern hip-hop” (Kornhaber, “Beyoncé Masters”). This use of hip-hop by Beyoncé represents “An artistic, social, and cultural movement, it is diverse and reflects the local histories, cultures and concerns of its worldwide practitioners, while adhering to hip-hop’s ideological and aesthetic imperatives” (Richardson and Pough 129). Meaning, Beyoncé’s use of hip-hop represents how the messages of Homecoming emerge from the African American community into global spaces. Beyoncé demonstrates her understanding of her audience’s history, culture, and concerns by interweaving the hip-hop tradition with her R&B lyrics, expressive movements, and costumes. With Homecoming, Beyoncé artistically, socially, and culturally moves the audience with images rooted in the African and African American community.

When Beyoncé’s Coachella performance opens, she walks the stage in her Queen Nefertiti outfit. By adorning this cultural homage to African royalty, Beyoncé exhibits Black feminist rhetorical principles because her Black body becomes a site of historical knowledge. In this stage outfit, Beyoncé reminds the audience of a real African queen who ruled Egypt. Thus, the representation of Nefertiti is simultaneously a site of historical knowledge and rhetorical agency because Beyoncé is sending a message of empowerment to Black women. Since Beyoncé’s “cape featured an emblazoned . . . image of Nefertiti” (Borge, “The Meaning”), the message is effectively communicated to her audience. Amid this cultural homage to African history and culture, she builds on this message: “Beyoncé’s larger-than-life hat is similar to one researchers discovered on the bust of Nefertiti in 1912” (Borge, “The Meaning”). Furthermore, “Beyoncé’s dancers wore catsuits that . . . had images of the Sphinx from ancient Greek lore” (Borge, “The Meaning”). With audience’s eyes on them, Beyoncé’s dancers perform sorority Greek-like steps, with Black Panther beret hats (Homecoming 2:15-2:30). Thus, this ideological message that Black power is knowledge of Black women leaders such as Queen Nefertiti is converged. By subverting notions of Black inferiority and elevating the aesthetic beauty of African history, Beyoncé is evoking an ideological sense of Black pride.

For the second weekend of Beyoncé’s Coachella performance, she adorns “an all-silver take on the Nefertiti ensemble” (Borge, “The Meaning”). On the back of this epic outfit, are the Greek letters Beta Delta Kappa. This intentional nexus between Egyptian history and Greek sororities are a method of connecting African heritage with the rhetorical missions of HBCUs. Martin Bernal’s Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization argues for a reevaluation of the connection between Africa and Greece (Welch 46). Rhetorical historiography offers an opportunity to redress past absences of African and African American influence in academia. Beyoncé’s use of both Egyptian and Greek symbolism demonstrates her understanding of this connection. Her use of Egyptian and Greek imagery evokes community pride in the HBCU experience. Drawing a rhetorical historiographical connection between African and Greek history is symbolic of double consciousness. Effectively, Homecoming maintains an academic connection to Black historical figures such as W. E. B. Du Bois that theorized the duality of the Black American experience.

It’s fitting, then, that Homecoming is now an extension of this artistic double consciousness (and notably quotes W. E. B. Du Bois, who coined the term). Throughout the documentary, Beyoncé weaves in text and audio snippets from multiple black authors, historians, and public thinkers, most often culling from moments when they spoke directly to black audiences. The nearly two-and-a-half-hour production, which Beyoncé wrote, directed, and executively-produced, is as much a celebration of black-intellectual history as it is a concert film.

(Giorgis, “Beyoncé’s Black Intellectual Homecoming”)

In other words, there is a rhetorical correlation between African history, HBCUs, and Black intellectuals. When Beyoncé pays homage to Queen Nefertiti, she evokes a Black feminist rhetorical message of Black women empowerment. However, when she introduces Greek sorority life to the audience, she’s sending a message that history and intellect represents an artistic, social, and cultural movement of advancement that is reflective of Black feminist rhetorical ideology. Knowledge of Black history equates to Black power. Meaning, the knowledge of self comes from knowledge of African history. Thus, Beyoncé’s homage to Queen Nefertiti is a site of knowledge. When Beyoncé promotes the rhetorical words of Black intellectuals who were educators, writers, and activists—such as W. E. B. Du Bois, Toni Morrison, Marian Wright Edelman, and Audre Lorde—she further transforms Homecoming into a site of intellectual and textual production.

In Homecoming, when Beyoncé discusses the nexus between her artistic endeavors and intellectual growth, her personal story connects with her Black audience. Even for Blacks who have gone to public white institutions, in terms of this African American intellectual-cultural tradition, they are generally aware of the HBCU Homecoming experience. Since W. E. B. Du Bois attended Fisk University, by Beyoncé stating in Homecoming that her father attended Fisk University, as well, she’s connecting her personal history to our African American intellectual history. Growing up, this “Houston-born singer” was raised “near Prairie View A&M University and spent much of her early career rehearsing at Texas Southern University” (Giorgis, “Beyoncé’s Black Intellectual Homecoming”). Due to the success of her musical career, she was unable to experience college life at an HBCU. Since Beyoncé says her “‘college was Destiny’s Child,’” she “channeled the institutions’ distinct vibrancy” (Giorgis, “Beyoncé’s Black Intellectual Homecoming”). Beyoncé says, “I wanted a black orchestra. I wanted the steppers. I needed the vocalists. I wanted different characters; I didn’t want us all doing the same thing” (Homecoming 18:12-18:22). In essence, Beyoncé sought to create the Black experience onstage for her fans. For those reasons, her band and dancers reflect the African American heritage of the average HBCU student. To accurately express the authenticity of the HBCU experience, Beyoncé creates a safe space for historically marginalized individuals. Not to mention, African Americans see a reflection of themselves onstage.

At the close of Homecoming, Beyoncé includes a rhetorical message of activism. A black background features the following words in white: “So many people who are culturally aware and intellectually sound are graduates of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, including my father. There is something incredibly important about the HBCU experience that must be celebrated and protected” (Homecoming 2:12:38-2:12:46). By featuring this message, at the end of Homecoming, Beyoncé creates a call to action for her audience. Through her performance, ensemble dancers, behind-the-scenes narration, and intertwined quotes from Black intellectuals, Beyoncé communicates the message that celebrating HBCUs is about generational legacy and saving African American culture. When Beyoncé requests a monetary response from her Homecoming audience, she exhibits her primary rhetorical intention, which is to highlight the intellectual, social, and artistic impact of HBCUs on American culture. Quite frankly, HBCUs have produced a significant number of Black activist-intellectuals and professionals.

Rhetorically, Beyoncé is aware of the power she has as an artist and Black feminist. Beyoncé fuses Black women language practices with her Black identity, which includes the use of hip-hop to communicate with her Black audience. More than likely, Beyoncé is aware that “hip-hop’s global impact is unequivocally linked to a rooted commitment to local language practices, identities and expressive cultures” (Richardson and Pough 130). This intertwining of music and intellectual production is a manifestation of Black feminist rhetoric in the hands of Beyoncé. Homecoming is Beyoncé’s opportunity to demonstrate what Richardson and Pough refer to as an “interconnectedness of the Black American feminisms” on a global scale (Richardson and Pough 131). Beyoncé’s Homecoming demonstrates Black feminist rhetorical principles by featuring how “hip-hop feminism” functions “as a politic of solidarity and mutual empowerment for Black women and girls throughout the Americas” (Richardson and Pough 131). When Beyoncé is the headlining performer at an international festival such as Coachella, she is centering Black women and our power to lead, in this case a musical production, on a global scale. Therefore, when Beyoncé makes her plea to support HBCUs at the conclusion of Homecoming, for the purpose of supporting future great Black leaders, she is using her rhetorical agency to evoke an emotional response that will lead to monetary support for Black intellectualism, history and culture.

Beyoncé’s Rhetorical Agency: Behind-The-Scenes Narration

Behind-the-scenes of the glittery costumes and ensemble performers, Beyoncé exhibits profound understanding of the relationship between herself, her message, and her audience. Within this cultural production, she creates a rhetorical atmosphere that evokes both emotions from her screaming fans and behind-the-scenes commentary revealing her profound understanding of the rhetor-audience relationship. However, the attendees at Coachella didn’t have the privilege of hearing the behind-the-scenes commentary. This is a message constraint that’s not placed on the Netflix Homecoming audience. Therefore, for the purpose of interpreting Homecoming, I look to Alexis McGee’s Lemonade analysis of Beyoncé’s communicative practices as a Southern Black woman navigating “multiple discourse identities” (56). Even though my discussion is devoted to Homecoming, Alexis McGee’s “The Language of Lemonade: The Sociolinguistic and rhetorical strategies of Beyoncé’s Lemonade,” provides a framework for interpreting the behind-the-scenes language of this aural/visual film. Intentionally, Beyoncé situates both Lemonade and Homecoming in Black feminist discourse and language mirroring the Black woman experience. McGee expresses how Beyoncé’s Southern Black identity is part of her intersectional identity as a Black feminist. Moreover, Beyoncé demonstrates in Lemonade how Black women evoke change with their expression of lived experience: “This rise of Beyoncé as a mother, sister, daughter, and unapologetically Black woman from the South who is also a worldwide performer and entrepreneur has shown us various sides of this Black woman music artist from Houston” (McGee 55). Therefore, Lemonade lays the groundwork for discussing how Southern Black womanhood is expressed in Homecoming.

In the process of analyzing the effect of Beyoncé’s rhetoric, as she addresses her Homecoming audience, it’s important to identify her discursive practices. According to McGee, “Beyoncé’s explicit inclusion of AAWL markers like codes-witching [sic], signifying, and nonverbal sonic rhetorics—’hush harbors’ or silence—shows her navigation of constructing intersectional identities” (61). Using McGee’s analysis, I explain how I format statements from Beyoncé’s behind-the-scenes narration. For instance, I use ellipses to represent moments of brief anecdotal pauses or silences by Beyoncé. In fact, even the commas separating clauses and periods separating sentences work in conjunction with moments of intersentence or interclause silences. As Beyoncé engages in code-switching, by enunciating each word and refraining from the use of Southern English, her pauses demonstrate her navigation of her intersectional identities. Moreover, as part of this nonverbal sonic rhetoric, she resists public and communal exclusion perpetrated by mainstream society, which negatively impacts Black women, as individuals, in the private sphere. Beyoncé knows that this rejection of self comes from society’s rejection of Black women’s communicative expressions. Thus, Beyoncé’s manner in which she delivers her message uses silence to address the systemic issues of marginalization experienced by her audience.

As Beyoncé narrates these words, she features images that support themes of Black feminist rhetoric; each visual image emphasizes Beyoncé’s agency, empowerment, and sense of inclusion. When Beyoncé says that it mystifies her that she’s “the first African American woman to headline Coachella,” (Homecoming, 1:07:18-1:07:25) located on a table, there is a humongous white binder with the following words on the cover: BEY – CHELLA 2018.

To center her experience, Beyoncé uses the name Beychella. As a result, when she expresses her behind-the-scenes commentary, she transforms Homecoming into a site of rhetorical agency. Within this site of agency, as a trailblazer, Beyoncé expresses her desire for visible cultural and social change. Since Beyoncé has the celebrity power and authority to write, direct and produce her Homecoming film, when she uses language to express this experience, she exhibits Black women empowerment and agency. According to McGee, “This agency through language describes her maneuvering of multiple identities, politics, and locations for our consumption and reflection” (58). In this behind-the-scenes moment, despite cultural politics that barred other successful Black women performers before her, Beyoncé conveys her position as a pioneering first. As part of her expression of agency, as a Black woman pop cultural icon, she has the freedom to use language that conveys the complexity of her multiple identities and discourse communities. The image of that BEY – CHELLA white binder expresses her behind-the-scenes agency, in the private sphere. And the Homecoming movie itself expresses Beyoncé’s agency in the public sphere.

In the following black and white image, while wearing her Nefertiti costume, the Homecoming audience views Beyoncé in the public/private sphere. As she enters the side door of a building, holding her daughter Blue Ivy’s hand, her stage performers patiently wait for Beychella a. k. a. Beyoncé to enter first. The image further conveys Black feminist rhetorical themes of agency and empowerment. Beyoncé narrates the following words in this scene: “It was important to me . . . that everyone that had never seen themselves represented . . . felt like they were on that stage with us” (Homecoming 1:07:26-1:07:33). The audience is privy to the behind-the-scenes message of Beyoncé. Since she is a cultural producer, she wants to arouse feelings of Black kinship amongst members of the community. By wanting the audience to feel like “they were on that stage” with she and her dancers, Beyoncé redefines both herself and what it means to be a Black woman. Beyoncé exhibits rhetorical agency, in a manner that “enables us to redefine ourselves in order to work on behalf of self and community in the midst of our social realities” (K. Johnson 162). As Beyoncé continues to redefine herself, partially with renaming practices like the name Beychella, her Homecoming film also signifies a reframing of Coachella experiences, which were previously headlined by whites. Using her cultural power, she encourages her community to transcend their social reality within a system of oppression.

Beyoncé relates her Black feminist rhetorical message of community to her personal experience as a performer and to her communal experience with her ensemble cast of performers. Within this behind-the-scenes narration, Beyoncé’s language associates her with various discursive communities. According to McGee, Beyoncé’s “rhetorical use of AAWL signifies” how “Bey is more than a public pop-culture icon; she is also part of the audience, part citizen who is disproportionately misrecognized as other by a solipsistic nation” (59). Beyoncé’s discursive practices create a nexus between her and her Black woman audience. Her iconic pop-culture status does not exclude her from participating in this Coachella experience as both a rhetor/performer and an audience member. Beyoncé is a Black woman citizen that has a sense of equality by wanting her audience to experience what she and her stage performers are experiencing. Lastly, Beyoncé acknowledges that her personal experience is not isolated. As she and her dancers are emotionally moved, she hopes to redefine her audience’s vision with regard to their own possibilities. Meaning, the Coachella experience and the Homecoming film are a communal celebration of redefining Black womanhood and blackness for an international audience.

While the next rhetorical scene unfolds, prior to the big band performance, Beyoncé’s oral storytelling continues. Prior to the start of the dress rehearsal, Beyoncé stands in the foreground, at the base of the stage. Meanwhile, her dancers sit mostly in silence, waiting to be addressed. Beyoncé speaks the words, “As a Black woman, I used to feel like the world wanted me to stay in my little box. And Black women often feel . . . underestimated” (Homecoming 1:07:35 -1:07:43). When Beyoncé communicates these words of marginalization and invisibility, her figure is visible. However, she is intentionally featured as a black silhouette due to the lighting. Then, as she discusses further how to make those who are marginalized feel more visible than invisible, she continues to communicate her rhetorical intentions. Beyoncé says, “I wanted us to be proud of not only the show . . . but . . . the process. Proud of the struggle. Thankful for the beauty that comes with . . . a painful history and rejoice in the pain” (Homecoming 1:07:47-1:08:57). As Beyoncé speaks those words, the camera focuses on the performers, as they sit in the bleachers. Some fine tuning their trumpets, horns and violins.

However, when she speaks of the inclusion of Black bodies, the camera focuses on images of her Black women dancers in yellow leotards, white boots, and white gloves. As colorful images of her performers flash by, Beyoncé says “And I wanted everyone to feel grateful for their curves . . . their sass . . . their honesty, thankful for their freedom” (Homecoming 1:08:03-1:08:10). By expressing Black feminist rhetorical principles of inclusion of diverse Black bodies and forms of expression, she engages in the sociolinguistic and rhetorical strategies that McGee talks about. During this narration, Beyoncé’s Southern dialect is barely detectable. However, the tone and tenor of her speech still conform to African American Women Language principles. Beyoncé is “communicating meaning, agency, support, and resistance to normative practices and/or policies that may be in opposition to the betterment of one’s self” (McGee 61). In other words, Beyoncé uses her Coachella platform to subvert negative images of Black bodies. By including performers of diverse sizes, she’s expressing the importance of including all-sized bodies as part of our communal agency. When Beyoncé includes feeling grateful for our sass and honesty, she resists negative commentary of Black women’s attitudes and wants us to celebrate our honesty as truthtellers. Lastly, Beyoncé promotes the idea that resisting normative practices that seek to control Black women’s bodies and methods of expression is in the best interest of self.

As the camera flashes on the bleachers again, the focus becomes all of her performers, which includes both women and men. Beyoncé says the words, “It was no rules . . . and we were able to create a free, safe space where none of us were marginalized” (Homecoming 1:08:12-1:08:20). Beyoncé’s discursive practices and the language used to communicate her rhetorical intentions is how Black women “subvert power structures and assert or validate experiences through developing and sustaining particular identities, individually and communally” (McGee 61). As a cultural producer, Beyoncé uses her rhetorical agency and power to affirm the humanity of those who have been both historically hypervisible and invisible. Within this oppressive system that perpetuates dehumanizing images, Beyoncé creates a space behind-the-scenes and onstage that negates demoralizing images of Black bodies. Ultimately, Beyoncé uses her cultural power to include and demarginalize diverse identities for her dancers in both an individual and communal sense.

Works Cited

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  • McGee, Alexis. “The Language of Lemonade: The Sociolinguistic and rhetorical strategies of Beyoncé’s Lemonade.” The Lemonade Reader. New York, Routledge, 2019, pp. 55-68.     -return to text
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  • Pough, Gwendolyn D. Check It While I Wreck It. Northeastern University Press, 2004.     -return to text
  • —. “‘Each One, Pull One’: Womanist Rhetoric and Black Feminist Pedagogy in the Writing Classroom.” Teaching Rhetorica: Theory, Pedagogy, Practice, edited by Kate Ronald and Joy Ritchie. Heinemann, 2006, pp. 66-81.     -return to text
  • —. “Personal Narratives and Rhetorics of Black Womanhood in Hip-Hop.” Race and Ethnicity. Edited by Keith Gilyard and Vorris Nunley. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2004, pp. 111-118.     -return to text
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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.” https://africanfeminism.com/dismantling-manels-the-ghanaian-feminist-agenda/#:~:text=Manels%20are%20pervasive%20in%20 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
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  • 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
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  • 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
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  • 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

Appendix

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, https://sites.uci.edu/vaohp/2015/04/30/why-westminster-eleven-reasons-the-vietnamese-came-to-little-saigon-and-why-they-stayed/.     -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. http://enculturation.net/disciplinary-transformations.     -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. http://enculturation.net/beyond_representation.     -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, https://nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator/?q=uc+irvine&s=all&id=110653. 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, https://special.lib.uci.edu/blog/2017/07/beginnings-activism-department-asian-american-studies-uci.     -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, www.oed.com /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, garage.vice.com/en_us/article/d3ekbm/octavia-butler.     -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. https://doi.org/10.1215/01642472-20-2_71-97     -return to text
  • Nelson, Alondra. “Introduction: Future Texts.” Social Text, vol. 20 no. 2, 2002, p. 1-15. Project MUSE muse.jhu.edu/article/31931.     -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://Www.inquirer.com, The Philadelphia Inquirer, 2 Feb. 2021, www.inquirer.com/columnists/afrofuturism-future-the-black-tribbles-black-panther-octavia-butler-20200226.html.     -return to text
  • Womack, Ytasha. Afrofuturism: the World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture. Lawrence Hill Books, 2013.     -return to text

From Resilience to Resistance: Repurposing Faculty Writers’ Survival Strategies

Writing, Like a Road Trip

 

Writing’s like a road trip: trying to get to the next stop

this factory process of keeping things moving

Trying to get to the next stop,

he said up the body count,

It’s more assembly line thinking,

so I’m upping the body count

Trying to get to the next stop

now I want to sit a while before going to the next place

Those months that I didn’t do much

hurry, think of a project

Where I was just sad

I don’t see the end of it.

Good ideas don’t come out of busy days.

This poem, composed in the words of faculty writers, offers a glimpse of the anxiety that results from pressure to produce high stakes academic writing. It captures the resilience of writers, their persistence, their willingness to do what must be done to proceed, to get to the next stop, even when there is no end in sight. In doing so, the poem surfaces embodied, emotional dimensions of faculty members’ lived experience of writing for high stakes publication. I propose that by highlighting the complex relationship between unique and shared experiences, the one and the many, data poems like the one above put pressure on common assumptions about resilience and productivity that fuel success for some faculty more than others. In this article, I use poetic inquiry1 as part of a feminist research methodology(see Appendix A) that probes public-private, mind-body, and intellect-emotion binaries to reveal multiple, complicated truths about building a healthy academic writing life (Faulkner 7).

Unfortunately, efforts to develop a critical, material, multidimensional understanding of faculty writers’ needs and experiences are relatively rare. Whereas emerging scholarship offers a rich sense of the lived experiences of graduate student writers (Madden, Eodice, Edwards, and Lockett, 2020), faculty are a new focus for the field of writing studies (Hedengren), and what scholarship exists does not always take such a holistic, humanistic approach. Geller and Eodice’s groundbreaking collection Working with Faculty Writers is one of the first to “delve into who faculty writers are, and who they might be, and consider the theoretical, philosophical, and pedagogical approaches to faculty writing support” (Geller 9–10). Focusing on what works in particular institutional and programmatic contexts, the collection paves the way for more intense scholarly inquiry in the area (Hedengren 165). Although faculty writers have been the subject of studies in the field of composition and rhetoric (Sonderlund and Wells; Tulley; Wells and Sonderlund) and in other disciplines (Ezer; Sword), research tends to focus on best practices, behaviors, and habits of mind of successful academic writers. As I argue elsewhere (Tarabochia), the approach problematically reinforces dominant success narratives and fails to represent or support diverse “trajectories of becoming” (P. Prior). Without a sense of how writer and human development happen “across the trajectories of a life” (P. Prior) rather than within particular domains, we as writers and as mentors (both institutionally appointed and informal), may inadvertently reinforce misguided assumptions about what it takes to succeed in high stakes academic publishing and actually thwart many faculty writers’ holistic growth and development.

I focus on the construct of resilience because resilience implicitly shapes assumptions about faculty writers’ struggles and successes and impacts faculty members’ writing lives in underacknowledged ways. Although resilience is rarely evoked directly in scholarship on faculty writers, various constructs of resilience undergird efforts to help faculty respond to the challenges of writing for publication and persist in the struggle to earn tenure; these constructs shape faculty writers’ self-perceptions and evaluations of their writing practices and products. Valuing and encouraging resilience may seem like an accepted moral good, but uncritical pursuit of and demand for resilience can be dangerous; thus resilience deserves a closer look in this context.

To theorize resilience, I begin with definitions from ecology, psychiatry, and psychology that understand resilience as the capacity (of a system or individual) to absorb disturbance (Walker and Salt xiii), to bounce back after difficulty (Southwick and Charney 8), to adapt to adversity (Comas-Diaz et al.), to demonstrate “hardiness” and “surviv[e] stress” (Kobasa and Puccetti, and Rutter qtd. in Jordan 29). In this view, resilience is a valuable mechanism for sustaining a person or a system; it is an uncontested good.

However, scholars have problematized the notion of resilience, from educational (Gallagher, Minter and Stenberg; McMahon), race-based (Bachay and Cingel; Griffin), queer (Cover; Meyer), disability (Hutcheon and Lashewicz, “Individuals”), indigenous (Reid), and feminist (Bracke; Flynn, Sotirin and Brady; McMahon) perspectives. For example, resilience is often associated with “individual persistence” (Fulford 231), neglecting “relationality and mutuality as constitutive dynamics of resilience” (Flynn, Sotirin, and Brady, 5). Prioritizing personal traits can obscure systemic forces that demand resilience from some more than others. Resilience can also be problematic when it is indexed to the status quo (Lerner). The goal of resilience is typically to return to “normal” after a challenge or disturbance. However, when “normal” constitutes a state of oppression, the aim of returning to rather than transforming original conditions becomes questionable. As Sarah Bracke points out in her feminist critique, traditional forms of resilience can actually limit the capacity to imagine and pursue transformation because resilience depends on the very dispossession it seeks to overcome (65).

Scholarship on resilience in higher education tends to focus on undergraduates (Gallagher, Minter and Stenberg), while few scholars consider resilience in the context of faculty success (for example see Cora-Bramble and Cora-Bramble et al.). Resilience is not a featured concept in studies of faculty writers per se; the term does not appear in the index of recent publications (Ezer; Geller and Eodice; Sword; Tulley). However, my conversations with participants in a longitudinal research study designed to investigate faculty writers’ lived experiences revealed significant adversity (i.e. rejection, self-doubt, guilt and shame), suggesting that resilience may be a central and potentially problematic construct shaping writers’ self-perceptions of their struggle to publish or perish.

I interrogate resilience from a feminist perspective because I take seriously emotional, material, relational, psychological, embodied aspects of writers’ lives and processes, dimensions that are typically ignored or devalued in institutional contexts designed to objectively celebrate the disembodied intellectual prowess of upper middle class white men. My method of interrogation, poetic inquiry, works as a “feminist embodied analysis” through which I make myself vulnerable, “show[ing] my bodily engagement with participants and research ideas” using poetry to “understand, describe, and query embodied experiences [my own and participants’] in everyday relational life” (Faulkner 22).2  Before offering an extended found poem, I will briefly describe the longitudinal qualitative research study that generated the field texts from which the poem was composed and explain how resilience emerged as a point of investigation.

Capturing Lived Experience of Faculty Writers: A Research Study

In 2016, I began a longitudinal study that involves interviewing faculty writers every spring for up to six years to understand their experiences of their writing lives. My interview approach, broadly rooted in Robert Kegan’s Constructive-Developmental Theory of self-evolution, seeks to shed light on how participants make sense of their experiences and their lives.3 Loosely following the design protocol described by Lahey et al., interviews begin with a self-inventory in which participants jot down memories or experiences from their writing lives related to 10 words—angry, anxious/nervous, success, strong stand/conviction, sad, torn, moved/touched, lost something, change, important—and use their notes to guide the interview. Kegan and colleagues found these words directed interviews to “ripe areas,” leading interviewees to establish “ongoing awareness of themselves” (Lahey et al. 202). Using emotion to prompt self-reflection and experiential meaning-making resonates with the feminist methodology guiding my project. It honors embodied emotion (emotion related to original experiences, memories of which are triggered by words on the cards, and emotions that emerge in the moment as a result of recalling memories of being angry, sad, torn, etc.) in a context (academic writing) that tends to privilege the mind. The inventory allows both me and the participant to “take a break from the ‘outside’ world and to settle into [ourselves]” (Lahey et al. 203), promoting feminist values of relationality and deep listening. The protocol empowers the interviewee; I never see the cards so participants have the privacy to “generate a fuller pool of experiences to select from in the interview” and an opportunity to decide what they are willing to share (Lahey et al. 203). Many faculty writers find the inventory and interview process meaningful for their private thinking, reflection, and growth. Many share how rarely they are invited to reflect on their writing lives and how grateful they are to revisit experiences about which they carry strong, sometimes unprocessed emotion.

The study is ongoing; participants have joined and left the study since it began in 2016 and 25 people are currently active. In this article, I offer a snapshot, analyzing transcripts gathered from 21 participants in spring 2018.4 Participants were recruited from three different institutions, all wanted or needed to write for publication, and most were initially recruited from facilitated faculty writing groups. Most were tenure track or recently tenured in 2018. They come from several field areas and disciplines, though mostly from Social Science and Arts & Humanities. Most self-identified as white women, one woman is Black, one man Iranian, one man mixed race and three people chose not to specify race or ethnicity.5

Over the last several years, I’ve experimented with approaches to preliminary data analysis and generated insights about the relation between graduate student and faculty writer development (Tarabochia & Madden), the role of emotional labor in writers’ developmental trajectories (Madden & Tarabochia), how transformative experiences inform learning transfer for faculty (Tarabochia & Heddy), and how self-authorship works as a lens for understanding and supporting faculty writer development (Tarabochia). I’ve also used exploratory coding strategies rooted in constructivist grounded theory (Charmaz) such as open and focused coding to mine subsets of the data for larger themes or points of interest. My consistent engagement with data, my extended relationship with participants, and my own experiences as a faculty writer inform the subjectivity (researcher and human) from which I offer the artistic representation at the heart of this article. Many issues indicative of the type of adversity that calls for resilience have been consistently present for me as a faculty writer and in the stories participants tell about their writing lives (See Appendix A).

