Gilyard, Keith and Vorris Nunley, eds. Rhetoric and Ethnicity. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2004.
Williams, Deborah M. “Race, Rhetoric, and Sesame Street: Learning to See Ourselves Reading.” 137-142
I specifically looked at Williams’ piece in this collection, so I’ll offer a short summary of her article and then try to make some connections between the pieces.
Williams is reimagining the typical multicultural literacy course into one that challenges students to think of narratives – both historical ones and their own – as socially constructed, nuanced pieces. She identifies three common American narrative structures and shows how they form the norm for telling an “American” story. Students must look beyond these narrative structures and reject the distant, objective observer stance embraced by academia when reading these histories in order to find what is being silenced in them, because that is where the true story lies.
Her narrative structures: “1. The Story of the Self-made Man 2. The Story of the Lesson Well Learned 3. The Story of Success through Perseverance (or, its variations – the Story of Virtue Rewarded, and the Story of Good Triumphing over Evil).” (138)
She points out how students’ own autobiographical narratives try to fit these classic molds, and, when they don’t, teachers perceive them as unorganized or confusing. Furthermore, these specific “narrative traditions we inherit cause us to see certain events in our lives and the lives of others as inherently worthy of being narrated, while other events are classified as unimportant, irrelevant, meaningless” (141). What if, instead of asking students to write about a meaningful event in their lives, we asked them to write about what happened last Tuesday? What would we get? Would, through writing this exercise, would our students have a better understanding of their underlying beliefs and values than if their raw identity was smothered in some “important event,” like greasy gravy smothering fluffy mashed potatoes? Wouldn’t that be interesting?
Anyway, I thought Williams’ model for a multicultural literacy class was MUCH better than the multicultural literacy class I had to take as an undergraduate secondary education student. My professor tookt the Sesame Street approach – I recall the first day, when we had to go around the room and explain our ethnic background. She gave everyone a nod after they said “Italian,” or “Irish,” or “German,” but when my friend Carmen said that his mother was Brazilian and his father was Sicilian, she almost jumped out of her chair and exclaimed, “Why Carmen, that’s beautiful.” That made me mad – and embarrased Carmen. What’s not beautiful about a Scot? Or any other European for that matter?
I think a central question that’s overlooked in multicultural literacy classes is class itself. If class is not addressed, then the story of a person’s history is incomplete.
Overall Thoughts: I thought this was a thought-provoking collection. I was particularly intrigued by Smitherman’s and Powell’s articles. I thought Smitherman’s call for a course in language diversity was an interesting move to make. What would such a course look like? Could you study something as shifting and as diverse as language patterns? In a grammar course at UNH (one of the best courses I’ve ever taken), we looked at the syntatic and grammatical patterns of “Black English” – it was fascinating and it did change my conception of Ebonics, as I began to appreciate the complexity inherent in it.
And then this…”Language is a person’s identity, culture, and history” (12)