Traces of a Stream: Literacy and Social Change Among African American Women

My apprenticeship has been long and enlightening. I have learned to engage in a painstaking process of recovery and reconstruction; to use multidisciplinary sources; to count experience variously, especially when the people whose experience it was are no longer alive and when they did not always leave clear records of themselves. I have learned to cross-reference tidbits of information in making sense of evidence; to recognize an important story when I see it; to develop strategies for retelling it respectfully despite the inevitable missing pieces. What I have learned best, however, is the value of two virtues: the importance of caring about “the subject” and the importance of patience. ix

Even though Royster wasn’t next on my calendar, hers seemed like a good choice after the round of critical methodological self-reflection I’ve enjoyed recently from Canagarajah and Cintron. The more I read, the more I become interested in different methodological choices. I’m particularly interested in the acknowledgments sections of monographs because they reveal a lot about the authors as researchers. The above quotation is from Royster’s acknowledgements, a reflection of her carefully constructed research and a model for how we can think about the establishing relationships within research projects. Even within this small space, there’s also opportunity to think about the scholarly publishing process itself because Royster asks us to have patience—to slow down, to get to know our communities, to fairly and ethically represent them, to take the time to understand rather than simply make claims—a request that seems overwhelming when you think of dissertation/tenure/promotion deadlines.

Similar to Cintron, though, Royster asks us to reconsider these familiar scholarly practices. Cintron does this by calling into question ethnography and his particular employment of ethnography. Royster does this in her introduction by calling for alternative methods of reading. Her book itself sets a different expectation for the reader by refusing to forward claims for the sake of conforming to academic conventions. She writes, “A preliminary step in making sense is learning to look, listen and look again, to think well, and to speak as though knowledge is now and has always been in the making (8-9). Such a move forces us to consider what the purpose of research and scholarly inquiry is, to resist pushing an argument forward without thinking carefully about its implications. She adds, “I have tried consciously to resist being driven by the desire to assure that each step is a forward movement. By contrast the movement tends instead to be forward-looking, perhaps, but also somewhat meandering and recursive” (9). In many ways, I think of this book as an experiment in reading and reflecting and processing—not always the easiest task to do when you’re taking four classes (which I was the first time I encountered this book) or studying for comps (as I am now).

"[T]he goal [of research] is not simply to know and say but to understand" (ix).
Reframing the purpose of research–understand rather than knowing (ix).
Royster’s project is not to make claims about the “exclusivity of African American women’s actions” (9) or their importance as writers but instead to question what we can understand about literacy and African women based on this recovery work. The exigence for such a project is how seemingly little we know about African American writers. Royster argues that African American women have consistently found opportunities to speak up and out of their containments (racism, sexism, oppression). But because of this systematic oppression, their achievements seem remarkable rather than ordinary—preventing us from fully understanding their literacy practices (4). Periodically, though, these women have “flowed past the barriers, reconstituted themselves, and become noticeable as ‘traces of a stream’” (4).

Royster’s project, then, is to examine this dynamic movement of literacy acquisition using a theoretical framework that acknowledges the impact of a community’s material conditions on their literate abilities. To do this, she relies on the understanding that literacy is best understood by looking at the particular, by forming “thick descriptions” (Geertz 1973). Looking at the particular is not limited to a singular viewpoint, though, and Royster calls for a “kaleidoscopic view”—“views from different standpoints on the landscape” (6). This view is focused on elite African American woman of the nineteenth century—women who would have all benefited from the post-Civil War educational era—who participate in nonfiction prose, particularly essays.

Royster acknowledges that her subjectivity is that of the neutral scholar, but that, at times, she refuses to set aside that this is also a very personal research project that also affects her—a strategy she refers to as “strategic romanticism.” For her (and a significant reason why her work attracts me), a scholar “can be scholarly and still be ethically and pathetically connected to the subject” (13-14).

The book is structured into three parts: rhetorical, historical, and ideological. And although Royster tells us that the chapters are not linear as much as they are recursive, it’s still useful for me to conceptualize her arguments through a chapter breakdown.

