“This Seismic Life Change”: Graduate Students Parenting and Writing During a Pandemic

As a parent and a doctoral candidate, I often tell people that I never imagined going back to school for a Ph.D., but if I had, I could not have dreamed that it would be my fourth or fifth priority (in the best of times), behind tending to my full-time faculty job, my daughter, my husband, my aging parents, and other obligations. And while I feel my life and teaching experiences have benefited me tremendously as an older returning student, I find myself wishing fairly often that I were younger, less encumbered, and that more of my life and my time were focused on my studies, as I see in some of my classmates. Instead, frankly, my doctoral work is something I have to fit in around other things and people that demand my attention. For instance, if I plan to study one evening and my daughter is sick,[1] I abandon studying. If a work crisis pops up, I attend to that instead of writing a paper for class. This has been even more the case since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Interruptions and competing priorities are literally in my line of vision at all times now. Although I hesitate to admit it here, my writing—both for my job and graduate work—has fallen even further down the list of priorities as I worry about my daughter’s isolation, the possibility of my husband being furloughed or laid off, our elderly parents’ immune systems, and my own sanity. Due to these limitations, my approach to such work has changed drastically and my standards for it have dropped, hovering now somewhere between “don’t embarrass yourself” and “just get it done.” I suspect this is the case for many graduate students—particularly those with children at home. Our ability to focus, broadly, is simply not what it was ten months ago for so many reasons.

Just a few months into the pandemic, I read an article in The Washington Post, in which two parents—both academics—tracked their child-related interruptions. They wrote of a 3-hour period of tracking: 

Looked at one way, the situation appeared manageable: Over the course of three hours, the parent on duty was interrupted for a little over half an hour in total, meaning they got almost 2 1 / 2 hours of work time…But that time didn’t come in two clean chunks: The parent was interrupted 45 times, an average of 15 times per hour. The average length of an uninterrupted stretch of work time was three minutes, 24 seconds. The longest uninterrupted period was 19 minutes, 35 seconds. The shortest was mere seconds. (Edwards and Snyder) 

The same article referenced a study that found it can take 20 minutes for a person who has been distracted from their work to come back to focus (Brumby et al.). Again, the longest uninterrupted work time for this particular writer was 19 minutes and 35 seconds.[2] Theoretically, my partner and I split our day around childcare, each taking either a morning or afternoon (pre-nap or post-nap[3]) working session while the other partner watches our daughter. Because she is two years old,[4] there is little to no independent time for her—unless we count watching TV on the couch while we sit next to her, trying to work or attend Zoom meetings. In reality, there has not been a single block of time without interruption in ten months.[5]

And it’s this experience that has led me to my research here. I ask: In what ways, if at all, are the experiences of graduate students who are parents different from the experiences of non-parent graduate students, particularly regarding home life and writing since the start of COVID-19?[6]  

The “Incompatibility” of Parenting and Graduate Writing 

The pandemic has, of course, changed every aspect of life for most people, from social gatherings and travel to parenting and public health overall. In higher education, the changes are just as drastic, and of course, for graduate students, in particular, educational challenges are heightened by all aspects of life outside of the classroom—even the virtual classroom.[7] Most graduate students work in addition to their studies—many full time. In “normal times” graduate student stress is well documented (see “Grappling with” and Puri). And during the pandemic that stress is increasing rapidly, ultimately developing for many into more substantial mental health issues. A study out of University of California at Berkeley reports that “32% of graduate and professional students screened positive for major depressive disorder” during the early months of the pandemic (Chirikov et al. 1). The study also notes, of course, that certain populations are much more likely to feel these effects—and they include caregivers in this set of specific populations. Caregivers in another study noted that they were most in need of “general coping” mechanisms (Fitzpatrick et al. 1088).[8]

B. S. Russell et. al conducted a study early in the pandemic about caregiver burden during COVID, finding that the impact of long-term and/or undefined periods of quarantining for families has the potential to “lead to unprecedented impacts on individuals’ mental health” (672). They write, “parents must actively plan new caregiving, work, and education routines, potentially compromising time to tend to their own emotional experience and self-care” (672).[9] Graduate students, then, must “actively plan” these new tasks into their days while also attending to their own educational routines.

We can assume that graduate students who are also parents make up a significant percentage of the overall graduate student population, although no recent data is available on this number. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, twenty-two percent of undergraduates are parents, and I think it stands to reason that this number is likely higher among graduate students, who are on average older (ASCEND); the average graduate student age is thirty-three (Who Graduate Students Are | Graduate Mentoring Guidebook | Nebraska).

Parenting during graduate studies or in a full-time academic job has always been fraught. While mothers in academia have done important work in making these complexities visible and noted, these have mostly been through narratives, and straight, white-middle class mother narratives at that (Rose). Few data-driven studies have examined the nuances and challenges of parenting while working as an academic, but it’s clear that finding time, energy, and focus particularly to write at all is extremely challenging in most cases, to put it mildly. Graduate student parents have always reported completing much of their studying and writing for school at night and on the weekends (Sallee 406). They also report spending less time on coursework than they would like or feel obligated to due to competing childcare demands (Sallee 406), particularly as quality childcare has always been out of reach for on graduate students’ salaries/stipends (Springer et al. 447; Theisen et al. 53). Candice Harris et al. write “Family is perceived by some to be invisible in academia,[10] although women often perceive motherhood to have a considerable impact on their academic career, as the amount of work required to be a successful academic can only be done when one is without children or other responsibilities” ( 709).

What we do know is that there is an underrepresentation of graduate student mothers in Ph.D. programs and some have referred to this as a social justice issue (Kulp 408). Alessandra Minello, Sara Martucci, and Lidia Manzo point out that “the beginning of an academic career is marked by a prolonged period of precariousness, one which typically coincides with a woman’s reproductive period” ( 2). Mothers who have a doctoral degree are also are not as likely to come from top-ranked programs or to publish scholarly work (Kulp 410). One study of parents in academia, centered around identity and performance, quotes a mother remarking on her colleagues and academia at large: “There is still an assumption that a parent can separate themselves from their children and come to work…especially a very young child…they just have to turn the switch off and I don’t think you can” (Harris et al. 712).[11] Amanda Kulp writes that “Graduate school is a critical period for Ph.D. earners to collect the kinds of resources they need to compete for tenure-track jobs, and parenting a child during graduate school can put stress on graduate students in their efforts collect these resources” (410).

For mothers working in STEM particularly, concerns around gender inequality that have always existed have now risen too. A “new motherhood penalty” places further distance between mothers and their non-mother and male colleagues in STEM, particularly, although certainly also those in other fields (Staniscuaski et al. 724). Kristen Springer, Brenda Parker, and Catherine Leviten-Reid found that  

there are few formal institutional supports tailored to the needs of graduate student parents; there is limited knowledge on the part of faculty regarding supports that may exist for graduate students with children; and departments accommodate graduate student parents on a flexible,[12] case-by-case basis. All three serve to create a message that children are not a standard feature in the lives of doctoral candidates. (441)  

Motherhood in academia[13]—whether as graduate students or faculty members—has always had to be strategic choice (Harris et al. 709). Springer, Parker, and Leviten-Reid write, “being both an academic and parent is quite incompatible in practice” (436)—and they were writing pre-pandemic.
It’s no wonder, of course, that Minello, Martucci, and Manzo  in their very recent, very powerful study on the pandemic and academic mothers report that academic work is (still) “incompatible” with full-time parenting (2). I think most parents would admit that when they are parenting young children, it can be very difficult to be fully focused on work, even when their child is not physically in their presence. And now, they are fully in our physical presence at all times. For all parents, of course, both household work and childcare commitments are overwhelmingly up.[14] Although much has been rightly made of women disproportionately taking on caregiver loads, one recent study found that there was a much bigger gap in researcher productivity between those who have children and those who don’t than between genders (Breuning et al.). It’s worth noting that they also concede that, just the same, “women will be worse off when the dust settles from the pandemic” (Breuning et al. 2). It’s parenting more than gender, even, that makes keeping one’s head above water as an academic during the pandemic nearly impossible.

When it comes to expectations for research and publishing, some institutions are beginning to make concessions for faculty, but graduate students seem to be on their own (Guatimosim). Early studies suggest that “the global pandemic is quite likely to influence scholarly productivity during this period and in the months, and possibly years, to come” (Breuning et al. 2).[15] Reporting on a study of Canadian graduate students, Christine Ro notes that “Just over three-quarters of the 1,431 respondents report that the pandemic has ‘notably’ impeded their ability to conduct research.” 44 percent of those graduate students worry that the pandemic will impact their chances at completing their degree (TSPN). I have to believe that this sentiment is common beyond the bounds of this study.

Further, some argue that “writing needs concentration and inspiration that cannot be constrained into a limited time of the day” (Minello, Martucci, and Manzo 7). Very few studies have looked at the experiences of graduate student writers (Henderson and Cook 49), but even pre-pandemic, graduate student writing is a challenge. Brian Henderson and Paul Cook report that “a significant gap exists between what graduate students know and what they are expected to know” (49). And of course, different fields are going to hold and manage expectations very differently. For instance, in engineering, graduate students, “often struggle to learn to write under high-pressure conditions” (Berdanier and Zerbe 138). Such conditions are typical in many programs. Catherine Berdanier and Ellen Zerbe write:  

…it is interesting that most students do understand that writing is a knowledge- transforming process, while still struggling with the trifecta of perfectionism, procrastination, and writer’s block. Leveraging writing strategies to overcome some of these issues, such as accountability structures, timed writing sprints, and time management techniques can be housed within a broader discussion of learning-to-write and writing-to-learn as a graduate student in the process of becoming a member of a discipline, calling to mind academic literacies theory. (133) 

One might reasonably assume that writing expectations, especially towards professionalization, are more explicitly understood by graduate students in writing studies, but even in this discipline, Henderson and Cook’s work  shows us that writing studies graduate students still feel they need clearer expectations (63). As we think about parenting, graduate students, writing, and the pandemic, we see a number of connections and crossovers, and yet, we don’t yet see any scholarship about parents who are graduate students writing during the pandemic. 

Population and Data Collection

The research that follows draws from a larger data set collected by graduate students in a research methods class[16] at George Mason University. This IRB-approved (IRB 1557945-1), mixed-methods project included a survey and a limited number of interviews, conducted via video conferences due to the pandemic. All survey participant and interviewee identifying information has been made anonymous, per our IRB approval. The survey contained 27 questions, and a call for responses was distributed nationally, primarily via professional and academic listservs and social media. Due to the listservs we had access to, a high percentage of the respondents were in programs related to English or writing studies (68% of nonparent and 55% of parent respondents were in a writing and rhetoric or related program). However, a variety of other disciplines were represented, including, for instance, information systems, art history, Russian studies, law, consumer behavior and family economics, and genetics, just to name a few. Degrees being pursued included M.A., M.F.A, J.D., and Ph.D. Of 397 survey responses, six were single parents and fifty-three noted that they lived with a partner or spouse and their children, making a total of fifty-nine parents who answered the survey and 275 nonparents. An additional sixty respondents chose not to answer the question of who they live with, and so the answers from these participants were disregarded for the purposes of this inquiry. The total number of survey respondents I looked at, then, was 336. Of those, fifty-three percent of nonparents were still in coursework, and sixty-one percent of parents were still in coursework. Of both nonparents and parents, the vast majority of respondents were in Ph.D. programs and M.A. programs. 

The interview contained sixteen open-ended questions. The interviewees were drawn from survey respondents who indicated that they were willing to be interviewed. In the interviews, only four of the twenty-five interviewees mentioned having children, a smaller percentage than replied to the survey, presumably because parents have less time to spare to volunteer to be interviewed.  

Mental and Physical Health 

 Physical and mental health has been a major concern during the pandemic, for reasons that span the stress and isolation and the closing of gyms and the complexities of exercising with social distancing in place to issues of lost wages, the illness and death of family, civil unrest, and so many other factors. Approximately half of each group reported major or moderate impacts to physical health during the pandemic.[17] Of the survey respondents, fifty-four percent of parents stated that they have accessed health and/or wellness resources during the pandemic, compared to thirty-nine percent of nonparents. Interestingly, more nonparents reported major or moderate impacts to mental health, seventy-two percent compared to parents at sixty-two percent. Parents reported a slightly higher impact than nonparents on work-life balance (eighty-three percent to seventy-four percent), but both groups reported major impacts here in high numbers. Only fourteen percent of nonparents expressed high impacts from caretaker expectations, compared to fifty percent of parents, although this fourteen percent reminds us that “caretaking” takes many forms. Several survey respondents and interviewees mentioned drastic life changes and particularly strict quarantining due to elderly or immune-compromised relatives that they cared for.[18]
Parents in interviews also talked quite a bit about the lack of “alone” time they experienced[19] due to balancing graduate work, childcare, and, usually, also a job, all within the confines of their home: 

My biggest thing is just childcare, and I mean that has really been the big shift for me […] while both kids are understandably in the middle of the meltdown because we’re in a pandemic and they haven’t seen their friends, and I’m just sitting there thinking, like, [this would] be so much easier if they were in school every day. You know, like I could get a little time to myself. So that’s really the biggest the biggest one for me. (Anonymous Interview Participant 28) 

Ironically, they also, sometimes in the same breath, discussed the challenges of isolation:[20] 

The isolation was definitely like a struggle, especially without the childcare that—I already—I am an introvert, and I do kind of recharge by having alone time. But even I was kind of starting to hit my limit on the amount of hours a day and days a week that I could spend with only an eight month old to talk to (Anonymous Interview Participant 3) 

They[21] are with their[22] children every second, but never with colleagues. Such issues of space and home, of lack of access to offices, classmates, and colleagues, while central to these conversations about sanity, don’t even touch on the limits these situations place on gaining access to feedback or even casual what-are-you-working on conversations, which most scholars I think would agree are often incredibly valuable to our work.

Productivity


Productivity is, of course, a major concern for any graduate student, but for parents during the pandemic, such concerns are certainly heightened. Interestingly, Figure 1 below, which charts perceptions of productivity since the start of COVID-19, shows us that parents and non-parents alike are struggling to similar degrees; exactly forty-four percent of each group perceived that they are less productive since the start of the pandemic. We don’t, of course, have data on whether these perceptions are accurate and/or the degrees to which productivity might have suffered.  

Figure 1: The first pie graph, titled “Productivity of Parents,” shows that almost half note that they have been “Less Productive” during the pandemic. In the second pie graph, titled “Productivity of Non-parents,” that pie slice is slightly smaller. Interestingly, the “Parents” graph also shows that a slightly larger percentage stated they were “More Productive” during the pandemic than non-parents.

 Related to this question of productivity, in answer to the question, “Is there anything else about your graduate writing life during the COVID-19 pandemic that you think is important for us to know?” perhaps unsurprisingly, most parents who responded to the survey wrote about having their kids home with them, and the toll twenty-four-hour care and home-school  supervision took on them and their work. Representative responses include:

The hardest, most difficult aspect for me is that public schools are closed, so both of my kids are at home full time and it’s impacting my time to get both work and school done. I teach a 5/5 load at the university where I’m a full-time lecturer, plus am taking graduate coursework, and the original plan is that my kids would be in school. This really threw a wrench in things! (Survey Participant 244) 

 My situation feels a little unique in that I was a full-time caregiver of two children from March-September. My boyfriend’s children moved in with us and I had to manage them for the duration of the spring semester and all of summer during a research fellowship. My writing process and workflow changed dramatically due to being a full-time parent.  (Survey Participant 7) 

Keeping up with the demands of family and work mean my graduate writing is significantly diminished. (Survey Participant 19) 

…not a whole lot got done, because my days were devoted to just trying to keep track of a crawling infant and keep him happy and kind of keep on top of stuff. (Anonymous Participant 3) 

We see that for these caregiving graduate students, writing “changed dramatically” as the hours of each day being allocated previously to writing were now necessarily devoted to the work of caring for kids. And no wonder; if a parent works an eight-hour day and commutes, the average toddler likely spends around nine hours in daycare each weekday, and school children are often gone somewhere in the range of seven hours. Those seven to nine hours are now time that parents need to feed and supervise their children. Even high school students, who require less “supervision,” require time and attention during the day from their caregivers. As one respondent put it, “[my writing] is more impacted by the fact that my daughter is at home all of the time since high school is not meeting face to face; her mental state and her ability to work at home colors my ability to work at home” (Survey Participant 289). To keep up productivity, these parents have to find writing time elsewhere.[23]  

In the limited number of interviews from parents, we found that external childcare was a topic of concern that related to many questions. The narratives from these interviews reinforce how much graduate student parents rely upon safe, consistent childcare and schooling for their children in order to write and work. Some representative comments included: 

So actually, the biggest [challenge] is childcare. I have a 10-year-old, and I have a four-year-old. And so when I originally signed up for my Ph.D. program, I was like, oh, now is the perfect time, right? Like my four-year—in Fall 2020…my four-year-old will be going into preschool, so will be in school for like four hours a day, five days a week. My 10-year-old is going into fourth grade. He’s in school for eight hours a day. My eighty-year-old grandparents come up twice a week and they spend the night with us, and they take care of the kids […] I can take two classes no problem. And then COVID happens. (Anonymous Participant 12) 

For the first six months of the pandemic, we had my partner’s kids here with us full time, and I needed that flexibility to get through the summer, and my summer work, because I had to take care of them during the day, like watch what they were doing, like make sure they’re alive and fed, and have things to do […] I went through this seismic life change of becoming a full-time guardian, and going online, like the same week. (Survey Participant 7

Childcare was probably the single biggest issue. I think if my son had still been able to go to daycare through everything, even if I couldn’t go to the library, even if I couldn’t go pick up materials, I could have still gotten a decent amount done. Maybe had a little bit of a lapse in productivity. But that was the—the single biggest one is just you can’t—with one that little—you can just sit, you know, you can’t even say like, well, go play in your room for a little while. It’s like, you’re eight months old, you’re into everything. And it’s just a constant, kind of keeping track of him (Anonymous Interview Participant 3) 

Managing home school is a particular concern[24] for many of the interviewees as well: 

I went from like, oh, I have this three-hour block of time where I can just write and write and write and write to like now I’m like, alright I get a 20 minute burst, and then my older son gets locked out of Zoom and I have to run in there and help him and then I come back and do another fifteen minute burst and then […] there’s no boundary right now, and it’s just a very different space to be in to try to get work done. (Anonymous Interview Participant 11) 

Nonparents, on the other hand, wrote about a variety of other issues that affected their writing productivity: including isolation, anxiety, a lack of focus, increased screen time, challenges of remote collaboration and remote teaching, the less-than-ideal physical spaces they have to write in, and uncertainty about the job market. We might assume that these were concerns shared by the parents, but that childcare and parenting concerns simply took precedence.  

Access to Campus Services and Campus-community Opportunities 

One of the most illuminating sets of data in this survey regarding parents relates to access to campus services and other on-campus opportunities for graduate students. Figure 2 below illustrates parent and non-parent responses when asked to rate the degree to which COVID-19-related changes in such services and opportunities have impacted their reading and writing work. 

 

 

Figure 2: Horizontal bar chart demonstrating that for all categories non-parents reported a higher impact on their reading and writing processes by a lack of access to services. The chart is titled “Rate the degree to which changes to the following campus services and campus community opportunities due to the COVID-19 pandemic have impacted your reading/writing process as a graduate student. The chart shows non-parents (in blue) were most impacted by library access at 60%, advice from peers at 55%, faculty office hours at 45%, and meeting with faculty outside of office hours are 45%. The charts shows parents (in orange) were most impacted by advice from peers at just above 40%, library access at just above 35%, meeting with faculty outside of office hours at 30%, and faculty office hours at just under 30%.

We can see that parents were less effected in every single category above. This chart shows us that parents were then, presumably, taking less from such campus services to begin with. And yet, interestingly, of nonparents, thirty-seven percent explicitly said they felt supported as a graduate writer by their “institution, department, program, and/or campus community,” compared to fifty-five percent of parents—perhaps because they have the time to access such support.[25

Insights for the Future 

 In May of 2021, a photo of an MIT professor went viral after he purchased a crib for his office to support his graduate students with babies or small children (“Mass. Professor Goes Viral After Putting Crib in Office to Help Grad Student with Infant Daughter”). He was praised, but then, quickly, commenters shifted to lament the lack of large-scale, systemic help for parents in general, and graduate students in particular.[26] As we see in the literature above, mothers who are graduate students suffer in uncountable ways. They’re disadvantaged as students and if we measure success by what kind of job they’re able to land post-graduation, such disadvantages and lack of support will continue to impact them throughout the rest of their career.[27]  

This data and these insights from this study aren’t likely to change much about our current situation or the larger one; there’s no vaccine buried in them, and there’s no rhetoric to make millions of COVID-deniers start wearing masks.[28] But if nothing else, it’s my hope that part of what comes out of this study and others like it is that both parents and non-parents alike can recognize both these systemic issues and the enormous toll COVID-19 is taking on our work. And I hope that advisors and the faculty overseeing these students and programs can too. Well over half of the participants in both data groups reported major or moderate impacts to their mental health since the start of the pandemic,[29] and as we’ve all experienced in some way or another, the other challenges and tragedies of life don’t stop just because we’re stuck at home. Elderly family members still have heart attacks. Work is still busy. The car still breaks down.[30] The stresses of life are already high for most of us, in particular graduate student parents.  

And while I hate to generalize, I believe that most of us would assume such dilemmas affect mothers more than fathers. Right now, more broadly, women’s unemployment is far outweighing the unemployment of men (Ruppanner et al.)—almost certainly as this relates to motherhood—and I imagine only time will tell, too, how many graduate programs, also disproportionately of women, are interrupted or fully stopped due to childcare, as we might assume from a recent census piece (Heggeness and Fields). It’s crucial that we change expectations, educating on what life is like for parents right now so that we lose fewer of them through the “leaky pipeline” but also so that our writing can measure up to our peers.   

In one of my favorite interviews, a graduate student told me that her kids were grown, but that the two who were college-aged were at home with her due to the pandemic, rather than away in a dorm, as they’d all expected. She told me that they’ve been keeping her in line, and even reading her work and offering her feedback on her papers.
Unfortunately, of course, this is a rare case. As the data shows, most graduate students—parents or not—are struggling in any number of ways.[31] But they were also struggling before the pandemic, as so much of the scholarship I explore above shows.

To that end, finally, I’m most interested in this data as I believe that it tells us something larger about graduate students who are also parents during “normal” times. As I look back to Figure 2 above, I’m struck by how graduate students who are also parents operate, write, and work differently than non-parent graduate students. As we see, parents reported being less affected by the loss of every single type of in-person campus and program-related resources that had disappeared during the pandemic, from faculty office hours to services for grad writers from other offices or departments. Again, this suggests to me that these parents have been less reliant on such services and support even pre-pandemic. I am a parent in a Ph.D. program, but during my M.A. and M.F.A., I was not a parent. I can say with certainty that I spent more time on campus with faculty and peers and that I took advantage of my university’s additional graduate student support much, much more during my time enrolled in these earlier programs. Without children and working as a teaching assistant, I had the time to; my graduate work was my priority. In my Ph.D. program, however, even pre-pandemic, nine times out of ten I deleted emails advertising workshops, talks, and other opportunities for graduate students. I felt I had little time to spare—even for often seemingly very worthwhile activities—and even if I did feel like I had the time, I often couldn’t bear the thought of asking my partner to do dinner/bath time/bedtime alone yet another night of the week beyond the evenings I attended class.[32] It feels crucial to me that institutions find ways to better accommodate other graduate students in similar positions.

I think that seeing all of this should allow me to simply give myself a bit of a break.[33] Truthfully, the tension between wanting to go easier on myself as a parent, student, and employee, and the still very real deadlines and responsibilities are in many ways irreconcilable—and to me this data suggests that this was the case even pre-COVID. But it’s my hope that even if graduate students are largely “failing” at writing, we can better accept our limits and the limits imposed by the pandemic—but also the system as a whole.[34] Because it seems clearer than ever that the system(s) aren’t going to change for us. 

 Footnotes

[1]Or overly tired. Or missing me. Or hungry for something different than her dad knows how to make. Or interested in taking a walk. Or sitting in the backyard eating popsicles.

[2]It’s probably worth noting that it took me four days to simply get through this brief article.

[3]Since initially writing this, she’s stopped napping. STOPPED NAPPING ALL TOGETHER no matter how long we stroke her hair and talk in quiet voices and get her up early and schedule pre-nap quiet time.

[4]Now three, likely four at the time of publication. Look, it’s a pandemic and a I have a toddler, so yeah, fully researching, writing, and revising this thing has been a long process.

[5]Make that 19 now!

[6]Other than, you know, nonparents probably sleep and occasionally watch Netflix and likely have clean-ish hair and don’t find a slice of bell pepper at the bottom of their cold, cold coffee mug at noon when they finally finish it.

[7]And obviously high schools. And middle schools. And elementary schools. And don’t even get me started on the unexpected shame of having the only toddler who won’t sit still for Zoom story time in April 2020, despite me literally bribing her with snacks. And it’s a screen! Why isn’t it captivating like all the screen-based garbage that she can’t look away from?

[8]But what would that even look like right now? We don’t have the hour for therapy, even those of us lucky enough to have insurance. And if we did, every therapist I know is booked up because everyone is falling apart. What other strategies might I be attempting to employ? Last week my daughter tried a Sesame Street deep breathing exercise at a particularly rough moment. But I wouldn’t call that a long-term solution…

[9]And by “self-care” we’re rounding down now to teeth brushing. 

[10]To put it truly as mildly as possible.

[11]And the thing is, I really try. I apologized to my professor so hard and so many times the night I had to leave a Ph.D. seminar because my husband called to tell me the baby had spiked a 104-degree fever and had thrown up in every room of the house in the hour since I’d left. The shame of it, leaving class to go to the Emergency Room.

[12]Flexible? Says who?

[13]Or, you know, ANYWHERE. 

[14]It was a few months into the shutdown when I calculated the number of meals and snacks I made, plated, and cleaned up after weekly for my toddler during the pandemic, and I no longer have that number because I can’t find anything in this mess of a house, but it was a lot.

[15]And after this, will we ever look at how just parenting in normal times impacts “productivity” when compared to non-caregiver colleagues?

 [16]I mean, obviously I couldn’t have planned this, gotten IRB approval, recruited, and developed the study materials alone. My role in collecting the data wasn’t huge. Even analyzing the data felt like an insurmountable task most nights as I looked with bleary eyes at my Excel sheets after bathing this kid and reading six books and sitting with her until she fell asleep in the dark without actually falling asleep myself. 

[17]I actually would have guessed parents would be in better shape at this point because we’re always chasing the kids to save them from death in the street and chasing them to wear them out so they’ll sleep and chasing them because the neighbors would for sure think she’s too small to be five houses down alone on the sidewalk.

[18]Can you even imagine caring for a toddler AND an elderly parent in your home right now? (Surely some of you can and are!) For that matter, I only have ONE kid! How am I even complaining?

[19]That’s not necessarily true for me. I did a lot of crying alone in the bathroom while my daughter watched Bluey.

[20]Never alone and also isolated feels right on target.

[21]We

[22]our

[23]And in my home and many others, “elsewhere” means after bedtime.

[24]Sweet Jesus, I can’t honestly even imagine.

[25]“Perhaps,” but, you know, definitely because of this. After working all day and being away from my kid, and knowing I have to be in a classroom again at 7:20 p.m. for a graduate seminar, I’m not going to skuttle over to campus early to check out the resources at the Random Campus Opportunity.

[26]We see versions of this all the time; the professor with a student’s baby strapped to his or her back is another recurring example.

[27]It’s not within the scope of the research here to consider the cost and quality of childcare in the U.S. during “normal” times, and yet, of course, it’s relevant. In most areas of the country quality childcare is nearly outside of the range of possible for homes with two working parents. What happens when one of those parents is bringing in only a pittance of a graduate student stipend?

[28]Or, now, as I revise this in late Fall 2021, convince these people to get the vaccine because COME ON, SERIOUSLY I STILL GOTTA BE WORRIED ABOUT THIS KID GETTING COVID. YOU’VE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME.

[29]More migraines. More panic attacks. More insomnia. More decision fatigue, driven by “Are we being too cautious or not cautious enough? Which is worse—that she’s getting super weird from lack of socialization or that her friends who went back to school might be exposed?”

[30]You still forget the milk. Your in-laws still need you to be sure to call Aunt so-and-so because she’s ill. A peach milkshake still spills all over the car.

[31]As a person who’s been lucky to only really rarely struggle with focus and “buckling down and getting to work” in my pre-pandemic endeavors, and as a student and employee who takes quite a bit of pride and identity stake in my ability to be productive, my life during the pandemic, here at home, a virus raging outside and a two year old/ three year old raging inside, my struggle to focus isn’t just a frustration; it’s becoming a spark to a larger depression brought on by feeling as though, well, what is the point? My rational brain is quick to remind me that, of course, work and productivity don’t equal value and there’s a pandemic and also my child is alive and fed, so that’s a win, and yet, I struggle, like so many of my peers. I hope that this data and analysis allows me to lower the bar lower for myself. I want to demonstrate, at least inwardly, that I can’t possibly meet those same standards I was meeting pre-pandemic. And of course, it’s worth noting, realistically, no one can, with or without kids; this data shows that everyone is struggling.

[32]During the pandemic, I don’t even open these emails; I just hit delete. And I have to believe I’m not the only one.

[33]But not, you know, really. Many months after initially drafting this, the guilt I feel is stronger than ever about the ways I’m failing my daughter.

[34]And the system is fucked. I mean, not just the academic system, although, yeah, for sure that is. But the SYSTEM-system is fucked, and that’s clearer than ever to anyone who wants to see it. Whether you clean houses or run a museum or grow flowers or wait tables or analyze stocks, if you are a mother, your life and time were never your own, but they are even less so now. As I write work on this revision, I am sitting on the toilet next to the tub where my daughter is soaking off a 102.5-degree fever. On a work day. And a school day. On day six back to daycare after 18-months home. There is no system in place that works for me, a working mother and graduate student, so earlier today I taught my class virtually, and the two quiet hours I had marked off to work on my dissertation evaporate into the steam of the humidifier while I soothed her. It will be all right, I tell her, but long-term, I’m skeptical. I imagine this little creature as an adult woman with her own child, with goals, even with a partner who does their fair share—and still, run ragged and exhausted by the tension between this drive and the lack of support.

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“Whose Eyes Shall Bless Now the Truth of My Pain?”: Recovering Diane di Prima’s Feminist Rhetoric

I slipped out of my daze in time to hear, “We’re closing in fifteen minutes.” Staring at the now-black screen, I tried to recall what induced this trance, but it wasn’t until I had made my way back on the highway that I remembered. Over the previous eight hours in the archive, I developed a robotic rhythm, flipping through documents, taking pictures, and making notes. Suddenly, I was painfully aware of how intrusive it felt to thumb through someone’s personal effects for my scholarly purposes. I pulled into my driveway with the same feeling of lost time, as the three-hour drive seemed a blur. This feeling lingered, as the research I collected from the archive sat untouched for years, until now.

I was first drawn to the Beat writers in my early twenties. As I read Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs, I recurrently asked myself: where are the women? Years later, in a master’s course in feminist rhetorics, I began to pursue this question in earnest.

Italian American poet, painter, and activist Diane di Prima was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1934 and was the granddaughter of Italian immigrants and well-known anarchist, Domenico Mallozzi (“Diane di Prima”). di Prima dropped out of Swarthmore College to pursue writing. Shortly after, she began performing her poetry within a bohemian community of writers, artists, and activists in Greenwich Village, which included well-known Beat authors. The mother of five children, she wrote two memoirs and over thirty poetry collections. Some of her most renowned works include This Kind of Bird Flies Backwards (1958), Dinners and Nightmares (1961), Revolutionary Letters (1971), Loba (1978), and Pieces of a Song (1990). Before relocating to San Francisco in 1968, di Prima co-founded the New York Poets Theatre, a newsletter called The Floating Bear, and the Poets Press, which published Audre Lorde’s premier volume, The First Cities (1968). di Prima taught creative writing at the New College of California, California College of Arts and Crafts, San Francisco Art Institute, California Institute of Integral Studies, and co-founded the Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Politics. di Prima worked as a mixed-media artist since the 1960s and had several solo art shows in California (“Diane di Prima”). She also studied Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, which exert a palpable influence over her work in the 1970s and 80s. di Prima died on October 25th, 2020, after a long battle with Parkinson’s Disease and Sjogren’s Syndrome (Genzlinger).

Poet and novelist Daniella Gioseffi best captures the singular and multifaceted nature of di Prima’s work, describing her as:

a learned humorous bohemian, classically educated, and twentieth-century radical, [whose] writing, informed by Buddhist equanimity, is exemplary in imagist, political, and  mystical modes. A great woman poet in [the] second half of American century, she broke  barriers of race-class identity, delivered a major body of verse brilliant in its particularity. (308)

Working across genres, di Prima offers readers critical narratives of her and other women’s experiences that model alternative ways of being for the marginalized.

As a reader, I was taken with di Prima’s mobilization of memory and reflection towards an unapologetic critique of gender and sexual norms. Yet, as I began pursuing a doctorate in Rhetoric and Composition, I was once again frustrated by her absence from feminist rhetorical canons. Galvanized by this frustration, I set out to recover her work.

The narrative that begins this article recalls my first experience with archival research in the Diane Di Prima[1] Papers collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2014. This first trip left me victim to archive fever (Ramsey et al. 3). Overwhelmed by the materials and my feelings, I found it “difficult to envision a project out of ‘the lot’” (Ramsey et al. 3). Since then, I have visited di Prima’s papers in the Syracuse University special collections and completed several graduate seminar papers and conference presentations on her work. Yet, I remained reluctant to publish, as my archive fever lingered. I continued to work on this article sporadically over my doctoral studies but still never felt right about submitting it for publication. With di Prima’s recent passing, the feelings I experienced years ago in the archives resurfaced. The sense of responsibility that once gave me pause now fueled my resolve to share how her work had sparked my love for feminist rhetoric.

In this article, I recover di Prima as a feminist rhetor and argue for her recognition in the field. When recognized in historical accounts of the Beat literary movement, women are often relegated to flat characterizations of the wife, girlfriend, or lover of their male counterparts. However, many of the male Beat authors’ spouses were prolific and published writers, including Hettie Jones, Carolyn Cassady, Joanne Kyger, and Joyce Johnson. The recovery of women Beat authors is a rich, decades-long literary project (e.g., Carden, Women Writers; Knight; Grace and Johnson). However, these women, and di Prima, have yet to be recognized as feminist rhetors.

