Teaching Black Women’s Rhetoric: (Re)Hearing Feminist Discourse

It only occurred to me late in the semester that I could make a youtube channel with my current course, African American women’s rhetoric (it is called BlackWomynRhetProjct Channel).  I have organized the class chronologically so in some ways, this new epiphany could only come now.  I guess that will be my excuse because, really, I should have been doing this all along.  The website is good to archive the daily reading and writing assignments, but the channel lets me create a much richer archive of materials for students to use as both reference and supplement.

As soon as we left the early Civil Rights Movement and entered the 1970s, the videos and documentaries of historical footage as well as current speeches and lectures given by black women increased 100-fold.

So my class now begins to draw more and more from multimedia sources rather than just print sources.  This is much bigger than whether or not we have students read digital texts or print texts in our classes, a simplistic conversation that many teachers seem to think is some kind of hallmark of new, critical-digital pedagogies.  My class is not about reading for reading’s sake, but about (re)hearing black women by examining their multiple rhetrics.  If the text is online, good; if it’s in print, that’ll work too.  Who cares?  My job is to make multiple texts accessible to my working class undergraduate students in financially accessible ways.  The fact remains that when you are dealing with historical black women, YOU READ WHATEVER YOU CAN FIND WHEREVER YOU CAN FIND IT!  Who publishes and who gets a voice is still controlled by a white dominant culture, whether that be digital or print, so you can still count on black women not being equally or respectfully represented in any space.

But that does bring me to youtube, where, arguably, I spend too much of my time.  Let’s face it: by 2010, the amount of videos being uploaded to youtube was the equivalent of 180,000 feature-length movies per week.  In less than a week, youtube generates more video content than Hollywood has done in its entire lifetime.  Now I won’t act like that is cause for celebration; it just means I have some greater odds to find some black women on youtube than in Hollywood (which won’t require an avalanche of material for that comparative statement to be true).  I have seen more than my fair share of videos on youtube of black men who pontificate that black women are just copying white women, that white feminism has corrupted black feminist souls and minds with arbitrary discussions of patriarchy, that black women are not as worthy of attention/love/partnership as other more domesticated women of color (who are, of course, lighter in hue), that black women emasculate black men in the ways they treat the fathers of their children, that black women are actually white men in disguise when they boss black men around too much, that black women can be casually/publicly named bitches and hoes (words used as regularly by online “talk show” hosts as rappers).  I could go on and on with these examples.  I stopped reading video comments a long time ago so that I wouldn’t be continually insulted by outright, deliberate misogynistic slurs (i.e., which songs compliment “bedroom mixes” and other sexual encounters). Needless to say, if I just watched youtube, I would think that most black men who talk about black women sound ABSOLUTELY NO different than white-racist Daniel Moynhan who, in his 1965 Moynihan Report, blamed all economic “failures” of black communities on the nature of overly-aggressive black women.  I place these kinda folk in a special youtube category: DAMN FOOLS WITH A VIDEO CAMERA…UPLOADED.  I mean, really, the kind of stuff these folk say makes me wonder if they really get that people can hear them?

So yeah you hafta wade though some realllll dumb bullshit on youtube (I just don’t have a more polite way to say that, sorry). But then… yes, but then…. you can find the footage from the documentary on Shirley Chisholm that got lost on the chopping block, that one sentence that means the world, like this jewel:

“I want history to remember me… as a black woman who lived in the 20th century and who dared to be herself!”

There is the ability to watch Barbara Jordan’s speech on Nixon’s impeachment, play it back over and over and over, for free, so you and your students can hear those pauses and annunciations that she makes, see the photo where Jordan is sitting right next to Shirley Chisholm, and marvel at how, at 2 o’clock in the morning, Jordan opens her statement to Congress by letting them know she has an unwavering commitment to the U.S. Constitution (and seems to know it better than anyone else in the room) even though she was never included in its original framing!!  Yesterday, in class, I could hear my students take on the rhythmic pronunciation patterns, pauses, and accents on words like SUS-PEC-TED in their own language to talk about Jordan’s language.  And as a class, we could all hear how Jordan takes the words of the Constitution and almost takes you to church (her father is a minister so this is not simply a misapplied, figurative expression here but a description of the format in which Jordan recites text to an audience) while, at the same time, offers a closing statement in what feels like the kind of trial where you’d hope Jordan was the  lawyer on YOUR side (Jordan is a lawyer so this is not an accident either though these hearings are not a trial.)

Today, I am watching and selecting lectures by and documentaries about  Angela Davis (there isn’t much available on youtube spanning her 1990s lectures but I suspect that will change soon enough.)  This gives me the chance to move students’ images of Davis past her iconic figure in the 70s with an Afro, mouth always wide open, on the FBI’s Most Wanted List and show her as a full intellectual-activist, now and back then.  I have just finished the second part of her lecture (click here for first part) at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in downtown Atlanta on March 24, 2009 for the keynote address of Emory University’s Women’s History Month.

What I am struck by at this moment is the importance of (re)hearing feminist discourse because, in this second part of the video, Davis talks about the ways in which we must challenge many of Obama’s policies.  What strikes me  here is how differently she does this, while still maintaining a kind of class/imperialism analysis.   Davis mobilizes her critiques without the stain of the anti-black subtext that I feel and hear from the White Left/non-Black Left, folk who I have never seen or heard think deeply about the racial apartheid in which we live and that they benefit from.  I just don’t trust them when they launch their mouth-grenades on black folk and neither should anyone else.   Davis also mobilizes her critiques without the kind of ego-driven, look-at-me-look-at-me, spotlight-mongering tendencies of people like Cornel West and Tavis Smiley, though she is clearly as iconic and famous as they are.  While I have agreed with many of these critiques from these camps, there has always been something amiss for me, a real kind of disrespect that cannot be removed from the fact that Obama is a black man, just in the way that these activists frame their rhetoric.  Davis reminds just how differently Black Feminist Rhetoric operates and why her critique is one that I can hear and see as transformative. I need to make sure that I hear this kind of Black Feminist Rhetoric more— I especially now see the ways youtube can drown out the other voices once I find the right spaces where black women are being heard.