Review of Digital Black Feminism (Knight Steele 2021)

Why I get these tweets off?

“Digital Black feminists also wrestle with shades of gray. Like hip-hop feminists before them, digital Black feminists work to reconcile economic and sexual freedom for themselves with community interests that may conflict with their individual needs. However, instead of hip-hop as a driving force, the “gray” for digital Black feminist praxis is deconstructing white supremacist capitalist patriarchy within digital culture.” (Steele 10)

In 2009 I created my first Twitter account from my Nokia brick phone. I had to go to the web browser to make an account and this was before apps were even a thing. As I started college, I began to use Twitter for web (this is tweeting from the Twitter website in your web browser) and the text to tweet feature to stay connected with my friends back home and those I was meeting on my college campus. When I got my first iPhone I downloaded the Twitter app and it was history from there. The Black Twitter counter public allowed me to stay up to date with arguments on $200 dates, be aware of police brutality happening in Ferguson, and information on natural hair products to keep my curls poppin’. As an avid user of the internet from Myspace to Twitter, I found community in these digital spaces. Now that I am a doctoral student who is unpacking what feminism looks like for me, I needed a feminism that allowed me to embrace my digital lifestyle. Catherine Knight Steele’s book Digital Black Feminism gave me the language and foundation for a feminism that allowed me to combine Black feminist values with my love for digital spaces. Steele’s work has influenced my scholarship since I was a master’s student in Maryland. I found that her work talked about digital spaces in a way that felt familiar to me. Digital Black Feminism does the same thing. It allows me to be in that “gray” area she speaks about in the text that allows me, as a Black woman, to call out and clap back at “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy within digital culture” (Steele 10) and to create, embrace, and honor my Blackness in online spaces. 

What is Digital Black Feminism

 “Digital Black feminism insists we centralize Black women in our definition of and history of digital technology. Digital Black feminism is a mechanism to understand how Black feminist thought is altered by and alters technology. Digital Black feminism suggests we attune our gaze to Black women because they potentially provide the most robust site of inquiry as digital scholars interested in digital communication’s capacities and constraints” (Steele 15).

Digital Black feminism centers the voices of Black women and how they use technologies. Steele’s text talks about the technologies that Black women have used dating back to slavery. She opens the first chapter by explaining how these technologies impacted how Black women lived their lives as enslaved women.  By opening the first chapter this way, she is solidifying the Black woman’s contribution to technology and confirming that we do indeed know how to be technologically advanced and that it didn’t just start with the worldwide web. Her examples of the many technologies that Black women have used, as a reader, made me feel powerful. It affirmed, for me, that Black women belong in these conversations about technology and how our years of using and creating technologies influence how we use spaces like Twitter or blogs now to mobilize, organize, educate, and build community. As an extension of black feminist theory, Steele uses digital black feminism to debunk the idea that Black women are not included in technology as an “intentional practice” (Steele 15). She asserts that by not aligning Black women with the intentional practices of technological innovation it continues to center white men as the ones who are the creators and responsible for the foundations of technology. 

Steele’s creativity shines through this text as she uses the beauty shop as a metaphor for “an analytical tool to understand the relationship between Black women and technology”. Through this metaphor, she explains in detail the ways Black discourse, in this instance, opens folks up to the technologies of Black hair care. She believes that Black women’s hair maintenance can be seen as a “road map” for centering Black women’s financial independence. It also serves as a space to create communities of color that have desires to understand the technologies of hair. I found this interesting because it made me think of how there was a natural hair boom on sites like Youtube and blog spaces. Steele also brings in blogs to solidify this metaphor. Her explanation of these technologies offline and how they transfer skills to online spaces made it easy, as a reader, to see the impact Black women have on technology.

In addition, she also talks about how online spaces and communities create a safe place for Black women and nonbinary folk. Black women are using online spaces to not only talk about their entrepreneurial ventures but also to push back against racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia. The clap backs are strong, backed by many Black women, and will quickly remind you that you’ve crossed the wrong one. Black women are using these spaces, according to Steele, as places for liberatory practices as well. 

A Feminism that INCLUDES Me

“I intend to send up a flare to those who study and report on digital culture about the glaring absence of Black women in their work. For those studying online harassment and trolling, algorithmic bias, and digital activism, Black women must be included in your work.” (Steele 156)

Digital Black Feminism influences my current work and future work in a few different ways. Firstly, Steele’s many definitions and examples of digital black feminism allow me to situate not only my work but myself in this type of feminism. It is inclusive of all of my intersecting identities as a Black, queer, and disabled woman who uses social media regularly as a space to create community, learn about new things, and clap back when people try to disrespect Black women. “The importance of digital communication and technology in the lives of Black feminists today cannot be overstated. As a site of thought generation, community formation, and economic advancement, digital tools and culture have changed how Black women (and all people) interact with the world ” (Steele 60). Secondly, Steele’s work is a foundational text for digital humanities scholars. She is setting the groundwork for scholars to build upon her assertion that digital black feminism is personal AND public. Meaning that it requires “intention and care around methods and ethics” (Steele 155).  She challenges scholars to think and be mindful about who they cite and how they cite when it comes to talking about these digital spaces. By her starting the conversation on ethics, I believe, that it will implore other scholars in this discipline to consider their ethical and moral compass when it comes to this type of work. “I take caution in whom I cite, which tweets or stories I share, and how much personal information shared in other digital forums I repeat in this text. Countless people participated in the dialogue in the blogosphere and on social media that shaped digital Black feminism. In this text, I choose to cite and publicize the work of those who through their public writing, signal a willingness to enter the public discourse on issues of race and gender.” (Steele 156) Throughout the text, she cites many writers, scholars, and contributors to digital spaces which helps the reader understand more of the genealogy of digital black feminism. 

The goal of Digital Black Feminism is to continue to empower Black women to use these many technologies and to feel like true contributors to the advancement of these technologies. Steele states that “Understanding the joys and labors of Black women, their fight for liberation, and their complicity in systems of capitalism is very complicated. Digital Black feminism is complicated, but perhaps this sheds light on why this inquiry is necessary” (Steele 157). Black women are necessary to the mobilization of these many technologies and we, all of us, use these digital spaces. Steele does not believe in re-traumatizing Black women for the sake of research and I believe that her text makes that clear. I am excited to think of these ethical implications as I embark on expanding my own research and adding to the foundational work of digital black feminism. Steele’s Digital Black Feminism has made me, as a novice Digital Black Feminist, feel seen, heard, and excited to use this framework to create new and innovative work. Although I tend to look at violence online, Steele’s work has encouraged me to consider what Black joy is in this digital space and how I can incorporate the beauty of Black digital discourse into future work. 

