Rhetoric(s): A Broader Definition

Sheila Carter-Tod|University of Denver

I come from a long line of storytellers.  So much of what I have learned about my family history and culture has come from indirect teaching, through stories. It is with this tradition in mind that I begin with my own story. Mine is a story that explores rhetorics taught, enjoyed, cast aside, and ultimately re-embraced.

 As a child, I spent a good deal of time listening. I am from the old school belief that children are to be seen not heard, and even the seen part was to be limited, when around adults.  I also come from a big family with nine children, strongly dominated by women and all older than I am. All of that to say, that I spent a lot of time listening to and learning from stories. When I or my sisters asked about something that was “somewhat tricky” we were told stories. When something in the community happened that was tragic or unsettling, the women in my family would get together (generally with other women from church) to indirectly discuss the situation and lessons that should be learned. So many of the stories that the women in my world told happened in the kitchens, often on Saturday nights, and often while hot-combing someone’s hair for church. Even in these more intimate settings, storytelling was a combination of voices and memories brought together in ways that called on the old but created something new.  

My early socialization, linguistic understanding, and education and worldview was shaped by the church. While a bit more performative than the storytelling in kitchens, these linguistic experiences also involved a combination of voices and memories brought together in ways that called on the old (often reaching back to Biblical stories) while communally creating something new. Each Sunday, I heard sermons that enacted communication as an interactive experience that was rhythmic, sonorous, artfully, and emotively delivered and concluded with celebration or hope. 

Characterizing the rhetoric of African American preaching as composed of signification, hermeneutics, and community, as well as the use of language, Cleophus LaRue describes the rhetoric that I was internalizing as an interaction between the speaker and the worshipping community based on a participatory bond. In his book, The Heart of Black Preaching LaRue describes this interactive rhetorical exchange as follows: 

The highly charged nature of the black worship experience is most commonly associated with the antiphonal call-and-response ritual that the preacher and congregation engage in during the sermon. Many black preachers, contemplating the audible participation of those in the pew, intentionally slow their cadences, time their pauses, and change or semichant their phrases in a most adept and deliberate manner (11).

What I came to know as rhetorically situated speech practices (and from there many of my speech and writing patterns) consisted of an awareness of language as rhythmic, sonorous, with persuasion being woven in narrative, and at times indirect, but with all linguistic interactions as participatory and shared, as illustrated by Martin Luther King Sr.’s sermon “ The Inescapable Christ.”

These rhetorical patterns were reinforced by the music that I experienced both in and outside of the church. From old-time gospel to the soul of such artists as Gladys Knight & The Pips, the rhetoric of my youth was rhythmic, woven in narrative, and participatory. April Leigh Kinkead calls refers to this “Black Rhetoric” as “‘synthesis,’ which reconciles the individual alongside the community as Being-in-the-world-alongside-others through care and concern for human dignity as encouraging reciprocity and balance through the act of speaking a common language.” 

 I brought this understanding of rhetoric (although I did not know what it was called at the time) with me when I was bused to school. This bussing meant that I went to school with students who did not look like me, talk like me, or understand the world as I did. The range of gaps between me and the students with whom I was sent to school existed both racially and socioeconomically thus beginning my educational journey into the socialization, and linguistic speech, and writing practices of the American majority. During my public school, university, and graduate school years, I encountered limited, if any, acknowledgement or discussions of writing or speaking that resonated with what I had internalized in my youth. When I tried to capture rhythm in my writing –– with sentence structures and repetition –– I was told that my sentences were too long and that I needed to simplify my writing for better clarity. This process, once described by Carter Godwin Woodson as the process of “educating the Negro” and “stimulates the oppressor with the thought that he is everything and has accomplished everything worthwhile, depresses and crushes at the same time the spark of genius in the Negro by making him feel that his race does not amount to much and never will measure up to the standards of other peoples” (5).

Elaine B. Richardson, in her book African American Literacies, describes the problem with this miseducation by pointing out that African Americans’ language and literacy traditions are actually representative of our ways of being in the world. To separate my educational processes from my cultural and intellectual rhetorical traditions disrupted my understanding of myself and my “way of being in the world.” In “Sustainable Becoming: Women’s Career Trajectories in Writing Program Administration” (WPA: Writing Program Administration, vol. 43, no. 1, 2019, pp. 12–32), I describe my career journey that eventually allowed me to reconcile years of mis-education and subsequent professional assimilation with my past personal, cultural, educational (and I would add rhetorical) traditions. In the article, I describe this stage of womanist identity integration as the “stage [in which] an individual identifies with her own identity, as well as understands infusion of the identity of the dominant culture and seeks to create a more integrated holistic identity. Moving from acknowledging and conforming to existing social expectations to creating and defining her own strong, healthy inclusive ones” (17).

