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Liberating Language

Sites of Rhetorical Education in Nineteenth-Century Black America

Shirley Wilson Logan

Publication Year: 2008

Liberating Language identifies experiences of nineteenth-century African Americans—categorized as sites of rhetorical education—that provided opportunities to develop effective communication and critical text-interpretation skills. Author Shirley Wilson Logan considers how nontraditional sites, which seldom involved formal training in rhetorical instruction, proved to be effective resources for African American advancement.

Logan traces the ways that African Americans learned lessons in rhetoric through language-based activities associated with black survival in nineteenth-century America, such as working in political organizations, reading and publishing newspapers, maintaining diaries, and participating in literary societies. According to Logan, rhetorical training was manifested through places of worship and military camps, self-education in oratory and elocution, literary societies, and the black press. She draws on the experiences of various black rhetors of the era, such as

Frederick Douglass, Frances Harper, Fanny Coppin, Charles Chesnutt, Ida B. Wells, and the lesser-known Oberlin-educated Mary Virginia Montgomery, Virginia slave preacher "Uncle Jack," and former slave "Mrs. Lee."

Liberating Language addresses free-floating literacy, a term coined by scholar and writer Ralph Ellison, which captures the many settings where literacy and rhetorical skills were acquired and developed, including slave missions, religious gatherings, war camps, and even cigar factories. In Civil War camp- sites, for instance, black soldiers learned to read and write, corresponded with the editors of black newspapers, edited their own camp-based papers, and formed literary associations.

Liberating Language outlines nontraditional means of acquiring rhetorical skills and demonstrates how African Americans, faced with the lingering consequences of enslavement and continuing oppression, acquired rhetorical competence during the late eighteenth century and throughout the nineteenth century.


Published by: Southern Illinois University Press


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pp. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. 2-9


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pp. 10-11

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pp. xi-15

First, I have been blessed with a loving, supportive family for whom I am constantly thankful—John, Enid, Malcolm, Youlanda, Monica, Chandler Elise, and an amazing host of others. I also appreciate colleagues who suggested sites of rhetorical education and pointed me in the right direction. I benefited greatly from the advice of two persistent anonymous reviewers. There are few services to ...

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pp. 1-9

For centuries, curious observers have asked black speakers and writers, “Where did you learn to use the English language so effectively?” Determined to answer this question, eighteen of Boston’s leading citizens put Phillis Wheatley through an extensive oral examination and pronounced her, even though “brought an uncultivated Barbarian from Africa,” sufficiently “qualified to write” her 1773 Poems on Various Subjects.1 The resulting papers of ...

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1. Free-Floating Literacy

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pp. 10-28

In considering the ways in which the first African Americans acquired various forms of rhetorical education, we must remember that this obtained literacy was a literacy in the English language. While this might seem to be an obvious point, I state it here to distinguish lack of literacy in a particular language from lack of intelligence, a distinction often lost in much of the discourse regarding ...

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2. Private Learners

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pp. 29-57

This chapter considers more closely the private learner, a term used in the nineteenth century to describe the individual who engaged in some form of self-education. Nan Johnson observes that this learner was more visible in the late nineteenth century, when rhetorical ability became as much a personal asset as an essential tool of civic activism. During this period, interest in ...

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3. Mental Feasts

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pp. 58-95

African Americans created societies for self-improvement, general racial uplift, and mutual aid as early as 1780, when the African Union Society was organized in Newport, Rhode Island.1 Black educational societies developed subsequently with expanded goals and were variously called literary, educational, reading-room, or debating societies and lyceums.2 Their development ...

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4. Organs of Propaganda

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pp. 96-134

The first half of the nineteenth century in America has been characterized as “oratorical,” in that the ideals of responsible citizenship were conveyed largely through the public speaker. The medium of print was employed in part to reproduce and comment on the oral performance. Gregory Clark and S. Michael Halloran observe that “the orator had a central cultural role: to ...


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pp. 137-160


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pp. 161-171


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pp. 173-181

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Author Bio

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pp. 197-197

Shirley Wilson Logan is a professor of English at the University of Maryland, where she teaches courses in the history and practice of rhetoric and composition with an emphasis on nineteenth-century African American texts. Her publications include With Pen and Voice: A Critical Anthology of Nineteenth-Century African-American Women (1995), “We Are Coming”: The Persuasive ...

Back Cover

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pp. 198-198

E-ISBN-13: 9780809387120
E-ISBN-10: 0809387123
Print-ISBN-13: 9780809328727
Print-ISBN-10: 0809387123

Page Count: 224
Publication Year: 2008

OCLC Number: 435824420
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Liberating Language