To begin this work, I analyze di Prima’s feminist rhetorical strategies: her critical subjectivity, critique of patriarchal gender roles, subversion of sexual norms, and circulation of feminist rhetoric.[2] I analyze these strategies as evidence of di Prima’s feminist rhetoric to support my argument for her recognition in the field. I do not subscribe to a static definition of feminist rhetoric. Instead, common characteristics and themes of feminist rhetoric, as recognized by scholars in the field, inform my identification and analysis of these particular strategies. I use the term, critical subjectivity, for instance, to capture di Prima’s use of her own narrative to critique patriarchal and heteronormative structures. This strategy resonates with Kate Ronald and Joy Ritchie’s characterization of feminist rhetoric as “challeng[ing] dominant epistemologies” and “assert[ing] new topoi/contexts from which to argue” (11). In addition, the field has long recognized the power of autobiography and storytelling as modes of critique, and more broadly, the subjective as a vehicle for feminist rhetors to enact agency.[3] For instance, Jacqueline Jones Royster cites how African American women rhetors of the nineteenth century employed the subjective form of essay writing (31). Through storytelling and reflection, di Prima amplifies previously neglected voices, expressions, and representations. In this way, her narrative serves as a catalyst to shock, intrigue, and seduce readers into considering an alternative history of the Beats.

I draw from feminist rhetorical methodologies of recovery and regendering (Glenn, Rhetoric Retold; Ratcliffe; Lunsford) to analyze her published memoirs and poems, personal correspondence, and unpublished manuscripts. Informed by the greater move within feminist historiography to broaden the notion of the archive (i.e., Gaillett; Glenn and Enoch; Kirsch and Rohan; Morris and Rawson), I analyze artifacts that traverse traditional categorizations of genre, audience, and authorship. In a 2013 letter included in the SU archive, di Prima articulates the value of engaging with archival material that defies neat categorization:

These journals are each an “art work” in and of themselves…. at the time that I began them, I conceived of them as an entirely different form of journal: one where I would experiment a lot more with images, and where I would abandon the recording of the daily event …. I would want to guarantee access to this archive to myself, my children and grandchildren (so much of their history is in it), and of course to scholars. (di Prima, Letter)

She positions her work, even the most personal of her writing, as worthy of scholarly study and circulation. In doing so, di Prima directly recognizes the rhetorical significance and power of her subjectivity.

I intersperse reflections on my archival experiences throughout this analysis to evoke the many interruptions of my nebulous, years-long writing process. In doing so, I aim to reciprocate di Prima’s vulnerability and honesty in sharing her thoughts, feelings, desires, and failures. My reflections help me to center my interpretive power (Royster 281) and reflect the complicated affective processes of this project.

In recovering di Prima’s feminist rhetoric, I contribute to an ongoing “transform[ation of] the discipline of rhetoric through gender analysis, critique, and reformulation” (Buchanan and Ryan xiii). This recovery broadens the history and resonance of Beat literature, while also offering a methodology for recovering the often-neglected rhetorical contributions of women to other literary and social movements. Most importantly, this project contributes to the longstanding tradition of feminist historiography in the field, as it works to expand and complicate what we identify as feminist rhetoric. Recovering di Prima’s feminist rhetoric also builds upon previous scholars’ calls to expand, complicate, and disrupt how we study and canonize feminist rhetors (i.e., Hallenbeck; Ratcliffe; Rawson). As such, this work helps us to reflect on how we can reflexively avoid canonization and citational practices that reify the very exclusion the field was founded on resisting.

Critical Subjectivity

I return to the archival materials I collected years ago and old feelings of paralysis flood back. With frustration, I ask myself why I should pursue this project and who I am serving with this work. Around this time, I find an unpublished, undated poem in one of di Prima’s journals, titled “Bohemia,” in which she writes: “Whose eyes shall bless now the truth of my pain? They are fled who could bear witness to my tale, their blundering time to another.” I continue searching and reading with lots of questions and a renewed energy.

di Prima rejected the patriarchal norms of both the 1950s milieu and a male-dominated literary community. She shares her narrative and critically reflects on her experiences to engage in feminist critique. As opposed to the male-authored representations of women common in popular Beat literature, di Prima offers readers a transparent representation of a woman writer’s struggle to love, live, and work within oppressive structures. Her feminist resistance is most evident in her enactment of a critical subjectivity, in which her (and her characters’) experiences act as parodies, reflections, and criticisms of oppressive norms. In identifying her critical subjectivity as a feminist rhetorical strategy, I draw from Laura Micciche’s definition of feminist critique as “question[ing] what passes as ordinary, often as a cover for maintaining the assumed value of intellectual inheritance, in order to unsettle the ground upon which norms hold sway” (176). di Prima shares the material realities of her own marginalization and reflects on her internalization of patriarchal systems to indict their repression of women’s lived experiences. di Prima’s feminist critique originates from her experiences and is enacted through sharing them unabashedly, even (and especially when) they exist outside of decorum, norms, and, in some cases, legality. di Prima offers readers alternatives to these norms, modeling pathways to agency, expression, and self-determination not afforded to women in the same frequency or breadth as their male peers.

In her memoir, Recollections of My Life As a Woman (2001), di Prima shares stories, memories, and journal entries from throughout her life to chronicle her journey of self-discovery. Throughout these stories, she reflects on her successes and failures in finding her voice. After characterizing the adult relationships she grew up around with a series of vignettes, she articulates the broader agency and social critique that her reflection affords:

It is power I am talking about now, no right and wrong. No cloudy issues of “neglect” or passion. Simply, who held the power in our lives? How did we speak with them, how did they treat us? A pluralism. There are bonds and groupings of power, within each group a kind of hierarchy, never spoken but fully acknowledged. And then there were different groupings, separate and more or less equal. Ward politics. The Church. City Hall. The cops. International relations I learned in the kitchen. (Recollections 57)

di Prima identifies the implications of the messages women receive about love, power, and relationships in the home. She draws attention to the processes by which women internalize family power dynamics. For instance, when questioning why she relented to pressures to have an abortion, she asks: “What could I expect? Had I ever seen a woman treated well? Treated as she should be? Not in my home, certainly, not among my parents, or their relatives, or their friends. Not among my own friends, in their various modes of coupling. No room to speak truth. For the woman to speak her truth and be heard. And be safe” (Recollections 237). di Prima centers her own narrative within a broader indictment of systemic inequality. Her feminist rhetoric encourages us to reflect on the power dynamics in which we were raised as a strategy for recognizing and fighting against the oppressive power structures of social and cultural institutions.

di Prima enacts a critical subjectivity that “places material experience…at the center of knowledge formation” (Ronald and Ritchie 11). For instance, di Prima reflects on her own experiences with marriage and polyamorous relationships to criticize the patriarchal institution of marriage. She describes her marriage as a “contractual marriage” she was forced to agree to out of necessity (Recollections 336). She reflects on the sacrifices she made to conform to the wife role:

I had figured into that equation some acknowledgement of the freedoms I’d given up. Some respect for the woman/artist I was, and some gratitude for coming to meet this man halfway. None of these things was forthcoming, and I knew better than to feel sorry for myself. I had hardly been married two months before I knew I had made a mistake—shouldn’t have gotten into this at all. (di Prima, Recollections 336)

In these realizations, di Prima claims an agency not afforded to her in the moments she reflects on. She offers readers of the day a rare glimpse into the processes by which patriarchy becomes ingrained in women’s lives, hearts, and minds.

Her memories serve as conduits for her feminist resistance. This is a common characteristic of feminist rhetoric, in that “knowledge based in the personal, in lived experience, [is] valued and accepted as important and significant” (Ede, Glenn, and Lunsford 59). di Prima’s narrative is in itself a feminist rhetorical strategy, in that she uses it to intervene within normative narratives of womanhood and the nuclear family. In an analysis of di Prima’s memoirs, Roseanne Quinn identifies her most important feminist act as “dar[ing] to write about herself in the first place” (176). Upon reading the book, critic Grace Paley described Recollections as “about a woman who really retained her own powers, a woman determined to live the way she wanted to live—and that was it” (qtd. in di Prima, Recollections, “Praise for Recollections of My Life as a Woman”). As feminist rhetorical scholars have long acknowledged, for women rhetors, the act of self-expression is an act of resistance. Karlyn Kohrs Campbell describes feminist rhetoric as a “process of persuading listeners that they can act effectively in the world” (86). di Prima employs her subjective experience to claim a self-authored identity and way of being free from the patriarchal and heteronormative gender constructs of the 1950s and ’60s.

For example, di Prima ruminates on her decision to defy dominant beauty standards and expectations of femininity. She cites her sexual and creative exploration as enabling her to identify and resist society’s attempts to regulate her voice and body. She writes:

It was about this time I made what I thought of as my decision not to be beautiful…. I had watched the burden that beauty was for the women and girls around me…. Watched how they were watched, both by friends and lovers, so that they were not seen, not truly presences, but the painting, movie, statue of someone’s dreams. A piece of the furnishings…. no matter how truly they were loved, there were truly never loved. (Recollections 114-15)

In writing through her experiences and observations, di Prima offers a broader critique of the male gaze and how it impacts every aspect of women’s lives. She draws attention to this issue while also modeling strategies for enacting self-authored beauty standards. This critical subjectivity is also evident in her reflections on becoming a mother. di Prima builds upon her own struggles with balancing the demands of motherhood and work to indict the lack of support available to working and single mothers: “The woman who is charged with manslaughter when she leaves her child alone to go to work, to go to the store or the doctor and the house burns down, is doing what she has done a thousand times before, what she has had to do, in a world, a society that leaves her no options. I saw this now. It was the beginning, for me, of a new kind of radicalization” (Recollections 178). In both examples, di Prima uses her experiences as a platform for feminist critique of the social and political structures that stifle women’s agency. This theme of the impossible choice with which women are presented—to conform and surrender autonomy or to resist and be alienated from the power structures that often determine women’s well-being and success—recurs throughout di Prima’s work and illustrates her engagement with critical subjectivity as a feminist rhetorical strategy.

Within the first few scenes of Recollections, she articulates the feminist motivations of her work: “I write this book to try to understand what messages I got about being a woman. What that is. How to do it. Or get through it. Or bear it. Or sparkle like ice underfoot” (26-7). di Prima recognizes her personal experience as a vehicle for feminist critique and rhetorical agency. She dwells in her subjectivity as space for critical thought, and potentially social action. In their foundational essay, Lisa Ede, Cheryl Glenn, and Andrea Lunsford identify the mobilization of memory towards critique as a characteristic of feminist rhetoric:

From a feminist vantage point, however, it is impossible to take the subjectivity of the rhetor for granted, impossible not to locate that subjectivity within the larger context of personal, social, economic, cultural, and ideological forces, impossible not to notice not only the context itself, but also who is absent from this context as well as what exclusionary forces are at work there. (59)

Similarly, di Prima’s work centers her subjectivity as her primary rhetorical strategy for engaging in feminist critique. By sharing her experiences trying to reconcile what it means to be a woman, what is expected of her, and how she can thwart such expectations, di Prima locates a pathway to agency.

Rewriting Patriarchal Gender Roles

If di Prima has taught me anything, it’s that things are always more complex than they seem. Every time I think I have a certain claim, I read something that contradicts it. My impulse is frustration, but I realize how pompous that is. This impulse becomes something I must remember to store in the locker with my other belongings before entering the archives.

di Prima’s feminist rhetoric constellates around her reflections on her development as a woman and the obstacles she faced in shedding the expectations of femininity and submissiveness ingrained in her as a child. In Recollections, she writes:

Part of the bind was/is that it is “wrong” for women to control. To try to control, though the instinct is biological. To get a little peace. “Don’t be teacheretical” my parents would say. “You want everything your way.” When I got older, what I heard from lovers, was that I was a controlling or castrating bitch. But—the assault was universal and ceaseless. You would have had to be dead not to try to stop it for a minute. (di Prima 41)

di Prima describes her experiences fighting against the common stereotypes often ascribed to strong, outspoken women. She offers a glimpse into the complicated and impossible choices women are faced with when fighting to write their own narratives. A key element of di Prima’s expose of the material realities of women’s inescapable “bind” is her subversion of the dutiful wife role women were largely expected to fill in the 1950s and ’60s.

As established, di Prima rejected the patriarchal institution of marriage, positing the wife role as stifling and inauthentic to true agency (Mortenson 36). She channels the Beat individualism and her own narrative to depict women as more than merely an extension of their male counterparts. Characterizing marriage as a mechanism of the patriarchy, di Prima narrativizes the material and affective experiences of women subjected to oppressive gender roles in her poem, “City Winter” (1975). She describes marriage as a jail cell:

I know I am trapped here

in my high, little room

behind the shadow of my husband

and his lovers

taking their ease in the front room

playing the phonograph

I am held here by the shouts of the children

the baby. (192)

As the narrator, di Prima assumes the wife role, describing her prison to the reader in first person. She breaks the illusions of domestic bliss with which marriage is often colored in the 1950s and ’60s. She pushes readers to experience the narrator’s feelings, mobilizing affect into feminist critique.

In “Learn to Drive Blues” (1975), di Prima criticizes normative expectations of the wife’s role in a more upbeat and playful tone. As the narrator, she embodies a female character who refuses to be subservient to her husband; a character that encourages other women to also avoid the oppressive nature of unequal marriages. She talks directly to the reader, “Well, if you ever get an old man who won’t let you sing & shout / Baby then you’ll find out, just what the blues is all about / Well, I love you babe, but I ain’t gonna sell my soul” (303). In addition to highlighting the consequences of domesticity, she showcases women characters who refuse to relent and live within the constraints of gender norms.  In both poems, and across her work, di Prima crafts an alternative to conventional marriage, one in which the woman can both love and be loved, can be both a loving partner and a self-determined woman.

A central characteristic of di Prima’s feminist rhetoric is the complexity with which she frames this alternative. In addition to imagining women characters that both do and do not resist patriarchal subjugation, di Prima shares memories of real women living and loving alternatively. After reflecting on the problematic messages she received about women’s power growing up, she points to women she met once leaving home as models for the autonomous lifestyle she longed for and later actualized. In the introductory scenes of Recollections, she reflects on what those women meant to her:

I thought of deep gratitude of some of the women I met when I first left home at the age of eighteen: those beautiful, soft, and strong women of middle age with their young daughters who made me welcome in their various homes…. These women, by now mostly dead I suppose, were great pioneers. They are nameless to me, nameless and brief friends I encountered along the way who showed me something else was possible besides what I had seen at home. (di Prima 5)

Later in the memoir, she refers to these women as those who “didn’t dream of marriage, or a dinette set, [who] gave their love where they wished, with no hidden agenda” (Recollections 265). Throughout her critique of marriage, and more broadly of restrictive gender roles, di Prima does not prescribe to one representation of what agency or empowerment looks like. In this, she continues to enact the feminist rhetorical agenda to revise normative narratives of women’s lived experiences.

Authentic/Alternative Sexual Representations

One of the most recognized aspects of di Prima’s feminist critique is her celebration of alternative sexualities. In writing about sex with the same abandon as the male Beats, di Prima rebels against the post-WWII generation’s grief and preoccupation with the nuclear family. Her sexual experiences afford her an outlet for self-authored agency. di Prima’s disruptive style is palpable in her poem, “To the Patriarchs” (1971), in which she personifies female sexuality as a wrathful, goddess-like entity who threatens the reader:

My hips

haven & fort

place where I stand

& from which I fight

My cunt a bomb exploding

yr Christian conscience

The shock waves of my pleasure

annihilate

all future shock forever. (317)

di Prima uses her sexuality to shock readers. She repurposes the mysterious and sometimes dangerous representations of women’s sexuality as a source of revision and empowerment. In the world she creates, a woman’s sexuality is generative and galvanizing, rather than dangerous or submissive.

Similarly, in Recollections, di Prima shares her homosexual and polyamorous experiences as a social commentary on the oppressive systems that prevented her and her peers from expressing their authentic sexual identities. She blends her memories with social critique that reminds the reader of the inherent risks she and her peers endured to live and love freely. In fact, she explicitly recognizes her alternative lifestyle as a broader act of resistance to the status quo, writing:

…there was no reason, per se, to obey the laws of the land. We simply assumed we were being lied to again. The laws of the land were a hodgepodge of prejudice, fear, and bigotry. That much was clear. Homosexuality was illegal. It was illegal in many states to experiment in your own bed with your own ‘legal’ partner…. The dance we had all performed to keep parents and the law from ganging up on us when we were teenagers had not been lost on us. Nor had we forgotten the many friends who had disappeared: madhouses, deportation. (Recollections 203)

She acknowledges her writing as a critical rhetorical act that exposes the material realities of sexist and heteronormative logics. In contextualizing her rebellion, di Prima employs her feminist critique to “(re)write the past and the present…[and] to draw attention to gendered actions, biases and assumptions as well as the accompanying inequities of power” (Ratcliffe 7). Her seemingly personal narratives, in this way, become outlets for a political consciousness that gives way to feminist critique.

di Prima’s resistance to dominant characterizations of a woman’s sexuality as dangerous or perverse is most evident in her erotic memoir, Memoirs of a Beatnik. She begins Memoirs by reflecting on her first time having intercourse as a sort of awakening, as she “enter[ed] the world of the living” (22). In the remainder of the book, she describes her sexual experiences with men and women over the course of a year while living in the “pad,” a commune living-style apartment in New York City. An intertextual mix of memory and fiction, Memoirs defies genre conventions (Carden, “‘What You”). di Prima plays with fact and fiction to deconstruct and circumvent readers’ expectations of how a woman should write about sex. In other words, she mobilizes the stereotype of promiscuity often associated with women like her to enact her rhetorical agency. di Prima’s explicit language and style “violate oppressive conventions of the feminine,” which dictated that “conventional women, good girls, are not supposed to hear or speak these words” (Johnson 103). In both the content and form of Memoirs, she blurs normative boundaries between the public and private, enacting a feminist rhetoric that reflects “the material embodiment of the relationships among self, text, and world” (Ede, Glenn, and Lunsford 64). Considering the common stigmatization of women’s sexuality at the time, narrating sex from a woman’s perspective was—and still is—a feminist rhetorical act. Roseanne Quinn recognizes this, identifying Memoirs as “an early example from the women’s movement of…a sex-positive narrative” (189). di Prima goes beyond just talking about sex from a woman’s perspective to use her critical subjectivity to reveal and indict the patriarchal systems that repress women’s nonheteronormative sexual expressions.

In reflecting on her time at the “pad,” she lists the benefits of her polyamorous approach to sex and love: “light and freedom, air and laughter, the outside world—outside of the stuffy incestuous atmosphere of her ‘family life’…. laughter, the silliness and glee unscrutinized, one’s blood running strong and red in ones’ own veins, not drawn to feed the uneradicable grief of the preceding generation” (di Prima, Memoirs 72). di Prima posits sexual freedom as a conduit for her agency, much like many women’s liberation rhetorics at the time. Feminist critic Estelle Freedman notes that during this time, “explorations of female passion proliferated as feminists attempted to redefine sexual empowerment” (xvii-iii). She claims her autonomy as a woman in control of her alternative sexuality. Furthermore, di Prima presents sexual liberation as an exercise in collective resistance, a unity in difference, in a refusal to love according to social prescriptions. Her representation of a woman’s self-determined sexuality is a cornerstone of her feminist rhetoric. In fact, she has often been identified as one of the “heroic precursors” of the women’s liberation movement (Libby 46). Sharing realistic representations of a woman’s sexuality enabled di Prima to both critique sexual norms and carve a place for feminist rhetorical elements within male centric Beat literature. By bringing her own sexuality and sexual experiences to the forefront, di Prima espouses a feminist rhetoric that is meant to disrupt social conventions that portray female sexuality as bad, dirty, or wrong. She positions herself as a woman who possesses “an actual body, with body parts, and bodily functions and pleasures” (Quinn 178-179). In claiming her own “sexual power,” di Prima exposes readers to depictions of women as sexual beings (Memoirs 33). She flips the tropes common in male-authored sex scenes to center a woman’s affective experience and control.

In claiming a space for her own sexual expression, di Prima also draws attention to the biased nature with which women’s sexually explicit work is received. Memoirs was poorly received and branded as vulgar upon its initial release because of its explicit content and style. Unlike the sexually explicit, male-authored Beat novels, di Prima received much criticism for Memoirs. Some criticized the book as “pornographic” and as having “too many sex scenes” (McNamara qtd. in Dumaine). One reviewer cited the openness of di Prima’s sexual expression to invalidate feminist movements of the time. For instance, literary critic Steve Haines wrote, “If you read it, you’ll probably wonder if most of the members of the Women’s Liberation Movement would really like to be as uninhibited as Diane di Prima” (qtd. in Dumaine). One of the most common responses to Memoirs was criticism of di Prima’s fictionalization of sexual scenes and partners (Carden, “‘What You”), something she makes explicit in the book with section titles like, “A Night by the Fire: What You Would Like to Hear” (148) followed by “A Night by the Fire: What Actually Happened” (150). While male Beat authors, like Kerouac, were praised for their blending of memory and fiction, di Prima’s credibility and perspective were questioned for employing the same artistic freedoms. Her male lovers are objects of her desire and in her dominance over them, she counters male-authored representations of women’s sexuality. Literary critic, Michael Davidson describes di Prima’s confrontational style as “appropriating the coercive rhetoric of the masculine tradition and using it against itself” (qtd. in Charters 359). di Prima uses her disruptive style as a feminist rhetorical strategy (Campbell; Ede, Glenn, Lunsford) to chronicle her affective journey to sexual liberation. By sharing this journey, her narrative communicates the potential for fulfillment through alternative and self-determined sexualities that fall outside of accepted norms. The Beat movement is often associated with sexual freedom and the defiance of gender norms. Yet, di Prima’s work—and its reception—highlights the one-dimensional, and often misogynistic, representation of sexual expression within its canon.

Embracing the multiplicity of experience that feminist rhetoric affords, di Prima depicts her path to self-awareness through sex as a complicated process punctuated with moments of uncertainty. She shares experiences in which she succumbed to unwanted sexual advances and relented to the sexual roles to which her male lovers expected her to conform. di Prima describes her sexuality as simultaneously empowering and objectifying. For example, interwoven within free sex vignettes, she describes being sexually assaulted:

But he was too quick, and caught me around the waist at the same time jerking my pants, which he had unzipped while I was sleeping, down around my legs. I struggled silently to free myself, all the time thinking unbelievingly that this was rape, that I was about to be raped… And my fear and horror seemed ridiculous. This was Serge…who never got to screw his wife, and if he wanted to throw a fuck into me, why I might as well let him…. Anyway, it didn’t seem that I had much choice. (Memoirs 68)

In sharing this experience, di Prima resists creating her own tropes of sexual freedom removed from gendered power dynamics. She reminds the reader that, even within this alternative and open atmosphere she and her peers build together at the “pad,” sexual violence and women’s subjugation is ever present. Later in Memoirs, she reflects on how the patriarchy bled into even the most alternative of her relationships. While in a polyamorous relationship with two men, di Prima finds herself relegated to normative gender roles: “I lost myself in my new-found woman’s role, the position defined and revealed by my sex: the baking and mending, the mothering and fucking, the girls’ parts in the plays—and I was content. But slowly, imperceptibly, the days began to shorten, the grass turned brown” (Memoirs 110). Unsure at the time what caused her malaise, di Prima reclaims an agency in this reflection, as she narrates the constant struggle to resist gender norms. She reminds us that resistance to patriarchy and heteronormativity is a recursive and complex process.

Throughout Memoirs, di Prima interweaves asides and social critiques between erotic scenes. She breaks narration with the section titled, “Fuck the Pill: A Digression,” in which she criticizes the common perception of the birth control pill as granting women sexual freedom. Contradicting many feminists at the time, she describes the pill as another impossible choice with which sexually active women are faced. Sharing her and her women friends’ experiences with the hormonal effects of the pill, including a reduced libido, di Prima identifies it as another tool of control over women’s sexuality. As she puts, the pill made “women who finally achieved the full freedom to fuck, much less likely to want to fuck” (di Prima, Memoirs 105). di Prima recenters the narrative of the pill through women’s lived experiences. In “Goodbye, ‘Post-pill Paradise:’ Texturing Feminist Public Memories of Women’s Reproductive and Rhetorical Agency,” Heather Adams analyzes “non-nuanced…retrospectives on the emergence of the pill,” calling for more complex histories of the pill authored by women (391). Adams identifies narratives like di Prima’s as “feminist interventions” that “trouble and texture remembrance to enrich feminism’s stories of agency and liberation” (411). di Prima counters dominant representations of the pill, therein contributing to a more multi-faceted representation of women’s sexuality. The complexity with which di Prima represents women’s sexual freedom is often overlooked in critical and scholarly receptions of Memoirs. The explicitness with which di Prima describes the erotic scenes is an important means by which she resists sexual norms and enacts rhetorical agency. However, her feminist rhetoric is most palpable in her representation of women’s sexual freedom as a perpetual negotiation between personal desire and societal expectations.

Feminist Circulations

Through both her writing and participation in activist networks, di Prima engages circulation as a feminist rhetorical strategy to raise consciousness of women’s rhetorics and disseminate rhetorics of social change. A common theme across her work is the woman artist’s affective struggle for rhetorical agency.  For example, in Recollections, she recalls an epiphany she experienced after taking part in a women’s writing retreat:

For the first time, I saw the chaos in the actual process manifesting, and I questioned whether indeed [the creative process] was “crazy” or only a particular part of our dilemma as women artists. If one persisted, what to do with the work? How to carve a niche for it, if one doesn’t have access to galleries, to publishing houses? How to make a place if one doesn’t speak the language of the critic? (di Prima 198)

Through kinship with fellow women writers, she achieves a critical subjectivity that she then mobilizes towards criticism of women’s exclusion from public platforms. She models a rhetorical agency and feminist resistance possible through subjective expression. She offers affective solidarity to fellow women and feminist rhetors (Hemmings, “Affective”), contributing to the social circulation of their work and writing processes (Royster and Kirsch).

Some of the most notable of this work includes her time with the Diggers, a group of activist artists that supported homeless youth in San Francisco (Fitzpatrick); her co-founding of the Poets Press, which published writers like Audre Lorde; and her engagement in Vietnam War protests (“In Memoriam”). From 1961-1971, di Prima served as co-editor of The Floating Bear with LeRoi Jones (now Amiri Baraka). The Bear was a newsletter that published editorials, socially critical poems, short stories, and more, and was shared with authors and activists selected by the editors. di Prima was arrested in 1961 on a “trafficking in obscene matter” charge after publishing Issue #9 of The Floating Bear, which contained homoerotic material. Issue #20 of The Floating Bear (1962) includes an editorial, in which di Prima and Jones reaffirm their decision to protect the homosexual identities of mailing list members when pressed by the FBI during trial (di Prima and Jones). Included in the SU archives is a 1961 press release authored by di Prima and Jones just after their arrest, in which they state:

It has long been the contention of artists and intellectuals that neither the government nor any of its agencies are qualified to judge what is literature or art and what is pornography…. [our case is] a defense of the artist’s sovereignty…. If The Bear loses this case, it is not fantastic to say that there will be repercussions throughout the literary world. It would be an ugly precedent that would affect not only an entire generation of writers just breaking into print, but a great many other writers whose works a rust now being published in this country because of older censorship laws. This must not happen. (Jones and di Prima)

di Prima commits to freedom of expression in both her writing and actions. She models rhetorical agency in her work while fighting for marginalized artists’ access to public platforms, furthering the circulation of feminist and social justice rhetorics. Her critique of censorship is also seen in a 1990 memo she wrote to the Interface Holistic Education Center, in which di Prima defends her women students’ writing and criticizes the institution’s harassment policy, which “forbode sexual language.” She writes: “Having myself grown up in a period where the refusal to sign a loyalty oath was an inflammatory matter, I find myself perhaps super-sensitive to this kind of thing…. But I find the list of verbally forbidden material to be somewhat inhibitory, and am certain I do not want to subject any students of mine to such considerations” (di Prima, Memo). In these examples, di Prima both engages in and defends feminist critique. As established, writing about alternative sexualities during this time was an act of feminist critique. In addition, di Prima calls out the structures that perpetuate—and the consequences of—the censorship of feminist rhetoric. These artifacts only begin to demonstrate di Prima’s participation in activist networks, as they do not capture her work in coalition building for a myriad of civil and equal rights issues throughout her lifetime. Yet, they serve as evidence of her engagement in feminist circulation, and her ethos as a feminist rhetor deserving of recovery and recognition.

“Tacking Out”[4]

With di Prima’s passing, the original frustration that fueled my recovery of her work burns hotter. Even with all she accomplished, she remains in the shadow of male authors. The first line of her New York Times obituary reads: “She traveled in the circles of Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti” (Genzlinger). This infuriates me.

In concluding this article, old feelings of paralysis and doubt return, as I recall the many artifacts and claims I have not included. I overcome this feeling by thinking of the countless images from my time at the archives that wait patiently in a desktop folder for my return and the archives I have yet to visit. It goes without saying that a recovery project like this warrants much more than an article-length inquiry. di Prima’s reflection on her Italian American heritage, for instance, is a key element of her feminist critique that I do not adequately address in this article and that I hope to investigate further. For example, Quinn identifies the intersectional  nature of di Prima’s work (Crenshaw): “The strength of di Prima’s voice is the way in which she persists in offering an ongoing feminist analysis of her sense of Italian American femaleness which began amid reaction to family, and was reinforced by both anti-Italian social sentiment and enduring patriarchal intrusion” (187). In this way, her work draws attention to the fact that a struggle against the patriarchy is also one against racism and white supremacy. In centering her Italian American heritage, di Prima complicates one-dimensional narratives of women’s lived experiences. More broadly, this project raises questions about other perspectives excluded from the Beat canon and the value in recovering their contributions to a widely celebrated and studied literary movement predicated on the appropriation of Black culture.

di Prima’s recovery as a feminist rhetor is important work. Yet, the contributions of this project go beyond recovery alone. For instance, di Prima’s unique blending of memory, fiction, and social commentary offer innovative lenses for studying genre-meshing social movement rhetorics. Her recovery also provides opportunities to reflect on who is and is not recognized in our rhetorical canons, contributing to what Charlotte Hogg describes as a “reflexivity and clarification as to what and whom we represent” (182). In Rhetorical Feminism and This Thing Called Hope, Cheryl Glenn identifies the field of feminist rhetoric as in “a constate state of response, reassessment, and self-correction” (4). I contribute to this recursive enterprise by extrapolating  di Prima’s feminist rhetorical strategies (Ratcliffe), which, in turn, expands the field’s definition of what feminist rhetoric is and the positionalities, histories, and epistemologies to which we subscribe.

My anger feels generative now; there is much work to be done.

 Footnotes

[1]di Prima’s last name is often capitalized and without spaces, DiPrima, as that is her family’s legal name. She adopted the lower case “di” and added a space to honor her Italian ancestry (Genzlinger).

[2] My use of the term circulation is most informed by Jacqueline Jones Royster and Gesa Kirsch’s concept of social circulation presented in Feminist Rhetorical Practices: New Horizons for Rhetoric, Composition, and Literacy Studies.

[3]For instance, see Dworkin, Hemmings’ Why Stories Matter, and Segal. Also see feminist rhetorical studies that position memoir and autobiography as methodologies for expanding patriarchal, Eurocentric models of ethos (Foss and Foss, Reynolds, Ryan, Myers, and Jones’ Rethinking Ethos: A Feminist Ecological Approach to Rhetoric, and Richtie and Ronald’s Available Means: An Anthology of Women’s Rhetoric(s)). Queer rhetorical studies have also recognized memoir, autobiography, and narrative as vehicles of rhetorical agency (i.e., Bechdel, Cvetkovich, Muñoz, and Sedgewick).

[4] In Feminist Rhetorical Practices, Royster and Kirsch describe the process of “tacking in and out” as imperative when conducting ethical rhetorical studies. “Tacking out” encourages the researcher to take a step back from the work to “broaden…viewpoints in anticipation of what might become more visible from a longer or broader view” (72). I model this approach in the conclusion by identifying the areas I have not sufficiently covered in this article, how my research might evolve moving forward, and the contributions of my project to the field of feminist rhetorical studies and other disciplines.

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A Question of Affect: A Queer Reading of Institutional Nondiscrimination Statements at Texas Public Universities

Introduction: Queer Moments in Texas

Being queer in Texas is a curious experience. LGBTQ+ people make up approximately 4.1% of the population—around 770,000 adults and 158,500 youth in 2017 (Mallory et al.). However, until the June 15th, 2020 ruling by the Supreme Court that Title VII protections included LGBTQ+ workers, no state or federal nondiscrimination protections existed for LGBTQ+ individuals in Texas [1]. While some cities had LGBTQ+ nondiscrimination policies in place prior to 2020, these were and remain quite limited. At legislative and institutional levels, Texas has historically been unsympathetic to LGBTQ+ interests, with the state government being particularly hostile to the transgender community in recent years. Additionally, in 2017, Texas ranked thirty-ninth in the nation on public support for LGBTQ+ acceptance and rights, while in 2021, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) State Equality Index, an “annual comprehensive state-by-state report that provides a review of statewide laws and policies that affect LGBTQ+ people and their families,” scored Texas in the lowest-rated category, “High Priority to Achieve Basic Equality” (Mallory et al.; HRC Foundation).  

In Texas, as in the twenty-six other states currently lacking statewide nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ+ individuals, what few nondiscrimination protections exist have been tied to where we live and, until recently, where we work. The physical locations of our bodies have been intrinsic to how we experience and navigate the world. Because of this, I had some reservations in 2016, when I received an offer from my current employer, part of a large university system that was simultaneously undergoing a major downward expansion and pursuing Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI) designation. While I was considering the offer, I perused the institution’s website, only to discover that I couldn’t find the campus nondiscrimination policy anywhere: an immediate red flag for someone who openly identifies as queer. When I asked about it, I was sent a link to the system policy, which suggested to me that the campus nondiscrimination policy was something of an afterthought, despite the large number of minority students that the institution served. In 2016, eighty percent of the inaugural freshman class and seventy percent of the overall student body identified as Hispanic, and seventy-three percent of enrolled students were the first in their families to attend college (University Communications; Office of Institutional Research). As Porter et al. have noted, what is present on (or absent from) an institution’s webpage, reflects that institution’s identity and priorities (620). These websites are part of institutional discourses, which establish institutional identities and practices, and are a means by which institutions legitimize and justify their existence (Mayr 2). If diversity were as important to the institution’s identity as indicated by the designation it sought and by the population it served, why wasn’t the nondiscrimination statement already present on the university’s website, especially as it was undergoing a massive recruitment process for new faculty and its first class of freshmen?  [2]

There is an additional peculiarity to being a queer faculty member at a public institution in Texas, especially one that does queer work: we are often outed by state policy. House Bill No. 2504, originally passed in 2009, requires that public institutions of higher education post the curriculum vitae of each instructor on their websites. CVs must be “accessible from the institution’s…home page by use of not more than three links; searchable by keywords and phrases; and accessible to the public without requiring registration or use of a user name, a password, or another user identification” and list the instructor’s “postsecondary education, teaching experience, and significant professional publications” (“H.B. No. 2504”). For faculty whose work concerns LGBTQ+ themes and issues, this can act as a form of public outing—one that I was not warned about when I was hired.  

