No Future in this Country: Book Talk with Andre E. Johnson (Video)

The Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change hosted the Inaugural Hooks Social Justice Series event where Hooks Scholar in Residence Andre E. Johnson gave a lecture on his book, No Future in This Country: The Prophetic Pessimism of Bishop Henry McNeal Turner. The event was moderated by UofM Communication and Film graduate student Tom Fuerst and took place February 24 at 1pm CST on the Hooks Institute’s Facebook Page and was free and open to the public.

About the book:

No Future in This Country: The Prophetic Pessimism of Bishop Henry McNeal Turner (University Press of Mississippi, 2020) draws on the copious amount of material from Bishop Henry McNeal Turner’s speeches, editorial, and open and private letters to tell the story of how Turner provided rhetorical leadership during a period in which America defaulted on many of the rights and privileges gained for African Americans during Reconstruction. Unlike many of his contemporaries during this period, Turner did not opt to proclaim an optimistic view of race relations. Instead, Johnson argues that Turner adopted a prophetic persona of a pessimistic prophet who not only spoke truth to power but, in so doing, also challenged and pushed African Americans to believe in themselves.

At this time in his life, Turner had no confidence in American institutions or that the American people would live up to the promises outlined in their sacred documents. While he argued that emigration was the only way for African Americans to retain their “personhood” status, he would also believe that African Americans would never emigrate to Africa. He argued that many African Americans were so oppressed and so stripped of agency because continued negative assessments of their personhood surrounded them that belief in emigration was not possible. Turner’s position limited his rhetorical options, but by adopting a pessimistic prophetic voice that bore witness to the atrocities African Americans faced, Turner found space for his oratory, which reflected itself within the lament tradition of prophecy.

 

Free-ish Since 1865: The Meaning of Juneteenth

by Michael Brandon McCormack

With our heightened awareness of the Tulsa Massacre, Juneteenth, for many of us will “hit differently” this year. People who have never celebrated, and, yes, some who had never heard of, Juneteenth are celebrating this year. And that’s no shade to anybody who is just now learning about Juneteenth because we know that Black history has been erased, avoided, distorted, and inadequately taught in our public school systems- or for that matter in our universities. Even some of us who know about Juneteenth, or celebrate it, don’t know much about the history behind the holiday.

We just know that it is Black folks’ alternative to the 4th of July. The 4th of July, a holiday that celebrates American independence from the British, in 1776, at a time when chattel slavery was still deeply entrenched in the fabric of the United States, which celebrated its freedom while keeping people of African descent in bondage.

This contradiction between independence and bondage is what prompted abolitionist, Frederick Douglas, to pose the provocative question in 1852, “What to the slave is your 4th of July?” Douglas answered his own rhetorical question, insisting, “I answer, a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.” Frederick Douglas spoke these words in 1852, more than a decade before Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

But, make no mistake, it was not Abraham Lincoln who “freed the enslaved.” Enslaved Africans had been struggling, resisting, and fighting to free themselves for centuries; they had been striking blows at slavery with every mutiny on the ships, with every uprising on the plantation, with every destruction of tools, with every poisoning of the master’s food, with every abolitionist speech, with every late-night spiritual in the hush harbor encouraging their brothers and sisters to “steal away to Jesus,” which was code for escape. Enslaved Africans were not just sitting back waiting for Abraham Lincoln, the prototypical white savior figure, Black folks exerted their agency in the struggle for freedom. So, when the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, in 1863, it just made official, what Black folks had been fighting for since 1619.

But it wouldn’t be until June 19th, 1865, a full two and a half years later, that word of freedom would reach the furthest corners of the Confederacy. It wasn’t until Union Army Major General Gordon Granger and 1,800 federal troops finally “pulled up” in Galveston and served notice, with General Orders No.3, stating “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free,” that it finally became official that slavery had legally ended in the United States.