Found poetry: A Feminist Interpretive Approach

Found poetry is an arts-based approach to representing qualitative interview data, what Laurel Richardson (“Writing”) calls a “radically interpretive” “social science art form” (964; Richardson “Nine Poems”; “Poetic”; Butler-Kisber “Whispering Angels”; Qualitative; Janesick). A critical, decolonial methodology, arts-based research (ABR) challenges claims to objective Truth, foregrounding instead “multiple and complicated truths” (Faulkner 7) at the level of “intuition, perception, emotion” and embodiment (McNiff 4; R. Prior x). Relevant for feminist researchers, found poetry can “demasculinize” social research by offering alternative representations of knowledge and dismantling claims to objective analysis, foregrounding the interpretive labor of researchers and readers (Richardson, “Poetic” 879). By “jarring people into seeing and thinking differently” (Leavy, “Method” 24), arts-based practices support activist goals, moving readers to action by offering a more provocative re-creation of experience compared to traditional, linear science-oriented prose. As Richardson (“Poetic”) points out, the “body responds to poetry. It is felt” (879, original emphasis).

The approach is particularly valuable for examining resilience because it engages the complex relationship between the individual and the collective. Resonant with portraiture as a genre of inquiry, found poetry “capture[s] the texture and nuance of human experience” in ways that recognize and celebrate the individual even as it blurs the “boundaries between individual and humankind” (Lawrence-Lightfoot and Davis 5, 21). I use found poetry to represent the relationship between each individual participant in my study and a composite story, emerging through poetry, that intermingles their words; between the “one” collective voice of the poem and the many readers who may find resonance there; between me as poet-researcher and faculty writer with my own lived experiences and each participant in the study sharing stories that speak to me in the data.

I crafted the poems featured in this article intuitively using a non-linear process similar to that of educational researchers Butler-Kisber (“Artful Portrayals”) and Walsh that involved several rounds of selecting, paring down, deleting, rearranging lines, building a “mental kaleidoscope” as words of one participant conjured aspects of other participants’ experiences until the accumulation surfaced and made “more tangible” various dimensions of the subject of investigation, resilience (Butler-Kisber, “Artful Portrayals” 233).6 As I prepared to conduct interviews in 2019, I read transcripts from 2018 and kept a file with sentences and phrases that struck me as I read. Because I was interested in exploring resilience, I paid particular attention to lines that captured adversity or faculty responses to adversity. I whittled down the file to the most poignant or impactful lines, the ones that provoked a bodily reaction in me, and those that chillingly captured the essence of what I’d heard from other participants. Next, I grouped the lines that spoke to each other and chose lines to title those groups. Finally, I arranged the lines within each group into stanzas that addressed different aspects of the topic or communicated a feeling.

In Butler-Kisber’s (“Artful Portrayals”) words, “there is no question that this found poem is my interpretation” of what I heard in participants’ stories based on what “resonated with my—and what I imagined were other [faculty writers’]—experiences” (234, 232).7 Attendees of my session at the 2019 Feminisms & Rhetorics conference performed a collaborative reading of this poem. Their unsolicited comments about how deeply, and in some cases disturbingly, the words and sentiments resonated with them as writers speak to the criteria used to assess the value and utility of poetic inquiry: verisimilitude, narrative truth, and evocation (Leavy, “Introduction”; Fernández-Giménez, Jennings, and Wilmer).8

Adversity and Resilience in Faculty Writing Lives: A Found Poem

End Note 9

1   All sorts of ways of telling a story,
—-Find the rhythm.

2   Get told: Okay, here’s the path, go down the path.
—-Over and over and over
—-Over and over and over again.
—-Such a torture!

3   You have to imagine Sisyphus is happy.

 

Failing Better

4   Anxious. Nervous.
—-Always
—-Always
—-Always
—-Always the question:
—-Will the words come?

5   Writing is what makes the pressure
—-of writing go away.

6   It shouldn’t be that hard, but it is for me.
—-A constant battle:
—-You can do this.
—-You can’t do this.
—-The good and the evil.

7   The demon has quieted.

8   I’m nervous in the chair.
—-Other people can do it, why can’t I?
—-Get stuck in feeling bad–
—-Why are you doing this, you’re such a fake?
—-It’s terrifying to feel that anxious.

—-Just keep my head above water,
—-surrendering to the fact that I’m not okay.

9   I’m more comfortable in the struggle.

 

It’s the Losses that Stick

10   Writing is such an alone thing,
– —in-between kind of purgatory position.
– —You don’t really have a choice, do this or fail.
— –I didn’t do it right,
— –I should have done it better.
— –I disappointed you.
— –I let you down.
— –I, I, I, I, sad, personal stuff.

11    I’m going to fail trying.

12    Waste of my talent,
–  — waste of years and relationships,
–  — letting down my family.
–  — It’d be catastrophic.
—     Don’t know if I can think of anything worse,
— –  besides severe disability or death.

13   Tenure has removed a lot of those shackles.

14    Life? That’s a whole other story.
—  – To live my life and work
—  – but not have work erode that life.
—    –I lost the chance to make that choice.
—  – Do people have to suffer
– – – to live the quality of life they want to lead?
 —  –My books aren’t going to come visit me when I’m old.

 

15    Learning to do life better.

 

I Want Poetry, I Want a Poetics

16   Time to go on this archeological expedition
 —– and find the thing that I want to be.
– — Try to put your round peg into that square hole.
 — –That’s just not how I am.
– — Creative juices don’t flow that way.
– —  Just need to suffer through it.

– – –Everything is fine,
– – –except when it’s not.

17    Just let it be.

18    Other people’s expectations:
– – –Good people are people who work hard.
– – –I don’t want to be that person
– – –checking the boxes.
– – –Am I being prideful?
– – –Am I too invested in praise and recognition?
– – –Get the fuck over yourself.
– – –You’re not special.

19    Y’all can kiss it. I could care less
— – What y’all care about.

20    Work is where I lose my sense of self
–   —not where I get my sense of self.
–   —It was such a clear omission,
–   —like I didn’t even exist.
–   —There’s a thing there that I’m chasing
–   —that I can’t quite get to.

21  I feel in my bones that the work is important.

 

Our Labor is Our Labor

22    Being pulled apart
–   —there just aren’t enough parts of me.
–   —Like the ameba that’s splitting in half,
–   —this physiological connection in my mind
–   —around writing.

23    Start dislodging the association
–  – —between anxiety and writing.

24    Physical and mental torment.
–   —Bargain with yourself,
–   —what you’re willing to accept.
–   —I wake up hot, sweaty.
–   —It’s awful,
—  – like being smashed down
—     but with no way out.

25    It comes down to support.

26    Emotionally exhausted and depressed,
–   —incredible sense of sorrow and guilt,
–   —heartbrokenness for the subject matter.
–   —Couldn’t talk myself out of the way that felt.
–   —Went home and cried,
–   —several times,
–   —by myself.

27    Just walk along with me.

28    So I’m just fucking doing it–
   —-Sewing together my parachute
   —-with the writing.
   —-Like the falcon rising from the dust.

29    How are you gonna start the revolution if
—   –you’re not writing?

Discussion

By revealing multiple truths in a collective voice, the poem honors affective, material experiences that often remain hidden in an academic culture that separates mind/body/emotion and favors linear narratives of success. The poetic representation invites a visceral association with embodied feelings of perpetual torment, anxiety, self-criticism and doubt, loss, longing, exhaustion, and resilience that mark faculty writing lives. It honors the humanity of writers in my study and lays bare my own vulnerability—as a researcher immersed in this project and as a faculty writer myself. As poet, I selected and arranged the words and phrases of others, making sense of their truths through my own lens. Because the poem foregrounds my role in its construction, in discussing its “meaning” I cannot hide behind analysis—“this is what the data show.” Thus in what follows I do not use the poem as evidence for an argument about resilience. Rather, I share insights that emerged for me through a recursive process of self-reflexive listening and composing.

          • Resilience is constructed: Resilience looks, feels, and means differently, has different implications, depending on the context and the type of adversity that demands it.
          • Resilience is nonlinear: Far from a steady march through adversity to success, resilience is more likely to be a messy, recursive mangle of starts, stops, and perpetual returns.
          • Resilience is discursive: Discourses of resilience shape how faculty writers understand their struggles and experiences in ways that enable and constrain their work.

Resilience is Constructed 

By featuring “all sorts of ways of telling the story” (1), the data poem reveals the constructed nature of resilience, surfacing numerous, sometimes paradoxical constructions.  Poetry honors and evokes emotion so readers feel multiple truths around how faculty experience their writing lives. For example, because resilience depends on adversity, attending to multiple descriptions of the lived experience of adversity in the poem shows how certain experiences and consequences of resilience are more meaningful than others. Adversity can be necessary and worth enduring. The struggle to figure out what one wants to say or be—how one works as a writer (16)—is essential for building a healthy writing life, making resilience an empowering self-investment. On the contrary, needless adversity demands resilience that is discriminatory and dehumanizing—writers describe physical and mental torment (24), splitting in half, being ripped apart (22). The demand to advocate for one’s right to exist (20), emotional exhaustion and heartbrokenness, suffering in solitude (26)—often the result of fighting to survive in sexist, racist, classist, ableist, colonialist institutions—are not only without benefit but also demeaning. In such a diminished state, individuals and groups are distracted from and ill equipped to transform dominant ideologies that create and sustain senseless adversity in the first place.

Spotlighting varying truths is important because too often expectations about what resilience looks like are treated as universal when they are actually constructed and sanctioned through dominant ideologies (Hutcheon and Lashewicz, “Individuals”). Because resilience is determined by how well individuals fulfill institutionally valued roles, those who deviate from or resist those roles may be considered less resilient. We cling to “understandings of resilience that reflect the dominant cultural ethos of the rugged individual and that tout resilient individuals as possessing above-average levels of fortitude or character-armor” (Hutcheon and Lashewick, “Theorizing” 1388), and thus identify resilient writers as those who are stoic and independent, who seem “together,” confident, who don’t need help. Processes such as “mourning, distress, suffering, anxiety, vulnerability, or uncertainty” are attributed to “less-than resilient” individuals and groups (Hutcheon and Lashewicz, “Individuals” 44). In this view, lines in the poem such as “it comes down to support” (25) and “just walk along with me” (27) suggest writers are unprepared or as one writer in my study heard from her senior colleagues, in need of inappropriate “handholding.” Admission of extreme anxiety (“I’m nervous in the chair,” “It’s terrifying to feel that anxious” (8)), devastating doubt (“Will the words come?” (4)), and tortuous guilt (“I didn’t do it right/I should have done it better/I disappointed you/I let you down” (10), “Waste of years and relationships,/letting down my family” (12))—might likewise indicate lack of resilience.

However, when these expressions emerge from the collective as in the poem, they become more than unfortunate struggles of a select few and begin to trouble assumptions about what constitutes resilience. What if writers who “focus on stressors and burdens” and don’t always ascribe “positive meaning” are demonstrating resilience (Hutcheon and Lashewicz, “Individuals” 44)? The lines “Just keep my head above water/surrendering to the fact that I’m not okay” (8), for example, might initially suggest floundering, drowning, giving up. However, surrendering could also be an empowering release of denial, a refusal to waste energy treading water in order to appear resilient, the first step to making changes in structures or practices that are not sustainable. The poem demonstrates how faculty “navigate successes and challenges” in ways that are not always “expected, or even imagined, under prevailing definitions of resilience” (Hutcheon and Lashewicz, “Individuals” 42).

Resilience is Nonlinear

Prevailing constructions frame resilience as a linear progression in which individuals weather adversity, emerging worn and scarred but triumphant. However, in the poem literary strategies such as repetition trouble the linearity of resilience by forcing readers to linger with faculty in the grueling reiteration of relentless adversity. Writers don’t always see (let alone reach) the finish line, the last stop; they are lost in the perpetual monotony of the factory, the endless progression of train cars. They endure the torture of “going down the path over and over and over, over and over and over again” (2), eternally chasing a thing they “can’t quite get to” (20). The terrible possibility that the words will never come is “always, always, always” a reality (4) as faculty experience writing on the tenure track as an “in-between kind of purgatory position” (10). Literary techniques create an interpretive representation of faculty writers’ individual and collective experience, revealing this underacknowledged aspect of resilience; few experience it as consistent forward momentum.

Juxtaposed with lines that emphasize the perpetuity of adversity, other lines indicate hope—writers “imagine Sisyphus is happy” (3), that it is possible to quiet the demons (7); they demonstrate earned insight—“writing is what makes the pressure of writing go away” (5), and become “more comfortable in the struggle” (9); they demonstrate dogged determination—“I’m going to fail trying” (11). Importantly these lines are not gathered at the end of the poem as final statements of resilient fortitude in the face of adversity. Rather, they run alongside writers’ experiences of wallowing in the muck and mire, a refrain that responds to but does not resolve the agony expressed in the verses running down the left side of the page. In this way, the poem highlights a recursive relationship between adversity and resilience. Resilience is not necessarily a solution or even a response to adversity, as linear constructions would suggest.  Instead, writers hold these forces simultaneously in tension. The poetic form allows this seeming paradox to emerge as the literary/rhetorical technique of call and response contrasts writers’ experiences of perpetual adversity with sentiments of grit.

Lines that suggest resilience are regularly followed by lines that reiterate ongoing clashes with adversity, resisting the notion of resilience as a happy ending. Writers describe a constant battle of good and evil: “You can do this. You can’t do this” (6). They struggle to the point of exhaustion to keep “head above water” (8), “get stuck in feeling bad” as they ponder why others appear more resilient (8). Writers fail to take an optimistic view or convince themselves to stay positive; they sit with exhaustion and sorrow, heartbroken (26). Writers doubt whether the goal is worth the effort to be resilient in the face of such anguish. They wonder if “people have to suffer/to live the quality of life they want to lead” and question what it is all for: “my books aren’t going to come visit me when I’m old” (14). By circling through adversity and resilience the movement of the poem resists linearity and invites readers to reconsider the relationship between those forces.  It illustrates how faculty writers “navigate, in a multitude of ways, the interface between the positive and the negative aspects of their experiences,” allowing “narratives of unevenness, paradox, and contradiction” to emerge in ways that challenge traditional, linear notions of resilience (Hutcheon and Lashewicz, “Individuals” 57, 56).

Resilience is Discursive

Constructions of resilience shape and are shaped by the discourses surrounding the lives and work of faculty writers. Sometimes discursive constructions of resilience are positive and empowering for faculty. Building a healthy writing life can inspire important identity work as faculty decide who they want to be as scholars and people (18). Often they are able to critically consider how the forces of academic discourse are shaping them for better or for worse. Resilience can come in the form of a reality check: Get the fuck over yourself./You’re not special (18).  Examples like these showcase writers who are able to get outside of and critique discourses that aren’t serving them in order to be resilient in living out their values.

At the same time, rather than empowering faculty writers, discourses of resilience rooted in neoliberal values can problematically shape self-perceptions. Individualistic constructions of resilience are paramount in neoliberal climates wherein faculty writers “are expected to compete and produce” (Stenberg 7). Faculty writers have clearly internalized neoliberal constructions of resilience, such as “good people are people who work hard” (18). The poem is designed to raise questions about faculty writers’ expressions of resilience given the cultural value of resilience reinforced through neoliberal academic discourse. That many verses focus on experiences of adversity, accentuated with flashes of resilience begs the question: Do faculty feel compelled by dominant discourses to find a silver lining in the midst of struggle? Might the prevalence of normative narratives of success coerce them into performing resilience? Do faculty celebrate “learning how to do life better” (15), claim to be “dislodging the association/between anxiety and writing” (23), and admonish themselves to “just let it be” (17) because they’ve been taught to want and expect themselves to be able to? If so, then the need to be and appear resilient, in a traditional sense, may very well be another source of adversity.

In their pursuit of resilience as a “desired good” (Bracke 53), individuals eagerly develop strategies for embracing and maintaining it, even if it means solidifying the conditions that demand resilience. For example, faculty writers find the resilience to endure the tenure track by believing that things will be better post-tenure. In the poem they say tenure has “removed their shackles” (13). They normalize and resign themselves to torment, admonishing they “must believe Sisyphus was happy” (3) and “just need to suffer through it” (16). Rob Cover calls this “resilient hopefulness” wherein the conditions that require resilience are presumed to be “timeless and unchangeable” so that individuals are “only able to find and develop resilience by looking beyond” the adverse circumstances that threaten hopelessness (359, 358). Because “resilience is structurally linked with the threats against which it is supposed to give shelter” allowing adverse conditions in the present is necessary for maintaining resilience, which cannot exist without the “disaster or threat” that demands it (Bracke 59). Resilient hopefulness serves this purpose, thwarting meaningful transformation of oppressive structures and practices that cause inhumane adversity detrimental to individual faculty writers and to the academic enterprise. Faculty feel pressure to show resilience by conforming, submitting to how things are, fitting their “round peg(s) into that square hole” (16).

In a similar vein, the poem highlights faculty writers’ experiences of neoliberal discourse in which “resilience turns away from vulnerability” (Bracke 59), promotes suffering in silence. Faculty writers say writing is “such an alone thing” (10), a “physical and mental torture” (24) they can never admit. They go home and cry alone (26). They “bargain with themselves” (24) about how much they can endure in silence. Writers deeply feel, but cannot show vulnerability. Entrenched in neoliberal discourses of resilience, which are exploited and reinforced through academic discourse and culture, faculty writers are resigned to “suffer through” (16) hardship alone because vulnerability is not an option.

Implications for Faculty Writers, Evaluation, and Support

Our roles, and the power dynamics they imply, shape how we are positioned to use insights about resilience to resist and transform institutional structures that disproportionately determine who succeeds and fails in academia.10 We can be empowered or disempowered as writers. We can inhabit positions of power over faculty writers as institutional gatekeepers, and we can position ourselves to be in power with writers as faculty support professionals, un/official mentors and peer writers participating in faculty writing groups and/or conversations with colleagues about our writing lives. We can also take up “the actionable stance of power to,” a “facilitative power” that “involves standing up and as part of institutions” (Diab et al.). Because “power intersects our lives in and out of [institutions] and is part of how we live, communicate, and relate with self and others” (Diab et al.), power is a useful heuristic for orienting to issues of resilience. Given the transformative goals for this project, power is a vital consideration when it comes to acting on these insights. As Diab et al. put it: “When we see ourselves as powerful, we are better able to expand our perspectives; then we can work with and alongside others toward transforming inequities.”

Faculty Writers: (Em)Power(ing) For

A critical understanding of resilience can be empowering for faculty writers—those of us who write for academic publication, to survive the tenure track, to be attractive on the job market, and/or to contribute to our fields and disciplinary communities. From this perspective seeing ourselves and our experiences in the words of fellow writers reminds us that we are not alone, which is important considering one effect of neoliberalism on academic culture is a focus on individualism. We must appear strong, capable, independent. If we struggle with traditional forms of resilience, we assume we don’t belong, weren’t meant for this work. We look around and see nothing but resilient writers, writers who likely struggle with the very challenges we suffer but who hide or deny their feelings in order to appear resilient. The consequence is often debilitating self-doubt: “It shouldn’t be that hard, but it is for me” (6); “Other people can do it, why can’t I?” (8); “Why are you doing this, you’re such a fake?” (8). When we see those doubts and questions expressed by others, when others’ words resonate so deeply with our lived realities, we realize that the work is difficult for many, even most, and find camaraderie and support through vulnerability.

By honoring multiple truths about what it is like to forge a meaningful writing life, the data poem featured here joins research on collaborative writing and scholarship (Day and Eodice; Eodice; Hixon-Bowles and Paz; Lunsford and Ede “Why Write”; “Collaborative Authorship”; Writing Together), writing groups (Alexander and Shaver; Morris, Rule, and LaVecchia; Shaver, Davis, and Greer), critical mentoring (Glenn; Godbee and Novotny; Ribero and Arellano; Vanhaitsma and Ceraso) and faculty development (facultydiversity.org; Rockquemore and Laszloffy) in challenging neoliberal tendencies toward isolation and individualism and encouraging vulnerability as a vital component of resilience. Moreover, the poem stimulates discussion about which types of adversity are meaningful, worth tackling, and which are needless and dehumanizing. Learning to distinguish among these types of diversity and the resilience they demand positions writers to relax into the adversities we must face, perhaps by seeking out others who can sympathize and empathize and strategize with us as we do. It also empowers us to see patterns in needless adversity, to gather with others to resist and work to transform structures that keep them in place.

Faculty Support: “Power with”

Many of us support faculty writers in official roles through research offices, writing centers, writing across the curriculum programs, and centers for faculty excellence as well as through unofficial roles as mentors, senior colleagues and peers. By learning to differentiate among types of adversity those of us who support faculty writers can cultivate meaningful resilience needed to build sustainable writing lives. We can identify, honor, and support diverse strategies of resilience attuned to particular needs and circumstances. In doing so, we embrace “the relational stance of power with” characterized by “solidarity and affiliation” (Diab et al., original emphasis). We join with others, coalition building toward survival with the understanding that we are “much larger and stronger together than alone” (Diab et al., original emphasis).

Standing in “power with” calls for a “transformative notion of resilience” that recognizes “various forms of rebellion and resistance…as acts of resilience” (McMahon 55). For example, elaborating her theory of subversive resilience Collie Fulford describes blending accommodationist and resistant strategies to simultaneously survive immediate adversity and work toward transforming unsustainable conditions. By way of example, Fulford describes African American women’s historical and contemporary quilting practices in which they responded to frugal times by sewing together available scraps into artful, versatile, if imperfect quilts. A stitch work metaphor from my data poem taps into this artistic form of accommodationist resistance:

So I’m just fucking doing it–
sewing together my parachute
with the writing. (28)

These words inspire us to stay in power with those we intend to support, as we all find ways to do more than survive—to resist in order to transform, or perhaps more pointedly abolish, the systems and structures that limit thriving. Toward that end, faculty support efforts might foster critical engagement with the very concept of resilience (Cover) through explicit conversations with writers about neoliberal cooptation of resilience, and facilitate versatility in resilient practices, particularly resistant ones, by joining writers in asking: Resilient for what purpose? Resilient according to whom (McMahon 49)

Faculty Evaluation: “Power to”

 Many of us also interact with writers in institutionally sanctioned evaluative roles on annual evaluation committees and tenure and promotion committees, as journal reviewers and editors. In these roles, we are positioned to take “the actionable stance of power to,” a facilitative form of power that involves “standing up and as part of institutions,” acting toward transformation (Diab et al., original emphasis). This stance is about redirecting power from institutions with “power over” individuals to people with goal-directed power to change the institutional structures we have fashioned and sustain. For example, when evaluating faculty writers’ labor and accomplishments we can choose to value vulnerability as meaningful resilience rather than weakness. Rather than put a struggling writer on probation after a tough year, we might take a critical look at the adverse conditions demanding resilience and determine how to support the writer and simultaneously address structures creating needless, debilitating adversity through policy change.11 With greater awareness of faculty writers’ experiences of problematic structures, we might perceive and respond to vulnerability differently. If conservative top tier journals in our field won’t accept a writer’s critical scholarship drawing on minoritized theoretical frameworks, we might support the writer’s argument that their preferred venues are rigorous, important, and reaching their intended audience, and help rewrite tenure criteria to accept these venues.

Approaching evaluation of faculty writers from a place of facilitative power might also acknowledge that entrenched notions of resilience can have detrimental consequences for those deemed resilient (Hutcheon and Lashewicz, “Individuals”). Faculty who are perceived to be resilient based on dominant constructions of sanctioned social roles may not have access to the support and resources provided to those who appear less competent, less resilient. It may be assumed that a faculty writer who appears busy and reports good progress with their writing does not need a mentor, for example. The department tenure committee may decide not to pass along information about a funded writing retreat because their colleague doesn’t seem to need help. Normalizing the human experience of adversity faculty writers suffer and emphasizing the nonlinearity of resilience acknowledges that writers may not always be or feel as resilient as they seem and that resilience can come and go; it attests to the need for resources and support structures for seemingly resilient and less resilient faculty writers alike.

Conclusion 

In this article, I’ve used poetic inquiry to cultivate an “understanding of resilience that is not founded in notions of competency, skill, or ability, in ways that devalue and delimit” faculty writers, “an approach to resilience that takes into account fluid, changing, and localized perspectives” (Hutcheon and Lashewicz “Individuals” 57). I suggest that the words of faculty writers from my study, arranged poetically to foreground the isolation of the individual and the power of the collective, promote what Bracke calls a “politics of resisting resilience,” or more specifically, resistance to resilience when it is constructed through “a neoliberal social ontology that revolves around the individual” and ignores “the paralyzing effect that the complexity of our world has on that individual” (72). I hear the voices of these faculty writers, alone and together, calling for critical relational resilience rooted in an awareness of the constructed nature of resilience and how particular constructions are privileged according to context and circumstance.

Drawing on Judith V. Jordan’s work in feminist psychology, critical relational resilience in the context of faculty writing lives entails supporting and validating vulnerability as a rightful, necessary state of human connection that is integral to resilience. Rather than tout self-sufficiency, critical relational resilience depends on and cultivates investment in mutual relationships where individuals both give and receive, need and offer, confident that the roles will be reciprocal over time (Jordan 35). As Jordan points out, an “ethic of mutuality is essential”; when a person or persons “is in a position of ‘power over’ another” mutuality and relational resilience is not possible (35). Thus, as I’ve suggested, parsing out how we are “in relation” with/as faculty writers and reflecting on the role of power in those dynamics (i.e. when are we empowering/ed, in power over, in power with, invoking power to) is crucial for embracing critical relational resilience.

As I hope to have shown, poetic inquiry is a promising way to foster the necessary conditions for this work by honoring vulnerability, inviting relationality, and disrupting the isolation that results from imposter syndrome, self-deprecation and self-doubt. Connection is vital for “it is when we feel most separate from others and from the flow of life that we are at most risk” (Jordan 36). Toward that end, my data poem promotes what Jordan calls “resonance with” by amplifying individual voices through the resounding swell of the choral. Broadening the lonely experience of “self at the center” to an “experience of ‘being with’” (36) has the potential to empower writers and those of us who work with them to resist a culture of blame directed at individuals and begin to dismantle the systems and structures, policies and procedures that hold us all back. These notions of vulnerability, relationality, “being with” and “in relation” align with feminist principles of composing and mentorship. Applying them to the concept of resilience may be a meaningful way to enact those principles as we write (and tell stories about our writing lives), and as we support, evaluate and research faculty writers.

End Notes

  1. In this article, my poetic inquiry manifests in three ways: data poems composed from interview transcripts; found poems using words from Peitho reviewers, published scholarship, and personal correspondence with fellow arts-based researchers; and generated poems crafted from scratch. I feature data poems in the main text to center the words of faculty writers and use endnotes and appendices for the other types of poems, creating a “hall of mirrors” (Cushman 8) that refracts my own critical self-reflections about subjectivity, representation, difference, relationality, methodology, and epistemology among other complexities resonant with my commitments as a feminist researcher. See Appendix A.   -return to text
  2. For a poetic consideration of how vulnerability-as-resilience-strategy is central to my inquiry and an important representational aspect of the work itself, see Appendix B.   -return to text
  3. Whereas a linear, lockstep theory of human development might be antithetical to uncovering diverse trajectories of becoming, I am inspired by researchers who have creatively employed the theory and research process to attend to the role of different social identities within the developmental process (Torres).   -return to text
  4. There is nothing special about this group of participants or this moment in time. As I prepared to conduct interviews in 2019, listening to audio recordings of interviews and reviewing transcripts from 2018, I was studying resilience and was curious what I could learn about faculty writers’ perceptions of and experiences with resilience by listening differently to the data in front of me.   -return to text
  5. See Appendix C for poetic consideration of difference, connection, and distance in making poetic meaning from the words of people who occupy different subject positions from my own.   -return to text
  6. See Appendix D for a Haiku series on method.   -return to text
  7. See Appendix E  for poetic reflection on the role of researcher subjectivity in analyzing and representing qualitative interview data.   -return to text
  8. Participants whose words appear in the poem also had a chance to read and respond to a draft of this article. All who responded were supportive of the methodology. Some were particularly moved by how other writers’ experiences resonated with their own.   -return to text
  9. See Appendix F for a poetic reflection about the process of assembling the data poem.   -return to text
  10. I am grateful to Beth Godbee who introduced me to expanded perspectives on power in her 40-Day Practice: Strengthening Emotional Stamina to Counter White Fragility (https://heart-head-hands.com/product/40-day-practice/), through her work with Rashia Diab and Thomas Ferrel (Diab et al.; Godbee et al.) and through her scholarship on feminist co-mentoring (Godbee and Novotny) and the trauma of graduate education (Godbee).   -return to text
  11. Academic structures are inherently racist, sexist, ableist, homophobic, and colonialist and therefore disproportionately constrain and even traumatize Black faculty as well as non-black faculty of color and faculty from other minoritized groups (Andrews; Croom and Patton; Gutiérrez y Muhs, Niemann, González, and Harris; Hartlep and Ball; marbley et al.; Price and Kerschbaum; Price, Salzer, O’Shea, and Kerschbaum; Stewart).   -return to text

Acknowledgements

I am grateful for the faculty writers who so graciously invest their precious time and energy in my research and our relationships; your words and experiences are the heart of this project. I appreciate the enthusiastic engagement of anonymous Peitho reviewers, whose provocative questions inspired poetry and meaningful revision. Thanks to Lesley Bartlett and Jessica Rivera-Mueller for their patience and encouragement through oh so many drafts of this article, to Julie Ward for “holding” the creative seed of this project with and for me, and to Willow Treviño, whose work writing counter stories that critique the discourse of student success inspired me to pursue the notion of resilience in the context of faculty writers and to experiment with alternative forms of data representation.