These experiences during my hiring, along with being the first openly transgender faculty member on my campus and then co-chair of Rainbow P.A.W.S. (Pride at Work and School), the faculty and staff LGBTQ+ group, led me to further question how institutional policies affect LGBTQ+ individuals at Texas public institutions. These policies are the means through which institutional perceptions of diversity are constructed (Iverson 152), yet perceptions and actual experiences of diversity on campus are very different things. In 2018 alone, Texas public institutions educated approximately 658,219 students, an unknown number of whom may identify as LGBTQ+, as there are approximately 928,500 LGBTQ+ individuals in Texas by current estimates (“Texas Higher Ed Enrollments”; Mallory et al.). For LGBTQ+ students, the campus environment, including institutional policies and programming, “has a direct effect on students’ outcomes and can mediate the effects of [negative] inputs [from the wider culture]” (Woodford, Joslin, and Renn 69). My experience working with LGBTQ+ students bears this out: I’ve often been told that they feel more comfortable being out on campus than anywhere else in their lives, even as they sometimes struggle with system policies and technologies regarding LGBTQ+ identities, such as preferred names and pronouns. Because our students feel safe on campus, it is our obligation to do all that we can to be worthy of that trust: to support them both in and out of the classroom and to revise our institutional policies and practices in ways that reflect our embodied experiences as queer individuals studying, working, and living in the strange and often hostile environment that is the state of Texas. 

The Project 

To answer my questions regarding institutional policies and LGBTQ+ populations, in late 2017 to early 2018, I assembled a corpus of thirty-five nondiscrimination statements from the websites of Texas public universities to analyze them from an LGBTQ+ perspective. I tracked the location of the nondiscrimination statements on each institution’s website, the number of clicks it took from the homepage to access them, whether or not the statements contained any references to gender identity or expression, and related information such as the presence of an LGBTQ+ student group and diversity offices on campus.  

The nondiscrimination statements were often difficult to find—it took me three or more clicks from the homepage to locate the nondiscrimination statements for 13 out of the 35 institutions, and in some cases, I had to run a search in order to find them. They were often inconsistently presented, with different versions of the statements appearing on different pages of the website. This left me wondering what the correct version of the policy was, especially because the differences between these statements generally concerned gender identity and expression—that is, some versions of the statements included them as protected categories, while others did not. The statements themselves proved problematic in a number of ways, which I elaborate upon in my analysis below, and the presence of LGBTQ+ student groups and diversity offices on campus also proved somewhat difficult to confirm. While most institutions had a clearly-named student group, in three instances I couldn’t actually find one, and I could only confirm the presence of twenty diversity offices within the thirty-five institutions I analyzed. 

Based on these findings, grounded in Sara Ahmed’s work on affect and institutional diversity, and drawing on my experiences as an openly-queer person working at a public university in Texas, I argue that nondiscrimination statements at Texas public universities are affective objects which serve as straightening devices on the queer bodies that they affect, even as they purport to and often do protect them. 

I begin my discussion with a brief review of affect, how I conceptualize its relationship to queer bodies and institutions, and how institutional nondiscrimination statements act as straightening devices for queer bodies. Next, I provide a brief overview of Texas public universities before analyzing three different models of nondiscrimination statements that I discovered in my research, which I have dubbed the Equal Opportunity Model, the Discrimination Prohibition Model, and the Additional Model. I also analyze the presence and absence of gender identity and gender expression statements as part of these nondiscrimination statements and conclude with a few suggestions for how these statements might be improved.  

These statements can only be improved; they cannot truly be fixed, especially not by those tasked with writing revisions to these policies. The goals of my critique are twofold: to support the work of those tasked with writing revisions to these policies by offering a few practical suggestions to allow for greater enforcement of the nondiscrimination practices that these policies espouse and to encourage further reflection on the creation, implementation, and maintenance of these policies in light of their status as living documents which have real, material consequences for the LGBTQ+ individuals who live, learn, and work in our institutions.

Affect, Ahmed, and Objects 

Melissa Gregg and Gregory Seigworth describe affect as “aris[ing] in the midst of in-between-ness: in the capacities to act and be acted upon…found in those intensities that pass body to body…in those resonances that circulate about, between, and sometimes stick to bodies and worlds, and in the very passages or variations between these intensities and resonances themselves” (1, emphasis in orig.). Affect occurs between bodies, between moments, between words. Sara Ahmed describes “Affect [as] contact: we are affected by “what” we come in contact with” (Queer Phenomenology 2). Affect is fluid, changeable, sticky, embodied: there is something inherently queer in its unsettledness, in its action, its permanently fleeting state. Affect exists “in the regularly hidden-in-plain sight politically engaged work…that attends to the hard and fast materialities, as well as the fleeting and flowing ephemera, of the daily and the workaday, of everyday and every-night life, and of ‘experience’” (Gregg and Seigworth 7). That is the work of this project—to consider the implications and absences of documents that are generally considered mundane matters of legal and political necessity and the bodies that they affect.  

The nondiscrimination documents and diversity discourses of our institutions circle about, between, and stick to bodies like mine, which need nondiscrimination protections due to the historical failure of state and national governments to create or enforce such protections. For example, the 2020 Supreme Court Title VII ruling only applies to employment discrimination, after all. In Texas, we dwell in a “legal landscape and social climate… [that] likely contributes to an environment in which LGBT people experience stigma and discrimination [which] can take many forms, including discrimination and harassment in employment and other settings; bullying and family rejection of LGBT youth; overrepresentation in the criminal justice system; and violence” (Mallory et al.). All of this affects us in physical, material ways. The first real moment of affect between myself and my institution occurred because of the simultaneous presence/absence of the nondiscrimination statement on the university homepage, which was materially tied to both my queer body and the institution’s body, as the administration was attempting to recruit me to it. This affective relationship continues to this day, as I am visibly out on campus in a number of ways, including through my publicly-posted CV, my work with Rainbow P.A.W.S., the pronouns and title that I use, and my office (a visible representation of my place at the university, a place where my queer body can regularly be found), awash in varying shades of rainbow. This visibility is both involuntary and voluntary, and carefully negotiated: my way of navigating through the “working closet,”[3] heavily impacted by the federal, state, and institutional policies and discourses that affect how I experience the world. 

These institutional policies, discourses, and nondiscrimination statements are affective objects. “Affect is what sticks, or what sustains or preserves the connection between ideas, values, and objects” (Ahmed, “Happy Objects” 29, emphasis mine). Institutional nondiscrimination statements address the idea of legal protections for marginalized people based on the institution’s espoused values, and the object(s) of these ideas and values are the bodies of those affected by them. As affective objects, nondiscrimination statements are “imbued with positive affect” (Ahmed, “Happy Objects” 34). They are “sticky because they are already attributed as being good or bad, as being the cause of happiness or unhappiness” (Ahmed, “Happy Objects” 35). While institutional artefacts such as nondiscrimination statements’ diversity policies are ostensibly “good” objects, they do not always serve the needs of the populations they purport to protect, as scholars in disability studies such as Stephanie Kerschbaum and Robert McRuer have discussed.[4]  

Through embodied experiences with these policies, we may “become alienated—out of line with an affective community—when we do not experience pleasure from proximity to objects that are already attributed as being good,” a process which Ahmed describes in 2012’s On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life (37). The diversity workers she interviewed reported feelings of alienation and isolation in doing their work: continually running into the “brick wall” of the belief that doing diversity work meant professing diversity, rather than taking material action to create more equitable institutions (174-175). Nondiscrimination statements and diversity policies are objects through which institutions can profess diversity, and these objects are good because they are doing diversity work. Through my critique of these “good” affective objects, I become one of Ahmed’s affect aliens, because critiquing these documents means critiquing the institution itself and its good intentions.[5] 

I am affected by these objects, surrounded by them, and in a position to analyze and evaluate them because of my queer bodythey are stuck to me. Yet it is not on me to solve the problems with these objects—I am solely here to “queer the discourse of diversity,” to borrow Liz Morrish and Kathleen O’Mara’s phrasing. It is, after all, “not up to queers to disorientate straights… disorientation [can be] an effect of how we do politics, which in turn is shaped by the prior matter of simply how we live” – through embodiment and experience (Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology 177). My job is not to fix the problem; instead, it is to explain how and why it is a problem. As the former co-chair and current secretary of Rainbow P.A.W.S., formerly the LGBTQ+ Task Force at our campus, my duty entails problematizing things for my institution to encourage changes that will positively affect myself and the other queer folx on campus.[6]  

Institutional Nondiscrimination Statements as Straightening Devices 

Diversity, as defined by institutional discourses, is something that is brought to the institution by individual students, staff, and faculty, which contributes to the greater good (Urciuoli 165). Institutional policies frame diversity as “a goal to work toward or a commodity to accumulate” (Kerschbaum 25-26) such that diversity becomes “a marketable signifier—its invocation masquerades as the cultural capital of the university, to be bestowed on all who tread within its walls and resonating with the promise of corporate success” (Morrish and O’Mara 978). Minority bodies, including queer ones, are the means by which the institution “becomes diverse.” Institutional diversity documents such as nondiscrimination statements, diversity policies, and Safe Space stickers frequently become the instruments of this commodification, framing diverse bodies as objects for institutions to acquire and display. [7]  

These documents have historically acted as straightening devices and they continue to do so. They serve to enfold an ill-fitting body (one that is non-normative according to the cultures of the institution, one that is queer) into the institution. As Roderick Ferguson explains, “From the social movements of the fifties and sixties until the present day, networks of power have attempted to work through and with minority difference and culture, trying to redirect originally insurgent formations and deliver them to the normative ideals and protocols of state, capital, and academy” (8). Title VII and Title IX, the legal documents that created the precedent for present-day nondiscrimination statements, are the direct result of the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960s and underwent the same process of normativity. Just as the revolutionary student movements of the 1960s and 1970s led to the creation of ethnic, women’s, and queer studies departments within the academy, folding them into the institution’s power and body, institutional nondiscrimination statements both provide support for and act to straighten minority students, staff, and faculty, aligning them with the whole. Or, as Ahmed puts it, “One fits, and in the act of fitting, the surfaces of bodies disappear from view” (Queer Phenomenology 134). Individuals like myself—nonbinary, asexual, and aromantic—frequently disappear even from queer conversations; by becoming part of the institution’s body, we may as well not exist at all. 

This history of straightening is present in the structure of the nondiscrimination statements I analyzed, which frequently echo the wording of both Title VII and Title IX. Title VII reads “It shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employer to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual…because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin” (“Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964”). Title IX, passed in 1972, reads “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance” (“Title IX and Sex Discrimination”). Although these laws were originally intended to address only issues of sex and racial discrimination in education and employment, they have since been interpreted more broadly, most recently in favor of protections for LGBTQ+ workers, as of June 15th, 2020. 

Derived from these laws, universities have developed individual nondiscrimination statements that both comply with the law and establish institutional attitudes towards diversity. However, as Ahmed explains, “Universities often describe their missions by drawing on the languages of diversity as well as equality. But using the language does not translate into creating diverse or equal environments. This ‘not translation’ is something we experience: it is a gap between a symbolic commitment and a lived reality,” a gap which those of us who are LGBTQ+ on campus frequently experience (Living a Feminist Life 90). Once, I was dropping off flyers advertising one of our Safe Space sessions to the secretary of a department not my own and explained that this was training to help support our LGBTQ+ students. The person to whom I was speaking replied, “what’s that?” This moment of affect impacted my body on a physical level—for a moment, I literally couldn’t process what I was hearing; I was so dumbfounded by the idea that someone didn’t know what the LGBTQ+ acronym meant. This was not-translation in a literal sense: at that moment of exchange, we were speaking two different languages.  

Although generally in a less literal form than this example, nondiscrimination statements can become the means through which this “not translation” occurs, particularly because they serve as a one-size-fits-all solution to the inherently personal problem of discrimination on campus. The issues I face on campus as a white, DFAB,[8] mostly-abled, agender individual, are quite different than those of my cisgender, heterosexual, Black best friend, a Jamaican immigrant who is also a lecturer in our program, yet the same nondiscrimination statement is ostensibly meant to protect us both, even though our needs and experiences are very different. 

Symbolic commitments to diversity are not enough for people who are affected by these statements, whose responses to these documents and discourses are inherently personal and embodied. Creating these documents is not enough: we must critique, revise, and continually adapt them to better serve the needs of both our students and ourselves. 

An Overview of Texas Public Institutions 

Texas has six public university systems: the A&M system (eleven institutions), the University of Texas system (eight institutions, six medical centers), the University of Houston system (four institutions), the University of North Texas system (two institutions, two medical centers), the loosely-affiliated Texas State system (four institutions), and the Texas Tech system (two institutions, two medical centers). There are four independent public universities: Midwestern State University, Stephen F. Austin State University, Texas Southern University, and Texas Woman’s University. 

As I reviewed each institution’s website, I encountered three general models of nondiscrimination statements: one focused on equal opportunity, one focused on prohibiting discrimination, and a third model, which was a variation on the other two. In all cases, Title VII and Title IX defined the list of protected classes included in these statements, and institutions frequently included additional protected classes that were at the time not yet defined by law: sexual orientation, gender identity, and occasionally gender expression. While some of these nondiscrimination statements have been updated since the time of data collection, many remain the same. 

Diversity Statement Model 1: Equal Opportunity Model 

Statements in this model were worded as follows: “[Institution] provides/will provide equal opportunity without regard to/regardless of [list of protected classes].” 

Table 1: Institutions using the Equal Opportunity Model 

System  Total Institutions  Number Using the Equal Opportunity Model 
Texas A&M  11  8 
University of Houston  4  4 
University of Texas  8 institutions, 6 medical centers  2 
Midwestern State University (Independent)  1  1 

This form of nondiscrimination statement is framed in a positive manner, based on providing equal opportunity to all, rather than on forbidding unlawful employment practices. This model is perhaps the simplest and most positively phrased, and thus the most politically neutral; rather than defining any sort of prohibition, it only promises that “equal opportunity” will be afforded to traditionally marginalized groups. This phrasing obfuscates the actual legal obligations of the institution in terms of protecting marginalized bodies and does not offer explicit protections for those that it affects. It also fails to define any prohibitions against discrimination, though these may be described elsewhere in other policy documents.  

The phrasing of this form of nondiscrimination statement raises a number of questions. How is “equal opportunity” defined at the institution? How does one provide evidence that they have not been offered an equal opportunity as someone else? In such cases one must out themself to administrators, much as disabled individuals must when requesting legally-required accommodations, an institutional practice which disability studies scholars have described as “a bureaucratic act further perpetuating different manifestations of institutionalized discrimination” (Carrol-Miranda 281). 

Further questions arise when we consider the issue of embodiment: what does equal opportunity without regard to or regardless of identity mean? I am a queer faculty member, doing queer work at my institution. My ability to do this work is intrinsically tied to my identity; it affects my experiences, my teaching and service and scholarship—so what does it mean if my experiences and knowledge go without regard? For scholars focused on identity—scholars of color, queer scholars, feminist scholars, disabled scholars—our work is intrinsically tied to our embodied experiences of the world. If a position arises that is connected to issues of identity, should it truly be an opportunity that is offered equally to all? Several years ago, our then-named LGBTQ+ Task Force collectively decided that at least one queer individual needed to serve as co-chair of the committee at all times. Was this an equal opportunity? Should it have been one? 

These questions are theoretical until the moment that these policies affect someone, affect their embodied experience of the world, and connect (or disconnect) them from the body of their institution.  

Institutional nondiscrimination statements affect bodies: they serve as a form of straightening device by enfolding disparate groups together and putting them together under the shared umbrella of diversity, eliding the differences between them. The marginalized members of diverse groups, with different needs and experiences, are offered “equal opportunity,” a vague term which is assumed to address all these disparate needs. And what of intersectionality? Many institutions will happily tout their diversity credentials while their campuses remain inaccessible for anyone with a physical disability: I once spent a semester on crutches, unable to access my department, located on the third floor of a building with no elevator. Although my classes were relocated to buildings with elevator access, I was once asked if I could hobble up the stairs to the third floor to make it to a class that had been rescheduled.[9] Another time, a fire drill occurred while I was on the fourth floor of the library. The elevators had been shut down, and while I stood there, presumably burning to death, I had some pointed questions for the building staff about evacuation plans for the disabled. Their answer was a politely baffled silence. 

These issues had nothing to do with my queerness, but everything to do with my body: non-normative, affected once again by institutional policies that didn’t account for me. What is “equal” about that? 

In the wording of this model, even the potential for wrongdoing is obfuscated: the institution offers “equal opportunity,” which implies that no discrimination could ever occur, since opportunity is offered equally to all. While this suggests that the institution considers ensuring equal opportunity to be a moral obligation, the fact of the matter is more prosaic: every institution must have policies in place to deal with such situations because they can, do, and will occur, regardless of the good intentions of the creators of such policies. 

Diversity Statement Model 2: Discrimination Prohibition Model 

Statements in this model were worded as follows: “[Institution] does not discriminate/discrimination is prohibited on the basis of [list of protected classes].” 

Table 2 : Institutions using the Discrimination Prohibition Model 

System  Total Institutions  Number Using the Discrimination Prohibition Model 
Texas A&M  11  3 
University of Texas  8 institutions, 6 medical centers  1 
University of North Texas  2 institutions, 2 medical centers  4 
Texas State  4  4 
Texas Woman’s University (Independent)  1  1 

 This form of nondiscrimination statement, rather than offering vague promises of equal opportunity, is more explicit about the institution’s legal obligation to prohibit discriminatory practices and bears a stronger resemblance to the phrasing of both Title IX and Title VII than the previous model does. Because of their emphasis on prohibiting discriminatory acts, these nondiscrimination statements seem to have a bit more weight to them. It may be easier to define what counts as a discriminatory act than what counts as “equal opportunity,” given that most institutions have established working definitions for what constitutes discriminatory behavior, usually found on the policy statements page, Title IX, EEO, or HR pages. Likewise, potential consequences of discriminatory behavior are generally explicitly stated within these policies. Because these policies define clearer boundaries, institutional agents may more easily enforce them.  

This model of nondiscrimination statement implies a different sort of protection than the previous one, yet still acts as a form of straightening device for the bodies that it affects. Like the previous model, it provides protection for the institution, keeping it in line with federal requirements, and this increased legal emphasis serves to distance it from the very people that it affects. Likewise, the list of marginalized categories still groups disparate individuals together under the same ill-fitting umbrella. One major difference between this and the previous model, however, is that the increased legalese of the phrasing implies that protections for marginalized populations are a legal obligation for institutions, rather than a moral one. 

However, these legal protections have their limits. While an institution may prohibit discrimination, the people who are part of the institution are often the ones who commit discriminatory acts, whose words and actions have physical and material consequences for the LGBTQ+ population on campus. Legal protections can do very little when the perpetrators of such actions cannot be found. When I was initially collecting the data for this project, the Coalition, the student LGBTQ+ group, hosted Drag Show Loteria as part of Coming Out Week and posted flyers around campus advertising the event. Several of these posters were defaced by persons unknown—an act of clear anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination, but one which went unpunished because there was no mechanism for tracking down the vandals and applying the appropriate sanctions, as A&M system policy states that discrimination is “a materially adverse action or actions that intentionally or unintentionally excludes one from full participation in, denies the benefits of, or affects the terms and conditions of employment or access to educational or institutional programs” (“System Regulation 08.01.01, Civil Rights Compliance”). An act of vandalism such as this, while clearly a discriminatory action—one that had a significant negative affect on the Coalition members who had to deal with the situation, one which was intended to make them feel unwelcome and potentially concerned about their physical safety while on campus—may not be considered as such per system policy.  

This is precisely the problem with documents that focus on the legal issue of discrimination: they may not be enforceable given institutional policies and structures, and they provide little to no guidance on how to protect our bodies and work from discrimination coming from nebulous agents within our institutions, to say nothing of those from the outside. In 2020, two virtual public events hosted by our campus were Zoom-bombed by racist groups which played pornographic videos and filled the chat with discriminatory slurs—acts which caused significant distress for participants, acts which, although virtual, affected their feelings of safety and security at our institution. In the wake of these incidents, security guidelines for public online events were clarified and strengthened, yet once again, the perpetrators were never caught. 

Diversity Statement Model 3: Additional Model 

Statements in this model were worded as follows: “[Institution] provides equal opportunity/does not discriminate based on [list of federally protected classes]. Additionally, [Institution] does not discriminate on the basis of [list of additional classes].” 

Table 3: Institutions using the Additional Model 

System  Total Institutions  Number Using the Additional Model 
University of Texas  8 institutions, 6 medical centers  5 
Texas Tech  2 institutions, 2 medical centers  2 
Texas Southern University (Independent)  1  1 
Stephen F. Austin State University (Independent)  1  1 

The third model of nondiscrimination statement lists additional protected categories in a separate sentence, rather than adding them to the end of the existing list. The Texas Tech system had a slightly altered take on this phrasing:  

Texas Tech University does not tolerate discrimination or harassment of students based on or related to sex, race, national origin, religion, age, disability, protected veteran  status, or other protected categories, classes, or characteristics. While sexual orientation and gender identity are not protected categories under state or federal law, it is Texas Tech University policy not to discriminate on this basis. (“Title IX”) 

Since the Supreme Court ruling of June 15, 2020, sexual orientation and gender identity are now considered federally protected categories, at least in regards to Title VII. 

This model echoes the other two models, including both the vagaries of “equal opportunity” and the legalese of “does not discriminate.” This phrasing highlights both the changing nature of the politics of nondiscrimination and the institution’s professed dedication to diversity and emphasizes that LGBTQ+ individuals were protected by their institutions, even when unprotected by state or federal law. Though this phrasing acknowledges the unique status of LGBTQ+ individuals and serves as an institutional critique of broader American culture and politics, it may also be an indication of the tokenism that occurs when diverse bodies are used as props to illustrate how inclusive an institution is, or at least how the marketing department would like it to appear.  

This form of diversity statement showcases the bodies that these policies affect most explicitly and additionally. While these statements imply a critique of the larger social problems facing LGBTQ+ individuals, this phrasing also suggests that these extra bodies—these queer bodies—are ancillary, an afterthought. The double-edged sword faces us once again: as LGBTQ+ individuals, we are in a unique situation regarding current nondiscrimination laws, which until recently have been dependent on whatever local and institutional policies applied to our physical locations. Local nondiscrimination laws frequently only apply to individuals employed by or contracted with the city, and as employees of Texas public universities, we work for the state. Thus, no such laws applied to us until the Supreme Court’s Title VII ruling, and even then, one of the first studies of LGBT employees since this ruling found that “nine percent of LGBT employees…were fired or not hired because of their sexual orientation or gender identity in the past year” (Sears et al.). The policies that our institutions have created have often been our only form of nondiscrimination protection and are only effective when enforced. They both acknowledge and obfuscate the complexities of our positions: a queerness inherent to our very existence.  

The phrasing of this form of nondiscrimination statement both explicitly acknowledges the unique circumstances of the queer body within the institution and larger society and most explicitly renders our bodies as a form of diversity currency, which the institution can call upon to illustrate its (supposed) commitment to diversity. Our presence on campus is often used as a recruitment and marketing tool: at my institution, small banners, which feature images that illustrate the diversity of our campus, adorn the lampposts. One such image features the Coalition, our LGBTQ+ student group. While this image helps to advertise an important student organization, I also consider it somewhat exploitative of an already-marginalized population, especially because the composition of some of the images used for this purpose have a whiff of what disability rights activists call “inspiration porn.”[10] Likewise, while we celebrated the addition of a rainbow crosswalk to our campus in the spring, we were less appreciative of its location—a walkway between two different parking lots, far from any campus buildings.  

Unlike the other forms of nondiscrimination statements, this version does not “straighten” queer bodies by lumping them in with other marginalized bodies. However, the overall purposes of the nondiscrimination statement remain the same: to provide a normative structure through which to manage an abnormal body and to formalize and ritualize extremely personal experiences of discrimination through a bureaucratic process that serves the needs of the institution. This very action is a form of homonormativity,[11] of straightening, and can also be found within many additional diversity policies.  How many institutions will offer health insurance and other benefits to the same-sex partner of a queer employee, but only if they are legally married? Such policies assume that the goal of any partnership is marriage and children, despite the fact that this is not the case even for many heterosexual couples. What of those who are queer enough that they do not fit even within those boundaries? My household is entirely queer—my queerplatonic partner and I are both agender, aromantic, and asexual—but because we refuse to engage with an amatonormative, allonormative institution such as marriage,[12] my benefits cannot extend to them, despite our nearly seven-year partnership. 

Policies such as these may consider me “additional,” but when even other members of the queer community sometimes fail to recognize my identity and partnership, am I even that? 

Diversity Statements and the Issue of Gender Identity  

Another issue with nondiscrimination statements concerns statements of gender identity and expression. Of the thirty-five nondiscrimination statements I analyzed, thirty-two included a gender identity statement [13]. The three that did not (Tarleton State University, part of the A&M System; UT Arlington; and UT Tyler) failed to do so even when the system policy did include one.  

All thirty-five nondiscrimination statements utilized the phrases “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to demarcate these particular protected categories. However, as Morrish and O’Mara point out, such phrasing is deliberately vague: “the specifics of sexual identities are erased in favor of sexual orientation…gender has an identity, a binary identity, although the transgender identity rarely appears” (984). This phrasing acts as a straightening device: it names the protected categories without specifying what they might look like or drawing undue attention to non-normative forms of being. This creates a relatively streamlined nondiscrimination statement that allows for broad categories that may be applied to a number of different contexts but also folds non-normative sexualities and gender identities into categories that also include heterosexual and cisgender identities. 

The presence and absence of such gender identity statements are a reflection of the nebulous ways in which transgender individuals are treated in our society. As a matter of legal precedent, the Supreme Court only recently declared that gender identity is a protected category under Title VII, as it falls within the larger protections guaranteed to individuals regarding discrimination on the basis of physical sex. The bodies that are or fail to be acknowledged by gender identity statements are those that deviate from the gender binary: those who are transgender or those who are intersex in any of the many ways there are to be.[14]For individuals like myself, who are not “traditionally” trans,*[15] “gender identity” means many different things: I don’t have a gender identity, so am I actually protected at all by these policies? What does that protection look like when instances of misgendering are so prevalent on our campus? 

Even if gender identity is considered a protected category in an institution’s nondiscrimination statement, that does not mean the individuals who make up the institution are well-educated enough on the matter to refrain from discriminatory actions. The nondiscrimination statement for our campus, which does currently include gender identity and expression, allows me to openly identify as agender on campus and to freely use they/them pronouns and the title Mx. without fear of reprisal, but I’m still misgendered on a daily basis, even by people who should know better. Two years ago, I asked our then-department chair to contact HR on my behalf to correct the title on all of my paperwork from “Ms.” to “Mx.” All of the official paperwork I have received from HR since then has used the appropriate title, but another colleague had to contact the manager of our departmental webpage three separate times to get the correct title listed there. While this is an example of gender identity protections actively being enforced, communication breakdowns still occur: in 2020 I received a formal letter from our dean which addressed me as “Ms.,” and two months ago I received one from the Provost’s office which did the same: more moments of unsettling affect, when my physical body was once again mislabeled by my institution. While the Provost’s office now has the correct title on file, the burden was on myself and my department chair to request the correction—and this was simply an instance of misgendering in a formal letter, a form of private communication, albeit one which I had to disclose to my superiors to ensure it would not happen again. It could have been much worse: other transgender individuals have been addressed with the wrong title in campus media, and experienced significant dysphoria—an affective moment of mental and physical stress—as a result of being misgendered in front of what was effectively the whole campus. 

Such failures of recognition are often the result of ignorance and the inherent complexities and problematics of trying to create an enforceable policy which protects everyone, or at least attempts to. However, these honest mistakes and oversights still have a real, immediate, and physical affect on those who experience them. While I was the first openly transgender faculty member on campus, I am not the only openly transgender employee, and my colleagues’ experiences of misgendering and transphobia on campus have been very different from mine. This is likely because of our different positions: students are generally more willing to be confrontational with staff than faculty, and no nondiscrimination policy, no matter how thorough, can account for the simple differences in power dynamics that we experience because of what we do for our institution. 

While statements regarding gender identity are necessary to protect LGBTQ+ individuals on campus, significant problems occur if these statements are lacking, misplaced, or otherwise difficult to find. If system policies say protections exist for gender identity, why do some individual institutional statements fail to include them? In the case of a discrimination complaint, which policy applies? Why are the statements different in the first place? 

Some of this is simple human error—keeping institutional webpages and records up-to-date is incredibly difficult. Yet the lack of gender identity in some of these statements alarms me, even though, in every case, it is a protected category within the system policy. It is the “additionally” concern once again: the aspect of my queerness that is most likely to receive pushback is an afterthought, a secondary concern, when even now, in 2022, it is what puts me in the most danger. The Williams Institute’s 2021 study of LGBT employees found that “nearly half (48.8%) of transgender employees reported experiencing discrimination based on their LGBT status compared to 27.8% of cisgender LGB employees. More specifically, over twice as many transgender employees reported not being hired (43.9%) because of their LGBT status compared to LGB employees (21.5%)” (Sears et al.). 

Diversity Statements and the Issue of Gender Expression 

The most concerning issue I encountered in my analysis regarded statements of gender expression. Of the thirty-five nondiscrimination statements I collected, twenty-one did not include any explicit statements about gender expression, though many of the current versions of these statements do. 

Table 4: Institutions lacking a Gender Expression Statement 

System  Total Institutions  Institutions Lacking a Gender Expression Statement 
Texas A&M  11  11 
University of Texas  8 institutions, 6 medical centers  4 
Texas State  4  3 
Texas Tech  2 institutions, 2 medical centers  4 
Midwestern State University (Independent)  1  1 

 Outside the LGBTQ+ community, there is little recognition that gender identity and gender expression are not the same thing. But for any transgender individual, the difference is very real: a closeted transgender individual is still trans* and should have that identity respected regardless of how they present themselves to the world. A transgender individual who does not “pass” as cisgender should still have their identity respected. And what of the nonbinary folx like myself? Is our gender expression still respected, especially for those who may present as male one day, female the next, and androgynous the third? At institutions where gender expression is not a protected category, even if gender identity is, we must all proceed with caution. 

Even when gender identity and expression are mentioned in policy statements, they sometimes conflict with each other. At the time of data collection, A&M San Antonio’s nondiscrimination policy read as follows: “Texas A&M University-San Antonio does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, national origin, age, disability, genetic information, veteran status, sexual orientation or gender identity in its programs and activities” (“Non-Discrimination/Sexual Harassment”). In contrast, the wording on the nondiscrimination posters on campus (see fig. 1) read as follows: “Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, requires education institutions that receive federal funds or financial assistance to prohibit sex discrimination in ALL programs and activities. Discrimination based on gender identity and expression is impermissible.” 

Fig. 1. A nondiscrimination poster prominently displayed on campus. The poster states: “Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, requires education institutions that receive federal funds or financial assistance to prohibit sex discrimination in ALL programs and activities. Discrimination based on gender identity and expression is impermissible. Sexual assault = sex discrimination. Title IX protects YOU from sex discrimination in academics, activities, admission, athletics, employment, financial assistance, housing, and recruitment. Title IX: The law is not optional.” Photographed February 27, 2018.

These posters implied that gender identity and gender expression were both protected categories at A&M-SA under the precepts of Title IX at the time, per the statement “Discrimination based on gender identity and expression is impermissible.” Impermissible or not, the A&M system did not recognize gender expression as a protected category at the time. The phrasing of the nondiscrimination statement has since been updated, and now reads: “Texas A&M University-San Antonio does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, national origin, age, disability, genetic information, veteran status, sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression in its programs and activities” (“Non-Discrimination/Sexual Harassment”). These are recent changes, reflecting a more coherent approach to diversity on campus, albeit one that is moving sluggishly and unevenly across departments. While the current administration is visibly supportive of the LGBTQ+ community, transgender individuals still have mixed experiences on campus: many instances of misgendering that I’ve experienced have come from faculty and staff rather than students. And, of course, Rainbow P.A.W.S. still doesn’t have a budget of its own. 

To protect gender identity but not gender expression implies a contradiction: an institution might respect someone’s gender identity but might not grant them the right to express that identity safely on campus. For transgender individuals, gender expression is a complex issue: although legally changing your identity in the state of Texas is a surprisingly simple process, it also requires a good understanding of the court system and how to apply for financial waivers, and there is, as of yet, no option to legally identify as non-binary.[16] Because of this, the documents that we use to prove our identities are often inaccurate. Mismatches between gender expression and genders listed on official identity documents, including institutional items such as student and staff IDs, can be a matter of outright danger for transgender individuals. The 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey found that, of Texas respondents, “32% of respondents who have shown an ID with a name or gender that did not match their gender presentation were verbally harassed, denied benefits or service, asked to leave, or assaulted” (3). When our institutions cannot even grant us the option to list our identities properly on our paperwork, we have to wonder how protected we actually are. 

Being transgender on campus, being openly transgender on campus, is risky. The same 2015 report found that, of Texas respondents, “73% of those who were out or perceived as transgender at some point between K–12 experienced some form of mistreatment,” and “19% of respondents who were out or perceived as transgender in college or vocational school were verbally, physically, or sexually harassed because of being transgender” (1-2). More recently, in September 2021, the Trevor Project reported a 150% increase in crisis contacts from LGBTQ+ young people in Texas when compared to the same time period in 2020, with transgender and nonbinary youth in Texas “directly stat[ing] that they are feeling stressed, using self-harm, and considering suicide due to anti-LGBTQ laws being debated in their state” (Trevor News). Over seventy anti-LGBTQ+ bills were proposed by lawmakers in the 2021 Texas legislative session, more than forty of which specifically targeted transgender and nonbinary youth (Trevor News). 

I only started using they/them pronouns publicly within the last few years, and while I’m comfortable introducing myself to my students that way now, the first time was nerve-wracking. They often misgender me anyway, largely because my gender expression is near-universally perceived as female, but many of them remember and do try. The same is true of my colleagues. But I am extremely fortunate: being misgendered, a type of microaggression, does not trigger gender dysphoria in me, the way it does for so many others. Gender dysphoria—that moment of awful affect—is often triggered because of issues with gender expression: moments when someone misgenders you, moments when for legal reasons you must take up an old identity that was never actually you, moments when you don’t feel safe enough to express your true identity, when the administrative systems of your institution do not allow for name changes, and when the paperwork for your institution does not allow you to identify as anything other than male or female.  

