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Revisiting Racialized Voice: African American Ethos in Language and Literature / Edition 3

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Overview

Revisiting Racialized Voice: African American Ethos in Language and Literature argues that past misconceptions about black identity and voice, codified from the 1870s through the 1920s, inform contemporary assumptions about African American authorship and ethos. Tracing elements of racial consciousness in the works of Frederick Douglass, Charles Chesnutt, W. E. B. DuBois, Zora Neale Hurston, and others, David G. Holmes urges a revisiting of narratives from this period to strengthen and advance notions about racialized writing and to shape contemporary composition pedagogies.

Pointing to the intersection of African American identity, literature, and rhetoric, Revisiting Racialized Voice begins to construct rhetorically workable yet ideologically flexible definitions of black voice. Holmes maintains that political pressure to embrace“color blindness” endangers scholars’ ability to uncover links between racialized discourses of the past and those of the present, and he calls instead for a reassessment of the material realities and theoretical assumptions race represents and with which it has been associated.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“[An] ingenious, tightly reasoned study . . .”—Choice

“Holmes’s work offers an invigorating push toward a more enlightened practice of reading, teaching, and writing.”College Composition and Communication

This book is an invaluable introduction to its subject.”—Rhetoric Review

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780809327676
  • Publisher: Southern Illinois University Press
  • Publication date: 9/28/2007
  • Edition description: 1st Edition
  • Edition number: 3
  • Pages: 144
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Meet the Author

David G. Holmes is an associate professor of English at Pepperdine University.

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Read an Excerpt

Revisiting Racialized Voice

African American Ethos in Language and Literature
By DAVID G. HOLMES

Southern Illinois University Press

Copyright © 2004 Board of Trustees, Southern Illinois University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8093-2767-6


Chapter One

The Color of Literacy: Race, Self, and the Public Ethos

RALPH WALDO EMERSON EMPLOYED A ROMANTIC, or what I have called an "inner public," voice. Frederick Douglass was restricted by his efforts to appropriate a transracial public voice, despite his attempts to become an Emersonian "representative man." By the end of this chapter, I will have introduced how gender further complicated this restriction for women of color, like Frances E. W. Harper. Selected works of Douglass and Harper provide two sites for examining the nexuses among race, gender, and public voice. There are many other men and women of color one could consider in exploring the tensions between codified notions of race and literacy. However, Douglass and Harper will be more than adequate to illustrate my thesis.

To begin with, the titles of Frederick Douglass's three autobiographical narratives signify the evolution, or what Eric Sundquist calls "revisions," of his voice: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave; My Bondage and My Freedom; and The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. Thesetitles indicate a progression from the slave narrative proper to American autobiography (Sundquist, To Wake 83-86). Douglass's prominence also illustrates how African American women were marginalized in the formation of African American letters, a practice that continued through the Black Arts movement.

Douglass's inability to transcend race raises several questions for this study, one of the most crucial being, who authenticates black voice? And here I am referring to political voice with implications for Romantic voice. For a period of several years, the white abolitionists with whom Douglass worked had to confirm the veracity of his voice as a black spokesperson representing other black slaves.

Not only did William Lloyd Garrison need to write a preface to the first edition of Douglass's narrative (a widespread convention for the publication of slave narratives), but also Douglass was told that his eloquence would eventually mar his credibility as a former slave. In other words, Douglass's narrative is among the first widely read literary vehicles to introduce the issues of colonization and ownership of black discourse. These issues are in currency today and often, as I hope to show by the end of this book, can hinder discussions about racialized identity and voice, even among African Americans themselves.

Definitions of black voice particularly, then, involve far too many vistas for this chapter to adequately address. Therefore I must construct a manageable entrance into the subject. Douglass and Harper will provide me with that entrance. Indeed, construct will be one of the operative words of my analysis, as it should be for this or any other study that seeks to flesh out and juxtapose elusive notions like race and voice.

Both Emerson and Douglass are primarily reformers. In fact, Eric Sundquist places Douglass within a major tradition of African American protest, one that rather than dismantling the current system, strives to revise it (To Wake). While some of Douglass's contemporaries, Martin Delany for example, argued for what became Black Nationalism, Douglass opted for full integration (if at times tempered by slow economic advancement) into the American mainstream. Consequently, Douglass eventually dissented with abolitionists, like his mentor Garrison, who desired to abrogate the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution for dehumanizing African Americans.

For Douglass and Emerson, reform requires more than change as an end in itself. Reform involves redrawing ideological and social boundaries. Emerson does this mostly through theoretical musings, while Douglass, more practically, broadens the purview of America's founding documents to include her citizens of color. Both enterprises converge at the points of identity and voice: who is to be heard, how, and why?

In terms of the media employed to redefine these boundaries, Douglass and Emerson foreground their respective reforms in the interplay between orality and literacy. They both enjoyed wide acclaim for their twofold reputation as lecturers and writers, their paths crossing a few times while engaged in these roles. For instance, Emerson contributed a poem and Douglass his novella, The Heroic Slave, to Autographs of Freedom, a gift book of antislavery writings published in 1853. Edited by British abolitionist Julia Griffiths, the book was sold to raise money for Douglass's "financially troubled" North Star (Sundquist, To Wake 115).