And, when enslaved Africans heard the news, some were shocked, others set out to find family and friends who had been sold away, but many began to celebrate their legal emancipation. And, that celebration was the beginning of what we now call Juneteenth. So, first and foremost, Juneteenth is a day of celebration. We celebrate our ancestor’s struggles for freedom. We celebrate the sacrifices they made so that we could be here today. We celebrate, and give thanks, to all of those who lived and died and paved the way for us. So, it’s a celebration! We turn up! We barbeque. We dance. We play spades. We have pageants. Our Texas brothers and sisters have rodeos. Our Louisville brothers and sisters sip bourbon.

But Juneteenth is not just a day of celebration. It’s also a day of education. It is a day where we commit to educating ourselves on the history of Black people in America, and throughout the African diaspora, that has been erased, denied, and distorted. It is also a day for political education and consciousness-raising. Many have protested the injustices that are happening all across this country and that’s good. But we also need to educate ourselves on the policies and ideologies behind the issues that we’re protesting. We need to understand the ins and outs of different positions on reforming, disinvesting, and abolishing, not just the police, but the entire prison industrial complex and dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline. It’s a day to educate ourselves not only on policing, proper, but on all of the various ways that Black and poor and immigrant and queer and trans bodies are policed and controlled and surveilled and disciplined and punished in this country by everyday citizens, employers, teachers, and others. It’s a day of education because our ancestors have always understood that knowledge is power.

But Juneteenth is not just a day of celebration and education. It’s also a day of agitation. It is a day of recommitting ourselves to the ongoing Black freedom struggle. We know that while slavery was legally abolished in 1865, it was never fully eradicated. Sadiya Hartman argues that we are dealing with the afterlife of slavery. Slavery takes on new forms and permutations. White supremacy, anti-blackness, state-sponsored and vigilante violence, captivity, and Black death still plague us day in and day out. While we celebrate freedom on Juneteenth, we know that Juneteenth reminds us that for Black Americans, full freedom has always been denied, delayed, or diluted. That’s why we have Juneteenth shirts that say “Free-ish” since 1865. We’ve never been fully free, just free-ish, but every day, we’re fighting to get free-er and free-er.

With every generation, we have fought, or agitated, for a fuller realization of our freedom. And, despite what we often hear to the contrary, by news media and critics, this generation of young people and millennials are some of the fiercest freedom fighters we’ve ever seen. These young people are out here agitating, and disturbing the peace so that we can get free-er, and free-er, and free-er. They are calling for us not just to end police brutality, but to completely reimagine our notions of public safety. But, we’ve got to agitate not just for the reimagination and transformation of public safety, but also public education, and public housing, and public health, and public resources, and our entire conception of the public good.

And that takes all of us. All of us have work to do. Fred Hampton Jr. reminded us that all of us are not going to be some front-line freedom fighters, but all of us have a role to play in striking a blow for freedom! Activists have a role to play, politicians have a role to play, business owners have a role to play, educators have a role to play, ministers have a role to play, artists have a role to play, parents have a role to play, children have a role to play, you have a role to play, and I have a role to play. And not just the educated, professional, middle class, well-spoken, respectable folks, but the unemployed and those without formal education, our brothers and sisters in the streets, the so-called thugs and sex workers- all of us have a role to play in this ongoing Black freedom struggle!

Happy Juneteenth, y’all let’s celebrate this ongoing struggle for freedom!

Michael Brandon McCormack is a Hooks Academic Research Fellow and Associate Professor of Pan-African Studies and Comparative Humanities (Religious Studies) at the University of Louisville.

 

Black History Matters

by Elizabeth M. Gillespie

Nikole Hannah-Jones sparked a ripple effect of social change. It cannot be stopped now. She took her boulder of knowledge that is the 1619 Project and dropped it on the world. Tenured or not, the impact and influence of her work and the ripple effect of change it creates will be felt forevermore. Her contributions to consciousness-raising and creating a more just and equal society warrant her own place in the annuals of history. Still, Nikole Hannah-Jones challenged the status quo and, thus, she was subjected to what all great and brave challengers face – push back

Power never bends willingly, especially when it comes to demands for change to the status quo. Hannah-Jones’ tenure denial reflects this age-old fact, but it also brings up other bigger issues that we must address as a country. Firstly, what are the dangers of continuing to marginalize Black history in our education system, and secondly, what can we do to set a new precedent, one where Black history is taught as American history? At a time when more students are demanding an inclusive and fuller history be taught and greater efforts are being made at the state level to integrate Black history into schools, the time is now to embrace and adopt the 1619 Project.