Appendices:

Appendix A. Poetic inquiry as part of a feminist research methodology calls me to locate myself—as researcher, faculty writer, poet, and human—within this project. Inspired by Valerie J. Janesick, I offer the following identity poem to establish my orientation toward and investment in doing this research in this way.

I am from straight, cisgender, slim, able-bodied, whiteness,
from educated, English speaking, property owning, middle class citizenship
from married mother, neurotypical, (mostly) mentally stable womanhood.
I am from “follow the rules,” “confess your sins,”
and “hard work pays off.”
Good girl, good student, good choices. 
I am from check the details, put in the time, 
butt in seat, and “do you get up?”
I am from crying
              at my desk, late, bone deep frustration
              on the stairs, baby asleep, what if I can’t finish
              in the kitchen, across the island, no more to give.
Awake, drenched, heaving, pounding 
heart burning. 

-return to text use 1, use 2      -return to End Note

Appendix B. The following series of poems—including a found poem based on feedback from a Peitho reviewer, a blended poem that includes material from Caldera et al.’s article “When Researching the ‘Other’ Intersects with the Self: Women of Color Intimate Research,” and a generated poem—explores how crafting data poems demands researcher vulnerability even as it surfaces the notion of vulnerability as a strategy of resilience for faculty writers.

Resilience thrown into question
product of dominant, neoliberal ideologies
traditional performance, hushing
vulnerability as strategy of resilience
your central argument
if foregrounded and made real
with deep critical engagement
ideas about research and researcher
what and who, how and why
make this work representational itself.
(Peitho Reviewer)
Where am I vulnerable 
on the page behind the scenes 
an “institutional tool”
“identity, membership, positionality”
“influence interpretation”
“at times they were telling my story”
“different names” “another place” “recognizing
myself part of the collective” “complicit
role of subject never leaves
the self when it shifts to role of researcher”
(Author with Caldera et al.)

To write poetry
is to be vulnerable
lay bare self on page.

-return to End Note

Appendix C. The two found poems and generated poem below engage issues of difference, subjectivity, methodology and representation.

How—at a time of such racial pain—
does one hold deep connection and
respect for difference?
Where do you orient, author/researcher?
How do you engage and yet
keep your distance?
(Peitho Reviewer)
“Poetry situates me…
through its very form.”
“I too am the poem.”
“I resymbolize what occurred…
according to my own life and experiences.”
“I cannot do otherwise.”
(Walsh 990)
Respect difference
make myself vulnerable
listen, describe, feel.

-return to End Note

Appendix D: Below is a Haiku series on method inspired by Valerie J. Janesick in response to the welcome urging from a Peitho reviewer to be clearer about my method of composing and my stake in the project.

Read their words, struggle.
Visceral connection
seeing myself there.

To find the story
each word amplifies the next
reverberating.

Heart pounds. Stomach drops. 
cut pieces strike a chord nerve. 
There we are, exposed. 

Objective research,
evidence: “the data shows.”
But the poet? Naked. 

Is it them or me? 
We (e)merge to discover
A shared thread—the light. 

-return to End Note

Appendix E: Below I’ve included a found poem and generated poem complicating the expectation of objectivity, claiming and reflecting on researcher subjectivity in poetic inquiry.

Two core issues: methodology, subjectivity
inseparable. The method—deeply subjective—
a representation of the author’s sense making,
subjective identity, orientation.
Self-reflexive examination?
Critical methodological work?
Who is the one? You? Who is the many?
(Peitho Reviewer)
No question. This poem is mine. 
White, straight, cisgender, able-bodied woman
do not claim the meaning.
Surface insights revealed: “evocative
portrayal,” meaning(s) inseparable
from composing. Getting closer, 
listening, projecting…
beckoning others.
(Author, generated poem, with Butler-Kisber, “Artful Portrayals” 232)

-return to End Note

Appendix F: Below, find two found poems and a generated poem pondering the assembly process of data poems.

Poems feel disconnected
from process that generated them.
Engage the poems.
Self-reflexive examination of
assembly process
what/how/why?
(Peitho Reviewer)
Skeptical of long-winded passages
about my subjectivity
earnest and transparent they may be,
they also re-center me me me
Always power: feminist ethic of care
Making space for their words
(Rosenblatt, personal correspondence)
Replace the poems 
with “me, me, me”? I resist. 
They “luxuriate.” 

-return to End Note

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Reading and Writing the Social Swirls of The French Chef: Social Circulation and the Fan Mail of Julia Child

Introduction

In a letter dated July 27, 1962, Mrs. Thomas Myles of Wayland, Massachusetts addressed producers at WGBH, Boston’s public television station:

Last night I so enjoyed your new program The French Chef and this morning I really did successfully make a French omelet and have spent a good part of the day telling my friends about the program. They are all eagerly awaiting the next programs and asking me to show them how to do the omelette.1 (Myles to “Gentlemen”)

Written just one day after the pilot episode of The French Chef aired, this letter reveals the speed at which the culinary lessons of the now-famous Julia Child traveled into viewers’ homes. Child’s educational cooking show ran on nationwide public television stations for nearly a decade from 1963 to 1973, but, as evidenced by the lines above, it only took the first pilot to spark in Mrs. Thomas Myles the desire to cook as well as both an excited conversation among friends and an exigency to write.

The series of events in this letter illustrate “social circulation,” a concept Royster and Kirsch outline as a lens through which to examine women’s rhetorical practices across space and time in order to acknowledge “the conditions, impacts, and consequences of those practices more generatively” (24). Using the concept of social circulation to more generatively close-read the lines above, for example, allows us to examine what Royster and Kirsch might call the “overlapping social circles” in which Child both operated and influenced others and which led to viewers’ “changed rhetorical practices” (23). Through the existence of the letter itself, we witness a concrete example of such changed rhetorical practices that might not have come to fruition had it not been for Child’s performance on The French Chef. Moreover, by placing the letter into its wider social and historical circumstances, we bear witness to the ways in which Child’s own rhetorical performances moved—and moved others—across space and time. This one letter from her archival collection thus demonstrates the immediacy with which Julia Child impacted viewers’ social and rhetorical practices.

The social swirls of Child’s fan mail, which includes what Branch calls a “meteoric rise to food superstardom” (165), quite literally began with letters like the one above. To promote her cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Child had been invited to speak on I’ve Been Reading, a weekly book-review program produced by WGBH, in February 1962. Preferring to not be formally interviewed during the show, Child instead planned to perform a cooking demonstration and arrived on set with a copper bowl, a whisk, an apron, and a dozen eggs (Fitch 277; Spitz 12). The story goes that Child was so busy giving tips on how to cook a French omelet that she forgot to mention the title of her cookbook. The omission didn’t matter; in the weeks that followed, twenty-seven viewers wrote in to WGBH, many pleading, “Get that tall, loud woman back on television. We want to see more cooking!” (Prud’homme 39).

In his study of The French Chef series, film scholar Dana Polan claims that this group of letters praising Child’s performance on I’ve Been Reading was the “mere tip of the iceberg” (185). Polan further offers, in fact, that throughout Child’s decade-long success on the series, fans came to appreciate her pedagogy because they felt a sense of intimacy in her narrative, they loved her hands-on instruction, and they admired her “directness, naturalness, lack of guise, and spontaneity” (190-191). He hypothesizes that fans “felt that Child was offering something fresh in the often formulaic landscape of American television” (191). Indeed, Polan is right about both the content and the impact of those letters written to Child: starting with her television appearances on I’ve Been Reading and the three pilot episodes of The French Chef, fan letters played a significant role in Child’s rise to stardom. However, what those letters also do, as Mrs. Thomas Myles’ letter does, is reveal Child’s position as an influence in her viewers’ rhetorical exigency to write in the first place. While certainly those early fan letters are part of what jump-started Child’s career, by examining more closely the rhetorical nature of the letters, we see an even more complex version of her influences on fans. Though many of Child’s fan letters reveal that she influenced viewers in their kitchens, almost all letters reveal—just by their very existence—an exigency and an agency to write that began with Child herself.

As what Nan Johnson might call “artifacts of popular and material culture” that reveal “sources of historical evidence” (17), Julia Child’s fan letters offer a unique window into the ways in which her performed rhetorical practices on The French Chef directly influenced the rhetorical practices of her viewers. And through the lens of social circulation, fan letters from across Child’s career make viewers’ very private, domestic behaviors such as cooking, watching television, and writing—an act critical to this study—more wholly visible to a public audience. Child helped to turn viewers’ rhetorical exigencies into rhetorical action therefore situating those fans in a more complex network of her legendary career. My research thus invites that rhetorical action into the narrative by casting a wider lens through which to consider Julia Child, “a goddess of the people” (Derven), and her influence on American culture. Using Royster and Kirsch’s concept of social circulation, I position both fans and fan letters as part of a wider network of social and rhetorical activity.

“A Lucky Thing”: The Rise of Julia Child

Culinary legend Julia Child has been characterized by many as larger than life, in body and personality, and is well known for revolutionizing French cooking in America, most notably with Mastering the Art of French Cooking, published in 1961, and on The French Chef, which ran on public television from 1963 to 1973 (Polan; Spitz; Shapiro; Fitch; Prud’homme). Child’s dabbling in French cuisine began in 1949 when she enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu culinary school soon after moving to Paris with her husband, Paul. In 1951, Child met Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, two Parisian women who were working on a cookbook for an American audience. Beck and Bertholle insisted on enlisting the help of their new American confidant, and after Child painstakingly tested the book’s recipes over and over until they were foolproof (My Life 253; Fitch 212), the three women published Mastering the Art of French Cooking in March 1961. After Child’s appearance on I’ve Been Reading, her status as a culinary celebrity exploded a few months later when the first three pilots of The French Chef debuted in July 1962. The show soon became a regular series, airing one new episode and its re-run each week, and within three years was broadcasting nationwide on 104 television stations. Fans across the nation were suddenly in awe of Julia Child—or just “Julia” as many of her fans expressed—and she became a household name almost overnight2 (Tomkins; Polan; Prud’homme).

Though Child often insisted that her rise to celebrity status began as “a lucky thing” (Hudgins 107) and “kind of a mistake” (“Larry King Live”), there were other historical and cultural factors at play. In the early 1960s, World War II had ended and Americans were enjoying somewhat of a travel boom. Travelers returned home from European countries “with their tastes broadened and sharpened” (Time staff). Americans’ increased travel was coupled by an influential addition to the White House kitchen staff: President John F. Kennedy and wife Jackie hired a French chef by the name of René Verdon in 1961 (Fitch 279). By the time WGBH aired The French Chef pilots, America’s interest in “Frenchness” was already on the rise, and the reputation of French food was blossoming (Ferguson n.p.). Moreover, as Darra Goldstein and Corky White emphasize in a special issue of Gastronomica in 2005, “By opening a nation to a new range of gastronomic possibilities, [Child] truly changed the way Americans thought about food” (iii). Coincidentally, that initial, widespread popularity was only the beginning; as Anne Willan contends, Julia Child “only had to appear on screen once to become an instant star” (Women n.p.).

By challenging long-held gendered assumptions that it was men who cooked professionally and women who cooked in the home, Child’s influence also trickled into that era’s feminist movement. She would not have characterized herself as a feminist, but others claimed her as the “embodiment of feminist achievement and independence” because she “opened cooking for women” (Usher in Fitch 388). She recognized fully the discrimination women often experienced upon entering culinary professions, telling TV Guide in 1970, “…it wasn’t until I began thinking about it that I realized my field is closed to women! It’s very unfair. It’s absolutely restricted” (in Fitch 387). Child furthermore taught from the firm belief that anyone who wanted to enjoy cooking ought to have the permission to do so claiming, “We never talk about women cooking. It is PEOPLE who like to cook, and we don’t care who they are—race, color, sex, animals, ANYBODY” (in Fitch 387). At the time of Child’s rise to celebrity status, cooking often carried the connotation of a domestic practice performed in the home and was therefore separated from the feminist agenda (Hallows 37). Child, however, promoted cooking not as the categorical “drudgery of housework,” but as an antidote—as “something fun and creative” (Hollows 41). In this way, Child acknowledged cooking as a gendered activity at the same time that she aimed to separate cooking from women’s domestic work (Hallows 41). At the height of her career, Child was a revolutionary for anyone whose interests were cooking for the sake of fun. She ultimately became a role model for cooking as one of the pleasures of the kitchen, and as Boston chef Amanda Lydon offers, “What Child did is deconstruct this French, classical, rule-based cooking tradition and make it accessible as a source of pleasure at home” (in C. Lydon n.p.).

While the kitchen has remained a problematic site of gendered and domestic work (Hallows; Avakian and Haber; Fleitz; Inness), with her vision for a series of “programs on French cooking addressed to an intelligent, reasonably sophisticated audience which likes good food and cooking” (Child in Prud’homme 40), Child created an opportunity to shift the perspective by unapologetically encouraging a sense of enjoyment. Viewers tuned in to The French Chef because in it, and in Child, they saw the promotion of a lifestyle that “centered on the kitchen as a site of taste, culture, and fun” (Polan 136).

The Impact of Fans and Their Letters

To study the behavior of Julia Child’s fans is to envision the ways in which they, as members of an audience, operate as agents within a dynamic rhetorical situation; fans’ agency matters, in other words, and as Megan McIntyre might offer, it has always mattered (25). In 1992 when media scholar Henry Jenkins challenged fans’ perceived “subordinated position within the cultural hierarchy,” fans were finally assigned agency as active consumers who transform “watching television into a rich and complex participatory culture” (Poachers 23). Jenkins, in fact, positioned fans’ always already participation in larger cultural communities as contributing to “the construction and circulation of textual meanings” (Poachers 16-24). In highly nuanced ways, fans themselves ultimately produce culture by actively transforming personal reaction into social interaction. In turn, spectatorship becomes participation in that “consumption naturally sparks production” and “reading generates writing” (Jenkins, Fans 41). This interactive and reciprocal nature of fan behavior blurs the lines of consumption and production, illustrating a “dynamic duality” of reading and writing “whereby writers create readers and readers create writers” (Ede and Lunsford 169). And as a particular kind of fan activity that captures precise, contextual, and first-hand reactions, i.e., that moment of dynamic duality, fan letters provide an opportunity to witness a site of reception that at the same time displays evidence of production. Closely examining the social nature of fan letters, then, puts feminist rhetorical researchers in an exceptional position to be able to witness how ideas resonate, are expressed, and circulate (Royster and Kirsch 101).

Though reception scholars readily admit the difficulty in studying audiences empirically because of the inability to know for certain how their reactions play out (Toye 88; Kjeldsen 4), fans’ personal letters to those whom they admire or criticize offer a window for studying how consumers of media enter and participate in moments of interactivity (Simmons 455). Whether fans write to communicate with radio broadcasters (Simmons), with literary authors (Bates; Blair), with renowned artists (Grasso), or with the producers of Star Trek (Geraghty), the fan letter, as a particularly personal and contextual written performance (Henkin 118), exists as part of a wider network of socio-rhetorical activity. As Geraghty argues in his book characterizing “the epistolary of Star Trek” (11), the fan letter is a social practice that occurs within a community—a community networked with texts, participants, activities, and artifacts (Barton and Hall in Geraghty 11)—all of which contribute to how the community itself operates. That is to say, fan letters carry agency within the network of how communities and cultures are made and remade. In much the same way that fans’ letters to WGBH contributed to the success of Julia Child, for example, fan letters saved the cancellation of Star Trek, “the granddaddy” of media, not once but twice (Bacon-Smith 4). There is no doubt that fan letters and their writers have the power to impact broad cultural change (Reagin and Rubenstein para. 2.6) and it would be no exaggeration to say that they can change the course of history just as they did for Julia Child.

By composing and mailing letters back to Julia Child in response to her performances on The French Chef, viewers became “fans” in that they entered into that “rich and complex participatory culture” (Jenkins, Poachers 23). And by entering into that participatory culture, fans’ activity further constructed and circulated textual meaning. Child’s fans, in other words, made meaning from their viewing experiences—meaning which they then made clear in letters that were circulated back to Child. Within Child’s fan letters exist narratives that began in viewers’ homes, were translated into sentences and paragraphs, and traveled through space and time and into the hands of producers of The French Chef as well as Julia Child herself.3

Reading Julia Child’s Fan Mail Through Social Circulation

When The French Chef began its weekly run on WGBH in early 1963, producers soon discovered that “each installment of the show brought in a mass of fan mail” (Polan 185). Child and The French Chef production team felt it necessary to respond to nearly all letters, first because viewers had been encouraged to “write in for copies of recipes” but also because so many of the letters contained questions addressed directly to Child (Polan 185). Basic recipe requests were easy for the production team to answer but when viewers wrote in with specific questions about ingredients, about perfecting a culinary method, or about careers as chefs or restaurateurs, Child made an attempt to personally respond (Polan 186). Viewers’ questions and admiration continued to pour in at WGBH as well as other stations that had picked up the show, and eventually the number of letters Child received surpassed the number of personal responses she was able to write herself.4 As Dana Polan aptly speculates, Child “brought out something in viewers they felt they had to respond to” (190).

Encouraged by feminist historiographers Pat Bizzell and Nan Johnson who call for researchers to employ new methods and carve new pathways in their pursuit of the history of rhetoric,5 I offer fan letters from Child’s time on The French Chef as evidence of the expansive network within which she actively set, shaped, deployed—and greatly predisposed—”rhetorical trends and practices” (Royster and Kirsch 24) across a range of audience members. Specifically, the rhetorical lens of social circulation invites the feminist perspective of recognizing that “the social swirls within and across rhetorical arenas matter” (Royster and Kirsch 23-24). As social swirls that circulated into homes as exigencies and circulated out of homes as storied, rhetorical texts, fan mail written in response to Child’s performances matters a great deal. Until now, Child’s fan letters have existed as “remnants” of rhetorical activity that only lingered in the shadows (Sinor and Goggin in Royster and Kirsch 63)—they lingered first behind the scenes of her success and they linger now deep within her massive archival collection, rarely touched by scholars. They are indeed valuable pieces of ephemera, each of which helps us acknowledge and construct the even-more-widespread and complex network of Child’s rhetorical enterprise.

These letters that so many fans wrote to Child furthermore disrupt the public/private divide of where literacy occurs and how it travels. While the letters demonstrate writing in more intimate environments such as kitchens and living rooms, social circulation instead envisions the work of Child and her fans in interactive social spaces (Royster and Kirsch 24); as such, Child’s fan letters allow us to witness an influence that goes beyond the history typically represented through popular media or the less accessible spaces of her archival materials. The rhetorical activity of Child’s fans reveals a networked, socially inhabited space that allows us to broaden what counts as rhetorical performance (Johnson 15) and to more closely consider what complex relationships exist among rhetors, their tools, their texts, and their exigencies. Child’s letters additionally contextualize her viewers’ relationships with food in ways that reveal first-hand stories from more voices surrounding particular “food-related practices” (Goldthwaite 7). As Avakian and Haber would contend, women’s long association with food holds “untold stories” that “illuminate both women’s history and the history of food” (6). By pausing to look beyond what we know as “the Julia Child revolution” (McFeeley in Avakian and Haber 14), we can construct a network of fans who, through their storied interactions with Child herself, further inform a more inclusive historiography.

The letters that make up the dataset for this study come from the Papers of Julia Child: 1925-1993, one of Child’s four archival collections housed at the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library for the History of Women in America, which is part of the Ratcliffe Institute of Advanced Study in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The research I offer in this essay relies specifically on fan letters written in response to Child’s performances on The French Chef between July 1962 and July 1967. From a larger collection of Child’s fan mail that I reviewed,6 thirty-one letters include direct reference to the genre of the fan letter itself or to a literacy practice such as taking notes while watching The French Chef,7 two patterns which I explore through social circulation in the sections below.

“I’ve never written a fan letter before in my life”: Fan Letters and The Genre Function

Many letters written to Julia Child take on a curiously distinct discourse: of the thirty-one letters in this study, twenty-three include a meta-attention to the genre of the fan letter itself. A few writers simply acknowledge their letter as a fan letter; however, fifteen writers disclose that they have never written a fan letter or written to a television show, five writers offer some version of “This is not a fan letter,” and one set of writers, a couple from Madison, Wisconsin, call their note a “love letter.” These patterns may seem like peculiar ones but as fan mail scholars often point out, fans rather commonly offer commentary on the genre in which they write. Grasso found that fans writing to Georgia O’Keefe asserted a particular “reflective” position, often stating specific reasons for writing their fan letter in the first place (33). Bates similarly found that Willa Cather’s fans often employed a discourse that included declaring themselves as fans in the opening lines (para. 1.6). And fans of author Sinclair Lewis, according to Amy Blair’s analysis, portrayed a metacommentary whereby fans specifically attempted to reclassify their letters as “somehow different from a perceived typical fan letter” (145). This metacommentary on the genre of the fan letter within the fan letter likewise emerges as a common discourse across the fan mail of Julia Child.

With my aim to place fan mail into the widespread social nature of Julia Child’s influence on her fans, it is here that I make a different analytical move—a move related to the concept of genre itself—that helps to intentionally illustrate social circulation. As what Carolyn Miller might call everyday genres (155), fan letters play a key role in an ongoing social flux of rhetorical situations because they are themselves meant to be social. Analyzing the genre function of Child’s fan letters positions Child and her fans in a network of social interactions. We can then consider Child and her texts as well as her fans and their texts within what Royster and Kirsch call a “more fully textured” space (24), the “texture” of which might include what the fan letter itself makes possible. As Bawarshi offers, “…the genres we have available to us are integral to the ways we construct, respond to, and make sense of recurring situations” (42). For Child’s fans, then, exigencies came to life precisely because the fan letter was an interactive, textual option for communication. Namely, the genre itself helped to facilitate fans’ entry into the social ecology of the rhetorical situation. Furthermore, while Child’s own performances represented a particular disruption of the public/private divide by bringing home cooking into view via public television, Child’s fans, through their letters, performed a similar disruption. A desire or exigence to write “provides an occasion, and thus a form”—a form which manifests as the appropriate genre—“for making public our private versions of things” (Miller 158). Fans’ initially private exigencies, in other words, thus become wholly possible—and wholly visible—through the act of composing a fan letter. Through the lens of social circulation, Julia Child’s performances on The French Chef cultivated the grounds for viewers’ growing exigencies, while the fan letter itself, with its social function as a means to make contact and circulate conversation, enabled those viewers to act on the desire to interact with Child.

Though Child’s fans were certainly not the first to declare themselves as first-time fan letter writers, in the lines below patterns of self-disclosure allow us to witness her influence on fans’ entry into participatory culture as well as the rhetorical choices involved in doing so. Responding to the pilot episodes in 1962, Eleanor Poor Jones writes from Haverhill, MA: “I have never written a “fan” letter before this [but] I have sometimes thought of it” (Jones to Child). Audrey Stein from East Orange, NJ writes in August 1965: “I have never before written a fan letter but I just had to write to tell you how much I enjoy watching The French Chef” (Stein to Child). Writing from Burlingame, CA in September 1965, Mrs. James Finch writes: “This is the first time I have written about any television program – but this letter is a must” (Finch to Child). Rita Steele from Seattle writes in May 1966: “I’ve never written a fan letter in my life, but I cannot resist writing you…[what] you do in a half hour is a miracle” (Steele to Child). And Mrs. B. B. Phelps from Sherman Oaks, CA, also in May 1966, writes: “I’ve never written a “fan letter” before in my life, but I couldn’t resist writing to congratulate you [on] your Emmy award” (Phelps to Child). These lines reveal fans’ disclosure that they had never written within the genre, and the presence of the conjunction “but” points to Child’s performances as the exigence for rhetorical opportunity. As the socio-rhetorical function of a genre shapes our communicative goals, including why we have those goals and what purpose they serve (Bawarshi 23), the rhetorical function of the genre of “fan letter” enabled these fans—these writers—to write with the purpose of expressing admiration for the show or to extend congratulatory wishes.

Child’s fan letters illustrate a prime example of social circulation as a complex network of rhetorical actions which move and are shaped across space and time (Royster and Kirsch 98), and evidence therein suggests that Child’s own rhetorical activity is what often harnessed the occasion for these viewers to engage in the act of composing. One letter in particular reveals an especially rich example of the social and circulatory function of Child’s fan letters. In a letter to Child dated December 15, 1964, Catherine E. McKenna of Manhasset, NY writes:

My family has been laughing at me ever since I saw your television program for the first time this past Fall. I announced that I was going to write my first fan letter, and each week I have repeated it, only to be greeted by incredulous jeers. From this you may gather that I am not the type to write letters to strangers. However, I put myself in your place and decided that I would love to hear from an appreciative viewer if I were you. (McKenna to Child)

Here, the idea or intention behind writing a fan letter becomes what Bawarshi might call an “interpretive frame” where the function of a genre influences how discourse is read and understood (27). After thinking about and announcing her intention to write, the idea of the fan letter influenced how this fan interpreted her experience of watching The French Chef. Moreover, Catherine E. McKenna, first-time fan letter writer, understands how the fan letter itself is supposed to work on others; genre awareness allows her to envision the reception of her letter, and she rationalizes that Child might “love to hear from an appreciative viewer…” The genre of fan letter, in this instance, becomes endowed with a particular social meaning (Bawarshi 44)—meaning that causes the writer a bit of dissonance at the same time that it enables her to follow the course from exigence to invention to mediated personal communication with Julia Child.

We can likewise use the genre function to explore the context surrounding the fact that Catherine E. McKenna faced “incredulous jeers” upon expressing a desire to compose her fan letter. Her family’s jeers represent an entirely different perspective on the genre, and that perspective is not uncommon. With such lines as “Not given to writing fan letters…” (King to Child) or “Not a writer of fan letters…” (Davis to Child), Child’s fan mail also reveals a pattern of fan-letter denial. Two examples below offer further context:

I am not really a writer of fan letters; as a matter of fact, I think this might be my first, but I have been meaning for a long time to express my (and my husband’s) appreciation for your excellent and entertaining programs on “The French Chef.” (Robbins to Child)

I am not a fan letter writer by nature, but I feel compelled to let you know how very much our whole family enjoys your program – “The French Chef” on educational television. Neither am I much of a cook – but some of your simpler recipes have become Fuller favorites… (Fuller to Child)

These confessions are completely at odds with the genre’s function. The content of the letters classify them as fan letters, but the writers quite literally open by categorizing themselves as perhaps not the type to write. The letters suggest that writers were willing to engage in fan behavior—writing to a celebrity they admire—but perhaps didn’t want to be seen as “fanatical” or being out of touch with reality (Jenkins, Poachers 16-17). What this peculiar discourse helps us understand, nonetheless, is that though writers hint at the fan letter as something they wouldn’t normally pursue, their social action tells a different story. Miller helps us recognize, for example, that fans’ desire to fulfill their social motives through rhetorical action “invited” the use of fan letter discourse (162). It seems Child’s performances were somehow influential enough that these fans were willing to engage in this particular set of genre conventions despite their adverse notions of what it might mean to write a “fan letter.” Widening the perspective further, if we consider precisely what comes after the opening lines cited above—Robbins’ letter continues, “Several of my friends and I have become such devoted listeners that Tuesday evenings at 7 P.M. take on the character of very important meetings,” and Fuller’s letter continues, “My husband, who is fortunately for me, our real “chef” simply refuses to miss your program”—we witness the social circles that further populate Child’s social circulation. In other words, even letters composed by self-proclaimed non-fan-letter-writers reveal circulation beyond those writers as individuals; we also see the friends, families, and spouses who were likewise impacted by the ways in which Child functioned as a rhetorical agent.

