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 19768, 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 speech9 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 197110. 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 Nordlinger12 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 do15 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.

Works Cited

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  • Glenn, Cheryl, and Krista Ratcliffe. “Introduction: Why silence and listening are important rhetorical arts.” Silence and listening as rhetorical arts. Southern Illinois University Press, 2011. 1-19.     -return to text
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“We Want to Be Intersectional”: Asian American College Students’ Extracurricular Rhetorical Education

At a recent meeting of UC Irvine’s South Asia and Diaspora Student Association (SADSA),1 two members presented their research on the demographic characteristics of the eight South Asian countries along with details about the living conditions of queer, Indigenous, and undocumented populations there. As one presenter noted, they called attention to how these different positionalities interact with nationality because they “want[ed] to be intersectional.” Joining the meeting as a graduate student researcher, I noted this interesting use of “intersectional.” I have applied this descriptor to a specific intellectual legacy: rooted in Black women’s theorizing and activism, an intersectional feminist approach asserts that categories of oppression, such as race and gender, are imbricated and thereby create particular material conditions.2 “Intersectionality” was famously coined by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989. The term has since traveled beyond feminist and legal criticism and has, at times, been applied as a clumsy alternative to BIPOC or minoritized—as in, recruiting “intersectional people” to meet institutional diversity goals. However, the SADSA members’ use implied an orientation to experience and knowledge aligned with the term’s Black feminist origins. I interpreted “being intersectional,” then, to mean approaching the world with the foundational assertion that elements of a person’s positionality (e.g., South Asian, college student, woman, biological sciences major, able-bodied) co-constitute that person’s relationships to systems of power. SADSA’s collective exploration of South Asian nations, therefore, recognized the heterogeneous experiences of “nationality” as inflected by histories of migration, colonization, and marginalization.

In this article, I explore how three Asian American3 student groups, including SADSA, work to create spaces of intellectual and social belonging through their longing “to be intersectional.” I argue that these student groups’ efforts are forms of extracurricular rhetorical education: each group employs “intersectionality” (although only SADSA names it as such) to understand their positions as speaking and writing subjects who are always already embedded within systems of power. “Intersectionality” serves as an epistemological and discursive method that is core to how these students relate to one another and to their experiences in university settings. Not all the students and groups I spent time with connected their extracurricular efforts to intersectional feminist analysis and its foundations in Black feminism. My interest in their use of “intersectionality,” then, resides in their desire to collectively produce knowledge that is informed by their lived experiences as raced, gendered subjects.

The construction “be intersectional” resembles the imperative of Aimee Carrillo Rowe’s “be longing”: “two words, placed beside each other, not run together, phrases a command. The command is to ‘be’ ‘longing,’ not to be still, or be quiet, but to be longing” (16). Carrillo Rowe calls this a “resistive hailing,” turning Louis Althusser’s formulation on its head. She continues, “So the command of this ‘reverse interpellation’ is to call attention to the politics at stake in our belonging, and to envision an alternative” (16). For instance, SADSA members long to belong to one another. They recognize not only that their coalition of South Asian students claim different countries of origin but also that blanket characterizations of these origins can mask uneven distributions of power—hence, a longing to “be intersectional.” In enacting resistive hailings, the three student groups discussed here instantiate their belonging to each other, the campus, and the U.S. nation-state through collective rhetorical practices. By identifying these students’ activities as self-sponsored rhetorical education, I aim to extend scholarship that considers how and where people learn strategies for civic-engaged writing and speaking, especially among those who have been historically marginalized in traditional sites of education. For example, in their article on the UCI Muslim Student Union’s activism, Jonathan Alexander and Susan Jarratt trace these students’ rhetorical genealogies and examine the various influences—mostly non-curricular—on their perspectives and tactics. In my research, I have found that students’ rhetorical educations are formed dialogically between the curricular and extracurricular.

Also significant in this analysis is the concept of counterpublics: student group gatherings and communications become spaces to critique totalizing narratives of Asians in America and to generate alternative knowledges about Asian American history and current conditions, within the university environment and beyond. Nancy Fraser includes material conditions and physical spaces alongside the circulation of written discourse in her conception of subaltern counterpublics; she counts bookstores, research centers, and conventions as part of a U.S.  feminist subaltern counterpublic (67). Because my study centers the immediacy of embodied experience in student groups’ extracurricular activities and knowledge production, I am also building upon work that has linked student performance and writing. Jenn Fishman et al. show that through activities from “spoken-word events and slam poetry competitions to live radio broadcasts, public speaking, and theatrical presentations . . . [students’] embodying writing through voice, gesture, and movement can help early college students learn vital lessons about literacy” (226). My research participants’ mutual education practices represent learning that influences their formal college educations but also extends into their social and professional lives. Through these club gatherings—embodied assemblages of learners, teachers, and collaborators—students reflect critically on their positionalities as twenty-first century Asian American college students.

The findings presented in this article are selected from a larger, IRB-approved ethnography that I conducted during academic years 2018–19 and 2019–20. My study asked how and whether extracurricular student groups serve as sites for literacy learning. Foregrounding this research is my own positionality: I identify as Asian American, specifically hapa or mixed-race Asian; my undergraduate extracurricular activities, in groups like the Hapa Club, were significantly in dialogue with my curricular learning. I contacted UCI student groups who focus on aspects of Asian America and racial, cultural, and national affiliations. After receiving permission to attend meetings, I functionally joined several groups, introducing myself to club members as both a graduate researcher and a fellow club participant. I attended (and in SADSA’s case helped staff) special events, such as culture nights. I further followed up with individual club members, often leaders, for one-on-one interviews to discuss their reasons for club involvement (see Appendix for my basic interview questions).

