The Power of Language for Brain Function

Hooks Academic Research Fellow Dr. Kami Anderson was a recent guest on Brain Power TV hosted by Dr. Hokehe (Eko) Effiong. In the episode, they discussed the brain benefits of learning another language in children and adults. Dr. Anderson is a trained scholar and master teacher of Afrocentric teaching strategies that ensure language retention, not just learning, and speaks directly to the neurological ways in which people of African descent process and embody languages.

Watch the episode below:

The Call to Attend to Race in the Study of Religious Rhetoric

Andre E Johnson

Below is part of a presentation I gave at the Southern States Communication Association on April 8, 2021. It was part of the “Role of Race in Religious Rhetoric and Communication” panel.

In her groundbreaking essay, Lisa Flores argues that “race is foundational to the work of rhetorical criticism and that any criticism void of this consideration is incomplete, partial, if not irresponsible.” About this, she writes

If rhetorical scholars are to attend to all matter of discourse, whether understood as questions of impact, influence, or circulation, or questions of argument and audience, or questions of affect and materiality, we cannot ignore race. Rhetorical meanings, as they circulate on and around bodies, are already raced. Bodies that speak and listen, that exhort and cajole, that desire and hate are already raced.

However, following the lead of other rhetoric scholars who have called our attention to attend more to race in our studies[1] and not to marginalize the scholarship that is already published, I invite scholars of rhetoric and religion to start examining how race functions in our religious discourses. I do this because if as Matthew Houdek notes, “the whiteness of rhetorical studies is outrageous” and the “time has come to confront it,” it is also time to confront the fact that research in rhetoric and religion and indeed, religious communication itself is catastrophically white.

I would like for scholars, especially of rhetoric and religion, to grapple with how one uses rhetoric and how rhetorical approaches to religion can contribute to a deeper and more meaningful understanding of both religion and race. I call on us to understand how one uses rhetoric as a method or how rhetorical approaches to religion can contribute to a deeper and more meaningful understanding of both religion and race.

One way I argue to do this is to examine the African American prophetic tradition. In so doing, scholars will begin not only to unpack how those rhetors spoke against a tradition and system that still devalues them and their contributions but also to have a better and more holistic understanding of how rhetoric and religion function. This is not to negate the good work done by scholars who study rhetoric and religion. Scholars of rhetoric and religion have done a lot to lessen the resistance in our field toward religion. However, an understanding of how race functions at the intersection of rhetoric and religion would be helpful in two primary ways.

First, a study of race at the intersection of rhetoric and religion can expose some differences in how rhetoric is presented and performed. In my study of prophetic rhetoric, I attempt to demonstrate how scholars, in perpetuating the canon of prophetic rhetoric studies, sometimes missed a separate tradition of prophetic rhetoric. It is how scholars can publish books without one figure of color or how someone can publish a survey of the field and leave out the most recent and relevant works of Black scholars that have explicitly published about prophetic rhetoric. It is also how even when scholars examine speeches by Black figure they would deem as prophetic, they still would use the European understanding of the jeremiad instead of seeing how race would lead the speaker to adopt a different type of appeal.

Second, a study of race at the intersection of rhetoric and religion will address Flores’ call for all of us to take race more seriously in our rhetorical analyses. In the field of communication, several scholars have taken on that call and challenge. However, many of them do not study religion. I argue that we who study rhetoric and religion can make a significant impact in our fields of study. We bring to the table an understanding of religion and its importance.

For instance, a study of Barack Obama’s rhetoric is not complete without attending to his religious rhetoric and the counter-religious rhetoric against him. As others have demonstrated, Obama used religious rhetoric more than any of the modern-day presidents, yet many who examine his rhetoric and discourse do not see him as a religious orator. Imagine if we would embrace the fact that much of Obama’s rhetorical theology comes from an understanding of Black Liberation Theology—a theology deeply rooted in an understanding of freedom, justice, equality, and race. That would also mean that we would have to reexamine our notions of what gets to be called religion as well.

Finally, A study of race at the intersection of rhetoric and religion will force us to move away from white evangelical definitions of faith and adopt other ways to see and experience faith and religion—and I, for one, would welcome that.