The Material Culture of The French Chef

A second pattern emerging from fan mail sent to Julia Child during her time on The French Chef is related to the material literacy practices present in fans’ reception of Child’s television show. Here social circulation acts as a lens for witnessing how the materialities of cooking, eating, and learning, themselves inspired by Child’s characteristic pedagogy, then translate into particular literacy practices. Of the thirty-one letters studied, seventeen writers capture the ways in which certain literacy tools—tools such as pens, pencils, paper, and Child’s cookbook—facilitate their viewing of The French Chef. In the various examples below, the tools that fans mention in their letters play active roles in what Cydney Alexis calls “the material culture of writing,” a concept that acknowledges “the inner-workings of writers’ object-populated writing environments, or writing habitats” (84 emphasis in original). Alexis’ habitats of writing include the objects that “populate” the spaces where writing occurs (84), and those objects in writing environments are not just acted upon by writers; they are acted with by writers who position these literacy tools as equal actors (Brandt and Clinton 348; Barnett and Boyle 1). Moreover, including literacy tools in the network of rhetorical production stemming from Child’s own performances pushes beyond a more traditional way of studying a rhetor; invoking Sarah Hallenback, this perspective considers the rhetorical effects generated through “dispersed networks of women and men as well as material arrangements of space, time, and objects” (17). Assigning rhetorical agency to tools utilized by Child’s fans helps to answer the call by Royster and Kirsch to consider patterns of social circulation within rhetorical performances, including the specific communities and environmental conditions where the performances take place (104-105). For example, in lines such as this from Beth Satt written in April 1965, “We so enjoy your delightful T.V. lessons and learn good ideas and take notes” (Satt to Child emphasis added), we witness certain environmental conditions at the scene of literacy. By evidencing simultaneous acts of consumption and production, Child’s fan letters suggest what fans’ environmental conditions were like in the home and they reveal details about the different ways fans engaged with The French Chef.

Three letters in particular reveal a relationship that links the agency of specific literacy tools to a type of preparedness; each fan below associates the use of their tools with being “ready” to watch The French Chef:

Lawrence Schumann of Boston, MA opens his 1963 letter with: “Your delightful, “French Chef”, program at times causes me to have indigestion, simply because, if I get home late, I rush through dinner in order to be in a comfortable chair, with pad and pencil, ready for your eight o’clock program” (Schumann to R. Lockwood emphasis added).

Gretha Daniels of Cypress, NY opens her 1964 letter with: “I want to thank you for the many delightful hours you are giving us with French cooking […] and comes (sic) Wednesday, I am sitting with paper and pencil ready in front of our TV” (Daniels to Child emphasis added).

First-time fan-letter writer Jeanne Diamond of Portland, OR admits in 1965: “… I now look forward to your program every Monday evening with my book open and pencil ready” (Diamond to Child emphasis added).

The objects that populate fans’ viewing spaces—the comfortable chair, the pad and pencil, the paper, and the book—each take on an agency that enables fans to perform a type of literacy. Alexis posits that how one envisions what is possible “is likely tied to the goods one uses to perform and enact possibilities” (87), and here tools such as paper and pencils make possible viewers’ own performances as active producers of literacy. They too become part of Child’s network of “ever broadening circles of interaction” (Royster and Kirsch 101) because the tools themselves facilitate that interaction. Fan scholars might argue, too, that these tools specifically enable viewers to actively become fans. As Benjamin Woo offers in “A Pragmatics of Things: Materiality and Constraint in Fan Practices,” by surrounding themselves with particular material items or objects, fans “produce themselves as particular kinds of agents, as people who do certain kinds of things” (para. 1.4). In the excerpts above, everyday objects used in particular ways are what carry viewers into active participation and therefore into Child’s socially circulating network. Tools like the ones mentioned by fans are “active agents” that, through the notion of rhetorical ontology, “occasion and hold sway” in situations and ecologies (Barnett and Boyle 2-3). Namely, the tools themselves carry rhetorical agency that influences fans’ entry into the participatory culture of The French Chef, and in turn, they further populate the complex social and rhetorical ecology surrounding Julia Child.

The above excerpt from fan Jeanne Diamond’s letter captures another nuanced example of material literacy practices. She mentions looking forward to Monday evenings when she watches with not only “pencil ready” but also “book open.” The book in this case is Child’s cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. And in the next line of Diamond’s letter, she offers: “It is so helpful to actually see how you prepare the recipe from the book” (Diamond to Child). Here, presence of Child’s cookbook, what Fleitz might categorize as a “significant cultural text” (2), allows this viewer to better interpret the televised lessons. Thus Mastering becomes a tool that allows fans to engage in a literacy practice in an even more textured way. The cookbook, in other words, takes on a type of agency within the network of literacy practices present in the social circulation of Julia Child; it becomes an instrument which makes certain acts of literacy—ways of learning and ways of writing—even more possible. As fans often cultivate methods for manipulating objects for particular purposes (Woo para. 2.10), fan Jeanne Diamond manipulates her use of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, perhaps first in the domestic space of the kitchen as cookbooks are usually intended, but also to better understand Child’s culinary pedagogy, which happens to play out visually on The French Chef.

Other stories in fans’ letters reveal the role that Mastering plays in their reception of The French Chef. In April 1966 John Fanelli of New York, NY declared:

I saw your program for the first time last week, and enjoyed it tremendously. All my friends’ advance reports were confirmed. Your presence, technique and pedagogy are to be commended…. As an owner of your French cookbook, I know that your taste and knowledge will inspire many viewers. (Fanelli to Child)

And Mrs. B.B. Phelps, first-time fan letter writer referenced above, raved in May 1966:

Your Mastering the Art of French Cooking is a treasure. I served “Veal Prince Orloff” to two dinner parties recently and my guests are still talking about it. […] A million thanks for giving me such incentive and inspiration – as I tell my friends just to watch you chop an onion is a real treat. (Phelps to Child)

For both fans, prior knowledge of the book, as well as prior use, influenced their interpretation and reception of Child’s The French Chef. To say it another way, Child’s cookbook mediated how these viewers watched—how they saw, interpreted, understood, and responded to—what Child did and said on her show. As a culinary tool, Mastering presumably aided readers in their kitchens (or other places where foodstuff was handled: the butcher, the market, the dining room); as a literacy tool, however, Child’s cookbook became an object through which viewers interpreted and understood her television pedagogy. And, as fan scholar Woo might clarify, as an object of fanhood itself, the book revealed what viewers could be capable of (para. 4.1): everyday home-cooks had the capacity to not only gain an agency (or even pleasure) in their own kitchens, but by using the cookbook to further understand The French Chef, they evolved into more active consumers of various media. They readied themselves, they took notes, they gathered their tools and their texts—and going by the very existence of the letters themselves—they then wrote fan letters to Julia Child in order to express their stories.

The expansion of social circulation as “social swirls” that circulate within rhetorical arenas (Royster and Kirsch 24) is further demonstrated within a letter sent to Child in December 1964. The letter itself illustrates not only the movement of rhetoric across space and time but also the role that Mastering played in the writer’s particular rhetorical choices. On letterhead of the Christina Community Center of Old Swedes, Inc., located in Wilmington, Delaware, Executive Director Charles I. Davis, Jr. writes:

Dear Miss Child:

Has it occurred to you that however your television showing is planned to stimulate, it could be a marvelous vicarious experience for any number of people?

I eagerly await it. It is entertaining, gets to the listener, the spoken content is marvelous, avoids what so many cookbooks do, squeeze all the juices out of the food, is also a program very much for the eye. Not a writer of fan letters, your program demands it.

Good holidays to you.

[A handwritten note follows the closing signature…] The day I planned to write this a copy of your beautiful book came for Christmas from dear friends in West Newton – AND they didn’t know my interest!!! (Davis to Child underline in original)

By acknowledging Child’s “television showing” as potentially reaching more people than the show had originally intended, this writer expresses his own stimulating viewing experience while simultaneously assuming an always already network of diverse fans. With the first line, he places Child right at the center of a complicated social web, presumably fostered by rhetorical moves performed on The French Chef. Moreover, though it’s clear from the commentary therein that Charles I. Davis, Jr.’s initial exigency pertained to the particular qualities he mentions in the second paragraph, it is in fact a material item—Child’s cookbook—that contributes to the rhetorical moves facilitated by the excitedly handwritten postscript at the end. Not just any gift would be relevant to mention in the postscript. As an active rhetorical agent itself, the cookbook takes on a very particular agency, or what Cydney Alexis might call a special power. Alexis reminds us that objects’ existence in the human conception are “a reflection of all of our tacit and latent experiences of them, which might explain the special power that gathers around them” (88 emphasis added). In this case, the special power surrounding the gift mentioned in the postscript reflects the meaning this viewer had attached to Child, to The French Chef, and—going by his excitedly handwritten account of receiving the gift—the meaning he might have already assigned to Mastering the Art of French Cooking, as an object in itself.

A Celebrity Circulates

Almost six decades have passed since Child published Mastering the Art of French Cooking8 and appeared for the first time on public television. In that time, news outlets across the country have reviewed Child’s numerous books and television shows, biographers and relatives have narrativized her life, and scholars have theorized her cultivation of audience (Branch), her influence on Americans’ opinions of France (Ferguson), and the impact of The French Chef on American television (Polan). Even Gastronomica: The Journal of Food Studies dedicated an entire issue to Child in 2005 in order to deepen an “understanding of her place in American culture” (Goldstein and White iii). And some writers do address Child’s impact on fans: Dana Polan emphasized her ability to deliver lessons in a whole new way of life (3); great-nephew, Alex Prud’homme, called it a “special sauce” that fans so admired (42); and chef and Manhattan cookbook store owner Nach Waxman suitably claimed, “she gave us pleasure in the act of rendering miracles with our pots and pans and knives and flames” (94). This multi-voiced, multi-layered historical contextualization led me to this study on the ways in which Julia Child’s television performances influenced the rhetorical and material literacy practices of her viewers. It is, however, critical for us to acknowledge that those viewers’ voices not only sit within the network of the social circulation of Julia Child, but with their twenty-seven letters in response to her demonstration on I’ve Been Reading, fans helped her establish that network in the first place. Undoubtedly, Child made viewers of culture into participatory agents of culture, and their textual contributions shaped the course of history. In Word of Mouth: What We Talk About When We Talk About Food, Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson in fact credits Child’s “readers-turned-spectators” with making her into a legendary figure in the food world (106). As my findings similarly attest, those readers-turned-spectators-turned-writers penned their way into the complex rhetorical network that makes up the social circulation of Child. Through this lens, fans’ rhetorical literacy practices earn a spot in our rhetorical histories, and through my research in particular, fans themselves become part of the story, and the history, that surrounds Julia Child’s entire career.

Finally, while the letters discussed here reveal how Child’s television performances influenced the rhetorical activities of her fans throughout the 1960s, her ever-broadening influence on rhetorical discourse (along with an undying popularity) continues to circulate. The Julia Child Foundation’s podcast, Inside Julia’s Kitchen, offers interviews and profiles of food celebrities from across the globe and has recorded more than one-hundred episodes. In April 2020, PBS debuted Dishing with Julia in which contemporary celebrities “dish” about the impact Child’s legacy in The French Chef continues to carry. CNN, in conjunction with Sony Pictures and Child’s most noted biographers, is producing a documentary called “Julia,” which is meant to highlight how she “changed the way Americans think about” food, television, and women (“Sony Pictures Classics”). And even media giant HBO is contributing to the current “Julia Child” moment. An original HBO Max series will soon capture Child’s “trailblazing career” (Aubrey in Otterson) by highlighting her work on The French Chef during a time when public television, feminism, and “America’s cultural growth” were all on the rise (Pomranz).9 It has been nearly sixty years since those twenty-seven letters first came into Boston’s WGBH, yet Julia Child unquestionably continues to actively influence the discourse within American media and culture. As Patrick Healy, writing for Gastronomica in 2005, aptly offers, “In the end, Julia left us without fanfare or even a funeral, but she left an incredible legacy” (120). Child’s status continues to grow and spread, even today; however, that legacy acts as a reminder of what those fans started back in 1962. And surely new generations of fans will follow her well into the 2020s.

End Notes

  1. French spelling.   -return to text
  2. Writing for Gastronomica, Anne Willan (founder of the French culinary school, La Varenne), even claimed that Child “made history before it was written” (“Scrapbook” 81).   -return to text
  3. And consequently, those letters landed into the hands of archivists and researchers at the Schlesinger Library in Cambridge, Massachusetts.   -return to text
  4. Polan does not state when the production team began streamlining responses to Child’s fan mail; however, he notes that once the amount became too much for Child to manage on her own, other staff members at WGBH, including producer Ruth Lockwood, helped out (189). On occasion, if Child felt that a staff member’s original response lacked appropriate specificity, she followed up with her own reply (Polan 190).   -return to text
  5. See Pat Bizzell’s “Feminist Methods in the History of Research: What Difference Do They Make?” (5), and Nan Johnson’s, “Key Concept Statement: History” (15).   -return to text
  6. Between December 2016 and December 2017, I curated and coded a dataset of over 2,000 artifacts from Child’s archives for my dissertation research; artifacts included teaching menus, correspondence, television production scripts, manuscript revisions, and other ephemera. Research for this article in particular stemmed from my review of 144 total fan letters.   -return to text
  7. With the vast amount of total fan mail in Child’s archives, there are likely letters that fit into the categories I’m naming that I have not reviewed. Child’s fan mail spans two archival collections: the Papers of Julia Child includes all fan mail sent to Child between 1962 and 1992, and the Additional Papers of Julia Child: 1890-2004 includes fan letters sent to Child between 1972 and 2002. With forty years of fan mail present in Child’s archival collections, the dataset that I curated for this current project represents only a small number of her total letters.   -return to text
  8. Lauren Salkeld, Director of Outreach at The Julia Child Foundation, reported in an email to me that as of January 2020, Mastering the Art of French Cooking had sold 2.5 million copies.   -return to text
  9. In January 2021, Raina Falcon, Vice President of Publicity at HBO Max/Warner Media, provided me with the same logline for “Julia” that Pomranz cites in his article on Variety.com. The logline reads: “The series is inspired by Julia Child’s extraordinary life and her show The French Chef, which essentially invented food television. Through Julia and her singular can-do spirit, it explores an evolving time in American history – the emergence of a new social institution called public television, feminism and the women’s movement, the nature of celebrity, and America’s cultural growth.” At the time of this publication, an official announcement about the show’s premiere had not been released.   -return to text

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From Isolated Stories to a Collective: Speaking Out About Misogyny in English Departments

There is always something unsaid and yet to be said, always someone struggling to find the words and the will to tell her story. Every day each of us invents the world and the self who meets that world, opens up or closes down space for others within that. Silence is forever being broken, and then like waves lapping over the footprints, the sandcastles and washed-up shells and seaweed, silence rises again.

Rebecca Solnit, “A Short History of Silence”

 

It’s not gonna get better if we’re quiet. We’re just gonna die quietly.

Interview participant

This article theorizes one aspect of the initial results of a qualitative empirical study of the ways women in U.S. college and university English departments experience misogyny and the effects of that misogyny on their personal and professional lives. While it may not come as a surprise that so many of us who work in English departments work in environments saturated with misogyny, what will come as a surprise, I think, is that there are women willing to talk about their experiences with misogyny, and that their willingness stems largely from a desire to reach those women who are not yet able to tell their stories. This might be surprising because English departments market themselves as spaces of equality and diversity, as dedicated to inclusivity and social justice, as committed to rooting out injustices like misogyny via such means as socially just, feminist, and critical pedagogies. We are some of the very people who teach students to recognize and fight back against social injustices like misogyny, so to acknowledge that it is happening among us faculty is to acknowledge, on some level, a failure. It is to acknowledge a failure on the part of the culture of academia broadly and English departments specifically, to recognize and to resist the norms of patriarchy among ourselves.1 Women’s desires to tell their stories of misogyny in English departments might be surprising, too, because patriarchy has taught us to self-police. One of the most important findings in what follows is that some women who shared their stories with me recognized the extent to which they pre-screened what they were about to tell me based on a metric they had internalized about what counts as misogyny. We saw a similar phenomenon in Gutierrez, et. al’s Presumed Incompetent; as Angela P. Harris and Carmen G. Gonzalez note in their introduction, many women declined to publish their stories in the collection because they “felt that their experiences, though personally challenging, had been relatively benign in comparison to friends and colleagues in other departments and at other institutions” (13). In what follows, we will see that telling a story of misogyny in an English department is not uncomplicated; for many, the process involves first overcoming the belief that what happened to us is just part of the way things work or even our own fault.

Though more extensive results from this study will be published at a future date, the data examined here are related primarily to the decision women in the study made to speak to me; in other words, because speaking about misogyny in a space like U.S. college and university English departments is considered in itself fraught, and because misogyny is what Kate Manne calls a “self-masking phenomenon”—“trying to draw attention to the phenomenon is liable to give rise to more of it” (xix)—the fact that thirty-nine women decided to speak to me about their experiences deserves consideration in its own right. I argue in what follows that it is the power of storytelling to challenge patriarchal norms in the crucial work of coalition building that persuades women to break the silence misogyny imposes. Indeed, the very fact that the stories themselves refuse to enact the work of care—the very work that women are obligated under patriarchy to perform—places their tellers at greater risk of more misogyny. Pointing to misogyny begets misogyny. The stories women told me refuse the norms of patriarchy. One of those norms is to remain silent. The very act of telling carries within it an understanding of the contingency of the telling, of the fact that another world exists in which this story is not told.

In the era of #MeToo and Kavanaugh, we in English departments, and writing studies especially, are just beginning to publicly share our stories of sexual harassment and bullying. Until very recently, we had more stories of bullying than we had of sexual harassment, and we still have incredibly few stories of misogyny that do not fall under the category of sexual harassment. In the last decade or so, scholars in the humanities and social sciences have begun asking questions about what constitutes a bully culture (Twale and De Luca) and how we might understand the causes of and learn ways to prevent bullying (Twale). In English Studies specifically, Cristyn L. Elder and Bethany Davila address the culture of silence that surrounds bullying in the academy and frame such abuse as a social justice issue as they examine the intricacies of bullying in writing programs. Importantly, Elder and Davila address the issue of riskiness in the introduction to their collection when they write, “When we issued the CFP for this collection, we were struck by how many people contacted us directly to thank us for taking on this work and often to express regret at not being able to contribute, given the possibility for retribution on their campuses” (4). Because of the large number of people who felt they could not contribute for fear of retaliation, Elder and Davila take the extraordinary step of including a blank chapter at the end of the collection, entitled “’I Can’t Afford to Lose My Job’: A Chapter Dedicated to All Those Who Found It Too Risky to Contribute.” The chapter is authored by Anonymous and the entire content of the chapter is “We reserve this space for them” (190).

In Sexual Harassment and Cultural Change in Writing Studies, Patricia Freitag Ericsson argues that it is our job “to make trouble for those who carry and spread this toxic disease” (viii), and she points out that “despite this field’s concern about a variety of social issues, a similar concern about sexual harassment has been sorely missing” (6). In her introduction to Composition Studies 2018 Where We Are section focused on #MeToo and academia, Laura Micciche characterizes the pieces to follow as

infuriating and depressing; we need them. We need more of them. Those of us who have been in the field of rhetoric and composition for a while now know stories of serial harassers whose careers flourish unfettered. We’ve heard stories passed discreetly among friends at conferences and in hallways. Yet the number of submissions we received for this section didn’t break double digits, and the majority of submissions came from those with the least power in our field: graduate students and non-tenure-track faculty. Few addressed peer-to-peer violence and harassment, an open secret in the field (and in academia more widely).

In that Where We Are section, seven women share their stories of gendered violence, and only one, Anne Sicari, addresses the issue of peer-to-peer violence when she writes, “we need to reflect on our everyday practices, on how we treat our colleagues and students, and ways in which we perpetuate patriarchal ideologies regularly, without much thought” (201). Katelyn Lusher articulates what I imagine many of us once felt when she writes, “When I began grad school, I had a somewhat utopian belief that most professors were so ‘woke’ they couldn’t possibly subscribe to the misogyny I had felt in so many workplaces. What I quickly learned was that barely disguised sexism and harassment are as much a part of academia as conferences, publishing, and happy hours that go far into the night” (199). We are talking, as a field, about sexual harassment and bullying, but not about misogyny more generally, and when we talk about sexual harassment, we primarily talk about it in terms of breaches of the teacher/mentor and student relationship. I join these scholars to ask why we’re not sharing stories about misogyny more broadly between peers—faculty-to-faculty and graduate student-to-graduate student. 

This work matters because in our field, there is not a single scholarly consideration of women’s experiences of misogyny understood as the systematic punishment of women for not caring enough, for not giving enough; that is what this work contributes. Misogyny in English departments is not more important or more egregious than misogyny in other sites, but it warrants its own examination largely because we are supposed to know better.

But first we must have a better grasp of misogyny.

Misogyny: Enforcing Patriarchal Norms

I want to be explicit about how I am defining misogyny, and the best way for me to do that is to draw from the work that animates and motivates this work: Kate Manne’s Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny. The commonplace understanding many people have of misogyny is as a psychological characteristic of individual people, usually men, who hate women—all women—simply because they are women. The problem with this naïve conception of misogyny is that it centers the experiences of the individual agent rather than the target of misogyny and it makes identifying misogyny all but impossible, as any individual man can point to the women in his life and claim to love them, thus negating the label of misogynist. This is an old story. Rather, the new story that Manne tells in her crucial work is that misogyny “ought to be understood as the system that operates within a patriarchal social order to police and enforce women’s subordination and to uphold male dominance” (33). To my mind, the most significant features of Manne’s theorization of misogyny are the following:

  1. In contrast to the naïve conception of misogyny, which targets women “because they are women in a man’s mind, where that man is a misogynist,” misogyny “primarily targets women because they are women in a man’s world (i.e., a historically patriarchal one, among other things).” (64).
  2. Because misogyny is systemic and political, the best way to understand it is to examine women’s experiences of misogyny: “when it comes to misogyny, we can focus on the hostility women face in navigating the social world, rather than the hostility men…may or may not feel in their encounters with certain women—as a matter of deep psychological explanations, or indeed whatsoever” (59).
  3. Misogyny is differentiated from sexism by a matter of degree. Where sexism discriminates “between men and women, typically by alleging sex differences beyond what is known or could be known,” misogyny “will typically differentiate between good women and bad women and punishes the latter” (79). Where sexism should be understood as the “justificatory branch of a patriarchal order” (79), misogyny should be understood primarily as the ‘law enforcement’ branch of a patriarchal order, which has the overall function of policing and enforcing its governing norms and expectations” (78).
  4. Those primary governing norms and expectations of patriarchy have to do with obligation on the part of women and entitlement on the part of men. Women are obligated to give and men are entitled to take, to receive. She is obligated to give feminine-coded goods and services such as attention, affection, care, moral support, admiration, loyalty, and respect. He is entitled to take these and to receive masculine-coded goods such as “leadership, authority, influence, money, and other forms of power, as well as social status, prestige, rank, and the markers thereof. Then there are the less tangible facets of social ‘face,’ pride, reputation, or standing, and the relevant absences—for example, the freedom from shame and lack of public humiliation, which are more or less universally desired but only some people feel entitled to” (113). The norms, then, are: Don’t ask for or take the kind of thing you’re meant to be giving, either to him or to society(emphasis added; 112) and Don’t ask for or try to take masculine-coded perks and privileges, at least as long as he desires them(emphasis added; 113).
  5. Should a woman violate these patriarchal norms—by failing to care enough, by failing to be attentive enough, by seeking attention for herself—misogyny will punish her with any number of down-girl moves: “to generalize, adults are insultingly likened to children, people to animals or even to objects. As well as infantilizing and belittling, there’s ridiculing, humiliating, mocking, slurring, vilifying, demonizing, as well as sexualizing or, alternatively desexualizing, silencing, shunning, blaming, patronizing, condescending, and other forms of treatment that are dismissive and disparaging in specific social contexts. Then there is violence and threatening behavior: including ‘punching down’—that is, deferred or displaced aggression” (68).
  6. Because misogyny is a self-masking phenomenon, “a misogynist social environment may but need not be the product of individual agents’ bigotry.” Rather, Manne explains that people may be responding, unknowingly, to their internal discomfort with the flouting of norms. “For some people, feminism in particular has profoundly disrupted their sense of the social order. The hostility they display to women who disrupt or pose a threat to gendered social hierarchies, say, is compatible with their being egalitarians in the abstract. They may nevertheless perceive powerful women who do not wield their power in service of men’s interests as abrasive and threatening. For that reason among others, a misogynist social environment may be partly the result of more or less well-intentioned people acting out of disavowed emotions, or exhibiting flashes of aggression that are not consciously experienced” (61). A misogynist social environment may flourish, in other words, in spaces like academia, where so many of us consider ourselves egalitarian but are also committed to gendered social hierarchies in ways we may not even be conscious of.
  7. Finally, because misogyny is the law enforcement wing of patriarchy, policing and punishing women who violate norms of giving and taking, misogyny is not restricted to men punishing women. Women who benefit from patriarchy will work to reinforce its norms as openly—or as covertly—as men.

Misogyny is perhaps best understood metaphorically this way: “like a shock collar used to keep dogs behind an invisible fence, misogyny, [Manne] argues, aims to keep women—those who are well trained as well as those who are unruly—in line” (Penaluma). One of the effects of Manne’s conception of misogyny is that we who examine its workings in different environments do not have to understand what motivates the people who do and say the things we characterize as misogynistic. What matters, instead, is that women are experiencing hostility for their violation of patriarchal norms that we would claim, when given the opportunity, are gendered and problematic. Yet we enforce them, knowingly or not. And we enforce them at the expense of creating working environments that value the contributions of all of their members, a goal I imagine many of our department mission statements reference in one form or another.

Methodology: Building a Collective

In the summer of 2019, I conducted thirty-nine interviews with women2 employed in English departments in colleges and universities in the United States. My goal in these interviews was to understand women’s experiences of misogyny in their departments, the effects of such misogyny on their work and personal lives, and the ways such a focus on women’s experiences of misogyny—as opposed to the usual focus on the psychology of misognyists themselves—might help those of us working in English departments specifically and the academy more generally see more clearly the way our everyday interactions reinforce patriarchal norms of obligation and entitlement. Of the thirty-nine women I interviewed, ten were doctoral students, five were assistant professors, eight were associate professors, eight were full professors, seven were non-tenure-track instructors, and one was an emerita professor. Twenty-two women identified their subfield as rhetoric and composition or writing studies, six as literature, six as creative writing, two as children’s literature, two as linguistics, and one as English and theater. Four women taught in a community college, ten in R-1 Doctoral universities, twenty in R-2 Doctoral universities, four in Baccalaureate colleges, and one in a HBCU.3 The average age of interviewees was 43. I did not ask interviewees to identify their race or ethnicity, though I did ask them to reflect on the extent to which they believed their race, ethnicity, sexuality, ability, and/or religion contributed to their experiences of misogyny in their departments. 

All participation in the study was voluntary and confidential; though I know participants’ names, the nature of this research demands that participants’ names and institutions be kept confidential. The data I examine in this article comes from participants’ responses to one question: “What made you want to be a part of this project and tell your stories?” Part of the reason I asked this question was that I learned from some friends before I began my research that they would have had a hard time conceptualizing their own experiences as misogyny even though by my definition, the experiences they shared with me certainly count as misogyny. But for the friends who shared these stories, their experiences didn’t seem extreme enough. There is a story we tell ourselves about misogyny: in order for an experience to count as misogyny, it must be extreme. How we define extreme, of course, is another story, but my friends’ comments called to mind Roxane Gay’s conception of “calloused empathy.” Having persuaded herself that being gang-raped at twelve years old wasn’t “that bad,” Gay explains that such a belief allowed her to “break my trauma into something more manageable, into something I could carry with me instead of allowing the magnitude of it to destroy me.” But there was another effect of persuading herself that her experience was not that bad:

Buying into the notion of not that bad made me incredibly hard on myself for not “getting over it” fast enough as the years passed and I was still carrying so much hurt, so many memories. Buying into this notion made me numb to bad experiences that weren’t as bad as the worst stories I heard. For years, I fostered wildly unrealistic expectations of the kinds of experiences worthy of suffering until very little was worthy of suffering. The surfaces of my empathy became calloused. (x)

I asked participants why they wanted to tell their stories in part because I wanted to understand the extent to which they, too, understood misogyny to encapsulate only extreme harassment and abuse. When we refrain from telling stories that we believe aren’t extreme enough, or are not that bad, we are doing a kind of caretaking work in that we are protecting men from having to understand the consequences of their actions. One of the masculine-coded goods patriarchy provides men, according to Manne, is freedom from feeling shame or humiliation (113), and by not sharing our stories, we ensure that those responsible for our experiences never need to know about our pain. They are protected.