My research process and my discussion here employ a feminist rhetorical framework. Per Jacqueline Jones Royster and Gesa E. Kirsch, the personal and professional come together in how we narrate our research: my extracurricular experiences initially led to my inquiry into Asian American clubs. As such, my scholarly participant observations are inextricable from my affinity with these groups of students. Building on Beverly Moss’s insights about ethnographies of communication, and specifically about studying communities of which the ethnographer is a part, I have endeavored to mark how my personal investments influence my findings but also to look with an analytical eye—to both make the strange familiar and the familiar, strange. I believe that ethical scholarship of this sort means that I should not be the only one to benefit (along these lines, see Eileen Schell on what makes feminist rhetorical studies feminist). I financially supported the clubs I spent time with by paying membership fees or buying tickets to their events, and I offered to share my academic experiences with those club members who expressed interest in graduate study. In my analysis, I am committed to centering voices and spaces that contest white heteropatriarchy. Even though I include individual interviewees, my focus is on the student groups’ collective work, and thereby I aim to reflexively challenge any singular narrative.

Feminist scholarship teaches us that feminist theory is inextricably bound to feminist activism—the two are dyadic, shaping and reshaping one another. We cannot talk about feminist thought absent feminist practice—in fact, lived experiences are crucially part of the theorizing process. My ethnographic research provides evidence of this, as student groups strive “to be intersectional” and, in the process, refigure identity formations. My study participants show that rhetorical education is similar: it is necessary to understand whether and how the tools we, as teachers, share with our students operate in the spaces our students choose to occupy and create for themselves. This is not to say that university courses do not present real rhetorical contexts, but we must acknowledge, as Susan Wells writes, “that the writing classroom has no public exigency: the writing classroom does important cultural work for the million and a half students it serves each year, but it does not carry out that work through the texts it produces” (338). We must therefore attend to how students deploy and reshape their rhetorical learning when there is public exigency, for example, when their rhetorical positioning bears on how they interact with identity, community, history, and politics. The following discussion provides a brief sketch of the historical and political experiences of Asian Americans in Southern California; I then examine how the embodied gatherings of student clubs nurture mutual education practices; I conclude with the tensions between knowledges valued in extracurricular and in curricular spaces.

Belonging in/to Southern California

As of fall 2019, about 36 percent of the UCI student body identified as Asian (National Center for Education Statistics). UCI is recognized by the federal government as an Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander–Serving Institution. This sizeable and diverse segment of the student body is located within an Asian-majority city4 and a U.S. region that generations of Asian immigrants and their descendants have called home. According to the UCI library archives, Chinese laborers constituted the majority of Asian immigrants to California during the nineteenth century; farm workers found employment in Orange County. Notably, the year 1965 saw the founding of UCI as well as the national Immigration Act, which lifted quotas on non–western European countries and allowed family members abroad to join their sponsors in the U.S. The immigrant population diversified in the latter twentieth century: some 50,000 Vietnamese refugees arrived at Camp Pendleton in northern San Diego County after 1975, and, as a result of housing availability, the location of resettlement agencies, and job opportunities, among other factors, many Vietnamese immigrants ultimately made their homes in Westminster and Garden Grove (Berg). Today, the “Little Saigon” neighborhood is the largest Vietnamese enclave in the U.S.

Despite this regional history, Asian American students have struggled to find belonging within university spaces. In spring 1991, around 400 students representing various clubs affiliated with the Cross-Cultural Center protested Asian Heritage Week. An article in Rice Paper, the student newspaper geared toward the Asian/Pacific communities, recounts the  disruption of scheduled cultural performances, noting that a Pilipinx-American club “withdrew their dances and music entirely because they felt that Asian Heritage Week has been used as the jewel on the crown by the administration which constantly claims diversity yet in substance are unwilling to support Asians with Asian American Studies.” The club president is quoted in the article, explaining his group’s decision: “We feel it would be hypocritical for us to perform. Our performance supposedly celebrates the diversity present on the campus. … we are seen as a token for this university and it is very difficult for us to go up on stage acting as if we are satisfied when in actuality we are not, due to the lack of Asian American studies in our current curriculum.” The push for Asian American studies continued for the next two years, culminating in two occupations of the university chancellor’s office in April and June 1993 and a hunger strike, and resulting in the administration’s hiring of three faculty members to teach courses in Asian American studies (Trinh).

Michelle Ko, writing in the same 1991 issue of Rice Paper, tracks the history of ethnic studies activism. She describes the movement’s beginnings at San Francisco State University in the 1960s and Asian American students’ pivotal role. She entreats readers to remember the past as they agitate for a fairer future. Ko, like the twenty-first-century students in my study, is confronted by the wide-reaching effects of the model minority myth, a stereotype of Asian passivity notably propagated by a 1966 U.S. News & World Report article (Lee). In the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, the myth was leveraged against interracial solidarity, pitting Asian Americans against African American, Latinx, and Indigenous populations, who supposedly were not making good on the so-called American Dream. While popular representations of Asians as smart, law abiding, and economically successful appear complimentary, they mask anxieties about foreign contamination of white America. The model minority myth can be understood as a colonial containment strategy: U.S. imperialism can claim Asians simultaneously as valuable members of society and as perpetual outsiders who are racially and culturally Other. Ko’s article, then, performs a resistive hailing: she asserts Asian American-ness that includes political activism and coalitional work with other racially marginalized groups.

