Although invitational rhetoric’s roots reach back to 1995 when Sonja K. Foss and Cindy L. Griffin published “Beyond Persuasion: A Proposal for an Invitational Rhetoric,” invitational rhetoric merits only a brief mention in many composition and communication publications. In fact, Susan Kirtley noted that “for all of its value, invitational rhetoric rarely appears in composition textbooks. When it does come into focus, it is highlighted only briefly as an alternative to argument, and sometimes, in contrast with Foss and Griffin’s description, as merely a less adversarial argument” (340). Foss and Griffin define invitational rhetoric as a type of rhetoric grounded in “equality, immanent value, and self-determination” that involves audience members “listening to and trying to understand the rhetor’s perspective and then presenting their own” (5). The goal is not simply to exchange ideas. Ideally, “the rhetor and the audience alike contribute to the thinking about an issue so that everyone involved gains a greater understanding of the issue in its subtlety, richness, and complexity (Foss and Griffin 5). As a result, rhetors do not assume their position is superior to their audience’s beliefs. In fact, rhetors “view the choices selected by audience members as right for them at that particular time, based on their own abilities to make those decisions” (Foss and Griffin 6).
Despite invitational rhetoric’s steps toward peaceful communication, two major obstacles diminish the effectiveness of dialogues via invitational rhetoric. The first obstacle involves a lack of engagement with past rhetors. Invitational rhetoric focuses only on present dialogue between living rhetors. Without engaging the past, dialogues remain within the bounds of living rhetors’ knowledge and experiences. Contentious issues often rooted in the past require rhetors to engage with the past to be well informed of the history of an issue. A failure to engage with past rhetors diminishes diverse perspectives that fuel the meaning making process of invitational rhetoric.
The second challenge is a lack of a mechanism to generate ongoing dialogues. Contentious issues deserve more than a “one and done” approach to dialogue. By making private dialogues public, rhetors foster ongoing dialogues that extend beyond their social circles. Diversity resulting from an ongoing dialogue with an increasing number of participants multiplies perspectives while amplifying understanding and meaning making. Ongoing dialogues taking place over a long period of time allow for reflection periods between dialogues. The cumulative dialogues over a long period assist rhetors in articulating their position in the current time and permit them to shift positions as they uncover new meanings in future dialogues.
With the aforementioned challenges in mind, in this article, I argue for a more useful type of invitational rhetoric as I reconsider Foss and Griffin’s theory of invitational rhetoric through a new application that I refer to as DIY invitational rhetoric and utilize Jasmine Sanders’s New York Times article “A Black Legacy, Wrapped Up in Fur” to illustrate DIY invitational rhetoric’s efficacy. In the concluding section, I highlight DIY invitational rhetoric’s value as a feminist rhetorical strategy for combating racism.
Defining DIY Rhetoric
So, how is DIY invitational rhetoric different from Foss and Griffin’s invitational rhetoric? Underscoring the significance of DIY, I build on Foss and Griffin’s theory by adding two new steps that emphasize actions individual rhetors complete before and after dialogues, Before engaging in a dialogue on a specific topic, individual rhetors engage in dialogues with past rhetors through what Jacqueline Jones Royster and Gesa Kirsch refer to as “critical imagination” (71 (1)). To describe critical imagination in action, Royster and Kirsch provide the example of engaging with historical women: “. . . this process involves interrogating the contexts, conditions, lives, and practices of women who are no longer alive to speak directly on their own behalf. We use critical imagination as a tool to engage, as it were, in hypothesizing, in what might be called ‘educated guessing,’ as a means for searching methodically, not so much for immutable truth but instead for what is likely or possible, given the facts in hand” (71 (2)). Using critical imagination, rhetors engage in primary research to listen to the voices of past rhetors as well as formulate questions and possibilities while linking the past with the present. Critical imagination as a DIY process serves as a type of self-education. Questions, patterns, and understandings that emerge through critical imagination unleash fruitful insights that prove useful in dialogues with living rhetors.
Extending the definition of DIY rhetoric, I note the final DIY step I have added to Foss and Griffin’s invitational rhetoric. To promote ongoing dialogue, private dialogues must be made public in order to reach beyond the social circles of a small group of rhetors. For scholars, professional publications serve as outlets for sharing dialogues with a large group of readers that possess the potential to keep the dialogue going orally with their colleagues and in a public written response. For those inside and outside of academia, social media, blogs, podcasts, online videos, and websites serve as mechanism for cascading conversations. Online outlets provide an asynchronous space for rhetors to reflect on cumulative dialogues that have taken place over a long period to arrive at new understandings and maintain a fluid position that continues to evolve with each new dialogue.
