Thinking About Talkin and Testifyin in the Context of the “Rhetorical Savviness” Concept

While the whole of Geneva Smitherman’s Talkin and Testifyin is fascinating and, for me, moving in its validation/contextualization of “black Englishes” in relation to other manifestations of black cultures/being, this week I wanted to focus specifically on chapter seven of Smitherman’s work: “Where Do We Go From Here? T.C.B.!”
My initial interest in this chapter stemmed from the name alone: that the title asks “where do we go from here?” suggested to me that Smitherman might venture to offer practical, tangible thinking about the “place” of black language and ideas about advancement. “How,” I wondered, “Could we use a literacy of blackness to better understand black humanity and create more opportunities for advancement.”
Excitingly, this chapter challenged this notion of language as a “tool of advancement” that I held—speaking to the “seemingly-liberal-but-insidiously founded” projects of “black advancement” that focused on linguistic “remediation” that sought to “re-educate and elevate” blacks as part of a curious progress narrative that Smitherman argues is a denial of cultural context and lived experiences from which black folk emerge. Further, Smitherman’s instructive pointing to potential changes to be made in reading programs and the need for a focus on a pedagogy that emphasizes “communicative competence”, or the endlessly complex negotiations that must be made in sharing information via languages across a number of languages and contexts.
This reminded me of Juan Guerra’s Language, Culture, Identity and Citizenship in College Classrooms and Communities, and particularly his call for what he describes as “rhetorical savviness”, or the ability for students to understand the features / rhetorical circumstances that differ among the various “communities of meaning” and thereby “navigate” them expertly—adhering to the standards of academic or professional institutions when they occupy them while at the same understanding that as human beings, students bring the whole of themselves and the community contexts from which they emerge to any given situation.
In some ways, I think Guerra’s take on this matter is limited in some ways in comparison to Smitherman’s—in part, I imagine, because Smitherman’s focus lies on black language and culture as a whole whereas Guerra is speaking about a fairly general (if not diverse) population of students in university institutions. As someone who is interested in examining activist pedagogies related to language, communities of meaning and “real-life” experiences beyond the so-called “Ivory Tower” of academia, Smitherman’s discussion of communicative competence has provided me with tools to further think about community rhetorics that maybe aren’t so academic—a tool desperately needed for scholars seeking to do work beyond the walls of the university.

On that note, I leave my readers with a video of Cardi B discussing why she “talks funny”. More on her later.

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