A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

I'll Teach You to See Again: Rhetorical Healing as Reeducation in Iyanla Vanzant's Self-Help Books

Tamika L. Carey, University at Albany – SUNY

Enculturation: http://www.enculturation.net/rhetorical-healing-as-reeducation
(Published: January 16, 2013)

In The Value in the Valley: A Black Woman’s Guide Through Life’s Dilemmas, motivational speaker, spiritual teacher, and self-help author Iyanla Vanzant describes one of her purposes for writing her best-selling 1996 book. She says:

Black women do not understand there is no wrong in being human. There are only lessons. No matter how outlandish, ridiculous, or irresponsible our behavior may be at any given time, know, accept, love. There is nothing wrong with you. There is, however, always room for improvement and change… Self-knowledge is not about picking your scabs, beating up yourself, feeling bad about your wounds or weak spots. It means that you recognize you have them, make a commitment to nurture and strengthen them, and leave them alone to heal. (75)

Such affirmations and calls for self-reflection are common features within the numerous African American self-help books and inspirational guides published for women since the nineties. The majority of these books “promise” to teach readers insights and strategies for overcoming the disease of past trauma or alleviating the discontent with challenges in their present lives. Readers and writers alike have found these self-help texts beneficial. For women like Brenda Sheffield, who claims that self-help books are “springboard[s] to discussing and healing [her] life and those of people [she] knows,” the benefit in reading them is learning, or re-learning, ways of being, knowing, or acting necessary for resuming one’s intended life path (Houser). For Vanzant, and other popular and profitable writers in this genre, activism is an incentive. Through writing books containing their testimonies, observations, and teachings, they pass on the ways of knowing they consider essential for the survival of their communities.

Scholarship on self-help literature critiques the calls for self-assessment and emphasis on learning in Vanzant’s passage, and materialist rhetorical frameworks offer ways to identify the implications of these texts. However, the lack of specific attention to the function and appeal of these books for African American women, in particular, understates the implications of the efforts to teach women to see again in these texts. For example, both Micki McGee (2005) and Sandra Dolby (2005) have observed that these books reflect Americans’ fascination with self-invention and a tradition of folk-wisdom transmission for contemporary readers seeking to reconnect with ways of knowing considered forgotten. Yet, neither writer specifies what makes such knowledge valuable for specific groups. Even Dana Cloud’s (1998) discussion of the therapeutic discourses found in most self-help books leaves us with unanswered questions. Cloud maintains that the emphasis on individualism and personal accountability that is characteristic of self-help ideology reflects a persuasive cultural discourse that has emerged and re-emerges in times of political conflict and shift. Cloud labels this discourse “the therapeutic,” arguing that it applies the language of psychotherapy (ie. coping, adapting) to issues that stem from broader systemic problems (ie. massive unemployment) and, as rhetoric, convinces individuals to focus on themselves and their own personal transformation.

Cloud’s move to link therapeutic discourses to political shifts like war and the rise of second-wave feminism reveals how some self-help books promote conformity by discouraging individuals from joining radical political efforts. In this way, her materialist framework offers one model for, in the words of Malea Powell and others, addressing the writing of other cultures as “critically important rather than mere anomalies” (Baca 2008; Villanueva 2009; Young 2004; Mao 2008). However, since the specific call for greater inquiry into African American rhetorical traditions—one that involves “pull[ing] forth for contemporary critical inquiry the practices and performances that constitute the contours of a rhetorical landscape that remains relatively unknown in mainstream discourses”—remains so resonant, we need another model (Richardson and Jackson x). Said differently, we must determine how, for example, African American women’s self-help books function as sites of rhetorical activity for the women writing them? And, why do they retain their appeal among readers like Brenda Sheffield despite problematic messages within them?

