Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Applying Afrocentric Rhetorical Theory to Specific Discourse

W. E. B. Du Bois (1868 – 1963), co-founder of ...Image via Wikipedia


Lecture - African American Rhetoric - Apply Afrocentric Rhetorical Theory from Alfred Snider on Vimeo.

The lecture above is the video of the notes that are contained below. The notes certainly are not complete, but might be appropriate for browsing.


We examine five works of rhetorical criticism here. These are all designed to examine and understand bits of human discourse that emerge from the African Diaspora on this continent.

The purpose of rhetorical criticism is to investigate a piece of discourse and understand it better as well as to understand its importance to us.

My contention is that the use of Afrocentric rhetorical theory should help us in understanding and appreciating African American rhetoric.

To do this, I have examined four pieces that have Afrocentricity as their core, as well as one that does not.


Whites wanted blacks to be seen as docile, but they were not, they were demanding.

Constant themes are: resistance, redemptive violence, and achievement of manhood.

Manhood = courage, self-determination, expression of civil rights, defense of self-esteem.

Difference between redemptive self-defense violence and the violence of whites, which was oppressive, not self-defense, offensive.

Organizations were founded to promote these values and to represent two points of view.

Garrison – moral suasion, not violence.

Garnet – resistance and redemptive violence.

Frederick Douglass was divided, but then switched to a more pro-resistance approach.

Examples of rhetoric are in the reading.

Pp. 168-169: Why whites prefer quiet resistance and fear redemptive violence.


As an African American speaking to a largely African American jury, it is quite appropriate to use an Afrocentric method to examine this.

Factors at work:

1. Rhythm

2. Stylin’, way in which verbal and non-verbal cues are demonstrated to achieve a desired effect.

3. Narrative style.

4. Call and response.

5. Rappin’, an engaging lyrical presentation enwrapped in a natural conversation, it involves a distinctive personal flair.

6. Signifyin’, in which a speaker humorously puts down, talks about, needles some part of the listening audience.


See article

Justification: p. 261


Double consciousness, in the words of W. E. B. Dubois:

“One ever feels his twines, an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreonciled strivings.”

This is specifically true for African Americans in public life, where they have to speak to two audiences, black and white, on different occasions and often at the same time. How does one do that? And when one speaks to just one of those audiences, how does one adapt a change, to avoid the problem of speaking untruthfulness, and violating the tenets of Kemetic rhetoric?

Emanuel Cleaver had been a successful pastor, and then ran for office and became Mayor of KC. He was recognized for his gifted speaking ability. He served two four-year terms and was prevented by term limits from running again. He left office with a 71% approval rating.

Afrocentric theory:

Is culturally specific

BUT does not neglect the entire human family. All are important.

Liberation of all is important to the Afrocentric rhetorician.

It is also rhetoric of reconciliation, to reach out to those of all origins, it must transcend barriers.

The study contends that Cleaver’s rhetoric fulfilled these functions of AFROCENTRIC DISCOURSE while at the same time transcending barriers.

Three points in this study:

1. Afrocentric rhetoric can transcend cultural barriers

2. African American speakers can maintain their cultural integrity while appeal to those outside of his or her culture

3. Emanuel Cleaver is true to his African rhetoric roots no mater who his audience is.

25 texts of Cleaver speeches were used. 12 sermons and 13 political speeches. Transcriptions were created. There was minimal editing and the precise words that Cleaver spoke are in the transcript.

Three themes of interest to Afrocentric rhetorical scholars were clear:

1. Liberation: social justice and the exercise of agency and responsibility. Care and concern for everyone, Jewish audiences, Hispanics, etc.

2. Principle of community. We must not separate the I and the WE. Collective achievement is more important than individual achievement. Pride, selfishness and ingratitude are characteristics he opposes. People may be failures because they succeed, forgetting how they got there. Reconciling opposing views about Bill Clinton’s welfare policies and about Hilary Clinton’s book It Takes a Village. He calls on his personal experience to tell his story and prove what he is saying.

3. Relational ethics. This is a standard of conduct one should use to govern relationships with others. These include compassion, humility, gratitude and respect for the community. Many of these interrelate with #2. He indicts people who are cold, cold hearted, insensitive and self-absorbed. He has similar messages in a sermon in his church and in trying to defuse a police brutality situation against black citizens.

Cleaver succeeds in being legitimately African in his roots, while at the same time relating successfully to others, using Afrocentric themes.


Black nationalism is a historical theme in African American rhetoric. The notion is that there needs to be a black nation, an African nation for those taken from the homeland, or a new black nation here in North America.

It is a theme that comes back again and again, from the middle of the 19th century to Marcus Garvey and now into the ‘90’s and beyond.

Rap music is one example of this. “Conscious” rap uses Black Nationalism, Pan-Africanism, and Islamic doctrine.

Black nationalism has always been posed as a rhetoric to teach and inspire other African Americans to do the right things. It has consistently been an outreach and a teaching, a consciousness raising effort.

The 5% Nation rap movement hopes to educate African Americans into spiritual self-knowledge and awareness.

Content features:

Pan Africans – the fates of all African descended people are linked together.

Race pride and race solidarity. We stick together or we are going nowhere. There is a religious bent to this as well.

Afrocentric worldview that places African descendants at the center of history.

Many miss these teachings:

Many miss them totally.

Many hear them but cannot decode them.

Many decode them for their own purposes.

But the rap lyrics of today are based in African American traditions of the past. You understand them better when you know that.


This comes from a 1972 reader produced by Arthur L. Smith, who later changed his name to Molefi Keti Asante. It was selected and edited by him in his pre-Afrocentricity days. So, it does control for some variables there.

Larson takes the concept of trust from the work of interpersonal scholar Kim Giffin, someone I studied with and was one of my references. Trust is seen as being able to predict how people will act and what will happen. You can trust Malcolm X to resist oppression, for example. You can also trust Black Power advocates to do the same. By being able to predict what they will do, it helps whites understand what is going on and to take the rhetoric seriously but in a responsible way.

That is it. Whiles can now understand it better.

There are a number of problems with this approach:

1. This rhetoric was probably not constructed with that in mind. Stokely Carmichael did not conceive of his discourse because he wanted whites to understand. It may have had this effect, but I doubt the intention. I can’t be sure, but it is my belief.

2. There is no indication that this is how African descendants think of trust, but an imported notion from broader white society.

3. So what? What does it mean? It means that they want justice and will act to get it. What kind of keen insight is that? Anyone could have told you that. Chinese readers could have told you that. Why is it necessary to dress it up in white interpersonal communications theory so that we can understand it?

4. Perhaps because Eurocentric rhetorical scholars could not understand it on a scholarly level, or not tolerate it on a scholarly level, unless it was couched in their terms, brought to them on a plate of white scholarship.

When we look at Afrocentric investigations of Black Power we will see a lot more than can be discovered.

So, in conclusion:

1. We see how afrocentrict rhetorical theory can be applied to works of discourse.

2. We see history, language characteristics, and values and approaches used, just like the lists of rhetorical markers we have been examining.

3. We see how the rhetoric has been opened up for a fuller understanding.

4. We see how a purely Eurocentric focus does not.

Hopefully this will give you some guidelines for your papers.

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