Notes: Shirley Wilson Logan, Liberating Language: Sites of Rhetorical Education in Nineteenth-Century Black America

Logan, Shirley W. (2008). Liberating language: Sites of rhetorical education in nineteenth-century black America. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

Summary:

Logan locates means through which nineteenth century black Americans engaged rhetorical education to advance community literacies, political work, and to “negotiate a hostile environment” (p. 3).

Keywords: histories of rhetoric, history, rhetorical education, social history

Quotations:

“I rely primarily upon records left by the learners themselves or, where silent, by those who worked among them, to develop a sense of these internal activities, and upon the histories of plantation missions, for information on externally sponsored activities” (p. 11).

“Yet these facts do not diminish the contribution of literary societies to black rhetorical education, especially when we consider that much good abolitionist work came out of them” (p. 69).

“Rhetorical performances such as these that took place in parlor rooms rather than in more open spaces gave participants the opportunity to hone their rhetorical skills in alternative publics” (p. 89).

“I do not intend to fast-forward into the twenty-first century in search of claims about the implications this study might have for current teaching practices. The times are quite different” (p. 134).

Reflection:

What I see as perhaps most interesting about this text is how history and rhetoric function as epistemological frames for knowing. In most of the texts I’ve encountered so far, I’ve noticed an orientation that asks “what can history do for rhetoric?” In this, we interrogate historical narratives or recover figures in order to impact our understanding of rhetoric—whether through the alteration of canons or challenging assumptions of practices in rhetorical education or rhetorical practice. In Logan’s text, this seems inverted. She seems to be asking through this study what a deep understanding rhetoric, rhetorical education, and rhetorical study can offer history. It seems a powerful move, for one, as it implies a different relationship between the discipline and authority with regard to its methods and subject matter. In addition, this turn allows Logan to interrogate and situate the context and subjects she studies differently. It’s not that such a turn does not benefit our understanding of rhetoric—it does, certainly—but it changes power as I’ve mentioned and allows her to study the rhetorical practices of her subjects as history.

She distances herself from, what I’ve observed as typical practice to make appeals in rhetorical histories to the current practices of rhetorical study and education. She writes, “I do not intend to fast-forward into the twenty-first century in search of claims about the implications this study might have for current teaching practices. The times are quite different” (p. 134). It’s a very different relationship to history than recovering a figure for the purposes adding them to a rhetorical canon that demands that we engage in the work of history for history’s sake—that history is valuable to rhetoric by its own right and that rhetoric is valuable to history by its own right.

I suppose part of what I’m thinking of is repeated phrases from conferences I’ve attended and conversations I’ve heard where rhetoric scholars distance themselves from their methods and carefully position themselves as not a particular methodologist (e.g. “While I would never consider myself an archival specialist…”). Some of this might have to do with hiring practices that surround specialization—identifying oneself as a type of researcher may limit one’s prospects—but also seems to suggest a not wanting to stake claim in methodologies that rhetoric has inherited from history, cultural anthropology, linguistics, or sociology. That the methods are not ours to have, which to some extent they are not. But this seems to call for us to understand our methods as conversation, as a situated practice across disciplinary landscapes, or held in tension with these disciplining forces.

I’m intrigued too by how Logan represents her research subjects. Instead of hyper-synthesizing her research subjects, Logan allows each to stand on their own, woven together by methodological stitching and historical context. Her claims are consequently made looking across assembled individual narratives in situ. This allows for some interesting moves, such as her ability to highlight individual meaning or how individual subjects “recognized their right to themselves” (p. 3).

It’s been helpful to read this alongside thinking through my own project and being attentive to how she represents her work. The text is not meant to be a perfect how-to, and distributes its methodological thought throughout the text, but helpfully, at the start of each section, she discusses what kinds of materials she engages and how she valued or counted those materials. While we don’t get the full method and each detail, this helps her construct how history is framed for her text. Indeed, she also remains explicit about the silences in her research and how she worked around these potential gaps in her work.

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