Recovering Rhetorics of African American Political Agency

It may not seem like it, but I don't only go to techie sessions at CCCC. I make it a point to go to at least a couple of the best-sounding panels on the history of rhetoric. This was one, and it turned out to be one of the best sessions I attended. There were three presentations:

1. "Recovering the Voices of Florida Turpentine 'Slaves': A Lost Rhetoric of Resistance" by Linda Bannister and James E. Hurd, Jr., who have been writing partners for a long time now. Bannister and Hurd told us about the rich, detailed interviews they'd done with Hurd's grandfather, Jake Hurd, who, if I understand correctly, either himself participated or knew someone who participated in the Folk Life Project. Bannister and Hurd pointed out that the Folk Life Project, which was carried out in order to get a collection of folklore and stories from Florida fishing boats, workers, etc., actually contains a lot of misleading data. African Americans who were interviewed for the study often gave white interviewers diversions and didn't give them access to the real stories. They began by offering an historical overview of African Americans in the New South. Many black Floridians were workers in a system of peonage, with debt to turpentine management companies. The workers never made enough money to cover their room, board, and food, all of which were provided by the company. The workers who dared to flee were hunted down by quarter bosses. They were only technically "free." They identified three rhetorical tactics used by workers in the turpentine factories: ironic, stubborn literalness, ingenious lying, and insolent foot-dragging. They also mentioned the storytelling, saying there was always a message if the hearer was quick, sensitive, and subtle enough to catch it (but they often were not, as whites have grossly oversimplified the complex rhetorical tactics used by African Americans in various contexts). To illustrate these tactics, Bannister and Hurd did a dramatic reading of three excerpts from their play, Turpentine Jake (scroll down to 22 February). It was superb, and I'd never be able to represent it adequately here, so I encourage you to get in touch with them (, if you'd like to arrange a performance of the play.

2. "Outsider Rhetoric: Slave Spirituals as Protest Songs," by Anne Meade Stockdell-Giesler. Stockdell-Giesler first reviewed some of what we already know of African American rhetoric during slavery. What we haven't considered, she says, is how slaves worked within an ethos of inferiority. The slaves' rhetorical situation and their place within it required subtlety; slave songs ("Go Down Moses" for example) had two audiences and two purposes. Gathering at church was a way for slaves to congregate, mobilize, and strategize, to bond as a community, to resist and refute the ways whites had defined them.

I'm sure I must have missed something here, because this presentation was in one of those awful tents, so there was a lot of ambient noise. Add that to the fact that I have a considerable hearing loss in my right ear, and a lot is liable to get lost. I was already familiar with a lot of what was in Stockdell-Giesler's presentation (subtle subversion, double meaning of work songs and spirituals, for instance), but I'd like to see what she does with this research; I'll check the journals for it. She ended by doing a kind of sample analysis of Blue-Tailed Fly and the interpretive complexities therein. This was new to me; I hadn't looked at this particular song for subversive potential. Stockdell-Giesler guided us through a reading of the song and suggested that, given what we're told in the lyrics, it's possible that the slave was purposefully negligent, that he (or she) allowed the fly to get too close and bite the horse, who flung and killed the master. Interesting stuff. During the question-and-answer period for this one, I asked if she'd heard Ludacris' song that used an excerpt from "Blue-Tailed Fly." She hadn't, and, only now after going online to find the lyrics, I realize Ludacris' The Potion actually uses Jump Down, Turn Around, so I was mistaken. Oh well; correcting the mistake here and now. Stockwell-Giesler mentioned the fact that these songs are still being sung by children today, and no notice is given to these interpretive ambiguities. Her child was given a CD of children's music, and "Blue-Tailed Fly" is on it. I remember, as a child in elementary school, singing not only "Blue-Tailed Fly" but also Shortnin' Bread (note the images on that site) and "Jump Down, Turn Around."

3. "African-American English Education from the 17th to 19th Centuries," by Valerie K. Anderson.

Anderson's presentation was very well-organized, with an overview of the talk at the beginning, which I always find helpful. Her paper was part of an ongoing, lengthy study of African American literacy spanning three centuries (as the title would indicate, heh). She described four categories of literate African Americans: 1.) Trusted slaves who were taught to read because it would expedite business, and it was considered a safe risk. She offered Frederick Douglass as an example; the geography (an island) made it difficult to escape. 2.) Slaves who worked in -- didn't catch this part -- upper-class? homes, like Lucy Terry and Phillis Wheatley. 3.) Slaves whose work brought them into proximity with schools for white children. She cited a case where one slave picked up an ABC book, put pot liquor on it so that it would appear to be garbage, and kept it. 4.) Slaves who went to slave schools. By a certain time, Anderson said, it had become economically unsound to own slaves in the North, and abolitionists established schools for people of color in the early nineteenth century. But, in the rural South, as early as 1743 there had been slave schools set up by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. This was particularly interesting because these schools taught slaves to read so that they could read the Bible -- and nothing else -- and they made it clear that the students were still slaves, that literacy would not in any way change their status.

Anderson made some remarks on the situation of city slaves, too, that they were almost free. They received better food and clothing than plantation slaves. In cities, the slaveholders appeared "desperate" if they beat slaves or withheld food. She closed by reading a quotation about literacy from William Wells Brown. Read his whole narrative if you haven't already.