Part One: A Rhetorical View

Chapter 1, “In Search of Rivers: Womanist Writers and the Essay” draws on Alice Walker’s definition of womanist to create space for the proactvism of African American women in what has largely been white, middle-class feminist analysis (19). This proactivism manifests in the essay—a genre useful for cultural critique and discussing issues of sociopolitical import. There are two rhetorical assumptions that Royster notes here: first, that African American women write rhetorically—with specific, deliberate intention; and second, “the material conditions of life and work for African American women significantly shape and inform the manner and means of their rhetorical behavior” (26). These are significant because they contribute to Royster’s desire to understand the role material conditions play in the acquisition of literacy, how these practices develop over time, and how activism is connected to writing (25). Such questions ask us to pay attention to the impact that material realities place on AA women and to think about how literacy is acquired because of, and in spite of, such conditions.

And although not something I picked up on the first time around, it’s interesting that Royster focuses on rhetorical situation here. The traditional relationship—communicator, audience, and message—is largely grounded in experience, in particular times and place, and are thus malleable and shifting (31). This sets up the next chapter because Royster argues that the proactivism of the essay shifts this relationship toward concerns of context, ethos, and rhetorical action (32).

In Chapter 2, “Toward an Analytical Model for Literacy and Socipolitical Action,” Royster argues that we need to reconceptualize literacy from a neutral artifact to a subjective tool. Acts of literacy are subjective because they both reflect on the rhetor’s choices and the cultural constraints associated with language and literacy acquisition (43). Literacy as a sociopolitical action acknowledges literacy as part of a complex system of understandings and intent, of knowing and beliefs. Royster notes that the writer’s purpose is “to understand the world around her; to determine how she should face and negotiate literacy challenges, given her knowledge and experience; and to determine what she should actually do to perform in a way that produces desired effects, in this case the appropriate change in thinking, perception, attitudes, and behavior” (48). This comes back to the idea of the shifted rhetorical situation because it focuses on the world (context), making choices based on experience (ethos) and acting appropriately (rhetorical action). Royster adds, “Symbolically, their lives became literacy in action, that is, an empowered use of literacy in the interests of action, social consciousness, and social responsibility” (61). It’s also useful to mention here that while Royster rejects the literacy/orality binary, she acknowledges the difference between the acquisitions of spoken language and literate expertise (62). Her project, then, considers both the formal and informal learning and rhetorical training that influence AA women’s rhetorical performances.

Part Two: A Historical View

In Chapter 3, “The Genesis of Authority: When African Women Became American,” Royster looks at the lives of African women, historicizing beyond Euro-American experiences, in order to better understand the cultural influences of the women writers whose stories she hopes to recover (79). African experiences have been (and are frequently) overlooked due to European-centered biases, the dominance of European and male perspectives in these histories, a lack of scholarly interest, and the nontraditional historical sources needed for recovery work (81). Royster’s task, then, is to reestablish ancestral connections while also establishing a sense of the “ancestral voice” (82). She argues that there are African cultural overflows through language that manifests in African American communities, seen in a broadened sense of “tribe,” a value placed on generations, a codepdnece with community, mutual benefit, and the embracing of a “wholeness” (86). These factors are important for considering women writers because they were influenced by African women who brought ethos (positive redefinition of self), female power (autonomy & authority), women’s “rights” (roles and expectations), a sense of womanly work and responsibility, and ideas about cooperating engaging in complex tasks (103).

This chapter is particularly interesting for the methodology that she discusses for drawing these cultural, ancestral—seemingly ethereal—connections. Recreating these experiences and voices involves a certain level of imagination in both our research and our scholarship—imagination that “commit[s] to making connections and seeing possibility” (83). Critical imagination doesn’t relieve the research from doing good or careful work; rather, it acknowledges the difficulty of making grand claims about Truth without overstepping the bounds of possibility (84).

