Jacqueline Jones Royster masterfully laid out the importance of reading African American Rhetoric(s). Royster asserts that Elaine B. Richardson and Ronald L. Jackson, II approached the text by framing their views as “the study of culturally and discursively developed knowledge-forms, communicative practices and persuasive strategies rooted in freedom struggles by people of African ancestry in America” (ix). In addition to the collection’s attention to “discursive forms” of African Americans, its calls for attention to “recovery of achievement and legacies,” “pedagogical problems of inclusive knowledge of students,” “critical inquiries of practices,” “interpretive frames with interdisciplinary disciplines,” etc., relating to 1) views of a culture, 2) critical exploration of strategies and practices, and 3) closer attentions to the specific material conditions as it relates to a people’s “rhetorical performances.” All of these areas are important while examining the rhetorical approaches needed for entering a new century; for these reasons and others, Royster believes that the book is “a vanguard of publications that can cast our gaze on both continuities and change in rhetorical scholarship and keep our scholarly dialogues well invigorated and meaningfully engaged” (xi).
Elaine B. Richardson and Ronald L. Jackson, II offer readers a collection of essays with hopes of opening the possibility for reviewing the discipline’s concepts and practices in new ways. By embracing historical, pedagogical, and example of research in the field, the editors presented African American rhetorical strategies and accomplishments, questions of cultural injustice, cultural representation, achievements, and “current persuasive and negotiation strategies,” which are areas of concern that should be valued and evaluated for further scholarship of the field. While focusing on Black rhetoric(s) through the individual contributions of the authors, the text “treats literary, cultural, discursive, and linguistic aspects of African American rhetorics such as womanist, Reconstructionist, Ancient Egyptian, and Afrocentric rhetorics as indivorceable components of a larger study of the universe of Black discourse” (xiii).
Richard and Jackson divided African American Rhetoric(s) into the three areas of interest and gives a synopsis of each author’s essay in each unit to illustrate its rhetorical values; however, it is important to understand that there are multiple aspects of consideration within African American rhetoric(s), and no one voice can represent the cultural, historical, or rhetorical importance of a people. However, questions of representation of a people are considered within the text. This point is most clear from the editors’ explanation of the synonymous usage of the terms Black, African American, Afro-American, and people of African descent. It is through these important differences that the text’s interdisciplinary perspectives reveal foundations and links that sustain African American rhetoric(s), which are not yet fully recognized but are brought closer to understanding a people.
For the introduction to African American Rhetric(s), Keith Gilyard offers an essay to not only illustrate the historical and cultural importance of the African American experience, but he also reveals important avenues of rhetorical discourse that give African American rhetorics its flavor, by further addressing additional readings and conversations that have and are taking place for the further understanding and representation of a people. In his essay, “Aspects of African American Rhetoric as a Field,” Gilyard acknowledges that it would be impossible given the boundaries and scope of this project to give the reader a complete background of African American rhetorics. Yet, he is able to narrow his discussion to strategy and method. He considers, “The focus is on what scholars working taxonomically and employing rhetorical perspectives ranging from Aristotelian principles to Afrocentric conceptions have made of oratory by those of African descent in the United States” (1-2). Still, he recommends other resources for those who want to take this discussion further such as Language, Communication, and Rhetoric in Black America (A. Smith, 1972); Rappin’ and Stylin’ Out (Thomas Kochman, 1972); and African American Communication (Michael Hecht, 1993).
Gilyard reaches back to the nineteenth century African American rhetorical tradition and offers examples from the 1850’s and 1860’s by way of Frederick Douglass and Charles Langston, with recognition of 1890 anthologies by E. M. Brawley. Greater still is his mention of Carter G. Woodson’s Negro Orators and Their Orations, which is “the first standard reference work on African American rhetoric” (1925); this shows a continuity that led to the publishing of the current project, African American Rhetoric(s). With historical analysis of “occasional speeches” and “pulpit orations” of Blacks, Gilyard identifies C. G. Woodson’s focus of the major contributors such as Peter Williams, James Forten, John Willis Menard, James Mercer Langston, Ida B Wells-Barnett, William Monroe Trotter, James Weldon Johnson, Mordecai Johnson, Archibald Grimke’, Absalom Jones, William Wells Brown, and others of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. But it is noted, “Woodson was a historian by training; thus, he attempts little in the way of technical or structural analysis of the speeches themselves” (3).
In addition, Woodson also acknowledged the religious oratory was very important to the African American rhetorical tradition. Drawing faith and communal understanding, “millions of Blacks came to comprehend and speculate about the social world of which they were part. . . . Therefore, the study of Black pulpit oratory as well as scholarly treatment of the Black church in general are necessary components of research in African American public discourse” (4). Works such as William Pipe’s Say Amen, Brother! Old-Time Negro Preaching: A Study in American Frustration (1951/1992) illustrate this fact. Although religious oratory was important to the Black community, Pipe’s views reflected the stereotypical perceptions of the rhetorical form and black preachers. Gilyard insists Pipes’s views reflected “acceptance of stereotypes about “primitive” Africans who, restricted to the “jungles of Africa,” lacked opportunities to develop sophistication. Given his perspective, Pipes sees early Black religion as primarily an escapist adaptation to servitude” (5). Gilyard believed that Pipes did not value the “rebellious” and “multilayered meanings” of the rhetorical form.