Applying DIY Invitational Rhetoric
I now turn to Jasmine Sanders’s “A Black Legacy, Wrapped Up in Fur” to illustrate the efficacy of DIY invitational rhetoric. During an interview with NPR’s Robin Young, Sanders recognizes a need for dialogue. Considering she will one day inherit furs, Sanders contemplates how she will feel about owning her mother’s elegant, beloved fur coats during a time when PETA’s powerful antifur messages permeate social media and television. She recalls the words of her mother, Vivian Jarrett-Irving: “We live on the south side of Chicago. I don’t see those people [PETA] here. They don’t seem to want to be speaking to me anyway” (Sanders, “The Significance”(1)). Sanders echoes her mother’s sentiments by citing a quote from Paul Marie Seniors’s mother: “As soon as black women could afford to buy mink coats, white society and white women said fur was all wrong, verboten, passé” (“A Black Legacy,” D1(1)). The two mothers’ comments illustrate a lack of communication between some African American women, PETA, and others in white communities who hold strong positions related to using animal fur in fashion. In reality, it seems impossible for Sanders to bring the diverse parties together for an actual dialogue, so she engages in invitational rhetoric as she holds her own discussions with African Americans, PETA, and the Zimbals, Wisconsin mink farm owners. Throughout her individual dialogues with the aforementioned groups, Sanders practices Foss and Griffin’s theory of invitational rhetoric as she and her fellow rhetors engage in listening, presenting their positions, trying to understand each other’s perspectives while refraining from persuading with the intention to change the others’ perspectives (5). To illustrate DIY invitational rhetoric’s efficacy, I will focus on Sanders’s use of two DIY steps: engaging with past rhetors via critical imagination and making private dialogues public for ongoing dialogue and meaning making amongst a large group of diverse rhetors.
Prior to engaging in dialogues with PETA and mink farmers, Sanders engages with the past rhetors. Sanders’s mother, Vivian Jarrett-Irving, provides a starting place for Sanders’s research as she reveals the cultural significance of fur for many African American women. For Jarrett-Irving, fur coats, imbued with cultural significance for many African American women, served as a “personal luxury item,” “an important investment,” and reminder of the “six million black migrants who were propelled north by the tenuous hope of something better” (Sanders, “A Black Legacy” D1(2)). Jarrett-Irving, remembering her own mother’s inability to own a home in the early nineteenth century, states, “Federal housing codes that barred fair loans from being offered to black people, as well as other forms of housing discrimination, rendered home-ownership impossible for many black families, and arduous for those who could attain it. So money was put toward other markers of personal prosperity, the kind that retained value and could be passed down to the next generation” (Sanders, “A Black Legacy,” D1(3)). Like houses and land, fur became a vehicle for social mobility in its representation of prosperity that could be passed down to future generations.
To further illuminate her understanding of many African Americans’ position on fur, Sanders explores eighteenth century to the mid-twentieth-century resources and employs critical imagination to uncover questions and possibilities that enrich her understanding and transform her into an informed rhetor. From her research, Sanders learns about the role enslaved and freedmen played in the fur economy and notes fur’s significance in the Harlem Renaissance and its worth in terms of self-expression for modern famous public figures such as Diana Ross and Aretha Franklin (“A Black Legacy” D1(4)). Sanders unearths past voices to deepen her understanding.
Delving into the past through critical imagination allows Sanders to “interrogat[e] the contexts, conditions, lives, and practices” of past Africans Americans’ connections with fur (Royster and Kirsch 71(3)). Through Sanders interrogation of the past rhetors, she uncovers racist practices in the fashion industry. As noted above, Sanders recalls Paul Marie Seniors’s mother saying, “As soon as black women could afford to buy mink coats, white society and white women said fur was all wrong, verboten, passé” (“A Black Legacy” D1(5)). The abrupt shift in fashion trends moving away from fur highlights the role racism plays in fashion. Fashion serves as a dividing force that separates people of color from whites, and sudden changes in fashion prevent many women of color and lower-class women from wearing the latest fashions. The fashion industry through price and frequent shifts in fashion control what people of color wear and the meanings attached to their clothed bodies.
Through uncovering past racist practices via critical imagination, Sanders becomes an informed rhetor equipped with a foundation for improving her understanding of complex present perspectives and practices. In “A Black Legacy, Wrapped Up in Fur” Sanders addresses PETA’s position as she recounts footage from their advertisements and includes the following statement from PETA’s past senior international media director, Ben Williamson: “We like to think of ourselves as P.R. for animals” (Sanders, “A Black Legacy” D1(6)). Although Sanders disapproves of PETA’s cruel letter to Aretha Franklin for wearing fur and their juxtaposition of marginalized people’s suffering and animals’ suffering in commercials, Sanders communicates her understanding of PETA’s position. In turn, PETA expresses an interest in Sanders’ position, so Sanders meets with a spokesperson from PETA to discuss her position. She tells PETA’s spokesperson as well as NPR’s Robin Young that she is “fur ambiguous” (Sanders, “The Significance”(2)). Justifiably, Sanders’s “fur ambiguous” position stems from her acknowledgement of the complexity of the issue (“The Significance”(2)). As a person who values conservation and veganism, Sanders could easily assume an anti-fur position, but through critical imagination and dialogue, she recognizes the complexity of the issue.
