Aurality and Black Rhetoric

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Over a dozen years ago now, the inimitable Cynthia Selfe published “The Movement of Air, the Breath of Meaning: Aurality and Multimodal Composing” (see the June 2009 issue of College Composition and Communication), in which she reviews the history of aurality/orality, demonstrates how and why it was subsumed by writing and the written word, and calls for significant change, particularly in light of the rise of multimodal composing:

[I]n light of scholarship on the importance of aurality to different communities and cultures, I argue that our contemporary adherence to alphabetic-only composition constrains the semiotic efforts of individuals and groups who value multiple modalities of expression. I encourage teachers and scholars of composition, and other disciplines, to adopt an increasingly thoughtful understanding of aurality and the role it—and other modalities—can play in contemporary communication tasks. (616)

Here Cynthia, in her typical understated way, points out what should have long been utterly obvious: that many communities of color, and particularly Black communities, value the “multiple modalities” that include sound and rhythm—and that, moreover, they have a great deal to teach all of us about those modalities.

I come back to this article often, and it certainly bears re-reading now in light of current attempts to make good on promises of critical awareness of many language traditions and of anti-racist pedagogies. I’ve written before about Nicole Furlonge’s Race Sounds: The Art of Listening in African American Literature (2018) and of the lessons it teaches us about how to access—and to value—the aurality in work by Toni Morrison, Ralph Ellison, Aretha Franklin, Zora Neale Hurston, and others. How to “listen in print.”

I got my first lessons in how to listen in print from Dr. G, beloved professor Geneva Smitherman, whose Talkin and Testifyin: The Language of Black America (1977) changed my life. Over the decades, I’ve worn out three copies of this book: it has taken me many re-readings to grasp even a portion of its wisdom. But among its many lessons is its deep understanding of the role sound and rhythm play in Black language and Black rhetoric. One of my favorite passages in this book deals in detail with what she refers to as “tonal semantics”—the way speakers use intonation and rhythm and inflection to create emphasis and command attention, using the voice like a musical instrument.

Smitherman connects tonal semantics to the importance of African drums and drumming (I think always of the brilliant “Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk,” which opens with a riveting series of drum beats) and the evolution of that culturally important sound into combinations of words and sounds to “achieve spiritual equilibrium and psychological balance” (137). She goes on to describe types of tonal semantics, including talk-singing, intonational contouring, repetition, rhyme, alliterative word play, and narrative sequencing, all Black rhetorical strategies that we can learn to recognize and value by “listening in print” and in person. Listen to any Martin Luther King, Jr. speech and you will hear tonal semantics at work. Or think of the features of spoken word poetry and of how the sound of speakers’ voices themselves do so much to carry the meaning. I am thinking right now of Amanda Gorman’s spoken word performances: as Smitherman says, she uses her “voice, body, and movement as tools to bring the story to life” (149).

If Cynthia Selfe’s article deserves re-reading, the work of Geneva Smitherman deserves multiple re-reading. In fact, it should be by every writing teacher’s side. I’ve been grateful to Dr. G for over forty years, for helping me learn to listen in profoundly new and important ways.

Image Credit: "Transistor Radio with Casette Tape Recorder" by richardclyborne, used under a CC BY 2.0 license

About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.