Respectable Radicalism: The Rhetoric of Black Women’s Intellectualism
Procope Bell, Danielle
I am principally interested in theorizing how respectable rhetoric coheres with radical thought in nineteenth century Black women’s writing. Respectable rhetoric is not used in spite of radical thought. Rather, I argue that it is a vital component of their radicalism. For Black women, respectable rhetoric is politically efficacious. Black women understood that how they wrote mattered just as much as what they wrote. I look for the ways in which Black women writers rely upon euphemisms, irony and sarcasm, and coded language—essentially the ways they masterfully craft and utilize rhetoric—to support their radicalism. Rather than being practitioners of respectability, I argue that they are masters of its rhetoric and progenitors of radical thought that still lives with us in contemporary Black feminist intellectual thought. A multi-generic project, “Respectable Radicalism” examines novels, speeches, sermons, autobiography, and non-fiction authored by Black women. Through my examination of Anna Julia Cooper, Frances E.W. Harper, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Pauline Hopkins, and Zilpha Elaw, among others, I uncover the surprising ways that these works demonstrate alignment with the priorities of contemporary Black feminist thought. I argue that these authors frame their arguments using respectable rhetoric and discourse in an effort to remain legible to their contemporaries. Furthermore, this rhetorical and discursive strategy elides their radical intent to specific audiences while pointedly and strategically highlighting it to others. This respectable rhetoric enhances their ability to create radical theory and obfuscates existing oppressive “logics” concerning race, gender, religion, and sexuality. While their radical intent may seem eclipsed by respectable rhetoric, I argue that in nineteenth and early twentieth century Black women’s writing, the two cannot be effectively separated, hence the seemingly oxymoronic term “respectable radicalism.” I reject the dichotomy placed between “progressive” contemporary scholarship and “conservative” nineteenth century scholarship to instead argue that they are absolutely interrelated in ways that foreground radicalism across centuries. In doing so, my project lays bare Black women’s strategies to be heard in a culture often determined to make invisible their cultural and political priorities as well as their distinctive theoretical standpoints.
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