[1] Matthew Houdek, “Racial Sedimentation and the Common Sense of Racialized Violence: The Case of Black Church Burnings.” Quarterly Journal of Speech, Vol. 104, No. 3, 279–306 (2018); Michelle Kelsey Kearl, “The Stolen Property of Whiteness: A Case Study in Critical Intersectional Rhetorics of Race and Disability.” Rhetoric Review, 37:3, 300-313, (2018); Mollie K. Murphy and Tina M. Harris, “White Innocence and Black Subservience: The Rhetoric of White Heroism in The Help.” Howard Journal of Communications, Vol. 29, No 1, 49-62, (2018); Rishi Chebrolu. The Racial Lens of Dylann Roof: Racial Anxiety and White Nationalist Rhetoric on New Media. Review of Communication. Vol. 20, No. 1, 47–68, (2020)

Andre E. Johnson is the Scholar in Residence at the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change and Associate Professor of Communication at the University of Memphis. 

On Black Womanhood at the Intersection of Black Existentialism and Black Feminism

By: Reina Henderson

The criticism and vitriol swarming around Serena Williams after her  passionate reaction to the umpire of the finals match between her and Naomi Osaka is nothing new for black women. Right or wrong in her assertions and regardless of wherever one may lean on one side of the debate or the other, there nevertheless remains the familiar traces of specifically-worded critiques all too common when it comes to black women. Whether intended or not, the caricature image, a satire of the event for the Australian newspaper The Herald Sun, employs racial stereotypes in order to make fun of her. Exaggerated full lips, the exploitation of her anger (utilizing the image of the ABW or “Angry Black Woman”), even the whitewashing of Naomi, a biracial half-Haitian, half-Japanese woman, into someone blonde and white (emphasizing her complexion’s proximity to whiteness) demonstrates a subtle minstrel in all but name.

Black womanhood resides at the intersection of black existentialism and black feminism, and a key element of struggle that black women contend with is white standards of beauty and image. The experiences of black women in particular bear special note due to the understanding that black women are born with two strikes against them, their race and their gender, if living in much of the Western world. bell hooks and Toni Morrison explore this concept in-depth. bell hooks explores this in her book Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism where she discusses problems of racism, sexism, and the diminishing of black womanhood from white women in the feminist movement, from black men in the racial equality movement, and from Western society respectively.[1] Repudiation from black men and white women toward black women in these spaces exacerbates the fight of black women who already must contend with a white patriarchal world.

Black women, therefore, have also experienced oppression from white women and black men relegating them outside of the movements claiming to challenge the society with which they already contend. Without proper support being in such a unique position, hooks’ solution is to form a sisterhood of black women to take on the mantle of the fight. Not through self-segregation, but to become aware of the struggle and position and seek first fellow black women to relate to and promote each other. If none will wholly, or only marginally, take up the cause of advocating for equality with black women, then it is up to black women themselves to do so even if it must be alone.

Toni Morrison delves even deeper into the issue including when it comes to black female image and beauty. Although her novel The Bluest Eye is fictional, it is based on truths and experiences of black women in conflict with white standards of beauty.[2] Pecola, the main character, is a dark-skinned, full-lipped, and coarse-haired young woman. Throughout the novel, she is often teased and called “ugly” making her wish to have bright blue eyes like the white dolls with which she grew up playing. Eventually in the novel, after giving birth to a premature baby sired by her own father through rape, she develops a psychosis for which people around her take pity on her. However, due to her psychosis, she thinks her newfound attention is because she has finally obtained the blue eyes she always wanted.

Morrison’s fictionalized account exposes black women’s experiences of being constantly told that black womanhood and beauty is inferior to white women.[3] The farther one is from that white female standard of beauty of being blonde, thin, pale, and blue-eyed, the uglier she is considered to be. This affects both the psyche and the appearance as many black women have attempted in various ways to conform to the white female standard of beauty believing themselves inferior in reality. Although not explicitly stated, the implied solution from Morrison is for black women to love and embrace their natural features, and bond with other black women sharing the pain like Claudia and Frieda, Pecola’s friends, do for her. In other words, a black woman is beautiful with all her natural features. [4]

When an image like The Herald Sun’s satire begins to circulate, it is indicative of this underlying perception of black women. Serena is molded into the ABW while Naomi can be stripped of her black features and portrayed as the “proper” white contrast to Serena. This piece is in no way intended to make a statement on the racial beliefs of the artist who has denied, since publication of the image, any racial basis for his cartoon. Nevertheless, intended or not, the image is infused, perhaps absent-mindedly, with these stereotypes and aids in their perpetuation. Thus, it makes an understanding of the consequences of such portrayals all the more necessary.