The paperwork that binds me to my own institution, where my queer body does queer work, where it works to support other queer bodies—that paperwork is wrong. Matters are equally problematic for students: in spring 2021 I assisted in updating Banner and Blackboard to add a feature which would allow for preferred first names to be displayed,[17] but Banner only imports name changes to Blackboard when students register for classes. Students who update their names after registering for classes are confronted with their deadname every time that they log on to Blackboard, triggering dysphoria and often causing their fellow students to misname and misgender them in collective spaces such as discussion boards. Meanwhile, this system does not exist for faculty, so while I would prefer to alter my name and state my pronouns in Banner and Blackboard, I simply cannot. Since I only teach online nowadays, I am regularly misgendered by my students simply because they see the name “Sarah” every time I post anything to Blackboard and assume that I use feminine pronouns despite having they/them listed as my pronouns in both the syllabus and my email signature—more moments of uncomfortable affect, this time enabled by the mechanical processes of institutional policy.[18]  

I feel safe at my institution, and I trust the gender identity and gender expression statements will protect me on my campus because I know the individuals that are tasked with enforcing those protections, and I trust them to act appropriately. I trust them to protect me, to protect my colleagues, and to protect my students. But not everyone is so lucky.[19] 

These concerns are especially important given that on February 22, 2017, the Departments of Justice and Education withdrew landmark 2016 guidance explaining how schools must protect transgender students against discrimination under Title IX. Protections for transgender individuals were only reinstated three years later thanks to the Title VII Supreme Court decision, a ruling which itself makes no explicit statements regarding gender expression. It is especially concerning here in Texas, where the state legislature has been relentless in its attacks on the LGBTQ+ community, with more anti-LGBTQ+ bills filed in 2021 than in any other state, and where the most successful of these bills, where discriminatory legislation that bans transgender youth from participating in sports in alignment with their gender identity, was signed into law on October 25, 2021 by Governor Greg Abbot.  

So how protected are we? 

Conclusion: Words Are Not Enough 

My experiences are not universal: they are intrinsic to my queer body and how it moves through space, through institutions, through the state in which I live and for which I work, affected by them and affecting them. My critique is affective in return—these statements might act as straightening devices, but I, in my queerness, can push back against them, affecting them just as they affect me: after all, the campus nondiscrimination statement appeared on our institutional website shortly after I noted its absence. My institution may have enfolded me into its body in an act of straightening, but, by doing so, it is also queered because of my presence within it. My queer body and my queer work have in turn served to queer my campus: Rainbow P.A.W.S. has hosted LGBTQ+ educational events, outreach programs, and resource fairs; the Preferred Name working group specifically recruited my assistance to help implement the preferred name system in Banner and Blackboard; and most recently, I have received an inquiry about joining another committee tasked with developing training materials for a new Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion certificate program. 

I offer this critique while acknowledging that these documents are aspirational: used to determine the focus, purpose, goals, and commitments of an institution, the promises it makes to those who make up its body, and meaning very little in the absence of effective enforcement, of effective commitment on the part of our institutions. After my presentation on this topic at the 2018 Conference on College Composition and Communication, I spoke with someone who expressed intense frustration with his institution, where he was tasked with enforcing the campus nondiscrimination policy. Like so many others, he felt boxed in, surrounded on all sides by a “brick wall” of uninterested and unsupportive colleagues—the seemingly-universal experience of a diversity worker in higher education. I could offer him little more than sympathy and the hope that he might find like-minded others who would be willing to do the actual work of diversity with him. Perhaps now that the Supreme Court has ruled in our favor on Title VII, he will have better luck. 

Institutions can also revise, review, and expand their nondiscrimination policies. While these statements do act as straightening devices, and likely always will simply due to their nature as legal documents, the expansion of such policies to include working definitions for commonly-used terminology, as well as more detailed definitions of discrimination—as one frequently sees in Title IX trainings—can help mitigate these effects and enable more effective enforcement of nondiscrimination policies. Thus, institutions should work to develop precise definitions for the following terms: 

    1. Gender identity and discrimination: Institutions could borrow from their already-existing Title IX terminology and the examples used in institutional nondiscrimination training to identify and address instances of discrimination based on an individual’s gender identity. 
    2. Gender expression: In addition to developing a clear definition for what gender expression is and how it differs from gender identity, institutions could provide specific examples of what discrimination based on gender expression might look like by developing further examples to be added to their already-existing Title IX training. 
    3. Sexual orientation and discrimination: While most institutional trainings do cover sexual orientation in their Title IX training, albeit generally briefly, the development of further examples of discrimination based on sexual orientation could provide more specific guidance for the enforcement of such policies. 

The working definitions and examples for these terms should be linked directly from the policy statement on the institution’s website. They should also be available internally, and the definitions and examples added to each institution’s Title IX training program. Policy and subject matter experts should be called upon to further develop these statements, working definitions, and examples. In larger systems, such developments should take place at the system level, rather than at individual institutions, to ensure consistency across all campuses. 

Revising these statements, developing working definitions, and providing further examples and training is a starting point, but we cannot let that become the only point, nor can diversity documents be our only concern. They affect us, but attending to such documents is not enough. They are important because of their ability to determine how, when, and why our institutions protect or fail to protect us, but their power lies in engagement and enforcement, in being regularly updated to reflect the ever-changing legal and political climate in Texas and the country. As employees of these institutions, it is our duty to raise questions about them, to critique them, and revise them, but also to recognize the limitations of this work. It is not and will never be enough to speak about diversity: we must take action, beyond the bare minimum that the law requires, to create safer spaces on campus for everyone. 

This last point is both the most nebulous and most important one: cultivating an inclusive campus environment, one that provides visible and meaningful support for the LGBTQ+ community, is the most effective way to create change. Creating institutional policies and documents that can better protect our students and ourselves begins with education, outreach, and understanding. A committee tasked with policy revisions is better equipped to make changes that support the LGBTQ+ community when they are trained in LGBTQ+ issues and understand the challenges that may be faced by their students, particularly given the specific cultural and geographic contexts of individual institutions. An awareness of state and local challenges to LGBTQ+ rights is essential for shaping policies that can better protect our students, staff, and faculty. Visible and concrete dedication to supporting the LGBTQ+ community is essential here in Texas, where the transgender youth sports ban has gone into effect as of January 18, 2022, and school boards across the state are facing an unprecedented number of requests from politicians and parents to remove books dealing with race, sexuality, and gender from school libraries after a parent complaint about Maia Kobabe’s memoir Gender Queer went viral (Hixenbuagh).   

On campus, it is easy to forget that the policy documents that we create, cloistered away in committees and tucked away on some forgotten webpage, are affective objects—they shape how we work and how our institutions work. They are living documents that people turn to when they are trying to make decisions about where to go and what to do. Creating them once is not enough: they must be attended to, revised, and updated to reflect the changing circumstances of our students, our politics, and the world. 

We are never “done” with diversity. We are never “done” with providing what protections we can for those who are marginalized within our institutions and within the academy as a whole. But we can and should do better: our students’ safety—our safety—depends on it. 

Footnotes

[1]As of this writing (February 14, 2022) there are still no statewide nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ+ individuals in Texas. 

[2]Shortly after my exchange with the department chair, a link to the institutional nondiscrimination statement appeared on the university’s homepage. It seems as though by asking about the lack of nondiscrimination statement I may have successfully (albeit unintentionally) engaged with Porter et al.’s activist methodology of institutional critique (610-642), a practice which I continue in limited form in this article.

[3]Working closet: “complicated, layered, and unorthodox space comprising a set of networked relations and interactions (including rhetorical practices and strategies) between the LGBT individual and all life contacts,” focused particularly on “workplace and professional contacts and interactions” (Cox 3-4).  

[4]See Toward a New Rhetoric of Differencethe edited collection Negotiating Disability: Disclosure and Higher Education, and Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability. 

[5]For another experience of affect alienation, this time with Safe Space stickers, see Fox, 496-511. 

[6]Folx: an alternative spelling of “folks” used most commonly on social media platforms by members of the LGBTQ+ community, but referring to all people, particularly members of marginalized communities.

[7]See Fox, 496-511. 

[8]DFAB: Designated Female At Birth. A term commonly used in the trans* community to refer to the gender identification granted to infants on legal documents such as birth certificates. The corresponding term is DMAB, Designated Male At Birth.

[9]I declined to do so.

[10]Inspiration porn: a term coined by Stella Young to describe the portrayal of disabled people as inspirational solely on the basis of their disability.

[11]Homonormativity: a term popularized by Lisa Duggan to describe a politics that upholds assimilationist and heteronormative ideals within the LGBTQ+ community, including a focus on marriage, monogamy, and childrearing. 

[12]Amatonormativity: a term coined by Elizabeth Brake to describe social ideals and pressures about romance, including a focus on monogamy and marriage. Allonormativity: a term coined within the asexual community to describe social ideals and pressures about sexual attraction, mainly that all people experience it.

[13]For a relevant overview of the process through which a gender identity and expression statement was added to the University of Houston-Clear Lake’s nondiscrimination statement, see Case et al.

[14]Intersex: An umbrella term used for the estimated one in 2,000 babies…born with reproductive or sexual anatomy and/or a chromosome pattern that doesn’t seem to fit typical binary definitions of male or female. These traits…include androgen insensitivity syndrome, some forms of congenital adrenal hyperplasia, Klinefelter’s syndrome, Turner’s syndrome, hypospadias, Swyers’ syndrome, and many others” (InterACT). 

[15]Trans*: a term used as a form of shorthand within the LGBTQ+ community to refer to a diverse array of non-cisgender identities, including non-binary and culturally-specific identities.

[16]Very few of our students are aware of how to navigate the process of changing their legal name and gender identity in the state of Texas, assuming that they are in a position to safely do so. Many are not.

[17]This was the term used by the group, though the use of the term “preferred” is contentious, and is generally no longer considered acceptable when it precedes pronouns. The group nonetheless used the term “preferred” for names, as the policy and technology change applied not only to trans* individuals, but also those who wished to change the names they had on file with the university for reasons unrelated to gender. Students can also indicate their pronouns in this system, although that information is kept confidential and can only be accessed by instructors through Banner.

[18]While Blackboard does allow users to edit their personal (first) name, this function is enabled by the institution rather than the user, and TAMUSA does not currently allow such edits. 

[19]To the surprise of exactly no one, concerns with the enforcement of trans-inclusive nondiscrimination policies in higher education have been a consistent concern for trans* folx over the years—see Seelman and Goldberg et al.

Works Cited 

“2015 U.S. Transgender Survey: Texas State Report.” National Center for Transgender Equality, 2017, www.transequality.org/sites/default/files/docs/usts/USTSTXStateReport%281017%29.pdf. Accessed 24 Aug. 2020. 

Ahmed, Sara. “Happy Objects.” The Affect Theory Reader, edited by Melissa Gregg and Gregory Seigworth, Duke UP, 2010, pp. 29-51. 

—. Living a Feminist Life. Durham and London, Duke UP, 2017. 

—. On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Duke UP, 2012. 

—. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Duke UP, 2006. 

Carrol-Miranda, Moira. “Access to Higher Education Mediated by Acts of Self-Disclosure: ‘It’s a Hassle.’” Negotiating Disability: Disclosure and Higher Education, edited by Stephanie Kerschbaum, Laura Eisenman, James Jones, David Mitchell, and Sharon Snyder, U of Michigan P, 2017, pp. 275-90. 

Case, Kim, et al. “Transgender Inclusion in University Nondiscrimination Statements: Challenging Gender-Conforming Privilege through Student Activism.” Journal of Social Issues, vol. 68, no. 1, 2012, pp. 145-61. 

Cox, Matthew. “Working Closets: Mapping Queer Professional Discourses and Why Professional Communication Studies Need Queer Rhetorics.” Journal of Business and Technical Communication, vol. 33, no. 1, pp. 1-25, doi:10.1177/1050651918798691. Accessed 24 Nov. 2021. 

Ferguson, Roderick. The Reorder of Things: The University and Its Pedagogies of Minority Difference. U of Minnesota P, 2012. 

Fox, Catherine. “From Transaction to Transformation: (En)Countering White Heteronormativity in “Safe Spaces”. College English, vol. 69, no. 5, 2007, pp. 496-511. JSTOR, www.jstor.com/stable/25472232. Accessed 24 Aug. 2020. 

Goldberg, Abbie, et al. “What is Needed, What Is Valued: Trans Students’ Perspectives on Trans-Inclusive Policies and Practices in Higher Education.” Journal of Educational and Psychological Consultation, vol. 29, no. 1, 2019, pp. 27-67. 

Gregg, Melissa, and Gregory Seigworth, editors. “An Inventory of Shimmers.” The Affect Theory Reader, Duke UP, 2010, pp. 1-25. 

“H.B. No. 2504.” Texas Legislature Online, 2009, capitol.texas.gov/tlodocs/81R/billtext/html/HB02504F.htm. Accessed 24 Aug. 2020. 

Hixenbaugh, Mike. “Banned: Books on Race and Sexuality are Disappearing from Texas Schools in Record Numbers.” NBC News, 1 Feb. 2022, www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/texas-books-race-sexuality-schools-rcna13886. Accessed 4 Feb. 2022. 

The Human Rights Campaign Foundation. “2021 State Equality Index.” Human Rights Campaign, 2021, https://reports.hrc.org/2021-state-equality-index-2. Accessed 4 Feb. 2022. 

InterACT. “interACT FAQ.” InterACT: Advocates for Intersex Youth, 2016, interactadvocates.org/faq/. Accessed 4 Feb. 2022. 

Iverson, Susan. “Constructing Outsiders: The Discursive Framing of Access in University Diversity Policies.” The Review of Higher Education, vol. 35 no. 2, 2012, pp. 149-77,  doi.org/10.1353/rhe.2012.0013. Accessed 18 Nov. 2019. 

Kerschbaum, Stephanie. Toward a New Rhetoric of Difference. CCCC/NCTE, 2014. 

Mallory, Christy, et al. “The Impact of Stigma and Discrimination against LGBT People in Texas.” The Williams Institute, UCLA School of Law, 2017, williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/Texas-Impact-of-Stigma-and-Discrimination-Report-April-2017.pdf. Accessed 6 June 2020. 

Mayr, Andrea. Language and Power: An Introduction to Institutional Discourse. Continuum, 2008. 

McRuer, Robert. Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability. New York UP, 2006. 

Morrish, Liz, and Kathleen O’Mara. “Queering the Discourse of Diversity.” Journal of Homosexuality, vol. 58 no. 6-7, 2011, pp. 974-91, doi.org/10.1080/00918369.2011.581966. Accessed 18 Nov. 2019. 

“Non-Discrimination/Sexual Harassment.” Texas A&M University – San Antonio, 2017, 2021, www.tamusa.edu/humanresources/eeo.html. Accessed 18 Nov. 2019; 24 Nov. 2021. 

Office of Institutional Research. “Texas A&M University – San Antonio Fact Book 2016.” Texas A&M University – San Antonio, 2016, https://www.tamusa.edu/office-information-research/assets/Texas-AM-University-San-Antonio-Fact-Book-Fall-2016.pdf. Accessed 24 Nov. 2021. 

Porter, James, et al. “Institutional Critique: A Rhetorical Methodology for Change.” CCC, vol. 51, no. 4, 2000, pp. 610-42, JSTOR, www.jstor.com/stable/358914. Accessed 24 Aug. 2020. 

Sears, Brad, et al. “LGBT People’s Experiences of Workplace Discrimination and Harassment.” The Williams Institute, UCLA School of Law, 2021, williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/Workplace-Discrimination-Sep-2021.pdf. Accessed 30 Jan. 2022. 

Seelman, Kristie. “Recommendations of Transgender Students, Staff, and Faculty in the USA for Improving College Campuses.” Gender and Education, vol. 26, no. 6, 2014, pp 618-35, doi.org/10.1080/09540253.2014.935300. Accessed 30 Jan. 2022. 

“System Regulation 08.01.01, Civil Rights Compliance.” The Texas A&M University System, 2021, policies.tamus.edu/08-01-01.pdf. Accessed 24 Nov. 2021. 

“Texas Higher Ed Enrollments.” Excel file, Texas Higher Education Data, 2019, www.thecb.state.tx.us/reports/DocFetch.cfm?DocID=12815&Format=XLS. Accessed 6 June 2020. 

“Title IX.” Texas Tech University, 2019, www.depts.ttu.edu/titleix/. Accessed 6 June 2020. 

“Title IX and Sex Discrimination.” U.S. Department of Education, 2015, www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/tix_dis.html. Accessed 6 June 2020. 

“Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.” U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, www.eeoc.gov/laws/statutes/titlevii.cfm. Accessed 29 June 2020. 

Trevor News. “New Data Illuminates Mental Health Concerns Among Texas’ Transgender Youth Amid Record Number of Anti-Trans Bills.” The Trevor Project, 27 Sep. 2021, www.thetrevorproject.org/blog/new-data-illuminates-mental-health-concerns-among-texas-transgender-youth-amid-record-number-of-anti-trans-bills/. Accessed 30 Jan. 2022. 

University Communications. “Texas A&M University-San Antonio’s HSI Designation Benefits Students and Surrounding Community.” Texas A&M University – San Antonio, 2017, www.tamusa.edu/news/2017/03/hsi-designation.html. Accessed 30 Jan. 2022. 

Urciuoli, Bonnie. “Neoliberal Education: Preparing the Student for the New Workplace.” Ethnographies of Neoliberalism, edited by C.J. Greenhouse, U of Pennsylvania P, 2010, pp. 162-76. 

Woodford, Michael, Jessica Joslin, and Kristen A. Renn. “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Students on Campus: Fostering Inclusion Through Research, Policy, and Practice.” Transforming Understandings of Diversity in Higher Education: Demography, Democracy, & Discourse, edited by Penny Pasque, Noe Ortega, John Burkhardt, and Marie Ting, Stylus Publishing, 2016, pp. 57-80. 

 

Silently Speaking Bodies: Affective Rhetorical Resistance in Transnational Feminist Rhetoric

In 2015, a group of women in the Amuru district of Uganda, engaged in a form of embodied protest to resist their loss of their land and other violence visited upon them in the conflicts of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA): they stripped naked and chanted, “Lobowa, Lobowa”—”our land” in the local Luo dialect. Two years earlier, in West Virginia, U.S.A., twenty-three women shaved their heads on the state capitol steps in order to draw attention to the ways that years of industrial coal mining and subsequent mountaintop removal have degraded their land, livelihood, and health. Noting that coal mining disproportionately affects low-income West Virginians and people of color, leader Marilyn Mullens explained that caring for the land is “part of our Appalachian culture;” destruction wrought by coal mining, then, is antithetical (“Marilyn Mullens”). In both examples, the breaking of social and gendered norms was seen as necessary in order to secure the attention to the cause.

While just two of many possible instances we might cite of women using their physical bodies to publicly protest injustice, violence, and oppression,[1]both cases raise provocative questions about rhetorical action in the current transnational context and neoliberal age (Bohrer). They call us to question certain assumptions about rhetoric: namely, that if one makes use of traditional and appropriate means of persuasion, intended audiences will listen. For protesters like Mullens and Alum, however, this is not the case: both had previously spoken to stakeholders and government officials about their causes but found themselves unable to intervene through words alone. How might bodily forms of rhetoric bring about action when words alone are not listened to?

Driven to use their bodies to form collectives and make the destructive forces of global economic and political transformation visible to broader audiences, these protests call us to consider the ways embodied rhetorical action responds to neoliberalism, which cultural theorists and rhetorical scholars have theorized as a configuration of the global economy that upwardly redistributes wealth, circulates market-based logics of individualism and competition, and authorizes destructive forces of capitalist expansion (Asen, Chaput, Dingo, Duggan, LeCourt, among others). While neoliberalism can make people less aware of the structural causes of their circumstances due to rhetorics of personal responsibility (Duggan), there are also examples like the ones here where people are acutely aware of the impact on their lived experiences. The effect of neoliberal conditions is a “welling up in the body” (Micciche), and it is expressed through the physical body. It is through physical and emotional manifestations such as rolling on the ground, stripping naked, shaving heads, and shouting, that we truly see 1) the lived effects  neoliberalism and 2) that this impact is made visible by protesters to one another. This allows these protesters to work against the ways that individualism spreads by “articulat[ing] relationships” to enable the construction of a collective ‘we’  (Asen 300).“I” am not hurting because I am failing. We are hurting because of the ways that neoliberal institutions like government officials and transnational policy have disrupted our land and enacted violence on the bodies of those we love, the protests in the case studies I present can argue. They can argue this due to their collective, bodily protest; they can do this through affect.

Bodies are at the center of the work that we do as rhetorical scholars. That is, we study rhetoric so that we can understand how oppressive systems, such as neoliberalism, use arguments to persist, circulate, and ultimately impact people physically, emotionally, and mentally and to examine effective rhetorical strategies for resisting those systems. Transnational feminist rhetorical scholars have worked to understand the ways that neoliberal discourses function to marginalize individuals by circulating through policies, human rights stories, and more (Dingo, Reidner, Wingard). Transnational feminist scholars have provided a framework for understanding the lived impacts of neoliberalism. Affect scholars have worked to uncover how the impact of rhetoric is not just linguistic and not just heard but also seen, felt, and sensed (Ahmed). Finally, social movement scholars have questioned “what provokes bodies to shift from assigned places” (Jarret and Alexander). My analysis puts affect theory into conversation with transnational feminist rhetoric in order to consider the ways rhetors respond to neoliberal conditions in agentive ways.  I examine how these conversations can come together to call us to construct an understanding of rhetoric that allows us as scholars, activists, and community partners to see how rhetors use their physical bodies as well or instead of their words to be seen when they are not heard—to both make visible and call for changes in their daily, lived experiences of damaging global systems like neoliberalism.

I understand these protesters actions through a lens of affective rhetorical resistance, a phrase I use to note the bodily and linguistic strategies that protesters together use to make visible the lived realities of neoliberalism, realities too often forgotten, silenced, and not listened to. Marilyn Mullens, Magdalena Alum, and others initially used traditional, linguistic rhetorical channels to bring attention to their marginalization. However, their audiences did not listen. Because stakeholders did not listen, these protesters instead turned to bodily forms of rhetorical resistance. This calls feminist rhetorical scholars to continue to question the ways that rhetorical understanding rely on an audience to listen and the actions rhetors take when they do not. What happens when traditional, linguistic rhetorical techniques do not persuade powerful audiences, such as policy makers, to listen? Both of these cases represent a movement from linguistic rhetorical strategies to embodied ones. These women had previously spoken to stakeholders and government officials about their causes, but because they were not listened to, they instead used what I call an affective rhetorical resistance through nude protest, in one case, and shaving their heads at a government building, in another. I argue that, in moments of seeming rhetorical failure, feminist rhetorical scholars and activists might look closer to see how rhetors use their physical bodies to express resistance in ways their words alone cannot.

In what follows, I begin by overviewing existing work on the body in feminist rhetoric. Next, I will set up the exigence of studying rural areas for particular strategies of rhetorical activism. Then, I will provide more background on the case studies I look at in which West Virginian women shaved their heads in protest of mountaintop removal for coal mining and Ugandan women stripped naked in protest of government sanctioning of ancestral farming land. I look to these two instances to theorize an affective rhetorical resistance that makes visible the lived realities of neoliberalism. Both groups of protesters use their bodies to respond to transnational instances of neoliberally-motivated oppressions surrounding land. I end by calling for this theory of affective rhetorical resistance to be taken up in generative ways by transnational feminist rhetorical scholars, specifically, but also by feminist rhetoricians and feminist activists.

Embodiment and affect in protest, particularly in contexts of economic globalization and neoliberal capitalism, have concerned rhetorical scholars in a variety of conversations. In order to read these protests, it’s useful to think about how scholars in three sometimes distinct, sometimes interwoven, rhetorical conversations have advanced collective understandings of embodied protest. I will trace the projects of feminist rhetoric and transnational feminist rhetoric broadly. Then, I question what conceptions of social movements and work surrounding affect may offer transnational feminist scholars and activists. Specifically, I weave these conversations together in order to develop a theoretical framework of affective rhetorical protest.

Responding to the exclusionary nature of rhetorical study — wherein definitions of rhetoric were drawn from primarily economically privileged male rhetors —  feminist rhetoricians changed the field of rhetoric by asking: “Where are the women?” (Glenn, Rhetoric and Schell). Through studies on Aspasia (Glenn), and Ida B. Wells (Rosyter), for example, feminist rhetoricians contributed to an understanding of rhetoric as not just the available means of persuasion but also a practice wherein power defines rhetorical success. In other words, feminist rhetoric scholars began to address the ways that rhetors’ gendered lives impacts who we study and why (Glenn, Jarratt, Lunsford, Ratcliffe, Royster, Swearingen, among others). Early feminist rhetorical scholars essential contributions changed who we study as rhetors and, in so doing, changed our definitions of rhetoric and the methods by which we study it (Kirsch & Royster). The recovery of essential voices that were overlooked in classical rhetorical scholarship set the groundwork for a turn toward the ways that material realities of power impact rhetors and texts.

Outlining the project of transnational feminist rhetorical studies, specifically, Rebecca Dingo explains, “transnational feminism illustrates a matrix of connections between people, nations, economies, and the textual practices present in, for example, public policies and popular culture” (12). Taking up early calls for transnational feminist interventions in feminist rhetoric, which call for us to be “attentive to the constraints of neoliberalism and to the power differentials and inequalities that shape geopolitical alignments,” transnational feminists argue for the recognition of “globalization’s unequal economic, political, and social relations and gendered, sexualized, and racialized imageries” (Hesford and Schell 467). The overall project of transnational feminist rhetoric thus far has been to construct a model of rhetorical situations that includes not just rhetor, audience, exigence, and purpose, and not just how utterances are contextualized within historical and contemporary power dynamics around gender, race, class, and other matrices of power, but to do this while also contextualizing utterances within nation-state and political economic structures.

If the key questions raised by the feminist rhetorical project were “Where are the women? How can we recover their voices to arrive at a new definition of rhetoric?” then the defining questions of emergent conversations in transnational feminism became: “Who do we hear most loudly, through circulation, and why? How can utterances be contextualized in their political economic moments and interrupted in light of nation-state relationships, global economic transformation, and social inequity and activism?” Transnational feminist rhetorical scholars have made essential contributions to rhetorical understandings of  how objects, places, and work are manifestations of a location in an interconnected neoliberal political economic system.

In 2008, Wendy Hesford and Eileen Schell called for Rhetoric and Composition to shift from a U.S.-centric narrative “of nation, nationalism, and citizenship” (463).  Dingo, Rachel Riedner, and Jennifer Wingard responded to this, for example, by conceptualizing a “network” in order to think about  how “transnational studies scholars engage concurrently with multiple scales as they consider how globalized power operates  through a variety   of linked scales—the economic, national, state, and political conditions of contemporary neoliberalism, neocolonialism and neo-imperialism” (518). In general, transnational feminist rhetorical scholars have been interested in how global structures like neoliberalism and biocapitalism are constructed and spread rhetorically to impact rhetors. I continue this project by looking at bodily protests as instances of people flipping the script on these narratives and using their physical bodies to make visible and protest the lived impacts of systems of violence like these (Dingo, Networking, Dingo and Reidner, Beyond, Riedner, Writing, Wingard, Branded).

Transnational feminist rhetorical scholars have begun to take up studies of the body in relation to the way rhetorics circulate, or how and why rhetorics move across sites. For example,  Dingo, Riedner, and Wingard examine how the rhetorics around Ahed Tamimi and Malala Yousafazi circulate differently based on how their bodies (their skin color, hair color, and physical gestures) are read in relation to nation-state narratives. They state, “…we suggest that the news archive about Tamimi is limited — where she is, what is happening to her, and what she says — is difficult to track because her story does not shore up the political and economic objectives of the nation-state and global capital; it cannot be used to stand for benevolent neoliberalism” (184). In other words, transnational feminists question why some get to speak louder than others based on nation-state interests and gendered performances.[2] In another example, Jessica Ouellette discusses how Amina Tyler’s nude body was talked about and how the rhetorics of her protest were taken up in circulation.[3] Whether through an examination of women’s health information (Dicaglio et. al), through a reading of physical bodies as furthering and complicating nation-state narratives (Dingo et. al), or through a look at how nude bodies undercut rhetorical significance in circulation (Ouellette), we often see the body talked about in relation to rhetoric, not as rhetoric. Both of these lenses are essential and can further the project of transnational feminist rhetoric.

While scholars like Dingo, Wingard, Reidner, and Oulette have contributed essential understandings of how bodies are talked about/read determines the success of the rhetor’s message — how widely and justly it spreads — they also open questions about how the bodies involved here — Tyler, Tamimi, Yousafzai, readers of Our Bodies, Ourselves — are sites of rhetorical intervention in and of themselves by virtue of the ways the way rhetors use their bodies to move through space. To be more precise, the cases of Tyler, Tamimi, and Yousafazi all involve women using their physical bodies to respond to governmental decisions that negatively impact them and that, I argue, signal neoliberal narratives of profit over life.

What’s needed, in other words, is a theory of resistant rhetorical responses that uses not just words said by or about bodies but a way to fully understand how rhetors use their physical bodies, even without, and sometimes in addition to speaking, to be louder, to be noticed, to be listened to. The cases that I represent below demonstrate our need to develop transnational feminist rhetorical theories that analyze not just the way that bodies are spoken and written about but also methods for how to rhetorically analyze the movement of bodies themselves as powerful, resistant acts. As the cases I examine in this article demonstrate, rhetors can use their physical bodies — the way they are positioned, what they do, where they are — as rhetorical interventions into neoliberal structures of the economy that marginalize them by taking away their land and exploiting their labor. Affect as a method can help us to see the full ways physical bodies work with words to make visible and resist harmful narratives and structures.

A rich source of understanding about emotional and corporeal power is the robust body of rhetorical and theoretical literature on affect. Rhetorical study is about the power of texts. However, as material rhetoric and feminist scholarship evolved, the lived and material realities outside of texts have also been brought to the fore. In what follows, I will draw together various definitions of affect, from across disciplinary perspectives to build a theory of affective rhetorical resistance.

Feminist rhetorical scholars are invested in examining how larger circulating structures of power impact individuals so that we can ultimately make that less damaging in interactional and structural ways. Affect theory offers a lens for this, as this theory has made advancements in thinking about how bodies take on their environments — what moves and flows and damages them. For example, in Catherine Chaput’s taxonomy of affect theory, she underscores how different conceptions of affect take up the body: some view affect as a description of how external material circulates through bodies, while others view affect as a physical response to those external factors. On one hand, Sara Ahmed and Lauren Berlant think of affect as “energetic matter” which “circulates through environments — molding, producing, and defining them in its wake,” while other theorists “foreground affect as the biochemical and neurological patterns of bodily attraction and repulsion” (Chaput 91-92). Chaput ultimately argues that “affect provides a lens for the rhetorical theorization of how experience moves through and lingers in bodies in a way that engages but is not reduced to scientism” (10).

Though they define affect somewhat differently, Chaput and Ahmed are particularly influential in my own thinking about affect because they reveal how affect describes the ways that bodies physically take on the structure of power around them. Ahmed, for instance, “tracks how the affective patterns of gendered, sexed, and raced bodies follow the ebb and flow of political economic exchanges” (Chaput 96). I argue that an affective lens can illuminate the ways that political economic structures physically fall on the body — such as how political economic realities physically fall on a laboring body and appear as stress, pain, or anger (Ahmed), or how the reality of political economic and legal policy physically falls on immigrant bodies through movement across borders, pain, or violence. However, I want to extend the work of scholars such as Chaput and Ahmed by thinking about how affect cannot just illuminate the ways that bodies take on their environments in the aforementioned ways but also the ways that rhetors use affect — through gesture and movement, for example — to respond to and highlight these impacts. This allows us to see the savvy work that rhetors can do through not just their words, but their physical bodies.

Affective Rhetorical Resistance in Apaa Region, Uganda and in West Virginia, U.S.A.

I present these examples in Uganda and West Virginia not to be read separately but to be seen as two instances in a larger trend of bodily protest that makes visible the too often invisible lived impacts of neoliberalism, particularly for those marginalized by race, class, gender, regionality, and nation-state relationships. In a future iteration of this project, with appropriate research funding, it would be beneficial to hear directly from the protesters about their experiences and intentions. However, since my primary method is to read visually, I instead take up the protesters’ words as mediated through images, videos, and news articles around the protest as my data.

The first protest I discuss occured in the Amuru district of Uganda, which is a site of exploitation over land. As rural areas, we can see parallels in the ways that both Uganda and West Virginia are impacted by neoliberalism. The Amuru district of Uganda has historically been a site of dispute over land. In sum, the Uganda Wildlife Authority has argued that the people of Apaa occupy a game reserve, while the community of Apaa argue that they occupy ancestral land. Violence by security forces has arisen from this conflict (Byaruhanga). The history of exploitation of land makes this location a site worthy of rhetorical analysis because it is a place from which to see how the community here responds in rhetorically agentive ways when traditional rhetorical means have not persuaded the government officials that make up their audience.

As a sign of protest to impending governmental demarcation of land, the women of Apaa stripped naked. In the way that BBC News frames it, “In front of two government ministers, soldiers, policemen and hundreds of people from their community, they started removing their clothes. Off came their tops — then some of the women pulled down their wrappers and skirts so they were completely naked. ‘Lobowa, Lobowa!’ they chanted, which means ‘our land’” in the Luo dialect” (Byaruhanga 2015).

Before moving on, I want to address the way that the reasonably angry emotion of these women is filtered, and made light of, by a Western news agency, BBC News, in the way it is reported here. Rather than having a matter-of-fact tone, the article exclaims, “Off came their tops!” and says that they “shouted” (Byaruhanga 2015). This is one way in which a Western news agency makes light of, and thus, does not do justice to, the cause that these women are fighting for. Though I would like to rhetorically analyze the rhetorics of reporting about the protest, I aim to keep my rhetorical analysis here focused on the rhetorics of the protesters’ words and bodies themselves so as to respond to the exigence for my work that I introduced earlier.