Some of the consequences of marginalizing Black history to one short month a year are obvious. The Johns Hopkins University Institute for Education Policy found that few schools “teach Black history well.” In fact, the average American has a “spotty” knowledge of slavery and may only know a bit more about the Civil Rights Movement. A 2015 study found only 8 -9% of total class time (1 to 2 lessons) is devoted to Black history. Perhaps one reason for the lack of Black history in the American classroom is because teachers report feeling uncomfortable teaching about slavery and having a lack of resources to do so properly (not to mention 79% of K-12 teachers are white). There is also the issue that despite some states seeking to do more to teach Black history, other states are actively signing bills into law banning the teaching of Critical Race Theory.

We remain woefully uneducated about Black history and Black contributions to our country, which indicates a missed opportunity to foster a more understanding and sympathetic society. According to some, the reasons for failing to teach more Black history are twofold: it forces us to address our “ugly” past and it demands changes to our current American narrative. The failure to accurately and fully teach Black history in the U.S. impedes all progress and efforts to be better as a society. It heavily implies we are not as educated of a citizenry as we think. The continued denial and marginalization of Black history is both absurd, considering the truth about Black history in America is out there, and dangerous. It’s dangerous because teaching history only from the perspective of the “victors” or of the “powers that be” promotes and perpetuates racism through institutions and systems of power. This approach to history also precariously encourages a sense of white tribalism. The bottom line is that history is important and how it is told matters.

One might argue at the collegiate level, students are able to take electives that incorporate or focus entirely on Black history and are exposed to different cultures and ways of thinking, all of which lead to greater contact with diversity and new knowledge. Is this enough? What must we do to fully incorporate and teach Black history as American history? First, we start by doing just that. We must update and adapt our ways of thinking and doing by amalgamating Black history into all of American history. This means teaching the myriad of ways systems, institutions, and people have worked to oppress Black people in this country. It also means teaching about the many triumphs and achievements of Black individuals, groups, organizations, and cultures too. As Jania Hoover explained it, “the Black experience is not one dimensional” and, yet, it’s taught as such. To teach of their accomplishments, including the work of Hannah-Jones, we teach equality.

Crucially, we also have to train and develop our educators on Black history and provide the necessary tools and voices needed to give justice to the telling of Black history as American history. When it comes to teaching Black history at colleges and universities, we must not sugarcoat the truth. It’s a history that deserves to be told factually and with care to ensure Black voices and experiences are heard and validated. Sometimes, though, it takes enough people to want a change for a change to happen. Hannah-Jones did her part. It’s the rest of us that must demand change in our educational system and institutions.

Elizabeth M. Gillespie is a Benjamin L. Hooks Institute Academic Research Fellow and assistant professor in the Department of Public and Nonprofit Administration at the University of Memphis.

Hooks Fellows Publish Essays in Listening Journal

We are pleased to announce that the following Hooks Fellows have essays in the latest issue of the Listening: A Journal of Communication Ethics, Religion, and Culture. Hooks Scholar in Residence, Andre E. Johnson guest-edited the special issue on Listening to African American Call Narratives and also has an essay in the issue titled, “Taking the Inward Journey: Prophetic Rhetoric’s Listening Function.”

In the essay, I examine what he calls “prophetic rhetoric’s listening function.” I ask, “how does the prophet know what the prophet declares? How does the prophet know what to say, when to say it, and how to say it? How does the prophet know when a rebirthing moment is taking place? How does the prophet get this revelation and thereby become empowered to share this “new” vision with society? I, therefore, maintains that before the prophet speaks or offers a prophetic witness, the one adopting a prophetic persona must engage in prophetic listening by way of taking the inward journey.

