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How slave pidgin became black rhetoric and why it matters in the classroom

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Title:
How slave pidgin became black rhetoric and why it matters in the classroom
Creator:
Osbeck, Susan Marie
Publication Date:
Language:
English
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vii, 125 leaves : ; 28 cm

Subjects

Subjects / Keywords:
Black English -- Rhetoric ( lcsh )
Pidgin English -- History ( lcsh )
English language -- Dialects -- Hawaii ( lcsh )
Black English -- Rhetoric ( fast )
English language -- Dialects ( fast )
Pidgin English ( fast )
Hawaii ( fast )
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History. ( fast )
bibliography ( marcgt )
theses ( marcgt )
non-fiction ( marcgt )
History ( fast )

Notes

Bibliography:
Includes bibliographical references (leaves 122-125).
General Note:
Department of English
Statement of Responsibility:
by Susan Marie Osbeck.

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Source Institution:
|University of Colorado Denver
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|Auraria Library
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All applicable rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.
Resource Identifier:
656251788 ( OCLC )
ocn656251788
Classification:
LD1193.L54 2010m O72 ( lcc )

Full Text
HOW SLAVE PIDGIN BECAME BLACK RHETORIC AND
WHY IT MATTERS IN THE CLASSROOM
by
Susan Marie Osbeck
B.A., SUNY at Buffalo, 1988
A thesis submitted to the
University of Colorado Denver
in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Arts
English
2010


This thesis for the Master of Arts
degree by
Susan Marie Osbeck
has been approved
by
Hong Guang (Ian) Ying
Michelle Comstock
nhho
Date


Osbeck, Susan Marie (M.A., English)
How Slave Pidgin Became Black Rhetoric and Why it Matters to the Classroom
Thesis directed by Associate Professor Hong Guang (Ian) Ying
ABSTRACT
How did Black English Vernacular (BEV) evolve from a slave
pidgin/creole to the language we hear spoken today? To this end, I trace the
enculturation or assimilation of BEV to Standard English contrasted with
Hawaiian Creole English (HCE). My hypothesis is that the evolutionary tracks for
BEV and other creoles like HCE have been different because todays versions of
the languages vary significantly: they conform to Standard English to different
degrees. My research supports this hypothesis. I confirm that HCE is not as well
integrated into Standard English as BEV, and I offer conclusions about why. This
developmental trajectory has created an environment conducive to the high level
of rhetorical mastery belonging to a speaker I call the Black Rhetor. The Black
Rhetor is one bom from a particular set of historical and cultural influences. This
work examines what makes a Black Rhetor different from others, such as a South
American or Chinese rhetor. Finally, the thesis argues that Black Rhetoric can be
recognized and proactively developed in the classroom for the benefit of all
students of communication, and even society at large. Ideas for how to create a
nurturing pedagogy are offered.
This abstract accurately represents the content of the candidates thesis. I
recommend its publication.
Signed
Hong Guang (Ian) Ying


DEDICATION
My love for the study of rhetoric was inspired by Professor Michelle Comstock.
I owe my graduate education to the following three people:
My friend, Dr. Dawn Sokolski: I am often buoyed by her steadfast cheers. Each time I
state my desire to do something that I fear I cant do, Dawn lights up like the proverbial
Christmas tree, claps her hands, and exclaims, Yes! You can do that. Of course you can.
That will be easy for you. I love it. Fabulous!
My husband, Mark K. Osbeck: Mark has providedat no small cost to himselfsupport
and encouragement in every imaginable form. His influence in my life and on who I am
is profound.
Professor Colleen Donnelly: Without Professor Donnellys early writing instruction and
generous encouragement, I would have left after a class or two instead of formally
applying to the program.


ACKNOWLEDGEMENT
That I owe a debt of gratitude to my advisor, Professor Hong Guang (Ian) Ying, for his
stellar academic guidance goes without saying. So I must point out his other
contributions. Dr.Yings kindness, interest in his students, ability to boost our confidence,
and sense of humor make graduate school more fun than it otherwise would be. Ian is an
impressive role model and a fine person, and I appreciate having been able to work with
him.
I also wish to thank committee members Professor Michelle Comstock and Professor
Joanne Addison for their time, participation, and insights.
Finally, there are no words that could appropriately thank Mr. Richard Argys for the
gracious gift of his time and expertise to edit and proofread this document. This is not the
first time I have greatly benefited from Richs help. Richs contributions to his students
thinking and writing go far beyond editing. He is a very fine and generous educator.


TABLE OF CONTENTS
CHAPTER
1. INTRODUCTION................................................1
2. BLACK LANGUAGE DEVELOPMENT..................................8
Was There a Pidgin Black English?......................10
Black English Vernacular and Hawaiian Creole: why is BEV
Closer to Standard English?............................16
The Evolution of BEV.................................17
The Evolution of HCE.................................25
The Effects of Multiple Ethnicities and Languages on.29
HCE Evolution
The Creole Continuum...................................31
Assimilation: What is the Evidence?....................35
Maybe Black English is Not Decreolizing..............48
Conclusion.............................................53
3. BLACK RHETORIC.............................................55
Hawaiian Oratory.......................................61
Chinese Rhetoric.......................................65
South American Rhetoric................................67
Mexican American Rhetoric..............................69
vi


African American Rhetoric
70
Black Presence in Rhetoric.............................75
The Oral Tradition and Special Uses of Language........80
Spirituality...........................................85
Political and External Situations......................90
4. NURTURING BLACK RHETORIC IN THE CLASSROOM....................96
Historical use of African Language........................97
and Rhetoric in Classroom Instruction
Creative Approaches to Classroom Teaching................100
Using African American Language and Rhetoric to..........103
Develop Classroom Tactics
Teaching Style, Cultural Relevance, and Personal Stories.109
Broader Implications for Black Rhetoric..................116
BIBLIOGRAPHY..........................................................122
vii


CHAPTER 1
INTRODUCTION
How did the tribal languages spoken in Africa, which numbered in the
hundreds, first incorporate the European languages brought to Africa by explorers and
settlers? And then how did these myriad languages ultimately become the unified,
rich language system that is heard today in Westernized countries like the United
States? This language system is notable because it forms the backbone of a unique
and compelling rhetorical style that can be tied to its speakers history and culture.
The vernacular English spoken by African Americans who reside in the United States
is commonly called Black English Vernacular (BEV) or, more recently, the
African American Language System (AALS). Early BEV was closer to a creole
language than the fully developed language system that exists now. My research
interest lies in tracing the metamorphosis from these early versions of African-
influenced English to the sophisticated rhetorical tactics that are used by many
contemporary African Americansbecause the language is key to the rhetoricwith
the ultimate objective being to understand how this rhetoric could be better
appreciated and incorporated into the classroom for the benefit of all students of
communication.
1


The difference between the pidgin languages spoken by the first Africans who
(
came to the United States and our contemporary fellow citizens is staggering to
contemplate, and it suggests a higher comfort level with Standard English and
greater rhetorical mastery than has been achieved by speakers of other pidgins and
creoles. It is my hypothesis that Black English has assimilated (moved closer to but
not swallowed by) with Standard English to a greater degree than other creole-
based languages such as Hawaiian Creole English. Understanding this evolutionary
process may shed light on the phenomenon I call Black Rhetoric. How do we
define the Black Rhetor? What are the cultural and historical influences that
contribute to the development of the Black Rhetorif he or she does indeed exist?
My second hypothesis is that the Black Rhetor does exist as a distinct identity with an
accompanying idiosyncratic ethos, and that there is something about the language
change that took place that allowed this Black Rhetor to be born. In fact, I see the
language as the most important part of the rhetoric. Gilyards metaphor of Black
English being a tool in the rhetors toolkit is the best expression of my argument.
Finally, educators can apply learnings gleaned from studying the Black Rhetors
rhetorical tactics to the entire classroom.
The thesis will be a literature synthesis paper that describes this manner of
speaking, how it came about, and how teachers can incorporate its dynamics into their
teaching. Contemporary literature of the last fifty years or so focuses on whether BEV
2


is indeed a legitimate version of Standard English and argues that students who
speak BEV should be treated respectfully in the classroom. (And prior to the 1960s,
researchers wereamazinglystill discussing whether Black Americans spoke
differently from White Americans because of physical features like thick lips,
home-life disadvantage, or just plain lower intelligence.) I aim for a different target. I
want to move past the discussion around BEVs legitimacy contrasted with
Standard English, and, instead, look to its societal influences and how it could enrich
the teaching of rhetoric and communication for all students (versus teaching only
what is considered to be rhetorics Western style).
Richard Leeman touches on the circumstances that have led to a Black
Rhetoric when he states, ...public speaking has been a central part of the African-
American heritage (xi). Leeman also says that blacks have had little political or
economic power and, thus, oratory has been one of the few rhetorical resources
available to the African-American community (xiv). Additionally, Leeman
comments that there are common themes found in the diverse speeches examined in
his collection, and that these themes are grounded in the experience of being black in
America (xvii). Intuitively, it seems that a Black Rhetor should be identifiable in
such a specific cultural experience whose inhabitants enjoy a unique perspective on
the world and how it works. 1 suspect that a Black Rhetoric is the result of a
worldview that was bom in ancient Egypt and continues to thrive today in the
3


diaspora (a diaspora that is admittedly quite divergent because of differences in
geographic, political, educational, and economic situations). And I suspect that it has
much to offer the teaching of rhetoric in general.
My work will examine what comprises this style of rhetoric, how it may have
come to be, and how its characteristics can be nurtured in the classroom among all
students. It will begin to develop a conceptual definition of who the Black Rhetor is
against this proposal. The value of creating such a picture would ideally be found
intrinsically within the profile itself. That is, by better defining the Black Rhetor,
where he or she comes from, and how he or she influences society, an increase in the
readers appreciation for why we bother to study this rhetor at all would be a natural
outcome. That said, I will include a section that discusses other ethnic rhetorics for
purposes of comparing and contrasting and for showing the reader the lack of robust
scholarship that exists within my area of interest.
Explicitly, there are three main reasons why this study is valuable: (1) being
able to recognize and define a particular type of speakerespecially one so successful
in the areas of eloquence and persuasionand her cultural influences is a worthwhile
effort in and of itself; (2) scholarship in this area has focused on specific verbal
tactics utilized by speakers of Black English (and this is mostly limited to youth in
urban settings); it has not studied Black Rhetoric within a broader theory of discourse
or how it informs and is informed by cultural identity; (3) pedagogy for this type of
4


rhetoric is lacking. Indeed, this work is motivated by the lack of research in Black
Rhetoric and how it might inform classroom pedagogy.
Following this introduction, the thesis will be arranged in three chapters: a
review of the literature that supports my original hypothesis on language
development, a portrait of what I have identified as the Black Rhetor, and a chapter
on classroom applications. Although limited in scope, researchers have conducted
lab-based and street-based studies and pieced together old written records of words,
sentences, and phrases uttered by blacks. As a result many have written about the
features of Black English Vernacular, including phonetics and vocabulary as well as
sentence structure. That there is a Black English Vernacular has been established. I
will discuss what I learn from the literature about the languages evolution and how it
led to what I define as the Black Rhetor. I will also discuss the key features of such
a speaker and the historical and cultural influences that led to such a speaking style. I
frame the definition this way because I believe this rhetoric is tied more closely to
these factors than race, and because these influences are part of the evolution I seek to
trace. To support my assimilation argument, I will compare/contrast the development
of BEV to Hawaiian Creole.
Building from this discussion of Black Rhetoricwhat it is, how it developed,
and how it compares to other types of rhetoricI will examine how it can be
encouraged in the classroom for the benefit of all students. The rhetorical style that
5


originated in Africa and came down through the decades and diaspora has much to
offer all students of rhetoric; what it offers has been lost within the debate over
whether BEV is or should be part of Standard English. This chapter will suggest ways
to incorporate an understanding and appreciation of Black Rhetoric1 into teaching
methods. Because I have not yet found this kind of specific pedagogical guidance in
the literature, the objective of this chapter is to offer suggestions that may be helpful
for the language arts and writing teacher. The idea that I could fulfill this objective
and offer workable tips for the classroom is what most motivates me to study this
topic area.
The inspiration that lies underneath this objective is the desire to answer my
original question: how did BEV change over time so that it could underpin an orator
with the style and substance of, for example, U. S. President Barack Obama? And in
the words of my rhetoric professor, what would it be like if we could talk in the
classroom openly and honestly about it, about differences among people rather than
remaining stifled by our fear that we might offend with such discussion? What would
it be like if we could examine rhetoric from outside an inculcated perspective that
only certain kinds of writing and speaking are clear and persuasive?
1 Throughout this thesis, I use black and African American interchangeably even though they do
not always mean the same thing. I have given this naming a great deal of thought. The rhetoric I
discuss springs from its African roots and features, but a key element of the rhetoric is the language,
which is called Black English in the scholarly literature. On a personal note, many of my black
friends and colleagues have stated that they prefer black to African American in daily usage.
6


From my reading, I have learned that there is a nascent group of educators
who want to capitalize on the rich language and narrative heritages of non-white
culturessomething authors are calling during just the last five years or so ethnic
rhetoric. In 2004, Professor Keith Gilyard at Penn State published a collection of
essays that results from a conference he and his students host to discuss American
Ethnic Rhetorics. Participants ask a series of provocative questions including, How
can we celebrate and critique regional, racial, and gender alternatives that exist along
the broad linguistic spectrum within our daily lives as teachers of English and How
can ethnic rhetorics influence the purposes and modes that comprise the American
rhetorical tradition? Given this relatively recent scholarly attention, my inquiry may
be well-timed.
7