Regarding the protest method itself, African Argument, a “pan-African platform for news, investigation and opinion,” explains that this is one instance in a long history of nude protest in Africa and around the world:

According to Florence Ebila Akona, a researcher at Makerere University, this Apaa protest was the ‘culmination of mistrust, frustrations, anger and anxiety over an uncertain future,’ but she also explains that naked protests – in this instance and all others – are much more than just outpourings of desperation. They also convey deep symbolic messages. The undressing was most importantly meant to curse the person who had brought all these suffering to them, says Akona. (Guyson 2018)

The cultural significance of cursing in this instance shows just how rhetorical this act is — these women cultivated cultural values and beliefs into a political stance against land in front of political economic stakeholders in that land.

I argue that these women used rhetorical tactics like ethos but did so in a way that is both connected to their cultural, localized intimacy and tied to a broader political economic system that asymmetrically abuses the land and labor of marginalized people for capital gain through a global trend in nude protest. I take up ethos here in the way that Kathleen J. Ryan, Nancy Myers, and Rebecca Jones define it as “feminist ecological ethē,” which “open[s] up new ways of envisioning ethos to acknowledge the multiple, nonlinear relations operating among rhetors, audiences, things, and contexts (i.e. ideological, metaphorical, geographical)” (2). They go on to say that examples of “feminist ecological ethē” include interruption-interrupting, advocacy-advocating, and relation-relating as patterns we have observed across the chapters that enact this way of thinking and constructing ethos” (3). To this list, this case study adds that ethē should also contain a practice of affect: a physical, corporeal way of responding that, in this case, is used strategically when traditional, linguistic ways of protest did not work or were not listened to. Thinking about ethos in relationship to affect is modeled richly by Lorin Shellenberger in a discussion of Serena Williams. She explains that “despite being one of the best tennis players in the history of the sport, Williams often receives just as much attention for the size, shape, and color of her body. As a Black woman originally from a working-class background in a typically white, country club sport, Williams frequently must speak to and perform for a community whose values do not always reflect her own” (Shellenberger). Shellenberger demonstrates how other’s raced and gendered readings of rhetor’s physical bodies affect rhetor’s claims to ethos. In the case studies I present, I join Shellenberger in considering the ways that physical bodies are not only a part of an establishment of ethos, but also an important part of rhetorical protest.

As Rebecca Dingo pointed out in a conversation about this project, these women force you to look, force you to listen, in a way that channels such as letter-writing and petition-signing, which they had previously done, do not force (Dingo 2019). As Sara Ahmed explains, sometimes “they do not hear you because they expect you to speak in a certain way” (99). These women are expected to perform, speak, and protest in sometimes parallel, sometimes varying ways along racial capitalist and neoliberal narratives of what it means to be a black woman in Apaa or a working class woman in the U.S. South. These women demand to be heard by speaking, moving, and being in places and ways they are not expected to. They craft this rhetorical resistance by using their bodies in ways they are not expected to — they strip though this is thought of as a curse, they strip though elderly women’s bodies are not expected to be seen publicly due to agist, sexist conceptions of beauty and sexuality, they position their bodies in unexpected ways by rolling, lying on the ground, and raising their legs: “As a policeman took pictures, one of the women approached him by rolling on the ground and then raised her leg. He ran away” (Byaruhanga 2015). They use their bodies to express the anger that was not listened to in their words.

These women demonstrate an affect of anger, as the image, their bodily positioning and gestures, and volume show. They show the power and productivity of anger in the way that Audre Lorde thinks about its usefulness when she explains that anger is often systematically discussed in ways that undercut its productive uses, but urges that “anger expressed and translated into action in the service of our vision and our future is a liberating and strengthening act of clarification, for it is in the painful process of this translation we identify who are our allies with whom we have grave differences, and who are our genuine enemies” (280). Sara Ahmed also takes up this line of thinking by naming “feminist killjoys:” feminists who refuse to succumb to what is ‘supposed to’ make them happy, but instead, chose to rest in that misfit in order to point out the ways that their unhappiness is linked to structural causes (57). These protesters act as “feminist killjoys” by expressing their anger and their “hurting” through both their words and their physical gestures.

The image depicts women lying down on a dirt road in front of a line of vehicles. The truck on the left of the image is clearly marked "police." The two bodies are blurred to obscure their partially nude bodies

Figure 1: Unnamed protesters in Apaa village lie on the ground partially naked in front of government official’s vehicles. The image depicts women lying down on a dirt road in front of a line of vehicles. The truck on the left of the image is clearly marked “police.” The two bodies are blurred to obscure their partially nude bodies.

The wider history of governmental tension and violence that precedes this protest privileges profit over life or converts life into profit, as Alum shows above when she cited the violence that her son endured by government officials, an affective, raced, and economic reality that she uses her body and her emotions to draw attention to. “I have nothing,” she says, citing the loss of her land, livelihood, and son. This loss is attributed to a system of neoliberalism that “values strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade as a means through which to assure individual and social freedom (Dingo et. al. 523). At the heart of the land dispute and resulting violence is the privileging of property and profit over the wellbeing of the Apaa community. Alum and other protesters use their words and body work together to produce a rhetorical response to violence that demands to be listened to and that links her suffering to neoliberally-motivated governmental changes. When words alone were not striking enough, these protesters used their physical bodies in “unruly” ways in order to jar their audience and also to physically restrict governmental officials from access to the land that they were there to demarcate. I suggest that this protest strategy offers transnational feminist scholars one way to see how rhetors respond to the lived impacts of neoliberalism.

The affective rhetorical resistance by residents of Apaa proved to be listened to more than their words, as the ministers and government authorities that were there to demarcate land did, indeed, turn around. They did achieve their intended impact through their rhetorical activism, a strategy that responds to years of colonial and neoliberal power colliding into processes of racialization and class stratification that create the governmental violence and land disputes which these protesters respond to. This is another example of the rhetorical ingenuity that these Apaa women exhibit when their causes are not being listened to. As Plange argues in Peitho’s recent Special Issue on Race, Feminism, and Rhetoric, “African women have historically organized and acted to make societal changes” (n.p.). Extending Plange’s work, I argue that this protest is an instance in which Apaa women are drawing attention to the unique impact of the processes of postcolonialism and neoliberalism that prompt this protest. These protesters’ affective rhetorical resistance signals a powerful expression of the collective, accrued, “welling up” of the impacts of postcolonialism and neoliberalism which have resulted in governmental violence and land exploitation (Micciche). In pointing to this particular kind of rhetorical ingenuity, I hope to assert that affective rhetorical resistance is a response to the accumulated impact of networks of material power in a way that words alone are not. Illuminating the rhetorical ingenuity of this group of protesters through a lens of affective rhetorical resistance contributes to the long-standing work that Plange and transnational feminist scholars have done to de-center the rhetorical practices of white women in Western contexts. More specifically, by framing this protest strategy as a response to accrued experiences of postcolonialism, neoliberalism, and racism colliding for these Apaa women, I hope to contribute to the need for “more nuanced approaches to dealing with the intersections of race and rhetoric” that Gwendolyn Pough and Stephanie Jones call for (n.p.).

Affective Rhetorical Resistance in West Virginia

Another rural geopolitical context that is rich to look toward is the U.S. Appalachian region, as it is a place with a long history of labor and land exploitation, from taking indigenous land and lives to coal mining. It is similarly a place with a history of protest and resistance to that labor exploitation. I aim to draw on the work of Appalachian studies scholars who have studied protest and resistance in order to think about this West Virginia protest as a form of affective rhetorical resistance — a concept that I hope can help Appalachian studies and transnational feminist scholars continue to consider rhetorical meaning-making in rural sites within their political economic context. Appalachian studies helps us to see the ways that activism takes place in rural spaces (Eller, Lewis, NeCamp). In fact, Appalachian studies provides a nuanced framework for thinking about rural sites as places with rich histories of activism and highly contextualized relationships to landscapes and for thinking about histories of women protesting mountaintop removal in Appalachia, specifically (Bell). I suggest that these analyses can be further enriched by an examination of Appalachian protest in connection with transnational political economic rhetorics of neoliberalism. I provide a beginning toward this questioning. As a working-class woman who grew up in Appalachia, among generations of working-class family members, I have seen just how deeply rooted and internalized neoliberal rhetorics become and how often they are forgotten about in wider public discourse. As a white, U.S. born woman, I do also benefit from the racial privilege unjustly afforded to me by historical and contemporary collides between global political economics and racism. In the work that follows, I look at one example of resistance in West Virginia, one part of the Appalachian region through a transnational feminist rhetorical lens in order to begin to address these gaps.

The same neoliberal economic system that women in Uganda responded to operates as an exigency for protests in West Virginia. Both groups use their physical bodies in ways that play on and subvert local, cultural codes to make their position in the political economy visible and to turn the gaze of the public eye to these intentionally forgotten places. They counter rhetorics of profit by showing how they are actually rhetorics of violence in disguise. Both groups speak not individually but show a collaborative model of rhetorical agency, though more so in the Uganda example, as Marilyn Mullens is the most prominent voice in and organizer of the West Virginia protest.

There are perhaps no better words with which to introduce the 2013 protest where dozens of West Virginian women shaved their heads while standing on the steps of the state capitol building in protest of mountaintop removal for mining than those of Marilyn Mullens, one of the protest leaders. In an interview before the protest, she contextualizes the group’s efforts:

Tomorrow we’re planning an event in Charleston at the West Virginia State Capitol steps, a silent protest, where women from Appalachia will come together to shave our heads. We want to show a solidarity with our mountains that are being stripped, our people that are getting sick. Just to show that we’re willing to give up something to get people to pay attention. I grew up in the coalfields in Boone County, in Sand Creek Hollow mostly. Living there, it’s coal mining. That’s the big industry. (Mullens, emphasis added).

Mullens’ own words show us the power of affective rhetorical resistance: to make audiences look.  These rhetors use their bodies to draw attention to the material impacts of neoliberalism, as she notes when citing the “big industry” responsible for their cause. Like the protest in Uganda, these women also challenge stereotypes of what gendered bodies are supposed to do and look like in public space. One image that depicts this well is their fallen, cut hair lying on the steps of West Virginia state capitol.

The image shows piles the protester's hair. The long hair is laying on white concrete steps. The chunks of hair apparently come from multi people, as they range in color from white, black, and brown.

Figure 2: Protester’s fallen hair on the West Virginia state capitol building steps. The image shows piles of protesters fallen hair laying haphazardly on white concrete steps of state capitol steps. The chunks of straight and wavy hair range in color from white, black, and brown.

A striking image of the protesters’ fallen hair on the state capitol building’s steps is worth discussing. This image and the protest itself is a symbolic, rhetorical act — one that intervenes in public space in ways that both bring attention to the silenced issue of mountaintop removal for mining and that challenges traditional, stereotypical notions of femininity through the act of shaving their hair on the state capitol building’s steps. Strategically playing on an audience that might believe in these stereotypes of how women’s bodies should exist in public — stereotypically beautiful and silent — these women rhetorically position shaving their heads as a loss, stating that they are “willing to give up something” (Sierra Club).

I chose to include the image of the women’s hair fallen on the capitol steps, in particular, because the haphazard nature in which the hair is fallen visually represents the destruction that these protesters intended to draw onlookers attention to. This image shows the way that the highly affective nature of this protest strategy culminates in rhetorical power and moves the audience to awareness surrounding mountaintop removal and the resulting destruction to the lives and livelihoods of the Appalachians in this community. When I look at the images, I am moved and reminded of the destruction that I have also witnessed growing up working class in a different area of the Appalachian region that has only weathered the consequences of environmental destruction for profit. However, for readers who may not be as familiar with this kind of destruction, these protesters use their silence and their body movements to move their audience to awareness. When I look at this image, I see how these protesters used affective rhetorical resistance to move audiences to action.

As Mullens explains, they wanted people to “pay attention,” a statement that shows how they turned to this affective rhetorical act when traditional linguistic acts did not work. They turn notions of silence in public on its head by using an affective rhetoric to stay linguistically silent but speak volumes with their bodies on the steps of the state capitol. As Cheryl Glenn explains in her theory of rhetorical silence,

…we all inhabit silence: in a kaleidoscopic variety of rhetorical situations, taking up “the politics of space, place, and time” (Schell 923). Ever sensitive to kairos, to the appropriateness of the occasion, we attempt to fashion our communication successfully, through words or silence. After all, the stupendous reality is that language itself cannot be understood unless we begin by observing that speech consists most of all in silences. (263)

They are silent, but they speak volumes.

Taking the two case studies together,  we notice strategic uses of both sound and silence alongside the visual and affective rhetorical strategies these women use their bodies to deploy. Whereas the women in Uganda use their bodies and their words, shouting “Lobowa, Lobowa!” which means “our land” in the Luo variety, as they stripped naked, lifted their legs, and rolled, the women in West Virginia chose to use silence while similarly positioning their bodies in unexpected ways that draw on and subvert cultural codes of femininity to draw attention to issues of labor and land exploitation that have not been listened to in traditional rhetorical channels.

Both of these instances show that rural places may call for embodied forms of rhetorical resistance that force audiences to listen and to look, calling attention to this site ignored by governmental officials and news outlets.  Protesters demonstrate a keen understanding of the ways that rhetorical readings of their bodies through raced and gendered lenses constrain and frame their meaning-making. They use their bodies in unexpected ways (stripping naked, shaving their heads) to draw attention to their otherwise overlooked causes.The case studies of affective rhetorical resistance that I provided here, I hope, start a conversation about the most meaningful ways that affect and transnational feminist rhetorical analysis can intersect. Affect can show us how economic realities physically fall on bodies through labor exploitation and how women use their physical bodies to protest these conditions.

These two case studies show us that sometimes we must look at not only strictly linguistic situations, but rhetorical situations using the body to see rhetorical success. Both of these groups of protesters used their bodies in unexpected ways in order to achieve governmental changes and attention from a broader audience as they intended. In particular, rural sites that may not receive as much attention from wider audiences may use affective rhetorical resistance in order to draw attention to the lived impacts of neoliberalism that go unnoticed, as protesters in Uganda and West Virginia have done. We can see how bodies are used when words fail to be listened to. We can see how, particularly in rural contexts that are forgotten, and even more so among people marked by race, class, gender, and problematic conceptions of the Global North and South, these rhetors use their bodies to force us to listen. Where else might we look? How might there be rhetorical success under the surface? In what other instances are rhetors using their bodies to draw attention to the lived reality of neoliberalism?

I urge transnational feminist scholars and feminist rhetoricians to look to spaces that seem like rhetorical failure and see how rhetors might be using their bodies rhetorically in those spaces, to see where rhetorical success might be under the surface. I urge feminist activists to look to protests like those in Uganda and West Virginia to see how they might use an affective rhetorical resistance to make them look, to make them listen. These protests are only a couple of examples in a wider pattern of bodily protest. More than showing two responses to violence in Uganda and West Virginia, my intention is to provide these as examples in effective, affective rhetorical strategies to use when words alone are not listened to and acted upon by audiences who have power to change material circumstances. This allows feminist rhetorical scholars a new way of reading seeming silence, of reading bodily movement along with words, in order to see rhetorical activism. By employing an affective rhetorical analysis, rhetorical scholars  can continue to see rhetoric where it perhaps is not heard, activists can adopt these successful bodily strategies, and stakeholders and policy makers can listen and look to protests in these moments of activism.

End Notes:

[1] Bodily protest has a long history, but bodily and nude protests have become a more prominent trend in protest strategies in recent years (Sassion-Levy and Rapoport).

[2] For more information on this, see the book by Dingo and Reidner Beyond Recovery which is under consideration with University of Pittsburgh Press. In my reading and conversations with them as a Research Assistant, I have seen how their work shows that rhetorics that circulate to shore up nation-state and global projects of neoliberalism and biocapitalism also depend on gendered performances of the physical bodies — in this case, the bodies of Malala Yousafazi and Ahed Tamimi.

[3] These are only some of the many impressive works on the body and circulation within feminist rhetoric.

Works Cited

Ahmed, Sara. Living a Feminist Life.  Durham UP, 2017.

Alcoff, Linda. “The Problem of Speaking for Others.” Cultural Critique, no. 20, 1991, pp. 5-32. Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/1354221.

Bell, Shannon Elizabeth. Our Roots Run Deep as Ironweed: Appalachian Women and the Fight for Environmental Justice. U of Illinois P, 2013.

Bohrer, Ashley. “Neoliberalism Laid Bare: Feminism, Intersectionality, and Nude Protest in the 21st century.” Melbourne Journal of Politics, vol. 37, 2015, pp. 3-19.

Byaruhanga, Catherine. “The Ugandan Women Who strip to Defend their Land.” BBC News Africa, 2015, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-32938779. Accessed 28 October 2021.

Colpean, Michelle, and Rebecca Dingo. “Beyond Drive-by Race scholarship: The Importance of Engaging Geopolitical Contexts.” Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, vol. 15, no.4, 2018, pp. 306-11.

Dicaglio, Sara and Lori Beth De Hertogh. “Introduction to “Rhetorical Pasts, Rhetorical Futures: Reflecting on the Legacy of Our Bodies, Ourselves and the Future of Feminist Health Literacy.” Rhetorical Pasts, Rhetorical Futures: Reflecting on the Legacy of Our Bodies, Ourselves and the Future of Feminist Health Literacy, special issue of Peitho, vol. 21, no. 3, 2019, pp. 565-72.

Dingo, Rebecca. Networking Arguments. U of Pittsburgh P, 2012.

Dingo, Rebecca, Rachel Reidner, and Jennifer Wingard. “Toward a Cogent Analysis of Power: Transnational Rhetorical Studies.” JAC, vol. 33, no. 3/4, 2013, pp. 517-528.

Eller, Ronald. Uneven Ground: Appalachia since 1945. UP of Kentucky, 2008.

Fleitz, Elizabeth. “Key Concept Statement: Material.” Special 25th Anniversary Issue, special issue of Peitho, vol. 18, no. 1, 2015, pp. 34-8.

Glenn, Cheryl. Rhetorical Feminism and This Thing Called Hope. Southern Illinois UP, 2018.

Hesford, Wendy S., and Eileen E. Schell. “Introduction: Configurations of Transnationality: Locating Feminist Rhetorics.” College English, vo. 70, no. 5, 2008, pp. 461-70.

Lewis, Ronald L. Transforming the Appalachian Countryside: Railroads, Deforestation, and Social Change in West Virginia, 1880-1920. U of North Carolina P, 1998.

Lorde, Audre. “The Uses of Anger.” Women’s Studies Quarterly, vol 25, no.1/2, 1997, pp. 278-85.

“Marilyn Mullens.” The Cost of Coal. 27 May 2012, http://vault.sierraclub.org/sierra/costofcoal/west-virginia/marilyn-mullens.aspx. Accessed 30 September 2021.

NeCamp, Samantha. Literacy in the Mountains: Community, Newspapers, and Writing in Appalachia. UP of Kentucky, 2020.

Sasson-Levy, Orna, and Tamar Rapoport. “Body, Gender, and Knowledge in Protest Movements: The Israeli Case.” Gender & Society, vol. 17, no. 3, 2003, pp. 379-403.

Selzer, Jack, and Sharon Crowley, editors. Rhetorical Bodies. U of Wisconsin P, 1999.

Ouellette, Jessica. “Blogging Borders: Transnational Feminist Rhetorics & Global Voices.” Harlot: A Revealing Look at the Arts of Persuasion, vol. 1, no. 11, 2014.

Shellenberger, Lorin. “Imagining an Embodied Ethos: Serena William’s ‘Defiant’ Black Ethe.” Peitho, vo. 22, no. 2, 2020.

Stillion Southard, Belinda. How to Belong: Women’s Agency in a Transnational World. Pennsylvania State UP, 2018.

Rhetorical Failures and Revisions in the Second-Wave: Emerging Intersectionality in the Ethe of Activist Zelda Nordlinger

Feminist scholars often characterize the second wave [2] as a movement disproportionately focused on white middle-class issues, led by activists who were unconcerned with the lived experiences, goals, and desires of marginalized women. The movement in the 1960s and 1970s has become known for its ignorance of intersectionality, seeking instead to group all women—regardless of race, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic status—into one movement with the same agenda for feminist equality [3]In Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, for instance, bell hooks argues that although second-wave feminists urged “unity” among all women, this quest for female solidarity and sisterhood—championed primarily by white, middle-class women—ultimately “ignore[d] the differences between their social status and the status of masses of women” (25). Following hooks in Rhetorical Feminism and This Thing Called Hope, Cheryl Glenn embeds this depiction into the field of feminist rhetorical studies, adding that the second-wave movement neglected to address the “range of needs experienced by so-called Others—nonwhite, working poor, lesbian, bisexual, and non-Western women (and men)” (31). Though second-wave feminism did focus on the issues of middle-class white women, Glenn contends that it is this discrimination by the era’s activists that paved the way for intersectionality and hope. She writes, “The fissures within the second-wave feminist movement offered perfect opportunities for rhetorical feminists to disidentify with hegemonic feminist rhetoric…The time was ripe for feminism—and feminist rhetoric—to leave its homogenizing tendencies behind” (31).  But how did this unfold, and how did change occur within the second-wave movement? The archived papers of second-wave feminist activist Zelda Nordlinger prove to be a rich resource for examining intersectionality as it was emerging within and in conflict with second-wave ideologies.  

In this article, I argue that the archived materials of a local activist in Richmond, Virginia offer a glimpse into this emerging intersectionality in the second wave through the ethe Nordlinger develops in her writing. Nordlinger was, in many ways, the most typical of second-wave feminists: white, middle-class, well educated. She organized sit-ins, protests, and meetings, and she was integral in establishing the Richmond chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW). Her archived letters, speeches, and essays lean heavily on typical second-wave rhetoric, and much of her language demonstrates a disregard for racial and socioeconomic difference. Yet, there are slivers of emerging intersectionality seemingly at odds with her second-wave ethos, and it is in Nordlinger’s consideration of this intersectionality that researchers may peek at the shift toward leaving “hegemonizing tendencies behind” in the historical moment of the second wave (Glenn 30).   

Using Nordlinger’s archived papers, I demonstrate first how Nordlinger’s comparisons—metaphors, analogies, and similes—function to build an ethos rooted in the “problematic practices” of second-wave feminism (Brown 255). Her documents feature comparisons that are troubling, such as comparing the feminist movement to the civil rights movement and middle-class women to those enslaved in the Antebellum South. By contemporary understandings of intersectionality, these comparisons, and the ethos Nordlinger constructs through them, “failed rhetorically” (Glenn 30). Yet, her rhetoric is more complex than that, and her papers reveal a competing ethos sympathetic to emerging intersectionality, as she learned to be an ally of women across the boundaries of race and socioeconomic status. Specifically, Nordlinger demonstrates a humble embrace of revision to her practices and ideas to become more attuned to the needs of varying communities of women. With these opposing ethe—a typical second-wave ethos and a revisionist ethos—Nordlinger stands as an example of the growth and the complexity of crafting a feminist ethos before the term intersectionality had a pervasive impact on feminist thought. Through an examination of her ethe, I offer Nordlinger’s writing as an archival case study that captures a brief moment in the emergence of intersectionality and carves a trajectory for continued revision of the practice of rhetorical feminism.  

Context 

Many people outside of Virginia are unfamiliar with Nordlinger. She was not a national leader for the second-wave movement, but a mother who, like countless others, read The Feminine Mystique and became enlightened and enthralled with seeking equality for women. In a 2007 interview, Nordlinger reflects on that transformative moment in which she became a feminist. She said: 

Well, after about a week of simmering [on Friedan’s work], I called the YWCA and asked them if they knew of anybody that was interested in the women’s movement or the feminist movement. “No,” they said, “no.” I said, “Well, I wonder if you all down there would agree to let me have a meeting room and let me host a meeting of the people who might be interested in forming a feminist group?” And they said it would be alright. So, I posted the notice, and a week later five of us got together at the YWCA. And that was the beginning of the feminist group here in Richmond. (Nordlinger “Interview” 14-15)  

After Nordlinger’s introduction to Friedan, she adopted the tenets of mainstream second-wave feminism with moxie and organized a founding group of feminists in Richmond. Although the locus of her influence was Virginia, Nordlinger stands as an example of the many women around the nation who were championing a localized feminist movement. Her position as relatively typical of a second-wave feminist allows for her to serve as a case-study example of the ideologies that influenced the movement on a local-activist level.   

Considering that Nordlinger’s influence was confined primarily to Richmond, the status of the city in the 1970s is key to understanding her activist movements because “location” and place “matter when we talk about feminist activism” (Gilmore 113). The challenges of Richmond were unique because the city is situated in the American South, where segregation existed in full force, and the practice of slavery and process of emancipation were influential memories for Richmonders. Furthermore, the city in the 1970s was not particularly amicable to the women’s rights movement: the state had rejected the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), the traditions of the deep South and “southern belle” mentalities were prominent, and the city’s newspapers were overtly skewed conservative (VanValkenberg 17). These factors led to a general opposition to a progressive women’s movement that caused Nordlinger to reflect years later (in 1983) that “being a feminist in Richmond can be compared to being an evangelist missionary in a house of ill-repute . . . it’s been damned hard” (Nordlinger “Tenth Anniversary” 1). Despite the struggle, she continued to lobby for her convictions. Most notably, Nordlinger was instrumental in beginning the Richmond chapter of the NOW and for leading a sit-in at an all-male restaurant attached to a department store, Thalhimers. Although the ERA was never ratified in Virginia in her lifetime[4] and progress was excruciatingly slow, Nordlinger and her colleagues remained active in organizing peaceful protests, lobbying, giving speeches, and writing letters to newspapers, magazines, and politicians seeking equal rights for women through the early 1990s.  

Archives  

Upon her death in 2008, Nordlinger donated all her personal papers to three libraries in Virginia—the Library of Virginia, James Branch Cabell Library at Virginia Commonwealth University, and Earl Gregg Swem Library at William and Mary. Her collections include stacks of newspaper clippings and notes relating to women’s rights, along with letters, speeches, and essays penned by Nordlinger.[5] I approached the archives knowing that Nordlinger’s words would be embedded in a movement marked by heightened racial tension, so I sought to heed Tessa Brown’s directive:

White women scholars can contribute to this tradition [of critiquing oversight of black influence in white women’s rhetoric] by practicing reflexivity as a reflex, persistently centering racial analysis to any study of white rhetors and interrogating how our own rhetoric as white women resurfaces problematic practices. (Brown 255)

Nordlinger’s writing certainly includes “problematic practices,” and by centering this study in a racial context, I could examine the tensions between Nordlinger’s oversight of African American influence in her ethos development and her “reflexivity” as she reflects upon and revises those “problematic practices” while grappling with questions of emerging intersectionality (Brown 255). With each archival document I reviewed, I sought to answer the question, “Is Nordlinger saying anything about intersectionality here?” Ultimately, I discovered a more nuanced picture of intersectionality in the second-wave feminist movement than I originally imagined.  

Rhetorical Failures 

Feminist rhetorical scholars could deem much of the problematic rhetoric of the second wave to be rhetorical failures, and Nordlinger was certainly not immune to these missteps. Glenn explains: 

Despite their best intentions, middle-class white heterosexual feminists failed rhetorically, as they did not consistently attend to the petitions of feminist activists not working in and for mainstream feminist issues, those women who acknowledged what would come to be called “intersectionality” … Instead, these second-wave feminists used their rhetoric (without giving much thought to their “identities”) to speak and write publicly on behalf of “the” feminist movement (as they so often did and were expected to do). (30-31).  

 Despite her own best intentions, Nordlinger, as a “middle-class white heterosexual feminist,” often “failed rhetorically” (Glenn 30). Beyond “speaking and writing publicly on behalf of ‘the’ feminist movement” (Glenn 31), Nordlinger, in her writing, strives to craft a second-wave feminist ethos by comparing her own struggles as a woman to the struggles of the civil rights movement and those enslaved in the Antebellum South, disregarding the stark differences between her own plight and those of marginalized groups, specifically African Americans.  

Exemplifying this rhetorical failure, Nordlinger relies on two problematic comparisons consistently through her writings that she implements to build her second-wave feminist ethos: (1) being a woman in the United States in the 1970s is a form of slavery and (2) the women’s rights movement is an extension of the civil rights movement. Sometimes, she states these comparisons as metaphors, and other times, she hedges them in similes and expands them as extended metaphors. Fahnestock offers definitions of metaphor, extended metaphorsimile, and analogy that link all four types of comparisons together in their rhetorical function. For Fahnestock, metaphor occurs when a rhetor brings “over a term from an ‘alien’ lexical/semantic field to create a novel pairing that expresses a point trenchantly” (104). The extended metaphor continues to “draw terms from the same newly introduced lexical/semantic field” (107). Similes are like metaphors because the simile “expresses an explicit comparison,” while the metaphor expresses an “implicit” comparison (110). The comparison is the same, but simile executes it in a less powerful way, deeming on entity to be like or similar to the other instead of a substitution for the other (as a metaphor does). Both forms of comparison—metaphor and simile—are “truncated” arguments based on underlying, ideological analogies (110). Put simply, the ideological analogy is the foundation upon which rhetors build a metaphor; an extended metaphor and a simile are alternate expressions of that metaphor. Whatever form the comparison takes, it is the manifestation of an underlying, ideological analogy. For Nordlinger, that analogy is one fairly common among women’s rights activists of the time: 

Womanhood : Modern Slavery :: African-American : Historical Slavery 

Feminist Movement : Gender Liberation :: Civil Rights Movement : Racial Liberation 

The metaphors, extended metaphors, and similes that Nordlinger employs are truncated versions of the analogies above, and they function as ethos-building mechanisms in her writing that assist Nordlinger in forming connections with her audience.  

Comparisons such as those used by Nordlinger are key in ethos-building because they “typically draw on the more familiar…to explain the less apparent” (Fahnestock 106). The realm of familiarity offers a connection point between the reader and the writer so that the writer may then “create new links” upon which to build her argument (Fahnestock 105). These “new links” function to craft an ethos that the audience identifies with and understands (105). Jonathan Charteris-Black situates metaphors in political contexts to demonstrate the ethos-building that occurs through the use of such comparisons. He explains that the metaphor creates a connection with the reader (often through an affective response) that allows the reader to form an impression of the writer’s character based on the writer’s revelation of shared familiar ideologies (Charteris-Black 20). That is, the connection forms at the familiar ideological meeting point between audience and rhetor. Such a practice of finding a mutual familiarity offers a platform upon which a rhetor can build ethos with her audience. Nordlinger relies on familiar ideas to introduce something new, and in the process, she crafts an ethos for herself that aligns with the causes and practices of the second wave, situates her as a member of a larger and more established movement, and connects her own views to the “ethical ideals” of her reader (Charteris-Black 203). There are numerous examples of Nordlinger comparing the women’s rights movement and middle-class white women to the civil rights movement and enslaved African Americans (respectively) as she leans on shared familiar ideologies to develop her second-wave feminist ethos. In three documents—an untitled early 1970s speech, a letter to Senator Douglas Wilder, and a letter to Jacqui Ceballos—she compares womanhood to slavery. Four documents exemplify her comparison of the women’s rights movement to the civil rights movement: a speech to the Jewish Women’s Club, an untitled early 1970s speech, a speech to the Fort Lee Officer’s Wives Club, and a letter to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.  

Nordlinger first introduces this comparison that connects womanhood to enslaved African Americans in an untitled speech from the early 1970s.[6] She writes, “Both blacks and females have played distinctive roles in western culture—they serve their white male masters.” (Nordlinger “Civil Rights Comparison Speech” 1). The key embedded metaphor here is that man is a master (a term directly associated with slaveholders in the Antebellum South) and, in an extension of the metaphor, women, like African Americans, are servants to those masters. In this speech, Nordlinger forms a link between slavery (with which her audience of Richmonders was likely familiar) and feminine oppression, and this comparative move functions to build ethos because she relies on a shared familiar ideology (slavery) to introduce a new ideology (the oppression of females). Leaning on that shared familiar ideology, she introduces a less familiar concept: the plight of women. The shared familiar ideology of slavery acts as a meeting point for audience and rhetor; if Nordlinger and her audience both hold a similar ethical relationship with slavery, they can find commonality at that point to examine new, similar concepts. That space of commonality establishes an ethos for Nordlinger with her audience and grants her a form of credibility to build her argument for the women’s rights movement.   

Additionally, in a 1972 letter to Senator Douglas Wilder as part of a plea for the senator to ratify the 19th Amendment (ERA), she writes, “Take courage, sir; Frederick Douglas [sic] understood the relationship between slavery and the plight of the female. We are both victims of WASPS!” (Nordlinger “Letter to Senator Douglas Wilder” 1). Leaning on Frederick Douglass to support her own argument, Nordlinger uses the term “relationship” to create a simile, or “an explicit comparison” between slavery and womanhood (Fahnestock 109). Her ethos-building move in this letter is like the comparison she makes in her early 1970s speech as she relies on the shared familiar ideology of slavery as a common foundation for introducing second-wave feminism. Nordlinger’s audience in this letter would have been familiar with the work of Frederick Douglass and the horrors of slavery and sympathetic to emancipation and desegregation—Senator Douglas Wilder was the “first African American state senator in Virginia since Reconstruction,” his grandparents were enslaved, he attended school during segregation, and Frederick Douglass was his namesake (Virginia Museum of History and Culture “L. Douglas Wilder”). In hopes of building ethos based on a connection to a shared familiar ideology, Nordlinger forms her argument to Senator Wilder for feminism through a comparison to slavery, a problematic simile she uses to build ethos as a new feminist in the second wave.      

Even into the 1990s, Nordlinger continues to rely upon a comparison between women and slavery. Nordlinger’s archives contain a letter composed in 1998 to Jacqui Ceballos[7] of the Veteran Feminists of America (VFA). In this letter, Nordlinger seeks to be included among the members of that society, so she makes a short case for admission in the group to Ceballos. Looking back on her heyday during the second wave, Nordlinger recounts some of her notable achievements in an ethos-building move to gain credibility with Ceballos: “marches, speech-making, and integrating an all-male soup bar, just to name only a few things I’ve done” (Nordlinger “Letter to Jacqui Ceballos” 1). Then, in the next paragraph, she writes: 

Living in the Capitol of the Confederacy presents unique problems…Southern ‘gentlemen’ are trying to hang on to the last vestage [sic] of the slavocracy, and their women, though reasoned, are keeping themselves in the traditional chains. The young women, thankfully, are emerging from sexual slavery. (Nordlinger “Letter to Jacqui Ceballos” 1) 

In this reflective letter, Nordlinger makes an even more direct connection between slavery and the plight of women through this extended metaphor. She first demonstrates that the issues she references are specifically issues of the middle- to upper-class, stating that it is the women of “gentlemen” who are holding on to traditional gender roles. Those roles, she considers to be “slavocracy,” and she invokes the image of chains in reference to the women of the middle- and upper-class and notes that a new generation is “emerging from sexual slavery.” This passage, again, assists Nordlinger in crafting an ethos, but given its timeframe and its audience, the move is slightly different than in the previous two examples. In the first two passages above, Nordlinger’s audiences were being introduced to the budding idea of women’s rights. Ceballos, on the other hand, had been lobbying for the same equality as Nordlinger for more than 25 years in New York City. In this letter, Nordlinger uses the slavery comparison to demonstrate an unfamiliar iteration of feminine oppression—one specifically located in the American South. By leaning on the shared familiar concept of slavery, Nordlinger can present a localized picture of the second-wave feminist fight to her audience and build ethos with Ceballos as an activist with a shared sense of necessary liberation. Her repeated, problematic comparisons of white women’s struggles with slavery demonstrate the second-wave’s lack of understanding of intersectionality. 

