The Changing Same of American Racism: African American Rhetoric and the Rejection of Normalcy

Reflection by
Brandon M. Erby


“Any return to normal is a return to the normality of racism.”
Ibram X. Kendi, Twitter Post, 26 June 2020.

When I agreed to contribute to this Spark issue, I expected to make my remarks at the Conference on College Composition and Communication’s annual convention in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I planned to speak about the African American rhetorical tradition and how African American rhetoric is an “action-taking, knowledge-making, and community-sustaining” academic field.[1] After the convention was canceled due to COVID-19, I figured that while the venue or medium for my remarks would have to change, my message would mostly remain the same. I wanted to highlight how African American rhetoric implements modes of persuasion to hold American society accountable when its proclaimed principles of equality, freedom, and justice are not extended to everyone.[2] I intended to underscore that because of the “changing same” of American racism (the more things change, the more they stay the same), the African American rhetorical tradition exists and continues to find relevance, in part, because violent acts of racism and white supremacy still impede Black life.[3] Because of this reality, African American rhetorical forms and modes of discourse are used consistently not only to react to social injustices but to narrate a collective vision for Black survival, hope, joy, and ultimately, liberation in the United States.[4] To conclude my comments, I thought about discussing the work of scholars who have researched and written about the tenets of African American rhetoric, and how the scholarship of the field enriches the knowledge production of the academy.

However, as the stay-at-home orders put in place to fight the spread of the novel coronavirus stretched into late-March, then April, and then into May, I began to amend my thoughts about my contribution to this issue. Instead of providing just a holistic view of how African American rhetoric responds to the changing same of American racism and systemic oppression, I realized that a catastrophic pandemic created an opportunity for me to observe how inequities unfold in Black life in real time.

The first case of COVID-19 in the United States was reported in January 2020. Since then, and at the time of this writing, over 2.8 million people have been diagnosed with COVID-19 in the U.S., and more than 129,000 individuals in the U.S. have died from the virus. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), institutional racism (disparities in healthcare provisions, social resources, and living conditions) has played an active role in the number of COVID-19 cases and mortalities, as people from certain racial and ethnic groups are either at a higher risk of suffering from COVID-19 or more likely to struggle with an acute illness after contracting COVID-19. Black Americans, specifically, are five times more likely to be hospitalized for contracting the novel coronavirus than non-Hispanic White Americans. While it is true that COVID-19 does not discriminate against anyone, it is also clear that the virus disproportionately impacts Black people and individuals from other marginalized groups.

Even as COVID-19 case numbers continue to escalate in the United States and the death toll intensifies, many people in the U.S. have discounted the seriousness of the pandemic. President Donald Trump has proclaimed that the virus will disappear miraculously. Others have demanded that their civic leaders expedite plans to reopen businesses and colleges, restart the economy, and make their lives “normal” again. These calls for a return to normalcy are intriguing because the line that separates U.S. society before COVID-19 from our current sociopolitical climate is murky, at best. Prior to COVID-19—that is, during a time of “normal operations” or “business as usual”—Black people routinely experienced disparities within the U.S. healthcare system.[5] Simply put, getting back to normal returns us to medical practices that have generally failed African Americans.

If the ongoing effects of COVID-19 indicate how systemic racism alters the health of Black Americans, then the recent deaths of Black people at the hands of police officers and vigilantes illustrate how systemic racism influences law enforcement procedures. Aggressive policing and surveillance tactics are arguably the most exhibited examples of how the changing same of racism affects Black life in the United States.

The World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 as a pandemic on March 11, 2020. Two days later, three plainclothes police officers in Louisville, Kentucky, fatally shot Breonna Taylor, a twenty-six-year-old Black woman, inside her apartment. The officers entered Taylor’s residence with a no-knock search warrant and shot her at least eight times. Louisville police officers killed Breonna Taylor three weeks after a White man named Travis McMichael murdered Ahmaud Arbery, a twenty-five-year -old Black man, in Glynn County, Georgia, on February 23. Travis and his father, Gregory McMichael, a former police officer, pursued Arbery in broad daylight while he was jogging. Arbery’s death did not receive national attention until early-May, after a cellphone video of the encounter went viral and generated massive outrage. A few weeks after the video of Arbery’s death spread online, on Memorial Day, seventeen-year-old Darnella Frazier recorded the police killing of George Floyd, a forty-six-year-old Black man in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Frazier’s disturbing video depicted officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes as Floyd begged for relief and uttered the words, “I can’t breathe.”