While my story is my own, it is further complicated by the practices associated with the professional organizations with whom I am affiliated. I have constantly struggled to find a way to figure out ways to merge my professional administrative practices with what I know is a more inclusive approach to writing instruction and writing program curricular development. The CWPA Outcomes Statement for First-Year Composition has been for many years the basis for curricular choices for writing instruction in post-secondary education. Although there is an effort to revise this statement to be more linguistically and rhetorically inclusive, in the current report as well as in reports by the National Writing Project, and College Board’s Advanced Placement Language Curriculum, rhetorical knowledge is foregrounded as a key component of writing instruction. While I was a writing program administrator, I, too, used these guidelines as a foundation for our writing program.  

I did and still do agree that foregrounding rhetorical knowledge is indeed an effective approach to writing instruction. What I now do not agree with is a monolithic or single definition of or for  “rhetorical knowledge.” In fact, in the absence of any designation of an understanding of the range of rhetoric(s) on which a course, a curriculum, or a program could focus, we must question: to whose rhetoric are we referring? A survey of curricula, textbooks, and digital instructional tools on rhetorical analysis generally focuses on an Aristotelian rhetorical model. That is: rhetoric is singular, and it is generally Aristotelean. Instead, an approach that includes plural rhetorics sees culture as intertwined and fully infused in all aspects of textual creation and analysis. 

Until we come to a broader, more inclusive definition of rhetorics (which Microsoft Word marks as spelled incorrectly—a point that is extremely telling), we are reducing a word that could have a rich and culturally diverse background to a seemingly limited monolithic scope. By not expanding our definition and analysis of rhetoric to rhetorics, we are excluding the nuanced breadth of textual consideration and by extension our students’ ability to recognize and contextualize rhetorical strategies beyond those often cited in research and instructional materials. Statements and practices that encourage students’ rights to their own language and even more recent efforts to enact anti-racist assessment practices will only somewhat address the curricular inequities that are created when we do not consider programmatic changes that include a broader definition of rhetoric(s).  

The early to mid 2000s brought with them a challenge to this somewhat singular default concept of traditional rhetorical knowledge, with the rise of a more encompassing perspective of rhetoric that foregrounded culture –– Cultural rhetoric(s). In their 2018 “Interfacing Cultural Rhetorics: A History and a Call,” the authors stated that “The study of cultural rhetorics is often formulated as an interrogation of both culture and rhetoric; thus, this inquiry understands constructions of culture and rhetoric as interdependent rather than stable categories,” as “mutually-informing, and overlapping ways in which rhetoric and culture interface.” Cultural studies researchers in writing studies explored African American rhetorics, Native American rhetorics, Chicana/Chicano rhetorics, Asian American rhetorics, queer rhetorics just to name a few. Yet first-year writing courses still focused on the singular “traditional” notion of rhetorical knowledge that I previously referred to.  

By examining the rhetorical tradition on which I was raised, I can return to my story. In defining and discussing African American rhetoric(s), I am not advocating the replacement of one singular definition for a different one; but instead, I am providing a practical, applicable example of what expanding the definition of a single rhetorical approach to an approach that includes multiple rhetorics might include.

In their 2018 book On African-American Rhetoric, Keith Gilyard and Adam J. Banks define African American rhetorics as “the arc of strategic language use by African Americans from rhetorical forms such as slave narratives and the spirituals to Black digital expression and contemporary activism.” In her syllabus for an Intro to African American Rhetoric course and on her website Carmen Kynard builds on this definition by stating, “African American rhetoric is more than just speeches, marches, and public presentations by Black people, though it includes all of that. African American rhetoric is about freedom, imaginations, and the ways that all forms of language and communication work towards those freedoms with all the complications fully on deck.” And, in their book African American Rhetoric(s): Interdisciplinary Perspectives, editors Elaine B. Richardson and Ronald L. Jackson II define African American rhetorics 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 . . . .  This critical approach allows not only for analyses of discourse but also considerations of how we can better accommodate the development of empowering rhetoric” (xiii). 