CHAPTER TWO
BLACK LANGUAGE DEVELOPMENT
Much of the literature in the field indicates that BEV was originally a
maritime Pidgin English based on languages from West Africa and the Caribbean.
But history isnt clear about when exactly this maritime pidgin came to the British
colonies of North America, and scholars have had to creatively piece together
fragmented historical recordings of the languages spoken by blacks. The first slaves
came to the British colonies of North America in 1619, and linguists believe that the
pidgin that was the forerunner to todays BEV developed sometime between 1619
and the middle part of that century. As Dillard states, the study of English of the
Negro prior to the mid-1960s was pitifully little and absurdly restricted (Dillard,
Black 26).
Dillard talks honestly about the sociopolitical issues for the lack of
scholarship (Dillard, Black 28). Trying to understand the development of Black
English in the United States over the last four hundred years, Ive read a lot during
my graduate school career. Based on my readings, I am sympathetic to Dillards
observations. One can sense a general atmosphere of fear surrounding the study of
Black English. That is, the fear of being labeled racist prevents writers and
researchers from stating conclusions that may appear to the reader to be based on a
8


subjects race. Those who do study and write on the topic, unfortunately, appear often
to have political agendas. Since the early 1970s, a common agenda is the desire to
legitimize Black English and take to task the U.S. educational system for its
purported mistreatment of the black student.
I have discovered that laying out a clear and convincing development timeline
(with evidentiary support) that will show how slave pidgin morphed into the rhetoric
of President Obama is no simple, straightforward task. My hypothesis about
assimilation was formed while comparing and contrasting BEV with Hawaiian Creole
(discussed below). In that early exercise, I concluded that I must review the
decreolization process that Black English went through from slave days through the
late 20th century. Surely I could find sources that discuss this process, and from those
sources I could buttress my argument for closer assimilation to Standard English as
well as fashion eloquent ties from the language trajectory to what is now the clear
picture I hold in my minds eye of the Black Rhetor. I was quite surprised to learn
that not only had no one definitively addressed the topic of how Black English
decreolized, but there is lingering debate around whether Black English was even a
creole in the first place.
9


Was There a Pidgin Black English?
While certain scholars have postulated that BEV derives from British dialects,
J. L. Dillard believes this is not true. In his book simply titled Black English, Dillard
questions the conventional suggestion of the dialect geographers that the dialect
forms were taken from widely scattered areas of the British Isles to form Black
English (73). Dillard says this is not likely because of dialect leveling, the
phenomenon in migration which means that even the white residents of colonial
America did not speak or transmit British regional dialects (73). I looked at Dillards
work because it frequently emerged in the databases, and I understand that Dillards
1972 work Black English is somewhat seminal in the field. It does seem that dialect
leveling combined with the mixing of African language groups that occurred in the
colonies would prevent any one particular languagefrom the British Isles in this
casedominating as the primary source language for BEV.
Dillard makes the strongest argument I have found for the existence of a
pidgin (and when it came into existence) that was the precursor to todays BEV. He
states, although many slaves may not have had to relinquish their African languages
immediately, they all found themselves in a situation in which they had to learn an
auxiliary language in a hurry in order to establish communication in the
heterogeneous groups into which they were thrown (74). Dillard explains that the
mixing of a large number of languageswe know that slaves came to the New World
10


speaking an abundance of tribal languages that also had European influenceswith no
language predominant (emphasis mine) is the perfect condition for the spread of a
pidgin language (74). Dillard calls pidgin languages the ultimate in auxiliary
languages and that Pidgin English served as the lingua franca in the early U.S. in
both areas where African slaves lived and areas of European maritime expansion
where African slaves did not live such as the Hawaiian Islands, the China Sea, and
Pitcairn Island, for example (75). (This is why I compare and contrast African Pidgin
English with Hawaiian Creole later in this chapter.) As soon as a pidgin begins to be
used by native speakers (the children of African slaves, for example) it becomes a
creole, which is what Dillard says happened with the Pidgin English used by slaves.
Dillard points out that his views exist only within a limited circle, that of specialists
in pidgin and creole languages (76). As a result, the student cannot find a document
that states West African Pidgin English completed the creolization process in
Blacksburg, VA, on April 2, 1698 or anything to that effect (76).
Dillard sums up my dilemma well: [d]rawing historical conclusions requires
a certain amount of ingenuity on the part of the language historian, including an
ability to interpret the statements of non-professionals (76). These statements can
include recordings of the spoken word that were captured by, perhaps, tradesmen,
merchants, and sailors. These people may not hold the full status of historian in the
academys view, so their historical recordings may be discounted. Dillard is willing to
11


rely on these references, and he mentions a Portuguese text from 1595 that records
the use of English on the West Coast of Africa. The sum of his studies leads Dillard
to state that it seems reasonable to believe that Pidgin English was in use in the slave
trade by the beginning of the seventeenth century, if not slightly earlier (76).
It is easy to sense a general reluctance among U. S. Americans to discuss the
conditions of slavery that existed on our native soil. A recent visit to the plantations
just outside New Orleans confirmed this phenomenon. During the organized tours,
guides focused on the fine treatment and benefits given to labor, and used the word
slave minimally. Despite this phenomenon, most Americans who have attended
U.S. high schools have had enough education about slavery to know that there were
two classes of slavesthe house and the field slave. This dynamic was
established immediately with the introduction of African slaves to the thirteen
original colonies, and, thus, this class system must have affected the decreolization
and evolution of BEV that I am discussing here. By the 1800s several varieties of
English were being used in the colonies. These include West African Pidgin English,
Plantation Creole, and Standard English. Within these languages, slaves were
categorized into three groups, including those who learned the English of their
masters, the field workers who spoke Plantation Creole, and recent imports from
Africa, some of whom brought Pidgin English with them, and some of whom did not.
12


There is historical evidence, such as advertisements, that slaves spoke
multiple varieties of English and even possibly multiple languages, including Dutch,
French, and Spanish (86). Dillard points out that a great deal of linguistic
adaptability was demanded of the slaves... there are many records of their acting as
interpreters for the linguistically less proficient whites (86). These languages
advanced in sophistication quickly, even to the point of allowing Blacks to participate
in dramatic performances. Dillard tells us that before 1850 there were many Negro
characters in American and British plays (90). By the end of the 1800s, significant
change and innovation was taking place within Black English with regard to grammar
and syntax (100).
During this process, three negators as well as elaborate double negative
structures came into being (102). Dillard states that these changes may be the most
significant differences among Black English and other English creoles (102).
Something that caught my eye in Dillards book is his statement that all of the
varieties have changed somewhat in the direction of Standard English (86).
Somewhat grabbed my attention. Dillard wrote Black English in 1972. Fie does not
explain how he defines somewhat, but the degree of assimilation that I am arguing
for certainly exceeds somewhat. Slaves ability to speak multiple languages or
variances of languages, the required adaptability that Dillard talks about, and the
fact that Dillard refers to BEVs movement toward Standard English as somewhat
13


as recently as forty years ago reinforce my belief that Black English has assimilated
with Standard English to a greater degree than others creolesat least in the last three
or four decades (see my discussion on assimilation below).
Because he is a respected historian of language, it is important
confirmation of my experience that Dillard finds scholarship that clearly traces
BEVs development lacking, and that he relies instead on bits and pieces from which
the creative (Dillards word) student must piece together what happened and when.
Dillard states that there are vast recordings of black dialogue that were made by both
pro-slavery and anti-slavery writers. He points out that the recordings of writers from
both viewpoints are remarkably similar (104). The issue of limited scholarship, he
says, is due in part to the taint of pro-slavery writing that may have turned American
academic liberals against the use of this documentary evidence from the Civil War
period for the history of Black English (104). As of 1972, Dillard found that
everywhere the history of Black English has been done half-heartedly if at all
(112). And he particularly points out the lack of knowledge about decreolization,
which is, of course, my interest. In the period between 1972 and today, this gap has
not been filled. Again, much work in the field to date focuses not on the languages
history, but rather on proving the equality of Black English with Standard English.
Dillards argument that some versions of BEV remain closer to the
original creoles makes me think that perhaps not all varieties of BEV have
14


assimilated to the same degree. Sociocultural reasons may be the most reasonable
explanation for this. Dillard states that the overall pattern entails black language and
culture being assimilated to white patterns over the last century, and that the greatest
degree of assimilation occurred among the economically advantaged (231). Just as we
have seen how the movement from Africa to the New World generated new
languages, it follows that the continued mobility of blacks in the United States would
greatly impact Black English. This mobility has caused changes in blacks social
status, job opportunities, and exposure to whites and other non-whites in educational
settings. Changes in social status cause changes in language. (There is much recorded
evidence of code switching among blacks, and I have seen this behavior myself in
my black colleagues and friends.)
It may be that Black English had no other available trajectory but that of
coming closer to Standard English because of the enormous changes in social status
of blacks, particularly during the last several decades. Professor Ernest Dunn talks
about blacks desire to assimilate into the dominant culture (Harrison and Trabasso
118). And Dunn points out that linguistic deviations in other ethnic groups are
accepted as natural (Harrison and Trabasso 118). Dunn says, no one was greatly
concerned that a child of German extraction would say zis for this (Harrison and
Trabasso 118). This suggests that the dominant U.S. culture accepts imperfections
and accents in language spoken by, for example, German citizens more readily than
15


by black citizens. This is an excellent point, and lends credence to my idea that blacks
are highly motivated to, as Dunn says, adopt the dominant language (Harrison and
Trabasso 118).
In the New World, blacks are continually moving (literally and figuratively),
and their language moves with them. As I point out in the discussion below,
Hawaiians began speaking English because it was brought to them; Africans began
speaking English because they were (forcibly) brought to it, and they responded
accordingly. The historical debate over whether Black English was ever a pidgin or
creole ironically supports my claim of assimilation. For if it was not a pidgin/ creole,
then Black English was already close to Standard English when Africans came to the
New World; if it was a pidgin/creole, it is very evident that it no longer is, and
assimilation or enculturation seems to be what most likely has occurred. But can we
say this dynamic has affected all creoles equally?
Black English Vernacular and Hawaiian Creole: why is BEV Closer to Standard
English?
How did BEV evolve from a slave pidgin/creole into the robust language we
hear spoken today? Is Hawaiian Creole English (HCE) equally close to the acrolect
(Standard English)? Because BEV is no longer a creole, but a fully developed
language system, it is worthwhile to trace how it evolved compared to other creoles
16


like Hawaiian Creole English (HCE). We may be able to draw conclusions about how
BEV developed into the rich language system it is today if we understand what is the
same or different about it from other non-standard languages.
To this end, I have synthesized multiple sources of scholarship on the
evolution of BEV and Hawaiian Creole English. My research supports the hypothesis
that the evolutionary tracks for BEV and other creoles like HCE have been different
because there are differences in todays versions of the languages. BEV is better
integrated into Standard English than HCE, and I have made some conclusions about
why this is true.
The Evolution of BEV
From what we hear and observe, and read in the literature, we can postulate
that BEV has evolved from a crude language system whose primary objective was
basic survival to one that has a lot of creative flair, and is recognized as a language
just as legitimate as Standard English. It has progressed from slave pidgin to the
dynamic and imaginative speech we hear and see on the street, in music, and in films,
and now even in the White House. How did BEV make such a dramatic shift in its
sophistication and movement toward Standard English?
Like Dillard, Evelyn B. Dandy subscribes to the idea of levelinga process
that took place as a result of cultural contact and interaction between Africans and
17


other people. This leveling process had two primary elements: (1) enslaved Africans
who came to the New World used what had been bridge languages (revived in the
middle passage) that had allowed intertribal communication in Africa; and (2)
Africans communicated with people speaking European languages who came to
Africa as slave traders and settlers.
This latter element was key: blacks could communicate with each other and
with white people in the New World because they had learned how to communicate
among many different peoples while still in Africa. Dandy states that before this
exposure to Europeans and later forced migration, Black English had its roots in three
main families of indigenous African languages: Sudanic, Bantu, and Hamitic (Dandy
20). The myriad languages that comprised these main families had enough similarities
to allow Africans to communicate among different tribes. Dandy quotes Vass as
asserting that Bantu, in particular, had an ability to .. .move into a culture to absorb
it, and to change its language (21). Similarities also existed in gestures, movements,
and rhythms, and this resulted in the creation of mythaphonics. Mythaphonics are
the combination of music, dance, speech, and nonverbal communication that Africans
developed in Africa and brought to the New World, and their existence suggests that
blacks were competent in creating new communication mechanisms. We will see
continued evidence of mythaphonics in my discussion of contemporary Black
Rhetoric. And I believe that the Bantu languages ability to move into a culture and
18


absorb it is a foreshadowing of what contemporary Black English has done in
moving closer to Standard English.
Haskins adds Mandingo to Dandys list of original African languages that
were later used in the New World. Haskins states that the Mandingo language
originated in Mali, and that ten percent of Black Americans can trace their origins to
the Mali Empire of Western Africa (30). He believes that Mandingo was very
prevalent in Western Africa, and therefore survived the Middle Passage and was the
first or second common language spoken by Africans who landed on American
shores. We have already noted that contact with European slave traders and settlers
had previously resulted in a Pidgin English being createdthrough blending with
indigenous languageswhile slaves were still on African soil. Dandy and Haskins
concur that these pidgin versions of English used by Africans were later used by
slaves to communicate with each other and with white people once they reached
America and other parts of the New World.
The mixing of originally different tribes on New World soil led to what
Haskins calls slave pidgins (Gullah being a well-known example) and resulting
creoles. Haskins argues that it would have been impossible for blacks to develop
anything but a non-standard version of English, at first, given the competing
influences of so many original African languages, the isolation from society outside
the plantations, and exposure to whites who were primarily non-standard English
19


speakers. Despite these obstacles, slaves quickly developed higher levels of language
sophistication. (Almost every source I have consulted makes the statement that
slaves languages evolved into more sophisticated and complex versions rapidly.)
For example, enslaved Africans devised covert ways to communicate with
each other since open and direct communication was not allowed in the plantation
environment. Messages were hidden in songs, behaviors, and words, and this ability
to hide information from masters (and white people in general) was critical to slaves
survival in this hostile environment. (Indeed, the success of the Underground
Railroad depended on its participants ability to pass secret messages.) Additionally,
field slaves used hidden words and taunts to express anger and resentment toward
house slaves who enjoyed a higher relative level of privilege. These word games
and taunts are reported to have African connections and were seen in African
initiation rites, games, and performances (23). They survived the journey across the
Middle Passage and expanded in the New World as an important part of the field
slaves experience. And they remain a primary element of AALS and Black Rhetoric
today. (During the 1970s, Elizabeth Folb spent several years in Los Angeles studying
how black urban teenagers jostle for power by using word games and taunts. These
tactics seem significantly similar to the slaves language tricks described above.)
This practice of using language in special ways does have documented history
dating back to pre-slavery days. It is important to note this dynamic because in it we
20


