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Seminar 5: (Re)signing the Racial Contract: Black Rhetoric and the Politics of Racial Resistance and Redemption

Seminar Leaders:

Mark McPhail, Indiana University, Northwest
Keith Miller, Arizona State University       

Scholars have explored the dynamics of racial discourse from a variety of perspectives, yet central to each has been its role in the transformation of race relations through language as animated by the rhetorics of individual figures as Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Fannie Lou Hamer, Audre Lorde, and Barack Obama. In recent times, however, the animating force behind public consideration of race matters seems to be driven in some measure by the protests initiated by Black Lives Matter (BLM) activists. The BLM protests have raised a number of key questions: Are BLM activists adapting the ideas and methods of earlier African American leaders or are they altering the playing field in which the public discussion of race operates? And in that context, can rhetorical scholars employ or fruitfully reconfigure Critical Race Theory and other familiar frameworks as they analyze contemporary agitation?

Participants in “(Re)signing the Racial Contract” will explore these questions through the lens of Charles Mills’ The Racial Contract. Mills sharply criticizes the traditional western notion of the Social Contract and offers a philosophical exploration of the two-ness of black rhetoric, its strategic and tactical potential for signification, and its potential for facilitating racial reconciliation and redemption. Mills’ “Racial Contract” provides the foundation for an exploration of the core issues that will frame the seminar: is race a problem of a traditional conception of rhetoric as practical discourse envisioned in an abstract social contract, or does race reflect an underlying or adaptive set of assumptions and beliefs that resist moral suasion? Participants will engage this question through an exploration of black rhetoric—both historical and contemporary— that begins with Golden and Rieke’s The Rhetoric of Black Americans and advances through an examination of recent critical and theoretical interventions focused on the possibility of rhetoric as a vehicle for racial dialogue, reconciliation, and reparations.

In addition to Mills and Golden/Rieke, core readings will include works on Afrocentricity, Complicity Theory, Double Consciousness, Reconciliation, and Whiteness. Participants will also investigate recordings, photographs, and videos of both earlier and current phases of African American protest. These artifacts will include Malcolm X’s widely broadcast but unpublished radio speeches, as well as writings and a video documentary about the life of Civil Rights activist Robert Williams.

Participants will present their own research and receive encouragement and critique in our collective attempt to advance ongoing scholarly dialogue and, most importantly, to begin a new conversation about the relationship between historical and contemporary moments in the African American freedom struggle.

Questions should be directed to Mark McPhail: mlmcphai@iun.edu


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