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Composition Forum 16, Fall 2006

Royster, Jacqueline Jones, and Ann Marie Mann Simpkins, eds. Calling Cards: Theory and Practice in the Study of Race, Gender, and Culture. Albany: SUNY Press, 2005. 303 pp.

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Carol Steen

Featuring seventeen essays, an introduction by Jacqueline Royster, and a closing collaborative piece in which the contributors reflect on the collection as a whole, Calling Cards addresses a wide variety of topics, including pedagogic practices, theories about rhetoric, race, and gender, and interdisciplinary methodological approaches to researching and writing about identities. The collection is divided into the following sections: “Rethinking Race, Whiteness, Gender, and Class,” “Refiguring Culture, History, and Methodology,” and “(Re)Forming Analytical Paradigms.” The chapters within each section are arranged specifically to demonstrate the ways in which a focus on “race, gender, and culture disrupt[s] discourses,” expands fields of knowledge, and calls for renovations of “interpretive frameworks and language” when analyzing, teaching, and writing about these subjects (xiii). The editors point out that this collection departs from many others in that it does not have a singular unifying thesis or specific question that it seeks to answer. However, there are several thematic threads running through various essays. For example, some essays problematize the normativity of whiteness in both popular culture and academia; other essays reveal the limitations of current theoretical frameworks; and others provide insightful discussions about historical rhetors and rhetoricians who, for the most part, have been overlooked in the historiography of rhetorical studies. While the book is valuable on the whole, the essays discussed below exemplify the collection’s overarching aim to challenge current practices and theoretical trends in academia, thereby broadening the scope of research on race, gender, and culture.

In her insightful essay, “Toni Morrison and ‘Race Matters’ Rhetoric: Reading Race and Whiteness in Visual Culture,” Joyce Irene Middleton draws attention to the invisibility of whiteness and the resistance to examine “that ideology and its link to race and racism” in academia and popular culture (244). Responding to the need for a new rhetoric on race that disrupts both academia’s and mainstream media’s inclinations to envision a color-blind society, Middleton uses Toni Morrison’s emphasis on the “racializing subject” to theorize a self-reflexive rhetoric on race, which, following Cornel West, she calls “race matters” rhetoric. Middleton argues that shifting attention away from the “racialized object”—the other as constructed by white subjects—to the racializing white subject provides a way of “examining what the racialized subject says about white identity [and] what white identity says about racism” (245-46). The resistance to interrogate whiteness, Middleton maintains, perpetuates the “color-blind paradigm” that avoids having to confront racism in contemporary society. In addition to theorizing a rhetoric on race, Middleton applies this theory to analyze “the elusive problems of racial metaphors in popular culture,” Hollywood films in particular (245). In doing so, she demonstrates effectively how treatments of racial issues are generally either avoided altogether or focused on nonwhite subjects, thereby eliding the ways that whiteness is implicated in these matters. Middleton discusses a few exceptions to this trend, one of which is Spike Lee’s film, Bamboozled. She argues that this film conveys “a ‘race matters’ self-reflexive critique” of race relations. Yet increasing numbers of people turn to the less thought-provoking aspects of the entertainment industry as an educational resource for understanding, among other things, history and culture as depicted through Hollywood’s distorted and simplified narratives of historical events and seemingly endless renditions of the rags-to-riches, self-made person myth. Given this situation, Middleton is right to point out that research and teaching strategies need to be developed in order to supply students and scholars with the tools necessary to research and critique popular culture. Her “race matters” rhetoric is one possible device to further investigations into racial issues that traverse many, if not all, domains of life.