recognize that current BEV did not develop in a vacuum. For blacks, words have
always been powerful. In Africa, words carried so much power that they were
believed to have magical properties. Dandy offers this from Jahn:
All activities of men, and all the movements in nature, rest on the
word, on the productive power of the word, which is water and
heat and seed and Nommo, that is, life force itself...The force,
responsibility, and commitment of the word, and the awareness of
the word alone alters the world (28).
A newborn child took on meaning when his or her father whispered the babys
name in the childs ear (28).
The power of the word felt so deeply by Africans is still revered today. Dandy
describes how these covert and hidden languages used on plantations eventually
evolved into modem counterparts that maintained the hidden quality and can now
be recognized in verbal games like those seen in rap, woffin, and playing the
dozens. The contemporary phenomenon of verbalization as performance
originated with the griotthe African men who preserved culture through spreading
oral history. The griots were speaking documents and earned their reputations as
verbal performers, in much the same way that contemporary blacks establish their
reputation. Haskins states that blacks have developed forms of expression which are
unique, spontaneous, and extremely communicative (13). Such high value is placed
on the ability to verbalize in the modern African American community that each time
21


a speaker opens his mouth he is establishing or preserving his reputation and honing
the skills he needs to survive (74).
In addition to word games and speech-as-performance, another feature of
todays speaking style that originated in Africa is call-response. Call-response
patterns of speaking emphasize BEVs focus on participatory communication.
Constant feedback from listeners and speakers allows the parties assess their mutual
performance, builds rapport between them, and determines whether indeed
communication has even taken place. Black children emphasize showing rather
than telling when telling stories, and they assume a shared knowledge base with
their listeners. Requesting listener feedback is an integral part of black music, public
speeches, and church sermons. These unique language elements attest to the history,
adaptability and flexibility of black language. The ability to communicate well with
others has always been highly prized among Africans and African Americans, which
leads to a willingness to change and adapt toward the dominant language (or
circumvent and subvert it, if needed).
Haskins believes that BEV is indeed uniquely creative and effective. He
makes a bold assertion that there is a special cohesiveness in black language. Haskins
says that shared pre-slavery origins and common experiences in the New World have
led to the development of a common language among all blacks, whether from
different parts of the United States or different parts of the world. The author states
22


that there is almost never a misunderstanding or conflict over language among
blacks of all different nationalities (30). BEV speakers have shown themselves to be
perhaps more motivated than others to adopt news ways of talking when needed.
Again, I attribute this characteristic to BEVs African roots as well as the migration
patterns for blacks.
Somewhere in this evolutionary process from slave pidgin to a common
language so sophisticated that it is without misunderstanding lies the key to the
creative and dexterous use of language we see in todays blacks, as well as the
languages high level of ability to adapt. Lets return to the previously discussed
question of whether there was prior creolization in BEV. In contrast to Dillard, John
Rickford suggests that there may never have been a creole in BEV because
sociohistorical conditions in the US were not favorable to the development of one
(Valdman 192). As we will see below in the case of HCE, there is controversy over
how BEV developed and whether scholars are even asking the right questions.
Rickford asserts that there is lack of agreement on what the central questions are:
Before we can actually investigate the probability of prior creolization
in BE, there are some preliminary questions we will need to consider.
Questions like these have been attracting considerable attention within
the field of creole studies as a whole, but the discussions have not
been brought to bear on the creole origins of Black English in any
systematic or explicit way (Valdman 191).
Rickford discusses the differences between Caribbean plantations and the
smaller U.S. plantations that blacks worked on, and how this size difference may have
23


affected the groups respective language assimilation. Because blacks were on
smaller plantations, they had more contact with whites than native islanders. As a
result, blacks could not maintain their native language over the long run. In what
appears to be an about-face, Rickford concludes that as BEV assimilated, it changed
to share almost all vocabulary and rules with English (Valdman 197). Interestingly,
Rickford comments that slaves did not have the same level of institutional (schools)
exposure to Standard English that Hawaiian Creole children did (Valdman 243).
Despite this difference in exposure, BEV ultimately folded into Standard English to a
higher degree than HCE.
In contrast to Rickford, Traugott strongly asserts that Black English comes
from a creole (58). (William A. Stewart says that the non-standard speech of
present-day American Negroes still seems to exhibit structural traces of a creole
predecessor (Dillard, Perspectives 234).) And, like Rickford, Traugott argues that
BEV has been fully absorbed into Standard English. Traugott believes that,
historically, creoles are contact languages. When it was still a contact language,
BEVs essential elements were British English and West African languages (Harrison
59). Over time, BEV moved away from its African roots and morphed to become
much closer to English.
Traugott discusses this decreolization as a process in which access to the
superstate language continues for long enough that the creole is modified in the
24


direction of the superstrate language (Harrison 61). As this process continues, full
assimilation eventually occurs. Traugott suggests that a Standard Black English is
developing, and that it is being used by congressmen, teachers, and writers (Harrison
63). One can even see glimmers of this Standard Black English in the speech of the
current U.S. president. Traugott also points out that the version of BEV known today
originated in the house rather than the field. Current BEV was thus influenced by
these dynamics: higher exposure to the Standard English spoken by more educated
and wealthier whites in the house (plantation owners and their families versus field
bosses), less overall isolation relative to islanders, and future influences of
urbanization and migration.
The Evolution of Hawaiian Creole English
Today, 600,000 speak HCE within Hawaii, and 100,000 speak it in the
continental U.S. This is significant given that the 2006 US Census Bureau estimate of
Hawaiian population is just under 1.3 million. Tryon and Charpentier state that as of
2000, half of all Hawaiians speak HCE, and many have a limited grasp of English.
Roberts says that most of Hawaiis non-white population uses HCE. As with BEV, it
is difficult to trace the exact evolution of a specific creole such as HCE. Roberts
agrees, and mentions a recent paper by Arends. Arends comments, [tjheories of
creole genesis are not about the genesis of specific creoles (Roberts 4). This belief
25


supports Dillards assertion that the student of language history must be creative and
dig deep for evidence of language change. Like BEV, there is debate over whether
HCE was ever really a creole at all. I will discuss this further below.
Hawaiian Creole English developed over a 150-year period. Native Hawaiians
began experiencing Euroamerican contact later than Africans. It was approximately in
1778 that more contact began. Trade increased significantly from 1779 to 1790,
causing an influx of labor from both Asian and non-Asian countries. (Fifty years later
there was an influx of white retirees.) A key influence in the rise of HCE was the
genesis of the American whaling industry in 1840. Whaling combined with the sugar
industry to create the American hegemony that was the ultimate driver of HCE, which
became a distinct language around 1930.
It appears that HCE evolved in similar fashion to other creoles. However,
Roberts states that HCE emerged in the 20th century, in contrast to most creoles that
arose from European colonialism in the 17th and 18th centuries, and that HCE took
two generations to develop. Roberts assertion contradicts Bickerton. Bickerton says
that HCE abruptly developed into a full-fledged language to serve the needs of the
first locally born generation in Hawaiithe children of immigrants who came as
plantation labor, which would make HCE very similar to BEV in this regard who
needed to be able to quickly communicate with strangers. Roberts supports her
opposing argument by mentioning a work done by Thomason (Roberts 11).
26


Thomasons theory is that there are two types of creole genesis: abrupt and delayed.
Abrupt creolization involves a language that emerges as the main vernacular at
once without developing from a preceding pidgin. Delayed creolization is
understood more easily on an intuitive basis: this involves a process in which a creole
is developed from an expanded pidgin that emerged first. Roberts says HCE
experienced delayed creolization, and I have argued that this process is what took
place with Black English.
As we have seen with Black English, debate over whether HCE developed
from a pidgin or a creole at all is widespread, and the debate is colored by the
participants favored points of view. Some researchers claim that HCE came from an
African pidginthe Afrogenesis theory. Roberts discusses Hancock and Cassidy
who claim to have traced Atlantic creoles to a West African Pidgin English that
existed in the 1600s (Roberts 13). She also mentions McWhorter, who subscribes to
this Afrogenesis theory, but says it was a different Anglophone pidgin spoken in
African forts that is the source of HCE. Roberts initially sides with researchers who
dispute the claim that HCE arose from a pre-existent pidgin. She cites several for
support.
The first, Alleyne, states that no evidence exists to support an idea that creoles
of the islands originally derived from pidgins (Roberts 14). Mufwene concurs with
this argument and states that creoles did not develop by nativization, as acquisition
27


of a community of native speakers, from any erstwhile pidgins (Roberts 14). Finally,
DeGraff studied Haitian creole, and subsequently rejected the dogma that creoles
pass through pidgin stages. DeGraff argues that the classic pidgin-to-creole litmus
test fails on representative creoles (Roberts 14). Roberts sums up her conclusion:
There is thus an empirical problem concerning the genesis of most
creole varieties. In the absence of solid data demonstrating the pidgin
origins of these languages, a number of other competing theories have
been proposed that do not assume a process of pidginization (14).
So if HCE did not develop from a pre-existing pidgin, where did it come
from? Roberts engages in a long discussion on four primary theories: substratist,
super strati st, diffusionist, and universalist. Substratist theories emphasize the role of
the socially subordinate ancestral languages in creole genesis. In contrast,
superstratists emphasize the role of input from the various dialects or registers
comprising the lexifying superstate (19). This theory suggests dialect mixing takes
place in the formation of a creole. Universalist views are popular with Chomsky
followers because they focus on the role of universal principles of language
development, and note the parallels between pidginization and L2 acquisition (22).
Substrate influences are denied in universalist theories. Finally, diffusion theories
suggest that there is an intermediate source which transmits an item from one
language to another. For example, this theory states that lower-class sailors from
England diffused their specific type of English across the colonies. I am not
sufficiently authoritative to describe how universal principles of language affected the
28


development of BEV (or any language), but it seems to me that it was influenced by
the three remaining factors: the African ancestral languages, the mixing of these
myriad languages, and the transmission of words spoken by whites to early black
language.
Roberts ultimately concludes that HCE was derived from HPE, although it
sounded radically different after 1900. She points out that the linguistic process of
creole formation has rarely been observed and the formative stages of most
contemporary creoles are poorly attested (Roberts v). Roberts adds that the
important elements for development of creoles are little understood, and there is little
consensus on how creoles emerged. This makes it difficult to compare and contrast
the evolution of various creoles.
The Effects of Multiple Ethnicities and Languages on HCE Evolution
Bickertons explanation of the development of HCE leads me to wonder about
the effects of the melting pot of ethnicities that was found in Hawaii during the 19th
and early 20th centuries. Bickerton says HCE developed from 1880 to 1910
(becoming fully creolized in 1910), but he claims that Hawaiians spoke a little
English (called Hapa-haole) before this time period. In 1876, workers were needed
for the sugar industry, and this influx led to a multilingual population in which Pidgin
Hawaiian and Pidgin English co-existed along with, for example, Olelo PaIai, which
29


had Chinese origins. Bickerton posits that the introduction of Olelo PaTai in
particular delayed the development of Pidgin English. Ultimately, Bickerton argues
along the lines of language acquisition theory that it is something innate rather than
environmental influences that leads pidgins to develop to creoles.
While critical to the understanding of language acquisition, Bickertons
theories do not fully address the chaos caused by the influx of different ethnicities
during the booming trade period and its associated turnover on the plantations, and
how languages were affected as a result. The focus of Sarah Roberts research may
have been to challenge many of Bickertons findings. Regardless of her research
intent, Roberts work leads me to posit that the mix of indigenous Hawaiians and
immigrants had significant effect on the development of HCE, and the results were
somehow different from what happened when many different African people and
languages intermingled. Roberts believes that children introduced English in Hawaii,
not their parents or other adults (McWhorter 272).
An interesting corollary to this hypothesis is Roberts observation that these
same children rejected using Standard English in peer group relations due to ethnic
and socioeconomic tensions (McWhorter 273). Roberts suggests that Pidgin English
was valued among these people because it was an indicator of local identity.
Hawaiian or both English and Hawaiian languages were used in the home, and the
native acrolect overruled English (McWhorter 281). This is an interesting finding.
30


and it suggests that cultural influences weighed heavily on later HCE development,
and in different (almost opposite) ways than they did on Black English.
But despite this finding, the question remains: why is BEV better integrated
into Standard English than HCE? And what happened to HCE after the period 1910 to
1940?
The Creole Continuum
In her book Pidgins and Creoles. Ishtla Singh offers a fascinating
explanation of the Creole Continuum concept and the academic controversies that
surround it. Singh states that creoles continue to exist in a multilingual context that
is also home to their original lexical source language (69). (The emphasis is mine.
Blacks were, of course, not living in the place where their original lexical source
language existed.) So geography is one element that affects the creole continuum.
Another element is explored in Singhs discussion of language suicide and language
death, which focuses on how perceptions of high/low prestige affect a creoles
evolutionary pattern, and can contribute to the creation of two versions of the creole,
with each being used for a different function (business or government versus family
interaction). Roberts findings about HCE being used more frequently at home make
sense given this theory, and help explain why HCE has been less absorbed by
Standard English than BEV.
31