But I asked that question also because I wanted to test my earlier theorizing of precarious narratives. In We Find Ourselves in Other People’s Stories, I draw on Judith Butler’s concept of precarious life and on Arthur Frank’s insight that “stories are formed from other stories” (“Tricksters” 186) to propose that all narratives are precarious because their “circulation relies fundamentally on social and political conditions, [their] structures and themes must be supported by what is outside itself. These are the narrative resources upon which we draw when we tell the stories of our lives” (emphasis in original 29-30). Narrative resources are the necessary plotlines, character types, cultural scripts, and so on, that we all draw upon when we tell any kind of story; we can see with this concept that narratives are socially dependent, “needing support from other people and other narratives lest they collapse” (29). Narratives, like lives, are differentially precarious. A narrative becomes particularly precarious when its support is in question; a narrative becomes more precarious when others do not tell the same kind of story or when others question the truth value of one’s story. If a precarious narrative requires support, requires propping up, then others sharing similar stories expands the possible narrative resources from which to create and share additional stories. As I write in We Find Ourselves

If access to stories offers opportunities to figure out who we are and who we can become because the stories we create for ourselves are dependent on those narrative resources, recognizing that narratives are precarious should encourage us to tell the stories that challenge dominant cultural scripts. Thus, telling stories is important not just because it is empowering or because it provides an opportunity for silenced voices to be heard or because it helps us develop form from chaos but because our stories and others’ stories are interdependent. They work together to help us figure out who we can be. (30)

And now, a few years later, I would add to this that our stories’ and others’ stories’ interdependence means that sharing a story of misogyny in the academic workplace makes it possible for others to share more stories of misogyny in the academic workplace. Stories create possibility. They tell us what happened but they also allow us to understand differently, in different terms and with different means of selection and evaluation (Frank, Letting 46) what is real, what is possible, what is “worth doing or best avoided” (Frank, Letting 3). 

The more stories told about misogyny in English departments, the less precarious each individual story becomes. From individual, isolated stories, we build a collective, and that collective becomes a rich site of narrative resources from which future storytellers can draw. Though each individual woman I spoke with told her stories only to me, she knew I was talking with others, and she knew that her story would join together with the stories of other women to form a collective, a collective that would accomplish significant social and rhetorical work that her story alone could not do. And it is this social and rhetorical work that, I argue, persuaded many of the women to push past the self-monitoring to tell their stories. 

In the rest of this article, I draw on women’s responses to the final question of my interviews4 to identify the kinds of precariousness women’s stories of misogyny are subjected to. I begin with Arthur Frank’s concept of narrative habitus as a way to bolster the concept of precarious narratives by arguing that the stories that are not part of our narrative habitus are more precarious and need more social support. I show how this narrative habitus that we all possess to some degree or another persuaded women in my interview project to share their experiences with me in order to contribute to a collective of stories. This collective challenges patriarchy’s demand that women care for men’s needs and shifts the focus to women’s needs instead. It is thus likely to be subject to more misogyny. I believe that many of the women I spoke with understood this from the start. I point then to three anticipated punishments interviewees articulated; my doing so demonstrates that our narrative habitus has developed with a tacit understanding of how misogyny functions. While the stories women told me are about punishment, their very telling was constrained by their tellers’ anticipation of being punished for telling.

Storytelling about misogyny in a patriarchy is never as simple as just telling; the very telling itself is constrained by the norms of patriarchy. When these norms are challenged, misogyny awaits to shock women back into place.

Narrative Habitus and the Powers of Storytelling

In Letting Stories Breathe: A Socio-Narratology, Arthur W. Frank describes a narrative habitus as “a repertoire of stories that a person at least recognizes and that a group shares.” I want to highlight two characteristics of narrative habitus here. First, Frank writes that narrative habitus “is the feel for what story makes a good follow-up to a previous story, what story fits which occasion; who wants to hear what story when. A person’s narrative habitus enables knowing how to react when a story is told, according to what kind of story it is. Complementary to that competence, narrative habitus enables prediction of how others will react to a story that might be told” (53). Another way of saying this is that a person’s narrative habitus encompasses her body of narrative resources and that those resources inform our understanding of how a story will perform rhetorically. Narrative habitus is about anticipation. A second characteristic of narrative habitus that is relevant to this work is that “narrative habitus predisposes a sense of the right and fitting resolution toward which a half-told story should progress; it is the feel for what kind of narrative move leads to what next kind of move” (54). Frank continues, “People’s sense of how plots will probably go reflects and generates their everyday common sense of which actions lead to which consequences, whether in stories or in life. People’s habitus of expected plot completions is nothing less than their sense of life’s possibilities” (54). We know how so many stories will go. We have developed a finely tuned narrative habitus based on years of living in a patriarchy, so we know that when we begin to tell a story in which we have experienced some form of misogyny, we will be subject to some form of victim-blaming. We will be punished. We will be subject to further misogyny. Our stories, before we even share them, are precarious from the start.

But our narrative habitus tells us that there are powers to storytelling. We know, because we have experienced it before, how stories change us, how they shape and reshape our belief systems, how they function rhetorically to direct and redirect our attention. Of the social nature of storytelling, Frank writes,

Stories connect people into collectivities, and they coordinate actions among people who share the expectation that life will unfold according to certain plots. The selves and collectivities animated by stories then animate further stories: revising old stories and creating new ones—though whether any story is ever truly new is always contestable. Stories and humans work together, in symbiotic dependency, creating the social that comprises all human relationships, collectivities, mutual dependencies, and exclusions. (Letting, emphasis in original; 15)

Women knew they were involved in building a collective, one whose individual stories would be used to animate further stories, “revising old stories and creating new ones.” They knew that the work they were doing was part of something larger that had the power to do what only stories can do.5

One of the powers of storytelling that participants pointed to was simply the sheer breaking of the silence that has surrounded misogyny in English departments. One participant told me, “It is so frustrating to be part of a program that I love that performs inclusivity and yet does not always live up to inclusivity and in some cases flat out rewards misogyny and racism and all of the other isms. It is exhausting. So anything we can try to do to shine light on these practices I think has got to be good and helpful. It will be painful but it needs to happen.” Similarly, another participant said, “I think that the only way to stop this is to first acknowledge that it happens, so I feel like we have to share our stories and I feel like even one story, even if you don’t think it’s extreme, is important to share.” 

Related to the need to simply get the stories on record was the recognition that stories accomplish the important rhetorical work of letting others know that they are not alone. This message came up a number of times as a benefit of sharing stories of misogyny in the workplace. One woman noted, “I think it’s important to identify the sheer number of women who experience these issues and let other women know that they aren’t alone so that they might feel inclined to step forward and tell their stories.” This woman understands that one power of storytelling is that it begets further storytelling; one of the healing powers of knowing you’re not alone is that you may feel safe enough to share your own story. Another woman said, “I feel like saying, you can be in these awful, awful departments, but just leaving sometimes is best. Often I find that misogyny is like a toxic, abusive relationship—they want to hold you there. I want other people to know they’re not alone.” Both of these women’s recognition of the power of knowing you’re not alone is echoed in this participant’s words: “It’s like, when you’ve gone through this stuff, you think, who can do anything else to me, and if my story makes someone else go, that’s exactly what’s happening to me, then that’s great. Because we’ve got to get the stories out.”

I have long understood that one of the most important effects of storytelling is that it makes readers and listeners feel less alone, but it had been a long time since I had stopped to think about just what was so awful about feeling alone. Having been caught up in hearing so many women’s stories while working on this project, I had stopped feeling alone with my own experiences of misogyny, and I had momentarily forgotten how isolating my own experiences had felt for so long. Three women specifically shared with me their feelings of just needing to share their stories with someone—me—because they had felt so isolated during the experiences they described. One participant explained that her reasons for talking with me were multiple: “Part of it is because I know that I’m not the only person experiencing this stuff but the other part is that right now I don’t have anyone I can tell, you know?” Another participant recognized that being part of this project means that she is not alone: “I guess also to be part of something that acknowledges that I’m not alone. I think what’s scariest about this is how isolated it made me feel.” A third woman told me this:

I’ve wanted to tell people about this experience just because I felt so isolated and alone walking through this by myself. I just needed to tell somebody what happened. And I think sometimes people think, well, you’re just being too sensitive. The scope and gravity of it, at the end of the day, the scope and gravity of what can happen to people because of it, I just needed somebody to know. I will say, though, that I almost canceled fourteen times. I’ve been sweating this. I’m supposed to be able to handle this. Other people—it didn’t seem to upset them that I was going through this, so I should just be able to accept this. It makes me weak because I can’t.

Looking around your own department and seeing that others are not affected by the pain you are feeling, that others are not affected by misogyny in the same ways you are, can be incredibly isolating, and we all know that a sense of belonging is a crucial human need. One can hear, too, in this participant’s words, the internalized shaming as she characterizes herself as someone who should be able to handle the misogyny her department subjected her to once she became chair.

Related to participants’ desire for others to know they are not alone is their desire to help others avoid the kind of misogyny they’ve had to experience. One participant said, “I want to participate to show that it’s not just sexual harassment…. I wanted to talk about how a lot of the messages I’ve gotten have been couched in protection: ‘I care about you as a colleague, so I’m encouraging you to do this rather than that.’… In my experience of reading accounts like this, if I had been a graduate student and read an article like this, I think it would have been nice.” Another participant put her desire more directly: “There are moments when I look back at my history where something I have said has triggered an actual action and a change in somebody’s life for the better and that is what I am trying to do here.” Similarly, a third participant told me, “I also really, really want to believe that if you talk it can help people…. I want to believe that talking can help and I’m tired of it having to be me whispering to my undergrads, don’t take this professor, he treats women differently. I want it to be something more legitimate. I hope that this can help. I hope the right people read it and take it to heart.” 

Finally, one woman’s reasons for participating in this project pointed to the effects of our not sharing our stories with each other and with students:

It’s something that we have to be aware of and I do think that women in departments are constantly—at least I and my colleagues are—wanting to be supportive of students but at the same time, especially with female students, we want them to have a tough skin and the people who come to English departments are the people who are often looking for ways to talk about things that have happened to them. They want to do it in a way that captures their emotions, they want to be angry, they want to learn to express things, but they are constantly worried about the perception and evaluation of that work. We have a lot of creative writers and a lot of the involved students on our campus are that way—they feel inclined to write confessionally but they also don’t want to be considered reactionary and finding that balance is so hard for them especially. They’re twenty years old.

Our conversation continued, and we talked about her point that so many students come to English departments because they want to tell their stories, and it often becomes clear to them that we aren’t telling our stories. Asking our students to write their stories but refusing to share our own stories sends the message that we believe in the power of storytelling for them but not for us. As another participant said, “The graduate students can’t talk about it because they’re in such a terribly vulnerable position and they know if we aren’t talking about it, that we’re hiding something because they’re experiencing it and they don’t know why we’re hiding it.” Perhaps they do know why we’re hiding it; indeed, my data suggests that many graduate students are well aware of the ways patriarchy works to push all women down.

Additional Social Supports

In addition to the powers of storytelling, interviewees pointed to two other reasons for their willingness to share their stories with me. Recall that all narratives are precarious, that they require support from the social and cultural world, and that the more social and cultural support they receive, the less precarious they become. Participants pointed to two kinds of social support they felt for their storytelling: their own positioning as women who were in a safe space in their academic careers and a feeling of trust in me, their interviewer.

First, participants pointed to their own positions as women who were no longer precarious in terms of age or status in the university.6 One doctoral student told me that she felt comfortable sharing her story with me because “I’m in a very good place in my life where I’m able to reflect on this. I’m in a loving and supportive program. I’m not necessarily sure I would have come forward in my negative Master’s program experience.” Similarly, another participant pointed to her sense that she was in a good place: “I was thinking, for the most part, I have it okay. I’ve heard horror stories and the fact that I have an amazing department chair who lets me do the work I want to do and who helps me feel valued and the fact that she’s a woman helps with that. I know I could have it a lot worse. I’ll just put it that way.” One can hear, in this participant’s characterization of her chair as letting her do the work she wants to do, an understanding not only that that is not always the case in other programs, but also that women in academia do not have the default ability to do the work we want to do.

For other women, there was the sense that it took years to develop the kind of temerity that is required to be able to tell the stories they shared with me. “I’m at a point in my life that I think I have garnered enough strength and authority that I have a responsibility to be more vocal because I’m recognizing that I’m safer than I’ve ever been, particularly having just been promoted to full professor so if full professors can’t talk then, my god, who can?” one woman told me. Similarly, another participant shared with me that part of her reason for talking with me was job security:

Part of it is that I’m tenured and I have separated myself emotionally from the institution enough because the institution is so messed up that I do my work, I work hard, but I’m not working for [the institution]. I’m working for the students and I’m working as a researcher but I’m trying to keep my distance from other things. Partly it’s my power and partly I’ve been talking with people about this, especially at [my institution], with graduate students, for thirteen years now and I don’t see that it’s getting much better.

And then there was the woman who pointed to both job security and age when she told me, “I’m tenured and I’m over forty. And I’m done…. You’ve got to be a certain sort of pissed off and a certain sort of secure…. In graduate school, I probably would’ve been like, what are these women complaining about, and now I’m like, I have many complaints! Listen to my complaints!” Age factors importantly in one’s willingness to speak about mistreatment; the older one gets, it seems, the less willing one is to accept misogyny as simply part of how academia works. Finally, the length of time one has been experiencing misogyny in one’s department figures importantly in these women’s decisions to tell their stories; while one woman has been talking with others at her institution about these issues for thirteen years, another is just “done.” As another participant said to me, “Silence equals death. Sometimes we may not feel like we can talk and sometimes we can’t but when we get strong enough…. It’s not gonna get better if we’re quiet. We’re just gonna die quietly.”

Second, many women I spoke with trusted their audience. About a quarter of the women I spoke with were people I knew personally or professionally, and it turns out that my ethos or my reputation in the field was one of the reasons some of the participants felt comfortable sharing their stories with me.7 As one woman put it, she understood me as an outlet where “you’re not gonna be seen as someone who’s complaining. You’re not gonna be seen as someone who instigated it or that it’s your fault. Even though that’s the way we’re made to feel. I was definitely made to feel like I had acted inappropriately and this was my punishment for it.”

One participant told me she felt a “duty of care” to participate in the project because she had always had positive interactions with me. Another said that I seemed like “a real person, someone who is safe,” and that sentiment is echoed in how others characterized the ways they believed I would treat their data. “I’ll say on a personal level, I know you and I know you’re a good, qualified researcher and I trust that you would be responsible with my data and that kind of thing, so that of course makes me feel less worried about something getting out.” Another participant told me that she decided to participate because “I’ve known you so long and I know the honesty with which you’ll handle the project, so it’s wanting to participate in a project with someone whose scholarship I admire and value.” Another woman noted that she believed that “What I had to say would be used effectively and that I didn’t feel in danger. I have to say, if I just saw this from somebody that I didn’t know, I may not have done it because I would be scared that it wouldn’t be confidential or that they might identify me and I could get in trouble.” We hear the threat in these statements, the idea that a different researcher might not treat their words confidentially and they might, thus, be subjected to misogynistic punishment for having shared their stories. 

Anticipated Punishments

Manne points to a number of what she calls down-girl moves that often follow a woman breaking the norms of obligation and entitlement; she writes:

Girls and women may be down-ranked or deprived relative to more or less anything that people typically value—material goods, social status, moral reputation, and intellectual credentials, among other realms of human achievement, esteem, pride, and so on. This may happen in numerous ways: condescending, mansplaining, moralizing, blaming, punishing, silencing, lampooning, satirizing, sexualizing, belittling, caricaturizing, exploiting, erasing, and evincing pointed indifference.

Any one of these moves acts as a shock collar, shocking a woman back into place when she has strayed beyond her station. For the women I spoke with, a narrative habitus that suggests how others will respond to their stories of misogyny in English departments led to their identifying three anticipated punishments that they nevertheless risked in order to share their experiences with me. I outline these anticipated punishments in this section to emphasize the bravery and strength of the women I spoke with, and also to reinforce that telling stories is not the simple sharing of experiences. It requires forethought and risk, a savvy narrative habitus and an understanding that sharing stories toward greater awareness is only the first step toward change.

It is commonplace knowledge that those who speak out against abuse are treated just as harshly as, if not worse than, those who do the abusing in the first place. The experiences of Anita Hill and Christine Blasey Ford are among the most glaringly obvious examples of this. Rebecca Solnit, in her essay, “A Short History of Silence,” points to this phenomenon:

One disturbing aspect of abuse and harassment is the idea that it’s not the crime that’s the betrayal but the testimony about the crime. You’re not supposed to tell. Abusers often assume this privilege that demands the silence of the abused, that a nonreciprocal protection be in place. Others often impose it as well, portraying the victims as choosing to ruin a career or a family, as though the assailant did not make that choice himself. (40)

Even more to the point than Solnit, though, is David Graeber in his essay, “The Bully’s Pulpit.” In working through the reasons why grade school kids stand by passively in the face of bullying, Graeber notes that one reason may be that they have “caught on to how adult authority operates and mistakenly assume the same logic applies to interactions with their peers.” Graeber continues, “The fates of the Mannings and the Snowdens of the world are high-profile advertisements for a cardinal rule of American culture: while abusing authority may be bad, openly pointing out that someone is abusing authority is much worse—and merits the severest punishment.” We know this story. It is part of our narrative habitus.

The first of these anticipated punishments is being labeled a gossip.8 Recall what Micciche writes in Composition Studies’ Where We Are Section: that gossip serves as a kind of protection among colleagues. She writes, “We’ve heard stories passed discreetly among friends at conferences and in hallways” (11). One interview participant told me, toward the end of our conversation, “I am concerned because as women we’re told our whole lives that what we do is gossip and I am a tattler. I still am a tattler. That’s a way of self-protection that the patriarchy is always trying to steal from us.” That nobody wants to be understood as a gossip is evident from the many sayings we have about those who gossip: snitches get stitches; you never look good trying to make someone else look bad; if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. What all of these sayings share in common is the belief that it’s the words themselves, rather than the actions they are describing, that are the problem when one person tells another about a third person’s wrongdoing. Characterizing testimony about misogyny as gossip minimizes that testimony in ways that harm the speaker because she is understood to possess little self-control. In addition, the person who is the subject of the so-called gossip becomes the victim of gossip as a kind of aggression, the result often being that sympathy may flow directly to the perpetrators of misogyny rather than to the victims in an example of what Manne has coined “himpathy.” 

Women are disciplined very early to believe that what they are doing when they complain is not legitimate but rather gossiping or tattling. As one participant put it, “A lot of times self-regulation is something that women learn. It’s very insert-Foucault stage left. We learn it and then we monitor ourselves.” As a result, there’s a kind of pre-screening we go through even before we get to the point of complaint, a pre-screening that finds us editing out what we consider to be less egregious instances of misogyny. As another participant put it, “When I thought about, do I have any experiences, they all sounded really small, so I also felt like my experiences weren’t big enough or extreme enough to warrant being named misogynistic, but I also know better than that and when I started making my list and I thought about the totality of what those experiences looked like, I realized they were pretty big.” Another interviewee noted, when relaying a story about a specific person in her department, “This is where I feel like I’m just airing grievances,” a strong indication that she is accustomed to monitoring what she says for their likelihood of making her out to be a gossip.

Women recognize what happens to their words when they are characterized as “just gossips,” as evidenced by this interview participant, who said,

I appreciated being able to have the platform to tell the story, but I also want to think more about what it means for us to be told that we can’t—that we’ll be seen as just gossips or—I think the word that keeps coming up is retaliation and so I think in academia just like in lots of fields and businesses there’s this expectation that you’ll maintain this façade that everything is fine, that no one’s racist, that no one’s sexist, or any of those things.

This woman understands that being labeled a gossip has a rhetorical function, and that that function is to dismiss our testimony. Gossip, as James C. Scott notes, “almost by definition, has no identifiable author,” and its goal is typically “to ruin the reputation of some identifiable person or persons” (142). When women who testify to misogyny understand that they are at risk of being dismissed as mere gossips, they understand that they are seen as aiming to ruin individual men’s reputations rather than testifying to a systemic problem. They also understand that their own reputations are at stake, and it is here that we can see being characterized as a gossip as a down-girl move. Women know they are risking being down-ranked in terms of social status and moral reputation when they speak out about abuse.

But—need it be said?—women who testify to misogyny in their workplaces are not gossips. They are not tattletales. One woman told me that the very existence of this study gave her hope; she said, “I really appreciate that you’re doing this work….Just reading the description of your study made me feel validated, even if I never talked to you because I thought, this is a real thing. I’m not floundering in this void. Other people see that this is happening. So that was very important.” Other people see that this is happening. When we are made to believe that we are just gossips, we are also made to believe that what we are saying is not true, that it is not being witnessed by others. Being labeled a gossip is a form of gaslighting.

A second anticipated punishment identified by interviewees is being perceived as ungrateful for their hard-won jobs in a difficult academic job market.9 This is particularly difficult because, as Manne suggests, women are obligated to deliver feminine-coded goods such as gratitude and not to seem entitled to masculine-coded perks like security and respect. At a time when the value of the Humanities, generally, and English studies specifically, is questioned regularly both inside and outside of academia, the silencing of women can be expected to proceed apace. As one interviewee put it to me,

To basically say, “This is how it is,” even at a moment when we’re supposed to say, “Oh don’t say anything bad about English departments because they’ll cut us,” is exactly the kind of move that’s important because there are a lot of people all over the country who are working in these situations and who think they have to be—they have to not stand up because they may lose their job or they think they have to not stand up because their college will be closed otherwise, so I think there’s also this way in which, particularly in times of tight budgets, we’ve been pressed not to complain or not identify the things that actually keep us from being successful in our jobs.

I responded to her by saying, “Of all times, this would be a time when you would stay silent, when the humanities are in crisis, and so just sort of put your head down, do your work, hope that we can get the majors up and just continue to accept the misogynistic treatment and be happy you have a job.” Her response to me:

Be happy you have a job. I think this goes back to perpetrating these kinds of systems further into the future. That’s what you’re modeling for students: we don’t stand up for things because we want to protect our jobs. We’re in some way also raising generations of students who kind of think pretending nothing’s happening is the way to go. It’s almost like counter the mission of the humanities. You want to raise critical thinkers, but you just say, “Oh, don’t think about this. Don’t think about that. Think about that little thing that’s important here.”

There is so much to appreciate in this participant’s commentary on what it means to speak the truth in a time when doing so might be interpreted by others as ingratitude for the jobs we hold; I’ll highlight two significant points. First, I think her point about now being the exact time to point to the problems with misogyny, because the climate surrounding the humanities for so long has been austere, suggests that some of those who were willing to talk with me were willing to push past the narrative that to be grateful for one’s job is also to grin and bear misogyny in the workplace. Second, there is perhaps no phrase more ubiquitous in the humanities than critical thinking, but we do not often stop and articulate the appropriate objects of that critical thought; this interviewee’s point about our raising students to think about this little thing over here, but not this, not these crucially significant issues affecting us in the workplace, draws attention to the limits of our alleged critical thinking pedagogies.

Another participant who described harrowing experiences in her department said, “I don’t think people realize that getting a tenure-track position in the humanities is like winning the lottery…. I have to remember that for some people this would be a gift.” Even as she has just finished telling me about experiences that were scary and isolating, this participant told me, “I feel a lot of guilt for being dissatisfied. I try to talk myself out of feeling badly because other people would want [this job].” One can almost hear her reconciling the warring parts of her mind as she talks to me. She wants to tell me about her experiences; she doesn’t want to be seen as ungrateful, so she tries to talk herself out of feeling bad. This is one effect of the powerful narrative of a tight humanities job market; our narrative habitus helps us predict how the story will go.

Finally, the punishment anticipated by more women than any other,10 the end that our narrative habitus fills in for us when we imagine telling our stories of misogyny in our academic workplaces, is retaliation.11

Two doctoral students point indirectly to the possibility of retaliation, one when she says, “With two Title IX cases in the past year and a half, there’s not really a lot I can say that’s going to hurt me because I’ve said so many things,” and the other when she reflects on the possibility of not being able to have a career in the field. She says, “There’s also sort of being in this position where I no longer care that, like, it sounds horrible, if for some reason, I couldn’t have this career anymore, I would just move on because it’s been horrible anyway, and I would just find a way to carry on with my life.” Both students recognize that there is the possibility for others to hurt them, to damage their reputations or careers, but at the same time, both mitigate that understanding by contrasting it with either past or future scenarios in which they have or will survive academia.

Told from the start that all names and identifying information would be kept confidential as part of the research process, participants took comfort in the protection of anonymity. The discourse of retaliation is strong in this participant’s response: “This is anonymous too so it’s not like it’s going to affect me and I found out about it through my department, so I don’t feel like if they found out I participated there would be repercussions. I’m probably never going to apply for another leadership position after three times being shot down, at least not until I do some other stuff first, so I’m happy with my position. I like the job I have. I don’t feel like there will be repercussions for me doing this.” One gets the sense that this participant anticipates being found out, being caught, and having the protection of having learned about the project via someone in the department. Learning of the project via a department listserv is much less illicit, in other words, than learning of the project via social media. The listserv seems to sanction the project and sanction the storytelling.

Another participant interprets the anonymity of the project a bit differently. She says, “The maddening thing here is that there’s not anything any of us can actually do about it. I’m not even using his name here. And if I did, with the gender dynamic, the reality is that I’m the one who would be on the hot seat for being such a bitch to call so-and-so out.” As we saw above, another participant makes a similar point when she notes that “we’ll be seen as gossips or—I think the word that keeps coming up is retaliation” for naming a particular person at a particular place who is engaging in misogynistic behaviors. Recall that she said, “I think in academia just like in lots of fields and businesses there’s this expectation that you’ll maintain this façade that everything is fine, that no one’s racist, that no one’s sexist, or any of those things.” Maintaining that façade functions as a kind of protection against retaliation.

Sara Ahmed writes that “we are often encouraged to think of our careers as having an exteriority, as what you have to care for in order to have somewhere to go,” and the same participant who pointed to the need for a façade that “everything is fine,” told me that she knew if she talked with anybody outside her department about what was happening, she risked the stability of that career.

If I were to tell anyone outside my department, would that negatively impact my getting tenure if I stayed, would it negatively impact my ability to move up at this school? It just always felt like I was stepping out on that ledge, and I was going to hurt myself. I think I’ve been wondering more what it is we’re really protecting by doing that. I think by the time I left the last place, I had thought, do I care enough about being in this field and doing this very specific job that I would stay in a place where this was happening? Would I rather just leave if I can’t find a job somewhere else? I think that’s one of the consequences—how many women leave instead of dealing with it.

