On Rhetoric and Black Music

Restricted (Penn State Only)
Brooks, Earl Holmes
Graduate Program:
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
July 20, 2017
Committee Members:
  • Keith Gilyard, Dissertation Advisor
  • Keith Gilyard, Committee Chair
  • John "Jack" Selzer, Committee Member
  • Cheryl Glenn, Committee Member
  • Paul C Taylor, Outside Member
  • rhetoric
  • black music
  • jazz
  • ragtime
  • public sphere
  • discourse
  • Scott Joplin
  • Duke Ellington
  • John Coltrane
  • Mary Lou Williams
This dissertation examines the expansive rhetorical nature of black music by grappling with two central questions. One, how does African-American music function as rhetoric? Two, what happens if black music is posited as central to the discourse of African Americans and Americans in general? Through rhetorical and musical analyses of Scott Joplin, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, and Mary Lou Williams, I conclude that these artists used their music to provide a profound counterargument to the dehumanization and racial oppression of African Americans. I establish that Joplin used ragtime as a principal tool for articulating the humanity of African Americans and distancing black music from the legacy of minstrelsy. Ellington’s compositions are notable for their clear expression of Afrocentric themes that engage the sonic archive lost to African Americans through the institution of slavery. Coltrane remains one of the most referenced jazz musicians in African-American poetry and prose as a symbol of the aesthetic qualities of Black Nationalism. Moreover, the rhetorical impact of his music suggests ways of understanding the genre of free jazz as constitutive, much like Ellington’s work, of rhetorics of Afrocentrism. Mary Lou Williams, an important, though marginalized, figure in the development of jazz, and her modern gospel-inflected jazz compositions celebrated the role of black music in shaping a sense of collective history while defying the norms surrounding female musicians and the secular confinement of jazz. The rhetorical dimensions of the music from these artists suggest broader ways of recognizing the centrality of black music to African-American rhetorical practices.