This course examines the multiple rhetorics--- written, aural, and visual--- of black women in the United States who define themselves as women of African descent and who self-consciously direct their experiences, claims, and persuasive styles from and/or toward black communities. The course will specifically draw from scholarship on African American rhetoric that focuses on the ways that African American orators, essayists, and researchers discern across many political and social situations the available means of persuasion for the time and place in which they live.
We will then look at the rhetorics of black women in many different arenas: anti-slavery speeches of women like Sojourner Truth and Jarena Lee; the anti-lynching campaign of Ida B. Wells; the public works of black female congresswomen like Maxine Waters and Barbara Jordan; education activism of teachers like Anna Julia Cooper and Gloria Ladson-Billings; “Blueswomen”---from Bessie Smith to Erykah Badu; Civil Right activists like Fannie Lou Hamer and Ella Baker; Black Power/Black Nationalist activists like Angela Davis and Queen Mother Moore; contemporary Black female ministers, gospel music ministers, and “empowerment specialists”---spanning Mary Mary and Reverend Prathia Hall to Iyanla Vanzant; spoken word artists from Sonia Sanchez to Sunni Patterson; and last but not least, the power of Hip Hop as persuasion with rappers like Monie Love holdin’ the mic. Even then, that will just be a kind of survey and introduction, not even giving us enough time to consider folklorists like Zora Neale Hurston and Rebecca Cox Jackson or comedians like Moms Mabley and Wanda Sykes. Knowledge of rhetoric or the rhetors listed is NOT required, only a willingness to look deeply at language and share with colleagues. The class itself will be designed like a multimedia, inquiry-based seminar where we will continually work to trace, understand, and reflect on the multiple sites of activism and battles for equality waged by black female rhetors in the United States. We will push ourselves to define rhetoric as more than the mere art of persuasion as used in everyday life and in collective freedom struggles. And we must remember that, on the one hand, there is no ONE kind of black woman’s rhetoric because there is no one way that all black women talk, read, write, and move across all times and places. To say such a thing would be a gross stereotype that misrepresents the intellectual histories and activism of women who call themselves black. But, on the other hand, identities and political situations for black women have certainly created communal aims and contexts. To act like there are no continuities or connections would erase black women from history and act like their struggles---past and present---have been the same as everyone else’s. Royster and Logan will give us the tools to complicate what we mean when we talk about black women and rhetoric so keep your mind open to the fact that this is not one singular thing. Also keep in mind that grasping the entire script of black women’s rhetoric will also not be achieved: that is as complicated as knowing the entire history of back women’s history. The work of this class will be small in scope but BIG in impact: we will constantly (re)define and chart black women’s literate paths, recurrences, and patterns in the political, psychic, and social contexts in which they occur.
The name of this course is inspired by Shirley Chisholm and her campaign slogan for New York’s 12th Congressional District, "Unbought and Unbossed." It is the most direct and fierce intellectual charge that I can imagine for how and why we talk about black women's discourses and lives. More information on that campaign is available in Unit Five.
Sometimes, there is also music or a speech on the various pages of this website. Black women are NOT silent and this website was just too quiet. It needed a sound identity and a visual identity. If you get tired after repeated plays, there is, however, a bar at the top of each page so that you can turn off the song if you like. All of the music and speeches on the site were borrowed from internet sources, usually youtube, which means we get mostly live performances, so ideal for rhetorical analyses! Happy listening! There are also various visual images across the site, also borrowed from internet sources, whether it be black female artists' album covers or paintings. I encourage you to stop, pause, and SEE this as rhetoric too.
To all of the young women and men who I will be meeting this semester, I am looking forward to each moment we will be spending together. I ask that you bring your bodies, your minds, and your hearts to this work and do for the black women we will be studying what is rarely done for them: see, remember, and hear them! To those of you visiting us and this site from afar, we hope that you too will join us in seeing, remembering, and hearing black women.
If black women's realities are fundamentally different from these white men--- and in this class, we are saying that they are--- then theorizing their rhetoric from that perspective would only give us a new kind of blackface minstrel show: in other words, we get blackened faces but we keep a white script. This kind of construct that I am saying is a kind of minstrelsy is very serious given the way that minstrelsy has affected how black people are still depicted and seen in the United States. While minstrelsy is usually used to talk about racism in entertainment, it is used as a metaphor here as well: white, elite male scholars simply cannot be the main frame for us to explain black women's rhetoric. By the same token, we are not merely adding in black women to the story that privileged black men tell either. In this class, we are attempting to look at and hear black women through themselves, not through another caricature of them.
You will be asked to critically engage and understand the issues of race, class, gender, and sexuality in which black women live and theorize their work as rhetoric. You will be asked to look at more than just what these women say, but also at what they do. We will treat speaking and doing as two sides of the same coin.
Let's just think for a moment about Shirley Chisholm. In 1968, the Brooklyn-native and daughter of Barbadian parents, Shirley Chisholm, became the first black woman elected to the U.S. Congress. Her campaign (which we will revisit in unit six) was organized around her now famous slogan: “Fighting Shirley Chisholm--- Unbought and Unbossed.” In traditional rhetoric studies, scholars often look at a slogan like that and think about it as a PERSUASIVE discourse and as a kind of STYLIZED speaking and presentation. This kind of focus on persuasive qualities and stylization surely gives us some good descriptions of Chisholm's life, work, and discourse. However, talking about elements of persuasion and style alone do not give us a THEORY of black women's life, work, and discourse. Formulating that kind of theory is what this class is about.
As you move throughout the semester, in your writing and in your thinking, there are EIGHT questions that have been designed to guide your theorizing of black women's rhetoric:
These are the eight questions that should guide your weekly writing. You do not need to answer all eight questions at every given moment but you should strive to address at least one of these eight issues for every writing assignment of the course. Let yourself sink into these women's words, lives, and actions and see where your writing and mind take you!