Review of Lynching (Ore 2019)

Lynching: Violence, Rhetoric, and American Identity. By Ersula J. Ore. (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2019. Pp. ix–xx + 175, acknowledgments, author’s note, preface, notes, index. $30, paper)

As I wrote this, Bloomington, IN was in the midst of cultural unrest surrounding what even the news media recognized as “an attempted lynching” in an incident perpetrated against a Black man on July 4, 2020. Having read Ersula Ore’s text, I could viscerally witness the civic justifications of the white, male perpetrators against a body representing a cultural other in the filmed discourse on social media. Even as reports have been made public, the language of the legal documents lays bare the performance of denying agency to a Black, male victim while simultaneously alleging charges against him as an aggressor for attempting to engage in mediation. In July 2021, charges were filed against Booker for being the assailant, and the case continues to remain unresolved. This represents what Black Feminist Kimberlé Crenshaw has identified as an intersectional collapse of race and gender as a motive for integrating injustice into regular practice, potentially obscuring one or both. As she says, “Black men and women live in a society that creates sex-based norms and expectations which racism operates simultaneously to deny; Black men are not viewed as powerful, nor are Black women seen as passive” (156). Thus discourse and acts of lynching is not just a threat of bodily violence against a race but can also serve as the regularization of legislative justification, strengthening an us/them supremacy against the archetype of threat to White, patriarchal order.

From cover to close, Dr. Ersula Ore’s Lynching provides a harrowing revelation of racialized violence, one enacted through language that functions through an us/them dialectic, reducing some peoples—some bodies—to the status of lesser humans. Situating foundational concepts from Kenneth Burke’s scholarship to frame the historical trajectory of anti-blackness in America, Ore constructs a rhetorical frame with which to interrogate critical race relations as discursively entangled in the American demos. Given this historic political trajectory but also our current moment of reinvigorating social justice movements, this text is not just theoretical, but imminently informative in terms of everyday racism and discursive anti-Black violence. Beginning in an embodied tell-all, Ore’s Preface and Postscript emplace her within a compelling anecdotal account of the effects of her own racial targeting, based in hierarchical justification for dehumanizing racial bodies as sub-human. Detailing a prolonged account of warrantless detention and the juridical ramifications that followed, Ore’s personal narrative creates a context for the exploration she engages. In text and in body, then, Ore performatively demonstrates how Kenneth Burke’s concept of identification can inform our understanding of language as an everyday structure of oppression. This recouperation of well-known rhetorical scholarship answers Lisa Flores’ 2018 call for more racial rhetorical criticism can be deployed through firsthand accounts, cultural history, and current political contexts.

To build her anecdotal experience into American society, Ore’s approach employs discourse analysis to show how language doesn’t just say things: it does things. One of her first examples makes this point clear in the way that—in legal proceedings—a sentence that affirms the killing of a person has lighter social connotations than convicting someone of murder. Ore uses the contrast to focus on how racially motivated dehumanization is discursively performed by calling a lynching a “killing” rather than a “murder,” metonymically resisting a diverse citizenry as lynching “became rhetorically constitutive occasions in which American civic identity was affirmed through antiblack violence” (19-20). By limiting both the social and legal definitions of what constitutes lynching, Ore argues that a black victim can be denied agency of victimhood through legislation while simultaneously being inscribed with the agency of aggressor through social mediation. And yet, deploying the term lynching in the present can serve as a linguistic memorial that metonymically links current black violence to historical acts and justification.

Chapter one calls upon the dialectic made possible in the Burkean concept of identification as merger/division, demonstrating that the basis of American identity ensured a violent rebuke of British rule that was recast onto a black citizenry. As a “call to communion,” lynching further functioned historically as a way to distinguish “those who belonged from those who did not [belong],” uniting both perpetrators of the acts and its spectators through epideictic rhetoric that “instructed citizens… while simultaneously maintaining and reproducing white supremacy as the democratic norm.” Ore explains how a national narrative of a “citizen race” was constituted through this codification and enactment of lynching as a form of communion: a “doing of citizenship.”

Chapter two advances the civic education of lynching as an image of epideictic rhetoric—a symbolic gesture of how “separate but equal” is enacted to separate “them” citizens who were out of place from both polity and vitality. Ore shows viscerally how lynching provides “political iconography that inculcates citizens to the practice of white democracy by way of modeling antiblack violence as a customary, natural, and revered practice of white civic identity” (56). As a resistance, such imagery was also reclaimed and reframed by anti-lynching activists to inscribe alternative lessons of racial terror and black death, as in the case of the anti-lynching efforts of Crisis, the Chicago Defender—particularly in the historic fervor surrounding Emmett Till.

Chapter three shifts the epideictic discourse into a modern context of museum curation, offering spaces to see and experience division and resistance by strategic tactics of alternative messages. Ore uses instances of historical and present dehumanization of black persons as ritualized transformation of black bodies into Burkean “equipment for living” in the progress narrative of the American polity. As a performative answer to the invective of, Crenshaw “…If we can’t see a problem, we can’t fix a problem. Together, we’ve come together to bear witness… to move from mourning and grief to action and transformation.” (Crenshaw 2019). Crenshaw’s original article about intersectionality emphasized the elision of Black women in the default collapse of Blackness as a masculine threat—which as Ore’s analysis rehashes is a primary driver of lynching.

However, though I contextualize the story of Vauhxx as intersectionally justified by his assailants and public discourse, I want to avoid re-covering an elision of feminine attributes—particularly since the allegations against him resulted from his attempt at civil discourse which has been characterized as “entrapment” and “provocation” since Black males are not allowed in hegemonic narratives to be “soft spoken.” Just as Ore explores how anti-lynching activists transformed visuals into an antiracist civic lesson, her rhetorical analysis of the discourse of lynching allows us to label and acknowledge the intersectional violence of our present cultural narratives against Black bodies.

In similar Burkean fashion of language as symbolic action, Ore rounds out her analysis with “Lynching in the Age of Obama,” This fourth chapter situates the historic trajectory of embodied and symbolic lynching in the presidency of Barrack Obama as further rhetorical divisions of “one of them” who had to constantly account for his blackness. Analyzing discourse around the Obama presidency and the symbolic acts of lynching performed during his presidency, her culminating analysis demonstrates the symbolic interactions of the polis with discursive and symbolic antiblackness reified the nation’s present expulsion of blackness as “out of place” in the American imaginary. More than just dynamic political debates, the everyday nature of such discourse shows that lynching discourse is not just reserved for instantiations but rather it is ingrained in the national narrative that mobilizes the us/them dialectic.

Ore concludes her analysis aptly by depicting how white supremacy operates through suppression of anti-black sentiments. Shifting back to her own anecdotal experience of systematic oppression, she explains how her own perpetrator was entwined in legislative forms of signifying black bodies as a scourge in contrast to white bodies as effectively in need of correction. Juxtaposing herself and another black victim with a non-black suspect stopped by the officer who arrested her, she exemplifies how discursive and legislative lynching is systematically ingrained in the present enactment of American citizenship through anti-Black policing.

Ultimately, Lynching provides a topical frame in which to deconstruct how historical oppression of black bodies is presently legitimated to sustain a national sense of an “us” citizenship through discursive and legislative violence against “them.” In the spaces between her words, one can hear the echoes of Achille Mbembe’s necropower in the way discourse repeats the sentiment of letting live while threatening to make die. Also, the embodied aspect of discourse rings of George Lakoff’s Political Mind in how describing racial bodies as lower can neurolinguistically program the delineation of white bodies over non-white subjects. And returning to the bookend of an uncertain outcome, Ore’s own account evidences the ongoing subjugation of them humans from us humans with no hope of unification.

