Johnnie M. Stover. Rhetoric and Resistance in Black Women's Autobiography.
In the introduction to Rhetoric and Resistance, Johnnie M. Stover writes, "The flexible, versatile African American mother tongue gives her story and its form literary uniqueness" (13). Assessing the genesis, viability and, yes, uniqueness of the mother tongue is Stover's aim in this text. Through an examination of four primary works--Harriet Wilson's Our Nig: or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black, in a Two-Story White House, North. Showing that Slavery's Shadows Fall Even There (1859); Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself (1861); Elizabeth Keckley's Behind the Scenes. Or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House (1868); and Susie King Taylor's Reminiscences of My Life in Camp With the 33rd United States Colored Troops, Late 1st S.C. Volunteers (1902)--Stover attempts to explain why the African American mother tongue should be read as an alternate discourse, emphasizing how this discourse has historical importance as well as its current use.
Describing Wilson's, Jacobs's, Keckley's and Taylor's use of the mother tongue, Stover states, "Personal narratives became creative outlets for the expression of black women's thoughts and emotions; they used limited resources to craft their works just as they used limited resources in other creative expressions--quilting, cooking, gardening, and even the act of sweeping patterns into the dirt of their yards" (59). She also observes, "These women, excluded from 'high' literary realms, infused their auto-biographies with the flavor of social discourse--both in shaping their texts and in presenting their contexts" (4). The double exclusion these women experienced--as blacks and as women--gave rise to the mother tongue. As Stover suggests,
There is a physicality to the mother tongue ways of communicating--a look, a set of the lips, a positioning of the hand, hip, and head. It is a stance, an attitude of resistance that includes secrets, misdirection, irony, song, humor, and lying among others. The nineteenth-century African American woman autobiographer used her special way of communicating, her mother tongue, to write her life and shape her text.... (7)
This statement gives the reader pause. Could it not be argued that slang discourse, machismo or bravado, and/or other affectations practiced by black males are similar "way[s] of communicating?" Fortunately, Stover offers this much-needed clarification:
African American male slaves ... were masters of the use of secrecy, to which they added feigned misunderstanding, lying, masking, guile, mumbling, and double entendre in empowering themselves. Nineteenth-century African American women--slaves, former slaves, and freewomen alike--laid claim to all of these techniques. But in addition to the techniques named above, they developed other ways to communicate that were distinctly their own--sass, invective, dissembling, and sexually suggestive impudence, among others. (14)
Later in the text, Stover lists 30 additional terms that comprise the African American mother tongue (105). Prior to listing these terms, Stover underscores the fact that "new terms [are] being added as the need arises," evidentiary of the mother tongue's vitality and currency (ibid).
Stover's methodology involves identifying how the mother tongue is deployed in the four texts. A good example of this methodology can be found in this statement from Keckley's Behind the Scenes: "Mr. Garland gave me away [at the wedding]." Stover explains, "Whether or not Keckley intentionally shades this passage with irony is debatable; but intentionally or not, the technique is effective. What Garland has literally refused to sell--Keckley [his slave]--he now figuratively gives away" (154). Such explanation sheds a new light on the primary text, challenging the reader to consider how these four women created and maintained an alternate (read: coded) discourse in their writing. As Stover asserts,
They devised methods of life-writing that were necessarily more creative, subversive, original, and, overall, more reflective of their cultural traditions. I do not want to get into a spitting contest about who is most "other," who is most deeply smothered under white-male conventions, but the sites from which black women autobiographers write are so buried that it took the heteroglossia of an African American mother tongue to dig a way out. (52)
Ultimately Stover's efforts to illuminate the mother tongue in Rhetoric and Resistance are noteworthy.
Stover's text is not without its problems, however. Initially, there is the question of the title, Rhetoric and Resistance in Black Women's Autobiography. Since the term "rhetoric" is foregrounded, readers might anticipate more of an explicitly rhetorical analysis than they receive. It is troubling that Stover devotes only one paragraph to a discussion of rhetoricians, classical or otherwise (22). Indeed, the only other mention of a rhetorician is a brief reference to St. Augustine later in the text (97). The title, therefore, is misleading. This text presents more of a literary analysis than a rhetorical one.
Additionally, the reader wonders if there is an intentional rhetorical play on words between Keckley's text and Wilson's, both of which mention "a" or "the" white house. Stover never addresses this similarity, despite her explication of the significance of Wilson's title (151). The reader is frustrated by this omission because when Stover does make an effort to think/write rhetorically, it is effective, as seen in her discussion of differences between men's and women's autobiographies, wherein she examines variations in writing style, "complete" (men) and intentionally "open-ended" (women) (29). Here, Stover's critique reveals the (unmet) promise of a rhetorical approach or strategy.
Another problem with the text is Stover's desire to locate the four primary works in the literary tradition of the Bildungsroman. In her introduction, she mentions this discussion will be a component of the third chapter (17). Oddly, the word "Bildungsroman" does not occur once in the chapter. Moreover, this argument overreaches, since the tradition of the Bildungsroman features the protagonist's return to her home at the conclusion of the novel. None of the protagonists in the four primary texts makes this crucial return. Thus, Stover's analysis is incomplete.
An additional example of Stover's incomplete analysis is her statement, "Keckley's text was the butt of a parodic publication entitled Behind the Seams" (92). Stover relegates her too-brief discussion of this parody to a footnote, whereas a deeper analysis seems warranted. Another case in point is Stover's explanation of descriptive facets in the texts. She alludes to Thomas Wentworth Higginson's reference to Taylor's Reminiscences as "this little volume," and responds: "It must be noted that Higginson took the occasion of writing [his introduction to Taylor's text to] plug his own little volume" (165). A savvy, and certainly relevant, comeback, to be sure, but there is confusion. Later, having extended her critique to include Ida B. Wells, Stover mentions a "creditable little book" that Wells authored with Frederick Douglass (182). Stover's reader wonders if this description is intentional, especially since she does not expressly address it.
An additional problem occurs in Stover's discussion of the content of the autobiographies. She initially states that "omission is not tantamount to nonoccurrence" (40). Two pages later, she makes the observation that Taylor was probably not sexually assaulted: "At least, she makes no direct reference to such treatment in Reminiscences" (42). Such disconnects prove distracting.
Stover's critique is a worthwhile one. Unfortunately, it is mired in incomplete analysis. It might be argued that she atones for this want by providing a wealth of detail, for example, in this discussion of Jacobs's use of mother tongue techniques: "To demonstrate the importance of the techniques of concealment, Jacobs uses variations of the terms concealment, hiding, secrecy, disguise, shield, veil, and screen ninety-six times in her narrative" (118; my emphasis). Such detail is indicative of an especially careful and valuable reading. Moreover, Stover's writing style occasionally departs from a scholarly tone, as when she critiques a secondary text by asserting, "So what?" (103). Given her topic manner of an alternate discourse--and the fact that she is writing about black women who use(d) said discourse--such a technique is quite effective. Overall, however, Rhetoric and Resistance never overcomes its shortcomings. Readers might rightly ask, "So now what?" For an important but limited beginning, Stover's text forms only an incipient explication of the African American mother tongue.
Nottingham Trent University, UK
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2005|
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