Analyzing Iyanla Vanzant’s self-help books as a form of rhetorical healing offers one answer because her endorsement of reeducation is critical to understanding the significance of these texts as sites and sources of African American women’s rhetorical and literacy practice. The process I call rhetorical healing is derived from my research on the rhetorics of healing, or the persuasive messages, performances, and curricula writers deploy to teach individuals in states of crisis or discontent how to undergo the types of transformation the writer considers essential to wellness. In my research, I have traced the rhetorics of healing in African American self-help and inspirational literature and film. As arguments and curricula that posit learning as a process for individual transformation and, ultimately, community progress, rhetorics of healing reveal key features of how African Americans wield their literacies persuasively in the resolution and prevention of crises. First, by situating these texts as products of sociopolitical action, rhetorics of healing reveal which analytical and persuasive methods and themes a writer considers most useful for intervening in problems and inspiring readers to actively pursue wellness (Royster 2000). Secondly, because of the emphasis on vision, perception, and transformation inherent in the curricula these writers teach, rhetorics of healing illuminate which ways of knowing, being, and understanding inform the literacy practices a writer considers essential for readers to become or remain well (Richardson 2003). Finally, because of the prescriptive and didactic tone of these texts, the arguments and curricula within them are indicators of the attitudes events, issues, or behaviors a writer considers a threat to the wellness of the individuals they seek to protect and which controlling ideologies they will invoke to do so (hooks 1992; Collins 2000). Although this final aspect may yield similar insights as Cloud’s rhetoric of therapy, this framework assumes that these texts reflect the writer and reader’s shared sociopolitical condition(s) and are pedagogical in nature.

Vanzant’s choice to expand the scope of her latter books and her relationship with the Oprah Winfrey Network as a “Life Class” teacher and the host of “Iyanla, Fix My Life!” has introduced her to broader audiences; however, her earliest books make a compelling case study because of the goals she seeks to accomplish through healing. Since the late eighties when she published her first essays in Essence Magazine, she has remained one of the most popular authors in a self-help literature market credited with “balancing out the negativity within the lives of African Americans” (“The Year of the Black Author”). Her contribution is a series of books promising to teach readers how to acquire the “spiritual vision,” or spirituality, necessary for overcoming or preventing a crisis. While she has confessed that her motivation is to help Blacks collectively repair their fractured inter-personal, spiritual, and global relationships, she considers women’s wellness the key to resolving a myriad of broader social problems. To her, “the wounds of slavery, racial violence, segregation, poverty, and contemptuous disregard for life ... not one of these wounds will be healed until the Black woman in the United States is healed, or rather heals herself” (Interiors 405). Identifying her approach as rhetorical healing, then, enables us to contextualize Vanzant’s choice to make writing a vehicle for activism within a stream of women who have used their pens and politics as “instrument[s] for healing” the effects of oppression and disempowering conditions (Royster 23).

It’s not my intention to suggest that African American self-help books do not warrant the type of critiques that acknowledge their shortcomings. They do, and I acknowledge some of them later in this essay as well as more of the shortcomings in my broader work. My choice to focus on the how and why questions here demonstrates the kind of nuance we bring to uncovering African American rhetorical practices by slowing down on the path to critique. In what follows, I analyze Vanzant’s use of analytical performance, her choice to invoke precepts of second-wave Black feminism, and her curricula for revision as a rhetoric of healing that recasts issues of disease and discontent as educational mandates. Vanzant’s curricula require readers to learn how to re-read their past and revise their sense of self in order to resume their intended life paths. Reeducation as rhetorical healing in these texts, then, illuminates the complex terrain for intervention and instruction found in African American women’s self-help books.