Tryon talks about the continuum of a creole ranging from the basilect (heavy
creole) to Standard Englishbetween the two ends of the range, mutual
intelligibility hardly exists. Tryon points out that speakers of HCE range across this
continuum from the basilect to the acrolect (Tryon 13). Despite the fact that some
scholars believe that not every version of Black English has assimilated to Standard
English equally, this wide range found in HCE does not exist in BEV. Singh recaps
Decamps conclusion that the continuum is the next stage in the creole lifecyclethe
creole will eventually merge with the source language. This has not happened fully
with HCE.
Finally, Singh states that the post-creole phase of the continuum cannot
happen unless prior social stratification partially breaks down (73). This collapse of
previous stratification among different social classes has significant implications for
understanding BEVs evolution. Singh addresses the effects of emancipation on
former slaves, who became even more motivated after becoming free to move toward
the acrolect. Several dynamics contributed to this relatively higher level of movement
toward Standard English among blacks: emancipation, natural evolution resulting
from the creole continuum, perceptions of Standard English having more (rather than
less) prestige, and the movement of blacks to urban centers, where they were less able
to use the creole forerunner of BEV. It is not hard to imagine that blacks had different
reasons than Hawaiians, as well as a higher level of motivation, to assume the
32


acrolect, so that they could get along better in a world dominated by whites, where
they had previously been enslaved. This desire would also outweigh the natural
tendency to use BEV to form a Black identity and to bond with other blacks, which
is a dynamic discussed in the literature.
It is not possible to do a thorough examination of all the literature within a
synthesis paper of this length, and the limitations in the research itself dont help.
These limitations include the lack of research on specific creoles like HCE and the
evolution of BEV, lack of continuity in the questions studied, and political agendas
that influence the focus and conclusion of research studies. Despite these obstacles, I
have been able to draw some initial conclusions about the development of these two
languages, as well as identify questions worth studying in future research efforts.
As argued by Traugott, BEV has been fully absorbed into Standard English,
and this absorption has exceeded that of HCE. I suspect that this is true for the
following reasons:
Blacks may be more comfortable with language change because they
had exposure to and the need to communicate with so many different
nationalities while still in Africa. Africans had vast experience talking
to speakers of many different languages. Their African languages
morphed and combined as needed, and they even used some English
33


while still in Africa. It may be that this early experience allowed BEV
to later blend more easily into Standard English;
Hawaiian Creole developed within a transient sea port culture with
many opportunities to develop pidgins not based on English, versus
the more static environment of the plantations where black slaves were
forced to communicate with one dominant group who spoke only
English;
Similarly, Hawaiian Creole developed against the backdrop of a larger
melting pot of ethnicities who didnt share a common experience of
slavery, aspirations or goals;
Over time, blacks had more contact with whites in the New World due
to relatively high mobility rates; islanders remained more isolated
from speakers of Standard Englishthis may be the most plausible
explanation for the difference in assimilation;
Native islanders may have more social and political power in Hawaii
than blacks have in mainland US cities, reducing the need for speakers
of HCE to adopt Standard English, which may not even be the acrolect
on the islands.
A compelling idea is that BEV and HCE assimilated unequally because of the
way their respective speakers have been forced to use these languages. It must
34


be relevant that African slaves were exported to new lands, and most speakers
of Hawaiian pidgins and creoles were developing their languages in their
native environments, where outside influences were brought to them.
Assimilation: What is the Evidence?
Based on the contemporary version of BEV and the comparison of BEV with
HCE, I suggest that Black English has assimilated more with Standard English than
English-based creoles spoken by other ethnicities. But I havent fully answered the
question, how? In 1973, Robbins Burling, a University of MI linguistics professor,
published a book called English in Black and White, which examines the way
language is used in black communities in America. This book should not be
dismissed even though it is nearly forty years old. In particular, Burlings chapter
Where did it come from? offers an interesting examination of two competing
hypotheses for the historical development of Black English dialectal and creole.
Before discussing these two theories, it is worth mentioning that Professor
Burling eloquently put to bed the idea that still existed in the early 1970s that
language characteristics among Black Americans can be explained by race alone. He
gives the example that recordings of southern white speech can easily be identified as
black by northern whites, and that, conversely, a northern black speaker raised in a
white community can be identified while speaking on tape as white (29). Burling
35


summarizes his point: [t]here can be no question whatsoever that it is the community
in which he grows up, that determines how he will speak. His inherited racial
characteristics are quite irrelevant (29).
To explain the evolution of BEV, geographic causes, sociological
explanations, and theories of language deprivation have been postulated, but what
interests me are the historical theories of language development because they better
tie to my ideas about the Black Rhetoric that comes from the language. As mentioned,
Burling states that racial explanations that attribute language differences to the lips,
tongues, or genes of the speaker must be dismissed as myths simply because so many
Americans with black skin speak indistinguishably from whites (111). Dialectal
explanations propose that dialects emerge from one older, common source such as
Elizabethan English and then diverge when the groups that speak it are divided. Some
traits of the common source are maintained; some disappear. Burling points out
specific ways that contemporary Black English retains certain features of older
language such as multiple negation and double modals; conversely, he mentions that
Black English has lost the third-person singular -s (112). This, he claims, makes it no
different from any other English dialect that descends from an earlier form of the
language and keeps or eliminates certain features (112).
Burling does consider the possible counterarguments to this theorycreated
by the existence of Jamaican (and other Caribbean) English and Gullah. (Gullah is a
36


good example of a language spoken mostly by blacks that has not assimilated highly
into the Standard English.) He states that Gullah and Jamaican English are generally
considered creoles (113). Because these languages are so different from the English
of North America or Britain, Burling says they must have undergone a period of
sharp discontinuity that is also required for a pidgin to develop. The point Burling
makes that supports my assimilation theory is that Caribbean English and Gullah have
been able to escape the pressure of Standard English, a situation that is required for
a creole to survive (114).
In a nutshell, the dialectal hypothesis asserts that highly deviant languages
such as Gullah exist because of periods of abrupt discontinuity with English. Less
deviant forms of Englishspoken by North American blacksare just more
typical versions of Standard English (dialects) that have drifted away from the
standard by processes similar to those that have separated Yankee speech from
English speech, for example, rather than a more severe pidgin/creole stage. So it may
be that the Black English I am studying has always been close to Standard English.
Perhaps it has not derived from a pidgin or later creole at all, but was always just a
dialect of the Queens English.
While interesting, I have a hard time accepting this theory because of the
myriad languages that were initially spoken by slaves in the New World and the fact
that slave owners were motivated to prevent effective communication among the
37


Africans who found themselves living on white plantation owners lands. As Burling
points out, early slaves and whites did not have the need to form an intimate
community with unified speech (112), and surely the various native languages
among slaves made it impossible for them to communicate with each other, which
would have necessitated the development of a pidgin communication system. It seems
likely that a pidgin created by slaves would have reflected native African languages
to a greater degree than the speech of the white masters or European tradesmen, and
that these elements of African language would have naturally been carried forward to
languages that exist far in the future. Indeed, my argument is that Black Rhetoric is
inextricably tied to its African origins and the language that resulted from them.
Burling explores a counter hypothesis that makes more sense to me because it
claims that todays Black English did in fact result from some kind of pidginization
and creolization process. Instead of focusing on the differences between Black
English and Gullah/Caribbean (as the dialectal model does), the creole theory focuses
on the differences between English spoken by whites and all versions of English
spoken by blacks. Which theory has more evidence to support it? The evidence set
out by Burling at first seems to support the creole hypothesis. It includes examples of
features that are used in both BEV and Standard English (or features of BEV with
precedent in older versions of the common source language) such as multiple
negation, the making of contractions like forms of be, and the loss of final
38


consonants. The creole hypothesis is also supported by transitional dialects that link
black to white, such as the dialect spoken by southern whites and the many
intermediate forms of English spoken by todays middle-class blacks that
incorporate features of both Standard and non-standard English. Burling states that if
one insists upon a sharp separation between Black and White English this can be
done only through romantic exaggeration (115).
Burling seems to favor the creole hypothesis, but as a good academic he
examines a counter argument that links Black English more closely with the
deviant speech of Jamaicans and Sea Island dwellers (Gullah). He outlines the
comparisons between BEV and Gullah/Caribbean using classic linguistic elements
that include pronunciation, grammar, personal pronoun usage, and noun pluralization.
Ultimately, Burling says that there is enough evidence to support both the dialectal
and creole hypotheses, but he makes one statement that I attend to closely. He says
that it is critically important to consider that while creoles do simplify features of
the standard language, they have compensating complexities and are not at all
comparable to pidgins, which are truly simple (120). Burling says that the overall
complexity of a creole is entirely comparable to that of any other language (120). It
therefore is reasonable to conclude that todays rich African American Language
System could likely have emerged from a creole since creoles are generally more
39


complex than simple and seem to demand a high level of creativity, synthesis, and
adaptation from its speakers.
Because a top objective for my work is to understand how contemporary BEV
grew out of its African origins, I am eager to find a definitive explanation. However,
Burling doesnt give me one, even when he moves on from the dialectal/creole debate
to examining what he calls the mutual influence or how BEV could have evolved as
both a creole and a dialect. Burling says we cannot with confidence dismiss BEV as
either simply a creole or simply a dialect, and we do not need to insist that it is one or
the other (121). And DeBose offer an amusing quote from Rickford (a creolist) who
succinctly sums up the debate when he says, the outcome of the creolist controversy
typically consisted of standoff and stalemate (DeBose 102). Thus, it can be
concluded that Black English has been influenced by early White English, modem
Standard English, native African languages, and English-based pidgins and creoles.
And lets not forget the possible reciprocal influence of blacks on whites. As
Burling (and others) states, it is very possible that African languages have influenced
the language of all Americansespecially in the area of vocabulary and utterances
such as uh huhvia the same processes through which various elements formed
creoles and creoles have influenced dialects (122). (For example, it has been
suggested that the ubiquitous okay originated among slaves of West African
40


origin.) What Burling called a possibility in the early 1970s seems today to be a
near certainty.
I work for an Atlanta-based company that has many employees who hail from
southern states like Georgia and South Carolina. Among my white colleagues from
the South I often hear grammar used and words pronounced in ways that are
considered more typically black. Phrases like leave out, aint got no, and we
be, are catchy and can be as contagious as the phrase yall, which, by the way, is
used frequently by both blacks and whites. Thus, in my own experience, I see the
mutual influence talked about by Burling nearly forty years ago. Indeed, it is my
argument that black language through the vehicle of rhetoric has and should influence
the communication of all English-speaking students.
No one has clearly pinpointed certain developmental stages on an objective
timeline or offered more than speculation on the relative weights carried by each
influence on Black or White English. For example, no authority says that in the late
1500s slaves spoke pidgin versions of English, then in the 1600s they moved to a
creole version, then in the 1700s they spoke a dialect of Standard English, and,
finally, in the 1800s began speaking a more formal version of the Black English that
we hear today (Black English before it was influenced by urban slang and became the
rap music of, for example, Kayne West). The development timeline is not clean or
straightforward, and the influences on the BEV that exists in 2010 mirror the same
41


soup of conditions that has lead to the Black Rhetoric that fascinates me. I have
moved beyond my initial simplistic idea of language theory that allowed me to
believe that I could neatly trace BEV from its African origins. Still, I struggle to fully
accept Dr. Burlings easy acceptance of uncertainty, and, over these last several years,
I have formed conclusions about what happened.
My view is that todays Black English, and its closeness to Standard English,
developed as a result of the need for increasing multi-ethnic and situational
communication among blacks. I hypothesize that Black English did indeed develop
from an early English-based pidgin that was a result of the need for slaves to
counteract attempts to render them powerless to talk to each other. And despite the
intense social isolation between black slaves and whites, it would have been
impossible to liveeven on the plantationswith zero communication between them.
Blacks and whites had to talk to each other first at a basic level and then in more
complex ways as the communications settings changed over the centuries. The
literature states thatquicklypidgin versions of English became inadequate for
blacks to achieve their communication needs. Blacks did and do mix with whites in
North America to a great degree despite segregation, and this mixing became even
more common after the 1960s.
In fact, I suggest that after the success of the 1960s civil rights movement,
black speech came roaring back, if you will, to make up lost ground and overcome
42


prior social isolation. That is, blacks in the United States were now able and
motivated to communicate with and around whites like never before to achieve
political and economic objectives, and, as I suggest in the discussion of Hawaiian
creole, this distinguishes blacks from other ethnic groups. I offer as support for this
view the distinctive examples of Gullah and West Indian creoles discussed above.
They seem to have escaped (Burlings word) the level of integration with Standard
English that we hear in black dialects of English. I posit that this is because Gullah
and Caribbean speakers of English remained more isolated from whites than
mainland American blacks, and they did not have the same motivations to alter their
languages to better match Standard English. My ears tell me that a greater
assimilation to Standard English did occur in Black English, and it results from the
use of innovative and dynamic language that forms the backbone of Black Rhetoric.
That said, I return to the anthropologist and linguist Robbins Burling, who
says black non-standard English cannot in any realistic sense be called a language
separate from standard (73). Burling argues that we cannot say we simply have two
dialects because there is impressive evidence that even the most diverse forms of
English share near equivalent patterns of sound and grammar (73). Finally, Burling
states that the more we examine non-standard grammar, the more we must become
convinced that it differs from standard only in superficial ways (73). Decades ago,
an experienced and respected scholar came to the conclusion that Black and White
43