As a discursive analysis, Ore’s account is compelling, vivid, and multimodal in showing the ways that lynching has continually transformed through American culture, recursively transforming the culture itself. It’s no wonder why this was the winner of the 2020 Rhetoric Society of America Book Award since it performs the intertextual linkings of indisciplinarity. Complicating notions of who counts and is counted in “we the people,” Lynching is not a pessimistic reading of historical progression, but a consciousness raising effort that troubles the progress narrative of what is past/passed.

After reading the text myself and sitting with my own understanding of the stories and analysis it contains, I had the gracious opportunity with my program cohort to join a Zoom call and talk to the author herself. As Dr. O expounded upon the contextual decisions and constraints around the publishing decisions, I realized exactly how much ontological persistence is involved in speaking truth to power. I was reminded of Robert Reid-Pharr’s description of the constraints of Black American autonomy: “…Within even the most rigid social hierarchies there nonetheless exist those many folds, tears, points of peculiarity and funniness that might be put to the service of both master and servant, man and woman, white and black.” (Reid-Pharr 2007) It helped me realize that this is not just a message to be understood, but also a telling to be circulated widely.

As a restituation of rhetorical framing, Ore’s project opens up engagements with interdisciplinary critical race scholarship—particularly afropessimist thinkers like Sadiya Hartman and Frantz Fanon. Additionally, the historiographical work of Ibram X. Kendi would contextualize the broader historical movements of black identity in America to the present. With Ore’s thorough contextualization of the rhetorical foundations of lynching, it provides a solid foundation for extension in these directions, so I would urge more exploration of where it can be taken up next.

Works Cited

Crenshaw, Kimberle. “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.” University of Chicago Legal Forum 1989, 1989, p. 139-168. HeinOnline.

Reid-Pharr, Robert. Once You Go Black: Choice, Desire, and the Black American Intellectual. NYU Press, 2007.

Review of Retellings: Opportunities for Feminist Research in Rhetoric and Composition Studies

Retellings: Opportunities for Feminist Research in Rhetoric and Composition Studies. Edited by Jessica Enoch and Jordynn Jack. Parlor Press, 2019. 332 pages. $34 paperback, $65 hardcover, $19.99 Adobe eBook.

Considering the title and essays in Retellings: Opportunities for Feminist Research in Rhetoric and Composition Studies, evokes for me, a scholar of nineteenth century American rhetoric, images of Margaret Fuller hosting her Boston gatherings. These famous meetings were held over six consecutive years, known as “Conversations.” They brought women—each having bought a season subscription to attend—together to discuss feminist concerns in the spirit of equity, eminent value, inclusivity, deep listening, and self-determination. These conversations helped shape feminist thought in the United States as many attendees went on to become leaders in the movements for abolition and suffrage. It was a remarkable moment in history that paved the way for modern iterations of feminist collaboration, like this edited collection of feminist ideas in praxis.

The provoked intimacy inherent in the book’s title isn’t coincidental; many of the nineteen authors overtly gesture to one another as ideological foremothers, professional mentors, and friends. This collaborative work, the newest installation in the Lauer Series of Rhetoric and Composition, was in fact motivated by the twentieth anniversary of Cheryl Glenn’s 1997 influential text, Rhetoric Retold: Regendering the Tradition from Antiquity Through the Renaissance, which published “the first continuous history of rhetoric inclusive of women” (3). This collection joins a celebrated body of scholarship reforming and protecting feminist rhetorical history, including Andrea Lunsford’s (1995) Reclaiming Rhetorica: Women in the Rhetorical Tradition, and more recently, Lisa J. Shaver’s Reforming Women: The Rhetorical Tactics of the American Female Moral Reform Society (UP Pittsburgh, 2018). The simultaneous backward and forward attitude of Retellings distinguishes it among projects to recover silent voices because it connects the rhetorical past with projections of rhetorical studies and pedagogy. That is, each contributor acknowledges Glenn as a catalyst to her own work, but then explores what implications their combined work has for future research and classroom implementation in remarkably practical ways. Over two decades later and moving into the future, Retellings asks readers to consider “What do we do now?”

Collectively, the book’s facility is in asking this question in a way that summons individual possibility, converting the question into, “What do I do now?” Reframing the question offers powerful invitation for readers to consider the ways they may implement the rhetorical
strategies modeled by the contributors as if they, too, are part of the conversation.

This convivial invitation isn’t accidental; Shirley Wilson Logan describes her vision of Retellings as the “go-to-text for teachers and researchers” (qtd. 5) wanting real ways to “attend to all that is yet to be done” in both rhetorical recovery and fresh scholarly investigations. The authors of Retellings expect their work to be catalytic, like Glenn’s, in a generative sense. For example, Krista Ratcliffe discusses in Chapter 3 “the war-on-women” in political campaigns. She works not only to identify the rhetorical problem but also recruits readers to solve it through rhetorical silence and listening.

Like Ratcliffe, all the contributors are quick to admit that their work is neither comprehensive nor exhaustive, but merely the next step on the path to future discovery and resolution. For example, in Chapter 9, Cristina D. Ramirez takes an introspective look at her own scholarly approach to the archives of Mexican women’s writings in response to “Glenn and Enoch’s [2010] insistence on locating and revealing ourselves within our research” (163). In this way of extending past rhetorical conversations with current responses, the collaborators bridge the past and future of rhetorical history, theory, and praxis.

Ramirez’s essay is an example of how contributors extend what Glenn recovered in 1997, creating an ongoing conversation and one that Retellings captures in four sections or “four inventional nodes” (6). I like the maker-sense of these divisions because of the creative interplay
between feminism, rhetoric, composition, research, and teaching it all. The first section includes essays by Shirley Wilson Logan, Krista Ratcliffe, Brigitte Mral, and Berit von der Lippe discussing feminist concerns of modern politics around the world. Section two addresses identity studies with essays by Rosalyn Collings Eves and Jean Bessette. The third section discusses feminist methods and methodologies with contributions from Heather Brook Adams, Cristina D. Ramirez, Wendy B. Sharer, and Anita Helle. And the fourth section focuses on the “feminist rhetorical commitment to ‘paying it forward’ through teaching and mentoring’” (5) with essays by Elaine Richardson, A. Abby Knoblauch, Sonja K. Foss and Karen A. Foss, and Michelle Eble and Lynée Lewis Gaillet.

Each chapter of Retellings evidences the ongoing work to reimagine the study of rhetoric and composition through a feminist lens, with selected chapters illustrating this point. In Chapter 2, Logan reminds us that historic feminist rhetoricians faced challenges similar to those women face today, using “the same rhetorical strategies” we see being employed by “present-day transnational feminist rhetoricians” (20-1). It’s a dynamic story of rhetors creatively using the best available means of persuasion with limitless potentialities for understanding and invention. For example, the creative application of place as a rhetorical resource is Eves’s focus in Chapter 6. She explicates how the nineteenth century Utah poet, orator, and community leader, Eliza R. Snow, resisted female marginalization by using the metonymic trope of “Zion-as symbol” (110) to identify Mormon women as “spiritual beings with extraordinary potential” (111-12). Demonstrating how place can function “as a powerful vehicle for group identification (112), Eves extends Glenn’s 1997 work by recovering women’s position in rhetorical history in calling attention to Snow’s strategies for authorizing her feminist message.

