My research explores how Black women use literacies, discourse, and rhetorical practices to exercise agency. I am particularly interested in how Black women use culturally specific language, ways of knowing and being to navigate the world in face-to-face and digital spaces. Agency and autonomy are vital aspects of humanity, and even more important for Black women because of the ways in which their being and expressions are contested. My larger research project questions who gets to speak, play, be seen as knowledge makers, and exist freely in the world? The increasing rates of Black, female incarceration and domestic and state violence against Black women shows that Black women oftentimes do not have the safety and freedom to be. Considering the question of whether subaltern and marginalized groups like Black women have rhetorical agency, my research privileges Black women’s discourse and rhetorical practices from the “respectable” to the “ratchet” in order to reveal and better understand their oftentimes unacknowledged rhetorical resources, such as African American Vernacular English, space, and the body.
Drawing on Black women’s online posts and their interview reflections, my dissertation and related publications develop a rhetoric of Digital Black womanhood; the language, literacies, and technologies Black women use to perform their identities as Black women online. I detail the types of liberatory spaces and subjectivities that these performances create.
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“Don’t Try and Play Me Out!”: Black Women’s Identity Performance as Rhetorical Agency on Social Media examines the rhetorical practices Black women use on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and blogs in order to experience greater freedom online. This project relies on interdisciplinary research methods from the humanities and social sciences. The four case studies are made up of rhetorical analyses of Black women’s digital writing in the selected online platforms as well as four online surveys and 14 online, qualitative interviews of Black women from Black female-dominant online groups. I focused on groups of Black women who engaged in self-sponsored literacy activities and demonstrated online community building and/or conversation and sought to answer the following questions: How do Black women use language and literacies to exercise agency and build community in digital spaces? To what extent do they use vernacular literacy practices and/or practices from FTF African American women’s speech communities? What kinds of identities/subjectivities and communities do these practices help Black women to create?
A growing body of scholarship has been dedicated to African American women’s discourse and literacy practices in speech (Foster 1995; Majors 2004; Morgan 1999; 2003; Richardson 2007; Troutman 2001; 2010) and writing (Royster 2000). The present study adds to that corpus and extends the growing body of scholarship on Black women’s computer-mediated communication and digital rhetoric (Jacobs-Huey 2006; Kynard 2010). This project makes the following contributions: 1) identifies various discourse and literacy practices Black women use to perform their identities online; 2) illustrates how Black women’s online identity performances on social media creates spaces of greater freedom in which their voices and agency are recognized and valued; and 3) highlights the impact of new media and digital technologies on Black women’s agency. These contributions have implications for Rhetoric and Composition, Women Gender and Sexuality Studies, Africana and Cultural Studies, Digital Humanities, and Education.
Read the full dissertation abstract here.