One of the many goals motivating Valerie Lee’s work is creating a bridge between academia and popular culture through scholarly research that appeals to people both inside and outside the academy. In her essay, “Smarts: A Cautionary Tale,” she discusses the interdisciplinary nature of her research and why writing her book, Granny Midwives and Black Women Writers: Double-Dutched Readings, required that she create a new methodology by which to examine the roles of “black midwives and women healers” in contemporary literature (94). In attempting to research the history of black midwives who practiced during the 1920s and 1930s, Lee realized that this group of people had yet to be written into history books. Thus, she had to reconstruct their history from historical documents and primary sources, thereby assuming the role of a historian, in order to provide a foundation for analyzing their appearance in contemporary fiction. She states that her challenge, therefore, was to “bring together the medical history, the cultural history, and the literary tradition in a way that my colleagues in the discipline of English would find credible” while also remaining “culturally responsive to the material” (94). To conduct this interdisciplinary approach, Lee developed a methodology based on the metaphor of jumping double-dutch with jump ropes—an activity “closely associated with the experiences of young black girls” (95). The ropes in this metaphor signify various intertextual analyses that require “interplay performed against a polyphonic range of black women’s voices,” which provides the “interdisciplinary freedom” that her work necessitates (95). She suspects that the metaphor resonated among members of African American communities, explaining in part why her scholarly book was reviewed in the popular hip-hop magazine Vibe, where it was described “as a text that does cultural work” (96). In addition to expanding the boundaries of research subjects in English studies through her interdisciplinary work, Lee also challenges the norms of the discipline by drawing on the traditions and knowledge bases of both academia and her home community. She maintains that many scholars inhabit dual roles. On the one hand, they work in an institution in which legitimization of their work requires playing by a certain set of rules and, especially for scholars of color, distancing themselves from their home community. But on the other hand, they also have an allegiance to that home community and thus want their work to effect social change. In this regard, “black feminist scholars become Trojan horses in the academy” by doing “oppositional work with institutional space” (97).

Hui Wu posits a different challenge to academia in her essay, “The Paradigm of Margaret Cavendish: Reading Women’s Alternative Rhetorics in a Global Context,” in which she makes a case for including Cavendish’s seventeenth-century writings on eloquence in the history of women’s noteworthy rhetorical works by challenging feminist theoretical frameworks that dominate contemporary scholarship on historical women. She does this by explaining that post-Mao Chinese women writers would be wrongfully dismissed as antifeminist if their writings were analyzed through the lens of Western feminist theories because these theories are based on “analytical dichotomies,” such as “gender versus sex, equality versus difference, and public versus private,” that are not applicable to Chinese cultural worldviews (171). Moreover, Wu charges this dichotomous view with sharing a “similar conviction inherent in the patriarchal tradition” in that female rhetoricians are deemed worthy of scholarly interest as long as their works meet traditional standards of rhetoric, such as exhibiting agonism and consistent logic; yet, in addition to this, female rhetoricians “must also meet the standards of today’s mainstream feminism” (172). Thus, unlike the works of their male counterparts, the writings of female rhetoricians are evaluated by two sets of standards. This, she suggests, is the primary reason why scholars have hesitated to include Cavendish’s works in anthologized historical collections of women’s rhetorical writings. Wu maintains that placing Cavendish and others like her within the historical context in which they wrote and allowing this context to shape theoretical frameworks can yield interpretations and evaluations of their work that are otherwise obscured by current feminist theories. Overall, Wu’s essay is a valuable contribution to this collection’s attempt to make visible and thereby interrogate presumptions and assumptions in academia about race, gender, and culture.

Revealing the ways in which discussions about working-class culture are silenced in academia, Ann E. Green, in her essay “Guns, Language, and Beer: Hunting for a Working-Class Language in the Academy,” levels a charge at contemporary scholarship by demonstrating that middle-class language, values, and ideology permeate academia to such a degree that articulating assumptions about class is a difficult feat. The difficulty arises because not only do “assumptions of propriety and politeness dominate academic discourse” but also “middle-class people are so trained not to ‘hear’ the poor or the working class talk about their own self-interest” and instead hear only aspirations of obtaining middle-class status (76, 77). To disrupt the hegemonic middle-class discourse in academia, Green incorporates narrative (fictional and autobiographical) into her scholarly writings, including this piece, because writing in different styles creates play among various identities, and narrative affords the flexibility to express working-class idioms that otherwise are considered inappropriate for academic discourse. In defying academic conventions by employing a hybrid writing style, Green strives not only to broaden the boundaries of academic forms but also to evoke empathy in her readers, realizing that social justice does not occur when the mind is changed, but is made possible only when emotions as well are affected. Green observes that in general “academic discourse addresses only the minds of those who read it,” and to counter this trend, Green states that she “would like to write in such a way as to reach both the heart and the mind” (88). Thus, like Valerie Lee, Green makes rhetorical choices in her writings that maintain a sense of connection to her working-class background, or home community, and uses her writings to forward social justice causes. Green’s rhetorical choices also highlight working-class concerns and create space in academic scholarship to insert portrayals of working-class identities.

In addition to the essays discussed above, each essay, for the most part, contributes to the extension of the range of topics and issues addressed in current scholarship on race, gender, and culture. In short, this collection provides an impressive diversity of perspectives on identities. For scholars interested in exploring identity issues in general or for those who want a better understanding of the multifocal ways in which race, gender, and culture are conceived, researched, and taught, Calling Cards is an excellent starting point.

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