In “Must Thee Take the Man Exclusively”: Jarena Lee and Claiming the Right to Preach,Kimberly P. Johnson analyzes the feminist and womanist characteristics embedded in Jarena Lee’s autobiography and in her 1807 sermon in order to show how the two holistically work together to combat racism and sexism. More specifically, she examines Lee’s innate use of feminist and womanist discourse, which confronted the divisive structures of her religious denomination and the dominant power structures of social oppression, and the ways in which she broke down, resisted, and transcended religious patriarchy and social oppression.

In “A Wounded Healer: The HIV/AIDS Rhetoric of Rev. James L. Cherry,” Christopher A. House uses oral history methodology through an in-depth interview conducted with Rev.James Cherry, to examine the religiosity of the church leader in the vanguard of HIV/AIDS ministry within the Rochester, New York area. He does this by “exploring the rhetorical practices of Cherry, a national board member of the oldest and largest not-for-profit organization of its kind in the United States, the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS (BLCA). In so doing, House examines the ways in which Cherry deployed efforts to fulfill BLCA’s mission of educating, organizing, and empowering “Black leadership, including clergy, elected officials, medical practitioners, business professionals, social policy experts, and the media to meet the challenge of fighting HIV/AIDS in their local communities.”

In “Listening for the Call: Did I Get It Right,” Annette Madlock Gatison reflects on the role of call in her academic career. She writes, “Our ability to hear and discern and to not be influenced by how others see our call and role, or other life challenges can be difficult and at times conflicting. Well-meaning folk will quietly or loudly share their opinions. Our own voice with societal rules that are at times contrary to what God is saying or that are designed to fit the way we think it ought to be can be disheartening and confusing. It is my experience that clarity only
comes when you step out on faith.”

You can read these essays and others in the special issue here.

The Role of Faith in the Movement for Black Lives

On April 19, 2021, I had the opportunity to address the Canadian Forces College National Security Program. They were “virtually” touring cities in the American South to learn more about the particular needs of the population in each city. I was on the panel with Dr. Katherine Lambert-Pennington and Hooks Academic Research Fellow, Dr. Courtnee Mellon-Fant. Below is part of my presentation that addressed the role of faith in the movement for Black lives. 

 

In her important work chronicling the role of faith in the early days of the Ferguson resistance, Leah Gunning Francis argued that many of the BLM activists and protesters in the streets of Ferguson “demonstrated a very particular kind of embodiment of scripture and faith” and that activists “sought meaning through scripture in connection with their work for justice.”

Francis’ book is important because not only does the book chronicle the early days of the Ferguson resistance and the activism of BLM, but the book also chronicles the role of faith in those early days as well. It is important because the role of faith in BLM has always been one of contention. For instance, unlike the Civil Rights movement that it is often compared to, people often do not associate BLM as a faith-inspired movement or one that has anything to do with spirituality. This interpretation of the movement comes from a discourse that suggests perceived silence from churches—especially Black churches, during the early days of the movement.

However, despite the misgivings above on the role of faith and BLM, this did not stop many people of faith from joining the movement. In our research for our book, The Struggle Over Black Lives Matter and All Lives Matter, Amanda Nell Edgar and I in chapter 3, focused on our participant’s use of religious language and their own understandings of religion, faith, and spirituality that described their involvement with BLM. In short, we examine the “rhetoric of these narratives and examine how participants say that their faith, religion, or spirituality led them to support #BlackLivesMatter both online and “out in the streets.” What we discovered was that for many Black participants, the movement motivated a return to get more involved with their faith as well as an appreciation for the legacy of the Black Church.