The potential for retaliation in the form of down-girl moves such as silencing, punishing, deprivation of advancement, diminished career prospects—all of these were understood in advance by many of the women I interviewed. All of these function for so many women—those who have stories but who chose not to talk with me—as prolepsis; they are, in Leigh Gilmore’s words, “a threat that prevents women from testifying” (7). They are the ending we anticipate.12

Toward a Collective

In Down Girl, Manne explains that even a woman’s belief that her story should be heard is subject to the norms of patriarchy, that such a sense of entitlement is a masculine-coded good that women should not seek. In a chapter devoted to parsing what it means to claim victimhood, Manne writes that,

if you claim victimhood, more or less explicitly, chances are (a) you’re not automatically being given what you need, in terms of sympathy and redress for moral injuries; and (b) you’re claiming to be entitled to the same, in ways that will be more salient for those not deemed to be so entitled, historically, but rather obligated to ensure that others entitlements are satisfied. (230)

When it is a woman claiming such entitlement, “it may stand out not because she’s claiming more than her due but because we’re not used to women claiming their due in these contexts. Women are rather expected to provide an audience for dominant men’s victim narratives, providing moral care, listening, sympathy, and soothing” (231). After sharing the story of D’Arcee Neal, a disabled Black gay man whose distressing experience on an airplane elicited not sympathy but aggression from public commenters, Manne notes that “drawing attention to one’s moral injuries in a public forum does not seem an especially good way to attract sympathetic attention, as a subordinate group member” (236). But perhaps sympathetic attention is not the goal, she writes. Rather, following Regina Ricci, Manne argues that “drawing attention to the ways in which one has been wronged as a subordinate group member may sometimes be the best, or even the only viable, way to foster solidarity with other people in a similar position” (238-9). Manne writes, and I agree, based on my experience interviewing these thirty-nine women, that “there is also significant value in the social support itself, as well as the prospect of enhanced pattern recognition” (239). This is what I am hoping will happen here, with this project, and this is what many of my interview participants seemed to understand already. It is not easy to tell stories about being the victim of misogyny in a workplace culture that is, on the surface, committed to inclusion and social justice. Indeed, telling these stories in a context in which misogyny has to operate under the radar carries more risk because that telling threatens, always, to expose our own failure.  

We live with a cultural narrative about what it means to be a victim; one is understood as passive and weak rather than agentive and strong. But Manne offers another way of thinking about what women are doing when they share stories of victimhood; she writes that, “One may be able to expose the people who made one a victim as bullies and aggressors, even if this cannot be relied on to redirect the usual flow of sympathy, which tends—like heat—to rise up the social hierarchy” (248). In this context, to expose our peers as those who have made us victims, though, is, as I mentioned earlier, to admit to a collective failure, thus raising the stakes of speaking out.

And the stakes, as I’ve demonstrated here, are high. The stakes are more misogyny, and women’s narrative habitus tells them this. We know this ahead of time. As one interviewee told me, “It’s pretty clear that many people are not going to tell their stories because other people are telling them not to. I know that just from my experience. I’m sure it’s happening. I’ve been told not to talk over and over and over.” Paradoxically, we possess a narrative habitus that tells us that stories about misogyny in English departments are precarious at the same time that we know that such stories are as common as dirt. They’re everywhere. People just aren’t telling them in print. Because to tell them is to break the norm that tells us that we are meant to be giving care to others, not asking for care for ourselves. Interestingly, though the stories women told me in the summer of 2019 did not do the work of caring for men and are thus subject to misogyny by the lights of patriarchy, they did do the work of caring—for women. As one woman said, “I’m sure there’s someone else questioning, well, what does this mean and how does this work and am I wrong, am I crazy?” Sharing their stories does both: it demonstrates care for the self and care for others. In sharing their stories, women contributed to a collective from which other women will soon be able to draw strength.

Some of that strength undoubtedly will come from the vulnerability my interviewees show. To return, here at the end, to where I began, I want to remind readers that it takes strength to push past the internalized misogyny so many of us have found ourselves experiencing. One woman told me, “I feel like I am kind of slowly acquiescing to that shock collar. I no longer want to have ideas at meetings. I sit in meetings and I’m so quiet. I just try to barrel through them.” And another woman told me about how she finds herself gaslighting herself about the things she’s experienced even though she knows better: “Even now, speaking to somebody that I know completely understands where I’m coming from, I find myself changing the situation from, I got fucked over in a program that wasn’t ready to actually take care of me to, this is my fault because this is a situation I created.” Telling stories of misogyny in English departments is just the first step; the next step is for others to hear them and do something about them. Because as empowering as building a collective is, as one woman told me, “I do still have little moments of being scared.”

Endnotes

  1.  I want to be clear that, as a member of said academy and as a member of an English department, I am complicit in misogyny. I am working to become more aware of the ways I differentiate between good women and bad women based on the extent to which they conform to the norms of patriarchy. And I am becoming more aware of the ways I try to conform so as to avoid the punishments that are likely to follow. This work began in my own experiences of misogyny, but it doesn’t end there; it stretched to include and try to understand the experiences of others who have had similar experiences.
  2.  Participants in the project included both cis and trans women. The call for participants asked for people who identified as women and who had experienced misogyny in English departments.
  3. While I am using the new Carnegie classification system to designate the R-1 and R-2 Doctoral universities and the Baccalaureate colleges, I believe it’s important to maintain the designations of community colleges and HBCU, as identified by interview participants.
  4.  In analyzing the data for this article, I separated out the responses to this final question and examined them separately from the rest of the interview data to determine what, if any, patterns emerged. I then categorized them based on codes such as gossip, job guilt, retaliation, and storytelling.
  5. Twenty-two of thirty-nine women pointed to the powers of storytelling as the reason they wanted to share their stories with me and, by extension, you.
  6.  Eight of thirty-nine women pointed to their own status or place in the university as a reason for being willing to speak with me.
  7. Seven of thirty-nine women named knowing me or knowing of my work as a reason for feeling comfortable talking with me.
  8.  Six of thirty-nine women pointed to being labeled a gossip as a means of feeling silenced.
  9. Three of thirty-nine women anticipated being perceived as ungrateful for their jobs as a means of being silenced.
  10. Eight of thirty-nine women mentioned a fear of retaliation for sharing their stories with me.
  11. We also see this fear of retaliation in the silences of Presumed Incompetent. As Harris and Gonzalez write, “a significant number of women decided not to contribute to the anthology for fear of retaliation. They believed they would be penalized for airing their home institution’s dirty laundry in public, and they were not prepared to become pariahs” (11).
  12. One might wonder why, if participants knew ahead of time that their names would be kept confidential, they would be worried about retaliation. This is a rational question. Retaliation is not a rational fear. What I mean by this is that we have been conditioned by patriarchy to believe that if we violate a patriarchal norm, we will be punished. Though names are not attached to the stories women told in this case, such ingrained fear is not so easily assuaged. I am here to tell you that women were afraid of retaliation and I think that this suggests that patriarchy remains remarkably successful in keeping that fear alive in women despite assurances from a researcher. That women went ahead and told their stories is testament to their selflessness and care for other women.

Works Cited

  1. Ahmed, Sara. “Warnings.” Feminist Killjoys, 3 December, 2018.
  2. Elder, Cristyn L., and Bethany Davila, Ed. Defining, Locating, and Addressing Bullying in the WPA Workplace. Logan: Utah State UP, 2019.
  3. Ericsson, Patricia Freitag, Ed. Sexual Harassment and Cultural Change in Writing Studies. Fort Collins, CO: The WAC Clearinghouse, 2020.
  4. Frank, Arthur W. Letting Stories Breathe: A Socio-Narratology. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2010.
  5. —. “Tricksters and Truth Tellers: Narrating Illness in an Age of Authenticity and Appropriation.” Literature and Medicine 28.2 (2009): 185-199.
  6. Gay, Roxane. Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture. New York: Harper Perennial, 2018.
  7. Gilmore, Leigh. Tainted Witness: Why We Doubt What Women Say About Their Lives. New York: Columbia UP, 2017.
  8. Graeber, David. “The Bully’s Pulpit: On the Elementary Structure of Domination.” The Baffler 28 (July 2015).
  9. Harris, Angela P, and Carmen G. Gonzalez. Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia. Ed. Gabriella Gutierrez y Muhs, Yolanda Flores Niemann, Carmen G. Gonzalez, and Angela P. Harris. Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2012. 1-14.
  10. Lusher, Katelyn. “Academic Spaces and Grad Student Harassment.” Composition Studies 46.2 (2018): 198-199.
  11. Manne, Kate. Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny. New York: Oxford UP, 2018.
  12. Micciche, Laura. “From the Editor.” Composition Studies 46.2 (2018): 10-11.
  13. Penaluna, Regan. “Kate Manne: The Shock Collar That Is Misogyny.” Guernica 7 Feb. 2018.
  14. Robillard, Amy E. We Find Ourselves in Other People’s Stories: On Narrative Collapse and a Lifetime Search for Story. New York: Routledge, 2019.
  15. Scott, James C. Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts. New Haven: Yale UP, 1990.
  16. Sicari, Anna. “Centering the Conversation: Patriarchy, Academic Culture, and #MeToo.” Composition Studies 46.2 (2018): 200-202.
  17. Solnit, Rebecca. “A Short History of Silence.” The Mother of All Questions. Chicago: Haymarket, 2017: 17-66.
  18. Twale, Darla J. Understanding and Preventing Faculty-on-Faculty Bullying. New York: Routledge, 2017.
  19. Twale, Darla J., and Barbara M. De Luca, Ed. Faculty Incivility: The Rise of the Academic Bully Culture and What to Do About It. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008.

“On Display Eight Hours a Day”: Gendering and Racializing Clerical Work During the Early Cold War

Just Between Office Girls (JBOG), a chatty bi-monthly pamphlet for the clerical worker, promised loads of advice for women laboring in offices in the 1950s and 1960s. It warned young workers of the “green-eyed monster” of jealousy. It offered meal planning and finance tips for the figure conscious worker on a budget. There were also exercise moves, oodles of fashion advice, and the ever-present warning not to be “that girl” who gossiped or showed up late and hungover. These short, cartoon-illustrated pamphlets were certainly not the first professional advice manuals for women. Yet, they circulated during a remarkable reshaping of the American labor force and economy. While dominant narratives insist that in the wake of World War II, the return of GIs pushed women out of factory jobs, the reality was far more complex. In fact, many women stayed employed due to both economic necessity and choice (Kessler-Harris, Out to Work 286-7). Yet, scholars have tended to focus on women war workers in our narrative of women’s employment in the mid-twentieth century. Moreover, the focus on large labor unions, in part because they left historic records, has also skewed the sample of workers under historians’ purview (see, e.g. Cobble, Dishing; Flexner; Foner; Gabin; Kessler-Harris).

Clerical work is one of the most gender-segregated industries of all and has been an archetypal female job for almost a century (England and Boyer 307). Discourses surrounding clerical work have sedimented over the course of the twentieth century and circulate archetypes of “office wives” or “sexy secretaries.” To that end, clerical work provides an often-overlooked arena for exploring the rhetorical lives of women workers in the United States during the early Cold War. As the U.S. reverted to a peacetime economy and women negotiated increasing pressure to return home to mother, I ask, in line with Sarah Hallenbeck and Michelle Smith, how was women’s relationship to work framed? 

To answer that question, this essay explores the rhetorical processes that gender and racialize work. I analyze “work-related rhetorics” of socialization in the form of training manuals, which introduce workers to effective ways of doing their jobs and navigating their workplaces. Socialization discourses shape workers’ attitudes and perceptions of how to operate in organizational cultures (van Maanen and Schein 2). As Hallenbeck and Smith note, work training is an important element in women’s rhetorical lives (206). They urge rhetoricians to move beyond looking at how women develop agency in the workplace to identify themes in how gender and work are continually co-constructed (202). Building on their insights, then, I do not assume that clerical work is “women’s work,” but instead that it, like all work, is “historically situated, rhetorically constructed, [and] materially contingent” (Hallenbeck and Smith 201; see also Gold and Enoch). Scholars have identified several topoi that serve as rhetorical mechanisms for gendering work. As Jessica Enoch notes, constructions of place can accomplish this. The public, she explains, often genders professions by bringing them closer or farther away from the space of the home and from specific types of domestic work (184; see also Jack 286). In addition, time is a rhetorical practice that genders work, stipulating when and for how long tasks can be performed (Jack 286-288). Hallenbeck and Smith identify duty, education, and technology as recurring threads in the gendering of work (203). Yet, these topoi do not adequately explain clerical work during the Cold War. 

In this essay, I explore the disciplining of female clerical workers in Just Between Office Girls between the mid-1950s and early 1970s. I identify constitutive rhetoric, a care work frame, and embodiment as rhetorical processes that constructed clerical work in this historical moment. All three of these rhetorics were filtered through the gendered and racialized geopolitics of the Cold War and the civil rights movement. Through consistent messaging that feminized clerical work, the pamphlets constituted a relatively passive labor force of white women disinclined to organize or protest and primed to consume. These messages served U.S. political interests during the Cold War by figuring white women as agents of racial capitalism. I offer this analysis with the goal of moving beyond understanding how labor organizers use rhetoric to reshape working conditions to exploring how rhetoric positions labor itself within hierarchies of social value. 

This case also identifies the performance of work and its rhetorical representation as a geopolitical struggle over citizenship, consumption, gender, and labor organizing during the Cold War. Just Between Office Girls branded clerical work as a safe, middle-class option for young, white women seeking income for consumption while waiting to marry. As they became interpellated into racial capitalism, white women were simultaneously subjugated according to gender and agents of white supremacy. By accepting their dictated role as white female consumer/workers, they may have perpetuated the exclusion of women of color from the workplace. Framing clerical work as safe and middle-class allowed writers to trumpet the progress of (white) women, encourage them to pursue appropriate feminine interests (fashion and beauty) while protecting the office as a sphere for masculine risk and innovation, key Cold War battles. Paradoxically, then, the pamphlets served to make women at home in the office.

Just Between Office Girls represents one of a number of bi-monthly publications that circulated to offices across the country. Published by the Bureau of Business Practice, a renaming of the National Foreman’s Institute, this publishing company produced training manuals for industrial supervision before expanding its offerings to clerical work (“Finding Aid”). Throughout its long history, the Bureau of Business Practice’s clerical publications included the Better Secretaries series and Just Between Office Girls. The publication archive, held at the University of Maryland’s Special Collections, does not include circulation or print-run data. Nonetheless, the collection’s holdings illustrate the shifting nature of clerical work. For instance, Just Between Office Girls, which ended its print run in 1973, became the Office Guide for Working Women, a similar pamphlet, published from 1973 through 1976. The Office Guide for Working Women morphed into the Office Guide in 1976 and was published until around 1994. The Creative Secretary’s Letter began publication in 1992 and lasted at least until 1999. The names of these guides provide one clue as to the changing nature and perceptions of the clerical workforce, but also identify an industry-leader in clerical publications and a meaningful source for rhetorical analysis. As the pamphlets have not been digitized, I spent six days in special collections sifting through print copies. I comprehensively looked through each file in the Bureau of Business Practice archive containing clerical work pamphlets from 1958 to 1999, assuming that examining the whole run would better allow me to see patterns and changes over time in structure, tone, and general rhetorical strategies. As I skimmed, I took notes and photographs of articles that particularly described the duties of clerical work and outlined discipline for failing to perform them effectively. I then combed over my photographs and identified themes in how the pamphlets portrayed workers’ lifestyles, their work, and the office itself. I eventually consolidated my themes into the three primary strategies laid out here.

From here, I next explore the changing landscape of work during the early Cold War and its attendant geopolitical pressures. I then analyze the publications. I identify three themes that I take in turn: constituting a collective identity, framing work as care, and embodying femininity. The conclusion explores the implications for discourses of work and labor organizing.

Working Women and Washing Machines

Dominant cultural discourses socialize workers alongside training manuals. And these discourses have long associated clerical work with women. Even though what “women’s work” means has changed throughout history, that clerical work is women’s work was a stable and enduring idea throughout the twentieth century (England and Boyer 307). As organizations grew more complex after the Civil War, the need for clerical workers exploded (England and Boyer 311). Being able to pay women workers less was a bonus. The opening of educational opportunities to women ensured that the feminization of this work was largely completed by 1930 (Davies 5, 51). Compared to other women joining the waged labor force at the turn of the twentieth century, clerical workers were more likely to be white and native-born (England and Boyer 312; Davies 74), a demographic reality that fed the perception of clerical work as a suitable occupation before marriage. In fact, many argued that clerical work was effective training for a woman’s duties as a wife and mother (Davies 81; England and Boyer 313). As a result, clerical work’s link to respectable femininity solidified. Of course, the respectability of this labor also racialized it as white.

While Rosie the Riveter emerged as the archetype of women at work during World War II, clerical work could also be a patriotic calling. Public service posters encouraged women to be stenographers and file clerks in supporting the war effort (England and Boyer 318). Women workers were nothing new, and in fact 75 percent of women workers had labored for wages before the war began (Kessler-Harris, Out to Work 276). WWII merely continued the trajectory of women entering the workforce. Of course, as women flooded into factories and offices, their acceptance as war workers depended upon the absence of men. Wartime did not undermine the idea of separate spheres for women’s and men’s work. Instead, men’s work and women’s traits momentarily aligned. Donning their overalls and tying up their hair in scarves, women poured into factories, being told that if they could bake cakes, they could load shells into bombers. By revaluing the alleged delicacy of the female body, wartime industry put their nimble fingers to work (Jack 290-1). Wartime propaganda almost exclusively targeted white women. When Black women were encouraged to serve the war effort, it was in laundry, cafeterias, and as domestic workers. Even during the war, then, Black women “were supposed to form a behind-the-scenes cadre of support workers for gainfully employed white wives” (Jones 237). This rhetorical maneuvering on the part of wartime employers, however, combined with the lack of attention to women’s issues on the part of newly powerful labor unions, allowed notions of the female worker/citizen to be easily eclipsed after the war. 

The idea that women willingly left wartime positions to return home is an oversimplification of a variety of historical forces, including union opposition to female work along with compelling economic need to stay in the workforce. The number of American women in the paid labor force did drop by about 2 million from 1944 to 1946, but it never again sank to prewar levels (Foner 395). While some women voluntarily left wartime positions, quit rates were highest in the lowest-paid jobs. Women were more frequently laid off or forced out of jobs where they had made the biggest gains—heavy industry (Kessler-Harris, Out to Work 286-7). The war did not change the traditional division of labor by race, and tactics used to force white women out of the workforce were levied even harder against Black women (Jones 253-6). Moreover, public sentiment did not support women staying in the workplace, and less than one-third of women interviewed thought their sex should be treated equally with men when applying for jobs (Kessler-Harris, Out to Work 298-9).  

Despite this, the 1950s saw more women entering the workforce and more of them opting to work full time. This was in part due to the changing social landscape. Americans married younger, stayed together longer, and had more children than their European counterparts (May 3). As new, white families flooded into the suburbs, consumer aspirations climbed in the form of appliances, cars, and even saving for children’s college. Keeping up with the Joneses required many women to work, and women were almost thirty percent of the labor force in 1950 and 35 percent of it by 1965 (Kessler-Harris, Out to Work 301). Paradoxically, in this landscape, employment for married women was discouraged, but female consumption was hailed. As a result, as historian Elaine Tyler May writes, “It was unfortunate if a wife had to hold a job, on the other hand, it was considered far worse if the family was unable to purchase what were believed to be necessities for the home” (159). Women, then, went to work so that they could fulfill their role as consumers. The incessant promotion of capitalism undergirded what historian Lizabeth Cohen calls a “consumers’ republic,” “an economy, culture, and politics built around the promises of mass consumption” (7). Thus, if women had to work, clerical work was attractive as an accepted female role despite far lower salaries than in wartime heavy industry (England and Boyer 322). By 1960s, one-third of all wage-earning women worked in the clerical field (Kessler-Harris, Out to Work 303). Race imbricated gender in work opportunity, of course. Black women had always been seen as working bodies, so there was no ambivalence greeting their workforce participation. If white women moved into clerical fields, in the 1950s and 1960s, Black women worked in institutional or household service. In fact, by 1950, sixty percent of Black working women were in service roles such as cleaning (Jones 234-5). It would take the slow implementation and enforcement of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act for Black women to start moving into clerical fields (Jones 301-2). 

Despite the move into what could be considered more socially sanctioned roles, backlash accompanied white women into the office. Ferdinand Lundberg and Marynia F. Farnham published Modern Woman: The Lost Sex, in response to their concerns about the postwar labor market and shifting gender norms. Working outside of the home, they insisted, was a call from “masculine strivings” (235). Indeed, “the more importance outside work assumes, the more are the masculine components of women’s nature enhanced and encouraged” (235). Framing femininity as a moral and familial obligation, Lundberg and Farnham’s arguments, while not universally supported, circulated broadly through the public sphere, earning refutation in Betty Friedan’s 1963 Feminine Mystique

Anxieties about women at work were significant not only to trade unions and lonely husbands, though. Gender was a weapon in the Cold War, and by the early 1950s, the United States had slipped seamlessly into battle with the Soviet Union. Propaganda extolled the American housewife in opposition to the Soviet working woman. Capitalism was all the more desirable because it gave white women time and commodities to pursue fulfillment as mothers and wives. Communism allegedly erased femininity, enslaving men and women equally to the Soviet state. Foreign correspondents proposed answers to the question “Why Russian Women Work like Men,” and described Russian women as “stolid” and “dowdy,” laboring as engineers, construction workers, and bus drivers because there were not enough Russian men to fill these jobs (Samuels 22). 

The Cold War struggle over the role of women even reached the highest levels. When then-vice president Richard Nixon traveled to Moscow in 1959 to visit the American National Exhibition, he touted not American technologies of war, but American technologies of domesticity. In “the Kitchen Debate,” Nixon emphasized how capitalism enabled the United States to ease American housewives’ burdens. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev snapped in reply, “We do not have the capitalist attitude toward women” (qtd. in May 21). Consumer choices, most often exercised by white women keeping house, became proxy for political freedoms championed by the American government. Without access to the booming suburbs and new shopping centers, however, Black Americans’ consumer choices were severely curtailed (Cohen 406-8).

The Cold War had a mixed impact on Black women. Anti-communism decimated the most progressive labor unions, including ones that had the best records on gender and racial equality (Jones 264). At the same time, racial prejudice and segregation in the Jim Crow South was a weak point in U.S. Cold War posturing, given that the Soviet Union was seen as a place of racial equality. As historian Mary Dudziak shows, the need to appear to be making progress on civil rights opened limited avenues for Black integration in the United States. Transnationally, the United States expanded its military presence across Asia in the name of promoting democracy and preventing communism’s spread. As Denise Cruz, Grace M. Cho, and Lisa Yoneyama explain, these imperialist projects had direct impacts on women of color across the globe. Thus, the centering of white femininity in Just Between Office Girls supported U.S. aims for global security and racial capitalism. While JBOG primarily centered the U.S.-Soviet conflict and a binary view of race, these ideas had broad, transnational resonance. 

In sum, then, the combination of exhortations to consume coexisted with praise for traditional gender roles. Economic pressure, however, sent women to work or provided strong incentive for them to remain in the workforce after the war. Thus, deep, gendered ambivalence greeted white women workers in the 1940s and 1950s alongside racialized discrimination that left Black women with scant employment opportunities. How did these gendered and racialized pressures frame the discussion of work itself? The next section begins an analysis of the Bureau of Business Practice pamphlets. 

Office Girls Unite: Constituting Collective Identities

Who was the “office girl”? Just Between Office Girls constituted her as young, white, unmarried, and defined in relation to the men around her. The pamphlets, then, used constitutive rhetoric to co-construct gender, race, and work. In Maurice Charland’s original iteration of the theory, constitutive rhetoric is the tool by which audiences come into being. Constitutive rhetoric paradoxically creates an audience and endows it with certain characteristics while simultaneously assuming such an audience already exists to be addressed (Charland 137). JBOG drew working women into this collectivity by homogenizing their identities while at the same time offering them entry to the Cold War consumers’ republic. 

Primarily, the pamphlets address working women as “girls,” as emphasized in the series title. Moreover, the address “office girls” identifies the audience with their work. It literally places them in their workplace. This address suffuses the pamphlets. Rarely are workers referred to as “women” or even “young women.” This rhetorical choice built the pamphlets’ overall chatty tone. More importantly, though, it sidestepped the controversial question surrounding whether married women should work. In referring to the audience as “girls,” the implication was that clerical workers were young women working until marriage compelled them to stop. As we have seen, society sanctioned unmarried women workers far more than married women or mothers in the workforce, especially in the 1950s. The term also had racial implications, emphasizing the whiteness of the intended audience. While white women may have seen the address as an attempt to build a casual community of young workers, for Black women, the term may have echoed language from the centuries of chattel slavery which indicated that Black women did not deserve being called “miss” and were too servile to be adult (Green).

The pamphlets also created this young audience of pre-marriage women and thus, acceptable workers, by crafting a chatty tone. The title constitutes the authors as members of the workers’ peer group, but perhaps with more experience. “Just between office girls” implied co-workers swapping tips among themselves. Moreover, most articles were written informally in the second person, addressed to “you.” “In a quandary about your fall and winter wardrobe?” asked a 1958 article. “Are you wondering whether you can buy anything without having it go out of style ten minutes after you walk out of the store? We don’t blame you” (“Let Sanity Follow Sack”). Such a tone built familiarity and good will between the reader and writer and presented the tips as an older sister looking out for her younger sister’s well-being. Likewise, advice about on time arrivals and general respect for others indicated that the writers believed that most of the women in their audience were beginning their first office jobs. A reliance on anecdotes, most obviously made up, also supported the chatty tone, as did the perpetuation of archetypes as discipline to office etiquette. Issues from the 1950s, for instance, included boxes entitled “I’m the gal” and then provided some “what not to dos.” “I’m the gal who really gets around,” proclaimed one example. “My phone rings all day long, and everyone in the office knows they’re calls for dates…And every morning I let ‘em all know what a big time I had the night before.” Not only did this perpetuate middle-class standards of sexual propriety; it also created a separate work sphere to which women had to be socialized to not let their personal lives interfere.

Other cues in the stories supported the idea that this group of women was composed of pre-marriage workers. One article entitled “Memo: from the Boss” explicitly described Anne, who was leaving her job to be married. In the short story, her boss gave her a memo thanking her for her hard work and diligence throughout the years. “It was, she tells us, the best farewell present he could have given her.” Sanctioning the behavior of leaving work to be married, the story also undermined Anne’s identity as a professional by suggesting that appreciation was effective compensation for years of hard work. 

Another characteristic of the working girl, as per JBOG, was her role as a consumer. Again, because she was largely figured as young and unmarried, she was presumed to have at least modest income to spend. “We’re being wooed!” declared the August 10, 1959, issue. “Downtown stores no longer assume that women customers are necessarily full-time housekeepers. They know that many of them toil in nearby offices and factories, accounting for a great deal of shopping during lunch hours and after work. Accordingly, competition for the Office Girl dollar is brisk!” (“We’re Being Wooed”). JBOG was one avenue for women to learn about places to spend or invest their hard-earned dollars. Articles highlighted beauty and diet trends, recommended books on self-improvement, and provided decorating tips. While JBOG did not feature conventional advertisements, pamphlets did occasionally highlight new products. “If your [legs] are in need of a shape-up, here’s a new fun way to exercise them. Wear Scholl Exercise Sandals. All you have to do is start walking. They do all the work,” a 1969 article explained. It then detailed how these new sandals worked the legs and could be personalized (“A Sandal that Works While you Play”). JBOG assumed working women were naturally interested in fashion and beauty products. The admonishments to consume beauty products sometimes explicitly appeared amidst Cold War geopolitics. A 1960 article entitled “What, no Borsch Bath?” extolled “Thank heavens for the corner drugstore! Without it, we might have to fall back on the beauty treatments suggested by a commentator on a Moscow home hour radio broadcast. He advised listeners to banish dry hair by dousing it with sour milk, to banish greasy skin by slapping on a mixture of grated cucumber and vodka.” Articles like this subtly nudged single women to consume not just as part of their office duties, but also their duties as American citizens. The “corner drugstore” was a celebration of the choice of consumer products available to women in the capitalist United States. But this identity as consumer also racialized the office girl as white by assuming access to a bevy of products and childlessness as she consumed to fulfill her own desires. 

It was not until the mid 1960s that married women appeared as office girls. A March 15, 1965, article entitled “Memo from a Working Wife,” started the shift to seeing “married working girls” as a staple of offices. In fact, as the article pointed out, over half of the female labor force was married. The article provided advice for balancing the responsibilities of housekeeping, childcare, and waged labor. Expecting male resistance was one of the article’s points. “Men in general still feel woman’s place is in the home. We’ve got to accept this, and not be angered by their frequent failure to take our ‘careers’ seriously. Be glad they let us work.” Articles like this naturalized male resistance and trivialized women’s career aspirations with quotation marks. As the 1960s progressed, more articles appeared with tips about balancing child (and husband) care with a full-time job, but they were relatively rare, indicating a continued constitution of clerical workers as young and unmarried, an image that stabilized feminine identity while celebrating consumerism.  