Scholarship on Asian American rhetorics provides an important point of orientation for situating the experiences of Asian American rhetors at UCI, past and present. LuMing Mao and Morris Young characterize Asian American rhetoric as a rhetoric of becoming: it is performative, generative, transformative, and heterogeneous. Despite their use of the singular “rhetoric,” they insist on Asian American rhetoric’s inherent dynamism:

While we very much want to claim that Asian American rhetoric commands a sense of unity or collective identity for its users, we want to note that such rhetoric cannot help but embody internal differences, ambivalences, and even contradictions as each and every specific communicative situation—where Asian American rhetoric is invoked, deployed, or developed—is informed and inflected by diverse contexts, by different relations of asymmetry, and by, most simply put, heterogeneous voices. (5)

Writing ten years later, Terese Guinsatao Monberg and Young further define the potential of studying Asian American rhetoric: “this work has had to account for histories of immigration; the comparative, cultural, and national contexts for rhetoric; or the development of innovative rhetorical practices in response to constructions of otherness.” The Asian American rhetorical practices I discuss here exist at the intersection of embodied, racialized experience; cultural upbringing; and performative—and thereby dynamic—assertions of self. In her study of Vietnamese American undergraduates, Haivan Hoang builds on Judith Butler’s notion of performative identity, arguing that the students in her ethnography reconfigure “Americanness” through their performances. Indeed, the Asian American students in my study—through their use of multilingual repertoires and self-sponsored education in Asian history, for instance—assert that these are all distinctly American activities. That said, to make the blanket assertion that these students, with their UCI-branded sweatshirts and weekend trips to Disneyland, are “as American as anyone else” would be to render invisible the layered tensions of national belonging and racial/ethnic identification stemming from different histories of Asian immigration to California. The UCI student population includes many from mainland China. International students who arrive on campus days before classes begin will likely feel that they are “Asian” and “American” in proportions different from their peers whose predecessors made the west coast their home in the nineteenth century, and again different from those whose families emigrated from outposts of American imperialism in the mid-to-late twentieth century. As Guinsatao Monberg and Young assert, Asian American “rhetorical actors negotiate across and within different positions rather than in opposition to one location/identity or another, or from a hybrid third position.” These student groups’ belonging, then, is inherently transnational, in continual movement—much as their longing to “be intersectional” describes the ongoing navigation of differential power relations.

Longing to Be Intersectional

In bringing trans theory to bear in Asian American rhetoric, V. Jo Hsu describes a core principle of intersectional feminist analysis: “Individual stories have political significance … as acute, felt insight into the violence and oversights of our institutions. Although discussions so often compartmentalize elements of our identities, we don’t live single-issue lives.” The three UCI student groups’ activities offer rich examples of their members’ multidimentional lives, particularly vis-à-vis power structures. SADSA’s leadership explicitly states this orientation in their goals:

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

(“First General Meeting”)

These objectives demonstrate the group’s intellectual and social justice commitments, providing opportunities for cultural sharing but with attention to the structural forces (for instance, colonialism) that can stymie solidarity. Student group members teach and challenge one another to belong differently to American society—to “be intersectional” in discussions of their own privileges and oppressions. As Mao and Young write, “For Asian Americans, as with others often placed on the margins of culture, language provides the possibility to realize the rhetorical construction of identity and write oneself literally into the pages of history and culture” (6). The leadership team noted SADSA’s strides toward enacting its vision, among them philanthropic projects and recognition from UCI for their charitable fundraising. “Being intersectional” further speaks to how these undergraduate students bring academic concepts to bear on their extracurricular activities and alludes to tensions these students see between their formal education and their lives beyond the classroom. SADSA frequently discusses the need to pluralize Asian American representation at UCI, where academic offerings on Asia often focus on East and Southeast areas. Zee, one of SADSA’s co-founders, reflected, “. . . a lot of the learning I experienced at UCI did not come from the classroom unfortunately. My club’s values and goals didn’t always align with what I was learning.” While SADSA publicly claims its commitments to intersectional feminist analysis, the other two groups I highlight here did not do so explicitly. However, I recognize significant feminist rhetorical moves in their efforts as employing some of the same structural critiques as SADSA’s outlined above.

The Pilipinx-American Club (PAC) has been a presence on campus since UCI’s early years, forged during the state-wide and national movements for ethnic studies. Initially part of the university’s umbrella Asian/Pacific student organization, PAC grew in membership and ambition and became an independent student group in the 1990s, the same era that saw student agitation for Asian American studies. Compared with Pilipinx-American student groups at other Southern California colleges, PAC “is old,” accruing political and social clout because of its influential alumni community (including a high-level UCI administrator). The club’s position within the region is conscientiously embedded within the transnational, diasporic community. For example, club members begin meetings by singing the Philippines national anthem in Tagalog. According to Matthew, an Asian American studies major and active participant in club governance, PAC aims to share Pilipinx history, particularly within the Southern California context: there are annual field trips to Filipinotown in LA, with stops including Unidad Park, the Pilipinx-American Veterans Memorial, and a Pilipinx-American church. This curated tour, typically organized by the club’s cultural chair, demonstrates the Pilipinx-American community’s “substantial, physical history” here in the region, a history that Matthew contends is often forgotten. Matthew, born and raised in the Philippines, explained that he wants to “pop the UCI bubble” in order to facilitate PAC’s engagement with the various histories of Pilipinx-Americans beyond academic institutionalization. Matthew shared a memorable adage: “k(no)w history, k(no)w self.”