Nordlinger makes similarly problematic comparisons between the second-wave movement and the civil rights movement. Historically, the civil rights movement was a foundation for the women’s rights movement, so this comparison that Nordlinger makes is not uncommon (Key 104). Nordlinger’s second-wave feminist movement in Richmond ignited in the years closely following the civil rights movement and the abolition of Jim Crow Laws (which occurred in 1965). Similarities between the two movements are not to be overlooked. Key explains: 

As black women in Richmond reinforced progress for the black race, white women piggybacked this approach ten years later as one strategy in the continuing resistance against gender bias… The civil rights movement was in essence a launching pad for feminism in Richmond and elsewhere. (14, 104) 

Nordlinger and the feminists of the second-wave owed many of their tactics to the example and effectiveness of the civil rights movement, and many feminists of the time counted the radical women of the civil rights movement to be role models (Roth 8). However, race relations in America in the 1970s and socioeconomic gaps between women made this relationship between the two movements knotty at best. Nordlinger, a white, middle-class woman, along with her fellow feminists in Richmond, sought to transform the fight from desegregation to “desexigration” (Nordlinger “Letter to Sylvia Roberts” 1), but this was not a smooth transition because differences in race and class complicated the feminists’ desire for all women to become part of a “sisterhood” (Nordlinger “Letter to Chris” 5) fighting for equality for their gender. Nevertheless, Nordlinger makes clear connections between the second wave and the civil rights movement, and rhetorically, these comparisons function in a similar way to her comparisons to slavery. By aligning the second-wave movement to a successful civil rights movement in the recent past, Nordlinger links the ideologies of the civil rights movement with her own to establish credibility with her audiences.   

For example, in a speech given to the Jewish Women’s Club in 1976 [8], Nordlinger said, “The civil rights movement was a training ground for the feminist rebellion” (Nordlinger “Speech to Jewish Women’s Club” 2). A Jewish woman herself, Nordlinger was adamant about enacting change within her own religion, but the Jewish women in Richmond were slow to adopt radical feminism. She reflects, “The Jewish women here in Richmond are not at all receptive to the feminist movement…they’re extremely conservative here in Richmond” (Nordlinger “Second Interview” 2). To build ethos with a group of Jewish women, she relied on a common comparison—the feminist rebellion to the civil rights movement. The women in her audience would have experienced the numerous protests of African Americans in Richmond and witnessed the abolition of Jim Crow Laws in their lifetime. The shared familiar ideology of the civil rights movement acts as a familiar meeting point for her to build an ethos with her audience and present a new concept for similar freedom for women.  

Nordlinger replicates this comparison of the women’s rights movement and the civil rights movement throughout several of her archived documents. In an undated and untitled speech [9] likely from the early 1970s, Nordlinger compares the civil rights movement to the women’s rights movement. She opens with:  

I would like to draw an analogy between the Black civil rights movement and the Women’s Liberation Movement: Black is ugly, Female is inferior…Blacks have been awarded low-paying menial labor, females have been kept as household serfs. White males have perpetuated a Capitalistic system through the cheap labor of Blacks and Females. (Nordlinger “Civil Rights Comparison Speech” 1)  

Nordlinger relies again on the civil rights movement in her controversial speech to the Fort Lee Officer’s Wives Club at For Pickett in 1971  [10] . She states, “The corollary between the Civil Rights movement and the women’s rights movement cannot be ignored…there is a definite parallel between the two” (Nordlinger “Speech to Officer’s Wives Club” 6). And in 1975, in a letter to the Richmond Times-Dispatch,[11] Nordlinger solidifies this connection. She writes, “The changes [for women’s rights] now taking place in southern politics are the most significant since Reconstruction with credit going to activists in the civil rights movement” (Nordlinger “Letter to Richmond Times-Dispatch” 1). In each comparison above, Nordlinger relies on the underlying analogy that the feminist movement vies for gender liberation as the civil rights movement sought racial liberation. Her audiences in Richmond would have been incredibly familiar with the civil rights movement and the liberation it brought to African Americans. According to the Virginia Historical Society, “…many of the most important legal landmarks of the civil rights movement originated in Virginia,” and the city of Richmond (as the capital) was the center of much activity during the movement (Virginia Museum of History and Culture “Civil Rights”). For building ethos, Nordlinger uses this shared familiar ideology of the civil rights movement to establish connection with her audience; this shared familiar ideology offers a foundation upon which she argues for women’s rights.

While each of these instances of comparison strives for ethos building with the best intentions for equality and were often rhetorically successful with her audiences, they are deeply problematic and indicative of Glenn’s depiction of failed rhetoric of second-wave feminists. Viewing these comparisons from the 21st century, the analogy of the plight of white, middle-class housewives to the plight of the African Americans in slavery or under Jim Crow Laws is incredibly off-putting, as there is no just comparison between the suffering of those enslaved and the inconveniences of the comfortable middle class. The metaphors and similes are inappropriate and built upon faulty analogies. Yet, Nordlinger maintained a local reputation as a relatively successful activist for Virginia’s women’s rights movement. Despite the insensitivity obvious to contemporary rhetors and feminist scholars, Roth sympathetically explains that such comparisons were perhaps an indicator of “just how seriously emerging white feminists took the struggle” for equality (188-9). Nordlinger’s comparisons to slavery and the civil rights movement in her writings work to amplify the significance of her subject matter, link her to the larger second-wave feminist movement, and develop an ethos rooted in a connection to her audience and readership through the use of familiar shared ideologies. Because leaning on the oppressive social structures of African Americans is a wholly unethical way to build ethos and craft socially just arguments for equality, though, modern feminists rhetors could view Nordlinger’s rhetoric as failing because of her lack of attention to intersectionality.    

Revision 

If Nordlinger offers examples of the rhetorical failures of the second wave to recognize the intersectional issues of the era, what might feminist rhetorical researchers learn from her that both recognizes these rhetorical shortcomings and realizes that her work in the second wave paved the way for a shift towards intersectionality in later waves of feminism? The prime takeaway from Nordlinger’s archived collection is her desire to revise her ideas and her actions to be more attuned to the needs of women in marginalized communities. While she was building the ethos of a second-wave feminist, relying on problematic comparisons, Nordlinger was also building an ethos reflective of emerging intersectionality through a willingness to embrace revision in her thoughts and practices: a revisionist ethos.  

In “Constructing Essences: Ethos and the Postmodern Subject of Feminism,” Johanna Schmertz argues that feminism should take a up a new definition of ethos that allows for change in various moments. She writes, “I ultimately want to define ethos for feminism as neither manufactured nor fixed, neither tool nor character, but rather the stopping points at which the subject (re)negotiates her own essence to call upon whatever agency that essence enables” (Schmertz 86). For Schmertz, ethos is not a static entity that remains the same over time or something that a rhetor can pull out of her pocket to engage at a moment’s notice. It is in flux. This definition of ethos brings some clarity to Nordlinger’s shifting ethos—from one that uses racialized metaphors to one that welcomes revision toward intersectionality (and then at times, returns to those problematical racialized comparisons). This inconsistency is indicative of lived experience, as few rhetors present a consistent ethos through life. Nordlinger, while constructing an ethos that disregards difference in one scenario, was simultaneously, in other instances, building an ethos that accounts for the varying struggles across race and class lines as she acknowledged her shortcomings. It is in those moments of acknowledgement and revision that modern feminist researchers may see an intersectional feminist ideology as it is unfolding and developing, and Nordlinger’s papers offer a mere glimpse of this gradual (and eventually widespread) shift in feminist thought. Alongside Nordlinger’s contentious metaphors, similes, and analogies are revisions towards greater inclusivity and acknowledgement of difference among women across racial and socioeconomic boundaries. There are three specific instances in which Nordlinger revises her practices toward greater inclusivity—through critique in the planning of the Women’s Political Caucus, through listening to the voices of African American women at a 1971 Women’s Policy Council meeting, and through confronting her own privilege and position through reflection.  

Nordlinger revised her practices toward intersectionality when presented with critique. When organizing the conference for the Women’s Political Caucus in 1971, Sarah Hughes wrote to Nordlinger[12] to criticize the $10 conference fee, explaining that it would exclude many members of lower socioeconomic status. Hughes wrote to Nordlinger:  

…the $10 registration fee is outrageous. This will certainly severely limit the constituency to affluent and sophisticated middle-class women…And I think the $10 fee puts the meeting beyond the means of even larger groups of women—for instance all those families who have children and whose paychecks barely stretch in which the woman is interested in women’s issues, but doesn’t have the kind of total commitment which will make spending $15 to go to Richmond for the day something other than an unthinkable extravagance” (Hughes 1). 

Hughes continues to express disapproval of the venue (the Richmond Holiday Inn) as “a place middle class women can afford and be comfortable in, but at a price which will exclude a number of Virginia Women” (Hughes 1). Between the choice of venue and the cost, for Hughes, the decisions about the conference were “unconsciously made” (Hughes 1). Hughes stood staunchly for intersectionality and criticized Nordlinger’s lack of consideration for women of lower socioeconomic status. However, her call for intersectionality was not just directed towards opening access for women based on monetary restraints, but she also recognized that the desires of African American feminists were often different than her own. She writes, “I don’t expect Black women to form a coalition with us on the basis of our feminist politics or really to be anything but quite wary of many of our ideas, if not hostile” (Hughes 2). Hughes rebukes Nordlinger’s focus on the white middle class and acknowledges difference in the aims of African Americans in the second-wave movement.  

Despite this sharp reproach, Nordlinger responds with humility and a desire for revision; she demonstrates appreciation toward Hughes for her critique, acknowledges it as necessary. Then, she moves to action. Showing appreciation, she writes, “Thank-you, Sarah, for your frank letter. I would hate to think that we allienated [sic] anyone for any reason whatsoever” (Nordlinger “Letter to Sarah Hughes” 1). Nordlinger further acknowledges Hughes’s critique as “valid and most important,” agreeing that “the black women have their own problems, and they are indeed unique” (Nordlinger “Letter to Sarah Hughes” 1). Finally, Nordlinger acts on this rebuke. Sending out a new message about the event through the YWCA and several press releases, she deems the conference fee “not mandatory” and emphasizes in her messaging that “the Caucus welcomes all women” (Nordlinger “Letter to Sarah Hughes” 1). It is important to note that Nordlinger continues in this letter to express hope that she can locate a common ground with African American feminists, a sentiment reminiscent of the second-wave desire for universal womanhood and sisterhood.   

Upon further reflection about this specific event, Nordlinger writes to a friend and fellow activist in Mississippi, Llewellyn, stating, “You asked what we accomplished at the Caucus…. that’s a large order! First and most important, we brought women together from almost every level of society. We had business women [sic], mothers, social workers, teachers, older women, Black and White women, and young women” (Nordlinger “Letter to Llewellyn” 1). Nordlinger’s revisionist ethos in both her response to critique and her report to Llewellyn is different from the ethos she was building with her comparisons to slavery and the Civil Rights Movement; instead, she offers a move toward sensitivity of issues of those with lower socioeconomic status and begins to embrace the emerging intersectionality of the era. She revises through acknowledging her oversights and actively altering her practices. Nordlinger’s turn toward intersectionality in this instance is an imperfect step, but one that reveals both small revisionary progress and the friction between intersectionality and the guiding principles of the second-wave movement. 

Nordlinger also enacts a revisionist ethos upon listening to the needs of others, specifically an African American woman speaking at a Women’s Policy Council meeting in October 1971. In response, Nordlinger wrote to many of her news and press contacts to publicly plead for the inclusion of African American issues in the feminist fight, including Tom Belden (of United Press International), Mary Nell Duggan (of Women’s News), and Tony Radler (of WRVA Radio). To Radler, she writes:  

To quote a Black woman who was in the Va. W.P.C. as well as Women For Political Action: ‘Black women have problems that are different from yours; issues we (Va.W.P.C.) have adopted have been watered down as regards to Black Women. Be congnizant [sic] of the Black woman! You don’t want to undermine the movement.’ I believe, Tony, that the differences between White and Black women revolve mainly around birth-control and abortion repeal. For many years the Black women have been accused of being immoral as regards to illicit sex. They are having to live down that reputation. And here we are…middle-class White women talking about sexual freedom! … My dearest hope is that White women and Black women form a solid political block—both State-wide and Nationally! (Nordlinger “Letter to Tony Radler” 1)  

In a similar letter to Tom Belden, she invites him to attend a future meeting of African American activists and expresses a desire for understanding between the races and mutual inclusion (Nordlinger “Letter to Tom Belden” 1). At the Women’s Policy Council meeting she describes in these letters, Nordlinger was directly confronted with the difference in needs for African American women, and when she learned of these differences, she took action, revising the concept of the second wave that all women stood together on the same women’s issues. Here, Nordlinger holds on to the second-wave hope that women may bond together to create an effective “political block,” but she lets go of the notion that all within that force would have the same needs and agenda. To help others revise their thinking about homogeneity within the second-wave movement, she wrote to her news and press contacts to increase awareness of difference and incite action from her audience. As in her exchange with Sarah Hughes, Nordlinger takes on a revisionist ethos, revealing her subtle shift toward intersectionality.  

Self-examination and reflection further prompted Nordlinger to adopt a revisionist ethos. In an unpublished autobiographical work,[13]  Nordlinger writes:  

I saw a mix of attitudes and opinions about Civil Rights. Some, like Hubert Humphrey and John Kennedy spoke of basic justice for all citizens. Then there was George Wallace and Orvill [sic] Faubus who maintained separation of the races was right and proper. Martin Luther King led marches through the South, cities endured race riots, and angry white people pledged opposition. Friends and relatives deplored the situation, maintaining outward indifference and inner confusion. I found myself hard-pressed to explain to my school-age children that they must accept black children in their schools. I was forced to reach deep inside myself, sorting out feelings and attitudes and examining them against my insulated background…Spurning the indifference I saw around me, I chose to join local demonstrations favoring busing of school children. I provoked arguments among my relatives and friends, taking from the confrontations renewed and more vigorous determination to defend my convictions. (Nordlinger “An Unfinished Odyssey” 5)  

Here, Nordlinger reflects on her position in the civil rights movement as a white woman, and her self-examination prompted revision toward an intersectional view of equality. Specifically, Nordlinger recognizes her own shortcomings and her reluctance to speak to her children about accepting school integration. To do this she was “forced to reach deep inside” herself to understand her own privilege and the injustice at hand (Nordlinger “An Unfinished Odyssey” 5). As in other instances of her revision, she took action—this time by joining demonstrations and challenging the views of her relatives and friends. This practice of self-reflection as a catalyst for revision influenced her stance as a second-wave feminist, during which she continually re-examined “social customs and designs that had shaped [her] life” in an “odyssey from childhood to adulthood” that was “painful” (Nordlinger “An Unfinished Odyssey” 5). Identifying these instances of privilege through self-reflection and examination was not easy for Nordlinger, yet the difficult process led to much needed revision. In moments of critique, listening, and self-examination, Nordlinger reveals a revisionist ethos and a willingness to compassionately alter her second-wave understanding of equality.  

Reconciliation 

Even if it is understandable that Nordlinger could have differing ethe at different moments in her life (as Schmertz contends), how might feminist rhetoricians today reconcile a revisionist ethos with Nordlinger’s problematic second-wave ethos revealed in the comparisons she makes between her own struggles to those of African Americans? Perhaps the best way to understand these contradictions is to consider Jacqueline Jones Royster and Gesa E. Kirsch’s concept of “strategic contemplation” in how feminist scholars approach the messy, oft-problematic historical contexts revealed in the archives (84). Royster and Kirsch seek a meditative, intentional, revisionist ideal for the consideration of past rhetorical contexts. They write that strategic contemplation requires: 

…linger[ing] deliberately inside their research tasks…imagining the contexts for practices; speculating about conversations with people whom they are studying…paying close attention to the spaces and places both they and the rhetorical subjects occupy…and taking into account the impacts and consequences of these embodiments in any interrogation of the rhetorical event” (84-5). 

Specifically, such an approach allows researchers to “withhold judgment” for a time as we “ground the analysis more specifically within the communities from which [the rhetorical subject] emanates” so that we may “enact the belief that rhetorical performances are deeply rooted in sociohistorical contexts and cultural traditions,” as problematic as they may be (as in Nordlinger’s case) (85-6). Research within archives requires a deliberate examination of our research subjects’ ideologies (and the “consequences” of those ideologies) and a contemplation of those subjects not only as whole, flawed individuals, but also as members of complex rhetorical “contexts,” “places,” and “spaces” (Royster and Kirsch 84-5). Nordlinger struggled with the complexity of her context—of wanting women’s freedom, of not quite understanding the goals and needs African American women, and of striving for equality within a stratified social structure. In her struggle, though, there is both a warning against repeating the rhetorical failures of the second wave (to remain acutely aware that the ethe feminist rhetors construct can carry with them assumptions about race, social status, and the past) and an optimism for a revisionist ethos to prevail. Through Nordlinger’s failures, she revised toward inclusivity and intersectionality, but her revisions were not whole (even through the 1990s, she still made comparisons between women and those enslaved).[14] So, too, modern feminists’ conceptions of equality and intersectionality are not whole, and there is still much work to do[15]  as we “struggle collectively” towards equity in places of power imbalance (Dziuba).  

Nordlinger offers an example of how to move forward: through revision. For her, critique was welcomed and needed, and it required new, revised practices. Learning of another’s needs prompted action and speaking up, and critical self-examination led to change. In her “Manifesto of a Mid-Life White Feminist Or, An Apologia for Embodied Feminism,” Tracee L. Howell describes that this kind of revision is challenging: “Taking action that reveals one’s own vulnerability is often easier said than done within the patriarchy, no matter one’s power or privilege” (Howell). And with Nordlinger’s example of vulnerable action towards revision, I am left with what-ifs. While many feminist researchers already welcome opportunities to grow and revise toward more inclusive practices, what if that revision moved beyond feminist rhetoric and into the field at large? What if privileged rhetors (myself included) consistently responded to contemporary critiques against problematic or exclusionary practices with active revision? What if we humbly and repeatedly embraced opportunities to revise our ideologies when we learn new, more inclusive ways of acting and being? And what if feminist researchers return to the archives of second-wave activists to reexamine how they were—in small steps—revising their practices towards greater intersectionality? In pursuing these what ifs, I hope that we craft tangible “possibilities” for a more inclusive future (Glenn 193).  

End notes

[1]This archival research was made possible by the generous support of the Ellison Fellowship awarded by the University of South Carolina’s Institute for Southern Studies and the contribution of the Rhetoric Society of America’s Graduate Student Development Award presented at the 2019 RSA Institute.

[2]There has been much debate by feminists and historians about whether or not to keep the wave metaphor in use when referencing feminist movements (See e.g. Bailey, Hewitt, and Reger). Despite this questioning of the metaphor, it is the most identifiable way to mark the period during which Nordlinger was a politically active feminist. I have adopted the term for this paper for that reason.

[3] See the work of Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde for additional critiques of second-wave feminism.  

[4] Virginia did finally ratify the ERA in January 2020 (Williams). 

[5] This research focuses on those documents written by Nordlinger for outside audiences (not her notes-to-self), as with her compositions for other readers, she would likely have been more attuned to her ethos and rhetorical presentation.   

[6] The intended audience for this piece is unknown, as there is no indication in Nordlinger’s archives or news reports that reveal where she gave this speech. Based on context clues, such as Nordlinger’s citing statistics from 1968 and referencing Arthur Jensen’s research about IQ differences between race and gender published in 1968 and 1969 as a “recent study, this speech was likely delivered in the very early 1970s (Nordlinger “Civil Rights Comparison Speech” 2). Between 1970 and 1971, Nordlinger gave fifteen known speeches, and she sent copies of many of the manuscripts to Mereca Jane Pollack in June of 1972. In a cover letter accompanying those speeches that detail their context, Nordlinger indicates that this one could be one of several for which “she cannot recall the occasion” (Nordlinger “Letter to Mereca Jane Pollack” 1). In all of these early speeches, Nordlinger’s audience was primarily Richmonders, as her influence had not yet spread beyond the city.  

[7] Ceballos is a feminist who was active during the secondwave movement in New York City. In 1992, Ceballos founded the Veteran Feminists of America (VFA), a non-profit organization with goals to “honor, record and preserve the history of the accomplishments of women and men active in the feminist movement, to educate the public on the importance of the changes brought about by the women’s movement, and to preserve the movement’s history for future generations” (Veteran Feminists of America “Mission Statement”). Nordlinger is included in the VFA’s book Feminists Who Changed America.  

[8] There is a possible discrepancy in the date of this speech. There is a hand-written note on the top of the document in the archives that says, “Speech To The Jewish Women’s Club 1976.” However, in a 1972 letter to Mereca Jane Pollack, Nordlinger explains that with the letter she has included a speech “made to The Jewish Women’s Club of Richmond nearly two years ago,” meaning 1970 (Nordlinger “Letter to Mereca Jane Pollack” 1). Either these are the same speeches and the document in the archives has been misdated or Nordlinger gave two speeches, the first of which (in 1970) is missing a transcript. Of the speech that occurred in 1970 (whether this one or another unknown speech), Nordlinger indicates, “The reception to this presentation was cool…. (but polite). Within a day after it was presented, a prominent rabbi contacted me to inquire what I had told his women to get them so disturbed” (Nordlinger “Letter to Mereca Jane Pollack” 1).  

[9] See note 6 about the date of this speech.  

[10] In her letter to Mereca Jane Pollack, Nordlinger explains the context of the speech. She writes in retrospect, “That one was a sensation…. not for its content, but because some of the officers wives organized a picket to protest my being invited to speak. The small group of women who had asked me to make the speech did not expect a boycott, and the press was thrilled over the ‘story’ (Nordlinger “Letter to Mereca Jane Pollack” 1). Despite this uproar, her rhetoric seemed to be successful. In a letter of thanks after the event, TE Ross wrote to Nordlinger saying, “You woke many a stagnant mind and brought on a new surge of awareness to us” (Ross “Letter to Nordlinger” 1).   

[11] Nordlinger penned this letter to the Richmond Times in response to an editorial piece published on June 6, 1945 about gender-based equality in education. Her overall critique of the news piece was that it presented information with an “ideological bias” and “distorted images” (Nordlinger “Letter to Richmond Times-Dispatch” 1).   

[12] Sarah Hughes was a white resident of Hampton, Virginia who was only marginally active in the feminist movement in the 1970s.  

[13] This piece was likely penned in the early 1980s. It is undated, but she opens the autobiography with “My life span of nearly fifty years…” (Nordlinger “An Unfinished Odyssey” 1).  Nordlinger was born in 1932 

[14] See “Letter to Jacqui Ceballos” 

[15] To this point, Cheryl Glenn explains, “All of us—hegemonic and marginal rhetoricians alike—already know that existing rhetorical theories do not yet fully account for the experiences and perspectives of all the humans who embody rhetorical expertise” (203).  

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VanValkenburg, Schuyler. Defying Labels: Richmond NOW’s Multi-Generational Dynamism. 2010. Virginia Commonwealth University, Master’s Thesis.  

Virginia Museum of History and Culture. “Civil Rights Movement in Virginia.” Virginia Historical Society. https://www.virginiahistory.org/collections-and-resources/virginia-history-explorer/civil-rights-movement-virginia. Accessed 02 June 2020.  

 ——– “L. Douglas Wilder.” Virginia Historical Society.  https://www.virginiahistory.org/collections-and-resources/virginia-history-explorer/l-douglas-wilder. Accessed 02 June 2020.  

Veteran Feminists of America. “The Veteran Feminists of America Mission Statement.” http://www.veteranfeministsofamerica.org/about/mission-statement/. Accessed 02 June 2020.  

Williams, Timothy. “Virginia Approves the E.R.A., Becoming the 38th State to Back It.” New York Times, 15 January 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/15/us/era-virginia-vote.html. Accessed 15 April 2021.

Indigenous Women’s Voices in the Colonial Records of South Africa: Asking for Permission

Introduction

Much of what we know about women from history comes from the famous or infamous. We often do not know much about the rhetoric that shaped the lives of ordinary women from history. To correct this, we went “in search of the debris of history … wiping the dust from past conversations, to remember some of what was shared in the old days” from the archives of Pietermaritzburg, South Africa (hooks 338). The antenarrative fragments of women’s voices in those colonial records are all that exist on paper of some women’s lives in the repository, and such lives can teach us about women’s experiences and rhetorical considerations in the face of colonization and whiteness. This article explores a particular set of documents—colonial records from 1900 to 1932—and they reveal a common rhetorical constraint for Indigenous women working inside a colonial system: that of asking for permission from authority.

It is important to acknowledge that we authors are white women who live and work in the United States. We understand that our lenses, turned toward colonial records in an effort to recognize the voices of Indigenous African women, present significant limitations. We aim to address a call for more international scholarship (Jones, Moore, and Walton), a call for more diverse and international historical instances of women in technical communication (Petersen ), and to use our relative privilege to make space for more of these narratives. “For centuries the world of rhetoric has been anchored by Western patriarchal values … [with] a focus geographically on the Europeanized/Western world” (Kirsch and Royster 641). Through historical renderings of women whose only trace appears in colonial technical documents, we hope to make them visible, while recognizing that their voices in these records, perhaps the only written records of their lives, are mediated by many forces, including the colonial system and our white, Western gazes. We know that it is “a lack of awareness that turns whiteness from vehicle to weapon”  and that our sight may be limited (Martinez 46). Nevertheless, this article is meant to illuminate what and who we can through our available means and positionalities and to open, rather than close, the conversation about these missing stories from colonial documentation. Further, we believe that these stories are a fundamental key to the dismantling of colonial systems of white supremacy and that we have an obligation to study them as a part of our efforts toward racial justice.

We aim to avoid imperialist nostalgia, a form of delusional memory. We will not focus on the fascinations of imperialism that tend to lead white people like us to become enamored with the nostalgia of the past. We instead aim to “illuminate the undocumented … narratives of Black women’s experiences” (Baker-Bell 528). We know that narrative “has important implications for social justice…due to narrative’s potential for eliminating marginalizing silences” (Jones 351). Using a postcolonial lens to expand the field beyond Euro-Western narratives is a productive way of learning from and about people worldwide without engaging in a project that simply becomes a recolonization “under Western eyes” (Mohanty 516). We use five stories of women in the archives to accomplish these goals, as “multiple perspectives, especially those from people of color or other minoritized folk, are crucial to get at any sort of truth about racial matters” (Martinez 45-46). Further, “[t]o bear the burden of memory one must willingly journey to places long uninhabited … for the traces of the unforgettable, all knowledge of which has been suppressed” (hooks 342). We see the archives as an appropriate place for doing so, and our goal is to make the stories of people on the margins more visible.

This article tells five stories based on artifacts in the Pietermaritzburg Archives Repository, South Africa. We first review critical race theory (CRT), counterstory, and rhetorical archival scholarship to situate these stories and our analysis of them. Next, we outline our research methods, and then we tell the stories, ranging from 1900 to 1932, outlining the narratives that emerge from the documents we found and following each story with a rhetorical analysis. We chose these particular records for storytelling because they all represent the troubling narrative of Indigenous women asking for permission from white men, especially men within a colonial hierarchy. These stories offer insight into the rhetorical and logistical norms of colonized South Africa and point to the historical mechanisms of structural violence that Indigenous women faced. Finally, we discuss the implications of these stories, which include using counterstory as a historical method, recognizing women as agents employing survival strategies within racial hierarchies, calling out the violence of racial hierarchies claiming to be restrained by their own self-created policies, and continuing to recognize that technical documentation can be a tool of violence and oppression if it isn’t actively working toward social justice. As Plange argued, “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” (n.p.).

Literature Review

Counterstories should create action and do so by challenging “the perceived wisdom of those at society’s center” and preserving “community memory of the history of resistance to oppression” (Martinez 114). Some counterstory methods include chronicles, narratives, allegories, parables, pungent tales, and dialogues (Martinez 22). Counterstory argues that we, especially white people, “need to stop minimizing the complexity and significance of narrative, stop depoliticizing the personal, and start studying the rich epistemological and rhetorical traditions that inform the narratives of people of color” (Martinez 92-93). Temptaous McKoy makes a similar case in her dissertation through Womanist theory. We should “focus on the narratives of Black women that are shared through various genres that are known to represent their lived experiences” (McKoy 39). This is important because “[n]arratives serve to accentuate, acknowledge, and validate the lived experiences of an individual at the specific moment of the tale recall and also serve to shed light on the lived experiences of those that have come in the past” (McKoy 40).

Counterstory, a methodology that argues that narratives are theoretical, follows the tenets of CRT, including the permanence of race and racism. Despite and because of such systems, Martinez argues:

…people of color have experiential knowledge from having lived under such systems of racism and oppression. POC have thus developed methods and methodologies that serve as coping mechanisms and navigation strategies, while also serving as ways to raise awareness of issues affecting people of color that are often overlooked, not considered, or otherwise invisible to whites. (Martinez 10)

The permanence of race and racism contributes to this double-consciousness that people of color  experience, and it connects to Wylie’s feminist argument that

…those who are subject to structures of domination that systematically marginalize and oppress them may, in fact, be epistemically privileged in some crucial respects. They may know different things, or know some things better than those who are comparatively privileged (socially, politically), by virtue of what they typically experience and how they understand their experience. (Wylie 339)

Given this information, “feminist rhetoric studies needs to be more inclusive of (and culturally literate about) global Black feminist practices” (Plange n.p.).

While the artifacts in this article do not necessarily represent the full extent of experiential knowledge, which is key to CRT, the artifacts do challenge dominant ideologies about who is represented in the archives. Despite the fact that the women’s voices are mediated by colonial records, the voices are still documented and visible. Further, the aim of this article is to centralize voices of women of color given the information that we have and to commit to social justice through recognizing and elevating these historical voices. We hope to extend the conversation begun in Peitho’s most recent special issue edited by Pough and Jones, whose work has provided “us with a new understanding of the rhetorical tools that sustain diverse histories across time and space” (n.p.).

Part of centering female voices of color is recognizing that Euro-Western narratives are not the only ones that can inform our theory and practice. The Global South is integral with the rest of the world; it can and should be as centered and central to ideas about rhetoric. Chandra Talpade Mohanty encouraged scholarship that is not so much a production of knowledge on a particular topic but rather a “political and discursive practice that is purposeful and ideological” which “resists and changes our ideas about ‘legitimate knowledge” (334). While doing such research, recognizing the narratives of women in other contexts, we must “[k]eep in mind that the history of international research by Western scholars mimics the colonial enterprise … International collaborations should be seen as opportunities to share knowledge, and … we should ensure a mutually-beneficial [sic] exchange of resources, information, and recognition” (Crabtree and Sapp 28). We can also push against even calling women in colonized areas “marginalized,” as Spivak said that using the framing of marginalized versus dominant re-centers the narrative around colonizers versus colonized populations. She suggested instead that individuals historically labeled as marginal might instead be recognized as the “silenced center” (Spivak 269). We aim to honor and recognize women’s voices from the silenced center in this article, with self-reflexivity on “how our own training and perspectives may [un]intentionally recreate the status quo” (Rose 4).

Racial issues in South Africa are at the center of the archival documents we examine in this article. During apartheid and colonialism in South Africa, “race was not a fixed, stable category … but rather a legal and bureaucratic construct which could be defined differently, depending on the purposes of particular pieces of legislation” (Posel 92). To understand the different groups and their treatment in South Africa at the time, we must acknowledge that this racial categorization was a hierarchical social construction. “Natives were at the bottom of the heap on the grounds of their alleged lack of civilization, education, and skill; coloureds occupied the middle rank. … Racial hierarchies ratified and legitimized the social and economic inequalities that were in turn held up as evidence of racial differences” (Posel 94-95). Whites or Afrikaners were at the top of the created hierarchy.

Considering race is of particular importance in the South African context because of the country’s history of colonialism and apartheid. During colonialism, the basis of apartheid, there were appalling mining conditions in the late 1800s and attempts to prevent land ownership for indigenous peoples in the early 1900s. Organizations formed to protest these problems, and Afrikaner nationalism increased during WWII, with whites taking government control in 1948 (Nattrass 167). Apartheid then began, with legalized segregation, discrimination, and the relocation of indigenous peoples (Nattrass 172). Harris observed that “[a]partheid has been described, most usefully, as a form of racial capitalism in which racial differences were formalised and pervasive socially, and in which society was characterised by a powerful racially defined schism” (Nattrass 67). However, it is incorrect to view apartheid’s domination as an “all-encompassing relationship between social groupings distinguished by their physical characteristics” (Nattrass 67). Instead, researchers must acknowledge the complexity of identities with factors such as ethnicity, gender, culture, language, politics, and class that contributed to the dynamics of apartheid.

Those familiar with the documents available in South Africa suggest that archives are slivers of “reality” and that they don’t ever give us a complete picture of what took place there. This is in part because “between 1990 and 1994 huge volumes of public records were destroyed in an attempt to keep the apartheid state’s darkest secrets hidden” (Harris 64). Further, although records are protected and looked after by archivists, documents do not last forever and often reflect the beliefs and values of the person(s) who preserved them. Deciding what gets preserved shapes which documents have survived, and archives reveal what priorities were present when the decision to save some documentation and not others was made. Harris offers three ways to think about South African archives, suggesting the following:

  1. Reality is unknowable.
  2. Records are a product of process and the process itself is shaped by the act of recording.
  3. If archival records do reflect reality, they do so completely and in a fractured way. They are not actors in their own right but are created and changed by people working as record keepers, archivists, and researchers. (64)

From a feminist rhetorical perspective, archival “work is grounded in and points back to the pioneering women, both contemporary and historical, who have insisted on being heard, being valued, and being understood as rhetorical agents” (Kirsch and Royster 643). The agency of women in the archives is central to feminist rhetorical scholarship, but so is expanding our view beyond simply highlighting their existence. We must ask questions about how we meaningfully represent people from the archives and how “we honor their traditions” (Kirsch and Royster 648). We should “develop a richer understanding of the lives of the women we study” (Mastrangelo et al. 162). Further, we must find ways to express and connect women’s lives to the larger contexts of history. One way to do so is through a transnational lens, as “looking for how archived knowledge and narratives often shore up the political economic objectives of the nation-state and global capital” gives us more information about the rhetorical and agential constraints women face (Dingo et al. 181). This gives us information about context, but it also helps us to see how and why archives may be incomplete because of the surrounding forces in decision making about what is included and what isn’t. Attempting to understand feminist rhetorics from a global lens “tracks rhetorics through which some women and girls are turned over to violence or abandonment while others are protected by the circulation of their heroic stories” (Dingo et al. 188). Not all stories are heroic, and yet we can find agency within archival stories that represent resistance to the control of women within particular historical contexts.

