In attempting to find an origin for black feminist discourse, many scholars begin with Maria Miller Stewart’s 1832 “Lecture Delivered at the Franklin Hall,” which was delivered to the New England Anti-Slavery Society in their meeting space at the African Baptist Church of Boston. Stewart’s seminal work is notable for at least one obvious reason: it was the first speech in recorded history by an African-American woman to be delivered in front of a mixed-race and mixed-gender audience in this country. This paper will explore the rhetorical choices Stewart would have been forced to make in her seminal speech as the result of the unusual circumstances of her audience, including the use of rhetorical hedges such as her dubious engagement with “respectability politics.” Specifically, this short essay will consider aspects of Stewart’s ethos that were at times at cross purposes and in conflict in her speech; namely, her identity as a Christian, a person of color, a woman, and an American. Finally, I will frame these conflicts in ethos and audience within the framework of Judeo-Christian eschatological mythos in order to examine the complex rhetorical dynamics that are at play in this short speech.
First, the unique identities of both Stewart and her audience. Few things complicate the dynamics of the established communication triad of speaker, receiver, and message more than identity. However, it is worth first briefly noting, as Keith Gilyard and Adam J. Banks do at various points throughout their book On African-American Rhetoric—echoing scholars such as Molefi Kete Asante—that although Rhetorichas become a well-worn metonym for the sophistic tradition that first began to flourish around 500 BCE in Ancient Greece, the application of traditional rhetorical analysis to African-American Rhetoric, which is a capital ‘R’ Rhetoric with its own traditions and roots, is problematic. Like the invisibility of whiteness more generally, invisible concepts such as Western epistemological and ontological frameworks must be made visible—and, if left unexamined, discarded. While I will indeed use euro-centric frameworks such as the communication triangle, I will use them sparingly, cautiously, and visibly.
One such way of making something like the communication triangle visible is to note that it would not have constituted the default model of communication for all in attendance at Stewart’s speech. Indeed, the white members and the black members of the audience would have lived in what Henry Louis Gates Jr. has called “parallel discursive universes” (Gates qtd. in Gilyard & Banks, 56). They would have listened to Stewart’s speech with an ear towards different modes of verification, different felicity conditions, and, in short, would have likely viewed the world from different epistemological grounds and racial realities. If, to further borrow from Gilyard and Banks, the African-Americans in the crowd were listening for and responding to the Nommoin Stewart’s speech, the whites in the crowd were listening with an ear towards dissemination and persuasion. It is impossible to understate the effect these competing audience demands must have had on Stewart; indeed, such a conflict practically ensures a compromised call to action.
Stewart’s speech is just as notable for its inauguration of public black feminist thought as for its inauguration of respectability politics. After imploring her audience to “plead our cause before the whites,” Stewart ends her address with an explicit call for black people to gain their freedom through meretricious actions:
Have you prayed the legislature for mercy’s sake to grant you all the rights and privileges of free citizens, that your daughters may rise to that degree of respectability which true merit deserves, and your sons above the servile situations which most of them fill? (Stewart 30; 33)
Her imperative here is twofold: 1) you(i.e. the African-Americans in attendance) must appeal to white legislators for yourfreedom; 2) you must make yourself respectable in the eyes of those in power (i.e. the oppressor) in order to both gain access to that freedom and to retain it. This call to action remains problematic if we only consider Stewart’s speech as being addressed to a black audience; however, when we consider that her speech was not in fact solely directed at African Americans, her invocation of a nascent respectability politics becomes less clear rhetorically. I submit that one possible explanation for Stewart’s problematic call for young black women to “rise to that degree of respectability which true merit deserves” is Stewart’s sophisticated—and in some ways subversive—navigation of two competing Christian eschatological myths and tropes, one tailored to a white audience, the other to a black audience.
As Gilyard and Banks note, Stewart was one of the first black rhetors to use the “Rising Africa Theme” in her invocation in the speech of Psalms 68:31 (Gilyard & Banks 23). A devout Christian herself, Stewart is making a deft biblical allusion when she states that “the King eternal has declared that Ethiopia shall stretch forth her hands unto God…” but it is entirely unlikely that the white Christians in the crowd would have interpreted the allusion in the same way as the black members of the audience (Stewart 32). This coded allusion both subverted the white Anglo-Saxon protestant audience to whom Stewart was in part speaking and allowed that very same WASP audience to identify with her. The subversive work of this allusion derives its power from the fact that the “Rising Africa Theme” constituted a counter-myth wherein Africans, not whites, were God’s chosen people—for the whites in the audience, Stewart had another equally potent myth on hand.
Stewart’s speech, which came almost exactly two centuries after John Winthrop declared that Boston “shall be like a city upon a hill,” also contained another powerful allusion that functioned implicitly in similar ways to her biblical allusion: the American civil war (“3c. Massachusetts Bay–‘The City Upon a Hill’”). Near the end of her speech, Stewart makes a reference to the American civil war that functions like a premise to an enthymeme:
Did the pilgrims, when they first landed on these shores, quietly compose themselves and say, ‘The Britons have all the money and all the power, and we must continue their servants forever?’ Did they sluggishly sigh and say, ‘Our lot is hard, the Indians own the soil, and we cannot cultivate it?’ No; they first made powerful efforts to raise themselves, and then God raised up those illustrious patriots,WASHINGTON AND LAFAYETTE, to assist them and defend them (Stewart 33, emphasis mine).
Implicit in this allusion is an echo of Winthrop’s city on a hill; the white members of the audience would have supplanted this statement with the principle myth of WASP culture: that the pilgrims were God’s chosen people, and that America was their chosen land. But, clearly, the idea that Africans are the elect and that white Americans are the elect forms a binary of myth and counter-myth. What makes them commensurate, it seems, is the concomitant unifying myth of a meritocracy. I submit that given Stewart’s audience and her historical context, her engagement with respectability politics was an act of resistance, a way of pushing back on the dominant WASP myth in which whites were God’s chosen people, because her admonition to African-Americans to act in meretricious ways contained a hidden premise: that Africans, and those in the African diaspora, were actuallyGod’s chosen people; in this sense, her coded allusion functions not only as a counter-myth, but also a counter-enthymeme, the significance of which would have been lost on the white audience, who likely would have likely been distracted by their own prideful patriotism when they heard Stewart reference the American civil war.
Despite Stewart’s brilliantly coded language, her most powerful act of resistance might have been contained in her statement that she was a “true born American” (31). Like Sojourner Truth’s subversion of the Victorian myth of “true womanhood” in her infamous question “ain’t I a woman,” Stewart’s co-opting of patriotic language does more to trouble the notion of the American identity than to reinforce it. Indeed, her very presence on the stage as somebody who inhabited multiple subject positions, as somebody who was not only a black woman and a former domestic worker, but who was also an Americanin the constitutional sense of that identity, shocked her audience, ultimately leading to her early retirement from the stage (Stewart 25). Her use of conflicting Christian eschatological myths and the myth of meritocracy has an equally unsettling effect, for it puts everyone in her audience—black men and women as well as white men and women—in an uncomfortable position. If Africans are truly the chosen people, why oppress them? And even if WASPS are the chosen people, Stewart seems to ask, how is it that after haven been risen so high by God they have fallen so far?