Other members of PAC similarly touted the organization’s politically engaged aims, but their comments demonstrated how “intersectionality” continues to be aspirational for their club at large. Ligaya, a rank-and-file member, joined PAC hoping to raise awareness about the systematic erasure of Pilipinx-American history, both at UCI and in broader U.S. consciousness. In our email correspondence, she wrote, “Pilipinx involvement in the advancement of workers’ rights by organizers such as Larry Itliong alongside Cesar Chavez during the 1960’s strikes against grape growers remains largely untold.” She included the titles of articles documenting this forgotten figure of the labor movement, evidencing Ligaya’s self-sponsored investigation into Itliong’s legacy. She explained that October is Pilipinx-American History Month and that she hoped PAC would address issues of historical erasure in their programming.

Max, PAC’s community advocacy coordinator, is responsible for staying abreast of political issues and current events that are relevant to the Pilipinx-American community at UCI. She also coordinates volunteer opportunities, such as with national advocacy group Justice for Filipino-American Veterans. As a self-described military brat, Max lived in Guam, Virginia, Fresno, Sacramento, and Southern California, and encountering different regional contexts and populations helped her recognize her own privileges and informed her political intentions. Max has organized general meetings of PAC in which she has tried to challenge the larger membership to consider issues that she feels are not usually discussed. For example, one meeting featured an interactive group game to help members think about the layers of their identity and privilege. Max said that she wants to host another meeting to discuss the Asian model minority myth, particularly to address how Pilipinx-Americans can be both oppressed and oppressors of other minority groups. Max said she is committed to making PAC more political, adding that many Asian Americans are reluctant to participate in politics because they feel that their voices do not matter. She cited her own parents, whose focus on providing for the family and assimilating to American life often eclipsed direct political engagement. In her efforts to mobilize Pilipinx-Americans at UCI, Max held a voter information session before the 2018 midterm elections (she noted, unfortunately, that attendance was low).

For Matthew, Ligaya, and Max, bringing their outside knowledges to PAC constitutes their efforts to belong. Speaking and writing from distinct positionalities, they long to “be intersectional” in how they discursively define being Pilipinx-American. For instance, Max connected her experiences in student government and activism to her agenda for PAC. Discussing her involvement with a campus climate initiative, she said that she wants all her peers to feel safe, supported, and welcome. She has attended student leadership conferences and applied lessons learned, particularly from workshops that addressed anti-blackness in Asian American communities. She has also canvassed for Congresswoman Katie Porter. Max explained that her experiences have collectively informed how she tries to confront the model minority stereotype and the social divisions it causes.

The weekly meetings of both SADSA and PAC typically involve presentations or activities prepared by club leaders along with small group conversations. The Asian Americans for Christ (AAC), in contrast, structures gatherings around the more conventional pedagogical modes of textual study and lecture. At each fellowship meeting, AAC student coordinators greet the full group from the front of the lecture hall, using PowerPoint slides to support their verbal announcements. They also introduce the week’s guest pastor, who delivers remarks based on AAC’s theme for the academic year (the theme for 2018–19 was “being rooted”). I interviewed two of the coordinators, who explained that they generally prepare a short script to introduce guest speakers and read these notes verbatim from their smartphones. Coordinators are also responsible for summarizing the sermon and sharing these notes with the club membership. While AAC membership is open to all, from what I have observed guest pastors frequently self-identify as Asian American and speak to the particular experiences of Asian American college students.

Based on my time with AAC, I see theirs as a narrower desire to “be intersectional,” one that is built on certain assumptions of common racialized and gendered experience. Whereas SADSA and PAC seek feelings of belonging first through cultural and national affinity and then unpack how that affinity can mask heterogeneity, AAC finds belonging across particularities by asserting narrative universality. AAC members are encouraged to join small groups, which function as Biblical reading and peer support groups. Students may join small groups based on their year in school (first-years or upperclassmen/women) and gender. I interviewed one small group leader who remarked that meeting in gender-specific groups allowed her to feel more comfortable; she sees this as a more open and honest space to bond with her female peers over shared experiences and emotions. She went on to describe how she leads, with one other club member, the first-year women’s group. All small groups work through the same sections of the Bible or other book each quarter, but each small group’s leaders decide how to orient the discussion and draft questions that help to relate the reading to the small group’s experiences and to connect them with God. My interviewee elaborated on her process: she reads the passage multiple times, prays for understanding and insight, annotates the passage in a journal looking particularly at the verbs and nouns that are used, and develops questions based on this in-depth reading. She aims to facilitate others’ understanding of the text and active reading of the Bible. She tries to prompt the small group to consider what the passage might mean for their own lives. She shared a couple sample discussion questions: “What does it look like to rely on God for help in these situations [such as those described in the reading]? How do you know if you are relying on God and not just having really good self-control?” These gender- and class-level-exclusive groups seem to reify assumptions about sexuality (e.g., that being in an all-female group would eliminate possible romantic distractions) and academic status (e.g., that first-years are younger and coming out of high school)—so by extension, assumptions about how power affects these categories of identification. At the same time, these group spaces can provide relative safety, allowing participants to frankly unpack how being, say, an Asian American woman and graduating senior informs one’s hopes and fears about applying for jobs. In this way, small group participants long to be surrounded by “likeminded peers,” a phrase one member used to explain why he was drawn to AAC.

