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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Minding "Our Cicero": Nineteenth-Century African American Women's Rhetoric and the Classical Tradition

  • Author(s): Morse, Heidi
  • Advisor(s): Gruesz, Kirsten Silva
  • et al.

Nineteenth-century American culture was rife with references to classical Greco-Roman antiquity, especially in rhetoric, education, and neoclassical visual culture. But the legacy of the classics also had a racialized strain: in "justifications" of slavery and racism, white elites often figured classical erudition as the antithesis to blackness, suggesting, for example, that African Americans did not have the mental capacity to learn Greek or Latin. But despite limited access to the tools and institutions considered essential for educational advancement, African Americans were equal participants in American classicism. The object of this dissertation is to theorize, in particular, African American women's engagements with classical Greco-Roman legacies in rhetoric and popular culture as syncretic adaptations carried out alongside those of white Americans. As a conceptual reimagining of what the classics meant to nineteenth-century African American women, the dissertation casts "black classicism" from Emancipation through the fin de siècle as a popular cultural phenomenon that surfaces in elementary reading lessons, in the press, and on the lecture platform. In each context, the black female body emerges from a network of neoclassical significations as a powerful source for rhetorical persuasion.

My focus on African American women's oratory deepens the archive of current scholarship to include ancient treatises by the Roman rhetoricians Cicero and Quintilian and nineteenth-century printed speeches, newspaper reviews, schoolbooks, photographs, and commemorative poems. The range of sources contextualizes African American women orators' negotiations of visual paradigms projected onto their bodies--from racist, sexually degrading caricatures to the demure white marble forms of neoclassical sculpture. The first section of the dissertation focuses on the role of the classics in black women's education and oratory, juxtaposing the war-torn, post-Emancipation 1860s with the Jim Crow 1890s. The second section reads black women's rhetorical strategies through popular classical emblems, sculptures, and icons in late-nineteenth-century American visual culture. Throughout, I show how African American women ranging from the illiterate ex-slave Sojourner Truth to the Latin teacher Anna Julia Cooper and poet H. Cordelia Ray resisted the disproportionate investment of classical authority in the bodies of white men by performing their classical acumen in ways that promoted racial equality.

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