BLM, Pentecostal Piety and the Role of Faith

But, how did people of faith reconcile the history of BLM and their own religious beliefs? One way that religion and communication scholar Christopher A. House suggest is that “many BLM activists self-identify as “spiritual but not religious” and their activism is animated by a deep spirituality that is personal, yet not connected traditionally to a religious institution. One of the BLM founders, Patrice Cullors remarked in an interview:

When you are working with people who have been directly impacted by state violence and heavy policing in our communities, it is really important that there is a connection to the spirit world. For me, seeking spirituality had a lot to do with trying to seek understanding about my conditions—how these conditions shape me in my everyday life and how do I understand them as part of a larger fight, a fight for my life. People’s resilience, I think, is tied to their will to live, our will to survive, which is deeply spiritual. The fight to save your life is a spiritual fight.

Elise Edwards suggests that while people who are engaging spirit “know that social transformation involves politics and policy,” they also believe that “transformative work is ultimately a spiritual effort that requires a shift in consciousness.” She also notes that this transformation is “dependent on inner change, the type of reorientation that religionists call conversion.” While this “spiritual transformation does not necessarily require the aid of formalized religious communities, African American communities have consistently drawn on Black religion to propel and sustain transformative justice movements and cultivate resistance to racism and other death-dealing forces.”

Our findings show the importance of spirit as well. As we ask participants how does your faith, or the role of spirit play in their support of BLM, many of them not only saw a connection but for some, it was a major reason for being part of the movement. In listening to their answers to our questions of faith and religion, much of it sounded like Andrew Wilkes’ notion of “Pentecostal Piety.”

For him, he sees this type of spirituality as crossing denominational, religious, faith, and moral lines because it has before. He writes

Although the civil rights movement is commonly linked with the Baptist denomination of Christianity, we don’t do it justice to remember it as denominational simply because it was so strongly associated with a certain, charismatic Christian clergyman of color. The ideas animating the movement were of far more diverse origin. The civil rights movement saw Black folks (and non-Black folks) consecrate the American dream by way of the prophetic Baptist theology of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, yes. But it also involved the anointed agnosticism of Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s founding executive director and the generative force of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Ella Baker. The radical Quaker vision of a Bayard Rustin next to the ethical humanism of an Asa Phillip Randolph were also blended in. And also in the mix was the subtle, yet significant tradition of faith-filled lay activists like Fannie Lou Hamer and Marian Wright Edelman.

Drawing from Wilkes, we note two major points about Pentecostal piety. First, Pentecostal piety places a heavy emphasis on the role of the spirit, and second, Pentecostal piety places a priority on prophetic action. Wilkes calls it a “subversive civil religion.” If this is true, then it is a civil religion that functions as a prophetic witness.

Many of our respondents would agree that BLM acts as a prophetic movement that provides a prophetic witness to the contextual realities faced by many African Americans. If this is true, then BLM is part of the long African American prophetic tradition. This tradition was

Birth from slavery and shaped in Jim and Jane Crow America, the African American version of the prophetic tradition has been the primary vehicle that has comforted and given voice to many African Americans. Through struggle and sacrifice, this tradition has expressed Black people’s call for unity and cooperation, as well as the community’s anger and frustrations. It has been both hopeful and pessimistic. It has celebrated the beauty and myth of American exceptionalism and its special place in the world, while at the same time damning it to hell for not living up to the promises and ideals America espouses. It is a tradition that celebrates both the Creator or the Divine’s hand in history—offering “hallelujahs” for deliverance from slavery and Jim and Jane Crow, while at the same time asking, “Where in the hell is God?” during tough and trying times. It is a tradition that develops a theological outlook quite different at times from orthodoxy—one that finds God very close, but so far away.

BLM is then just the latest in the history of people standing up and providing clarity and witness to the atrocities happening to Black bodies.

Conclusion

Though many believed that Black Churches were not as active as they once were, many understood the tradition and the legacy of the Civil Rights movement and saw themselves as connected to the tradition. The tradition also gave participants theological license to rethink, reshape, and reimagine what spirituality would look like in the BLM movement. This too, as we attempted to show, is part of the Black religious tradition. Birth in the resistance of a narrative that told Black people that they were not created in the image of God, Black people always had to put forth narratives that not only included them but also remind them that they too mattered.