Miseducation as an Impetus for Healing

Sandra Dolby’s practical explanation for the persuasive and didactic nature of self-help books is key to understanding what Vanzant’s use of analytical performance indicates about the function of these texts within African American communities. According to Dolby, the majority of self-help literature is “written with the aim of enlightening readers about some of the negative effects of our culture and suggesting new attitudes and practices that might lead them to more satisfying and effective lives” (38). The initial rhetorical strategy these writers adopt is to foster a state of injustice among readers by suggesting that the reader’s lack of success in relationships or other pursuits is because something is wrong with the culture that guides them. By creating a sense of injustice, the writer not only appeals to the reader’s sense of entitlement to a productive life, but also establishes a scenario where his or her prescribed strategies appear as suitable solutions for resolving these injustices. Although readers are encouraged to critique the elements in their life that lead to their “culture of lack,” the empowered, or healed, individual ultimately learns to see their transformation as a personal and collective victory. Achieving wellness is a triumph over the structures that disempower and keep them from carrying out their intended roles within their communities.

The personal injustice Vanzant wants readers to see as an impetus for healing is women’s systemic miseducation regarding their spiritual resources and latent power. As she explains:

When you know who you are from the inside out ... and when your thoughts lead you to actions which serve others as well as make you feel good, you have encountered spirituality… Spirit is divine, and so are you. It is sometimes difficult to accept that people are so divine. It is particularly difficult for African Americans who have been oppressed, disenfranchised, miseducated, culturally and spiritually raped. (Tapping the Power ii)

Through personal narratives and anecdotes, Vanzant illustrates how the miseducation of women regarding the power they have at their disposal contributes to forms of relationship discord, trauma, or emotional distress, problems that ultimately place them in the states of disease and discontent she seeks to redress.

Jacqueline Jones Royster’s discussion of the preliminary tasks women writers have had to stage to intervene in crises is essential to understanding how Vanzant’s use of arrangement within this passage enables her to create the healing teacher ethos and exigency necessary for her readers to act. As she explains, African American women who feel mandated to engage in sociopolitical activity through their writing have rarely had the type of situated ethos among broader publics necessary to highlight crises they want resolved and direct the corresponding actions of capable individuals (64). Most speakers and writers have had to invent their ethos through making “obvious, visible, and flexible what has been hidden and assumed, in the interest of appropriate rhetorical effects” (49). By beginning with a discussion of spirituality, Vanzant posits the incentive for healing before the threat to it and, in doing so, establishes a premise wherein her following autobiographical narratives cast her as a trustworthy and knowledgeable guide that has made a similar journey to healing. The appeal of her texts is thus two-fold. First, she draws on her ability to identify with women who must become students of healing. Second, she appeals to the credentials she has to teach readers how to tap into and apply the power they “already” have as a resolution to crises. Through these two facets of her ethos, she creates the type of space necessary to illuminate what Royster calls hermeneutical problems and, in doing so, she shifts her readers’ attention from their potential miseducation to their individual need to be re-educated and the resources she offers to aid them in doing so.1

Ideally, this theme of miseducation invoked should resonate with much of Vanzant’s target audience because of its frequent use as a form of social critique. Most widely recognized in Carter G. Woodson’s The Miseducation of the Negro, the theme has worked as a rhetorical trope to symbolize the systemic ways African Americans have been conditioned to accept second- or third-class citizenship and their own complicity in perpetuating such systems.2 Similar to a jeremiad, the theme’s effectiveness stems from the freedom it gives a rhetor to dictate the corresponding action his or her audience must take to reverse its destructive effects (Pitney 2004). What makes Vanzant’s use of the theme particularly strategic is that her language choices enable her to identify specific forms of miseducation readers may or may not be aware of as a preface to calling for and directing her readers’ toward action. In using such terms as “disenfranchised” and “culturally raped,” she invokes discourses about the specific abuses and forms of oppression that have historically constrained African American women’s social, economic, or professional mobility and she illustrates the conditioning processes that place women in cultures of lack. As a preliminary stage of rhetorical healing, Vanzant’s choice to use the theme of miseducation to establish exigency, ethos, and urgency necessary for action makes one of the appeals of her books their function as platforms for African American women to perform social critique and call for action. Reeducation, thereby, becomes a viable, attractive way to cultivate the latent spiritual vision necessary to resist disempowering conditions, resolve personal abuses, and redress the injustice of miseducation.