The way to address the above concerns in women’s archival research is through de-centering “the histories of Rhetoric and Composition and … push[ing] the boundaries to re-landscape our disciplines so that other stories and voices are heard and recognized. … [There is] a need for indigenous research methodologies and knowledge-making practices grounded in storytelling and relationships” (Legg 7). We know that much historical research, especially in archival spaces, remain colonized, and the field is in need of new methodologies and perspectives in order to expand what we know about the history of rhetoric and women (Legg 10). Archives are spaces that we can explore, interrogate, and refurbish to achieve these goals. We can approach the archives with the goal of exposing power structures and decolonizing women’s lives, spaces, and bodies. There are stories to be told, and, as Powell reminds us, “History isn’t a dead and remembered object; it is alive and it speaks to us” (121).

Methods

This project is based on rhetorical analysis of historical documents we gathered from the Pietermaritzburg Archives Repository in South Africa. We visited these archives as part of a funded grant project through the CCCC focused on the writing and rhetorical work of women within organizations from the Global South. We aim to make visible forms of technical communication and rhetoric that have historically been overlooked by Euro-Western scholars. We searched these archives for organizational records of women, and the records that were labeled “Native women” caught our attention. We wanted to know more about what a record in the archive meant when it was labeled that way and who these women were. We saw the potential to learn about forgotten women from history, as these colonial records may be the only places their concerns or voices were recorded.

We visited these archives over several days in June 2019, specifically looking for histories of women as told by technical communication documents: letters, memos, meeting minutes, etc. We first combed through the online archival listings, flagging any documents that seemed relevant, particularly those with entries titled “Native Women/Woman,” which is how these records were labeled in the archives. Once at the repository, we presented our list to the archivists who pulled down each relevant box. We sorted through each one, one document at a time, photographing, scanning, and taking notes about any documents that recorded information about Indigenous women’s lives.

For this project, we took the documents that we photographed and narrowed them down for this article to the five that are analyzed. We chose these five because they all represent Indigenous women asking for permission, a common theme that made the five fit together as a snapshot of documents for evaluation. We used counterstory to analyze each document, telling each set of documents about the same incident as stories. Based on those stories, we conducted a rhetorical analysis, noting the way rhetoric was used in each set of documents and how such rhetoric affected the women’s experiences.

In our analyses, we hoped to address Spivak’s concerns about the tired narrative of the “old Third World as distant cultures,  exploited  but  with  rich  intact  literary  heritages  waiting  to  be  recovered,  interpreted,  and  curricularized” in a way that does not repeat a colonial pattern (114). Historical scholarship in contexts other than one’s own is, unfortunately, poised to recreate unacceptable colonial narratives if left unchecked. We attempt to highlight how “women are not mere victims of the production process, because they resist, challenge and subvert the process at various junctures” (Mohanty 345). We acknowledge Spivak’s instructions that writing should take place as a mechanism of resistance (Spivak 113), and, as scholars, we worked to write these stories from the archives in a way that avoids reifying the status quo and instead aims to call for repatriation for Indigenous peoples. Still, our efforts have been limited by the structurally violent system that created these records in the first place. For example, the records failed to note the tribal affiliations of any of the women highlighted in this article, leaving us little to work with in terms of understanding the specific identities of these women. In fact, the records lump all women into the category of “Native,” erasing their specific identities as a matter of course and for those of us working with the records some one hundred years later.

While documentation reveals much about an organization’s goals and rules, we find that these documents, complete with rubber stamped dates, letterhead, and interoffice notes, first tell a story of colonization, paternalism, and oppression. However, these documents also offer glimpses into the lives of Indigenous South African women’s voices, and those stories must be told. The counterstories that emerge from the documents create “at least the possibility of a genuine rhetorical situation that demands response and forces dialogue within color-blind racist systems and institutions in which racial practices operate in often obscure and invisible ways” (Martinez 60). This is why telling stories from the archives, particularly counterstories, matters. “[A] rubric for counterstory resides in whether the story is informed by the tenets toward advancing a better understanding of how law or policy operate” (Martinez 16). While the story from the colonial archives could be about how efficient and organized technical documentation is for certain parts of colonial South Africa, the counterstory instead centers the voices of Indigenous women who were written about and who submitted requests in writing to those white males who claimed authority. Counterstory demands that we dig into those records and better understand why such narratives illuminate tenets of CRT.

Counterstories from the Pietermaritzburg Archives Repository

We have selected the following five stories, based on sets of archival records, to illustrate the complexities of women’s agency. Among them, we saw clear themes of women making efforts to gain power amid the violent system of colonialism, despite the excessive limitations placed upon them. Under each story we have included a brief synopsis of what was contained in each document as well as contextual information about how these stories fit together as part of a broader narrative.

1. Widows of Cetshwayo Ask for Permission to Slaughter a Cow

Meeting minutes by a magistrate in Ndwandwe Division, part of Zululand, record three women, Oka-Nfusi, Oka-Sitshaluza, and Oka-Mkalipi, who were widows of the former king of Zululand Cetshwayo, asking permission to move a red cow from one kraal to another in order to slaughter it. The district native commissioner passed their request to the acting chief native commissioner of Natal Province. Because the cow was owned by Dinuzulu, the new king of Zululand, the colonial hierarchies needed to confer on the women’s request. After layers of paperwork, the request was granted, as “Dinuzulu has no objection to the slaughter of the red cow by the women named,” and the paperwork was signed by the acting secretary for native affairs and the acting chief native commissioner of Natal Province (“Widows”). That final permission letter is dated 23 October 1911, meaning it took a month for the women to gain permission, as the first letter in the paperwork is dated 20 September 1911.

That Oka-Nfusi, Oka-Sitshaluza, and Oka-Mkalipi’s’s names are in the paperwork is remarkable. Women’s names from Indigenous tribes at the time were not well known or well documented. These women, however, were the widows of a king, meaning they had some form of privilege in the hierarchy of South Africa. However, that they had to ask permission to slaughter a cow, an act that would seemingly be part of everyday practice, means that their lives were highly regulated by the colonial system in which they lived. Such regulation is evident from the amount of paperwork and the amount of time it took for them to receive permission.

Of note is the “high language” used in the permission letters from the authorities. They use words and phrases such as “ultimo” for day and “subjoin,” “herewith,” and “beg to inform (“Widows”).” Such language is seemingly unnecessary given that the women simply want to slaughter a cow, but because the paperwork goes through two layers of colonial hierarchy (that we know of, and not counting the original meeting minutes, which are unavailable in the archives), such language may have been required or expected as part of the genre. The paperwork is a template with a letterhead that can be filled in with dates and the permission papers are letters, one with a letterhead and one without. The formality of this process is obvious.

To drive a cow from one place to another involves travel, and “travel as a starting point for discourse is associated with different … rites of passage, immigration, enforced migration, relocation, enslavement, and homelessness” (hooks 343). Travel has often been forced on BIPOC because of white hierarchy’s decisions and preferences. Even in this record, in which the women wish simply to slaughter a cow, their movements are controlled and their travel is decided by a white authority.

These documents also reveal something about official and unofficial lines of communication. Officially, local meetings were held in which citizens could express concerns or ask permissions. Those representing the hierarchy at those meetings would pass such communications up the line, first to the district native commissioner, who then passed the information to the chief native commissioner. That commissioner then conferred, presumably through his secretaries, with the owner of the cow, the king of Zululand, Dinuzulu. The communication then made its way back down through the same channels, finally reaching the women who are granted permission. The women are unofficial participants, as their communication is verbal and only documented in reference to the original words they spoke. The meeting minutes referred to do not exist in the archives that we could find. Further, these lines of communication are also divided by gender. In general, we see that women must ask permission unofficially, while officials, who are mostly white men, minus the king of Zululand, decide the answers and document them officially.

2. Nompi Asks for Permission to Move

A widow named Nompi wished to move her residence from a district in the Transvaal to Eshowe division in Zululand. She wanted to move because of her husband’s death. She owned one hut and had four children, ages six, seven, nine, and eighteen named Untandori, Ulema, Nomasonti, and Nomtala. The widow Nompi did not have cattle, horses, sheep, or goats, and her move meant that she would go from the territory of chief Mkonko-Mliki to chief Mbango. The magistrate for native affairs had “no objection to the granting of this application” (“Application by Native Woman Nompi”).  On 30 May 1906, a colonial authority noted that she and her daughters needed permission from the Transvaal authorities. The application had previously been granted by the commissioner for native affairs in Zululand, where the woman wished to reside, on 17 May 1906. The issue of permission from the Transvaal is not resolved in the existing records. Attached to the various correspondences is an application for permission to reside in Zululand and passes, which cite pass law No. 48 of 1884. The passes warned, “The duration of this pass must be carefully explained to the Native” (“Application by Native Woman Nompi”).  The pass was “available for return at any time during one year from its date” (“Application by Native Woman Nompi”). There are five passes, one for Nompi and one for each of her children.

These papers are rife with contradictions. The cover page describes a widow wanting permission to move her residence, but the passes attached to this record indicate that she and her four daughters were simply visiting. This might be explained by the note on a previous page that they must obtain permission from the Transvaal authorities. Perhaps the passes were temporary until Nompi and her daughters can obtain permission from yet another level of colonial bureaucracy.

The passes are of interest because of their genre and formatting. They are fill-in-the-blank passes with sections for a date, name, chief, where from, destination, purpose, and the officer’s name who fills them out. They are labeled as “inward” passes, which seemingly means that they are not for international travel. Pass laws were violently oppressive and controlled Indigenous people in ways that fundamentally violated their rights. Passive resistance to such control was first enacted by Mahatma Gandhi in Transvaal province in the early 1900s (Wells 57). Women in Bloemfontein in 1913 and in Johannesburg in 1958 resisted pass laws in uprisings. In 1958, the “anti-pass campaign lost its momentum and African women reluctantly took passes” (Wells 58).

The fact that Nompi and her daughters needed passes at all is evidence of racial violence typical of colonial control. Not only was Nompi dealing with the recent death of her husband, but in order to move (most likely to be nearer to family, although this is not indicated in the records), she needed to go through paperwork, which appears to have taken about one week to complete, from 8 May to 15 May 1906. However, there are notes from commissioners in Zululand and Natal provinces dated 17 May, 21 May, 27 May, and 30 May that grant permission and raise the issue of needing further permission for her movements. The records do not provide any narrative or correspondence about what happened after that question is raised. While it seems that she and her daughters were able to move and reside under a different chief, the narrative is not clear and leaves open the possibility that further paperwork or permissions were needed. If Nompi did not realize this, she may have had her passes revoked. If Nompi did not file new paperwork, she may not have been able to move or remain in her new residence. We do not know the rest of the story, but we do know that the paperwork of colonialism governed every move in the lives of women like her. The paperwork went through layers of authority and often took time to make its way back to the original requestor.

3. Women Ask for Remission of Husband’s Jail Sentence

A justice of the peace wrote a letter on 20 January 1900 based on an interpretation of what two wives, Umpansi and Nomuva, said in a petition to have their husband, Umsombuluko, released from jail early. The petitioning letter explained that the husband was sentenced to one year in jail on 18 April 1899 for taking meat from a stolen sheep. The man who stole the sheep was sentenced to 2 years in jail, where he died. Umsombuluko was still alive and jailed. He had nine children and two wives, who were kicked off of a farm after he went to jail; they had been staying as refugees at a kraal, with an older man who was unable to earn money. The women and children experienced a “great scarcity of food,” and because of continuous droughts, their garden of maize failed (“Petition”). They had become beggars, and neighbors were unable to assist them. They were experiencing starvation and poverty and the children were all too young to work. The letter assured the reader that the jailed man was of good character and had “behaved himself” in jail. They asked “humbly” and prayed for mercy that Umsombuluko’s sentence would be remitted early. The letter has two witnesses that the facts stated are true.

The attorney general agreed to remit the sentence if the statements in the letter are true. These statements include the following, as outlined to an investigator who must decide if they are true.

  • The number and ages of children
  • The place where the women and children are staying
  • The lack of assistance
  • The state of their gardens
  • The general state of poverty

The investigator found that all of the statements were true but that he could not vouch for the behavior of Umsombuluko in jail. He suggested asking the judge or prosecutor in the case for verification of his behavior and character. Judge Beaumont wrote a letter saying he has “no objection to his remission” (“Petition”). The release from jail was approved, and Umsombuluko was released on 4 February 1900. The official certificate and paperwork were completed a few days later. There are several letters in this collection simply informing people within the bureaucracy about the approval and his release.

The letter to the “supreme chief over the native population” is written in flowery and elegant language, with many titles at the beginning to flatter the recipient of the letter. It ends with religious language about prayer, humility, and mercy to show humility and appeal to the goodness of the receiver.

The husband was essentially jailed for poverty and hunger. He used stolen goods to eat and feed his family which resulted in more poverty for his family when he was arrested. Because he was jailed, the women and children became more destitute because of their economic dependence on colonial, patriarchal systems. His incarceration did not solve the problem that caused him to eat stolen goods in the first place; it only created more poverty and misery. The collection of documents that tell this story highlight the economic dependency of Indigenous women on the men in their lives and men in positions of power. It also highlights the racial violence of systems that leverage incarceration against individuals of color and that perpetuate cycles of poverty and loss.

4. Esther Caluza Asks for Exemption from “Native Law”

Esther Caluza wrote on 22 October 1913 asking for exemption from “native law” in order to keep the land she had worked for and purchased in her name. In her letter, she explained that because she is a “native girl” her relatives can claim her land. She asked for help in procuring an exemption certificate so that she could keep her land. The chief native commissioner of Natal Province responded on 24 October with a letter explaining that she must first return to Natal Province before she can petition for exemption. He explained that her application must be made through the magistrate.

Only two short letters make up this correspondence but in them are intersectional factors that affect Indigenous agency. First, because this young woman is Indigenous, she must apply for exemption from a set of laws that govern her, laws that are presumably legislated and enforced by white colonial powers. Her racial identity is at play in the need for her to ask permission to retain her own property. Second, her gender complicates her agency; she cannot simply rely on having access to the property that she has purchased with her own money, as she explains in the letter. Instead, she must be subject to “native law,” which presumably states that her property can be claimed by relatives (or males). Her predicament is complicated by these two identity factors, and she must then work through official channels to protect her property.

The letter from the commissioner, however, fails to acknowledge the complicated nature of the loss she is fighting against. The reply simply informs her of proper procedure, relying on bureaucratic processes and language to respond. There is no compassion from the commissioner about her situation and how she has come to be in it. There is only instrumental communication about how she must petition at a different time and through a different person. The reply serves to teach her how to get her request granted through the system, but without acknowledgement that the system has caused her problem in the first place.

5. Women Ask for Permission to Brew Beer

This fragmented story is made up of three letters and a cover sheet. In the first letter, dated 28 January 1932, a lawyer named T. J. D’Alton wrote to the town clerk’s office in Pietermaritzburg on behalf of “eleven native women” who wanted permission to brew beer at home on the weekends when their husbands were home. These women lived in Maryvale, on land considered part of the “town” (or colonized land) and therefore had to seek permission from those in charge. D’Alton makes the case that others in the town have been given permission by the commission to brew the beer and that the women are willing to abide by any conditions that the town seeks to impose. Additionally, he notes that the “native beer” is a staple food and it would be a hardship to deprive them of it (“Application by Native Women at Maryvale”).

R.E. Stevens, a city manager for Pietermaritzburg, addressed the town clerk in an internal communication on 2 February 1932. The letter says that the Urban Areas Act provides for either domestic brewing or municipal brewing. Because Pietermaritzburg abides by municipal brewing only, he cannot “allow domestic brewing in any portion of the town” (“Application by Native Women at Maryvale”). He suggests that the women, instead of brewing their own beer, purchase it from the Canteen, after they get permission from him to consume it at home.

The third letter dated 4 February 1932 is from the town clerk to the lawyer D’Alton, informing him that the City Council has no power to grant permits for domestic brewing within the town. He conveys the information from Stevens, that the women may purchase the beer and obtain permission to consume it at home.

The response of the city manager is clear and direct, written in a way that demonstrates his belief that the decision is not his but constrained by the law. This rhetoric scapegoats the law and claims that the only way around the law is to buy beer, rather than engage in the Indigenous and traditional practice of brewing beer at home. His response negates Indigenous customs, labeling them as impossible because the colonial law, embedded with capitalist idealism, is the final authority. He did not attempt to question the law or consider how the law failed to take into account the Indigenous practices of the people in that area. He used the law to make his decision final, saying, “I can find nothing in the Urban Areas Act which gives the Council power to allow domestic brewing in any portion of the Town” (“Application by Native Women at Maryvale”).  And yet, the council ostensibly has the power to make the laws. However, because the law is already in place, Stevens refuses to question the premise of the law in the first place and how such a law regulates Indigenous practices and contributes to cultural erasure.

In cases like this one, individuals inside of the system of white supremacy use the law in an effort to obscure their own agency, despite the reality that their offices possess the power to change these laws if they wished. If the “City Council is not empowered to grant permits for domestic brewing,” then who is? The only solution offered erases the Indigenous cultural practices of brewing beer, ignores the possible differences in the type of beer the women brew compared to what is available for purchase, and disregards whether or not the women can afford to or even want to purchase beer.

It is also odd that in the letters, the beer is referred to as “native beer” (first letter), “Kaffir Beer” (second letter), and “Native Beer” (third letter) without acknowledging that what they will purchase at the Canteen may not be the same staple food they wish to brew. D’Alton makes it clear that the beer the women want to brew, just “one gallon, at week ends,” is “part of their staple food” and that “these women feel it is a hardship to be deprived of this food” (“Application by Native Women at Maryvale”).

Further, we see that the women have engaged a solicitor to help them make the request, an act of agency. This might be due to several realities, including a lack of literacy (basic and/or legal) and a lack of power within a colonial system due to their race and gender. The women, while the driving force behind the request, must use the voice of a white male lawyer to speak for them in order to ask permission to make a staple food in their own homes. Their lives are mediated by this white man, the law, paperwork, colonial systems of power, and paperwork. There is no indication that their concerns or voices were heard by the city manager after he received the letter. They were not allowed to make a case for themselves in person or with emotion. The women have no ethos in this system, despite their efforts to speak up, leaving them without recourse except for a letter written on their behalf by a lawyer, who ultimately fails to ensure their needs.

While these women’s concerns over retaining their cultural practice of brewing beer at home have been preserved in these colonial records, their voices are mostly hidden behind the advocacy of a lawyer and colonial law, which fails to consider them as full citizens and does not consider their customs when settling the land and creating the laws. We have a record that eleven women had to find a mediator to ask permission to engage in an activity that was part of their everyday lives, but we do not see a clear record of who they were, how they lived, or what they really thought. We do get a sense that their feelings and thoughts were largely considered unimportant, largely ignored, and that the colonial system had not only failed them in this particular instance but entirely. The laws were drafted as part of the violent effort to erase Indigenous cultural practices and assimilate these women into white, colonial culture.

Discussion and Implications

An important implication of our historical work is that it aims to normalize using counterstory as a methodology. We see the telling of these fragmented narratives as a tool for exposing the cruelties of colonial systems as well as a method of honoring and learning from the resistances of the individuals who lived inside of these systems. We recognize the privilege of our positionality and the power that it affords us to make embodied methodologies a norm in the field. We welcome critique, opposition, expansion, and addition to our limited work here. We call for other scholars to join us in this type of work to document and advocate for the historical counterstories of marginalized individuals and to add to and refine our use of these methods.

We see the women in these documents not as victims but as agents working through a brutalized system of racial violence. Their stories show their efforts toward self-advocacy amid deep injustice: hiring lawyers, submitting documents, and working to make their circumstances more just. They are engaged in “survival strategies” (Baker-Bell 535), meaning that they act within the system and its constraints in order to self-preserve, while still advocating for permissions and more agency. Still, the historical record has left us little to understand the intricacies of their lives and of their resistance. This too is a form of violence and erasure.

One of the most important implications of the study of documents like these is that they reveal the historical mechanisms of structural violence that face Indigenous women in South Africa. For example, Zulu women in South Africa are presently engaged in a struggle in which their rights to their homes have been changed or superseded. Zulu women report being required to sign new leases and pay rent on homes they believed belonged to them and, in at least one case, the lease was written in the name of a woman’s boyfriend who was considered the head of household, even though the residence had belonged to her. In many cases, these leases were written in English, even when the Zulu women did not speak English fluently (“Trust Deficit”). Although this system of land governance was implemented at the end of apartheid and intended to offer Zulu people rights to their land, the policy embodies misappropriated notions of decoloniality (Itchuaqiyaq and Matheson), in which notions of sovereignty have been appropriated to become palatable to systems of power and colonial forms of government treat Indigenous people paternalistically. Examples such as these replicate the pattern we see in the above documents, suggesting that the study of the rhetorical history of a particular place can offer us important insights into the ongoing struggle for racial justice.

We know that rhetoric in technical documents can be a tool for liberation, but historical documents remind us that it can also be a tool of oppression and violence (Katz). We recognize that, in some ways, our work here perpetuates the problem further; these documents were written to and for white people only to now be re-interpreted by white scholars. Historical documents offer us a warning that Indigenous sovereignty cannot exist when it is governed by colonial rhetoric that reduces the agency of Indigenous people and serves as a mechanism to prioritize whiteness. Further, policies such as these that require petitioning structures of power to retain Indigenous cultural practices are often so embedded inside the hegemonic structure of whiteness that the origins of such policies can seem obscured, when, in fact, the same structures that enforce such policies created them in the first place.

We call for those who produce documentation and scholars to revisit the structural systems they help to shape. Collectively, we must ask how these systems shape or reinforce systems of whiteness. We must be willing to push back against these systems and work toward dismantling them in order to move toward Indigenous sovereignty. To this end, Indigenous stories must be centered and positioned within their historical context as a way of seeking repatriation and justice.

While we have told stories of Indigenous people asking for permission, the stories begin much earlier, with stolen land, genocide, forced mining labor, and erasure of languages. These acts of requisite permission seeking began with violence and erasure. We must recognize and dig deeper within historical records and knowledges to center the many wrongs that have been committed in order to make them right. We recognize that such work requires radical change across systems of government, industry, and other stakeholders. We call on researchers to be agents of radical change by understanding, seeking, and amplifying the full story. Not only does this require our field to recover and study the histories of systems of power that laid the foundations of certain stories, but it means that we tell stories that highlight the agency of Indigenous people. We must center their experiences and concerns and honor Indigenous knowledges as worthy of study, informative, and central to rhetoric and documentation. Further, we see this sort of study as vital to the task of decolonizing violent systems of whiteness.

Works Cited

Application by Esther Caluza. 24 October 1913. MS/TS. CNC Minute Papers, 1819-1900. 1913, 145. Pietermaritzburg Archives Repository, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa.

Application by Native Woman Nompi. 8 May 1906. TS/MS. Applications from Natives for Permission to Reside in Zululand. Minute Papers 1898-1906. 1/1/283. Pietermaritzburg Archives Repository, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa.

Application by Native Women at Maryvale. 29 January 1932. TS. 3/PMB, 4/3/76. Pietermaritzburg Archives Repository, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa.

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. 526-43.

Crabtree, Robbin D., and David Alan Sapp. “Technical Communication, Participatory Action Research, and Global Civic Engagement: A Teaching, Research, and Social Action Collaboration in Kenya.” REFLECTIONS: A Journal of Rhetoric, Civic Writing and Service Learning, vol. 4, no. 2 2005.

Harris, Verne. “The Archival Sliver: Power, Memory, and Archives in South Africa.” Archival Science, vol. 2, no. 1, 2002, pp.  63-86.

hooks, bell. “Representing Whiteness in the Black Imagination.” Cultural Studies, edited by Lawrence Grossberg, Routledge, 1992, pp. 338-46.

Itchuaqiyaq, Cana U., and Matheson, Breeanne. “Decolonizing Decoloniality: Considering the (Mis)use of Decolonial Frameworks in TPC Scholarship.” Communication Design Quarterly, vol. 9, no.1, 2021, pp. 20-31.

Jones, Natasha N. “The Technical Communicator as Advocate: Integrating a Social Justice Approach in Technical Communication.” Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, vol. 46, no. 3, 2016, 342-61.

Jones, Natasha N., Kristen R. Moore, and Rebecca Walton. “Disrupting the Past to Disrupt the Future: An Antenarrative of Technical communication.” Technical Communication Quarterly, vol. 25, no. 4, 2016, pp. 211-29.

Katz, Steven B. “The Ethic of Expediency: Classical Rhetoric, Technology, and the Holocaust.” College English, vol. 54, no. 3, 1992, 255-75.

Kirsch, Gesa E., and Jacqueline J. Royster. “Feminist Rhetorical Practices: In Search of Excellence.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 61, no. 4 2010, pp. 640-72. Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/27917867.

Legg, Emily M. Listening to Our Stories in Dusty Boxes: Indigenous Storytelling Methodology, Archival Practice, and the Cherokee Female Seminary. 2016.  Purdue University, PhD dissertation.

Martinez, Aja Y. Counterstory. National Council of Teachers of English, 2020.

Mastrangelo, Lisa, David Gold, Nicole Khoury, Michael J. Faris, Rebecca Dingo, Rachel Riedner, Jennifer Wingard, Gesa E. Kirsch, & Jacqueline Jones Royster. “Changing the Landscape: Feminist Rhetorical Practices: New Horizons for Rhetoric, Composition, and Literacy Studies, Five Years Later.” Peitho, vol. 20, no. 2, 2018, pp. 160-97.

Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses.” Boundary, vol. 2, 1984, pp. 333-58.

Mckoy, Temptaous T. Y’all Call it Technical and Professional Communication, We Call it# ForTheCulture: The Use of Amplification Rhetorics in Black Communities and their Implications for Technical and Professional Communication Studies.  2019. East Carolina University, PhD dissertation.

Nattrass, Gail. A Short History of South Africa. Biteback Publishing, 2017.

Petersen, Emily January. “Feminist Historiography as Methodology: The Absence of International Perspectives.” Connexions: International Professional Communication Journal, vol. 5, no. 2, 2017, pp. 1-38.

Petition of Native Women for the Remission of the Unexpired Portion of the Sentence of their Husband. 23 January 1900. MS/TS. Minute Papers. 268-643, 1638. Pietermaritzburg Archives Repository, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa.

Plange, Efe Franca. “The Pepper Manual: Towards Situated Non-Western Femninist Rhetorical Practices.” Peitho, vol. 23, no. 4, 2021.

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Pough, Gwendolyn D., and Stephanie Jones. “On Race, Feminism, and Rhetoric: An Introductory/Manifesto Flow…” Peitho, vol. 23, no. 4, 2021.

Powell, Malea. “Dreaming Charles Eastman: Cultural memory, autobiography, and geography in indigenous rhetorical histories.” Beyond the Archives: Research as a Lived Process, edited by Gesa E. Kirsch and Liz Rohan, Southern Illinois UP, 2008, pp. 115-27.

Rose, Emma J. “Design as Advocacy: Using a Human-Centered Approach to Investigate the Needs of Vulnerable Populations.” Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, vol. 46, no. 4, 2016, pp. 427-45.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present. Harvard UP , 1999.

“Trust Deficit.” The Economist, vol. 437, no. 9225, Dec 19, 2020, pp. 86-8. Wells, Julia C. “Why Women Rebel: a Comparative Study of South African Women’s Resistance in Bloemfontein (1913) and Johannesburg (1958).” Journal of Southern African Studies, vol. 10, no. 1, 1983, pp. 55-70.

Widows of Cetshwayo. 20 September 1911. TS. CNC Minute Papers, 2201-2257, 34. Pietermaritzburg Archives Repository, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa.

Wylie, Alison “Why Standpoint Matters.” The Feminist Standpoint Theory Reader: Intellectual and Political Controversies, edited by Sandra Harding, Routledge, 2004, pp. 339-74.

Ghostwriting for Racial Justice: On Barbara Johns, Dramatizations, and Speechwriting as Historical Fiction

…rhetoric is racist and has been used for ill and we need to own that and fix that. Stat. –

Gwendolyn Pough and Stephanie Jones (Peitho, eds. of special issue on Race, Feminism, and Rhetoric)

 

As a willing dupe of the white male patriarchy, I have been an enemy to Black women, to all women, and to myself. I don’t want to continue to be an enemy of feminism. White woman, do you?

Tracee Howell (Peitho, “Manifesto”)

 

 

…The concept of amnesty frames appraisal decisions as intentional and issues a call-out charge to archivists to work against white supremacist bias. By refusing to accept that gaps and vagaries in the historical record are accidental or coincidental, but are instead an extension of clemency and amnesty, archivists can better address these gaps and vagaries—archivists and critical archival scholars must first name the problem, and then work collectively with marginalized and vulnerable communities to correct it. (20)

—Tonia Sutherland, “Archival Amnesty: In Search of Black American Transitional & Restorative Justice”

Prologue

The work below is about Prince Edward County, Virginia in 1951, but, more broadly, I wish to—as Gwendolyn Pough and Stephanie Jones urge in “On Race, Feminism, and Rhetoric: An Introductory/Manifesto Flow… “—”center the voices of feminists of color who are doing the work to ensure our futures” (n.p.). We must, as white women, first be honest with ourselves about how we perpetuate racism in our research and curriculum and, second, figure out how to decentralize whiteness without inflicting further harm. I also wish to manifest my menopausal rage and use force or “bia” to move aside, make room, and go beyond lip service as it concerns decentering whiteness (Howell n.p. ). As Tracee Howell puts it:

 WAKE UP. WAKE UP. WAKE UP AGAIN, WHITE WOMAN.

It’s urgent that we, as white scholars and teachers, figure out how to do the anti-racist and coalitional work Pough and Anderson ask us to do and to do it better. The case study below is one attempt to earnestly dislodge a white supremacist bias by “refusing to accept that gaps and vagaries in the historical [and rhetorical] record are accidental or coincidental” and to apply “bia” (force) to fill those gaps in our curriculum (Sutherland n.p.). We need to support black women and black women’s scholarship and we need to center it in our classrooms. To work towards this, I have studied and recorded the method that a historian outside our field has used to recover—to literally re-write—an erased voice. This ghostwriting method is not my own, and I hope that the voices of the two women I write about here are louder in some respects than my own. In sharing and expounding upon this method, I hope what is clearly one of many “nuanced approaches to dealing with the intersections of race and rhetoric” will contribute to our feminist futures (Pough and Jones n.p.). I yield to “Black Women’s Rhetoric(s)” (see Browdy; if that is what is decided upon as the name of the field), and while I recognize that my attempts to do this work are flawed, I am invested in doing more and doing better.

This move towards decentering whiteness gives us a more accurate representation of our rhetorical past, and it is part of a project in rhetoric and composition that has been ongoing for some time; I put this work in conversation with scholars in rhetoric and composition doing this work (, Adam Banks, Ronisha Browdy, Jessica Enoch, Candace Epps-Robertson, Keith Gilyard, Cheryl Glenn, Tracee Howell, Ronald Jackson, Stephanie Jones, Carmen Kynard, Shirley Wilson Logan, Aja Martinez, Malea Powell, Gwendolyn Pough, Michelle Bachelor Robinson, Elaine Richardson, Joy Ritchie, Kate Ronald, Jacqueline Jones Royster, Vershawn Young) and those outside the discipline (N.D.B. Connolly, Thomas Couser, Cheryl Dunye, Nirmala Ervelles, Emma Perez, Tonia Sutherland). In what follows, I place Black rhetors and Black scholars at the center, decenter white master narratives, and expand the archive to include re-enactments and an oral performance tradition in order to consider rhetoric that may not have been recorded or transcribed. I also offer caution to other white radicals doing racial justice work as participants of a racist academic culture where imagination often acquiesces to, as Malea Powell puts it, the imperial project of collecting knowledge (116). The discussion as to who should be collecting what knowledge is important as well as how our methods can also aim to do things other than that.

Prince Edward County, Virginia, 1951

One of the countless examples of “intentional or unintentional acts of erasure” (Browdy n.p.) includes how most of us don’t yet know to credit Barbara Johns (a.k.a. Barbara Rose Johns Powell) as an early originator of the Civil Rights Movement. But she was. And if we fail to credit Johns, we award the racist Prince Edward Country, VA School Board of the 1950s and 1960s archival amnesty, a concept Sutherland describes as “a homogeneity that privileges, preserves, and reproduces a history that is predominantly white and that silences the voices and histories of marginalized peoples and communities” (17). On April 23, 1951, at age 16, Johns delivered a sobering speech to the student body of Moton High School in Prince Edward County, Virginia that catalyzed a walk-out and strike to protest the unequal conditions (overcrowding, disrepair of buildings, lack of resources, etc.) at their all-black high school. But that’s not all. Once securing the support of the NAACP, the students at Moton went on to file Davis v. Prince Edward County, which became the only student-led initiative consolidated into the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision (Epps-Robertson 14-15; Green 37-56; Kanefield 19-38; Kluger 452-8).

It may come as no surprise that the walk-out speech, which led to a school strike, that Johns’ delivered to over 400 of her high school peers was not recorded. By the early 1950s, we had only just begun what’s called the “magnetic era” in sound recording in which bulky magnetic tape recorders became the norm for consumer and broadcasting markets but likely would not have been available to students at Moton (Kimizuka 197). It was curious to me also, as I began to learn more about this lesser-known part of our past, that not only was there no audio but the original transcript of Johns’ speech was nowhere to be found—whether it be text hand-written by Johns on lined, loose-leaf paper or drafts rehearsed throughout the pages of her diary.

As I embarked on a “deep dive” into this exciting herstory that points to an earlier date to the start of the civil rights movement, historiographic grooves and troughs emerged that not only attend to Sutherland’s call but also to Connolly’s “Black Power Method,” which impels us to further consider how archives can imbibe cultural exclusion. That is, I discovered that I could in fact access Barbara Johns’ transcript from the speech—but without any original recording or transcript, I could only access an oral performance tradition as a re-creation or re-enactment that was pieced together from oral histories and other sources. A documentary film made in 2012 by New Millennium Studios and actor-director Tim Reid about the 1951 student protests became the source from which I could study the historic speech and walk-out as dramatizations (“Behind-the-Scenes”). Tim Reid, as it turns out, reached out to Dr. Cassandra Newby-Alexander, an accomplished and respected historian, to author (a form of ghostwriting) a version of the Johns’ speech that was to be part of the film he produced which is now available for educational purposes at the Moton Museum (which is on the exact site of the school).