This re-envisioning of feminist rhetorical practice is further developed in Sharer’s Chapter 10, which reminds us that not only does the story need retelling (because of recovered omissions from rhetorical histories and the ongoing addendums with history in the making) but it
also needs retelling by different voices. Berit von der Lippe enlists different voices as she responds in Chapter 5 to Sharer’s invitation by considering the female “presence as agents [of] change” in traditionally male-dominated war narratives (68) thereby transforming these stories “into peaceful ‘feminist’ protection scenarios” (69). Likewise, in Chapter 11, Helle embraces and extends feminists’ “injunction to ‘stand at the border’ of rhetoric and feminism, to ‘gain new perspectives’ on a deeply gendered site of embodiment, stigmatization, silence, and cultural production” as she examines the archives of breast cancer narratives (203).

In an ongoing effort to broaden feminist work and cross boundaries of privileged perspective, Sharer writes that “embracing, publishing, and circulating scholarly texts that invite collaboration, that forward the research process rather than present a research product, and that enable broader participation in professional publications is…essential” (184). Again, this argument is made more compelling because Retellings itself is just such a collaborative process, illuminating points of entry for readers to enact the methods retold in its pages. It is implied that readers will apply, test, and refine these methods—making Retellings, then, just a snowflake on an iceberg of possibility.

Four essays in Retellings are especially adept at modeling Sharer’s call for collaborative research and publication. Included in these is Mral’s Chapter 4 on gendered power relations in Nordic countries which is translated from the original Swedish into English by Judith Rinker Öhman. Modeling teamwork is the introductory Chapter 1 written by three authors: Enoch, Jack, and Glenn. In the final section, addressing feminist teaching and mentoring methods, two chapters are co-authored.

Among these is Chapter 14 wherein Foss and Foss reiterate the need for retelling the rhetorical story from different perspectives. They focus on nurturing individual agency and claim that it is through an individual paradigm shift that societal change can occur—especially change in harmony with feminist principles antithetical to a rhetoric of domination. This theory is particularly empowering since it emphasizes self-determination as a first step to affecting grand societal change. This, again, emphasizes the value each reader brings to Retelling’s project as they are intricately part of this envisioned social reform. Such pedagogical theorizing doesn’t end on the page but translates clearly to the classroom. Whether that is in a composition classroom or a biology classroom, Foss and Foss say that it doesn’t matter since the “strategies for changing reality” (269) are the same and can be applied to any discipline.

This fourth section offers practical applications for in-class activities and assignments. In Chapter 12, Richardson models Black and Hiphop feminist pedagogy hoping to show how marginalized girls can “tease out issues of equity and humanity in a critical womanist manner” (242). This section’s essays often end with self-reflexivity, “a core tenet of feminist rhetorical pedagogies” (249), and are offered as real sources of inspiration for instructors seeking to achieve Knoblauch’s call in Chapter 13 to prepare “the next generation of teacher-scholars to do the same” (260) thereby enacting the reciprocal aspect of feminist ideology.

While each section in Retellings is diverse and fresh in its rhetorical analysis, I am partial to Part 4 because of its pay-it-forward, real-world application emphasis. This is a moment when I felt caught up in the energy of Retellings and personally invited to “make a difference in the lives of [my] colleagues and students” (13). Additionally, as I read the convivial account of progressive mentor networking by The Coalition of Feminist Scholars in the History of Rhetoric and Composition (The Coalition), officially held since 1990 at the annual CCCC meeting, I experienced a kairotic pleasure which had me dreaming of a future year; as were many people, I was disappointed to miss the 2020 and 2021 rendezvous due to Covid-19’s interference. As I read and reviewed Retellings, Eble and Gaillet’s colorful recounting in Chapter 15 of The Coalition’s origins, mission, and activities as a model for creating feminist mentoring networks fed my isolated self with hope for better times ahead. Again, visions of Margaret Fuller’s “Conversations” danced in my head—I would have bought a ticket. The two gatherings felt very connected across time and space. I want to attend. I hope to attend to all that Retellings conjures in my mind and makes feel so incredibly possible and vital.

Hope is what Retellings is all about. Perhaps best articulated in Chapter 7, Bessette writes about the hope to “‘will’ change in the present” (118). She relates the story of the Lesbian Herstory Archives’ “‘archivettes’” and their work to “revise the historical narratives that have erased, criminalized, and pathologized lesbians.” Or maybe Adam’s Chapter 8 is the book’s hallmark of hope. Her essay literally begins with, “I hope…” (139). Adams responds to Glenn’s Unspoken (2004) in examining the “ethical quandaries” of working with participants in a discussion of institutionalized silence potentially masquerading as protection “that might run counter to feminist ways of knowing and doing” (141).

This commitment to changing the present permeates Retellings and nurtures hope that “discursive power (feminist rhetorical agency, no less) can bring people together to imagine new modes of being, or even to understand the ways our linguistic and embodied practices keep us apart” (7). Ultimately, this collection is historically valuable, immediately relevant, and effectively contributes to the “empowering [of] members of the network as scholars, teachers, and agents of change” (14), inviting all who want to join to be part of the ongoing conversation while showing them ways in which to make their contribution a reality.

Review of Linguistic Justice: Black Language, Literacy, Identity, and Pedagogy

Baker-Bell, April. Linguistic Justice: Black Language, Literacy, Identity, and Pedagogy. Routledge, 2020.

Introduction

In Linguistic Justice: Black Language, Literacy, Identity, and Pedagogy, Assistant Professor of Language, Literacy, and English Education at Michigan State University, April Baker-Bell shows readers she ain’t new to the Black Language (BL hereafter) conversation, but that she true to it. Conversations throughout the field of composition and literacy studies bout the literacy development of Black people within the American Education System been a hot topic and continues today. It ain’t no secret that Black people in America have been the topic of discussion in various conversations. Most of these conversations evolve round Black people…dare I say it…bein Black, literally. For example, the world has witnessed Black Americans of various ages be attacked and murdered by racist white people for doin seemingly normal activities like walkin, runnin, playin music, sleepin, singin outside, and complying with police demands to name a few. Moreover, Baker-Bell’s research on BL and pedagogical suggestions for how literacy educators, researchers, and students can benefit from first examining and then incorporating BL into the writing classroom, makes Linguistic Justice: Black Language, Literacy, Identity and Pedagogy required reading for those who want to know about the conversations regarding the validity of BL and its use by Black and non-Black people alike.