English are highly assimilated, and he resolved to accept that there is no clear-cut,
simple explanation for how it happened.
So given my argument that Black English is highly assimilated to Standard
English, does this mean that traditional characteristics of Black English have been
entirely lost? To that, J. A. Harrison says: [t]he talk of the African abounds in
metaphors, figures, similes, imaginative flights, humorous delineations and
designations, saws and sayings; these have so interwoven themselves with his daily
speech as to have become an unconscious and essential part of it (Dillard,
Perspectives 195). The characteristics of Black English and associated rhetoric
themselves offer support for my thesis that Black English and rhetoric is a hybrid
between Western and non-Western speech. (I will discuss rhetoric in the next
chapter.)
William A. Stewart also states that Black English is socially transmitted and
not genetically determined, in spite of its ethnic reference (Dillard, Perspectives
234). While Stewart argues that full assimilation may not have occurred (at least by
1975), he admits that one of the most important changes in Black English during the
1900s was the almost complete decreolization of both its functional and lexical
vocabulary (Dillard, Perspectives 235). Charles DeBose says it well: I assert that
the linguistic performance of African Americans occurs at different points of a
continuum of variation between two different idealized systems that are never
44


consistently spoken by anyone in a pure form (139). Scholars rarely take the position
that Black English has evolved to the point that all characteristics that distinguish it
from Standard English have disappeared; at the same time, none argue that
contemporary Black English retains pidgin-like features.
DeBose summarizes the two (often unstated) premises for the origin of Black
English. He states that the first premise maintains that slave ancestors of todays
blacks arrived in North America speaking many different African languages, which
were given up quickly. The second is that Black English is simply a dialect of
American English, and it is marked by certain distinctive features that set it apart
from other varieties (101). My research leads me to believe that Black English is
adequately described by neither of the above views, but, rather, it lies somewhere in
between and incorporates elements of Standard English while maintaining both its
original African influences and the influences of the English Creole that arose in
North America in the days of slavery. Because causal explanations keep coming back
to sociological factors, I want to mention a term offered by Professor Charles DeBose
that aptly describes the Black experience: the culture of resistance (145). DeBose
discusses the spirit of fighting back that has pervasively existed for blacks, and has
been employed in the service of retaining dignity, worth, and a healthy self esteem
(145). In an attempt to construct a positive self image, DeBose says, blacks have
45


most frequently exploited the use of language in creative and critical ways to
encode wisdom and inspire continued fighting (145).
DeBose points out that this creative use of language includes extending
words meanings. For example, the adjective bad is often used by blacks to show
markedly positive evaluation or approval (146). This usage turns the word good
on its head. Using bad to mean stellar, good, clever and other positive attributes is a
modem example of what M. Morgan (quoted by DeBose) described in 1993 as the
counterlanguage used by blacks to represent an alternative reality through a
communication system based on ambiguity, irony, and satire (146). Much like what
I have argued, Morgan states that this conscious attempt to use language in a
counter-culture fashion began with slaves and was inherited from Africa (146).
Debose points out that the complexity of Black English is tied up with black identity
and the ongoing fight for equality. He discusses the ethnicity factor, where he
interestingly observes that outsider audiences often are fascinated by the creative
products of blacks (146).
This point supports my idea that Black English is closer to Standard English
than other creoles because it reinforces the idea that more often than other non-
whites, blacks have had to play to an audience that is more grounded in Standard
English. Reading DeBose talk about how the enormous creative energy behind black
performance allows blacks to cross-over boundaries from ones own group into
46


the mainstream, it occurs to me that it may not just allow this cross-over, but it may
be created in the first place by the need to cross-over. Even Stewart, who argues
against full assimilation, states: [t]o insure their social mobility in modem American
society, these non-standard speakers must undoubtedly be given a command of
Standard English (Bentley 54).
William S. Hall, a clinical psychologist and professor at Princeton, conducted
an interesting study where he looked for evidence of code-switching among black and
white children and tied the behavior to socioeconomic status. He found that code-
switching between Standard and Black English is highly affected by socioeconomic
status. For example, the higher the socioeconomic status, the greater was the childs
proficiency in correctly repeating Standard English sentences (Harrison and
Trabasso 203). Black middle-class children were much more proficient repeating
prompt sentences in Standard English, and they performed ineptly trying to repeat
sentences given in Black English Vernacular (Harrison and Trabasso 203). White
lower-class children were more proficient using BEV than middle-class black
children, and lower-class black children were the least proficient using Standard
English. What this tells me is that assimilation with Standard English, for blacks, is
correlated to social mobility, and social mobility for blacks is actively sought. Hall
finds that blacks leam Standard English at a much higher rate than they do BEV
from the 8- to 10-year period (Harrison and Trabasso 206). He concludes that they
47


have a higher motivation and willingness to gain competence in Standard English
(Harrison and Trabasso 206). I have not found such conclusions made by scholars for
other ethnic groups.
Maybe Black English is Not Decreolizing
Because it is important to look at counterarguments to our own, I need to
review here the work of Guy Bailey and Natalie Maynor, who conducted a study and
published its results in 1987. The title of their article is Decreolization? The
authors believe that previous studies have been flawed and argue that Black English
is not decreolizing at all, but actually moving further away from white speech and
becoming less like Standard English (they call it white varieties of English). Bailey
and Maynor want to examine the direction of grammatical change among speakers of
Black English. To do so, they review tape-recorded conversations with kids and
adults who speak Black English, and they use these speakers language as the
baseline (449). They focus particularly on the present tense of be in all forms. The
authors find remarkable structural differences between childrens speech and folk
speech (457). Folk speech refers to the language of the older black study
participants.
The researchers explain that decreolization would involve a shift from the
copula being dependent on its predicate to the copula being dependent on its subject,
48


and they hang their entire argument on this assumption. As support, they explain that
Caribbean creoles follow the African pattern of the copula being dependent on the
following predicate. Reviewing the tapes, the researchers find a dramatic increase in
be2 for children (459). To counter the claim that this phenomenon could be due to
age grading, the authors say that it is a response to anomalies in the English
progressive, and that older people make no distinction among be forms in the
progressive (460).
Maynor and Bailey hypothesize that this shift occurred in the 1950s, and
could not happen if decreolization occurs: [t]he development of be2 as a habitual
marker can hardly be decreolization since the direction of change is away from and
not toward other varieties of English and involves the development of a grammatical
distinction not in the target language (463). While the authors admit there is not
enough data to fully support their hypothesis, they go on to explain that this shift in
how speakers of Black English use forms of be is actually syntactic reanalysis that
is caused by social factors, namely the great migration (466). Bailey and Maynor
believe that the great migration caused tremendous separation of blacks from whites
due to its resulting creation of isolated inner-city ghettos. This impoverished
situation leads blacks to want to bond with each other (rather than whites or others)
and establish a unique identity, which causes specific language to be used. Using
language in these specific ways takes precedence over moving toward Standard
49


English, and, thus, decreolization is halted. And they point out that the kids in the
study live in such urban centers while the older subjects do not.
Labovs (and others) theory of linguistic distinctiveness is called upon to
lend support, and the authors state that many linguists subscribe to the idea of
language convergence (468). In addition, intermetropolitan migration is mentioned
as a cause for this directional change (470). On its face, the authors argument seems
compelling, but I find holes in it. First, they do not share statistics around how many
blacks participate in this intermetropolitan migration. In fact, they state that there is
increasing spatial segregation, but do not offer data in support of the comment
(471). And I believe that the authors make too much of blacks supposed desire to use
language in special ways to bond with each other and distinguish themselves from
whites. (I do, of course, think that blacks use language in special ways to generate
more powerful rhetoric and to interact with each other for specific social purposes,
but this is different from purposely moving away from the Standard simply in
principle or to make a point.) Given the huge increase in the presence of blacks in
corporate America and in U.S. suburbs, I have a hard time accepting the argument
that blacks want to (above all else) separate themselves from whites via special
language use. Counter-cultural movements like Black Power that were strong in the
1960s have lost their momentum in subsequent decades.
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It is interesting to consider the controversy over whether decreolization has
in fact occurred. I have studied under the assumption that Black English was a creole
that has decreolized, and I still believe this, but I now consider that perhaps that
process took place more recently. That said, just a year after Maynor and Bailey
published the results of their study, Tagliamonte and Poplack examined Samana
English because it is believed to be a lineal descendent of early 19th century Black
English (514). The title of their article, How Black English Past Got to the Present
caught my eye.
The entire article is a very worthwhile read, but due to the technical and
detailed nature of the linguistic research behind it, I summarize only the authors
approach and main findings here. Poplack and Tagliamonte looked at tense/aspect to
situate BEV with Standard English and other English-based creoles. They see
parallels in tense variation in Samana English and Standard English narratives, and
they find the same parallels when studying verbs (526). To address Bickertons
proposed trajectory for decreolization, they examined past-tense acquisition in
Samana, and found no trace of a prior creole (531). The authors find that evidence
from quantitative phonological, grammatical, and narrative analyses reveals the
existence of a past tense marker comparative in surface form and function to Standard
English (514). They also claim that they have identified a narrative Historical
Present which appears in proportions and patterns of alternation with the past tense
51


nearly identical to those associated with middle-class white American narrators
(514) . Postulating that BEV may have decreolized as recently as the 1990s due to the
increased movement of blacks into previously white-dominated venues like corporate
America, I was intrigued to see Poplacks and Tagliamontes findings and discussion.
These findings suggest that Black English has been close to Standard (white) English
for a long time, and, in fact, had already decreolized when freed blacks went to the
Dominican Republic in 1824.
One supporting point for the authors hypothesis is that Samana English is
very close to contemporary Black English, but it is not affected by Spanish- or
English-speaking outsiders in the Dominican Republic (514). (It is unaffected by
externally motivated linguistic change (530)). Thus, the researchers suggest that
whatever assimilation to Standard English has occurred, happened before blacks went
to the island (530). The authors cite Wolfram, who they say has offered a cogent
critique of the divergence argument. Wolfram says that we lack a baseline for the
dialect at previous points in time as well as independent linguistic evidence
showing that black vernaculars are becoming more different from their white
counterparts (515). Since there is no previous attestation of a BEV present-tense
narrative form, Wolfram says, the use of this general discourse type could as easily be
seen as evidence of convergence of Black and White English rather than divergence
(515) . Finally, the authors state that Samana English exhibits striking linguistic
52


similarities to BEV but not other English-based creoles (530). This leads me to
conclude that either BEV has in fact decreolized (and maybe even as soon as the early
1800s) and, in doing so, moved closer to Standard English, or BEV has been always
been more assimilated to White English than other English-based creoles.
Conclusion
To recap, I originally held two hypotheses. First, Black English seems to have
assimilated with Standard English more fully than other English-based pidgins and
creoles such as Hawaiian Creole English. Second, this fuller assimilation has
created an environment conducive to the development of rhetorical mastery belonging
to a speaker I call the Black Rhetor. The Black Rhetor is one influenced by a
particular set of historical and cultural circumstances and can adapt his or her tactics
to effectively persuade mixed audiences of broadly based origins. I was motivated to
study the evolution of Black English because I thought that an understanding of how
it went from slave pidgin to BEV would lead to a fuller grasp of how its resulting
rhetoric came to be. What I found was no clear cut timeline, mechanisms, or even
agreement on what forms Black English originally held in the U. S. Colonies.
Therefore, I have drawn my own conclusions about the reasons BEV folded
into Standard English, which include:
53


While still in Africa, the high degree of exposure to European languages as
well as practice communicating with speakers of other languages, including
European and tribal;
A history of clever and highly focused language use beginning in early slave
days. For example, the need to communicate without white slave bosses being
able to intercept the message;
The need to use language rooted in an understanding of White English to
support political struggles against segregation and economic and educational
isolation, and to provide emotional and spiritual sustenance to a specific group
of people who feel that they continue these struggles today;
The need to use language to function and excel in settings that are dominated
by whites to a greater degree than members of other ethnic groups;
2
An oral tradition that results in language that is adaptable and flexible;
Rhetorical and dramatic performances that draw from multiple ethnic and
cultural settings, including African traditions and the dominant (white) version
of Standard English.
2 Danille Taylor, a student of Afro-American culture and Black literature, says: [b]lack English is
subject to a considerable amount of change because it is part of an oral language which itself is
vulnerable to the changing needs of its speakers (Harrison and Trabasso 219).
54


CHAPTER THREE
BLACK RHETORIC
What is rhetoric? Often this term is used pejoratively. It is commonly believed
that rhetoric is simply jargon-laden or inflammatory speech that one can hear on
political talk-radio shows while driving to or from work. Or one can watch it on TV
shows such as MSNBCs Hardball with Chris Matthews or the Sean Hannity Show.
The author and political commentator Anne Coulter often describes the speech of
those who hold different political views from hers as liberal. With only a brief
reading of Ms. Coulters columns one can conclude that by liberal, she does not
mean favorable to progress or reform. For example, a blog entry on annecoulter.org
dated July 24, 2009 is titled Why are liberals always telling lies to support socialist
health care?
Ms. Coulter and Mr. Hannity often decry liberal rhetoric. And both
commentators make it clear that they not only disagree with the ideas put forth by the
democrats, but they really dont care for these people at all, who are frequently
referred to with disparaging names. (My former boss, Mr. Richard Moore, a member
of the initial group of African Americans to enter corporate America in the 1960s,
often discusses the frequent demonization of the other that occurs in todays
political rhetoric. This demonization contributes to the popular misconception of what
55


rhetoric really is.) Conversely, Comedy Centrals host of the Daily Show, Jon
Stewart, will often satirize what he calls republican rhetoric. Jon Stewart once
referred to CNNs chief business correspondent, Ali Velshi, as the hairless prophet
of doom. So rhetoric is really just tricks used by the other good or bad guys,
depending on which side you are on. In this common worldview of rhetoric, one
persons lies are anothers rationale discourse, and judgments about what constitutes
lies versus truth are often determined by whether one lives in a red or blue state.
If you were to ask a sample of your friends and family the question what is
rhetoric, I would be willing to bet that you would get answers that support what I am
saying. (My mother is a staunch Democrat raised in a blue-collar union environment.
She describes rhetoric as how that stupid Rush Limbaugh runs his mouth.) While
taking rhetorical theory at this university, our professor asked the class this very
question: what is rhetoric? We students thus began the semester by offering our
definitions of rhetoric. Often, many of our suggestions mirrored the kind I talk
about above. This is a sad state of affairs for rhetoric for those of us who subscribe to
a more classical worldview. As our professor put it, [a]s a student and teacher of
rhetoric, you shouldnt be surprised to learn that I take a broader, more positive
view. I will not spend a great deal of time here defining rhetoric or arguing which
definition is the most legitimate. But it would be a misstep to offer no broad
definition of rhetoric prior to embarking on a thesis of one particular type.
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Stanford Universitys web site offers a few definitions of rhetoric that run
the gamut from Plato to George Kennedy, the journalist and professor emeritus of
writing at Missouri School of Journalism. Plato defines rhetoric as the art of winning
the soul by discourse. Francis Bacon calls rhetoric, the application of reason to
imagination for the better moving of the will. George Campbell says that rhetoric is
that art or talent by which discourse is adapted to its end; the four ends of discourse
are to enlighten the understanding, please the imagination, move the passion, and
influence the will. Even Sappho weighs in with, persuasion is Aphrodites
daughter: it is she who bequiles our mortal hearts. Rhetoric makes meaning, makes
meaning known to others, is the study of human communication, and it is generally
agreed rhetoric is speech used to persuade. Kenneth Burke argues that rhetoric is
embedded as an essential function of language itself and is continually changing so
that it works as a symbolic means of gaining cooperation among people who by
their very nature respond to symbols. And Burke makes a bold argument about
rhetoric: wherever there is persuasion, there is rhetoric, and wherever there is
rhetoric, there is meaning. A student of rhetoric would find this statement worthy of
careful consideration.
1 have determined that it is this understanding of how to use symbols to gain
cooperation that is a hallmark of Black Rhetoric. But where does Black Rhetoric lie
within a broader spectrum of rhetoric, and which type of rhetoric is primary? Before
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addressing this question, it would be helpful to remind ourselves of the three
classically defined types of (Western or the modem culture of Europe and North
America) rhetoric. These are judicial/forensic, political/deliberative, and epideictic or
ceremonial, and they relate as much to who hears the rhetoric as to its purpose.
Briefly, each types purpose is as follows: (1) forensic rhetoric seeks to sway the
answer of a judge or jury; (2) political rhetoric seeks to motivate the audience to take
future action such as approving or vetoing a piece of legislation; (3) ceremonial
rhetorics aim is to praise (or condemn) another person and can be used at funerals or
award ceremonies, for example.
In addition to the major categories of rhetoric, the classicists have given us an
outline of how a speaker or writer arranges his or her argument that cuts across the
three genres. Known as the five faculties, these are invention, arrangement, style,
memory, and delivery. Invention, of course, refers to the manner in which the speaker
appeals to his or her audience to include ethos, pathos, and logos. These classical
ideas are so well known that they have permeated even the common lexicon,
particularly the concept of ethos. We will examine which of the three main types of
rhetoric is favored in the African American rhetorical tradition, and the way the
African American rhetor arranges his or her speech is the primary research interest of
this author. However, to better understand Black Rhetoric, it is necessary to place it
58


