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Rhetoric and Civic Belonging: Lynching and the Making of National Community
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Ore, Ersula J
Doctor of Philosophy
Date of Defense:
April 20, 2011
Raymond Keith Gilyard, Dissertation Advisor
Keith Gilyard, Committee Chair
Linda Furgerson Selzer, Committee Member
Xiaoye You, Committee Member
Jeremy Engels, Committee Member
When members of white society rejected Civil War Amendments that called for a radical revision of social norms and legal provisions, widespread refusal to accept blacks as fellow citizens culminated in the increased lynching of African Americans. The increased activity of lynching during Reconstruction has drawn the attention of scholars across disciplines, all of whom have touched upon the functions, causes, and significances of American lynchings. However, while many of them have implied a connection between lynching and national citizenship, there has yet to be a sustained systematic examination of this argument. In “Rhetoric and Civic Belonging: Lynching and the Making of National Community,” I attend to this gap in the critical literature by examining lynching as rhetorical activity that both has challenged and continues to challenge the civic status of African Americans. Using Kenneth Burke’s notion of rhetorical identification and Kevin Dean’s concept of rhetorical juxtaposition I examine the rhetoric of historical and legislative documents, social practices, and American public discourse before, during, and after Reconstruction and explain how they work together to rhetorically construct American citizenship as a racialized political identity. “Rhetoric and Civic Belonging: Lynching and the Making of National Community” contributes to projects in the field of Rhetoric that examine diverse modes of civic engagement, how these modes contribute to the construction of national identity, and the role visual and print media play in the maintenance of this identity. At the heart of this study is a consideration of violence’s centrality to the making of the nation; specifically, how official and unofficial campaigns of violence have and continue to contribute to the formation of an American national community. My analysis yields three general findings. First, that lynching was the violent refutation of African Americans’ inclusion into the category of “citizen.” Second, that the federal government’s refusal to implement anti-lynching legislation lent an air of legitimacy to lynching while simultaneously creating a relationship between its practice and white supremacists notions of American civic identity. Among enclaves of white society lynching became a symbolic act that reaffirmed the racial and civic supremacy of white Americans, a rhetorical performance that symbolically reconstituted white supremacist worldview and confirmed followers’ convictions that white Americans, not African Americans, were the sole and rightful heirs to democratic promise and protection. In this sense, lynchers and white supremacist sympathizers read lynching as patriotic duty, as civic action. My third and final finding complicates claims of America’s present-day post-racial status. An examination of contemporary instantiations of lynching and the discourse surrounding it indicates that the nation’s proclivity to rationalize racialized murder as an expression of civic identity is not a practice that is dead and gone, but instead a practice that is very much a part of the historical present.
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