What’s the 411?: Overview of Linguistic Justice

Wit more than 20 years’ experience teaching English at the high school and collegiate level, Baker-Bell blesses readers with six chapters in Linguistic Justice. In chapter one she identifies the purpose of Linguistic Justice in chapter one arguing:

people’s language experiences are not separate from their racial experiences. Indeed, the way a Black child’s language is devalued in school reflects how Black lives are devalued in the world. Similarly, the way a white child’s language is privileged and deemed the norm in schools is directly connected to the invisible ways that white culture is deemed normal, neutral, and superior in the world. (2)

Through this argument, Baker-Bell confronts the catalyst behind the continued conversation of BL and literacy education of Black students who speak and write using BL as it is an integral part of their identity: white supremacy. White supremacist ideologies within the American education system where Black students were and continue to be demeaned and labeled deficient because they don’t use “White Mainstream English” (WME hereafter) is because the idea of WME as the only acceptable form of English has been ingrained into the psyche of educators, parents, and students (3). Therefore, any language spoken or written that don’t mirror WME was/is deemed wrong, inadequate, deficit and the list goes on. As a teacher-scholar-activist, Baker-Bell challenges educators, scholars, and graduate students in various fields dedicated to language and literacy, to fight back against white supremacist ideologies which promote Anti-Black Linguistic Racism and subsequently Anti-Blackness, to Black students across the United States and the world. In addition to this argument, Baker-Bell presents “Linguistic Justice as a Black Language Theoreticum, a theory meets practicum” (8), for its contents expand seemingly traditional models of teaching. In chapter 2, Baker-Bell introduces readers to the theory of Anti-Black Linguistic Racism to show how prejudice against Black language is synonymous with racism against Black people and culture. Moreover, she offers Black Language Pedagogy as a method for students and Antiracist educators to resist and dismantle Anti-Black Linguistic Racism within the classroom, ultimately the world. Chapter 3 highlights the voices of several BL speaking high-school students who Baker-Bell worked with regarding their lived experiences with Black Linguistic Racism in and outside of school. This chapter is unique in that Baker-Bell centers these student voices to show how Anti-Black Linguistic Racism negatively impacts Black students’ identity and agency in and outside of the classroom. Chapter 4 showcases Baker-Bell’s Antiracist Black Language Pedagogy in action. Here, she details examples of lessons and activities she used to teach the high school students at Leadership Academy how to “challenge, interrogate, unlearn, and work toward dismantling Anti-Black Linguistic Racism” (64). In Chapter 5, Baker-Bell shares responses of the students she worked with previously (in chapter 3) on what they learned about Black Language and Anti-Black Linguistic Racism via the activities and lessons she taught using Antiracist Black Language Pedagogy.  Finally, Chapter 6 considered a Bonus chapter by Baker-Bell, provides readers with an update on her research with the students from Leadership Academy in addition to activities for English teachers to incorporate Linguistic Justice as a framework within they classes. Specifically, these activities and lessons curated within chapter were developed from award winning Young Adult fiction author, Angie Thomas’ bestseller, T.H.U.G.: The Hate U Give. Through the various chapters, Baker-Bell takes readers on a journey that ain’t for the faint of heart, especially if they goal is to actively practice Anti-Racist Pedagogy and Anti-Racist Black Linguistic Racism.

Words from the Black Language G.O.A.T.

 In Linguistic Justice, readers learn of Baker-Bell’s contribution to the ongoing BL conversation through the foreword that precedes its initial chapters. Michigan State University Professor of English, Emerita, the livin legend herself, Dr. Geneva Smitherman highlighted Baker-Bell’s contribution to the BL and literacy education conversation by continuing da work of those scholars who came before her in the foreword. Smitherman praises Baker-Bell sayin:

At long last, this is the book we have all been waiting for. A book designed to develop our students’ critical understanding of and historical consciousness about Black Language. A book that builds on that critical inquiry to motivate students to formulate ways of impacting and changing the linguistic status quo. As a leading member of a new generation of language and literature scholar-teacher-activists, Dr. April Baker-Bell represents for Black Language and it’s speakers because she gets it. (xii)

Dr. Smitherman’s declaration that Baker-Bell “gets it” is a statement that rings true and is shown throughout Linguistic Justice. As an early-career scholar in composition and applied linguistics whose research centers how Black Women English Teachers-Scholars (BWETS hereafter) navigate the field as BL speakers and writers, Linguistic Justice snatched the teeny tiny bit of edges I had left (my doctoral journey took the majority of them; but that’s a story for another publication).

Engaging with Linguistic Justice: How specific Chapters influenced my Pedagogy

As mentioned previously, Linguistic Justice challenges not only educators, but ANYONE in the field of English and literacy studies to critically examine they own beliefs regarding BL as well as the ways they intentionally or unintentionally perpetuate Anti-Black Linguistic Racism and Anti-Blackness in they teaching. For example, in chapter 3 “Killing Them Softly” I was forced to revisit my own experiences with Anti-Black Linguistic Racism as a young jawn, when Baker-Bell introduced the counterstories, a womanist practice,  of Black students she worked with at Leadership Academy Charter School in Detroit. Specifically, I resonated with the experience of “Janel” who had spent the majority of her life navigating Anti-Black Linguistic Racism from teachers, administrators, Black elders and her own BL speaking family members.  Resonating with Janel’s experience reinforced my commitment to actively dismantle Anti-Black Linguistic and Anti-Blackness within myself (ex. checkin myself when I start tryna judge someone’s level of customer service simply because they use BL to communicate). In my teaching, I encourage my students to bring their full selves not only to my course but to the assignments too. I encourage them to write in they home languages in an effort to recognize and honor the validity of languages outside of WME. I model this by usin BL in my syllabus and in the written feedback I provide on papers. I look forward to incorporating Linguistic Justice and Baker-Bell’s use of composite character counter storytelling methodology into my own research on BL speaking and writing BWETS.  In chapter 5 “Black Linguistic Consciousness” Baker-Bell calls out language and literacy educators when she says

You can’t be out here saying that you believe in linguistic diversity at the same time of shutting students down as soon as they open their mouths. You have to be about this life for real for real! You have to be ready and willing to challenge everything you once understood about language and what students need in language education. You have to be ready for the messiness that comes with the process. (100)

Baker-Bell urges educators to move beyond talk about bein or becoming Anti-Racist Educators by challenging themselves and their colleagues to actively engage in dismantling Anti-Black Linguistic Racism. For students, Baker-Bell provides them with the academic receipts to protect themselves from and ultimately challenge Anti-Black Linguistic Racism and internalized Anti-Black Linguistic Racism from teachers, administrators, elders, and family members who still privilege WME as the gold standard. While Baker-Bell’s Linguistic Justice calls out educators, researchers, graduate students to focus on undoing Anti-Black Linguistic Racism, in true Black woman fashion, Baker-Bell shows that while she is calling these people out, that she ain’t gon leave em hangin’ to try to carry out this call on they own. Thus, she provided the previously mentioned bonus chapter (see “THUG LIFE”) with sample activities for how language and literacy educators can integrate Antiracist Black Language Pedagogy into they own teaching. Baker-Bell was gracious enough to share seven “Black Language Artifacts” “that can be implemented, altered, or used for inspiration to help teachers think through how to use literature in pursuit of linguistic and racial justice” (104).

Why You NEED Linguistic Justice…Periodt!

