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University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Colloquium Archive

Alisse Portnoy

Name: Alisse Portnoy, University of Michigan

Presentation Title: "Imagining the Enemy as Rhetorical Strategy in the U.S. Black Freedom Movement"

Date: October 27, 2005

Abstract

Studies of the U.S. civil rights movement too often assume a common enemy (or enemies) for black freedom advocates. This oversight hides a crucial rhetorical component of the movement and its various factions: the power to name and define one’s enemies. Black freedom advocates frequently deployed contradictory constructions of movement enemies. Although they were grounded in shared perceptions of, for instance, conservatives such as Alabama governor George Wallace or mainstream politicians such as Lyndon B. Johnson, these competing imaginings of the "same" enemy nevertheless contributed to divisions within the movement. More significantly, however, they dramatically increased the means by which movement leaders could, and did, argue for large-scale sociopolitical change; these varied and often competing imaginings of movement enemies powerfully contributed to the rhetorical efficacy of the U.S. black freedom movement. The U.S. civil rights movement, then, provides us with a remarkable case with which to study the ways in which agonistic constructions of a “common” enemy powerfully contribute to rhetorical dimensions of large-scale sociopolitical change.

This case and this occasion—a talk in the Colloquium Series of the University of Illinois’s Center for Writing Studies—also provide us with an opportunity to talk about rhetoric/rhetorical studies/rhetoric and composition as (an) interdisciplinary endeavor(s). A brief part of the presentation, then, takes up the disciplinarity of rhetoric: what does it mean to talk about, and especially to write, our work for audiences composed primarily of literary critics, sociologists, historians, and other scholars whose disciplines have been influenced heavily by the linguistic turn in the humanities?