About Reina Henderson

Reina was born and raised in Chattanooga, TN. She attended high school at Boyd-Buchanan School in Chattanooga, a co-educational private Christian School, from which she graduated in 2012. She studied a year at Salem College in Winston-Salem, North Carolina before transferring to East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, TN. Here, she double majored in History and Philosophy, and graduated in 2017 earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in each major. In 2015, she became a member of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Incorporated, and while in her undergraduate chapter she served terms as both president and secretary. She currently attends the University of Memphis as a graduate student studying for her Master of Arts in History, and is a graduate assistant at the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change. Upon graduation, she intends to pursue her PhD in History and eventually become a professor.


[1] hooks, bell. 1982. Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism. London: Pluto.

[2] Morrison, Toni. 1970. The Bluest Eye. Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

[3] Morrison, Toni. 1970. The Bluest Eye. Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

[4] Henderson, Reina. 2017. To Empower and Uplift the Race: A Historiography of Black Existentialism. Unpublished paper, The University of Memphis.

Photograph 1:Williams S. RG18 (17). 1 June 2018. Author: si.robi. https://flickr.com/photos/16732597@N07/41168711240

Photograph 2: Toni Morrison speaking at “A Tribute to Chinua Achebe – 50 Years Anniversary of ‘Things Fall Apart'”. The Town Hall, New York City, February 26th, 2008. Date 18 December 2008, 20:44 (UTC) Author Angela Radulescu

Bending the Arc Toward Justice: Including the Excluded

On October 5, 2017, the Hooks Institute released its third edition of its policy papers titled, Bending the Arc Toward Justice: Including the Excluded. This edition focused on the positive impact of immigrants in a small Arkansas town; government policies which create welfare dependency in Oglala Sioux Tribe (South Dakota) and south Memphis, TN; rollback of LGBT gains by the Trump Administration; and the history of Islam and Muslims in America, the distortion of that history, and successful efforts by diverse communities in Memphis, TN to collaborate with the Muslim community. The Hooks Institute hopes that these papers will encourage thoughtful discussion, policy, and action that will sustain and enhance civil and human rights, and social justice for all in our nation. A link to the complete publication is provided at the end of the foreword.

To protect and expand human and civil rights in these perilous times, we must remain vigilant and form alliances with people and organizations across diverse ideological perspectives. On September 5, 2017, as these policy papers were being prepared for publication, the Trump administration ended the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) program created by an executive order from the Obama administration. This program allowed undocumented immigrant children in the United States who had been brought here illegally by others and who had not been convicted of criminal offenses to attend school, work, or serve in the military, and obtain driver licenses without fear of deportation for renewable two-year periods. The reasoning behind DACA was that undocumented immigrant children should not be punished for the actions of others, but rather should be provided opportunities to become contributing members of society.

It is now in the hands of Congress to decide, in what form, if any, DACA continues. While Congress must tackle the complex issue of developing sound and fair immigration legislation for the nation, the manner in which DACA was terminated by the Trump administration evidenced a strong disregard for the welfare of immigrant children who obeyed the laws, pursued educational opportunities, and who have, and are making, significant contributions to the United States.

DACA is only one of many disturbing events in the nation that show racism, if not intolerance, against immigrants, minorities, Jews, and Muslims. This environment has been fueled by the rhetoric and actions of President Trump, white supremacists, and those who know better but remain silent out of fear, or for personal or political gain. We cannot remain silent in the face of these challenges. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wisely counseled that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” However, this arc is not going to bend itself. Each of us must work to ensure that justice prevails through our sustained activism and vigilance.

We cannot remain silent in the face of these challenges. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wisely counseled that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” However, this arc is not going to bend itself. Each of us must work to ensure that justice prevails through our sustained activism and vigilance.