Linguistic Justice: Black Language, Literacy, Identity, and Pedagogy ain’t no ordinary theory/research text, it is a movement. Linguistic Justice is a movement in that its content propels language and literacy educators and students to become movers and shakers within the continued fight against Anti-Black Linguistic Racism, Antiracist pedagogy, and Anti-Blackness as a whole—a critical component of womanist practices. Specifically, for the field of composition, Linguistic Justice directly addresses the common question of how to teach about BL as a vital part of literacy education for not just Black students, but non-Black students also. For teachers and scholars of composition, Linguistic Justice serves as a bold reminder of how many were taught to privilege WME as the correct way of writing and speaking within the writing classroom. Therefore, Linguistic Justice should be considered required reading in teacher education programs, as well as professional development for current teachers across the K-16 levels. What’s more, is Baker-Bell’s Linguistic Justice Framework could benefit not just composition but can be included in trainings and curriculums for non-humanities/social science fields. As Smitherman complimented sayin she “gets it”, I truly believe Linguistic Justice was Baker-Bell’s collective homage to the brilliance and beauty of Black Language, Black identity, Black education, Black people, and most of all Black freedom, and she desires for everybody and they mama to “get it” and get it (meaning purchase the book) you should, dear reader.

Review of Asian American Feminisms & Women of Color Politics, edited by Lynn Fujiwara and Shireen Roshanravan

Fujiwara, Lynn, and Shireen Roshanravan (Eds). Asian American Feminisms & Women of Color Politics, University of Washington Press, 2018.

Asian American Feminisms & Women of Color Politics is a collection edited by Lynn Fujiwara and Shireen Roshanravan. I first read the book in the summer of 2020 in the midst of another wave of Black Lives Matter movement calling for justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many other Black people murdered by the police. This was not only another moment of awakening for me to the racial injustice in this country, particularly against Black people, but also to reflect on my own racialized positionality. Now, I’m reading this collection for a second time, barely a year later, at yet another kairotic moment when six Asian women’s lives were taken by a white terrorist in a racially and sexually motivated crime in Atlanta and the nation is perhaps finally recognizing the racial violence against Asian peoples that has long existed yet particularly heightened due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Drawing from multiple disciplinary perspectives, this collection moves toward theorizing an Asian American feminist praxis, contextualized in transnational and transcultural politics and grounded in intersectional and decolonial approaches. It starts by tracing the history of Asian American feminist genealogies in a global context from the work of third world feminist and Asian decolonization in Grace Kyungwon Hong’s chapter to Judy Tzu-Chun Wu’s efforts in making visible the differences and tensions between radical and liberal strands of Asian American feminisms developed in the 20th century. This history offers a good foundation for readers to engage with the rest of the chapters approaching Asian American feminisms and politics from a multitude of perspectives.

In this review, I highlight important takeaways from each section, without necessarily going through each chapter linearly but thematically, because this journey of learning and growth for me is iterative and recursive, embedded in my own experiences and positionalities as a Chinese permanent resident living in the U.S., a scholar and student of feminist rhetorics.

Challenging the Dominant Asian American Narratives

Several chapters challenge readers to reflect on the labels we use for Asian Diaspora, such as “Asian American” (107) or “Asian Canadian” women (156): how can we perceive this complex identity in all its multifacetedness? Who may be included or excluded by these labels? What gets erased or neglected? Stephanie Nohelani Teves and Maile Arvin critique the use of the term “Asian Pacific Islanders.” They remind us of the colonial history of Pacific Islanders, and argue that Asian Americans need to recognize their own complicity in marginalizing Pacific Islanders and erasing their histories while offer recommendations for teaching and research in Asian American studies.

In discussing the “South Asian Canadian women” cultural position, Sunera Thobani warns us of “colonial ideologies of passive victimhood and patriarchal cultures characterized by misogynist violence” which neglect the struggles South Asian Canadian women experience against social, economic, and political forces (157). Similarly, Thomas Xavier Sarmiento highlights the importance of a descriptive approach to the complex and multiple identities one might embody. Sarmiento looks to diasporic Filipinx literature for a Filipinx American feminist and queer political orientation to challenge colonial oppression and white supremacy, arguing that “gender liberation must be fundamentally queer” (100).

Erin Khuê Ninh’s chapter on sexual violence in the everyday lives of Asian American women is particularly poignant to read in light of what happened in Atlanta. Ninh calls us to attune to the “gender socialization” that Asian American women may experience, arguing that “Asian American women’s experiences of sexual coercion are ‘culturally’ inflected: sabotaged by the model minority paradigm not as stereotype but as subject formation” (76). She argues to “make coercion structural, not inflictive” and emphasizes that the question of consent should not be that of a “yes/no delineation” but instead “How do you feel?” (77).

I especially appreciate the detailed research accounts by authors who lay bare their own vulnerability, self-reflection, and positionality as they approach their research and activist work (Sarmiento; Ninh; Fujiwara; Kimoto). I resonate with the emphasis on how our positionality in any situation may allow us to “approach resistance movements from varying points of entry and belonging” (Fujiwara 247). There isn’t one Asian American subject, as there isn’t one Asian American feminist subject. We are always already embedded in a contextualized network based on interconnected identity markers and values.

Asian American Intersectional Feminist Organizing

Part four of the book presents inspirational activist work and Asian American feminist organizing, demonstrating how this contextualized examination and reflection of positionality is crucial to advancing feminist causes. Ma Vang’s analysis of a refugee community health organization in the U.S. and theorizing of a Hmong feminist praxis of care pushes the limits of feminist epistemology and centers refugees not as passive victims needing help but active agents of change in their own communities who in turn also shape institutional practices and bridge different feminist formations (185). From a transnational perspective, Gina Velasco rejects the moralistic framework often adopted by international organizations and policies that further exploits gendered Philippine migrant workers by focusing almost exclusively on sexual labor as sex trafficking (202).

Similarly, Priya Kandaswamy calls for an intersectional approach to reproductive justice through the analysis of the criminalization of Purvi Patel in the U.S., highlighting the interlocking factors that shape the regulation of reproductive rights as much as gender: race, class, immigration status, and ability. Kandaswamy critiques the portrayals of Patel, by those who supported her, who prosecuted her, and by media in general that fall into stereotyping Asian women as deceptive, manipulative, and lack of agency, victims of their own patriarchal cultures rather than individuals who can make their own choices (223). Across the three chapters in Part four, we can see authors centering the agency of marginalized Asian American women and their own practices of empowerment while revealing the structural and systemic forces that aim to reduce the complex identities of different Asian American women.

Toward a Coalitional and Multiple Asian American Feminist Praxis

A central theme throughout the book is an emphasis on coalitional politics built across the differences of groups of people who identify as Asian diaspora, rather than essentializing any specific group as representing Asian or Asian American community. Many chapters (e.g., Velasco, Thobani, Kimoto, Sarmiento) challenge simplistic politics of representation and call for intersectional attunement not only along gender and racial lines, but also to historical, economic, social, and political contexts. And authors in this collection have demonstrated how this work can be done with care.

Tamsin Kimoto’s chapter brings forth the historical work underpinning the systemic racializing work in the U.S. that pitted Asian Americans against Black Americans. Referencing Sara Ahmed, Kimoto lays out how whiteness is a standard in reference to which the world is conceived, both as “an implicit and coercive goal” that non-white racialized others are oriented toward and “the barometer by which we [racialized others] measure our own successes” (143). This is why a feminist praxis valuing multiplicity is important. Fujiwara writes:

“a coalitional praxis that presumes the multiple interdependent heterogeneous subjectivities of Asian Americans requires us to utilize the lens of multiplicity, a lens that foregrounds racialized neocolonial systems of neoliberalism and globalization to illuminate incommensurabilities within and across Asian America as sites of coalitional consciousness-raising” (245).