Connections between text and personal experience are highlighted during a quarterly event called Testimony Night, in which student speakers take the place of guest pastors. When I attended a Testimony Night, three students took turns addressing the full group; each selected a worship song to lead as an introduction to their story. The first two of three speakers referred to notes on their smartphones while speaking; one explained that she had written her statement out ahead of time and had shared it with the club coordinators, “just so they know what to expect.” The third speaker of the evening improvised more, aware of how her delivery would emotionally affect her listeners: “I wrote down my testimony, but I’m also going to speak from my heart. . . . I hope this will move you. . . . I don’t want you guys to lose hope.” All of the testimonies included metacognitive reflection on the composition of the speeches, usually involving “a lot of prayer.” They all recounted the speakers’ lives up until that point: upbringing, family arrangements, struggles faced, how they ultimately came to Christ and AAC and what they value in both.

These “I once was lost but now am found” stories demonstrated the students’ (perhaps implicit) understanding of the conversion narrative genre as well as highlighted their rhetorical awareness of their own and their audience’s positionalities as Asian American Christian college students and how one might be grappling with these overlapping spheres of belonging. For instance, one student said his adolescence in Taiwan was analogous to the idol-worshipping life in Athens referenced in Thessalonians. Students explicate how their racial, national, and religious affiliations interact with their positions within the university: all of the Testimony Night speakers talked about the need for Asian American Christians to support one another and to build lives of faith despite what they perceive as the vices of college life (e.g., alcohol, drugs, sex). This version of longing to “be intersectional,” then, explores how young, Christian Asian Americans face particular struggles but falls short of identifying how historical power asymmetries inform these struggles. The student speaker who aimed to move her listeners addressed gendered expectations within the context of her family life and the pressure to be an obedient daughter, but she did not relate her experiences to, say, the constraints of patriarchy or stereotypes of Asian women’s passivity. Her testimony might have cited the support of her all-female small group in her spiritual transformation; instead, she framed her story as one of self discovery. None of the speakers at the Testimony Night I attended directly connected their classroom learning to the task of addressing AAC peers. Other student group participants, most notably in SADSA and PAC, did share how their curricular and extracurricular educations inform one another.

Redefining the Extra/Curricular

Several times each quarter, SADSA hosts discussion spaces called Chai Nights: students gather in a small classroom, circle up the desks, and enjoy chai and snacks provided by the club leaders. Each Chai Night prompts attendees to discuss a different aspect of South Asian identity and experience. The club has considered mental health among South Asian populations in the U.S., dating and relationships, and distinctions between cultural appropriation and appreciation. I volunteered to help take notes on the white board during the erasure discussion (see Figure 1). “Erasure” has been variously used to describe whitewashing in Hollywood or the elision of Asian American experiences through reliance on racial stereotypes. SADSA explored their own particular iteration of this idea in fall 2018. Topics ranged from the visibility of South Asian characters in popular media to the use of heritage languages and the proper pronunciation of students’ names.

Figure 1: Notes from SADSA’s Chai Night discussion of erasure.

The group of around 10 students considered critically how India-centric depictions of South Asian identity can erase ethnic and historical differences. As this coalition of students identifies their roots in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, they regularly reflect upon the issue of regional hegemony. At its founding, the club faced some pushback from South Asian nation–specific student clubs, who felt the coalition would siphon off campus resources and student membership. This particular dimension of erasure, which describes the uneven distribution of power within affinity groups, further informs this organization’s sense of where they fit in the university ecology. Their mission statement recognizes the club’s commitment to intersectional analysis: “We want to work with other communities to combat issues, such as LGBTQ+ rights, anti-blackness, media representation, color politics, and the list goes on.”

In the weeks following my attendance at this Chai Night, I interviewed Sithunada, a graduate student who helped found SADSA while he was an undergraduate. He explained that the club endeavors to create a space to discuss academic topics, like South Asian erasure, but in an approachable way—hence the creation of Chai Nights. Club leaders aim to create a welcoming environment where students can learn, informally but meaningfully, from one another. Sithunada added that the club draws upon curricular resources and cultivates university partnerships. For example, a previous Chai Night focused on colorism and anti-blackness and was co-facilitated by a professor in African American Studies; in fall 2018, the club was listed as one of the official sponsors of a campus dance festival, which featured guest performers. The blending of co- and extracurricular efforts highlights how these students perform academic literacies: the club’s examination of erasure demonstrates how cultural studies–style analyses inform their self-sponsoring learning. What’s more, these analytical skills are employed to critique institutional learning, as club members explained how many of their college courses have provided only passing reference to South Asian and diasporic histories.

Another of SADSA’s founders whom I quoted earlier, Zee, explained that the club’s work is fundamentally collaborative, citing knowledge and communication as the club’s driving forces and the importance of participants’ shared wisdom. Zee further explained that SADSA looks for opportunities to support campus, local, and international organizations, as shown in SADSA’s fundraising mentioned earlier. Through my own participation in group meetings and activities, I have seen SADSA amplify other South Asian student organizations by advertising and showing up for their events. SADSA members have also coordinated with student groups whose missions align with SADSA’s intersectional analytical stance, including student advocates for labor rights and students against apartheid in Palestine.

SADSA serves to fill a gap in many of its members’ formal educations by addressing the erasure of South Asian–specific histories and concerns. Simultaneously, as demonstrated through my interviews with club leaders and my observations of how club discussions are facilitated like humanities seminars, curricular learning crucially informs SADSA’s activities. This push and pull with the university often shows up in club members’ offhanded comments. While SADSA phased out membership dues in fall 2019, club members were expected to pay quarterly fees to help keep the organization running during the 2018–19 academic year. Explaining the need for funding, a club leader said, “When you start a club, they charge you!” (with “they” referring to university administration).