But how does a writer go about composing such a re-creation? How can this help us continue to refigure the field’s racist cultural heritage by shifting our sources and rhetors? How might one go about teaching a historiographic activity such as ghostwriting the past or creating dramatized even imaginary archives in order to increase awareness of lesser-known rhetorical histories? In the essay, I am less concerned with the rhetoric of the speech, though that is still important; rather, my focus is on 1) deciphering—via an interview with her—how Dr. Cassandra Newby-Alexander, historian and Dean of Liberal Arts at Norfolk State University, composed the text of Johns’ speech in preparation for its re-enactment; 2) how other writers have composed and can compose similar projects that involve critical imagination and reparative historiography via oral histories and assemblages; 3) and finally, how one might go about using this method as a pedagogical assignment (in the appendix).

Barbara Johns & the Walk-out

Barbara Johns was born in 1935 on 129th Street in Harlem, but her family went back generations to Darlington Heights in Prince Edward County, Virginia which lay half-way between Lynchburg and Richmond. This southwestern sector of the county was known as Black Bottom (possibly because the land had been tapped out of its nutrients from hundreds of years of tobacco farming), and Barbara and her five siblings went to live with her maternal grandmother Ma (Mary) Croner while her father served in World War II. Ma Croner recalls that “[Barbara] didn’t have a lot of put-on airs about her. She was a country girl, not some flirty thing worrying about her clothes” (Kluger 452-4). Eventually, the family would reunite and move into an attached apartment to the store that Vernon Johns, who has been documented as being her biggest influence, owned. Barbara would wait on customers and, like her uncle, is said to have reserved no respect for the white man.

By all accounts, Barbara Johns was a pioneering youth leader at a time before youth leadership had fully gained national traction as it would in the 1960s. Formed in 1935, an organization called the American Youth Congress produced a Declaration of Rights of American Youth, which they presented in front of the U.S. Congress and which did include advocacy for civil rights for black people; however, young African Americans, though part of that movement, were not its leaders. Historian Sekou Franklin, who charts the black-led youth movements in the twentieth century, lists the NAACP Youth Council (1936-present) and the Southern Negro Youth Congress (1937-1949) as two organizations which precede the Moton speech and walk-out. In looking for connections between the Moton walk-out and national movements, Franklin does list the Youth March for Integrated Schools (1958-9) which, though seven years after the Moton walk-out, took place in Washington D.C. and included addresses by Dr. King. Additionally, connections can be made to contemporary youth activism where children and youth carry on the tradition of positing themselves as agents who produce their own discourse. For too long, our scholarship in rhetoric has tended to not only erase voices of color but has also undervalued the rhetoric of children and youth (Applegarth; Ryder).

Because Johns was highly influenced by her uncle, Reverend Vernon Johns, it is likely that she was indeed aware of these precursor youth organizations. She also was likely aware of how black people in Prince Edward County had been petitioning the school board as early as 1882 (which would mean for the past 69 years) (Epps-Robertson 14) and how Black Colleges had been revolting against ideological, curricular and material white domination on their campuses since the 1920s (Wolters). Barbara’s uncle held a master’s degree from University of Chicago, was known as the “father” of the civil rights movement, and as the “apostle of armed racial self-defence” (Luker 29). He had preceded Dr. King as Pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, led an uncompromising campaign for civil and human rights, and had preached many progressive even radical sermons that his niece no doubt heard such as “It is Safe to Murder Negros in Montgomery” (Branch 54). Due to his honest rhetoric, the family had been under fire, literally, before Barbara led the strike. Protest was not only a survival technology but also a tradition (Banks 18).

Barbara recalled her relationship with her uncle, who it was said “stimulated her mental development” (Kluger 456): “We’d always be on opposite sides in an argument. I’m afraid we were both very antagonistic” (Kluger 601). She read Up From Slavery and Native Son, and after graduating from the one room, wooden schoolhouse that stood on the perimeter of her grandmother’s land, she began to make her way every morning ten miles to Robert R. Moton High School in Farmville. That is, after completing all the lady-of-the-house chores (mending, farm work, child-rearing; her mother had left for D.C. in order to find work), she caught the segregated school bus, which took her to the all-black school. Often, the bus broke down. Or, if she missed the bus, the white bus would pass her by, and she’d have to walk the ten miles. Soon after joining the chorus, drama group, and New Homemakers of America, Barbara began to express dissatisfaction with the inequality she experienced at the segregated school. Students experienced overcrowding, disrepair of buildings—rain coming through the roof—inadequate heat, inadequate transportation to school, and a general lack of resources. Johns explains:

I decided to tell music teacher Ms. Inez Davenport. I told her how sick and tired I was of the inadequate buildings and facilities and how I wished to hell—profane in speaking t0 her, but that’s how I felt—something could be done about it. After  hearing me out, she asked simply, ‘Why don’t you do something about it?’ I didn’t ask her what she meant—I don’t know why. Soon the little wheels began turning in my mind. I decided to use the student council” (Kluger 468; Robert R. Moton exhibit, 2019).

Johns explains how her thinking transpired:

The plan I felt was divinely inspired because I hadn’t been able to think of anything until then. The plan was to assemble together the student council members….From this, we would formulate plans to go on strike. We would make signs and I would give a speech stating our dissatisfaction and we would march out [of] the school and people would hear us and see us and understand our difficulty and would sympathize with our plight and would grant us our new school building and our teachers would be proud and the students would learn more and it would be grand…. (Robert R. Moton exhibit).

Shortly before 11am on April 23, 1951, the plan began with a fictitious call and request to Principal Jones asking him to come down to the Greyhound bus station to deal with two students who were in trouble with the law. Meanwhile, the strike committee sent notes to each classroom so that students would assemble in the auditorium, and soon approximately 450 students and 25 teachers gathered to hear what Barbara Johns had to say…

Walk-Out Speech by Barbara Johns, April 23rd, 1951

Transcript of Re-enactment, written by Dr. Cassandra Newby-Alexander, 2012

 

1  Would you all pls stand and join me in the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag. I would now like

2  for all the teachers to please be excused. This is a meeting for the students to talk about the

3  bad conditions here at Robert R Moton High School. I ask that all the teachers please leave.

4  Before we begin, we don’t want any of you to get in trouble with the school board or lose your

5  jobs. So, before we begin, please leave.

 

6  May I have your attention please. Fellow students. Many of you know me. I am Barbara

7  Johns. For too long, we have quietly accepted the hand me downs that end up in this school. I

8  say no longer. My uncle Dr. Vernon Johns always told me that all right minded people must

9  stand up and demand that they will no longer remain second class citizens. For years, our

10  parents, teachers, ministers, and community leaders have tried to convince the school board

11  to provide us with a decent place to learn. Some of you don’t know how bad our school is

12  compared to even other colored schools. I’ve been to Huntingon High School and Newport

13  News and Soloman Russel High School in Lawrenceville and I can tell you we’ve been given

14  crumbs from the table. These schools have cafeterias, lockers, showers, a gymnasium and

15  enough classrooms for all of their students. Some of them even  have science labs and a

16  boiler room to heat the entire school. And what do we have? We have leaky roofs, wood

17  burning stoves and overcrowded classrooms. How can we sit back and be satisfied?

 

18  Farmville HS sits a few blocks away but it might as well be another country. What the county

19  leaders provide the white students is what we can only dream of at Robert R Moton High

20  School. There are some who tell us that we should be content with what we have. That some

21  day in the future things will be better. When will that day happen? For five years,

22  superintendent Mackelwayne promised that we would have a new school. But for us here in

23  Farmville, the money is never there while it’s poured into the white schools. Some of our

24  boys from the vocational program visited the shop at Farmville High. I heard them talking

25  about what that school had and how angry they were because of all of the equipment,

26 supplies and space there. For days, I layed in bed thinking how unfair it was. And then I

27 remembered the most dangerous thing we can do is sit back and say that we have no problem.

28 I’ve prayed for help and decided that it was time to strike.

 

29 Three years ago, When the adults confronted the school board about the continuing delay

30 about the rebuilding of our school, what happened? What did they give us? Tar paper shacks?

31 That is what they make chicken coops out of. Are we animals deserving nothing better than a

32  chicken coop? As citizens don’t we deserve better? Do you want to spend the rest of your

33  highschool years trying to learn in crowded classrooms and tar paper shacks? Why should we

34  shiver in class with coats on or have to use umbrellas in the classroom when it rains while the

35  others student are surrounded by warm, clean, dry modern brick buildings? Why should we

36  have to leave for school an hour early every day because we have so few buses that are small,

37  second hand and hardly run? Why do we have to crowd into this school while on the other

38  side of town, white students have lockers and adequate heating and a cafeteria and all that is

39  expected of a public school?

 

40  Aren’t you tired of these conditions? Aren’t you tired of us getting all these broken down

41  desks and worn books? Who will come to our rescue? Not the white people of this town. Do

42  they care about us? Not the teachers whose jobs depend on their acceptance of this unequal

43  system. And it can’t be our parents because they are at risk if they challenge how we are

44  treated in this town.

 

45  It is we who must come to our own rescue. We are the future of the colored race. We must

46  find within ourselves the courage to say no to those who say we must remain content with

47  these conditions. Our parents tell us to be good students. In church we are told to read the

48  bible. The bible says that a little child will lead. I say that now it is the time that children

49  must lead. Because I believe that god is on our side. And, the bible says we that must take

50  our inheritance. I believe our inheritance includes decent schools that are just as good as the

51  schools here in Prince Edward County. Weren’t we taught that the Declaration of

52  Independence says all of us are created equal? It’s time we stood up and made people in

53  Farmville listen to us.

 

54  The Farmville jail is not big enough to hold us all. And if you will join with me, together we

55  can challenge these injustices. Only with one voice can we hope to change the system.

56  Together we can  show the world that we will no longer live like slaves in America. We will

57  no longer suffer in silence. With injustice all around us while whites blindly ignore our

58  misery and yet pledge liberty and justice for all. I call upon you, my classmates, to step out

59  with the courage and the belief that god is on our side. Let the people here in Prince Edward

60  County hear our cries. I believe the others will join us. The NAACP may come and once they

61  see how determined we are, not to fear and never give up until we have equality in our

62  schools. We must have no fear. Let our action be a symbol for others. But it is only together

63  that we can achieve this goal. Join me and let us make for a better future. Don’t be afraid.

We 64  must walk out we must walk out now and not come back until the school board honors our

65  promises. We must strike for a better education. Follow us. Just follow us out now.

 

This definitive call to action accomplishes an intertextual feat that defers to cultural legacies. As Elaine Richardson and Ronald Jackson put it, these “persuasive strategies [are] rooted in freedom struggles by people of African Ancestry in America” (xiii). Newby-Alexander joins with Johns to orchestrate a multi-voiced rhetoric that has strength and directness, not fear, not kowtowing, not wavering. We might identify Johns’ tenaciousness and determination as “bringing wreck,” or, as Pough tells us, those “moments when Black women’s discourses disrupt dominant masculine discourses, break into the public sphere, and in some way impact or influence the United States imaginary” (12). It is clear that she is nowhere near as fiery as her uncle, Reverend Vernon Johns, but is just as impassioned. Not only does the rhetoric look back, but it also compels the action (the walk-out) while foretelling another great rhetor, Fannie Lou Hamer, and her mantra of “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired” without actually saying that. Because Johns speaks to an all-black audience, there is little indication of the rhetorical practice of signifyin(g) or use of coded language other than her not saying outright how sick and tired she is.

As Royster notes, “over the generations, African American women’s achievements as language users have been surprisingly consistent” (Traces 5). Elaine Richardson and Ronald Jackson comment that African American discourse is “already polyphonous” (xiii). Many more African American rhetorics emerge from Johns’ (Newby-Alexander’s) plea to action, including a rhetoric of: “it’s up to us” or “only we can do this.” This discourse of “racial uplift’s inward gaze” (Logan 153) is present explicitly in the lines “we must come to our own rescue.” The multi-voiced call to action utilizes accumulation, climax, rhetorical questions, antithesis, anaphora, parallelism, polysyndeton, metonymy and more, which can be viewed as coming from the Greek tradition in name but are also tracible to repetition and other schemes that derive from African-based knowledge (Ampadu 137;143).

As they begin the speech using “I,” there is a quick transition into “we” to spotlight the fact that unity is necessary—but it is the in-the-room “we” who share common interests, not the “we” of the white elite (Cliett 171). Also, the indicators of time which include phrases like “few blocks,” “for years,”and “three years ago,” all lead up to the “we must walk out now.” This operates as the data that propels climax and accumulation into action. There is much descriptive detail of the injustice at hand which attempts to rouse emotion but also to shore up objectivity since description is, to a certain extent, “fact” (Logan 71). As Newby-Alexander will explain in the following section, the decisions she made were relevant to how she understood Johns as an individual, as an individual within the historical moment, and as an someone whose acts are immersed in cultural legacy.

Ghostwriting the Speech Re-enactment/Dramatization

The speech, however, is not the original text Johns had written that day and delivered to over 400 students at Moton High School. Rather, it is the words of a ghostwriter. The ghostwritten text was used for a dramatization in a 2012 documentary film. In the next sections, I will offer some context as to how this ghostwriting came to be via knowledge gained from my interview with the writer, and then I will delve into the re-enactment itself and its rhetoric. On the exact site in Farmville where Barbara Johns led the walkout now stands a National Historic Landmark and museum which “preserves and constructively interprets the history of Civil Rights in Education, specifically as it relates to Prince Edward County, and the leading role its citizens played in America’s transition from segregation toward integration” (Moton Museum). Actor/writer/director Tim Reid (Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings, Greenleaf, Treme, WKRP in Cincinnati, and more) directed Strike: A Call to Action: The Dramatic Story of the 1951 Student Strike (2012), an educational documentary for the museum that retells the story of student protest against segregation in Prince Edward County—the film includes a dramatization of the Barbara Johns’ speech and walk-out. But because the author of the speech re-enactment was not credited at the end of the film, at first it wasn’t an easy feat to identify who the author was.

Thankfully, Cainan Townsend, who is Director of Education and Public Programs at the Moton Museum, directed me to one Dr. Cassandra Newby-Alexander, who was indeed the writer of the re-enactment speech. By the time I finally had the honor of interviewing her in June of 2019, I was overjoyed. Dr. Newby-Alexander—an accomplished and respected historian—is a Professor of History, Dean of the College of Liberal Arts, and Director of the Joseph Jenkins Roberts Center for African Diaspora Studies at Norfolk State University, as well as the author of many monographs, two of which include An African American History of the Civil War in Hampton Roads (2010) and Virginia Waterways and the Underground Railroad (2017). Tim Reid had reached out to Dr. Newby-Alexander to author a version of the Johns’ speech that was to be part of the film he produced. A clip of the making of the re-enactment can be viewed here (“Behind the Scenes”). The transcript follows:

My interview with Newby-Alexander, the author/ghostwriter of Johns’ speech, reveals a method replicable for other writers who want to ghostwrite speeches. Newby-Alexander appears to proceed along a trajectory that includes the following steps:

  1.  identify main motivating factors in the rhetor
  2.  identify main influences in the life of the rhetor
  3.  spend time with the people who were closest to them; listen deeply to them
  4. gather and absorb sources (primary documents like diaries, newspaper articles, oral histories, biographical material written by secondary sources          ***all the above have the main goal of trying to understand who the rhetor was.
  5. attempt to channel the rhetor
  6. take leaps.

Newby-Alexander works to figure out what guides Johns’ life; she asks why she did what she did. She explained to me that she not only tried to understand Johns’ motivations but also to listen deeply to those around her including her siblings. She explains:

I’m always asking the question why. Why would a person do this? What motivate you differently than the other. The siblings were close, and so there’s a similarity in their that I thought she would say what she said. (Newby-Alexander )

Johns’ uncle, Reverend Vernon Johns, loomed large in the life of the rhetor, and therefore traces of him would make sense to include in the speech. Newby-Alexander’s thinking is key to historical ethnography as conceived by Jacqueline Jones Royster, where the writer and researcher tries to make sense of lives and experiences (Royster 257). Newby-Alexander explains,

[Reid] had his producer send me a number…of presentations talking about what [the students’] objective was. Everything else was from other people talking about that event, and so I read all of that and I remember thinking this was giving me an understanding of what happened overall but it’s not telling me what she [Barbara Johns] said. It’s not telling me what motivated her because she was a very quiet, studious and unassuming individual. She wasn’t a rabble rousing; you kind of expect her to rabble rouse, but that wasn’t her. And so there was some mention by her in what I was reading that talked about how her uncle [Reverend Vernon Johns] had influenced her. And so I looked up info about her uncle and I started reading what he had said…and I realized she was very much influenced by him. That his position resonated with her in a way that probably motivated her to do what she did. Not that he was in control of any of it, but rather he inspired her.

Newby-Alexander is tapping into sasa time, the culturally imprinted voice known by those still alive as well as those past (Traces 79). The rhetoric is embedded and passed on in practices (Traces 88). Newby-Alexander continues to explain that,

…all of us are influenced by one or two people at our core. I’ve interviewed 200 to 300 people over the years and filmed 40-50 interviews with the Supreme Court of Virginia [as part of] an oral history project. And when you find out [who influenced them], you see how it guides their lives, perception, interpretation, philosophy.

The question as to how Barbara Johns asked the teachers to leave the room (see lines 3-5 of the speech) is unsettled. It may be only one of two approximations in the Newby-Alexander’s reconstruction that I noticed from my research where slightly contradictory narratives existed on the subject. Did Johns shout at the teachers when asking them to leave the auditorium so that she could deliver the speech without their presence? Or did she politely ask them to leave? Taylor Branch writes, “I want you all out of here! she shouted at the teachers, beckoning a small cadre of her supporters to remove them from the room” (76). But Newby-Alexander comments that,

I felt that she was a very respectful person. And so the challenge was how to get her to say get out of the room. You know, that’s now what she would say.

And how would this young girl be able to convince teachers to leave? That was probably the toughest part of what I wrote because I was trying to figure out how would she have asked them to leave. And so everything that I read led me to think that she probably would have phrased it like that. But nobody actually said that in all the oral accounts and people’s memories. They all said she asked them to leave, and they left, but nobody said what she said to them to get them to leave. And so I was really stretching out on that one. That was the toughest part.

Branch interprets Johns as having a fiery temperament like her uncle (76), yet John Stokes, one of the strike committee members says “she had a quietness” but was persuasive (Kluger 468, Newby-Alexander). In addition to not knowing how, for certain, the teachers were asked to leave, Newby-Alexander concluded that the speech she ghost-wrote may have been a “little preachy,” which would certainly align with the fact that Barbara Johns’ biggest influence was considered one of the greatest African American preachers of all time, her uncle Vernon Johns.

In situating the speech within the Black Jeremiad tradition, it evokes a multitude of African American rhetorical topoi such as, but not limited to: assemblage/mixed tape (Banks), emphasis on solution, optimism, call and response, protest/defiance/agitation, the chosen ones, hypocrisy of dominant white culture, common enemy, emphasis on tradition, posting grievances, stories/fabrication (Gilyard, 3-17). This last topos of fabrication-as-a-boon edifies what Newby-Alexander is doing as the ghost-writer. The re-invention of the speech is a fabrication but not a falsehood. Her method of using critical imagination and deep listening to fill in gaps is part of the requisite work needed if we are going to “locate” (Connolly) and “correct the past” (Sutherland). Assemblage is also important for Newby-Alexander. She explains that:

I felt that I had gotten all the pieces together and I wrote from what I could, and that I could understand who she was and what motivated her because nobody had recorded the speech. You know, they only mention that she had excused the teachers from the room. And I thought, given how she was how would she have actually asked them to leave? So much of this, stories don’t have a opportunity to be historically created…I knew I had to take some real serious leaps, but strangely I felt comfortable doing that once I read all that I could about her and her uncle and the world she lived and the people around her. I listened to the interviews with her brother and her sister. I felt like I had gotten close to understanding. (Newby-Alexander)

What Newby-Alexander speaks of is similar to Royster’s method of historical ethnography where Royster perfects the research process of triangulating and cross referencing (257; 282-3). Akin to this is the “rhetoric of remnants” developed in Stuckey’s work where rhetorics of the past must be woven together from disparate and incomplete, sometimes even absent, evidence. Often we have to reconcile an incomplete or inconsistent historical record.

Newby-Alexander reveals that she was moved to “channel” her subject. She goes on to explain:

So I took that [inspiration she must have received from her uncle Vernon Johns], and in a kind of weird way, I almost thought that I was channeling her—the memory of what she did as I wrote this.

I knew her brother and sister were [at the opening of the film] and some of the friends…I was so ecstatic when I heard [them say], ‘well, yea, that is how it happened, that’s what she said.’ I was happy that I was somehow able to capture her essence and to some degree who she was.

Did Barbara Johns have a podium as the film depicts? Probably. Did she slam her shoe against it to get everyone to quiet down? Maybe. In the monumental film entitled Africa’s Great Civilizations (“The Atlantic Age” episode), Henry Louis Gates uses the term “approximate” to describe doing the work of uncovering histories. Royster speaks of “presence & traces” (Traces 4). We must continue to adjust our methods in these ways to be sure we do history equitably.

Archival Ghostwriting, Imaginary Archives, & Dramatizations

Like doing “approximate” histories, ghostwriting is also nothing new. According to Brown and Riley, ghostwriting not only has been around since antiquity but also has direct ties to the origins of rhetoric (711). In their study delving into perceptions of ghostwriting, they discover that people generally approve of it but that nearly all of the responsibility for what is in a ghostwritten speech lies with the speech giver/rhetor, not the writer (718). That may be true for ghostwriters of politicians. However, in a case study such as that of the Barbara Johns’ re-creation and others like it, the notion of responsibility reverses, and we begin to understand how much responsibility the writer and researcher does indeed hold. Thomas Couser names this kind of work “autobiographical collaboration” (335). He concedes that, of course, there are different kinds and degrees of collaboration, but in autobiographical collaborations, most often one member supplies the “life” while the other provides the “writing” (335). We can also view collaboration and re-creation as a sort of—what Emma Perez calls in The Decolonial Imaginary—“dialectics of doubling” (32-3). Newby-Alexander does a certain kind of doubling of Johns where a new, imagined history is created through the performative act of ghostwriting. While Perez discusses the Yucatan Feminist Congresses of 1916 and “voiced grievances,” we’re both examining the creation of a “third space” where enunciation (rhetoric) happens (Perez 32-3).

So many more examples of “doubling” exist in women’s rhetoric. In “Imaginary Archives: A Dialogue,” Julia Bryan-Wilson interviews Cheryl Dunye, film-maker and artist known for her 1996 film entitled The Watermelon Woman, where Dunye herself plays a young Black lesbian who tries to make a film about a lesser-known Black actress named Fae Richards from the 1930s but discovers there is not enough factual evidence for a documentary. Dunye thus creates a fictional photo archive (78 prints by Zoe Leonard) of the actress after discovering that the Lesbian Herstory Archive had no African American women in Hollywood in it and the Library of Congress had African American women in Hollywood but no lesbians (Bryan-Wilson 83). The fictitious images “appear to be actual historical documents, including everything from her promotional headshots to casual snapshots of her with friends, family, and lovers. Leonard’s images are poignant re-creations of a life we have scant evidence of” (83).

Moreover, Dunye’s method of re-creation is similar to what Tonia Sutherland explores in “From (Archival) Page to (Virtual) Stage: The Virtual Vaudeville Prototype.” Sutherland explains how if we privilege more than just text-based documents, as we often do, we exclude those histories and communities that have produced temporal events like performances (393). She describes a project created by David Saltz called “Live Performance Simulation System Virtual Vaudeville Prototype” that uses digital technology with real actors to re-create the live performance that no longer exists in the archive. This way, those performances can be both experienced and archived (396). Like virtual reality, live immersive reality can fill gaps in history and rhetoric too. In “Performing the Archival Body: Inciting Queered Feminist (Dis)locational Rhetorics Through Place-Based Pedagogies,” Bentley and Lee concur with the idea that the “traditional archival paradigm” must be contested. They facilitate pop-up archival performances that do not privilege “perfect” or “pure” tellings of history (191).

A few more projects to mention include the University of Minnesota’s “Ancient Greek Rhetoric in Immersive Virtual Reality,” which aims to “produce and evaluate accurate virtual reconstructions of ancient Greek sites of rhetorical performance” (the term “accurate” is contestable when considering history as rhetorical) and North Carolina State University’s Virtual Martin Luther King Project, which includes re-enactments of the delivery of Dr. King’s speeches and more. Well known examples of approximations and refigurings include Glenn’s work on Aspasia and Ronald and Ritchie’s discussion of Truth’s “Ain’t I A Woman.” Mandzuik and Fitch expand on “the rhetorical construction of Sojourner Truth” by theorizing how both transformation (redefinition) and transfiguration (exultation and abstraction) are products of the “double layer of facts and happenings surrounding her character with no accounts of her own to balance them” except for her Narrative which was told to a white friend (120-1).

Not to mention, we’re seeing more African American history in pop culture (e.g., Watchmen re-works the Tulsa Race Riot; To Kill a Mockingbird on Broadway gives voices to both Calpurnia and Tom Robinson when Lee’s original novel does not). The Underground Railroad TV series re-imagines an hour long speech by Harriet Tubman to white abolitionists. There exist many other virtual and augmented reality, immersive technology, and performance and collaborative projects that I am unable to fully explore here. See a short list of additional sources in the appendix, including more on methods. Aja Martinez’s dramatization of her in conversation at the table of Octalog I is another such method that is what she calls “counterstory” (71-2). Clearly, ghostwriting, critical imagination, and dramatizations are key to creating a more equitable archive and present moment. As Sutherland reminds us, “If archives are to mitigate vagaries in the cultural record by utilizing digital tools and new media technologies, archivists and researchers must create the space needed for variable cultural forms and expressions to coexist within the same systems” (413).

Conclusion

It is clear that we must persist in our efforts to identify lesser-known histories and rhetorics so that we can continue to refigure our cultural heritage. Equally, if we fail to credit or know Barbara Johns, we award the racist Prince Edward Country, VA School Board of the 1950s and 1960s archival amnesty (Sutherland). We cannot allow the field of rhetoric to continue to operate by giving amnesty to what feels like an unrelenting white supremacy. Case in point: although the Moton students had in fact received a new building in 1953, these federal civil rights victories made white people resist even more. In 1956, Virginia adopted a policy called “Massive Resistance”—whose main advocate, U.S. Senator Harry F. Byrd, still has a highway in Virginia named after him (McRae). This particular white supremacist movement gained strength in Prince Edward County when the white-led School Board voted in 1954 to close all public schools rather than integrate them. To circumvent federal law, white people then diverted funds from the closed public schools in order to open an all-white private school while Black students in the county were left without state supported education for the five years (see Epps-Robertson). To fill the gap—where only the most fascist states in the world failed to provide free education to youth—the Black communities rallied to create Prince Edward County Free School Association. Finally, in 1964, a supreme court decision ruled against the Prince Edward County school board and ordered the opening and integration of all county schools.

But 13 years before that Barbara John’s delivered her speech to 450 classmates. This was before Claudette Colvin, at age 15 ,was arrested for resisting bus segregation in 1955. This was nine months before Rosa Parks, before the Little Rock Nine in 1957 (students aged 15 to 17), before Ruby Bridges (at age 6, escorted by federal marshals to integrate all-white school in New Orleans, 1960), before John Lewis (at age 20, founding member of SNCC, leader of 1960 Nashville sit-in movement), before Diane Nash (at age 22, chairperson of the 1960 Nashville sit-in movement), before the Children’s Crusade (1963) where 100 Black children marched in Birmingham.

While most of our timelines put the modern civil rights era between 1954-1968, it is clear that Barbara Johns should be “Overlooked No More” (Booth). Branch writes, “Had the [Moton] student strike begun ten or 15 years later, Barbara Johns would have become something of a phenomenon in the public media. In that era, however, the case remained muffled in white consciousness, and the schoolgirl origins of the lawsuit were lost as well on nearly all…outside Prince Edward County” (65). The first ever Barbara Johns day was celebrated in Virginia on April 23, the day of the speech and walk-out. A building in Capitol Square which houses the Office of the Attorney General in Richmond was named for her. Her statue is central to the Civil Rights Memorial in Richmond in Capitol Square, and yet another statue will soon replace the Robert E. Lee monument that had been inside the Capitol building since 1909. This is all part of de-centering whiteness. Ghostwriting and imaginative reconstruction can serve important social and racial justice aims in and out of the classroom when there are gaps and silences which need to be filled. It’s a call to de-centralize the white rhetorical imaginary via counterstories (Martinez 404). This work is part of the urgent call for truth and reconciliation in rhetoric.

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Additional Sources & Projects

“Ancient Greek Rhetoric in Immersive Virtual Reality.” University of Minnesota’s Supercomputing Institute. https://www.msi.umn.edu/research/ancient-greek-rhetoric-          immersive-virtual-reality

Auslander, Mark. “Touching the Past: Materializing Time in Traumatic ‘Living History’ Reenactments.” Signs and Society, vol. 1, no. 1, 2013, pp. 161-83.

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Gutenson, Leah DiNatale and Michelle Bachelor Robinson. “Race, Women, Methods, and Access: A Journey through Cyberspace and Back. Peitho, vol. 19, no. 1, 2016, pp. 71-92. https://cfshrc.org/article/race-women-methods-and-access-a-journey-through-cyberspace-and-back/

Mandziuk, Roseann M., and Suzanne Pullon Fitch. “The Rhetorical Construction of Sojourner Truth.” Southern Journal of Communication, vol. 66, no. 2, 2001, 120-38.

Sims, David. “A New Way of Looking at To Kill a Mockingbird.” The Atlantic. 17 Dec. 2019. https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2019/12/aaron-sorkin-finds-new-edge-to-kill-mockingbird/603652/

Sutherland, Tonia. “Restaging the Record: Opportunities for Collaboration in Event-Based Archivy,” Annual Review of Cultural Heritage Informatics, edited by Samantha K. Hastings, 2014.”Virtual Martin Luther King, Jr. Project.” North Carolina State University. https://vmlk.chass.ncsu.edu/experience/historical/archive/

Woods, Carly S. “Barbara Jordan and the Ongoing Struggle for Voting Rights.” Quarterly Journal of Speech, vol. 106, no. 3, 2020, pp. 291-298.

Appendix

I.: Pedagogical Assignment –

From this research, ideas for classroom exercises emerged. How could I re-create some of Dr. Newby Alexander’s methods in a rhetoric and writing classroom? How would her method help writing and rhetoric students understand how critical imagination and ghostwriting work in historiography? What ethical issues would arise? Would it work to have students brainstorm historical figures whose rhetoric had been forgotten or sidelined so the students could then re-imagine, re-create or ghostwrite a historically accurate speech that would write that person back into history?

I’d highly recommend this assignment which can work well alongside rhetorical and stylistic considerations, such as audience, constraints, dialect, purpose, but even more importantly, alongside a curriculum that decenters whiteness. Anti-racist teaching must saturate this assignment. Ethical considerations will, no doubt, arise such as having to decide if students are able to write across identities. Contemplating writing “as” others must coincide with discussion of risks and problems inherent in that. I have used this as a lesson in discussing “who can and should write for whom?” This usually leads into a discussion of how Hollywood needs to hire more writers of color to coincide with their needing to be more characters of color on film and tv. Another question that might emerge is “who is at will to take leaps in understanding?” This can become an exercise in acknowledging one’s inability to fully understand others and the ethical urgency for not just more diverse representations but a knowledge-making that evolves from more diverse origins. After spending some time studying rhetoric from the standpoint of gaps, silences, counterstories, and anti-racist refigurings, here’s how I pitched this work:

Speechwriting Mini-Workshop on Imaginative Reconstruction

For this activity, you will choose an event and a person/character, then you will deliver a short speech of 250 words or less. The process, which will be recursive, will include:

      • researching the person and event
      • planning the speech
      • composing it
      • revising it
      • practicing the delivery
      • delivering it

1. Choose a historical event and a central character. 

Choose someone or something that will fill in a gap in history. You are the ghostwriter for someone. I’d prefer it was a real person, but a fictional (though believable) character and event is an option as well. Try to keep it connected to some of the themes we’ve discussed so far, or you can connect it to your research project (if you know what that is).

Example: Historians recently found a speech written by Phyllis Wheatley, the eighteenth century poet, that condemns her mistress for enslaving her.

Example: Oprah is entering the Presidential race and giving a speech to the nation announcing her candidacy.

Example: Kittur Rani Chennamma, a nineteenth century Queen from Mysore, India gives a speech before she goes into battle against the British.

Example: Agnes Sampson, a woman killed for witchcraft in the North Berwick witch  trials of 1591 in Scotland, gives a speech from the stake.

Example: Shirley Chisholm is still alive and writes an election speech in 2020.

Example: Mrs. Margaret Park of Wigan giving a speech in England against the 1842 Act         that prohibited “Pit-Brow” women from working in the mines.

2. Plan

Brainstorm and research background details about the historical event. Spend some time researching the event and person. Take notes and keep a record of sources to include in your transcript.

Describe the rhetorical and material situation. Who are the audiences? What are the constraints? What is the purpose? Where is the setting? Describe the time and place of the setting, as well as the time in which the person lives. What other historical or material context exists that will impact the speech?

Describe the person or character. What is the person like? Their traits, tendencies, values, etc.?

Describe the language and style they’d most likely use. What are their speech patterns? What words might they use? Syntax and rhetorical figures?

3. Compose

As you compose, consider:

        • Write to be spoken; not a policy paper
        • Give one or two ideas, not ten
        • Give them two or three takeaways
        • Be Memorable
        • Have a structure
        • Don’t waste the opening
        • Strike the right tone
        • Humanize
        • Repeat yourself with variability – hammer things home
        • Use transitions (signal phrases)
        • Include theatrics
        • End strong

4.Deliver

How might the person read a speech? What volume would they speak with? What bodily movements or gestures might they make?

In practicing, find a partner to read it to more than once. Go back and revise where needed. Follow guidelines from our readings:

      • Be fully present when giving it
      • Be sincere; have oral authenticity
      • Emphasize words and phrases
      • Use eye contact
      • Look around the room
      • Pause when needed; pause frequently

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.

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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.

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