Such lens of multiplicity is particularly important as we see Asian American feminisms and politics embedded in and connected with women of color feminisms more broadly. For example, Kandaswamy’s chapter connects the criminalization of Purvi Patel using feticide legislation to the broader prison industrial complex that disproportionate criminalizes people of color by drawing parallel between Patel’s portrayal as a sympathetic victim with the criminalization of Black women as “crack mothers.” This is not to reduce either group’s suffering, but to actually help us see the “common differences” in how the state seeks to control the reproductive rights of women of color (Mohanty, cited in 221).

Using the case of NYPD officer Peter Liang’s murder of Black man Akai Gurley, Roshanravan warns us the “model-minority racial project” (270). As Asian/Asian Americans, we should be reflexive of our own positionality and must not be disillusioned by the allure of model minority or be blind to the relative privilege that perception might afford us. An Asian American visibility must be achieved horizontally across racial interconnectedness in the “racial third space” with other communities of color without mimicking or co-opting other identification of its own cultural specificity (Roshanravan 268).

In our current context, the fight for justice for the murders of Asian American women cannot lead to calls for more police because we must recognize how police brutality has always been a danger to immigrant communities, Asian American communities and Black communities alike. As immigrants, we must resist the simplistic binary of inclusion/exclusion into a national identity of being American, but to actually challenge and transform that nationalistic construct to one that’s based on care for and celebration of differences.

“Stay in Place and Stay on the Move”

To challenge the ways that Asian Americans have been racialized in proximity to whiteness, I go back to Tamsin Kimoto’s use of “restiveness” in our orientation, which embodies both a meaning to stay in place and to stay on the move.

Restiveness as staying in place may mean staying with the “silence” that’s been associated so much with Asian communities in recognizing both how Asian Americans have been pushed to stay silent throughout history and how that silence has ill served the histories of Asian Americans and other people of color and Indigenous peoples (146). Staying in place in this way means to critically reflect on what has been left unsaid but also what’s been said and amplified. Similar to Kimoto’s example of the “Resistance Auntie” meme of an Asian Trump supporter (147), one might think of the more recent incident where a Texas GOP congressional candidate Sery Kim, a Korean American, made racist comments toward Chinese immigrants (Cole). A “staying-in-place” restive orientation in this case means rejecting both the racist nature of Kim’s comments and recognizing how her positionality is the result of historical and ongoing orientation toward whiteness in this country that has often aimed to pit different people of color communities against each other.

Upon this reflection, Asian Americans can be restive as staying on the move working against the violence toward Indigenous lands and communities in the context of Hawaii (Kimoto 148-149). Similarly, it also behooves Asian American communities to orient toward the struggles of Black communities, such as in the case of Asians4BlackLives campaign (Roshanravan 274). In both situations, we must stay on the move, shifting our investment away from the white heteropatriarchy toward the collective intersectional coalition building across minoritized communities.

I end my review here as I find this dual understanding of “restiveness” a good point of departure for me from this book back to my daily life as a scholar and teacher of rhetoric and composition and technical communication; my positionality as a Chinese woman living in the U.S., researching Chinese feminist rhetorics both in China and globally. As BIPOC researchers and teachers, our positionality in the academy is often already precarious. But our students rely on us, requiring that we be restive, modeling for them a critical understanding and reflection of personal identities contextualized historically, economically, culturally, and politically. For feminist scholars more broadly, this book offers another opportunity to learn about Asian American feminisms and women of color politics, drawing attention to sites where more rhetorical research may be needed.

Works Cited

  • Cole, Devan. “Republican Congresswomen Call Out ‘Hurtful’ Comments made about Chinese Immigrants by Texas GOP Candidate They Endorsed.” CNN, 1 Apr. 2021, https://www.cnn.com/2021/04/01/politics/sery-kim-texas-candidate-chinese-immigrants/index.html. Accessed 16 Apr. 2021. -return to text
  • Fujiwara, Lynn, and Shireen Roshanravan (Eds). Asian American Feminisms & Women of Color Politics, University of Washington Press, 2018.

 

Review of Black or White: Anti/Racist Campus Rhetorics

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

“The fact of the matter is, we wouldn’t have any feminism worth thinking about or writing about without the work of feminists of color.” So opens the call for papers for this issue of Peitho, which goes on to elaborate on the claim and to insist that “we need to center the voices of feminist of color . . . to ensure our feminist futures.” In Black or Right, Lou Maraj answers this call, using the Black feminist philosophy of literacy as the practice of freedom and focusing throughout on how Black relational feminist methodologies and ecologies work to establish Black rhetorical agency as one means of disrupting (“mashin’ up de place” xiii) in order to counter white (institutional and individual) defensiveness—and a whole lot more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Work Cited

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

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

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

Introduction: Personal Intersections

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

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

Overview: Intersectionality as Activism

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

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

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

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

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

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

Structure: Sections, Chapters, and Themes

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

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

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

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

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

Content: A Chapter Sampling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

Revisionary Rhetorics

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

Circulatory Rhetorics

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

Response Rhetorics

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

Conclusion: Looking Across Time, Space, and Place

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

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

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

Works Cited

  • Royster, Jacqueline Jones, and Gesa Kirsch. Feminist Rhetorical Practices: New Horizons for Rhetoric, Composition, and Literacy Studies. Southern Illinois University Press, 2012. -return to text
  • Royster, Jacqueline Jones, and Jean C. Williams. “History in the Spaces Left: African American Presence and Narratives of Composition Studies.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 50, no. 4, 1999, pp. 563–584. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/358481. -return to text

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

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

Cover art of book being reviewed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

    • “Carrizo Springs Detention Facility Cannot Become Status Quo for Children.” Amnesty International USA, www.amnestyusa.org/press-releases/carrizo-springs-detention-facility-cannot-become-status-quo-for-children/. -return to text
    • Foster-Frau, Silvia. “First Migrant Facility for Children Opens under Biden.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 24 Feb. 2021, www.washingtonpost.com/national/immigrant-children-camp-texas-biden/2021/02/22/05dfd58c-7533-11eb-8115-9ad5e9c02117_story.html. -return to text

Review of Lives, Letters, and Quilts: Women and Everyday Rhetorics of Resistance

Sohan, Vanessa Kraemer. Lives, Letters, and Quilts: Women and Everyday Rhetorics of Resistance. University of Alabama Press, 2019. 232 pp.

 

As I finish this review in late 2020, the electoral college has officially named Joe Biden the President of the United States. When Vanessa Kraemer Sohan was working on her project, Donald Trump had just been elected. The past four years has offered a soap opera complete with outsized characters whose antics are repeated and circulated on the national stage. In this era of hyperbole, a book on “the courage of ordinary Americans” is a welcome reprieve.