Reeducation as the Promise of Healing

As urgent as crises like miseducation are made to seem, self-help writers must still convince readers that they, the person in “need” of healing, can complete the multi-step process, or “journey” as it is frequently called, to the state of wellness they teach. A second stage in rhetorical healing, then, is to convince readers of the significance and feasibility of completing the “journey” to healing by following the writer’s prescribed curricula. Vanzant attempts this by couching her project in relation to legacies of reeducation efforts and Black feminism’s emphasis on self-examination and critical consciousness, and by advocating the readers’ “inward turn.” African American women, she writes,

must make for ourselves the time and space we need to investigate and explore the world within us. What is inside us is our source of power. We must teach ourselves the things we need to know that have never been taught, and we need to remember those things we have forgotten… We must…expand our traditional African concepts, ideologies, and understandings to make them conducive to the constructs and realities of our modern-day psyches. (Interiors 406)

This call for self-teaching, re-teaching, and redefinition is entrenched in African American’s rhetorical uses of literacy. As slave narratives attest, access to traditional literacy training has long been considered a step towards individual as well as community autonomy for many African Americans because, as former slave Louisa Gause’s explained, “white people never teach colored people nothing, but to be good to dey massa en mittie” (Anderson 17). Learning to read and write were essential steps for individuals to resist and reverse the effects of miseducation. By emphasizing the necessity of incorporating African epistemologies into the new frames readers will use in their steps towards healing, Vanzant places her healing project among discourses that advocate cultural reeducation and oppositional worldviews. Some of the earliest and most visible proponents of these educational aims were scholars like W.E.B. DuBois and political leaders like Marcus Garvey, who advocated Afrocentric education as counter to Eurocentric ideologies that teach African Americans to devalue themselves. For them, the reeducation by way of exposure to Afrocentric epistemologies and concepts was integral to self and community actualization because the process fosters the type of shift in self, consciousness, and worldview necessary to challenge domination. In calling for her readers to apply these epistemologies to their daily experiences, her healing project appears to carry forth this type of emancipatory work.

Vanzant’s emphasis on the importance of the inward-turn within this call for reeducation is what, arguably, garners most of the appeal of these texts among African American women like Brenda Sheffield. One of the critiques of self-help literature is its perceived narcissism and endorsement of individualism (McGee 2005; Salerno 2005). Since African American women have historically been taught to measure their contributions to society through their roles as mothers, wives, sisters, and workers, projects focusing too much on the elevation of the self over the group can garner suspicion on the grounds that they may take valuable attention away from more pressing community issues. In calling for readers to take time and make space for themselves, she invokes one of the precepts of second-wave Black feminism championed by Toni Cade Bambara who argued that for African American women “revolution begins with the self, in the self” (13). Bambara’s Afrafemme worldview called for readers invested in that revolution to “explore first the interiority of an in-the-head, in-the-heart, in-the-gut region of a discovery called the self” and to then “test the desires, the longing, the aspirations of this discovered self with and against its possibilities for respect, growth, fulfillment, and accomplishment” (Bambara, xi). By beginning her call for reeducation with the inward turn, Vanzant intervenes into what Jessica Enoch calls the dominant discourses that suggest African American women must prioritize the wellness of their communities or families over their own wellness by making self-exploration and individual wellness a political endeavor and an act of consciousness-raising (Enoch 2008). This facet of rhetorical healing reveals another appeal of these books. As intellectual spaces, some of these texts cultivate the ideological shifts necessary for readers to decipher and divorce themselves from dominant discourses. The notion that family units and community groups are the sites where women must engage in freedom struggle with others is destabilized long enough for readers to see that liberation occurs when they struggle within these sites for individual wholeness and healing.