on a continuum of actual oratorical styles, rather than just situating it within the three
main classical types of appeals (ethos, pathos, and logos).
If I argue that there is such a thing as Black Rhetoric, it is helpful to compare
and contrast my conception with other oratorical styles. By way of analogy, lets
consider a group of animals known as house pets. If I say that a gerbil is a house pet
that is somehow special within the broader category, I must also explain how a gerbil
relates to a cat, dog, bird, or even lizard so that we can understand the distinctive
features of a gerbil. One can conceive of various ways to do this, including examining
one particular black orator in depth, but I think a better way is to look at Black
Rhetoric as one style of many. Only one effort at comparative understanding (or
contrastive rhetoric) seems better supported than others in the literature. I have not
encountered a comprehensive typology of rhetoric by ethnicity. But I have found
various descriptions of rhetorical styles based on correlations to the rhetors culture
(or even ethnicity in the case of authors who are willing to claim ethnic background
as a criterion in the study of rhetoric).
And since it is commonly understood that the way one speaks is heavily
influenced by his or her environment, culture provides an excellent framework for my
study. Recall that Robbins Burling states emphatically that it is the community in
which one grows up that determines how he or she will speak. Ronald Jackson, II
argues for employing the lens of culture to better understand Black Rhetoric when he
59


says, the scholar must adopt the task of engineering a culturally-sensitive approach,
which Jackson says is challenging, for it requires a reconceptualization of all
previously learned approaches (Niles 149). Finally, Loma L. Shaw also uses this
cultural approach to scholarship, and she shares my view of the origins of Black
Rhetoric. She states in Niles Reader that culture is not only central but functional to
communication activities and that culture and history function to produce orature,
which is a product of human communication in process (120). Shaw says further that
we can best acquire knowledge and information about people through the study of
their cultures communication activities because people are best understood in terms
of their cultural perspective on life (118).
Most students of communication and language have seen references to
studies of the speech of black teenagers in low-income urban environments. (Indeed,
my work was inspired because scholarship of the 1970s through 1990s was limited
in its scope to the verbal tactics of teenage urbanites; this is starting to change.)
Because our home environments are influenced by ethnic backgrounds, and because
Black Rhetoric does not try to circumvent its ethnicity (and may even try to capitalize
on it to a greater degree than other types of rhetoric), it makes sense to me to briefly
discuss rhetorical styles that have been studied through the lens of the speakers
ethnic affiliation.
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Hawaiian Oratory
Because I have contrasted Hawaiian Creole English with Black English, I was
pleased to discover a slim volume published in 2007 by the University of Hawaii
titled KaKa' olelo: traditions of oratory and speech making. Funded by the U.S.
Department of Education, this special project is dedicated to examining and
promoting traditional Hawaiian culture. The foreward to this volume states that very
little has been written about traditional oratory and speech making (v). The author,
Malcolm Naea Chun, a cultural specialist at the University of Hawaii, has done a
comparative study of traditional and contemporary oratorical practices in the Pacific
Islands. Chun believes these practices are important for the survival of Hawaiian
language and culture, and have been suppressed by social change and influence of
Western civilization.
In traditional Hawaiian culture, speech making was an important vehicle for
citizens to ask who are we compared to others? Much like African culture. Island
culture initially had no written language and claims to be from an oral tradition (33).
What one said and how one said it were therefore approached with great care. Chun
states that what one said and what one passed on were survival itself (2).
Priests had to conduct services strictly from memory, composers of chants and songs
were considered learned and skilled in both oratory and state-craft, and those
skilled in speaking had special titles and names, including noeau, no'iau, talking
61


chief, and even scholar (much like African griots). Oratory enjoyed high status and
was used across a spectrum of creative endeavors, including music making.
Oratorical events are even a vehicle for the ancient practice of hooponopono
in which reconciliation and forgiveness are created through a public ceremony of
repentance (and possibly confession by the wrong doer) and making it right with
the gods, ancestors and others. The traditional title for an orator, kaka olelo is
derived from the words kaka meaning to strike, smite, dash, beat, chop and olelo
meaning to speak (3). Thus, kaka olelo means to fence with words (3). This
meaning refers to the power of words to persuade. Additionally, orators had the
function of entertaining by telling stories based on history, which seems to be a
recurring aim of oratory across cultures (3).
In Polynesia and Samoa, orators wield much power and hold key leadership
positions because of their speaking skills. Chun tells us that oratory is a key
technique for persuasion and policy-making, as well as a main avenue for the
achievement and exercise of power (4). Talking chiefs are indispensable to the
social organization of tribal life, acting as counselor, judge and ruler, and wield so
much power that they even make decisions on how much food families must give
over to the village (6). Because of their knowledge of genealogy and relationships,
orators are able to broker peace agreements between warring tribes (11).
(Remarkably, the orator can actually stop a battle that is in progress to hold
62


discussions.) Orators follow rigid prescriptions for proper speech making and pride
themselves on their cunning and cleverness (4). Continually on the move seeking
arenas for political and oratorical encounters, the orator is chosen for his ability in
oratory and warfare (5).
I find it interesting that this oratory is likened to warfare, and it strikes me that
Hawaiian oratory is perhaps more aggressive in nature than Black Rhetoric. It also
occurs to me that this type of rhetoric is used strictly in the public sphere for the
acquisition and wielding of power over others. To be sure, Black Rhetors also use
speech making to persuade and convince others to take a certain course of action. But
the tone feels different (more carrot than stick, perhaps?), and my research indicates
that blacks use their rhetorical skill in their daily personal interactions, while it seems
that rhetoric in Island culture is relegated (at least formally) to political and
ceremonial arenas. Additionally, the elements of competition and debate to be found
in Hawaiian oratory are contained within the speech event, and do not cross over to
the personal interactions between friends or rivals on the street, so to speak.
Similar to traditional African oratory, Island oratory has specific structure and
parts. However, Island oratory more closely follows a prescribed order or sequence
for when certain elements appear. For example, references to ancestors, expressions
of gratitude and mention of important historical events occur in a specific order.
Speeches begin by the speaker making a loud shout or warning (again, warning has
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an aggressive flavor) that is followed by a chant or introductory phrase which
establishes the speaker as a holder of esoteric knowledge (13). Speeches focus on a
predictable set of topics and include the use of proverbs and highly stylized and
poetic phrases (14). (Chun points out that we often hear proverbs as one-off phrases
taken out of context and with no understanding of their originsorigins that often lie
in speech making.) Also similar to black verbal practices, Hawaiian oratory can
incorporate riddles, taunts, and puns, and it relies heavily on shared cultural
knowledge so the listener can fully understand and appreciate both what is being said
and the beauty and creativeness of how it is being said (28).
Place is also key, and in ceremonial settings location can reinforce the sacred
nature of the occasion as well as encourage a feeling of pride among participants.
Conversely, in a fono (meeting) some of the art of oratory is dispensed with
because the delivery of the speech is considered a job that needs to be done and
because participants are too worried about what is coming next (14). I find this
fascinating because I have not encountered in all my readings any mention that
participants in a Black Rhetorical event feel worry or any negative emotion. The
Black Rhetors aim is typically to generate positive feelings among the audience,
inspire goodwill and ambition, and to dazzle with his verbal skills; the Black Rhetor
does not approach his task or audience as though he simply has a job to do.
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Non-verbal communication and body language are also important in Hawaiian
oratory, and can include the use of props like instruments, clubs, and canes, crafted
inflections and voice tones, and specific facial expressions (29). Chun offers ways to
resurrect traditional oratorical practices of the islands that carry over to rhetorical
training in general. He says that good oration can be a learned skill through
observation and listening. Orators need to be able to analyze insights well and need a
working knowledge of genealogies, history, and proverbs (34). Language schools,
language instruction and competition are all venues to sharpen speech making skills.
Church is also a good place to practice speaking from memory and incorporating
historical texts and references. Finally, the aspiring orator needs appropriate (and
specific) settings to practice delivering his or her rhetoric that run the gamut from
informal to formal and include all types of events ceremonial, political, and group
meetings. Chun concludes that the practice of oratory can elevate the usage of
Hawaiian language to honor and dignity, and I submit that this is true for oratory in
all languages. Even able to instill the sacredness of the word, Chun believes that in
oratory we may find our chief artistic expression (34).
Chinese Rhetoric
LuMing Mao takes care to make sure the reader of his essay that appears in
Keith Gilyards Rhetoric and Ethnicity understands that there is a lot of lian at stake
65