After the arrival of COVID-19 to the United States, and the subsequent decisions to close businesses, schools, and places of worship temporarily to slow the spread of the virus, many U.S. citizens believed that unprecedented times were imminent. In many ways, this has proven to be true. Over a span of three months, the United States tallied record numbers of COVID-19 cases, deaths, and financial losses. The chilling murders of Arbery, Taylor, Floyd, and others were not unprecedented, however. Before Ahmaud Arbery, there was Trayvon Martin. Before Breonna Taylor, there was Atatiana Jefferson. Before George Floyd, there was Eric Garner. Before Tony McDade, there was Tyra Hunter. Before Rayshard Brooks, there was Walter Scott. Black pain and death, often at the hands of the state, have been central to the normal American experience. Asking when the country will get back to normal disregards how institutional racism and structures of power dangerously inform the lived realties of Black people at all times.

The current uprisings happening across the country to dismantle forms of institutional racism and contest notions of white supremacy are instances of the changing same at work. On one hand, the consequences of COVID-19 and the callous acts of police brutality reveal how racism materializes in different ways and harms Black Americans regularly. On the other hand, the recent decisions to abolish the police department in Minneapolis, ban no-knock search warrants in Louisville, and remove the Confederacy emblem from the state flag in Mississippi indicate how deliberate responses to racism regularly challenge the normalization of structural oppression in the U.S.

Wherever pervasive acts of racism appear, or whenever there are systematic attempts to normalize racist behaviors and policies, African American rhetorical forms and discourses are invoked to disrupt and reject the status quo. Slave narratives forcefully denounced the enslavement of Black people. The call-response exchanges heard in Negro spirituals, freedom songs, and Black Power chants humanized Black experiences in the midst of struggle, united Black voices, and conceptualized a vision for liberation. After eight White clergymen in 1963 composed an open letter to rebuke demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama and argue for a return to normalcy, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. penned that African Americans were tired of waiting at “horse and buggy pace” to receive their God-given and constitutional rights. In her address to the Credentials Committee at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, Fannie Lou Hamer questioned the United States’ morality after she testified that police officers in Winona, Mississippi viciously beat her and other civil rights workers a year earlier. Her account unveiled the levels of racial violence and voter suppression that Black people faced in the Magnolia state. And when Darnella Frazier decided to document the barbaric killing of George Floyd with her cellphone and circulate the video on social media, she became the latest example of how Black women have used available technologies of persuasion not only to bear witness to racial injustices but to incite societal change.[6] These examples within the African American rhetorical tradition demonstrate how Black people have persistently used various rhetorical devices to resist the standardization of racism and present an alternative future for Black lives in the United States.

Endnotes

[1] Carey, Tamika L. (2016). Life class: An introduction. Rhetorical healing: The reeducation of contemporary Black womanhood. SUNY Press. 7.

[2] Gilyard, Keith, & Banks, Adam J. (2018). Introduction. On African-American rhetoric. Routledge. 3.

[3] Gilyard and Banks(2018) assert that Amiri Baraka coined the “changing same” phrase in 1966 to denote the ways that jazz music, as a cultural artform, shifts in style but remains committed to expressing the experiences of Black people. (On African-American Rhetoric, pp. 6–7).

In the words of Baraka (1967), “The new music reinforces the most valuable memories of a people but at the same time creates new forms, new modes of expression, to more precisely reflect contemporary experience!” (Black Music, p. 267).

In this reflection, I contend that there are two understandings of the changing same: one that represents how forms of structural and systemic racism shift and reconfigure in the United States, and one that exemplifies how the forms of African American rhetoric respond to the different forms of structural and systemic racism in diverse ways.

[4] In a recent essay published in The Atlantic, African American Studies scholar Imani Perry reminds us that the Black American experience encompasses more than trauma, violence, and oppression. “Joy is not found in the absence of pain and suffering. It exists through it,” Perry writes.

Perry, Imani. (15 June 2020). Racism is terrible. Blackness is not. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/06/racism-terrible-blackness-not/613039/ 

[5] For example, Black women are more likely to die from childbirth complications that White women, and Black children are more likely to die within a year after birth than White children.

McClain, Dani. (2019). Birth. We live for the we: The political power of Black motherhood. Bold Type Books. 12.

[6] When asked about her decision to leave Emmett Till’s casket open, Mamie Till-Mobley stated that she wanted to “let the world see what I’ve seen.” The day after Floyd was murdered, Frazier said that she recorded his death because “the world needed to see what I was seeing.”

Mamie Till-Mobley & Benson, Christopher D. (2003). Death of innocence: The story of the hate crime that changed America. Random House Publishing. 139.

Author Bio

Photo of Brandon M. ErbyBrandon M. Erby (he/him/his) is an Assistant Professor of Writing, Rhetoric, and Digital Studies at the University of Kentucky. He is interested in African American rhetoric, literacy studies, rhetorical education, and the rhetoric and historiography of the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements. His work appears or is forthcoming in CLA Journal, Rhetoric Review, Open Words: Access and English Studies, and Journal for the History of Rhetoric.