Revision as a Prescription for Healing

Critics of self-help culture typically object to the perceived insights, new perspectives, and skills writers like Vanzant teach as processes for empowerment or wellness. For instance, McGee argues that the emphasis placed on writing as a way for individuals to either take inventory of their skills or shortcomings or compose their desired futures is characteristic of an “aesthetic turn” that is ultimately short-sighted (157). Since the exercises readers follow to acquire self-knowledge are assumed to stop short of inspiring them to imagine better collective futures or develop critical vocabularies necessary for challenging systems of power, self-help curricula promoting “self-authorization” are thought to privatize public social problems in the ways that Cloud examines in her work on rhetorics of therapy. The exercises Vanzant prescribes for healing do promote a form of “self-authorization;” yet, reading them as a curriculum that builds upon African American women’s literacies and reflects precepts of Black feminist thought reveals the innovation of Vanzant’s move to use reeducation and composing as ways to guide women to healing. Through courses on self-examination, interpretation, alteration, and articulation, women are taught the perspectives, practices, and behaviors necessary to undergo the transformation necessary to recover from or resist setbacks or crises and to resume a life of promise.

During her preliminary course in “self-examination,” Vanzant teaches readers a “Looking in the Mirror of the Self” activity to launch them into a process of acquiring greater spirituality. Her rationale is that African American women “spend most of our time trying to fix what [they] see,” because they don’t realize “that what [they] are seeing is actually a reflection of who [they] are” (Tapping the Power Within 44). By learning to distinguish “who they are from whom they have been told or taught to be,” Vanzant assures readers that they can become more adept at tapping into their latent spiritual power as the resource for moving towards self-acceptance and higher self-esteem (50). During the following course in “interpretation,” Vanzant teaches readers to use expressive and reflective journal writing to make sense of past or present issues. She also suggests applying spiritual principles as ways of deciphering the roots of trauma, crisis, or miseducation and as a method of reinforcing the deciphering activities of the first course. In Interiors: A Black Woman’s Healing in Progress, she shares how journaling fostered a crucial epiphany about the source of her fractured romantic relationships: her unacknowledged resentment toward her father because of his failure to protect her from the uncle who raped her as a child. Because she had internalized her anger for so long, Vanzant determined that many of her fractured romantic relationships were the result of her deep distrust of, yet need for acceptance from, men. That revelation caused her to realize that she, as an African American woman, had been conditioned to believe that she was not entitled to happiness. As she explains,

One of the things that keeps [sic] us from being happy is our belief that we are separated from God. We think there is something we must be or do to attain god-like qualities. In order to find out what those qualities are, we are taught that we must behave a certain way. (Interiors 404)

Encouraging her readers to tap into their spiritual power and channel the legacy of women that have overcome such disempowering conditions, Vanzant claims that the value of this course is that it allows readers to replenish their psyches with new knowledge.

The assumption that women attract negative people or circumstances because of their behavior seems to obscure how oppressive systems of power precipitate acts of aggression against women. Yet, Vanzant’s choice to begin the process for healing with self-examination indicates a key distinction in the way African American women writers conceptualize the role that literacy plays in healing. As Elaine Richardson explains, the literacies African American women have developed to gain an advantage within a “Black rhetorical condition” where their lives are simultaneously “desired and devalued” include ways of seeing, being, and knowing that enable them to decipher disparaging public transcripts and “advance or protect the self” (35). Since the basic skill of her “self-examination” course is the ability to distinguish messages and events that have enacted harm and from which one deserves protection, Vanzant’s curriculum presumes readers already possess the ways of reading (35). The innovation in her “interpretation” course, then, is that writing reinforces these ways of reading and seeing. As generative, reflective, and analytical processes, the forms of journaling she teaches provide women with space and practice to connect such “private” issues as their broken relationships or low self-esteem to systemic causes like the destructive ideologies and controlling images about Black womanhood circulating within their public and private spaces (Collins 2000). These politicized acts of reading and writing precipitate spiritual healing by attuning readers’ vision to the sources of the threats to their well-being.

