Two years ago, I attended a campus event where selected first-year students read their writings from the semester. I remember one young woman of African descent reading a powerful story that she had written in her composition classroom about the issues of colorism and color caste amongst her peers in high school. Of course, she didn’t call it colorism or a color caste system. By these terms, I mean the racialized hierarchy that maps out good hair, bad hair, light skin, dark skin— the arsenal of body politics that functions as societal discourses that divide, differentiate, and lead to unjust social practices felt most strongly by black women. I use the terminology of a caste system here because this is more than the Maybelline/make-up industry issues of how to wear and color your hair and lipsticks. And while the beauty industry certainly oppresses all women, the issues that black women face cannot be collapsed into what “all women” experience.
The student described, in the most vivid detail, the depth of fighting between darker-skinned and lighter-skinned young black women and by fighting, I mean full-scale brawls and fist-fights. Her language and descriptions were vivid; she incorporated effective dialogue in creative ways; and she was clear that she was a black female subject. And yet, there was nothing in that piece that I would call social analysis or social awareness. We have all kinds of codes and tropes in the field that we would use to describe this woman’s writing: expressivist, personal, subjective, descriptive; or we talk in terms of narrative, genre, voice, style, or audience. Many in the field might even suggest that my alternative desire for social awareness is dictatorial, teacher-centered, incapacitating, too political, or dogmatic. I find all of these codes, tropes, and labels of political awareness problematic. These binaries involving classroom pedagogies, writing theories, and educational politics fail to offer this young woman an opportunity to understand and insert herself into the popular cultures and histories of what she is actually writing about. Instead of knowing something about black women, she is merely given the space to shuck up and jive an individualized performance of black pain, oppression, and trauma for the gaze of white university spaces, seemingly successful because she has mastered form. As such, her performance was, at best, anti-rhetorical, in relationship to black women’s lives because knowledge of, attention to, and communication with those women were not expected.
In contrast to the college student who I just described, I would highlight this video by Kiri Davis, called a “Girl Like Me,” featuring New York City high schools students (in an English class no doubt) to see the kind of public discourse and historical scrutiny that l am saying young black women, already by age 16, already rhetorically present. It does not seem like a coincidence that when the gaze is not the co-opted, white university composition classroom, you get a different narrative.
As of right now, the various iterations of this film on youtube total more than 1 million views. The video was created, however, in 2005, the same year that youtube was launched, so the video was widely circulated at that time via email forwarding. I do not exaggerate when I say that by 2006, EVERY black woman who I personally know had seen (and forwarded) this video and this was without the aid of youtube. For effect, I will repeat that Kiri Davis, who now has her own website and wikipedia entry, was only 16 years old at the time. The kind of political critique that I am talking about then is not simply the purview of critical scholars in the academy. I would call the kind of text Kiri Davis created a subject-driven narrative analysis.
I am deeply invested as a writer, teacher, feminist, critical literacies educator, and compositionist-rhetorician in what I am calling here subject(social)-driven narrative analysis. It’s not all that I do, it’s not the the only way I write/research, and it’s not the dominant form of textual processing in my classrooms. However, subject(social)-driven narrative analysis is something I uphold. What I am referencing though is something very different from what many other scholars’ positions in composition and writing studies might mean. I am reminded here of Richard Fulkerson’s “Composition at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century” who described the difference between an old and new divide in the field:
The major divide is no longer expressive personal writing versus writing for readers (or whatever oppositional phrase you prefer: “academic discourse:’ ‘formal writing:’ ‘persuasion’). The major divide is instead between a postmodern, cultural studies, reading-based program, and a broadly conceived rhetoric of genres and discourse forms.
Fulkerson’s descriptions seem an accurate portrayal of beliefs and disputes (though unlike him, I do not lament the “glory days of the past” nor this sentiment’s white, racial undertones). If you pay attention to analyses of race, Black Language, and African American liteacies/histories when looking at someone’s writing, you simply cannot do the general rhetoric and discourse studies that Fulkerson describes. Otherwise, you end like the student in my opening story: saying NOTHING AT ALL. I am thinking here of what Sylvia Wynter calls Black Autosociography, in relation to C.L.R. James’s writing. Like James, Kiri Davis’s text is personal, expressive, ethnographic, community-based, cultural-studies-infused, rhetorically situated in her discourse community, attentive to multiple genres, political, and historically/academically-informed. The point is not simply how such “Black Autosociographic” writing happens, but why.
Looking at black women’s subject(social)-driven narrative analysis means that I have needed to dip out of composition/writing studies to frame this kind of alternative conversation and purpose for writing in my classrooms. I am not suggesting that all students need to take on Black perspectives in such classes, only that “Black Autosociography” and black women’s history challenge the dominant frames in which we often situate writing studies.