In each of these definitions, I have highlighted key components of the focuses of African American rhetorics that not only meets but exceeds the rhetorical knowledge that is described as an outcome for students in a composition class.  

African American Rhetoric (with an Afrocentric focus) expands the rhetorical triangle to a star.
Figure 1. Image by Collin LaJoie, high school English teacher in Kansas City, Kansas.

When explored in terms of a writing classroom, Vershawn Ashanti Young and Michelle Bachelor Robinson, in The Routledge Reader of African American Rhetoric: the Longue Durée of Black Voices (2018), illustrate how a composition course that has an Afrocentric focus or focuses on African American rhetoric would expand the traditional rhetorical triangle to a star that includes language, style discourse, perspective, community and suasion. 

The Nommo circle features the term Nommo in the center, surrounded by soundin', stylin', improvisation, storytelling, lyrical code, image making, call and response, and rhythm forming a circle. Small arrows below each term indicate a clockwise motion.
Figure 2. Image from Keith Gilyard’s Introduction to African American Rhetoric(s): Interdisciplinary Perspectives, edited by Elaine B. Richardson and Ronald L. Jackson II.

Another model is found in Ronald Jackson’s 1995 Toward an Afrocentric Methodology for the Critical Assessment of Rhetoric. He centers rhetorical analysis on Nommo—the power of the word. Jackson states that “All activities of men, and all movements on nature, rest on the word, on the productive power of the word, which is water and heat and seed and Nommo, that is, life force itself . . . ” (50).

What I am proposing is that we no longer consider writing courses about rhetorical knowledge, but instead about helping students understand, analyze, and produce based on a broader concept of knowledge of rhetoric(s). What I am proposing is that composition studies continuously, broadly define rhetoric(s) to include all of those in our field, all of the students in our classrooms reclaiming the power in the word rhetoric.   

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

Browne, Simone. Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness. Durham, Duke UP, 2015. 

Cobos, Casie C. et al. “Interfacing Cultural Rhetorics: A History and a Call,” Rhetoric Review, vol. 27, no. 2, 2018, pp. 139 –154. 

Gilyard, Keith. Race, Rhetoric, and Composition. Portsmouth, NH: Heineman Boynton/Cook, 1999. 

Gilyard, Keith. and Richardson, Elaine. “Students’ Right to Possibility: Basic Writing and  African American Rhetoric. Insurrections: Approaches to Resistance in Composition            Studies, edited by Andrea Greenbaum, Albany, NY, SUNY Press,  2001. 37–51. 

Gilyard, Keith and Adam Banks. On African American Rhetoric. New York, Routledge,        2020.  

Kinkead, April Leigh. Black Rhetoric: The Art of Thinking Being, 2013, UT Arlington, PhD      dissertation. 

LaRue, Cleophus James. The Heart of Black Preaching. Louisville, KY: Westminster John      Knox Press, 1999. 

Lipsitz, George. “The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: Racialized Social Democracy and the “White” Problem in American Studies. American Quarterly, vol. 47, no. 3, 1995, 369387.

Jackson, Ronald L and Elaine Richardson, editors. Understanding African American              Rhetoric: Classical Origins to Contemporary Innovations. New York, Routledge, 2003.

Shelton, Cecelia. (2020). “Shifting Out of Neutral: Centering Difference, Bias, and Social Justice in a Business Writing Course,” Technical Communication Quarterly, vol. 29, no. 1, 2019, 1832.

Smitherman, Geneva. Talkin’ and Testifyin’: The Language of Black America. Detroit, MI:      Wayne State UP, 1977. 

Young, Vershawn Ashanti and Michelle Bachelor Robinson, editors. The Routledge              Reader of African American Rhetoric: the Longue Durée of Black Voices. New York,                  Routledge, 2018.

For pedagogical perspectives on cultural rhetorics, see “Listening to Stories: Practicing Cultural Rhetorics Pedagogy”.  For more sources on cultural rhetorics, see Constellations’ Cultural Rhetorics Consortium. 

For more ideas on cultural rhetorics-based assessment frameworks, see Gavin Johnson’s blog on Considering the “Possibilities of a Cultural Rhetorics Assessment Framework”

In this bibliography, I have included both composition sources and those that are applicable to professional and technical writing. This was a list that Jennifer Sano-Francini and I developed as part of a Black Matters teach-in.

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