SADSA, PAC, and many other affinity groups organize culture nights as a way of making visible their learning to the broader campus and local communities. Occurring in the spring quarter, these events typically showcase student-written and -directed skits along with original dance and musical numbers. Hoang explains how these events have more rhetorical significance than immediately meets the eye: “What Culture Nights demonstrate is that performance is potentially performative in terms of constituting (not expressing) ethnic identity and cultural memories” (144; original emphasis). She specifically comments on the Vietnamese Students Association, a college student group with which Hoang spends significant time:

Even if the Culture Night audience’s response is largely unknown, what makes the student production performative is that it constructs what culture is on this Culture Night. Vietnamese and Vietnamese American culture, in this performance, is based on intergenerational, familial relationships and experiences. VSA’s stated purpose in producing Culture Night clarifies the performance’s performative purpose: to reconstruct cultural memory and thereby foster solidarity. (146; original emphasis)

Planning and executing a culture night involves substantial logistical efforts (e.g., reserving a space on campus, fundraising, advertising) and creative energies. I interviewed the PAC coordinators, who shared with me that the annual event traditionally features several dance suites that span regions, ethnic groups, and histories of the Philippines; the dance suites are original pieces choreographed and directed by the students. The main thread running through the culture night performances is a skit, which engages some aspect of Pilipinx-American identity. Theodore S. Gonzalves writes that culture nights provide opportunities to learn Pilipinx history—and for many student participants, history that they otherwise would not encounter. PAC’s event marked an anniversary year for the club, so the skit was set in the 1970s at the club’s founding at UCI. The story followed first-year students from both Southern California and the Philippines who are struggling to find Pilipinx community in their new university environment. Culture nights, in tandem with other more frequent student gatherings and performances, show how college students are rhetorically asserting their belonging—to the cultures with which they identify, to the university community, and to one another. These groups’ self-sponsored, embodied learning privileges the knowledges that these students find important, sometimes in contrast to what they feel their coursework has valued.

Matthew of PAC aspires to be an Asian American studies professor, and so he sees his club participation (e.g., public speaking, organizing and leading educational events) as part of his career path into academia. He said that he observes his professors’ teaching styles and reflects on how he might apply these approaches in PAC. Matthew explained that his personal, extracurricular, curricular, and professional commitments overlap, saying, “It means a lot to pass on this knowledge.” One of AAC’s coordinators also reflected on how his coursework has altered his perceptions of extracurricular activities. He commented that the Asian American churches he knows are “fairly conservative, so we don’t talk about issues like race, for example. . . . Asian American Christians don’t talk about social issues.” He had become more aware of this disconnect recently through his college coursework and said that he wished these issues were talked about more in the Asian American Christian spaces, including AAC, that he frequents.

Max’s curricular learning productively informs her efforts with PAC. In a general education course called Protests, Revolutions, and Movements, Max began to recognize the possible pitfalls in activist organizing. She explained that these lessons have informed how she leads PAC: at the club’s mental health workshop, she realized that it would be crucial to connect members to resources and people from UCI’s counseling center. In one of her lower-division writing courses, Max reflected on her racial and ethnic positionalities and argued for the need for better data on Asian American and Pacific Islander populations in the U.S. She explored issues of domestic violence among particular Asian communities and Asian American groups’ differential relationships to colonization. She noted that, despite these illuminating classroom experiences, she did encounter pervasive curricular Euro- and white-centrism.

Students’ efforts to combat what they see as cultural erasure generate opportunities for belonging. In this desire to “be long” to one another and within the university and social fabric, students often discover that they in turn desire to “be intersectional” in order to better understand and communicate their concerns. SADSA’s t-shirt design speaks to these impulses (Figure 2). Featuring landmarks and symbols from each of the eight South Asian nations, the pictorial elements emphasize SADSA’s position as a transnational coalition of students. The quotation from Indian-American filmmaker Mira Nair highlights collectivity and literacy: if “we” (the student group members) don’t “tell our stories” (e.g., educate one another and work for spaces and feelings of belonging) “no one else will.” Morris Young characterizes this transformative power of narrative as a re/visioning. For example, he describes how his students’ experiences of reading and writing literacy narratives “provides them with a way of understanding that literacy, race, and citizenship are both personal and public experiences, intertwined intimately and inextricably” (166). UCI student club members’ activities often rewrite cultural scripts to increase members’ understandings of self but also to circulate more nuanced depictions of Asian Americans.

Figure 2. SADSA’s t-shirt design.

Since I conducted my study, there is renewed exigence for examining how Asian American students rhetorically position themselves. The U.S. continues to see high profile instances of anti-Asian sentiment and violence spurred in part by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, this prejudice is knit into the fabric of U.S. race relations, even when it fails to make headlines. Crucially, Asian American activists are connecting these incidences to the historic and current oppression of Black Americans. In early 2021, I followed up with Ligaya, who had refocused her extracurricular efforts into labor organizing over the past two years. She acknowledged her privilege as an Asian American at protests in that she does not face the same threats of arrest and violence as her Black peers. She also emphasized the importance of understanding that activist efforts extend beyond the time during which students may participate, saying there can be “years of organizing before we even get a glimpse of a movement.” Ligaya’s rhetorical education mirrors that of her UCI predecessors, such as Rice Paper writer Michelle Ko: both young, Asian American women long to belong to a broader community of social justice advocates.