In applying the final DIY strategy, making private dialogues public, Sanders ensures dialogues continue with diverse groups. Sanders shares information about her dialogues in “A Black Legacy, Wrapped Up in Fur” in The New York Times and in an NPR interview with Robin Young. NPR invited listeners to voice their perspectives on NPR’s online forum. By making private dialogues public through publication and providing an online forum for ongoing dialogue, Sanders exemplifies DIY invitational rhetoric’s relevance in twenty-first century. Dialogue involving contentious issues deserves more than a “one and done” approach. Ongoing dialogue amongst diverse improves rhetors’ understanding of complex issues.
As diverse rhetors listen and contribute their own perspectives, the online forum serves as a space for “giving the world a chance to explain itself” (Barrett 147). In this example of DIY invitational rhetoric, Sanders’s readers and listeners are invited to enter multiple rhetors’ worlds to enhance their understanding and share their own perspectives in NPR’s online forum. Dialogues taking place amongst listeners around the world in the online forum showcase a diverse range of truths as rhetors articulate their positions regarding racism and fashion, animal cruelty, and environmental concerns related to the faux fur production. With each new post, rhetors weave together new strands of discourse as their positions and understandings continue to evolve.
To conclude, I want to recognize two ways that DIY invitational rhetoric serves as a vehicle for feminist intervention in the deteriorating public discourse of our time by combating racism.
Ethical Representation and Giving Voice to the Oppressed
DIY invitational rhetoric’s emphasis on engaging with past rhetors via critical imagination and making private dialogues public for ongoing conversations provides an opening for rhetors to ethically represent the oppressed and fight racism. As mentioned earlier, Sanders’s mother along with other African American women were never afforded the opportunity to explain to those outside of their culture why they wear and value fur. Invitational rhetoric allowed Sanders to listen and attempt to understand her mother’s position as well as past rhetors’ positions. Through her work, Sanders serves as a “negotiator, someone who can cross boundaries and serve as a guide and translator for Others” (Royster 34). As a translator, her work with DIY invitational rhetoric helps to produce ethical representations of communities misrepresented due to racism. To outsiders, African American fur enthusiasts appear as proponents of animal cruelty. However, Sanders’s research and dialogues disclose many African Americans’ historical ties to fur as tool for social mobility in a racist world that impeded their social mobility. Through a published dialogue and interview, Sanders, as a negotiator, crosses boundaries as she translates African Americans’ connection to fur for readers outside of African American communities.
Helping to combat racism, DIY invitational rhetoric’s emphasis on engaging with the past assists white rhetors in self-education prior to engaging in dialogues related to race. In “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle to Master’s House,” Audre Lorde emphasizes the need for self-education: “Women of today are still being called upon to stretch across the gap of male ignorance and to educate men as to our existence and our needs. This is an old and primary tool of all oppressors to keep the oppressed occupied with the master’s concerns. Now we hear that it is the task of women of Color to educate white women . . .” (113). Lorde underscores the need for individuals, specifically white men and women, to do their own racial and cultural work, meaning work to educate themselves instead of relying on others to serve as educators. Engaging with past rhetors via critical imagination gives current rhetors valuable insight prior to engaging in dialogues centered on race.
- Barrett, Harold. Rhetoric and Civility: Human Development, Narcissism, and the Good Audience. State U of New York P, 1991. –return to text
- Foss, Sonja K., and Cindy L. Griffin. “Beyond Persuasion: A Proposal for an Invitational Rhetoric. Communication Monographs, vol. 62, no. 1, 1995, pp. 2-18. –return to text
- Lorde, Audre. “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Crossing Press, 1984, pp. 110-13. –return to text
- Kirtley, Susan. Considering the Alternative in Composition Pedagogy: Teaching Invitational Rhetoric with Lynda Barry’s What It Is. Women’s Studies in Communication, vol. 37, no. 3, 2014, pp. 339-57. –return to text
- Royster, Jacqueline Jones. “When the First Voice You Hear is not Your Own.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 47, no. 1, 1996, pp. 29–40. –return to text
- Royster, Jacqueline Jones, and Gesa E. Kirsch. Feminist Rhetorical Practices: New Horizons for Rhetoric, Composition, and Literacy Studies. Southern Illinois UP, 2012. –return to text (1), (2), or (3)
- Sanders, Jasmine. “A Black Legacy, Wrapped in Fur.” New York Times. 4 Mar. 2019, p. D1. http://www.nytimes.com –return to text (1), (2), (3), (4), (5), or (6)
- —. “The Significance of Black Women Owning Fur.” Interview by Robin Young. WBUR, 4 Mar. 2019, http://www.wbur.org/hereandnow/2019/03/04/sanders-black-women-owning-fur –return to text (1) or (2)