To facilitate their move from personal epiphany to transformation, Vanzant teaches readers to re-create and reinforce their energy and environment during the third course on “alteration” and fourth course on “articulation.” Internal forms of disease and discontent often stem from the toxicity of unforgiveness, she explains. A blinding “investment in hate, not healing,” unforgiveness is a state of mind and being that obscures the possibilities of the present or future by keeping the hurts of the past in the forefront of one’s consciousness (Tapping the Power 68). To move beyond this, Vanzant teaches women a seven-day “Forgiveness Diet” wherein following such writing prompts as “I (your name) forgive (a person you blame) totally and unconditionally” each morning enable women to release bitterness and hurt. The night version focuses on personal forgiveness, as women follow such prompts as “I (your name) forgive myself totally and unconditionally. I am free to move on to wholeness and completeness” to practice removing pain and negativity from their own consciousness (Tapping the Power 71). Although readers may initially be unaware of what, or for what, they need forgiveness, the repetition during the “alteration” course is necessary because the “spirit will know the reason” for imbalance or negativity and, as readers discover during “articulation,” the “spirit” can help transform their outlook (71). In this course, women incorporate meditation and prayer into their daily activities to replace negative speech that produces negative outcomes with positive forms of affirmation. By replacing statements like “I do not want to be sick” that reflect the writer’s fear with more spiritually powerful statements as “I am whole and healthy,” women change the energy within their internal environments and begin the process of changing their external environments and relationships (64-66).

McGee’s observation that repetitive writing exercises in self-help books help readers “anchor” the “truths” they must use to make sense of their worlds offers one rationale for the recursion of Vanzant’s curriculum (157). However, the explanation that bell hooks gives about the value of “affirmation” for African American women reveals the focus on rhetorical agency built into courses three and four. According to hooks,

in self-healing, Black women can identify that voice within ourselves and begin to replace it with a gentle, compassionate, caring voice ... Having silenced the negative voice within, and replaced it with loving, caring criticism, it is also important for Black women to practice speaking in a loving and caring manner about what we appreciate about one another. For such an action makes it evident to all observers of our social reality that Black women deserve, care, respect, and ongoing affirmation. (hooks 40)

In teaching readers how and when to apply less visible constructs of Afrocentric spirituality to their internal and external environments, Vanzant’s use of affirmation reflects a conceptualization of healing that prepares individuals for a form of rhetorical action. When in isolation or difficult environments, affirmations function as inwardly and outwardly directed arguments for talking back to or overwriting disparaging messages and controlling ideologies. Given the forms of spiritual re-seeing required for these types of affirmation, Vanzant’s curriculum for healing is one where women learn to view their lives as texts they can continually revise with their spiritual vision as the authorization for doing so.

More Ways to See

The process for healing culminates in the “action,” or evolution, course where Vanzant teaches readers to adopt and perform behaviors of healing. What she describes as a state of making better and wiser decisions in The Value in the Valley is termed as a “Spiritual Code of Conduct” in Tapping the Power Within. Living by this code requires readers to accept “oneness with the Creator” as the source of their power. Through this relationship – the ultimate relationship – readers can apply the following principles, or codes of conduct, to their social relationships to resume their progression in a happier life: unconditional love, truth, willingness, righteousness, responsibility, discipline, humility, compassion, perseverance, patience, speaking with a conscious tongue, selflessness, and tithing. Typically, these final actions become the signifiers of wellness for the reader, her family, and communities. They are signs that a woman is healed.

Given African American women’s historically complex and often subordinated roles within such institutions as the Black Church, we cannot overlook how such acts of “selflessness” women are taught to abide by to demonstrate wellness are reproduced in the therapeutic aspects of Vanzant’s curriculum. To receive therapy, according to Cloud, “is to be reconciled to your situation, reintegrated, and restored” in ways that maintain a prevailing sense of social or institutional order (7). Since America, the Black family, and other social institutions and entities will not recover from its wounds until African American women are healed, the flaw in Vanzant’s final course is that the actions she sees as essential to resuming one’s intended life path work to instantiate the behaviors women are expected to perform within these spaces.