SADSA, PAC, and AAC all aim, to varying degrees, not only to pluralize representations of Asian Americans but also to struggle collectively with the ways these plural positionalities run up against systems of power. This is what makes their efforts to “be intersectional” aspirational. Student club members continually revise intragroup and external positions—a process of navigation that constitutes their self-sponsored rhetorical education. While we, as scholar-teachers, cannot replicate precisely the complexities of this education, we would do well to remember that our students are communicators in multiple settings, with different motivations, strategies, and goals. Attending to the local and regional context, especially as it bears on racial and cultural histories, is also crucial to a feminist pedagogy. When we make space for outside knowledges within our classrooms, we affirm the value of the extracurricular to the curricular, and vice versa, enriching what we and our students learn from and with one another.

End Notes

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

Appendix

Basic interview questions:

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

Works Cited

  • Alexander, Jonathan, and Susan C. Jarratt. “Rhetorical Education and Student Activism.” College English, vol. 76, no. 6, 2014, pp. 525–44.     -return to text
  • Berg, Tom. “Why Westminster? Eleven Reasons the Vietnamese Came to Little Saigon – and Why They Stayed.” Orange County Register, 30 Apr. 2015. Republished on Viet Stories: Vietnamese American Oral History Project, University of California, Irvine, https://sites.uci.edu/vaohp/2015/04/30/why-westminster-eleven-reasons-the-vietnamese-came-to-little-saigon-and-why-they-stayed/.     -return to text
  • Carrillo Rowe, Aimee. “Be Longing: Toward a Feminist Politics of Relation.” NWSA Journal, vol. 17, no. 2, 2005, pp. 15–46.     -return to text
  • Fishman, Jenn, et al. “Performing Writing, Performing Literacy.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 57, no. 2, 2005, pp. 224–52.     -return to text
  • Fraser, Nancy. “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy.” Social Text, no. 25/26, 1990, pp. 56–80.     -return to text
  • Gonzalves, Theodore S. “The Day the Dancers Stayed: Expressive Forms of Culture in the United States.” Kritika Kultura, no. 6, 2005, pp. 42–85.     -return to text
  • Hoang, Haivan V. Writing Against Racial Injury: The Politics of Asian American Student Rhetoric. U of Pittsburgh P, 2015.     -return to text
  • Hsu, V. Jo. “Afterword: Disciplinary (Trans)formations: Queering and Trans-ing Asian American Rhetorics.” Asian/American Rhetorical Trans/Formations, special issue of enculturation: a journal of rhetoric, writing, and culture, no. 27, 2018. http://enculturation.net/disciplinary-transformations.     -return to text
  • Lee, Stacey J. Unraveling the “Model Minority” Stereotype: Listening to Asian American Youth. Teachers College P, 1996.     -return to text
  • Mao, LuMing, and Morris Young, editors. Representations: Doing Asian American Rhetoric. Utah State UP, 2008.     -return to text
  • Monberg, Terese Guinsatao, and Morris Young. “Beyond Representation: Spatial, Temporal, and Embodied Trans/Formations of Asian/American Rhetoric.” Asian/American Rhetorical Trans/Formations, special issue of enculturation: a journal of rhetoric, writing, and culture, no. 27, 2018. http://enculturation.net/beyond_representation.     -return to text
  • Moss, Beverly J. “Ethnography and Composition: Studying Language at Home.” Methods and Methodology in Composition Research, edited by Gesa E. Kirsch and Patricia A. Sullivan, Southern Illinois UP, 1992, pp. 153–71.     -return to text
  • National Center for Education Statistics. “University of California-Irvine.” College Navigator, https://nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator/?q=uc+irvine&s=all&id=110653. Accessed 30 Apr. 2021.     -return to text
  • Rice Paper. Asian American/Pacific Islander student newspaper. 1991–1997. LD 781 I7 E24. Langson Library Special Collections, UC Irvine Libraries, Irvine, CA.     -return to text
  • Royster, Jacqueline Jones, and Gesa E. Kirsch. Feminist Rhetorical Practices: New Horizons for Rhetoric, Composition, and Literacy Studies. Southern Illinois UP, 2012.     -return to text
  • Schell, Eileen E. “Introduction: Researching Feminist Rhetorical Methods and Methodologies.” Rhetorica in Motion: Feminist Rhetorical Methods and Methodologies, edited by Schell and K. J. Rawson, U of Pittsburgh P, 2010, pp. 1–20.     -return to text
  • Shimura, Tomoya, and Ian Wheeler. “Asians Have Grown to Dominant Group in Irvine.” Orange County Register, 2016.     -return to text
  • South Asia and Diaspora Student Association (SADSA). “First General Meeting.” 8 Oct. 2019, University of California, Irvine.     -return to text
  • Taylor, Keeanga-Yamahtta, editor. How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective. Haymarket, 2017.     -return to text
  • Trinh, Justine. “The Beginnings of Activism for the Department of Asian American Studies at UCI.” UCI Libraries, 2017, https://special.lib.uci.edu/blog/2017/07/beginnings-activism-department-asian-american-studies-uci.     -return to text
  • Wells, Susan. “Rogue Cops and Health Care: What Do We Want from Public Writing?” College Composition and Communication, vol. 47, no. 3, 1996, pp. 325–41.     -return to text
  • Young, Morris. Minor Re/Visions: Asian American Literacy Narratives as a Rhetoric of Citizenship. Southern Illinois UP, 2004.     -return to text

 

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

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

― Audre Lorde

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reclaiming Our Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Afrofuturist Tomorrow: Conclusion