One vital way to distinguish Emerson's ethos from Douglass's, however, is to examine the extent to which the private self controls or is controlled by the audience reception of the public self. For Douglass, writing and lecturing are more than media of self-expression; orality and literacy correspondingly function as vehicles for self-definition and selfpreservation. Douglass's demonstration of literacy and resolve to be courageous led to his psychological liberation. He could only be a "slave in form" while "not in fact" (Narrative 299). On the other hand, because white society chose Douglass as spokesperson for his race, the collective ethos of all other African Americans would largely obfuscate his individual ethos.

Before introducing how America's race ideology thwarted Douglass's intention to formulate a transracial public voice, I will review one major source of his public voice, Bingham's The Columbian Orator. In chapter 7 of the Narrative, Douglass recounts his initial encounter with Bingham's book, intimating that it was pivotal to his intellectual coming-of-age:

I was now about twelve years old, and the thought of being a slave for life began to bear heavily upon my heart. Just about this time, I got a hold of a book entitled "The Columbian Orator." Every opportunity I got, I used to read this book. Among much of the interesting matter, I found in it a dialogue between a master and his slave. The slave was represented as having run away from his master three times. The dialogue represented the conversation which took place between them, when the slave was retaken the third time. In this dialogue, the whole argument in behalf of slavery was brought forward by the master, all of which was disposed of by the slave. The slave was made to say some very smart as well as impressive things in reply to his master-things which had the desired though unexpected effect: for the conversation resulted in the voluntary emancipation of the slave on the part of the master. (278)

To describe the above passage as recounting Douglass's intellectual coming-of-age coincides with the purpose and scope of The Columbian Orator. Authored by Caleb Bingham, the book was a speech primer "committed to the proposition that American boys, as the inheritors of a tradition of oratory, were destined to speak the virtues of a new republic" (McFeely 34). Indeed, oratory is, as inscribed on the book's title page, both "ornamental" and "useful."

Originally published in 1797, Bingham's book was unquestionably popular, being republished twenty-three times and selling two hundred thousand copies in fifty years. The introduction, providing "General Instructions for Speaking" (2-29), focuses on pronunciation, gestures, and practical rules for using gestures and voice. Pronunciation is the "principal part of the orator's province," or so confirm classical rhetors like Cicero and Demosthenes, and the "more natural pronunciation is, the more moving" (Bingham 10).

Similarly, the orator's "gestures and countenance" should harmonize with subject matter. One should never, for instance, "wring hands, tear hair, or strike the breast," unless one wishes to strongly indicate sorrow (Bingham 10). While Bingham encourages speakers to use a higher-pitch voice when narrating, "matters of fact should be retold in a very plain and distinct manner" (25).

The bulk of Bingham's text contains model speeches. Notably, these speeches cover a wide range of periods, genres, and subjects. Chronologically, the settings of these discourses shift from ancient Rome to eighteenth-century England and America. There are speeches given to Parliament and Congress, sermons, student exhibitions, and dialogues. Whether legal, political, ceremonial, or personal discourse, each model is rigidly structured and, hence, easily imitated. "The Dialogue Between an English Duellist, a North American Savage and Mercury" (Bingham 50-54), for instance, enacts a conversation among three ghosts. While clearly fictitious, the piece purports to detail for the readers how to conduct a dialogue after death.

In the same way, the address "Lines Spoken by a Little Boy," ideally written by the boy himself for a school exhibition, is vintage neoclassical oratory, framed in heroic couplets and containing allusions to Cicero and Caesar. The underlying message becomes clear: if your son studies this speech, he can produce the same quality of oratory.

For the pubescent Douglass, the hard-earned purchase and dogged appropriation of the Bingham text was his first step into America's intellectual commonplace. Later during his career, Douglass would draw on other sources for his speeches and writings: the public lectures of William H. Channing, Henry Giles, Wendell Phillips, Daniel Webster, and Emerson, whom Douglass considered "America's literary patriarch." As "an avid reader," Douglass also made use of the Bible, Shakespeare, Longfellow, Dickens, and Dumas, as well as pamphlets and newspapers. But it was The Columbian Orator, probably the only standard guide to oratory Douglass used (Blassingame xxii), that in theory placed him in the same position as his white counterparts to appreciate the magnificent "tradition of oratory."

That Douglass confronted the obstacles that racism imposed upon him, however, may attest to a profounder appreciation for the import of Bingham's text than his free, white peers may have possessed. Douglass's biographer, William McFeely, affirms Douglass's conversion to the proposition Bingham articulates in his introduction: namely, that speech can conquer the hearts of soldiers. "Caesar ... upon hearing Cicero speak, fell into a fit of 'shivering'" (McFeely 34). The rhetorically well-spoken word was empowering.

