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What Rhetoric May Illuminate About the Charleston Shootings

posted: 6.25.15 by Andrea Lunsford

In the days that have passed since the murder of nine worshippers at Charleston’s historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, I have been able to think of little else. Nine lives offered up to white supremacist hatred. I will not write or say the name of the murderer. He doesn’t deserve the distinction.

Rather, these are the people I remember, honor, and take inspiration from:

Sharonda Coleman-Singleton

Cynthia Hurd

Susie Jackson

Ethel Lee Lance

Rev. Dapayne Middleton-Doctor

Rev. Clementa Pinckney

Rev. Daniel L. Simmons

Tywanza Sanders

Myra Thompson

Like millions of Americans, I have wondered at the terrible ironies attending their deaths: the Confederate flag flying high in the South Carolina State house, the killer posturing with the flag, the NRA’s ongoing and unconscionable control of a Congress too weak to legislate common-sense gun control laws. And these nine Black lives—and countless others—Black Lives that Matter, paying the price of such cowardice and delusions.

Also like millions of Americans, I have been heartened by the words of love, hope, and resilience coming from the Emanuel AME Church, by the strength of its congregation, and by the expressions of forgiveness, given with a clear-eyed vision of what the sacrifice has been and continues to be.

But events like this, so often portrayed as the acts of a single deranged individual, do not come out of nowhere. They are deeply embedded in the culture of their communities, a product of their time and place.

And so as these awful events unfolded, I’ve been thinking about—no, fairly haunted by—an essay I read just two weeks before these shootings. “Memories of Freedom and White Resilience: Place, Tourism, and Urban Slavery,” by Kristan Poirot and Shevaun E. Watson, appeared in the most recent issue of the Rhetoric Society Quarterly, and I read it with great interest. In the essay, the authors report on field research they carried out in Charleston, along with reading in local historical archives, about what they describe as “the successful construction of the locale [Charleston] into a premier U.S. heritage tourism destination” (92). To write the essay, they spent quite a lot of time in Charleston, especially participating in numerous tours of historic sites, including plantations, and taking a very close look at Charleston’s “tourism imaginary—a manufactured version of the city that emerges from fragments of promotional materials, place narratives, and built environments” (93).

They begin by considering an event on February 15, 2014, when a monument to Denmark Vesey was unveiled after a long campaign and great controversy, eventually showing how the varying constructions of Vesey and his life (was he a freedom fighter and civil rights leader, or would-be mass murderer of innocents?) reflect the radical divide in Charleston, a divide that is covered over neatly in most of the city’s promotions of itself as a major tourist destination. As Poirot and Watson note,

As if to exemplify the uneasy balance between the historical truths of slavery and the entertainment demands of tourism, for example, one tour guide opened his Civil War-focused tour by stating plaintively that it could proceed ‘with or without slavery,’ invoking the participants’ preferences. Not surprisingly, most ‘voted’ for the tour to proceed ‘without slavery. . . .’ (103)

Through painstaking rhetorical analysis, Poirot and Watson capture the undercurrents (and often “overcurrents”) of denial and whitewashing that have created such a successful and pleasing portrait of a city, one that nurtured at least one murderer bent on eliminating the Black population of Charleston.

That characterization is mine, not the authors’, who were writing well before the events of June 17. Indeed, as ethical rhetoricians, they are judicious in their conclusions:

Like other critics, we believe that the pleasing and profitable construction of Charleston’s history offered through its tourism industry fails to provide a clear-eyed version of the city’s past. We also find, however, that the question of the rhetoricity of Charleston heritage tourism cannot be understood only in terms of historical accuracy, nor ought the issue be reduced to concerns of tourism as a profit-driven industry. Of course, both of these perspectives are valid; however, a deeper examination of place, memory, and tourism—of Charleston’s elaborate practice of publicly remembering urban slavery—highlights something beyond instrumentalism or deception as it demonstrates the profound rhetorical productivity of tourism imaginaries. These imaginaries shape and revivify historical narratives; they constitute the very historical memories on which they rely. Thus, critics ought to continue to develop ways to read these animations—these diffuse architectures of memory constructed through tourism—in order to broaden our understanding of those features of public culture that constrain and amplify the power to secure a variety of ideological commitments and economic interests. (112)

I focus on this essay at such length because it points up the role rhetorical analysis can play in learning—and perhaps in opening minds. If teachers of writing and their students take up such projects of rhetorical analysis, tracking the construction of local memories and putting them in context—it can offer one means not just of understanding how such memories get constructed but also of changing them. And that would be one way of honoring the nine members of the Emanuel AME Church—as well as the church itself and its ongoing work to secure liberty and freedom for all.

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Categories: Andrea Lunsford, Rhetorical Situation
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