For participants of faith, BLM offered a way of understanding a personal relationship with spirituality as a bridge to past civil rights leaders. In this way, larger movement history worked to draw in new social justice participants implicitly through their individual connections to the Spirit. BLM is not an explicitly religious organization. Yet the history of Black liberation organizes bubbles beneath the movement for Black lives. When activists engage in a spirituality that moves from moral suasion to bearing witness, they are discovering new and transformative ways to handle issues, problems, and concerns that Black people face daily. As a liberative and prophetic movement, BLM activists have drawn of the Black liberationists movements of the past and discerned the contextual realities confronting them today. In so doing, just like the civil rights activists that went before them, BLM is no different in that regard.

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

Reflections from the Derek Chauvin Verdict

George Flyod MuralOn April 20, 2021, a jury found Derek Chauvin guilty of the death of George Floyd. Many took to social media to share their thoughts on the trial and the verdict. We here at Uplift thought we would share some of those comments. 

 

 

Let’s say that Derek Chauvin is convicted and appropriately sentenced for the murder of an unarmed black man named George Floyd. Even if the best-case scenario is realized, it’s just one. One man. One conviction. One appropriate sentencing. Countless unarmed black people continue to die at the hands of police officers. 12 jurors cannot balance the scales of 400 years of white violence against black bodies and spirits. I can’t find hope in one conviction. It’s bad math. Hope happens when we change the equation. When every black person encounters white officers and the outcome is respect, recognition of each other’s humanity, and life not death. One trial, regardless of the outcome, cannot do that.-Ebony Utley

We now know exactly how depraved one has to be in order to be found guilty of murdering a Black person in the United States of America. And, just how much evidence is needed. The level of protest that is required. Justice shouldn’t be so hard. I truly pray that Mr. Floyd’s family finds some peace after this. What about the family of Daunte Wright, however? Or Adam Toledo? Breonna Taylor? Sandra Bland? Ayanna Jones? Michael Brown? I could go on, but, well, I’d run out of space. I wish I felt happier. What I mostly feel, however, is tired. And sad. We’re at a crossroads. Which path will we choose? It’s time to end the system of Warrior Cops. New systems of Community Policing must be established. The system we have protects property, not people. That’s what it was created to do. It’s time to try something new. #blacklivesmatter #AbolishThePoliceAmritaChakrabarti Myers

I’m not sure I completely realized how deeply this case was affecting me. I can’t stop shaking right now literally I can’t stop shaking— I don’t feel relief as much as grief because—in waiting for this trial to come and go—I have not been able to properly grieve. Seeing Chauvin taken away in handcuffs finally allowed me to grieve.-Yohuru Williams

A very strange relief. We are so used to racism winning. It’s so insidious. I will not celebrate that someone was convicted for murdering someone on camera, in front of the world, and showed no hint of remorse after. I am relieved, but, a conviction is at least what should be expected. One of the insidious racial moves is to make Chauvin a poster boy for the label “bad apple.” What we actually need to do is reassess the entire practice of policing. That was on trial, too.-Reggie Williams

I was 21 when the verdict came down for Rodney King. I am crying now. Not because justice has been served, but because of how many times justice hasn’t been served. I have been tense since the trial started because I firmly believed that Chauvin was going to get off scot-free. They are killing us, the punishment of one doesn’t stop that fact. Over 64 people have died at the hands of the police since this trial started. So, I am relieved, happy his family has some semblance of justice. But, I already know how much value my country puts on my life. And I will not forget.-Kimberly N. Brown

A man is dead. A guilty verdict is satisfying in a bittersweet way and will not bring him back. The American justice system has so failed and traumatized black people that many of us have no faith in it at all. So much so, that when what should be an “open and shut” case is actually decided correctly, we are surprised and relieved. The system has been known to turn on its own when doing so is necessary to preserve itself. I’ll celebrate when convictions become the “rule” and are no longer surprise “exceptions. We still have a lot of work to do.-Xavier L. Johnson

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.