Gilyard asserts it was not until the groundbreaking work of Lowell Moseberry, An Historical Study of Negro Oratory in the United States to 1915 (1955), that African American rhetorics is able to move beyond the “cataloging” to the “rhetorical methods” of Black persuasion. Moseberry argued “that while Black orators used the same degree of induction, deduction, and casual reasoning employed by White rhetors of similar training and educational levels, they made a distinct departure from Anglo-Saxon patterns of oratory in terms of pathetic proof and style (p. 147). Black orators relied on keen invective, humor, and distinct—what Moseberry was willing to call African—brands of rhythmic phrasing” (5-6).
Gilyard identifies groundbreaking moments in African American rhetoric: “[Marcus] Boulware’s study, The Oratory of Negro Leaders: 1900-1968 (1969), is the first major historical treatment of African American rhetoric devoted exclusively to text of the twentieth century. . . . For Boulware, the mission of the Black orator invariably revolved around six goals: (1) to protest grievances, (2) to state complaints, (3) to demand rights, (4) to advocate racial cooperation, (5) to mold racial consciousness, and (6) to stimulate racial pride” (7). Boulware juxtapose his “mission” against “the century’s six great American presidents—Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John F. Kenney, and Lyndon B. Johnson.” The Boulware study appeared during the time of increased “African American political and cultural expressions” such as “civil rights protests,” “violent civil unrest,” “the Black Power movement,” and increased T.V. representation of blacks all of which was foreign to the dominant community.
Gilyard offers readers a survey of twentieth century African American rhetoricians and prominent texts and studies. Haig and Hamida Bosmajian’s textbook, The Rhetoric of the Civil Rights Movement (1969), which was published as a student textbook to allow students to analysis rhetorical strategies. Robert Scott and Wayne Brockriede’s The Rhetoric of Black Power (1969) “presents civil rights and Black power discourse as integrally connected” (10). Also present as an examples are Arthur Smith’s Rhetoric of Black Revolution (1969), The Voice of Black Rhetoric (1971), edited with Stephen Robb, Language, Communication, and Rhetoric in Black America (1972), and The Afrocentric Idea (1998). Smith (a.k.a. Molefi Asante) and Robb’s The Voice of Black Rhetoric “describes the general characteristics of African American rhetoric considered historically” (12).
Noted is Geneva Smitherman’s Talkin and Testifyin: The Language of Black American (1977/1986). “Although primarily considered a linguist, Smitherman is perhaps most responsible for popularizing the “Black Modes of Discourse,” vernacular conceptions that are invaluable with respect to rhetorical analysis” (14). The modes are (1) call-response, a series of spontaneous interactions between speaker and listener; (2) signification, the art of humorous put downs; (3) tonal semantics, the conveying of meanings in Black discourse through specifically ethnic kinds of voice rhythms and vocal inflections; and (4) narrative sequencing, the habitual use of stories to explain and/or persuade. “Smitherman (1995) alternately conceptualizes an African American Verbal Tradition (AAVT) the encompasses (1) signification, (2) personalization, (3) tonal semantics, and (4) sermonic tone” (15). For example, Smitherman suggests that AAVT was at play during the Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill incident, and it made Thomas a “more sympathetic figure.”
Gilyard concludes his Aspects of African American Rhetoric as a Field by listing the “significant post-1970s treatments of African American rhetoric include David Howard-Pitney’s The Afro-American Jeremiad: Appeals for Justice in America (1990); Keith Miller’s Voice of Deliverance: The Language of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Its Sources (1992); Shirley Wilson Logan’s Pen and Voice: A Critical Anthology of Nineteenth-Century African-American Women (1995) and “We Are Coming”: The Persuasive Discourse of Nineteenth-Century Black Women (1999); Bradford Stull’s Amid the Fall, Dreaming of Eden: Du Bois, King, Malcolm X, and Emancipatory Composition (1999); and Jacqueline Jones Royster’s Traces of a Stream: Literary and Social Change among African American Women (2000)” (15).
Keith Gilyard presented an array of African American rhetorical accomplishments, strategies, methods, publications, and cultural style that shows the richness of the rhetoric field. “. . . Stylin’ is the notion that a speaker has combined rhythm, excitement, and enthusiasm which propel a message and the audience. . . . Improvisation is a stylistic device which is a verbal interplay, and strategic catharsis often resulting from the hostility and frustration of a white-dominated society. It is spontaneity. . . . Storytelling . . . is often used by a rhetor to arouse epic memory. . . . Lyrical Code is the preservation of the word through a highly codified system of lexicality. It is the very dynamic lyrical quality which provides youth to the community usage of standard and Black English” (17). Elaine B. Richardson and Ronald L. Jackson, II’s African American Rhetoric(s) continues the tradition and conversation.