when we give presentations at professional conferences (49). Lian and mianzi are
two key elements in the Chinese concept of face. Lian refers to the respect one has
from her peers based on her good moral character. Mianzi is a little different. It refers
to prestige or reputation that is achieved through accomplishments and actions.
There is a constant tension present between lian and mianzi. For example, boasting
can actually decrease ones lian (49). And, fascinatingly, eloquence and
argumentation in public speaking are deprecated in Chinese culture (51). These
aspects of Chinese culture have tremendous effects on its rhetoric, and make it very
different from Black Rhetoric and Western Rhetoric.
Chinese rhetoric makes appeals to tradition and authority rather than logic
(52). It also accumulates parallels of complementary images instead of developing
an argument from a synthetic or analytic perspective (52). In great contrast to Black
Rhetoric, the individuals expressive needs within the Chinese value system are
subordinated in order to promote the welfare of the community (52). Professor Mao
is interested in the increasing contact between North American (Western) and
Chinese cultures and how it will force changes in the rhetoric and communication
styles of both peoples, particularly because of the stark differences that exist in each
cultures direct versus indirect style. He suggests that when Chinese face meets
North American face it can create a third face (52). This new face or discursive
style is mindful of the key elements of both cultures rhetorics: lian and mianzi
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(Chinese face) as well as positive and negative image (Anglo-American face). Mao
offers much food for thought, and addresses heady concepts like changing identities
and the rhetorical borderlands that are spreading across the globe (54).
South American Rhetoric
Another contributor to Rhetoric and Ethnicity. Professor Barry Thatcher at
New Mexico State University, is interested in Latin American and U. S. intercultural
communication as well as Latin American rhetoric. Thatcher analyzed the two
cultures rhetoric by rewriting in U.S. style a letter written by Ecuadorians to their
transit commission. The letter asks for help resolving unfair taxes and problems with
vehicle registration. Thatcher then presented the two versions (original Ecuadorian
and his rewrite in a style more appropriate for U. S. citizens) to four hundred U.S.
and South Americans to find out which version subjects preferred.
Comparing and contrasting the two versions of the letter is an amusing
exercise, but more interesting is Thatcher's keen awareness of the broad cultural
values of each group and how they manifest themselves in distinct rhetorical
patterns (56). He explains that Latin American culture is highly collective, but at the
same time hierarchical. Because inequality is a social norm, particularism thrives.
That is, laws, policies, and procedures apply differently to different people depending
on their social standing. Latin America is also a high-power-distance culture and
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therefore much less individual voice is found in its rhetoric (61). Finally, Latin
Americans have a preference for orality and are ambivalent about putting views down
in writing (63). These characteristics diverge sharply from the U.S. American culture
of individualism, universalism, low-power distance, low-context communications,
and history of common law (that citizens expect will be applied to everyone in the
same manner).
Other differences between South American and U. S. American rhetoric
include the degree of context the rhetor creates or relies on to make his or her point,
how time is measured (polychronic versus monochronic), how problem solving is
approached (U.S. Americans see life as a problem to be solved), and how
agency/cause-and-effect is dealt with (English syntax tends to highlight the person
or thing responsible while Spanish tends to mask agency) (66). Similar to my
argument about Black Rhetoric, Thatcher attributes these differences in rhetoric
between South America and U. S. America to cultural, linguistic, and historical
heritages (67). Like Mao, Thatcher is interested in border rhetoric and how
increased economic interactions between the U.S. and South America is changing
rhetorical traditions and practices. Thatcher concludes by stating that it is important
for U. S. scholars to see these developing differences as denaturalization of the
individualistic, universal, common law, low-context, and agented rhetoric that is
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commonly assumed to be the benchmark for clear writing (67). More simply put,
Western rhetoric is not the only effective kind of speaking and writing.
Mexican American Rhetoric
Jaime Armin Mejia, a professor at Texas State University, talks about the need
of Mexican Americans to rely on means of persuasion that have changed
dramatically (Gilyard 70). Mexican American rhetoric is characterized, says Mejia,
by heroic struggle and resistance against the dominant group (71). It has to
continually evolve to manage interactions in what is an expanding contact zone, and
this need to change and shift started with colonial imposition (70). In folkloric
fashion, Professor Mejia draws upon an old story of a Mexican hero, Gregorio Cortez,
as well as more recent movies to make his case that current rhetoric is crossing over
from the self-contained world of Chicano and Chicana families to enter the
mainstream of popular culture (75). He expresses concern that these rhetorical
maneuvers come with the price of disguising cultural identity, and he predicts that
it will be tech-savvy Mexican American children who repair rhetorical oversights
of the past and mend the gap between preserving historical identity and negotiating
the expanding borders of rhetorical interaction (75).
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African American Rhetoric
Keith Gilyard offers the following reflection on Black speech, which to me is
quite profound because of its subtle suggestion that the type of rhetoric I describe
comes naturally to African Americans. (Keith Gilyard is considered a top African
American language and rhetoric scholar.)
I carried with me a tremendously empowering repertoire of speaking and
listening skills.. .included in my bag of communicative tricks were that
prized stragtegem, Black English, a productive (speaking) biloquialsim,
and a broader receptive (listening) bidialectalism. There was also an
adroitness at responding to the perceived need to match each dialect to
different sets of social circumstances. All this achievement may appear
quite marvelous and, I guess, actually is. But it represents nothing
miraculous beyond the basic miracle of existing, nothing special among
black children, nothing that should not be the case if a developing mind is
pretty much left alone. Put more succinctly, it really aint no new news
(Gilyard and Nunley 97).
In the same volume of essays, Gwendolyn Pough (a scholar whose work I draw
heavily from) talks about hip-hops task to represent clearly what is wrong with
society so that something can be done to change it (Gilyard 111). Rappers, and
others users of Black Rhetoric, view representation or representin as their role to
speak for the people and voice their concerns (Gilyard 111). During my graduate-
school experience, I have invested a lot of time and thought considering the
characteristics of Black Rhetoric, and my findings support Poughs broad conception
of Black Rhetorics aims. Putting together the following conception of Black Rhetoric
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(a style I think of as collective and spirit-filled) has been a highlight of my
academic career.
In the February 2008 issue of Town&Country magazine, Barbara Lazear
Ascher recounts a conversation she once had with the writer Eudora Welty. Welty
told Ascher about a custom Welty experienced while growing up in poor Mississippi.
Ms. Welty said that visitors to another persons home came with a story to tell. These
stories functioned as hostess gifts because the visitor likely had nothing else to
give. Welty commented that the best stories were not about the teller, but about the
other guy and what were all doing here together (xx).
This attention to the other guy and the sense of what were all doing here
together inform a specific type of discourse that arises from African historical and
cultural influences and has been discussed in the literature as rhetoric infused with
black presence. Black presence in rhetoric is a description coined by Thurmon
Gamer, a professor of speech communication who teaches rhetoric and African
American communication, and Carolyn Calloway-Thomas, a professor of Afro-
American studies, communication, and culture. It nicely suggests the type of rhetoric
and rhetor that I am investigating.
How do we define such a rhetor? What are the cultural and historical
influences that contribute to the development of the Black Rhetorif he or she does
indeed exist? I believe she does, and that her ethos is simultaneously rooted in
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historical origins and ever-evolving. This evolution is influenced by and influences
political, spiritual, and economic challenges as well as the discursive community
itself. It is truly dynamic. Key elements of African and African American culture and
how they contribute to this type of rhetoric will be discussed below within several
broad categories: orality, spirituality, and political situations.
Lets recall Richard Leemans statements that blacks have had little political
or economic power and, thus, oratory has been one of the few rhetorical resources
available to the African American community (xiv), that there are common themes
found in his collection of (diverse) black speeches, and that these themes are
grounded in the experience of being black in America (xvii). I suggest that a Black
Rhetor would be identifiable in such a specific cultural experience, whose inhabitants
enjoy a unique perspective on the world, how it works, and how it can be influenced.
Indeed, it is difficult to separate any conceptualization of Black Rhetoric from its
roots in Africa. Alkebulan quotes Linda James Myers:
In the analysis of the sacred and secular dynamics of the African
American communication system, Daniel and Smitherman...identify
the traditional African worldview as significant for understanding
patterns of Black communication in the United States, and the call-
response pattern as exemplary of a deep structure cultural difference.
(Jackson and Richardson 24).
The idea that there is a worldview bom in Africa and a resulting rhetorical culture is
strongly supported by scholars. These same scholars argue for the continuity of this
rhetorics essence across geography and time.
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There is no single definition of a Black Rhetor that scholars agree on.
However, there are certain characteristics that have been mentioned in the work of
Alkebulan, Asante, Knowles-Borishade, and Arthur Smith. Drawing from the work of
these authors, I have begun to create a composite image of the speaker I have in mind.
In his or her speech we can identify the following elements:
A focus on what is morally good with a concern for balance and
harmony that includes the audience; the rhetorical event is a
communal, collective event rather than a self-focused event; a
European/classical distinction between speaker and audience does
not exist (Knowles-Borishade);
Similarly, the Black Rhetor does not look only within when
speaking, but orates from a wider backdrop than most orators,
which can encompass all of society;
Rhetoric is not contained within a particular speech event, but is
broadly encompassingan act to be performed on the stage of
life (Jackson and Richardson 51);
The rhetoric produced has a stronger tie to ancestral origins than
other forms of rhetoric;
This rhetoric assumes a shared knowledge base between speaker
and audience (e.g., this shared knowledge allows signifying); the
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needs of the audience draw forth the rhetoric (this idea is
suggested by several authors);
The use of specific verbal techniques such as call-response to
engage the audience (the Black Rhetor is more of a caller than a
speaker); the use of a ritualistic format when speaking (Knowles-
Borishade);
The speakers focus on the sound of words or expressive use of his
or her voice to influence rather than prepared presentation of
arguments;
The speaker and audience value improvisation and spontaneity
(Garner and Calloway-Thomas);
The belief that the speaker is a creator and that speech is naturally
divine (Alkebulan);
The black orator believes that she is accessing cosmic forces
through vibrations, and she believes that spiritual entities are
participating in the speech (Alkebulan);
Finally, I posit that this rhetoric employs a voice that speaks from
Nedra Reynold's concept of the margins. That is, a previously
marginalized voice that claims its authority from that outsider
position rather than the center.
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How can we best examine the cultural experiences that contribute to the
development of the rhetor described above? These traits seem to fall comfortably into
the following buckets: the strong oral tradition of African American culture,
seamlessness between spirituality and rhetoric, a highly expressive use of language,
and the political and economic situation of African Americans. (I appreciate Molefi
Kete Asantes idea that because of the growing complexity of identity in the
Americas it is not easy to determine exactly who can rightly be called an African
American (Jackson and Richardson 290).) But first, is it acceptable to even ask the
question whether there is something black about rhetoric that can be identified?
Can we posit such a label and what can it mean if we do?
Black Presence in Rhetoric
Thurmon Gamer and Carolyn Calloway-Thomas make an argument for the
existence of a black presence in rhetoric that is both lovely and convincing. They ask
if one can state that there is anything black about a specific type of rhetoric other than
it is spoken by an African American. They answer the question affirmatively. (And
they point out that African American communication scholars have accepted such a
notion but have too often publicly avoided articulating a point of view (Jackson and
Richardson 44).) The authors state that a Black Rhetoric can be defined by a
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culturally-bound way of practicing and framing language, discourse, and patterns of
behavior (Jackson and Richardson 44).
Additionally, a black presence is signaled when the cultural intensity or
emotional energy of African Americans is demonstrated (Jackson and Richardson
45). The authors explain that the culture they refer to can be recognized by an
obvious tie between the vernacular or oral tradition and the medium being
observed, whether that is literature, music, dance, religion, or athletics (Jackson and
Richardson 46). Improvisation in jazz, storytelling, and folklore that is cognizant of
its multiple and complex linguistic, social, historical, intellectual, and political
functions is one of the places where we can find the intensity alluded to by these
writers (Jackson and Richardson 46). Can we naturally insert this concept of Black
Rhetoric into any spoken or written discourse just because it is performed by an
African American?
The authors believe that we cannot, and they provide compelling examples of
African Americans who have been stripped of a black presence in their rhetorical
events: Danny Glover in Switchback, Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank
Redemption, and the political commentator Ward Connally from California.
(Connally argues for a color-blind merit system for entering CA schools. Many
African Americans feel Connallys call is unrealistic and does a disservice to blacks
by ignoring that color still matters in the real world.) To this list I would add the
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characters of the 1980s TV sitcom The Cosby Show (despite my admiration for Bill
Cosby for his pioneering work in the TV medium -exposing the U.S. TV audience for
perhaps the first time to black history and symbols, as well as demonstrating that
African American families are not all the same). What is most significant about these
statements is that they suggest that a Black Rhetoric can be situational and is not
perfectly tied to race. In fact, these authors point out that scholarship defines African
American oral discourse as situational rather than abstract (Jackson and Richardson
48).
Gamer and Calloway-Thomas help further define Black Rhetoric by
contrasting its primary characteristics with those of traditional Greek rhetoric which
positions logic and rationality at its core (Jackson and Richardson 48). In contrast,
Black Rhetoric positions ethics, critical thinking, and personal logic at its core.
Interestingly, African American rhetoric does not make a public-private distinction,
but merges both to help people make sense of the world (Jackson and Richardson
48). Arthur L. Smith states that scholarship shows it can be established that
rhetorical differences within cultures rest upon the different emphases of similar
phenomenon rather than on purely biological differences among peoples (Smith
364).
Black Rhetorical style can be characterized by several of these different
emphases. One is a keen interest in not only the attention of the audience, but the
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participation of the audience. Alkebulan states that in African American rhetoric, the
listener or audience is as much a part of the orature as is the orator (Jackson and
Richardson 36). This involvement of the community in the speech event is often
called call and response. Call-response patterns of speaking emphasize a focus on
participatory communication. The rhetor is not a single voice in sending out the
word; the rhetorical event is a communal one, says Alkebulan (Jackson and
Richardson 37). Thus, the Black Rhetor is one who seeks constant exchange for his or
her communication to be meaningful (Jackson and Richardson 38).
Constant feedback from listeners and speakers allows the participants to
assess their mutual performance, builds rapport between them, and determines
whether indeed communication has even taken place. Requesting listener feedback
is an integral part of black music, public speeches, and church sermons. (This
communication style is different from what is more typical of white Europeans or
Americans who consider it rude to talk when someone else is talking and tend to
listen quietly, emphasizing affirming gestures like leaning in and maintaining eye
contact.)
The communal nature of the rhetorical event is designed to produce harmony
and balance between listeners and speaker. If achieved, this harmony and balance will
result in a strong and dynamic tie between the creative process of the artist (caller or
speaker) and the audience; this is contrasted with an emphasis on the observer as the
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judger of discourse that can exist in rhetoric with Greek or Roman origins (Smith
366). The primary purpose of this connection is to establish an environment where
creation can happen in the moment, drawing strongly on the ancient power of Maat
(discussed below). The Black Rhetor sees discourse as the creative manifestation of
what is called to be (Smith 367). The mores and values of a society drive this created
productdance, song, painting, speech that is called to be. Thus, the Black Rhetor
calls out, literally and figuratively. This caller convinces not through attention to
logical substance but by the power to fascinate (Smith 371).
Dr. Benjamin E. Mays displayed this power to fascinate when he talked about
people who take the low, high, and middle road in life, and what their choices mean
for their lives and souls, during a commencement address at the University of
Minnesota. Dr. Mays stated, no man is ahead of his time; every man is within his
star. He boldly demands to know, was Jesus ahead of his time...how long would
Jesus have had to wait for the Roman officials and the religious leaders of his day to
accept his message so he might have lived to be three scores and ten rather than die at
thirty-three? (Colston 143). Similarly, Edith S. Sampsons Choose One of Five
ceremonial address challenges the listener to think about and choose from among five
different life paths that offer different outcomes: existences of closed mindedness,
comfort, and conformity, group identification, or continuing education, individual
uniqueness, and being vibrantly alive (Walker 306). Judge Sampson is not relying
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on logical persuasion to exhort when she says, [y]ou, too, can be a pillar-of-society
conformist. No strain, no pain. Well, almost no pain. The anguish of those moments
in your middle age when you lie sleepless at 2am or 3 and wonder whatever happened
to all your bright ambitions of college daysthat anguish and those moments dont
count too much (Walker 302). The speakers admonishments were called out by the
needs of the audiences and the moments at handaddressing groups of graduating
