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The Conceit of Context

Resituating Domains in Rhetorical Studies

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Edited By Charles E. Morris III and Kendall R. Phillips

This edited volume features essays derived from presentations delivered at the 15th Biennial Public Address Conference held at Syracuse University in October 2016, as well as additional material. The Conceit of Context explores the often invoked—indeed a central term in the history of rhetorical studies—but less often engaged concept of context. In this volume, we center the notion of context as the site of engagement, critique, and imagination, seeking to deepen the critical and political promise of context in the study of public discourse.

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22 A Cautionary Note on Context, Memory, and the Regulation of Black Womanhood (Antonio de Velasco)

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Antonio de Velasco

Although I share its broader goals, I believe Poirot’s argument raises more questions about contextual placement, rhetorical inquiry, and historical memory than it settles. The essay’s attempt to correct how we gender civil rights struggle introduces added difficulties, beyond those already present, into the matter of how rhetoricians ought to contextualize activist legacies of black women. We can better situate—and commemorate—the political and cultural work of black women when we see it less in terms of white supremacy’s notions of femininity, and more in terms of how black women have strategically and uniquely engaged in their own self-fashioning.

Poirot highlights the means through which traditions of civil rights commemoration diminish black women’s contributions to civil rights struggle. Seemingly favorable renderings of black women, she contends, have in fact been steered largely by norms of southern white womanhood. As such, her argument deals with rhetorics of context: civil rights memory has (mis)placed black women into an historically inaccurate and racially inappropriate setting that misses the true nature and scope of their contribution.

Since at least the late 19th century, black women themselves have pointed to how sex and gender infuse the practices and traditions of white supremacy, as well as the rhetorical foundations of black resistance. On one front, you had what Ida B. Wells called the “old threadbare lie that Negro men rape white women” at any opportunity. To white men who justified lynching on the...

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