However, the contradiction in Vanzant’s curriculum does not negate its significance. Through constructing herself as a critical teacher who not only speaks out against issues of miseducation but also teaches women some processes for doing so, Vanzant’s approach to rhetorical healing makes reeducation a bridge between the writer’s socio-political action and the types of literacy re-training individuals may need to resist personal attacks and to ideally engage in intervention-type activities themselves. Since “literacy is the ground upon which rhetorical education develops,” the discourse on healing in her books, despite its complexity, reflects an African American women’s intellectual tradition that has always been premised on women’s struggle with and within their communities for equality and wholeness (Logan 4). At its best, Vanzant’s books illustrate one way African American women move from testifying about overcoming struggles, to theorizing the source of those struggles, to, ultimately, teaching someone else how to overcome their struggles.

If anything, this contradiction makes a case for the type of re-orientation that inspires the framework I have proposed. Self-help literature is one of the top genres among African American readers, and women are most often the target audience and primary readers of these texts. Analytical frameworks that do not challenge us to contextualize these performances, messages, and teachings within the rhetorical practices of a community make it too convenient to dismiss these books’ popularity as a passing fad and too easy to overlook the complex literate lives of their readers. With the recently popularity of books like Hill Harper’s Letters to a Young Sister: DeFine Your Destiny or Steve Harvey’s Act Like a Lady: Think Like a Man: What Men Really Think About Love, Relationships, Intimacy, and Commitment featuring men’s lessons on how women can revise their life prospects and relationships, the need for new frameworks becomes more pressing. If we are to assist readers in navigating these texts, we must have nuanced analytical frameworks that identify the mandates that influence how writers perceive crises as well as how individuals negotiate their privilege and address hermeneutical problems, particularly in instances when testimony may not apply.

We are in a moment when once taboo-discussions of sexual, emotional, and physical abuse, self-esteem attacks, and single women’s “marriage crises” saturate public culture in books like Vanzant’s, films, and other discourses. While the idea of contemporary Black womanhood is becoming an increasingly visited site for individuals to evoke and rewrite arguments about collective values and re-articulated ways of knowing, self-help books are one of the primary sites and sources of this activity. Rhetorical healing offers us more ways to see the innovation and implications in these texts and this moment because it unearths how the story of African American women’s literacy—which has cultivated their vision to “re-create themselves and re-imagine their worlds”—is being invoked for the sake of community wellness projects or other interests (Royster 110).


1 I follow Royster here who, in building upon Gadamer’s concept of “hermeneutical consciousness,” or the ability to identify “questionable” communicative gaps, explains that one sign of African American women’s rhetorical competence, or persuasive ingenuity and savvy, is a writer’s ability to successfully navigate hermeneutic problems. An extension of mandates, wherein the writer observes issues he or she feels impelled to respond to or resolve, hermeneutic problems are challenges a writer must navigate when the resolution to the issue he or she wants to redress requires the participation and action of others. Hermeneutic problems produce the conditions of and constraints to rhetorical activity. Depending on the issue to be redressed, solving hermeneutic problems can require the writer to construct a bridge, or consubstantial space, between herself and her intended audience, raise her audience’s attention to an issue and its relevance, redirect the audience’s perception of the issue, and convince the audience to carry out their intended form of action (Royster 55).

2 A central premise to Woodson’s argument in The Miseducation of the Negro is that individuals are conditioned to accept. As he explains, “When you control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his actions. You do not have to tell him not to stand here or go yonder. He will find his ‘proper place’ and will stay in it. You do not need to send him to the back door. He will go without being told. In fact, if there is no back door, he will cut one for his special benefit. His education makes it necessary” (Woodson xix).

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