Yet the power of the spoken word was not the principal attribute that drew Douglass to Bingham's book. Douglass was mostly taken by its uncompromising denunciation of American slavery (McFeely 35). This denunciation confirmed his increasing faith in the natural equality of all men. Consequently, the text proclaimed universal liberty in theory, even if most of the whites that read its pages failed to apply this theory to the slave's plight.

Furthermore, much of the power of The Columbian Orator comes from the stress given to the interdependence between speaker and audience, a strategy that Shelley Fisher Fishkin and Carla L. Peterson style as "dialogic" in a Bakhtinian sense (191). Fishkin and Peterson are evidently alluding to Mikhail Bakhtin's neologism heteroglossia, which suggests that original or individual utterances do not actually exist. Rather, speakers' utterances are a part of a network of the past and present utterances of others, including the audiences to whom they speak. All so-called individual utterances are, therefore, "multivocal."

I do not fully embrace Fishkin and Peterson's claim that "techniques of the dialogic" are "the most prominent oratorical devices" employed throughout The Columbian Orator. It is worthwhile, nonetheless, to consider their essay when referring to "The Dialogue Between a Master and Slave." On the surface, this selection does appear dialogic, especially since it qualifies as a Socratic dialogue. After a prologue summarizing the injustice of slavery, the eloquent slave poses a series of inductive questions that lead his master to an inescapable denial of his right to continue to enslave another human being. The interchange, characteristic of query and response, supposedly highlights the speaker's regard for his audience.

However, comparable to the Socratic method, "The Dialogue Between a Master and Slave" is really not audience-centered at all but subversively speaker-centered. Granted, this fact should not necessarily invite skepticism, given the persuasive intent of both Bingham and Socrates. Still, this dialogue leaves little room for anything other than a stock consideration of audience. Contrary to Douglass's belief, the end of this dialogue is certainly predictable.

Ironically, however, the African American call-and-response tradition may prove to be more dialogic and, thereby, more cooperative than the aforementioned strategy. The relatively free and improvised structure of call and response affords speaker and audience with a variety of communicative options. Therefore I do not intend for my focus on The Columbian Orator to trivialize the influence of the African American Church on Douglass's oratory. In fact, as Jacqueline Bacon and Glen McClish have observed, black orators often adapted standardized treatises on oratory, like Hugh Blair's Lectures on Belles Lettres, for their own addresses. Obviously, black preachers could have made a similar move with The Columbian Orator.

In fact, Gregory P. Lampe's study, Frederick Douglass: Freedom's Voice, 1818-1845, traces the extensive influence of the black oral tradition on the evolution of Douglass's oratory. Lampe carries his readers from Douglass's childhood of listening to folktales, songs, and sermons to his conducting a Sabbath school class as a young adult slave, to his serving as a "licensed lay preacher" well into his days of abolitionist fame. Even so, The Columbian Orator represents one of the few modes of literacy that the racist America of his time would accept: so-called standardized literacy.

While The Columbian Orator, then, empowers Douglass to construct a public voice, it alone would delimit his rhetorical alternatives, partly because of the confined structure of "The Dialogue Between a Master and Slave," yet largely because of the regularizing of style the entire text of The Columbian Orator fosters. Just as Emerson's Romantic voice attempts to universalize the internal, the public voice of The Columbian Orator aims to regularize orality, to conventionalize even the more informal speech acts, such as an informal argument between two people.

Moreover, as transcendentalism demarcates the tension between idealism and social critique, the ornamentation engendered by Bingham's public voice acutely influences the shape moral discourse obtains. Echoing the assumptions of what Winterowd calls the "methodism" of the eighteenth century, The Columbian Orator contributes to the standardization of belles lettres during the nineteenth century. Juxtaposing the private, metaphorical voice of Emerson with the public, literal voice of The Columbian Orator, therefore, mirrors the Romantic desire to correlate introspection with expression. As a result of this juxtaposition, however, the public voice adopts the metaphorical station associated with the internal, Romantic voice.

What hinders Douglass from realizing a transracial public voice? In a phrase, one legacy of the Enlightenment: racial essence, more specifically, the assumed inherent, intellectual inferiority of the African. By the nineteenth century, a triad linking race and language, with being at the apex, was definitely taking form. And Douglass's failed attempt to transcend race in the projection of his public persona verifies this. Douglass's failure, however, cannot be attributed to his lack of motivation or effort.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from Revisiting Racialized Voice by DAVID G. HOLMES Copyright © 2004 by Board of Trustees, Southern Illinois University. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Preface
Acknowledgments
Introduction 1
1 The Color of Literacy: Race, Self, and the Public Ethos 8
2 From Reading Race to Race as a Way of Reading 25
3 Chesnutt's Reconstruction of Race and Dialect 46
4 Of Color and Culture: Du Bois's Evolving Perspectives on Race 62
5 "Reading My Words but Not My Mind": Hurston's Ironic Voice 75
6 The Rhetoric of Black Voice: Implications for Composition Pedagogy 92
Notes 109
Works Cited and Consulted 115
Index 123
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