JBOG also assumed that its audience was white, an assumption largely borne out by demographic data. Because clerical workers were often the faces of organizations, deep-seated racism prevented women of color from being hired until after the Civil Rights Act, and they did not approach parity with white women in offices until the 1970s (England and Boyer 326; Jones 302). Race or diversity are not mentioned until 1970, when an article entitled “Foot-in-Mouth Disease” appeared with the goal of helping working women be more tactful when “communicating with Negroes.” Diversity took backseat to efficiency and pleasantness when training office workers. Only when being able to communicate across diversity became an important office skill did it warrant inclusion. Of course, assuming office workers would need training in communicating this way also shores up the idea that these women were imagined white. Constituting a white audience allowed JBOG to bypass uncomfortable issues of workplace discrimination while using labor as an avenue for consumerism. Houses in the suburbs and consumption of goods were largely not open to Black Americans, and in the early 1950s, far more Black women were working as domestic servants than in offices. Comfortable, consuming, and glamorous women were far more effective in fighting the Cold War than meaningful conversations about race relations (see Dudziak).   

All in all, JBOG encouraged women to be proud of their collective identity as clerical workers and as women. Pamphlets frequently celebrated women’s accomplishments and encouraged working women to be proud of the general progress that their sex had made, admonishments that would have been far more credible for a white audience. The December 10, 1958, issue crowed, “How times have changed! Forty years ago, American women were not allowed to vote…If you don’t think women have come a long way, just take a look at a few facts for 1958. Women now have the say-so in spending 80% of all the family income. They are the beneficiaries of 80% of all trust funds. They own 70% of all the voting stock in corporations” (“It’s a Woman’s World”). While this focus on the economic reinforced women’s roles as consumers, the tone made clear that a generic sense of progress was worthy of collective celebration. The communal celebration would have been far more compelling to white women than to Black women, as many Black women could not say in 1958 that they could easily cast ballots. 

Taken together, the construction of the working woman in these pamphlets was overwhelmingly white, single, young, and inexperienced. As Michelle Smith notes, work-related rhetoric often seeks continuity—to make work not contradict femininity or marriage (187). So, too, did JBOG stabilize a female identity that made work continuous with feminine consumption patterns and with the general narrative of white, female domesticity that the United States used as a weapon in the Cold War. These workers were laboring until marriage and taking pleasure in the consumer goods U.S. capitalism made available to them. 

“The Care and Feeding of Bosses”: Performing Clerical Duties

So, what was a working woman to do? Being an effective secretary entailed building a host of skills. JBOG framed many of these as care work and emotional labor—the kinds of work that women were assumed to want to do naturally. Much as educational leaders regendered nineteenth-century schools into places for female teachers to nurture students instead of for male disciplinarians to mete out punishment (Enoch 52), so too did JBOG domesticate the work clerical workers did. Yet, pamphlets encouraged clerical workers to do invisible and uncompensated labor and did not recommend that they seek appropriate payment for it.

JBOG shared tips for typing, filing, writing business correspondence, and phone etiquette. Each issue had grammar challenges and vocabulary building quizzes to sharpen these skills. Yet, far more column ink was dedicated to interpersonal issues in the office. Indeed, dealing with the boss was one area where clerical workers needed to marshal their caring energies. In encouraging office workers to approach the boss with a gentle hand, they actively curried favor toward him (and it was always a him). Articles asked office workers to recognize that “You two have so much in common, you and the old so-and-so.” This 1958 cover article told a story of a secretary getting scolded for misspelling a word and feeling “hurt, anger, and self-pity” while the boss retreated to his office feeling badly for speaking so harshly (“You and the Old So-and-So”). Bosses appeared as sensitive and needing care from clerical workers. One short 1959 article entitled “Care and Feeding of Bosses Department,” provided tips that included not bringing up problems at the very beginning or end of the workday and attempting to solve problems before taking them to the boss. Thus, even in their most creative and valuable roles, clerical workers, as per this framing, performed care work. Women catered to the needs of male authority figures. 

Yet, this care work was professionalized in an extreme fashion. No office worker could ever perfect her role because the job entailed giving one’s all and going above and beyond. Part of this gendered advice included trying to anticipate the boss’s every need. The way JBOG talked about this element of clerical work sounded like housework. “Do some little extra jobs, and you’ll be extra valuable,” a March 15, 1964, article advised. It recommended airing out the boss’s office, dusting, straightening his desk, sharpening his pencils, and checking to see if his plants needed watering. “To do all this, you should beat your boss to work—which he’ll also appreciate” (“An Extra Touch”). Once again, appreciation was the compensation for extra labor, undoubtedly not spelled out in any official job description. JBOG assumed that working women would naturally find joy in doing this care work and see the boss’s appreciation as compensation enough. 

Caring could be taken too far if it slipped into flirting. As one reader wrote to the “What Would You Do?” column answering a letter about attracting “office wolves,” “From the cradle, the female is taught how to attract the male. In the office, this urge must be formed into a congenial and helpful attitude of service.” The reader then went on to encourage the advice seeker to make sure clothes were “well fitting but not too tight or short” and to avoid “‘flirty’ eyes or ‘suggestive’ inflections in voice.” Here, then, allegedly natural feminine tendencies toward flirting were channeled into gendered care work in the office and strictly disciplined before they became sexual. Fulfilling the office wife stereotype required creating an atmosphere of support and help. Thus, femininity had to be tamed to effectively dwell in the office. While sexual harassment of clerical workers was a significant problem and one that prompted some of the earliest organization attempts (Segrave), Black and white women would have experienced the disciplining of their sexuality in very different ways given the hypersexualization of Black women (Collins).

The duties of a clerical worker also required emotional labor that was deeply gendered. For instance, JBOG identified them as responsible for the overall emotional tone of the office. In the June 10, 1959, issue, readers met Sally who often felt like “an unappreciated slave.” Yet, the article admonished that “She isn’t aware of what her buoyant ‘good morning’ does to others, and how her warm smile gives a lift to even the biggest sourpuss.” “She’s Controller of the Office Atmosphere,” the article concluded, in capital letters. Another article, “The Great Stone Face,” admonished women to smile. “Too bad she doesn’t realize what a smile could mean to those around her…and to her own well-being. There’s nothing that takes so little effort, and pays off so well.” Thus, working women needed to perform gendered care work to lift the spirits of the office, regardless of their internal feelings. 

Emotional labor also became an area for discipline. When women acted too much like the boss, they undermined the emotional tone the office needed. While stories often extolled women’s value to their bosses and to the office, they were also continually reminded that they were not the boss and that their power was limited. Pamphlets emphasized that humility and feminine sweetness were office girls’ most valuable skills. One story, in the August 10, 1958, issue told the story of Gwen, who worked for Mr. Howard. When a print job came back messy Mr. Howard told her to handle it. After storming over to the print office and demanding a re-do, Gwen got her comeuppance. “Listen, kid,” the printer said, “even if I had goofed completely—that’s no way to tell me. You may work for Howard, but you’re not Howard. So don’t go around giving orders like a big shot. You’ll just make people mad, and what’s the point when you can get things done faster by being your own sweet self?” he asked. Gwen smiled through her tears and admitted that the printer was right. The story was aptly named “Embarrassment: It’s the price we pay for some lessons.”

Another facet of emotional labor that the working woman was to master was charm and sophistication. She was, as JBOG made clear, expected to be charming and sophisticated, but not too sophisticated, which might threaten the men. The general charm of the office girl required knowledge of current events. A December 15, 1963, article entitled “Are you a Sophisticate?” recommended reading a good newspaper regularly, reading a weekly news magazine, reading at minimum two books a month, looking at the world around one, and listening sharply for new ideas. “You’ll become a person others want to know better,” it emphasized. Working women were also expected to be “in the know” about the companies for which they worked, including what product or service was their biggest seller and the names of top officers. Thus, effectively performing charm and sophistication required resource expenditure to subscribe to newspapers and magazines and time outside of work to read them. Intangible and ephemeral factors like charm, however, could also provide an excuse for racial discrimination (Jones 304). 

The emotional labor of office work did not just involve caring for men and doing continual domestic work. It also required controlling one’s attitude toward the job, which could be monotonous. In a 1961 front-page article, JBOG introduced Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, the husband-and-wife theater team. When asked “if they didn’t get bored during their long-run plays,” they instead said that they were never quite satisfied and continually tried to improve. “Monotony, then, has no place in their scheme of things. They say the same lines, move about the stage pretty much as they did the night before. But they don’t see a dreary sameness to their job” (“Another Day”). The implication was clear: working women were to see their jobs as opportunities for perfection. The analogical reasoning—comparing clerical work to acting—emphasized that performance was a duty. Many other articles admonished women not to be in too much of a rush to advance their careers. “Prove that you can do your present job as well as it can possibly be done, blindfolded and with one hand tied behind you. With efficiency, energy, and a pleasant attitude,” advised one article (“Good Luck–It’s a Giant Step”). Thus, rather than encourage capable women to push their boundaries, JBOG counseled patience, complacency, and a positive attitude. 

The power of a positive attitude was a common theme, encouraging women to wholeheartedly throw themselves into their work. “The Five O’clock Girls” were a foil for discipline and emphasized the importance of going above and beyond. “They’re the girls who leave at the stroke of five—and until then stay busy looking for an excuse not to work” (“The “Five O’clock Girls”). “So many girls try to do the minimum amount of work necessary to keep a job. They seem to set a goal that says ‘This is the amount of work I’m doing for the amount of money I’m getting paid.’ And they don’t do an iota more. In fact, sometimes it seems they spend more time and energy planning how to get out of work…than would have been necessary to have actually done the job,” bemoaned a January 1968 issue (“‘Don’t Work Too Hard…’”). A 1968 column advised women to look for the possibilities in their current job. “You probably don’t hate your job, but you may have lost interest. If this is your problem, why not do something about it?” It then advised perfecting the tasks, diving into the affairs of the firm, and even being nicer to co-workers so more stimulating interactions would occur at the office (“Bored?”). Thus, JBOG made clear that being a clerical worker required initiative and hard work. It required a drive to perfect small tasks without seeing them as monotonous. But such articles also fed the idea that work was for women without kids and family obligations because they should be staying late and coming in early. Indeed, the chatty tone hid the fact this advice asked women to do extra work for which they were likely not compensated. 

There was a fine line between taking initiative and aggression, as a November 1970 issue noted. Comparing clerical work to being pushy at a dance, the article concluded, “Guess which girl is going to get ahead faster. The girl who knows the difference between being enterprising and being aggressive, naturally” (“Initiative vs. Aggression”). Once again using argument by analogy, JBOG situated the duties of office work well within a feminine realm of experience. Thus, as always, feminine traits were to be on display in the office. Anticipating the needs of the boss and going above and beyond one’s stated job duties still required a light, feminine touch.

In sum, then, the duties of the clerical worker were clearly spelled out in JBOG. She was to master filing, typing, have a pleasant phone voice, and generally perform care work in the office. One of her main duties was exhausting emotional labor: she was to keep the office mood upbeat and overcome her own boredom. The office guides also emphasized the need to take initiative, anticipate needs, and always perfect one’s work. This counsel disciplined clerical workers to accept their roles without pushing for raises and promotions and to know their place as valuable, but circumscribed, employees. In its description of the duties, JBOG gendered clerical work as deeply feminine, often through analogical reasoning. It assumed that care and domestic work would be naturally appealing to women who would do it with a sense of pride instead of a desire for compensation. The next section considers embodiment in clerical work.

What Not to Wear to Work: Femininity and Fashion

The office pamphlets were unequivocal on the role of fashion in the office. Utilizing what Risa Applegarth calls “embodied epideictic,” the manuals codified the labor of femininity as another uncompensated component of clerical work. Embodied epideictic refers to “textual depictions of embodied behavior that invite or articulate an attitude of praise or blame” (Applegarth 130).  So often did JBOG provide diet advice, fashion tips, and beauty tutorials that these became parts of the job. It is also clear that JBOG operated from a racialized standard of beauty, prizing thinness, modest yet fashionable dress, and “natural” makeup.

JBOG framed a neat and pleasant office wardrobe as both an obligation and a transaction. It was something the office girl owed to her boss. “Your boss supplies you with a typewriter, files, and office machines. But there’s one important piece of office equipment he expects you to supply in return—an efficient, well-balanced office wardrobe,” noted one 1964 column, framing the wardrobe as an exchange between the boss and clerical worker (“It’s Your Money: Dress for the Job”). Clothes were equipment for doing the job effectively—as important as typewriters, this analogy averred. Indeed, JBOG often relied on comparisons to make feminine habits seem like common-sense parts of the job.

Despite the fact that wardrobing was an essential facet of the job, JBOG emphasized that an office wardrobe need not be expensive. As a result, JBOG accepted the low pay of clerical work and instead of encouraging women to ask for raises, it taught them to economize and bargain hunt. Even stories that emphasized the significance of fashion and being well dressed took pains to note that fashion sense was more a matter of taste than money. “Far more credit is due the woman who, with a limited clothes allowance, always creates the impression that she is well-dressed. Her appearance speaks for her own good taste, her own knowledge of value, and her own sense of what to wear and when to wear it,” proclaimed a cover article on the October 10, 1958, issue (“On Being Well-Dressed”). This reminded women that being well-dressed was a duty, insinuated taste to be an innate feminine characteristic, and prevented women from complaining that their meager salaries inhibited their ability to be fashionable. A 1960 article featuring Sally, “the perfect office girl,” described her as someone who “doesn’t spend much on clothes, but she’s always neat and dresses in good taste. The gentleness and kindness that shine from her eyes give her a beauty that’s rare these days” (“The Perfect Office Girl”). Other articles advised women to buy a few expensive basics and then provided details on what could be picked up at “bargain basements” without looking too cheap (“It’s Your Money: Dress for the Job”). Fashion sense even became proxy for striving and effectiveness. One 1960 article advised “the girls who wear mid or high heels are usually the ones who want to improve and do a little better job each day. The girls who wear flats are usually the ones who don’t care—about their job or their appearance” (“Get off the Ground”). The epideictic messages were clear—neat, fashionable women deserved praise. 

JBOG also served up fashionable blame. It was rife with stories of working women who had been fired for appearing sloppy at work. One article from 1960 told of a worker who was a whiz at filing and efficient at work but was soon let go by her firm. The boss explained, “when she came for her interview, she was wearing a simple office dress. That was the first and last time I saw her look like a lady. From her first day on the job to the day I fired her, she wore sloppy sweaters and skirts and loafers, or shirts and skirts—not always clean—and a couple of times she came in wearing socks.” This boss noted that the secretaries in his office were “on display for clients and other visitors” (“Hired…and fired”). Articles like these echoed the idea that there was something ephemeral about a perfect clerical worker, and if sloppy dress could get one dismissed from a job, a snappy wardrobe became a duty like filing and typing. In fact, in this case, it was more important than being good at clerical tasks. The wardrobe also had to be appropriately feminine because, as the boss in this story emphasized, he needed the working woman to “look like a lady.” Thus, appropriately embodied clerical work behaviors were innately feminine. 

Illustrations in JBOG supported these themes. The “I’m the gal…” boxes from the 1950s included images of women putting on makeup at their desk or appearing sloppy, with socks falling down their legs or wrinkled skirts. While most articles did not include pictures, each pamphlet had at least one cartoon. When shown in their daily duties in these cartoons, secretaries wore blouses, knee-length pencil skirts, and heels. They always had white skin and fashionable, bobbed or curled hair. When cartoons poked fun at secretaries and presented them as clearly unqualified, dress often paralleled cartoon text. Unqualified secretaries showed up in cartoons at personnel desks in low-cut dresses and flashy jackets, as in an October 30, 1962, issue.

Alongside the idea that taste was an innate feminine trait came hints that pursuing appropriate office fashion and femininity was, in fact, work. It required self-reflection and analysis. For instance, one article advised women to “Be yourself. But don’t be ridiculous.” Not being ridiculous, it seems, required that office women “analyze your own face and body type. Then look the new styles over and choose those that do the most for you.” “You’re not Jackie Kennedy [or] Liz Taylor,” this 1963 article admonished (“Two’s a Crowd”). The office guides emphasized that being a good secretary was not just about innate beauty “No woman is looking as well as she could unless she’s well groomed,” an article called “Are you Making the Most of What You’ve Got?” explained. One 1966 article entitled “Plain Jane—or Lazy Jane,” noted that “We owe it to ourselves and to those around us to develop whatever attributes we have, and to make the most of them.” In short, consciously or not, the office guides encouraged women to do uncompensated labor in striving to be on trend with fashion and beauty but still office appropriate. And in hinting that these behaviors were labor, JBOG made them an area for discipline and possible dismissal. 

JBOG also took an epideictic approach to specific trends. The popularity of miniskirts in the 1960s prompted many columns warning women away from the style and urging them to select more timeless fashions instead (“Short Skirts Present Tall Problems”). A 1966 issue even told of working women in New York City who refused to sit down on the subway because their skirts were so short, they invited unwanted leers (“Skirting the Issue”). The pantsuit appeared in 1964, wherein it was roundly dismissed as “belong[ing] in the country—miles away from an office” (“Paris in the Office”). By 1970, many personnel directors had given their clerical workers permission to wear them as long as they took the same care they did with dresses (“The Midi”). “Before you decide the pantsuit is for you take a good look in a full-length mirror. Be sure you have the shape to wear pants to the office,” recommended another article (“More on Pantsuits”). Thus, as trends evolved, the message of JBOG stayed the same: the working woman must assess her strengths and select a feminine outfit that accentuated them appropriately. She must always embody tasteful femininity. 

As a side effect of the focus on femininity, JBOG naturalized difference between men and women. Articles continually reminded women that they were not men and suffered from many weaknesses. The January 10, 1960, issue told women that they were absent from work twice as often as men. After listing the various causes, the article then detailed how to beat the most common culprits. Feminine gossiping was often cause for discipline as a number of articles reminded women to use caution when disclosing information. A 1962 article entitled “What Men Expect,” noted that “women, more than men, permit clashing temperaments and personalities to create unpleasant situations completely out of proportion to reality; situations which demand solutions from some poor, bedeviled male boss. Women also have an ugly habit of worming confidences out of one another and then spreading malicious gossip.” The January 25, 1960, issue, for instance, noted “The wise girl keeps her mouth shut about other people’s business” (“What Not to Say”). The implication was that women always loved to talk and gossip. Thus, along with requiring embodied femininity through fashion and grooming, JBOG emphasized differences between men and women, which reified the idea that clerical work must be done by women.   

In sum, effective office work required a performance of embodied femininity through fashion and beauty habits that were deeply racialized. The implications were severe. Women were expected to spend resources and time performing this work outside of normal compensation structures. And for Black women, already earning the lowest wages, the work would have been both more extensive and more expensive as they fashioned their bodies to meet white, middle-class standards. Something else lurked in this embodied rhetoric, though. As historian Kathleen Barry shows in her study of flight attendants, throughout much of the twentieth-century, flight attendants were expected to perform a sexual availability based in glamour. Yet, in performing these duties in a seemingly natural fashion, women effectively undermined their claims to be actual workers with the right to organize for higher wages and better working conditions (121). In doing their jobs, they were performing gender, not labor. So, too, with clerical workers as the role was naturalized as female. The concluding section identifies other implications for this work-related rhetoric.

The Cold War Comes Home: Conclusions

This essay has examined socialization discourses geared toward clerical workers in the United States from the mid-1950s to the early 1970s. The pamphlets analyzed here sidestepped controversy over working women by hailing a primarily unmarried, white, and always female work force. They also framed clerical work as a work of care, catering to mercurial and sensitive bosses and made performing racialized femininity a key component of the job as they extolled uncompensated labor in the form of wardrobing and beauty rituals. In sum, this essay pushes past rhetoric’s traditional focus on the rhetoric of labor organizing to explore how labor itself gets gendered.

Accordingly, this essay identifies the significance of how the public talks about labor to understanding how work is valued and compensated. Historically, work deemed to be “women’s work” has been degraded and underpaid (Cohen and Huffman 443). And, without a doubt, JBOG constituted clerical work as (white) women’s work and made gendered traits and behaviors endemic to effectively doing the job. Moreover, the pamphlets defined beauty routines and fashion consumption as obligations for clerical workers. Ambiguous, gender-based work is often not seen as work at all and never compensated (Wichroski 34). In casting a certain charm and look as part of the job, the pamphlets also provided cover for discrimination as largely white personnel managers sought people who met their standards of appropriate attractiveness, disadvantaging qualified Black women seeking to move into clerical work from service fields (Jones 305). Only the 1964 Civil Rights Act would begin to change this. In short, JBOG obfuscated what actually counted as work and made clear that doing uncompensated labor was required. Doing so protected visions of clerical work as a white, middle-class occupation and perhaps made women unlikely to see themselves as workers with a potential buy-in for labor organizing. 

Likewise, though they encouraged bargain hunting, these pamphlets made clear that consumption was a part of the job as well. As a result, women’s identities as consumers seemed to overshadow their identities as workers even as they further racialized the job as white. Such a way of framing clerical work corresponded with Cold War discursive needs to praise female consumption and downplay work. As a result, here work and gender intertwined in the context of geopolitical struggle. Encouraging women to follow the dictates of the pamphlets not only served bosses seeking cheap productivity but also a government waging a propaganda war with the Soviet Union, where women worked in factories and at stereotypically male jobs given the lack of Russian men available to do these jobs. 

JBOG served capitalist aims on another level, too. Despite the fact that the pamphlets cultivated a chatty relationship between the authors and readers, JBOG did little to build relationships among clerical workers themselves. While it counseled mutual respect, warned about gossip, and encouraged clerical workers to welcome newcomers, it never provided collective solutions to office problems. Instead, individual striving, prepared and careful conversations with the boss, and going above and beyond were the keys to success. In its individualism, it rhetorically confirmed the arguments of major unions that women were uninterested in and too hard to organize (Feldberg 151). Of course, low pay and the fact that many were in the workforce temporarily did make women hard to unionize. Moreover, clerical workers were geographically separated in different offices, an extra challenge, especially as the need for large typing and filing pools waned (Feldberg 158; Ladd-Taylor 467). Large unions like the AFL-CIO did not bang down doors to organize clerical workers and often demurred when women asked them to send in organizers. This was partially because men benefited from gendered divisions of labor as jobs coded masculine garnered higher wages and more respect (Cobble, “A Spontaneous” 39; Kessler-Harris, “Where Are” 97). Rhetorically, then, JBOG encouraged women to find power in femininity and patience, not in sisterhood or organization. Moreover, in making white women agents of racial capitalism, JBOG also perpetuated the exclusion of women of color from the office. 

Despite these messages, in the mid- to late 1970s, groups seeking unionization of clerical workers sprang up to resist. These women were motivated to increase their wages, but also to demand respect for their profession and to change some of the most outmoded gendered elements (Cobble, “A Spontaneous” 31; Foner 480; Windham 154). They also sought more specific job descriptions to professionalize the work. By the 1980s, groups like 9to5 transformed notions of what bosses could fairly ask clerical workers to do. Clerical work groups in the 1980s could not solve all problems and the gains were mostly won by private, corporate secretaries and not the lower-paid women in typing pools, who were far more likely to be women of color (Cobble, “A Spontaneous” 32). As the 1980s ended, about sixteen percent of clerical workers were unionized, comparable to the U.S. population as a whole, although the overall decline of unionization in the private sector that began in the 1950s continued (Cobble, “A Spontaneous” 33). In line with the professionalization of the field, JBOG softened its gendered language, becoming Office Guide for Working Women in 1973 and just Office Guide by 1976. Yet, even the Office Guide assumed clerical work was a feminine endeavor as the beauty, exercise, and fashion tips remained. The Guide continued to preach moderation, dismissing “militant feminism” in the office as a “big problem” in 1975 (“What Would You Do?”) Yet, it did continue to adapt, shifting away from beauty tips by the 1980s and even recognizing in 1984 that most clerical workers bristled at being called “girl” (“‘My Girl’ Won’t Do”).

As Kyla Schuller explains, rhetorics such as the ones in JBOG continue a long trajectory of seeing femininity as tied to whiteness, rhetoric that justified abusing the labor of women of color (qtd. in Arjini). Of course, the weaponizing of white femininity is not confined to history as can be seen in the wake of protests to support Black lives. On a material level, while some laws now exist to protect equal access to work, women of color are still clustered in the lowest paying jobs in the U.S. workforce. Data unequivocally shows women of color continue to be paid less than white women and white men (Gould, Schieder, and Geier). Clerical work represents just one scene where the rhetorical entwining of femininity and whiteness has lasting consequences.

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Justice for All: The Womanist Labor Rhetoric of Nannie Helen Burroughs

We are not less honorable if we are servants.
Fidelity to duty rather than the grade of one’s occupation is the true measure of character

Nannie Helen Burroughs (“The Colored Woman and Her Relations to the Domestic Service Problem” 326)

African American clubwoman and educator Nannie Helen Burroughs (1879-1961) was a significant labor leader and rhetorician. Burroughs was at the beginning of her labor organizing career when she delivered her speech “The Colored Woman and Her Relations to the Domestic Service Problem” in Atlanta, Georgia in 1902.1 She spoke to the Negro Young People’s Christian Congress, an audience of mainly Black educators, about domestic service reform and her plans to fight for equal pay and respect for African American2 women laborers. We argue that following her speech, Burroughs developed and employed a labor rhetoric that led to the formation of a historic labor union for African American domestic workers in 1921, the National Association of Wage Earners (NAWE). 

Burroughs’s rhetoric was both unique and effective. It was based on womanist inclusivity and solidarity and ignited an organization that expanded the traditional labor union organizing model in significant ways. According to the premier womanist scholar Layli Maparyan (formerly Layli Phillips), womanism is a “social change perspective that is rooted in Black women’s and other women of color’s everyday experiences and everyday methods of problem solving in everyday spaces” (xx). Grassroots organizers have employed womanist values of egalitarianism to fight against injustices that impact disenfranchised communities. In this article, we trace how Burroughs put her womanist labor rhetoric into action to establish the first African American women’s labor union in the United States in her effort to dismantle systemic racial, class, and gender inequalities that disproportionately impacted African American women in the US labor economy.

Burroughs established the National Training School for Women and Girls (NTS) in 1909, with the support of the Woman’s Convention of the National Baptist Convention (NBC), to provide a vocational and classical education for Black women so that they could pursue whatever career they desired. With a keen sense of the racial, class, and gender inequities in the labor sector, Burroughs knew that Black girls who entered her school would most easily find employment as maids no matter the level and quality of education that they received. Her curriculum, nonetheless, reflected her ambitious goal of charting pathways for Black women to enter professions that had been designated for European immigrant and native-born white women. Her school offered courses in domestic science, dressmaking, tailoring, music, language, Black history, poultry raising, missionary and social service work (“Training school to open”). Burroughs insisted on the importance of establishing a course of education to elevate the status of domestic work even in her earliest years of serving as secretary of the Woman’s Convention in Kentucky. Burroughs’s largest project, however, was elevating Black women’s status in the labor sector by professionalizing and dignifying domestic work through labor unionization and the domestic science curriculum at her school.   

Her labor rhetoric complicated the tradition of unionization in two unique and important ways. Firstly, she asserted the need for federal union rights for all laborers. It was not until the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 that the US government created a standard of collective bargaining to prevent industrial workers (barring both agricultural and domestic) from being exploited on the job (“National Labor Relations Act”). The NAWE was thereby fourteen years ahead of its time. Secondly, there were no unions available for Black women in the early twentieth century, nor had there been any prior. While Burroughs did not reach her unionization benchmark, she struck a match for a national Black women’s labor movement through her strategic writings that inspired her organizing one of the largest untapped labor markets. 

To be clear, historians have contested the idea that the NAWE (1921) was a labor union because it was not recognized as such by the federal government.3 We argue it is important to read the term “union” rhetorically through both Burroughs’s writings and practices to develop a new framework for making visible Black women’s labor organizing that is rendered invisible by the racial and gender politics of the archive and labor union practices.  Labor organizations and unions such as the AFL-CIO, primarily led by white male industrial workers, refused to integrate African American women’s national labor agenda into their own labor causes. A textual analysis of Burroughs’s writings charts her historic labor project beyond the politics of race and gender that shape historical memory, and creates a pathway for recognizing the NAWE as a labor union. We argue that the NAWE operated like a union, as many organizations do, long before accorded legal rights.