As we navigate these times, we must also reach across the aisle to engage with people of different political, racial, and ideological views to bridge the great divide that is feeding the growing cancer of mistrust, resentment, racism, and hate in our nation and world. We must work to eliminate racial inequality, bigotry, anti-Semitism, discrimination against immigrants, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) groups, and to uplift the poor, a group that includes whites, African Americans, and many others. Each of us has a respective sphere of influence that we can activate through educational outreach, community engagement, activism, writing, research, and scholarship or political action.

With this third edition of policy papers, the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change at the University of Memphis (UofM) seeks to expand the net of civil and human equality through overviews of complex issues through scholarly research and policy recommendations.

Michael R. Duke (Department of Anthropology, UofM) looks at the challenges and opportunities of immigrants from diverse countries who have settled in the small city of Springdale, Arkansas. These immigrants work in the poultry industry, in jobs that few whites will take. The poultry industry supports this labor force, a bright spot exists for upward mobility of immigrants, and there is greater integration and cultural exchange between immigrants and whites. Springdale, Arkansas represents, to some extent, a success story of immigration in that community.

Peter A. Kindle (Department of Social Work, University of South Dakota) examines how intergenerational poverty and reliance on welfare by the Oglala Sioux Tribe in South Dakota is rooted in historical discrimination and bad government policies. Kindle compares the experiences of these Native Americans with the history of racial, social, and economic oppression of African Americans in the South Memphis. His examination of these two communities shows similarities rooted in historical discrimination and failed government approaches.

Idia B. Thurston (Department of Psychology, UofM) examines both the legal, social, and policy advancements made by the LGBT community, the aggressive challenges underway to undermine these gains, and she proposes initiatives to sustain and support this community.

Finally, Nabil A. Bayakly (Department of World Language and Literature, UofM) provides an in-depth overview of Islam, which embraces peace and love of one’s neighbor. He explores how Islam has been distorted both by terrorist acts and by a lack of understanding in many communities about Islam and the Muslims.

The Hooks Institute hopes that the information provided in these policy papers will encourage community members, activists, individuals, businesses and legislators to examine the issues presented here and to engage in action that is intended to uplift their communities. There is much work to be done, in this nation and abroad, on human and civil rights. As we work to root out injustices, we must, in the words of our namesake, the late Benjamin L. Hooks, “face the future unafraid.”

Daphene R. McFerren, JD
Executive Director Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change

Elena Delavega, PhD
Associate Director, Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change
Associate Professor, Department of Social Work

Click here to access the 2017 Hooks Institute Policy Papers online.

Photograph credit: 2017.03.07 #MuslimBan 2.0 Protest, Washington, DC USA 00805. Photo by Ted Eytan. Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 4.0 International(CC BY-SA 4.0). flickr.com/photos/taedc/33164970202/

A Well-Lived Life: My Friend, Mentor and Boss: Attorney General Janet Reno

Attorney General Janet Reno died this morning in Miami, Florida, her hometown. I knew Ms. Reno had been ill for over two decades.  Having lost close family members after long illnesses myself, I know that the death of a loved one sneaks up on you, and when people you love die, it’s almost as if nobody told you they were ill. It’s a weird thing how the mind copes with loss – this was how I felt this morning.

Hooks Institute Executive Director, Daphene R. McFerren (Left) and Former United States Attorney General Janet Reno (right). Aug. 18, 2000. Photo credit: Jack Lacy
Hooks Institute Executive Director, Daphene R. McFerren (Left) and Former United States Attorney General Janet Reno (right). Aug. 18, 2000. Photo credit: Jack Lacy

I had the privilege of being counsel to Janet Reno, with my tenure ending at the end of President Bill Clinton’s administration.  Ms. Reno hired me to become one of the seven attorneys who helped manage contacts to the Attorney General from various departments at the Department of Justice (DOJ).

Ms. Reno believed public service was one of our nation’s highest callings.  She was  committed to making sound moral and legal judgments in the matters that came before her.  She managed over some of the most difficult of circumstances:  law enforcement’s response to the siege at WACO, Texas; the return of Elian Gonzales to his father and stepmother in Cuba; policing and minority communities; and more.