In Chapter 4, “Going against the Grain: The Acquisition and Use of Literacy,” Royster offers a historical look at how AA women, aware of their very real material conditions, gained literacy in an “environment of activism, advocacy, and action” (110). Royster’s focus here is to examine how the context of slavery influenced particular patterns of action and belief and the acquisition of literacy before and after Emancipation. These women held multiple roles—mothers, workers, cultural preservers—and used stories and metaphors to impart knowledge, to interpret and reinterpret the world for their listeners (112). The Industrial Age saw the development of cotton-centered technologies, creating a new form of economic viability, and a decrease in the (formal) educational opportunities of AA slaves (126). Though insurrections were becoming more common, whites believed that if slaves were ignorant of these facts (i.e. were denied literacy and were unable to read about the events), they would remain docile bodies (127). Literacy activists—including Quakers, women, freed slaves—in the late 17th and early 18th centuries established school structures to educate AA children. But despite considerable progress, educational opportunities were disappearing at the turn of the 19th century, forcing many into more private (informal) contexts—African Americans teaching themselves from within their own homes, slaves learning from their masters, and some from the children and wives who they escorted or waited upon.

Royster points to an important distinction here between situated ethos and invented ethos. Situated ethos “acknowledges the existence of power relationships within the communicative environment, and the need, in this case, for African American women to define themselves against stereotypes and cultural expectations” (168). And invented ethos “acknowledges the need of these writers, therefore, to invent themselves in writing space and to create their own sense of authority, agency, and power within the text” (168).

Chapter Five, “From This Fertile Ground: The Development of Rhetorical Prowess,” takes a slightly different term in the sense that Royster zooms in on some specific literacy practices in higher education and professional community organizations. Whereas the previous chapters focus on more informal literacy acquisition through cultural influences, this chapter explores more formal literacy practices through training and professional work—illustrated in the examples of the Black Clubwomen’s Movement and the African American Periodical Press—reinforcing the power of nonfiction genres (ie. the essay).

Part Three: An Ideological View

In the final chapter, “A View from a Bridge: Afrafeminist Ideologies and Rhetorical Studies,” Royster focuses on her own standpoint as a researcher and scholar of a “multiply marginalized group” using the different frameworks of rhetorical studies, literacy studies, and feminist studies (251). She experienced challenges of her ethos as a scholar and member of the group in question, describing her creation of a proactive (versus reactive) space from which to interpret. These challenges are based in what Royster calls “deep disbeliefs,” which “seem so ingrained they actually short-circuit a more inclusive knowledge-making process and limit the impact of challenges, however large or small, to predominant interpretive frameworks” (254). Her approach to academic writing within this system is two-fold: she situates herself within the community that she studies (AA women) and her academic community (AA rhetorical scholar). This position—as an African American woman studying the material realities of African American women—pushes Royster to define herself as an “afrafeminist researcher” (256).

Influenced by what Patricia Hill-Collins describes as Black feminist consciousness, Royster offers a definition of what it means to be an afrafeminist researcher:

My goal as an afrafeminist researcher in rhetorical studies is to interrogate the literate practices of women of African descent in ways that enable me to find and collect data; to sort through, interrogate, and assess those data meaningfully; to draw implications that are well centered in the knowledge and experience of the group; and also to render interpretations that are recognizable by the group itself as meaningful, instructive, and usable. 273

Perhaps as a useful final note, like her attention to the social construction of knowledge-making, Royster also reflects on her methodology, particularly working with a community. She writes, “We speak and interpret with the community, not just for the community, or about the community” (275)—an important reminder for how to ethically represent the voices of the communities that we hope to work with and that we often exist within. And because I can’t resist, a final methodological reflection:

This approach embodies the notion that the mind, heart, body, and soul operate collectively and requires intellectual work to include four sites of critical regard: careful analysis, acknowledgment of passionate attachments, attention to ethical action, and commitment to social responsibility. 279



Royster, Jacqueline Jones. Traces of a Stream: Literacy and Social Change Among African American Women. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000. Print.

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