The womanist labor rhetoric of Burroughs was based on a philosophy that working-class Black women have power and deserve respect in their workplaces in the form of living wages and safe working conditions to be attained through member driven unionization. This rhetoric includes the development of a class consciousness that demands a critical analysis of wealth, poverty and social mobility. In this article, we trace how Burroughs put her rhetoric into praxis through her writing and grassroots organizing to form the first national Black women’s labor union of the twentieth century. The texts feature three main themes Burroughs addressed throughout her labor rhetoric. She believed a women’s labor collective (womanist principle of solidarity) would lead to social, political, and economic rights for Black women resulting in liberation from racial, class and gender inequities for the entire Black community.  We examine how Burroughs employed her audacious, progressive, and forward-thinking labor rhetoric through an analysis of three major texts: “The Colored Woman and Her Relations to the Domestic Service Problem” (1902), “Divide Vote or Go to Socialists” (1919) and “My Dear Friend” (1921).

There is still more work to be done to unveil the significance of the NAWE and Burroughs’s rhetoric for labor organizing today. The labor rhetoric of Nannie Helen Burroughs led to organizing workers not based on status, but within the same shared goal of justice for all. The project of unveiling Burroughs’s shadowed legacy of unionization has its challenges. In addition to the limitations of the archive, some of the NAWE records were destroyed due to a fire at its headquarters in 1926. Despite these challenges, we see Burroughs’s writings as providing a critical lens into the significant history of the organization. Her overarching goal was to address the struggles of Black women domestic workers in ways that would liberate the entire Black community from social, political, and economic oppression.

The Woman’s Words: Burroughs’s Womanist Principles

Black and white photograph of Nannie Helen Burroughs circa early 1900s. Burroughs is facing the camera but not looking directly at it. She is wearing a long sleeved dress, heart-shaped necklace, and floral headpiece.

Fig. 1. Photograph of Nannie Helen Burroughs circa 1900 and 1920. © Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

Burroughs recognized the need for a labor organization that firmly advocated for working-class Black women in an era of racial segregation and the absence of laws to protect Black women from labor exploitation. As a daughter and granddaughter of domestic workers,4 professionalizing domestic work and instilling pride in work was crucial to Burroughs. In her speech,“The Colored Woman and her Relations to the Domestic Service Problem,” Burroughs employed womanist principles to inspire the audience to recognize the importance of domestic service reform, “Negro women can bring dignity to service life, respect and trust to themselves and honor to the race” (329). The changes Burroughs sought were guided on the principle that African American women deserved fairness and equality at work.  Her address to the audience was guided by her womanist belief that women were the social and economic anchors of the community because domestic workers were a large workforce in the Black community and were the pillars of community organizations, schools, and churches. Women (working in solidarity with men) were thereby most capable of uplifting the race and guiding the Black community to empowerment. 

Burroughs began her speech by deconstructing the negative stigma associated with domestic service, making the argument that domestic workers and their labors were especially critical to the progress of the Black race. According to Burroughs, the labor issues confronting domestic workers were critical to all African Americans regardless of gender, occupation or class status, and those issues could be remedied through domestic science education. As she proclaimed, “The training of Negro women is absolutely necessary, not only for their own salvation and the salvation of the race, but because the hour in which we live demands it” (Burroughs 325). Her strategy of foregrounding the importance of domestic workers in a Black liberation movement was to deconstruct the negative connotations associated with domestic service.  Household employment was a labor niche that carried the racial stigma of slavery, even in some early twentieth century Black communities. She considered it significant to dismantle this stigma in order to achieve her goal of galvanizing community support for a labor movement that centered domestic workers. In her words, “When the nobility of labor is magnified, and those who do labor are respected more because of their real worth to the race, we will find a lot less number trying to escape the brand servant girl” (Burroughs 326). She offered three concrete solutions for elevating the status of domestic work in the eyes of employers: domestic science training, fair wages, and vacation time (Burroughs 329).

Burroughs put the womanist principle of community solidarity into practice not only in the speech, but through her strategic delivery of it. Her decision to travel, deliver and publish “The Colored Woman and her Relations to the Domestic Service Problem” in Atlanta, Georgia, with the Young People’s Christian Congress, reflected her belief that domestic service reform impacted a national audience, even future generational leaders. The more African Americans who did not work in household employment were educated about domestic workers’ struggles, the closer the entire community would come to forming a strong moral and political alliance across class lines for Black liberation. The Congress, speech and eventual publication share the same vision of timeliness: the question of African Americans’ freedom from the lingering chains of both slavery and Jim and Jane Crow segregation had to be answered to achieve justice for all. Burroughs traveled often, spoke at meetings, and published with the intention to reach a national Black audience and convince them to join her in fighting for justice for all through labor rights for Black women.  

“We have lived on promises”: Towards a More Radical Womanist Labor Vision

(Burroughs, “Divide the Vote or Go to Socialists”)

Burroughs’s polemic 1919 letter to the Baltimore African American editor entitled “Divide Vote or Go to Socialists” was one of the most radical articulations of her labor rhetoric.5 While Burroughs could not legally vote (Black women in DC would be disenfranchised past 1920), by articulating that she had a vote, she demonstrated the political significance of Black women’s labor at the ballot box. Burroughs vowed to educate Black people, become more politically active, and work with Socialists to create a more just future for African Americans. She claimed that if the major political parties continued paying lip service then joining the Socialist party was the only option for African Americans “Until the two great political parties… declare themselves on the Suffrage, Labor and Lynching questions, the Negro should go to the Socialist party that has already declared itself for exact justice and equality and opportunity for all” (Burroughs, “Divide Vote or Go to Socialists”). Burroughs publicly exposed both the Republican and Democratic parties for their failure to fully address three key issues to African Americans: labor exploitation, lynching, and discrimination against women, citing the power of the African American female vote. 

As she declared to the paper’s African American readership: “We are going to stand for anything that is 100% American and oppose everything that is less” (Burroughs, “Divide Vote or Go to Socialist”). Burroughs’s urging African Americans to leave the party that liberated them from the institution of slavery (because it no longer served them politically) was an expansion of her other political work, which suggested the socio-political unity of Blacks based on Baptist principals of conservative fellowship. According to her, political parties had not taken Black economic interests seriously even though they relied on their votes. Therefore, Burroughs saw socialism as the salvation for African Americans because of its emphasis on equality in the labor economy. “Divide the Vote or Go to the Socialists” is where Burroughs demonstrated her radical ideas prior to her work at the NAWE. If whites were not going to join in solidarity for African American liberation, then African Americans would have to seek their own practical and hands-on solutions.

During the same year that “Divide Vote or Go to Socialists” was published, Burroughs  and her colleagues, Mary Church Terrell and Elizabeth Haynes Ross, attempted to organize with the National Trade Union League of America at the inaugural International Congress of Working Women (ICWW) meeting to forge a labor alliance between Black and white women laborers. They discovered that white labor organizations supporting socialist ideals lacked an analysis of class inequalities at the intersections of race and gender. The ICWW was uninterested in taking up the specific concerns of working-class Black women and they declined the opportunity to create a cross-racial partnership with them (“First Convention of International Conference of Working Women”). 

The ICWW meeting convened in Washington D.C with two hundred women in attendance, primarily white-Europeans and white Americans, to discuss strategies for combating the exploitation of women laborers across the world. Burroughs and her colleagues believed that this mass convening of working women in Washington D.C. was a critical opportunity for Black women to develop international alliances with white women labor organizations. They authored a petition including statistics and a detailed analysis of the labor exploitation of Black women laborers in the US economy, primarily highlighting the working conditions of Black domestic workers, “We, a group of Negro women, representing those two millions of Negro woman wage-earners, respectfully ask for your active cooperation in organizing the Negro women workers of the United States into unions…” (“First Convention of International Conference of Working Women”). The ICWW leaders rebuffed the petition. As labor historian Lara Vapnek argued, the ICWW prioritized their class and racial alliances rather than gender alliances by not forming a partnership with African American women (Vapnek 166).  The ICWW proceeded with an international conference without a focus on equal labor rights for women of all races and ignoring the working conditions of African American women detailed in the petition. Afterwards, Burroughs immediately began planning a labor union for Black women because no white labor organization in the early twentieth century was willing to join her cause.

NAWE’s Inception: “The hour has come for colored women in America to get together”

(Burroughs, “My Dear Friend”)

After failed attempts to unionize with white women, Burroughs formed a labor union for all Black women, with an emphasis on achieving domestic workers’ rights and the highest bargaining chip of all: a walk out by a single union. A strike is a collective decision as a last resort when all methods of collective bargaining at the table have been employed by the membership and are regulated by the NLRB (“The Right to Strike”). According to the NAWE Constitution, members had the right to strike if they were not granted stable employment, living wages, vacation time, death benefits and safe working conditions (“Nannie Helen Burroughs Papers”). Her call for a strike was especially daring because strikes or work stoppages provoke fear in employers who misunderstand the purpose of strikes in a labor movement, which is why strikes within floor to ceiling unions are uncommon.6 It was a bold strategy for African American domestic workers who could have easily been arrested for not showing up to work because of Jim and Jane Crow laws. By calling for solidarity and cooperation of all Black workers across gender and occupation, Burroughs was ahead of her time. Coalition politics rooted in solidarity were just beginning and weakened by the Taft Hartley Act of 1947, which federally banned solidarity-based strikes (“Taft Hartley Act of 1947”). Her approach was effective in creating not only a Black women’s labor union, but one that expanded the traditional labor union organizing model through coalition. Rather than solely galvanizing workers within the same occupation for labor rights, Burroughs and the NAWE organizers recruited workers from a variety of working-class and middle-class occupations to advocate for domestic service reform. 

Burroughs expressed her deepened womanist commitment to creating a Black women’s labor collective in her March 21, 1921, open letter entitled “My Dear Friend” published in the Washington Bee, an African American newspaper based in Washington D.C. that had covered Burroughs’s activist work since her teen years. The call for NAWE membership was a national woman centered communal one of inclusivity in the United States from every field. Burroughs took a personable approach to inspiring audiences to come together for a common purpose by beginning the letter in first person.  She reminded the readership of their shared union vision, exigency for a labor union by stating: “We want to enlist 10,000 women in the National Association of Wage Earners, who in turn will enlist another 10,000. We want women from every walk of life” (Burroughs, “My Dear Friend”). The use of armed service terminology alongside the specific numbers indicates her determination that this is not an optional call; it is a call to defend the rights of Black women everywhere. 

Burroughs saw herself as part of the women’s collective that she sought to create because never considered herself divided from working-class Black women. In the letter, Burroughs tied her belief in the power of women’s labor organizing to her racial uplift goals. According to her, the NAWE could improve the working and living conditions of the entire Black community by achieving nine goals for domestic workers (enclosed at the bottom of the letter). As Burroughs detailed, NAWE organizers collected dues; documented grievances; trained and placed employees; advocated for labor rights legislation; provided safe housing; started a uniform co-operative run for and by Black women; and opened a local office for community events and meetings (“My Dear Friend”).  

Within her letter, Burroughs simultaneously subverted and reasserted the classist and elitist philosophy of racial uplift. She argued both middle class and working-class women could uplift the Black race together through the womanist principle of women’s solidarity. According to Burroughs, middle-class and working-class Black women were social equals who contributed tremendous value to the Black women’s labor movement. She declared, “The women who are backing this organization are not misfits and failures, but are successful in the particular lines” (“My Dear Friend.”) In this sentence, she reframes the divisive language used to create class boundaries between Black women along employment lines. She called for both working-class and middle-class women to join the NAWE. “We want women from every walk of life– cooks and clerks, field hands and parlor maids, teachers and laundresses, dressmakers and charwomen, beauty culturists and factory workers, boarding housekeepers and training nurses business women and the army of unclassified toilers North, South, East and West” (Burroughs, “My Dear Friend”). Through her roll call of women from a variety of professions and regions, Burroughs made it clear that her purpose was to invite all women to the bargaining table. 

Black women laborers who had a deep understanding of achieving solidarity through racial pride and empowerment were central to Burroughs’s vision for racial uplift and community empowerment. She also believed that Black women of all creeds, colors, and levels of education could succeed in achieving labor rights without the full acceptance of white society. Thus, the fate of the Black community was in the hands of Black laboring women, and not the white community. The ethos underlying her push for Black women’s solidarity across class, region, and occupation was like that of formally recognized labor unions: an injury to one is an injury to all. At the end of the “My Dear Friend” letter, Burroughs reinforces and inserts herself into the power behind Black women’s collective solidarity organizing when she states that the women of the NAWE move in unison, that “they all want to climb together” (“My Dear Friend”). In closing, Burroughs ends with a note on her faith and belief in the Black community to recruit women workers to the NAWE. “They need your help, and they believe they are going to get it” (“My Dear Friend”). While a distinctly women’s labor union, the NAWE also welcomed Black male allies. Her closing is non-gendered, thereby, making sure that she employed the womanist principle of solidarity through welcoming the participation of both women and men in the membership drive. The expansive gender membership of the NAWE, which included barbers, insurance agents, pastors, and male professors, suggests that Burroughs sought to build a mass labor movement across gender and class status among Black laborers in the private and public spheres (“Nannie Helen Burroughs Papers”).  

Shortly after “My Dear Friend” was published, Burroughs spoke at the First Baptist Church of Richmond, Virginia, advertised as President of the NTS and NAWE, again proving her labor rhetoric had a national strategy (“Nannie Helen Burroughs at First Baptist Church”). Using both of her titles within the publication and no title of the speech itself, the author of the article documents Burroughs’s ethos within the lecture circuit as a community leader. Burroughs implemented womanist grassroots organizing principles within her own community of Washington D.C. first and moved outwards nationally to work towards her membership benchmarks by announcing the NAWE’s launch in three African American based publications. Burroughs nine points, located in the NAWE Constitution, were re-printed in 1924 by Competitor, Crisis and Opportunity, African American themed national publications released by Negro Press, National Association of Colored People (NAACP) and National Urban League (“Nannie Helen Burroughs Papers”). Her reasoning was to tie her national association headquarters to other national organizations of Black audiences to reach a diversity of backgrounds.

The inclusion and naming of both local and national community organizers such as Sadie T. Henson, Maggie L. Walker and Mary McLeod Bethune in the NAWE leadership publications was rhetorically strategic. Burroughs was interested in recruiting women from a wide range of Black organizations to join the NAWE, demonstrating her effective use of the womanist ethos of inclusivity and egalitarianism. Henson, community organizer and former truant officer in Washington D.C., is cited as the district president and Walker is cited as treasurer (“Home Plans to Train Colored Domestics: National Association Opens Model Headquarters on Rhode Island Avenue–Is Unionized by Women”; “Wage Earners”). Walker served as the treasurer of the NAWE and was the first Black woman president of a “penny” save bank (“Home Plans to Train Colored Domestics: National Association Opens Model Headquarters on Rhode Island Avenue–Is Unionized by Women”; “St. Luke Herald”). Walker advocated for mutual aid and death benefits for the sick and terminally ill through the Independent Order of St. Luke, influencing NAWE policies on death benefits. Like Burroughs, Bethune ran a school for Black women and girls in Florida. Both women believed education was tied to organizing Black women workers across the U.S.  

The intention of the dual leadership of Burroughs and Bethune through these organizations was to unite working- and middle-class Black women for the purposes of national Black labor solidarity. This race and class-based organizing through the NAWE was an extension of Burroughs’s initial 1902 labor vision. Her friend and colleague Mary McLeod Bethune was an active collaborator in the NAWE tying broader unionization and education of Black workers to her own political work in the National Association of Colored Women (NACW). Despite the NACW’s role as an unbiased advocate, Bethune used her position as President of the NACW to support the NAWE. As she explained, “That we most heartily endorse the work of the NAACP, the National Urban League, the Commission on Interracial Co-operation, the National Wage Earners’ Association among Women, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and all National Organizations whose purpose is to uplift” (4). Bethune believed that the NAWE should be led by women in coalition with other Black male labor organizations such as the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters united together with the shared goal of better working conditions for African Americans. 

The coverage on Burroughs twice in The Connecticut Labor News (1921-1925) shows her labor rhetoric was effective, because it resonated even with the mainly white male union activist audience. Each piece paraphrases Burroughs’s nine points and states that her primary purpose for establishing the NAWE was to establish a living wage for three million Black women workers. “House Servants Organize Union for Own Protection” was published in March 1924 with a subheading “Open Headquarters in Washington and Elect Officers; May soon Apply for Charter in A.F.L.” The Connecticut Labor News acknowledges that Black women workers in the United States faced marginalization into lower paying positions, exploitation in their workplaces and that unionization was the way to produce good workers. Since the paper was produced by white union activists, they were surprised that wages were not the first of Burroughs’s nine points (“House Servants Organize Union for Own Protection”). The goal of good workers, stable and permanent employment with safe housing and fair pay were intertwined, reiterating that Burroughs believed the dignity of Black women workers was at the root of all her nine points. Burroughs stated:

Negro women wage earners are the only large unprotected labor group in America. Unorganized labor will be exploited and mistreated. An organized labor group gets fairer wages, better living conditions, greater respect and economic justice. Then, too, join a labor organization that functions properly, develops in the workers greater skill and general efficiency, pride of occupation and improvement in general conduct. The latter improvements are as important as the former considerations.

(“House Servants Organize Union for Own Protection”)

After failing to acquire a charter with the A.F.L. due to its sexist, racist and classist perspective on workers, and seeking the support of other Socialists sympathizers, Burroughs again spoke to The Connecticut Labor News in October 1924. In “Union for Negro Women Workers [sic] Gaining Ground” Burroughs takes ownership for the independence of the NAWE and how African American women are setting the example for broad-based unionization across the United States:

Our women have had no standing with the AFL or NWTU League. Nothing has been done to improve the conditions of the Negro working woman. We must therefore, paddle our own canoe. A few colored women some months ago discussed the situation seriously and decided not to stop until we have organized all Negro working women into a labor union. The NAWE Inc. is the outcome of this conference.

(“Union for Negro Women Workers [sic] Gaining Ground”)

The article ends by citing the NAWE’s gains of between five and ten thousand members (“Union for Negro Women Workers [sic] Gaining Ground”). Clearly, Burroughs was building membership of the NAWE through her broad-based publications not only with Black audiences. At the core of her publications was her labor rhetoric rooted in womanist solidarity and inclusivity for all workers. As she believed, until the most marginalized at the intersections of race, class and gender are free, no one is.

Weathered black and white photo of the National Association of Wage Earners headquarters, a large multistory brick building with trees planted in front. The photo appears to be taking during winter.

Fig. 2. Headquarters National Association of Wage Earners, 1115 Rhode Island Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C.© Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

The NAWE flourished for a few more years, despite the Depression, debt, and a fire at the National Trade School for Women and Girls. Advertisements in the Evening Star for job placement (1924-1928) and accounting (1928-1931) shows the NAWE was still working for equity, seeking workers to represent and promoting their organizing efforts (see Appendix). The advertisements in the Evening Star targeted readers of the general D.C. newspaper rather than Black themed publications, because of the growing number of Black women laborers who were both seeking employment and housing in the city. Due to the constraints of the Depression, Burroughs founded another Black labor initiative called the Cooperative Industries in 1934. The industry was a mainly self-sustaining Black operation where workers accepted the communal and business responsibility for the welfare of their members by selling their profits and investing them back into their communities (“Cooperation Theory Tested in Colonies”). 

While there are no publications directly quoting Burroughs about the cooperative, we see an expansion of her womanist labor rhetoric through her promotion of women’s entrepreneurship through a self-sustaining cooperative in the D.C. Black community. Many women who worked for the cooperative were unemployed domestic workers who wanted to labor outside of household employment. Workers at the cooperative provided services for Black and white D.C. communities as seamstresses, laundresses, bakers, cooks, nurses and clerks staffing a grocery store, with plans for a credit union, shoe repair shop and a broom factory (“Cooperation Theory Tested in Colonies”). Burroughs and the cooperative sought to control the process and products of their labor in a world that denied Black domestic workers the legal opportunities to file for unemployment benefits or Social Security.

Reviving Black Women’s Labor Organizing History

In 2020, Burroughs would be disappointed that her vision still has not fully come into fruition. Domestic workers are prevented from unionizing due to restrictive provisions in the NLRA stating that they do not qualify as employees and do not deserve federal labor rights.7 They were granted a provision under the 1976 Fair Labor Standards Act to receive a minimum wage,8 yet it did not hold employers legally responsible for paying them one (U.S. Congress, United States Code: Labor-Management Relations, 29 U.S.C. §§ 141-197). While we are a long way away from transforming household employment, Burroughs’s writings and labor organizing history are good places to start for envisioning and moving towards a collective women’s labor movement.

The NAWE effectively became a union even in defiance of a society that refused it the proper recognition. Burroughs and NAWE members organized along the same principles as a union, with the same foundational belief in the dignity of workers and their labor. As a co-founding organizer, Burroughs challenged dominant white hegemonic society through her writings and praxis. By advocating for full labor rights for Black women at work, Burroughs dispelled the stereotype of domestic workers as the lovingly submissive Mammy.9 She also created a labor organizing space for African American women in a society that was unwilling to accept them as skilled workers who deserved a living wage. Burroughs invoked and built an association that expressed the collective will of thousands of Black women and aspired to do so much more. 

The labor organizing work of Burroughs has been buried in the annals of history10 due to racism, sexism and anti-Black labor organizing bias. The NAWE records should be more widely discussed and the organization’s history should be upheld as an example to strive towards rather than one to forget. The Black women workers in Washington D.C. (plus the male and female domestic and agricultural workers from the NAWE’s 23 other chapters across the United States) would encounter barriers to achieving full labor rights today. In fact, many low-wage women workers in labor unions in the twenty-first century still do not have the majority of Burroughs’s nine points outlined in her “My Dear Friend” letter.

Labor rights are human rights, and a labor rhetoric demands visibility. Burroughs’s vision for the NAWE, rooted in the womanist principles of community, equality, and solidarity, propelled the association’s leaders to draw from women’s extensive community networks to recruit a wide-ranging union membership. Burroughs lit the match for transformative labor organizing through her effective rhetoric that inspired people to find common ground across their class, age, and regional differences. It is now up to all laboring women and their allies to continue fanning that flame in the movement for labor rights.

Endnotes

  1. This speech was re-published by education and religious scholar Kelisha M. Graves in Nannie Helen Burroughs: A Documentary Portrait of an Early Civil Rights Pioneer, 1900–1959 (27-31). Graves’s purpose in re-publishing is to emphasize the timeliness of Burroughs and emphasize her contribution to theology.
  2.  We alternate between Black and African American for stylistic variety.
  3. The National Labor Relations (or Wagner Act) was not passed until 1935 (“National Labor Relations Act”). For a union to achieve recognition a community of interest signs authorization cards indicating a showing of interest, holds an election and elects a union by the member majority before it gains both state and federal certification (“National Labor Relations Act”).
  4.  Burroughs is cited as a janitor earlier in her career (Graves xxv).
  5.  See Graves for an edited and updated version (97-98).
  6.  Few strikes had occurred among domestic workers except for the 1881 washerwoman’s strike in Atlanta, Georgia.  Tera Hunter argues “Washing Amazons and Organized Protests” Black washerwomen were ready to give up their family income for respect at work prioritizing solidarity over division through punishment of scabs and a targeted media strategy (75-78; 91).
  7.  See Juan F. Perea, “The Echoes of Slavery: Recognizing the Racist Origins of the NLRA” for a reading on the discriminatory implications to the employee provision of the NLRA.
  8.  Domestic workers grassroots organizing began in New York with the Domestic Worker Bill of Rights (“Department of Labor”). Similar bills to supply additional rights at work for domestic workers have passed in California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Oregon and Washington.
  9.  See Hortense J. Spillers “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book” for a reading on African American women, language and tropes.
  10. There is evidence in Burroughs NAWE supplementary texts in Box 308 at the Library Congress: “My Dear Co-Worker” (1921) and “The Way to Make Money” (1921) of a deep organizing model (“Nannie Helen Burroughs Papers”). If Burroughs released these papers, there might have been a greater understanding of her labor rhetoric.

Appendix

Works Cited

  • Anonymous. “A Union Would Enroll Colored Domestics.” The Washington Post. November 18, 1924.
  • Bethune, Mary McLeod. “Program, Fifteenth Biennial Meeting. National Association of Colored Women,” August 1-6, 1926, The National Notes, vol. 28, no. 10, July-August 1926, pp. 1-4.
  • Burroughs, Nannie. “Divide Vote or Go to Socialists.” August 22, 1919. ProQuest Historical Newspapers, The Baltimore Afro-American (1893-1988), p. 4.
  • —. “The Colored Woman and Her Relation to the Domestic Problem.” The United Negro: his problems and his progress Containing the Addresses and Proceedings of The Negro Young People’s Christian Congress, edited by John W. E. Bowen and I. Garland Penn, Luther Publishing Company, Atlanta, 1902, pp. 324-329.
  • Burroughs, Nannie Helen. “My Dear Friend.” The National Association of Wage Earners, Incorporated, Washington Tribune, March 26, 1921, pp.1-3.
  • —. MS. “National Association of Wage Earners.” Nannie Helen Burroughs Papers. Box 308, Folder. Library of Congress, Washington D.C.
  • —. “National Association of Wage Earners.” Nannie Helen Burroughs Papers. Box 309, Folder 1. Library of Congress, Washington D.C.
  • Burroughs, Nannie Helen, and Kelisha B. Graves. Nannie Helen Burroughs: A Documentary Portrait of an Early Civil Rights Pioneer, 1900-1959. University of Notre Dame Press, 2019.
  • Burroughs, Nannie Helen, and Elmer Anderson Carter, editor. “A Rather Inspiring Meeting.” Opportunity: Journal of Negro Life, vol. 1-2, 1969, p. 382-383. National Urban League.
  • Department of Labor, New York State. Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights.
  • “Employment Ads.” Evening Star. (Washington, D.C.), 24 Sept. 1928. Page 32. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.
  • “First Convention of International Conference of Working Women.” Washington, D.C., International Federation of Working Women Records, Schlesinger Library, Folder 3.
  • “Headquarters National Association of Wage Earners, Rhode Island Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C.” Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.
  • “Home Plans to Train Colored Domestics: National Association Opens Model Headquarters on Rhode Island Avenue–Is Unionized by Women.” The Washington Post. November 10, 1924.
  • “House Servants Organize Union for Own Protection.” The Connecticut Labor News. (New Haven, Conn.), 29 March 1924. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.
  • Hunter, Tera. To ‘Joy My Freedom’: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors After the Civil War. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997.
  • “National Association of Wage Earners: Nannie Helen Burroughs.” Competitor. June 1921.
  • National Labor Relations Board. “National Labor Relations Act.” NLRB.
  • —. “The Right to Strike.” NLRB.
  • —. “What We Do.” NLRB.
  • “Nannie Helen Burroughs Papers.” The Library of Congress.
  • Perea, Juan F. “The Echoes of Slavery: Recognizing the Racist Origins of the Agricultural and Domestic Worker Exclusion from the National Labor Relations Act.” Ohio State Law Journal, 2011. pp. 95-138.
  • Phillips, Layli. The Womanist Reader. Routledge, 2006.
  • Richmond Planet, vol. XLI, no. 26 (Richmond, Va.), 17 May 1924. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.
  • “St. Luke Herald.” National Park Service, Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site. vol. XXI, no. 37. 30, December 1922. MAWA 4482.
  • “Training School to Open: Negro Women to be Taught to be Domestics.” Evening Star, vol. 137. (Washington, D.C.), 17 Oct. 1909. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.
  • United States Code: Labor-Management Relations, 29 U.S.C. §§ 141-197. 1976. Periodical. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.
  • U.S. Department of Labor.” Office of Labor-Management Standards (OLMS), U.S. Department of Labor.
  • “Untitled.” Opportunity, vol. 2, no. 24, December 1924, p. 383. 1 page.
  • Vapnek, Lara. “The 1919 International Congress of Working Women: Transnational Debates on the ‘Woman Worker.'” Journal of Women’s History, vol. 26 no. 1, 2014, pp. 160-184. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/jowh.2014.0015.
  • “Wage Earners.” Washington Bee. April 7, 1917. vol. XXXVII, no. 45.
  • Weinberg, Sylvia. “Cooperation Theory Tested in Colonies.” The Sunday Star, no. 1710 (Washington, D.C.), 26 Dec. 1937. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.
  • “When Truth Gets a Hearing.” Ruth Wright Hayre Collection, Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection, 1930. Temple University Libraries.