I traveled with her as part of President Bill Clinton’s delegation to the inauguration of the president of the Dominican Republic. I was frankly surprised and quite amused to learn on that trip that Ms. Reno was quite the celebrity (this was before the Saturday Night Live skit where she played herself).  Long before “selfies” became a household word, I saw people in the airport slowly walk up to Ms. Reno (who was sometimes being interviewed by the press), stand sideways, take a photo with her, and slowly ease away.  This was comical and I never saw or heard Ms. Reno complain.

Despite her sometimes serious demeanor, Mr. Reno was a hoot in her own right.   The public would often call directly the Attorney General’s office to offer advice or criticism of the Attorney General or the DOJ.  These calls were assigned to the support staff.  However, Ms. Reno would sometimes wander over to a ringing phone and answer “Janet Reno.”  You could see the telephone receiver freeze over with the “shock” from the person calling. They never expected to speak directly with the Attorney General of the United States.  Both the caller and Ms. Reno were often amused with each other during the call.

My parents’ leadership as civil rights activists cemented in me long before I was seven-years-old that I wanted to be an attorney. However, I did not voluntarily tell Ms. Reno of my parents’ civil rights activism, or that a book, Our Portion of Hell (Hamburger 1973), had been written about my parents’ activism and the struggle for civil rights in Fayette County, Tennessee. I did share this book with a fellow colleague and he, unbeknownst to me, gave the book to Ms. Reno to read.

When I walked into her office one morning, Ms. Reno stood up and announced that she was going to have all of her department heads at the DOJ read Our Portion of Hell. While I should have been flattered, I was horrified that DOJ attorneys would sit around the table in the Attorney General’s conference room and read about my life, and then have a book club discussion about it.

While I was not comfortable being the subject of this book club discussion, I knew that Ms. Reno was trying to make an important point to the DOJ attorneys: she wanted them to know that their work in enforcing the law shaped, created, and changed the lives of millions in the nation. Indeed, in 1959, the Department of Justice sued white landowners in Fayette County under the 1957 Voting Rights Act to prevent them from interfering with African Americans right to vote. The Department of Justice also became a party to the 1965 school desegregation case, John McFerren, Jr. v. Fayette County Board of Education, where my brother served as the named plaintiff in a federal lawsuit to desegregate Fayette County Schools.  In her opinion, my parents’ activism and my life experiences represented what the law could achieve in its finest moments.  I finally persuaded Ms. Reno that I did not want to be “Exhibit A” for this department lesson and she dropped the idea – reluctantly so.

While I found Ms. Reno to be a very private person, she would reveal the most private details about her family and upbringing in a large crowd. It was apparent to me that she did so to show people she understood their suffering, concerns, and struggles because she was one of them.

In my final motorcade ride with Ms. Reno a few days near the end of President Bill Clinton’s Administration, Ms. Reno asked me about my plans at the end of that administration.  I told her I planned to stay in Washington, DC.  She sat thinking, while chewing on a pen (as she often did), and stated: “you need to go home!”  She continued, “you can spend the best years of your professional life living in Washington, going to the theatre, hanging out with people who went to the same schools you attended, and who are part of the same middle and upper-class circles you will travel in.  People are not MADE in Washington they are made in their hometowns.  If you are not careful, you will have spent the best years of life having made no contributions to the very community that created you.  GO HOME!”

Our communications did not end there. After she left office, I visited Ms. Reno at her home in Miami and attended an awards ceremony honoring her in Washington, DC.  Ms. Reno nearly scared a Hooks Institute graduate student to death, by calling the Hooks Institute and stating, “Hello this is Janet Reno, I’d like to speak to Daphene McFerren.” The graduate student came into my office looking stricken and said “JANET RENO IS ON THE LINE!  I am convinced Ms. Reno was chuckling on the other end.

Ms. Reno was so special to all who knew her.  She lived a life in service to others aspiring to the highest ideals of public service.  I will always remember the advice she gave me about making tough decisions:  In public life, “you are going to get criticized anyway, so you might as well do the right thing.” Ms. Reno tried to do the right thing as Attorney General of the United States. Equally as important, she cared deeply about and appreciated the people who worked for her and the people she served.  I am a lucky and grateful recipient of the gifts of her life.

I will deeply miss my mentor, friend, and former boss, Janet Reno, former Attorney General of the United States.

Daphene R. McFerren
Executive Director
The Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change