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

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

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

End Notes

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

Works Cited

  • “axiom, n.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, March2020, www.oed.com /view/Entry/14045     -return to text
  • Alim, H. S. “Interview with Geneva Smitherman.” Journal of English Linguistics, vol. 40, no. 4, 2012, pp. 357-377.     -return to text
  • Bailey, Moya, and Trudy. “On Misogynoir: Citation, Erasure, and Plagiarism.” Feminist Media Studies, vol. 18, no. 4, 2018, pp. 762-768.     -return to text
  • Baker-Bell, April. “For Loretta: A Black Woman Literacy Scholar’s Journey to Prioritizing Self-Preservation and Black Feminist–Womanist Storytelling.” Journal of Literacy Research, vol. 49, no. 4, 2017, pp. 526-543.     -return to text
  • Brown, Adrienne M. Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds. AK Press, Chico, CA, 2017.     -return to text
  • Butler, Octavia E. Kindred. Boston: Beacon Press, 2003. Print.     -return to text
  • “In 1980: Octavia Butler Asked, Why Is Science Fiction So White?” Garage, 4 Sept. 2018, garage.vice.com/en_us/article/d3ekbm/octavia-butler.     -return to text
  • —. Parable of the Sower. New York: Warner Books, 1995.     -return to text
  • —. Parable Of the Talents . New York :Seven Stories Press, 1998.     -return to text
  • Combahee River Collective. The Combahee River Collective Statement: Black Feminist Organizing in the Seventies and Eighties. Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, New York, NY, 1986.     -return to text
  • Dery, Mark. Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994. Print.     -return to text
  • Due, Tananarive. “The Only Lasting Truth” Octavia’s Brood: Science fiction stories from social justice movements. AK Press& Institute for Anarchist Studies. 2015. E-book.     -return to text
  • Fuller, Bryan and Alex Kurtzman, creators. Star Trek: Discovery. CBS Television Studios in association with Secret Hideout, Roddenberry Entertainment, and Living Dead Guy Productions, 2017.     -return to text
  • Gilyard, Keith, and Adam J. Banks. On African-American Rhetoric.2018. E-book.     -return to text
  • Nelson, A. (2002). “Making the Impossible Possible.” Social Text, 20(2), 97–113. https://doi.org/10.1215/01642472-20-2_71-97     -return to text
  • Nelson, Alondra. “Introduction: Future Texts.” Social Text, vol. 20 no. 2, 2002, p. 1-15. Project MUSE muse.jhu.edu/article/31931.     -return to text
  • Jemisin, N.K. “Dreaming Awake” Well-Read Black Girl: Finding Our Stories, Discovering Ourselves. Ballantine Books. E-book. 2018.     -return to text
  • Pough, Gwendolyn D. Check It While I Wreck It : Black Womanhood, Hip-Hop Culture, and the Public Sphere. Northeastern University Press, 2015. E-book.     -return to text
  • Smitherman, Geneva, Talkin and Testifyin: The Language of Black America. Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1977.     -return to text
  • Smitherman, Geneva, Word From the Mother : Language and African Americans. Routledge, 2006.     -return to text
  • Wellington, Elizabeth. “Afrofuturism Is All around Us and We Don’t Even Know It: Elizabeth Wellington and Raishad Hardnett.” Https://Www.inquirer.com, The Philadelphia Inquirer, 2 Feb. 2021, www.inquirer.com/columnists/afrofuturism-future-the-black-tribbles-black-panther-octavia-butler-20200226.html.     -return to text
  • Womack, Ytasha. Afrofuturism: the World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture. Lawrence Hill Books, 2013.     -return to text

From Resilience to Resistance: Repurposing Faculty Writers’ Survival Strategies

Writing, Like a Road Trip

 

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

this factory process of keeping things moving

Trying to get to the next stop,

he said up the body count,

It’s more assembly line thinking,

so I’m upping the body count

Trying to get to the next stop

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

Those months that I didn’t do much

hurry, think of a project

Where I was just sad

I don’t see the end of it.

Good ideas don’t come out of busy days.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Capturing Lived Experience of Faculty Writers: A Research Study

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

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

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

Found poetry: A Feminist Interpretive Approach

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

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

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

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

Adversity and Resilience in Faculty Writing Lives: A Found Poem

End Note 9

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

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

3   You have to imagine Sisyphus is happy.

 

Failing Better

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

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

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

7   The demon has quieted.

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

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

9   I’m more comfortable in the struggle.

 

It’s the Losses that Stick

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

11    I’m going to fail trying.

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

13   Tenure has removed a lot of those shackles.

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

 

15    Learning to do life better.

 

I Want Poetry, I Want a Poetics

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

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

17    Just let it be.

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

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

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

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

 

Our Labor is Our Labor

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

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

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

25    It comes down to support.

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

27    Just walk along with me.

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

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

Discussion

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

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

Resilience is Constructed 

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

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

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

Resilience is Nonlinear

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

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

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

Resilience is Discursive

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

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

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

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

Implications for Faculty Writers, Evaluation, and Support

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

Faculty Writers: (Em)Power(ing) For

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

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

Faculty Support: “Power with”

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

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

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

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

Faculty Evaluation: “Power to”

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

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

Conclusion 

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

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

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

End Notes

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

Acknowledgements

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

Appendices:

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

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

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

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

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

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

-return to End Note

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

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

-return to End Note

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

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

To find the story
each word amplifies the next
reverberating.

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

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

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

-return to End Note

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

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

-return to End Note

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

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

-return to End Note

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