Lives, Letters, and Quilts dips into three very different moments in time and place: 1930s Oregon, 1860s Civil War America, Gee’s Bend Alabama in the early 2000s (though the quiltmakers’ art exists from the 1800s), and 1940 in South Dakota (one artifact). Sohan narrows in on specific figures that served as background characters of larger historical moments, but she argues that they employ “everyday rhetorics” when “faced with “a desperate problem” (146). For Sohan, they “[respond] heroically without resorting to heroic measures” (146). The book begins with the Townsendites, a group advocated for “old age pensions” after the Great Depression. Sohan zeroes in onone particular chapter president Pearl S. Burkhalter. Following this discussion is a chapter on the ministry of Eliza P. Gurney and, especially, her correspondence with President Lincoln during and after the Civil War. The Gee Bend Quiltmakers round out her case studies with a more contemporary group that found recognition in the “high art” community during the 20th century, though African American women have been practicing this art since the beginning of slavery.

Sohan takes up an old question about women rhetors: “where were the spaces in which women chose/were permitted to speak?” While the work is grounded in feminist rhetorical theory, Sohan primarily investigates the question via theories focused on textual composition. While both “recontextualization” and “translingualism” have been used in various fields, Sohan is interested in the ways they help us think about literacy, language, and writing practices especially as methods for “adopting more democratic and descriptive approaches to language and modal practices…” (9). While scholars of translingualism/transmodalism, that she most often cites, are concerned about the ways college students creatively adapt “across languages and modes,” Sohan is “interested in how composers outside university contexts, and across history, engage in such work—albeit by using more obviously monolingual resources—and how they adapt to and change the system as a result” (15). To take up this challenge, Sohan explores an Oregonian woman in the 1930s who joined the Townsend Movement, a Quaker minister in the mid-1800s attempting to influence the course of the Civil War, and the Gee’s Bend quilters, African American women in Alabama who have been creating quilts for generations as both a functional material good and a form of resistant art and some Townsendites that also used quilting to do rhetorical work.

Chapter 1: The Pen as Sword: The Townsend Letter-Writing Campaigns and the Case of Pearl Burkhalter

The historical analysis of both the Townsendites and Pearl S. Burkhalter, in particular, is the strongest case study in the book. Sohan first outlines the Townsend Movement started by Francis Everett Townsend’s 1933 letter to a California newspaper arguing for a sales tax to fund a pension for citizens over 60 that becomes “the Townsend Plan” and spawns populist “clubs” across the country. She then focuses on one member, Pearl S. Burkhalter. Sohan’s careful discussion of the Townsend Movement as a counter to FDR’s New Deal and social security system, offers an overview of an important movement in the history of American governmental policy and populism that is particularly noteworthy considering current populist movements. Sohan focuses, not on the founder, but on one particularly enthusiastic female member, who eventually becomes a chapter president in Oregon City, Oregon. Sohan scours the archival treasure left by Burkhalter, a prolific writer, to produce a detailed study of her unique rhetorical choices. For her members, Burkhalter models an aggressive letter writing style, though she, herself, did not follow the polite, conservative models provided by the national leadership. This lively and compelling history offers a glimpse at a woman attempting to simultaneously embrace politically conservative and gendered norms and her desire for power beyond those norms.

Chapter 2: With Pen and Prayer: The Life and Ministry of Eliza P. Gurney

Sohan’s discussion of Eliza P. Gurney, a Quaker minister, who engaged with President Lincoln presents a slight twist on previous scholarship on this woman rhetor. Unlike Burkhalter, some scholarship has been written about Gurney’s letters and work (one of her letters was in Lincoln’s pocket when he was shot). This chapter attempts to reject characterizations of Gurney as simply a “‘pious, loveable old Quaker woman’” (71) and demonstrate the subtle ways Gurney both strategically used Quaker rhetorical practices and parted from them to claim the right to speak beyond prescribed parameters. Sohan argues that Gurney was particularly adept at seizing kairotic moments and finding ways to personally relate to prominent figures like Lincoln as a way to gain influence. Following a strong tradition of scholarship on women rhetors who use religion as an avenue to gain public agency, Sohan’s discussion adds another example to this list.

Chapter 3: “The Needle as the Pen”: Recontextualizing the Discourse of Quilts and Quiltmaking”

In the final short case study, Sohan turns from letter writing to the quilt making of the Gee’s Bend quiltmakers, especially Mensie Lee Pettway and Annie Mae Young. Following a look at the difficulties the Gee’s Bend quilters faced once white audiences began viewing and critiquing their work as “high art,” she concludes with quilts made by members of various Townsend clubs in the 1930’s and highlights their very different motives. To make the jump from text to quilt (pen to needle), Sohan employs Elaine Richardson’s argument that quilts are “African American female literacy practice” (118). It is well documented that quilting is an important material rhetoric, especially for women, and a rhetorical form that has simultaneously served as household staple, art, protest, memory and memorial. Quilt making is, unmistakably, a vital node in feminist rhetorical study. While Sohan’s chapter offers a reminder of the value of the rhetoric of quilting, the transition from the introductory theory is less seamless than in the first two chapters.

There is a long and complex history of scholarship on resistance (variously named activism, civil disobedience, social movements, and protest) that can be found in rhetorical studies, communication studies, political and social science (among other fields). Sohan comes at the study of resistance, specifically “everyday resistance” from composition and writing studies (which, of course, is influenced by these other fields) that brings a pedagogical, teacher/student dynamic to this study. While it made the shift to quilting a bit rocky, it did offer an angle on resistance that highlights the everyday acts of folks existing within organized systems, systems that do not always respect or even acknowledge the different experiences and language practices they bring to the table, much in the same ways students must work within institutions of higher learning. This is a choice that also allows Sohan to focus on writing.

Sohan’s conclusion points readers toward more traditional activist scholarship (like Pezzullo and Striphas, Feigenbaum, and Kynard) and provides an attention to the daily, slow, thoughtful work of resistance. As Sarah Ahmed recently encouraged in Living a Feminist Life, feminism is “homework,” a way of living infused in all of our daily acts (7). The readers of Peitho are all familiar with the recovery work that launched feminist rhetorical studies. This work reimagined the narrative of the history of rhetoric to include prominent, public women in the canon. I see Sohan’s work as part of Recovery 2.0. In this next phase, we see/have seen scholarship on rhetoric from “the kitchen, parlor, and nursery; the garden; the church; the body” as Joy Ritchie and Kate Ronald acknowledged in 2001 in Available Means (xvii). As Sohan asserts, not everyone can or wants to be a traditional, public hero. We owe the election of Joe Biden to the women and men, and let’s be honest, mostly Black women, who did the everyday work to cajole, humor, force, argue folks to registration tables, to the polls. The rhetors we choose to study and teach begin to create a canon cementing ideas about who makes change and how. What might it look like to focus on artifacts from a small town PTA that made a significant policy change rather than the Department of Education? What methods can we use to assess the strategies of quiet leaders who don’t make the headlines but spent 30 years shifting policies and ideas about race and gender and class one human at a time: ethnography, film? What does it mean for our careers to study folks who made change, but changes we mourn or disagree with? I look forward to more scholarship on these everyday creative efforts.

Works Cited

  1. Ahmed, Sarah. Living a Feminist Life. Duke University Press, 2017.
  2. Ritchie, Joy and Kate Ronald. Available Means: An Anthology of Women’s Rhetoric(s). University of Pittsburgh Press, 2001.