college studentsand were infused with creative messages that tied the audiences to
the speakers in an intimate way. (Later, Judge Sampson tells the graduates to come let
her know if they chose the righteous path because she would like to get to know
them better than she could by having made a speech here (Walker 307).
The creative messages of Black Rhetoric are powered by Nommo; classical
rhetoric is powered by logic and syllogism. There is a very holistic feel to Black
Rhetoric: rhetoric and life co-exist comfortablyone inspires the other. This
phenomenon appears to derive from the African culture of orality and its special uses
of language, the development of which we explored in chapter one of this paper.
The Oral Tradition and Special Uses of Language
African culture is an oral culture, and as such, rhetoric is paramount, according to
Alkebulan (Jackson and Richardson 31). Drawing on Knowles-Borishade, Alkebulan
says this oral tradition can be traced back to ancient Egypt, conforms to African
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cultural expectations, and does not conform to a Western style of speechmaking
(Jackson and Richardson 31). In fact, the characters who first used this rhetoric were
deeply invested in the oral culture because it was the only way that they could
maintain their peoples history.
Arthur Smith pushes this claim further, stating, [wjestem appreciation of the
written word is not historically shared by Africans...for communication and historical
preservation...African society used the drum (Smith 364). Smith argues that a keen
expressive sense permeates African American culture and affects its music, dance,
drama, and voice (Smith 364). Smith states that expression is not captive of the
written word (Smith 365). This expressive style works in contrast to the Classical
style of rhetoric, which relies on logic and syllogism to persuade. (And the preference
for the spoken versus written word is similar to South American rhetoric as we saw
above.)
Lacking written records, historical events were documented in the speeches of
the poets or griots. Alkebulan ties the griot or poet to todays preacher, lecturer, or
activist in the United States (Jackson and Richardson 32). What is particularly telling
about the griot is that he spoke to the community and for them, expressing what
must be (Jackson and Richardson 32). The purpose of rhetoric for the poet or griot
was not to entertain but to enlighten...or initiate or facilitate spiritual action
(Jackson and Richardson 32).
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Thus, for blacks, words have always been instruments of power. We saw in
chapter one that Dandy suggests that lack of written language imbues words with so
much power for Africans (and African Americans) that they were believed to have
magical properties. This power of the word felt so deeply by Africans and the spirit
of the griot enrich Black Rhetoric today. The griots were speaking documents and
earned their reputations as verbal performers, in much the same way that
contemporary blacks establish their reputation through specific rhetorical tactics. The
comedian, Chris Rock, could be considered a modern-day griot. Mr. Rock recently
gave an interview to Steve Marsh, a writer for Delta Airlines Skv magazine. Marsh
comments on Rocks careful use of language: [f]or a guy with such an incendiary
rep, when discussing the English language, Chris Rock comes off a little fussy (62).
The writer talks about how carefully Rock chooses his words for both his standup
shows (one word is going to be the difference) and while giving the interview.
Marsh states that Rock talks in a distinctive cadence and alters the pitch of
his voice to gain altitude every so many beats, seeking the refrain to drive his point
home (62). Rock may sound extemporaneous onstage, Marsh says, but this, too, is
calculated. The comedian explains: I dont think I have ever written out a joke. I
have the topic and I riff (62). In this way, Rock rephrases and rephrases until
eventually stumbling on the perfect lyrical pattern (62). (The emphasis on lyrical
is mine.) Rock concludes that his onstage dialogue always comes out with the
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passion of argument (62). It is interesting to note that the comedian himself
describes his onstage rhetoric as argument.
Haskins states that blacks have developed forms of expression which are
unique, spontaneous, and extremely communicative (Haskins 13). Such high value
is placed on the ability to verbalize in the contemporary African American
community that each time a speaker opens his mouth he is establishing or preserving
his reputation and honing the skills he needs to survive (Dandy 74). This behavior can
be recognized in the characters of Ice Cubes recent films. Watch the sparkling word
play in the film Barbershop or the character Smokey talk his way out of trouble in
Friday, and you will get an understanding of this verbal style that no explanation of
mine could ever provide.
Alkebulan suggests that African-inspired rhetoric and public speaking are not
separated from the kind of verbal performance described above, and that this makes it
different from the Western traditions orature. The Africans artistic verbal
expression is seen in todays uses of language including sermonizing, testifying
signifying and other verbal tactics. Gamer and Calloway-Thomas support this claim
by stating that African Americans tend to engage in daily verbal struggles,
influenced by orality, in a more noticeable manner than White Americans (Jackson
and Richardson 51). This statement resonates with me because of my personal
experience interacting with and observing my African American co-workers.
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Gamer and Calloway-Thomas offer another example of an idiosyncratic
verbal tactic that helps differentiate Black Rhetoric: indirection. The authors state that
indirection is essential in African American oral discourse. Black Rhetoric
maintains a circular quality that does not aim at exact definition. This is because
the direct statement is considered crude and unimaginative. Preferably, the Black
Rhetor veils content in ever-changing paraphrases because this demonstrates
intelligence and personality (Jackson and Richardson 49). This quality of
indirection can be seen in verbal games such as loud talking, rapping, playing the
dozens, and signifying.
Indirection depends on shared knowledge and savvy decoding of the actual
message that exists in a verbal utterance, but is not directly stated. Michael Linn
offers the example of a wife asking her husband (who has a job that does not require
him to wear a suit) where he is going. When the husband tells his wife that he is
going to work, she says, you got a promotion? She does not directly ask, why are
you wearing a suit today? The presence of indirection significantly differentiates
Black Rhetoric from that of the Aristotelian style.
In summary, culturally specific uses of language and a far greater investment
in orality dominate both ancient and contemporary Black Rhetoric. Quoting Asante,
Alkebulan states that in both Africa and the Diaspora, past and present, the spoken
word dominates communication culture, and it is part of the continuity with the
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ancient African past (Jackson and Richardson 33). Additionally, Alkebulan suggests
that in the rhetoric of African Americans we can find a pervasive sense of
ancestorism that she calls epic memory. African American rhetoric speaks to the
spirit, rhythm, and creativity of its people, and this dynamic and spirit-filled
rhetoric is found today underpinning the Black Rhetors use of language (Jackson and
Richardson 35). It is evident in the civil war rhetoric of Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr.
when he speaks about race and how to form a more perfect union
(jessejacksonjr.org). As succinctly put by Alkebulan, the aesthetics of this rhetoric
transcend geographic or ethnic boundaries...at no point in Africans history in the
Americas did Africans stop being Africans (Jackson and Richardson 34). Later,
well see this belief echoed in the poetry in LeRoi Jones.
Spirituality
Even a brief survey of the literature shows how deeply rooted the power of the
word is in African oral traditions. Often this power is described as being contained
within Nommo, the productive and generative power of the spoken word
(Jackson and Richardson 28). Like Jahn, Alkebulan believes that all of human
creation and natural phenomena emanate from the productive power of the word,
Nommo (Jackson and Richardson 29). She is one of many scholars who say that
human beings can invoke spiritual power through the spoken word, and she recounts
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Griaules description of a Dogon elder named Ogotemmeli who said the voice of
man can arouse God and extend divine action (Jackson and Richardson 28).
Nommo allows humans to co-create with God. This idea is roundly supported
in the literature, as the following examples will show. Alkebulan contrasts Nommo
with the Word found in the Gospels because in the Gospels the Word remains with
God and man has to testify to it and proclaim it (Jackson and Richardson 29).
Conversely, Nommo is used by humans and is not contained by any certain structure
or limited in how it can be employed to create. Jeffery Woodyard makes the argument
that verbal tactics such as stylin, improvisation, repetition, and soundin manifest
Nommo in contemporary African American rhetoric. Asante states that the power of
Nommo continues to permeate African existence in America and that it is so
prevalent that one can think of it as a way of life (Jackson and Richardson 30).
Going beyond the idea of Nommo as a way of life, Jackson (quoting Jahn from
1963) says that Nommo provides the magical, mystical power of the word to an
audience, who through spiritual connectedness to ancestors and the supreme being
create meaning for sustaining life (Niles 155).
Language, rhetoric, and spirituality are inexorably tied together in the Black
Rhetors life. Nommo and Maat together are two important aspects of the spirituality
that create the context for rhetoric. The ancient African principle of Maat provides a
background for the African rhetors spiritual aspirationsaspirations that he brings to
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his or her oral communication. While Maat is central to ancient Egypts ethos, Asante
believes that its adoption recurs in most African societies. Similarly, Alkebulan
believes that the rhetor has such aspirations because life for Africans is predicated
on the belief that the attainment of spiritual harmonywithin oneself and within
societyis possible (Jackson and Richardson 25).
Maat is the ruling force between good and evil, aligns nature and man, and is
the only way that balance, harmony and understanding can be obtained. We can
understand Maat as similar to ideas of oneness, organizing energy, or universal
order. Through Maat, all things and people are united, and Maat unites todays
blacks with their ancestors in Africa (Jackson and Richardson 25). As the eternal
order of the universe, Maat gives peopleand speakerspower and direction. This
ancient Kemetic principle of Matt not only gives direction to the actual speech
performance of the Black Rhetor, but it helps usher in spiritual forces and higher
states of mind. Alkebulan draws from the work of Adetokunbo Knowles-Borishade:
Africans inject spiritual elements into their oratorical events, and thus seek and
expect to reach a higher consciousness during such events (Jackson and Richardson
27). During the rhetorical event the caller strives to reach a higher level of
consciousness by activating spiritual powers and tapping into cosmic vibratory
forces (Knowles-Borishade 491). A ritualistic technique allows the caller to access
this spiritual assistance and create an environment of mystery. Vibrating spiritual
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entities act as enablers and fellow seekers in rhetorical events: [pjreoccupied with
human welfare, the orator seeks higher truth by merging his or her vibratory forces
with the vibrations of the universal cosmic energy (Jackson and Richardson 27).
Not content with simple matters, the caller raises the level of rhetorical subject
to what is morally good and what benefits a human (Knowles-Borishade 494). How
can this lofty goal be accomplished? Alkebulan quotes Asante: [t]he orator knew
that to be skillful, he or she had to embody the principles of Maat: harmony, justice,
righteousness, balance, and reciprocity (Jackson and Richardson 35).
Knowles-Borishade argues that the very structure of African rhetoric is
different because of this central focus on spirituality: [wjhile the Western form
contains three elements (speaker, speech, audience), African orature requires five:
caller-plus-chorus, spiritual entities, Nommo, responders, and spiritual harmony
(Knowles-Borishade 490). The caller occupies a broad and responsible position.
The caller functions as a creator who must present solutions to the social and
political problems of the people; his or her desires are subsumed as she or he becomes
a conduit who speaks on behalf of the group (Knowles-Borishade 490).
Again, Nommo invokes participating spiritual entities to the event who serve
as judges, witnesses, and enablers (Knowles-Borishade 495). (And it serves as a
powerful unifying force that helps create the harmony and balance sought during a
rhetorical event.) These spiritual entities work actively with the caller and the chorus.
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The chorus validates what is being said by being actively participatory in the
rhetorical eventthey respond to the caller vocally. Others in the community who
come to participate in the rhetorical event are called responders.
The responders help create the message spontaneously by adding to the
callers speech. Combining multiple participantsreal, spiritual, conceptualin this
way helps us grasp the ultimacy of the collective that exists in this rhetorical
culture. Decisions are made by consensus. In fact, making decisions and finding
solutions during rhetorical events is accomplished only after the establishment of
harmony. Knowles-Borishade states that collective harmony is a prerequisite to the
solutions themselves (499). That is, without first establishing harmony between
speaker and audience, the creativity that sparks solutions cannot be accessed.
It is not difficult to see the ambition and special techniques that exist in Black
Rhetoric. The purpose of a speech event goes beyond expressing an argument or
persuading the listener to take action. It seeks to establish what is right and good,
what benefits all of society, and to generate ideas about what brings decency and joy
to life. Rhetoric was spiritual, a human quest for what was good and divine, says
Adisa Alkebulan (Jackson and Richardson 28). Knowles-Borishade makes a bold
statement: [sjomething is not good because God approves of it; God approves of a
thing because women and men find it good for human society in the first place
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(Knowles-Borishade 494). Rhetorical events serve to help people make these value
judgments. I argue later that this purpose raises rhetorics societal value.
The various authors I have quoted tell us that the higher aspirations of
spirituality are alive and well today in Black Rhetoric. Smith states that to
understand contemporary Black Rhetoric in America means that one must understand
that Nommo continues to permeate black activities (Smith 298). One could hear and
feel Nommo at work in a recent sermon of the United Methodist Churchs Bishop
Warner H. Brown, Jr. Nommo was especially evident when Bishop Brown preached
about how things generally turn out for the rich man and when Rev. Brown acted out
this fictional rich mans attempt to climb through the eye of a needle, which is really
the only place /ze is goin. (Bishop Brown is a large man and this performance
resulted in no small amount of huffing, puffing, brow mopping, and sweating.)
Nommo can appear in many different types of rhetorical situations: Knowles-
Borishade states that there is no line of demarcation between the spiritual and the
secular in oratorical events (492).
Political and External Situations
Having to defend his humanity, to agitate for minimal human rights, and to
soothe the raw emotions of his mistreated brethren, the black speaker was often
forced to develop articulate and effective speech behavior on the platform, says
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Arthur L. Smith (295). In African American Orators. Richard Leeman discusses how
African American rhetoric grew out of the political and economic situations that
blacks in America had been thrust into. Leeman addresses both abolitionist and
Reconstruction times and how blacks successfully used discourse during these eras to
promote their causes. He states that African Americans found a voice in their
oratory at a time when they had little power of any other kind and were not even
allowed to learn to read or write (Leeman xiv).
Leeman further points out that rhetoric was a major strategy for articulating
philosophies and reasoning when blacks were working to acquire full civil rights in
the 1960s (Leeman xv). Most interestingly, Leeman states that many of the black
communitys brightest members entered the ministry because they were barred from
middle- and upper-middle-class jobs (Leeman xv). Hence, the more powerful style of
preaching often attributed to blacks was born, and this style of rhetoric overlapped
with secular public speaking.
Leeman is careful to mention that sweeping conclusions about black oratory
cannot be drawn because of the differences we see among the speeches of orators like
Malcolm X, Angela Davis, and Colin Powell. His examples convince me that Black
Rhetoric cannot be captured in some static definition because it changes to fit the
needs of the situation. However, even allowing for this mutability, Leeman states that
he has found three major common themes in Black Rhetoric: (1) the quest for
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freedom and equality of treatment, especially in due process and under the law; (2)
calling America to task for not upholding its ideals of democracy and ethics,
especially for its weakest citizens; (3) black pride, or the search for equal economic
opportunities (Leeman xx).
Clearly, these themes emerge in a group that has been stricken by poverty and
the poor education that often results in illiteracy; they do not emerge in a group of
citizens raised in wealthy families, who attend high-quality schools, and who have
excellent job prospects due to the social and business connections of their parents.
One hardly needs to be reminded that slavery and its consequences are common
experiences for Africans who were brought to the New World. (Arthur Smith refers to
slavery as the giant Colossus that stands astride every meaningful rhetorical
pathway (Smith 298).) It makes sense that this experience of oppression, poverty,
racism, and exclusion contributed to the development of a certain rhetorical style.
Accordingly, it seems that the Black Rhetor is influenced by internal and external
forces both historical and contemporary. And he or she often delivers rhetoric in
moments that are infused with political, social, or spiritual significance.
I have briefly examined here the cultural influences and historical roots of
what I call Black Rhetoric. Grounded in a unique cultural perspective, the Black
Rhetors speech is infused with spirituality, uses language in special ways, persuades
through collective agreement and problem solving, and is inseparable from the
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rhetors socioeconomic situation. It is enlightening to piece together a viable
description of the Black Rhetor, trace her cultural origins, and try to understand how
he or she uses rhetoric to influence the society that has so undeniably influenced her.
As Richard Leeman states, [ujnquestionably, African American oratory is worth
studyingbecause of its significance, because of its eloquence, and because it helps
tell the story of its people (Leeman xxi).
Often, African American rhetoric is directed toward inspiring change in
beliefs and behaviors. The Black Rhetor plies his or her trade by applying the five
faculties of rhetoric in specific, unique ways within the three classical rhetorical
genresjudicial, ceremonial, and political. Thus, we can recognize elements of
Western rhetoric within his speech. However, the origins of Black Rhetoric lie in
Africa its legacies, traditions, and practices. I conclude that African American
rhetoric is therefore a blend of Western and non-Westem rhetorical traditions. Much
study remains to fully understand the intersection of the two traditions within Black
Rhetoric. But what is easily recognizable is the impact Black Rhetoric has had on
society.
If asked to name famous speech makers, whom would most people mention? I
put this question to a group of colleagues and friends whose members ages spanned
decades and reflected multiple ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. The names
mentioned in response to my question often included Martin Luther King, Sojourner
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