WEEK 4: Gilyard, Ethnography (?) and Agentive Acts

I think that, for a lot of people, one of the most striking elements of Keith Gilyard’s Voices of the Self is the form Gilyard’s exploration of various literacies takes. Though there is some similarity between this text and Smitherman’s Talkin and Testifyin—in terms of some of the colloquialisms Gilyard uses in his writing—a stark difference is marked in that Gilyard conveys much of his thinking through a narrative about his childhood that most readers will associate with novels or creative nonfiction.

As is seemingly a theme in this course thus far, Gilyard’s work is an atypical manifestation of theoretical literacy that—to lean on Smitherman here—is in many ways a “transitional text” that brings readers into contact with what I’ll call rhetorical/compositional theory by way of a vehicle that is (presumably; and it is important that I clarify my presumption here as I’m under the impression that these literacies aren’t necessarily accessible to everyone*) inviting, clear, and mostly devoid of the labyrinthine academic jargon that so often serves as a gatekeeping mechanism.

Thinking about this in relation to broader themes in rhetorical / compositional theory, as well as research methods, I appreciate what I think can be described as Gilyard’s ethnographic approach. Rather than relaying abstract concepts about literacy events and what I think Smitherman would describe as “communicative competencies” (or what Guerra, as I mentioned in a previous post, would call “rhetorical savviness”, a concept that now seems admittedly less novel than it did when I originally encountered it without any knowledge of Smitherman) and then expect readers to scaffold those concepts onto their own understanding of the worlds/literacies they occupy, Gilyard gives us kind of a use-case of his theory by way of his own life.

It’s significant that, in the introduction, Gilyard mentions the “unreliability” of autobiography. Not because, in my opinion, it’s important to think of his narration as unreliable, but instead because announcing that acknowledgment at the beginning of the text better prepares the reader to take such limitations into consideration as they read his story, consider their own stories, and those around them. This, I think, bolsters the credibility of Gilyard’s work rather than damaging it, and it’s refreshing to see (for a change) a discussion about literacy that hedges in meaningful ways rather than asserting one man’s mode of thinking as absolute fact, as has always seemed so strangely common to me in academia.

To expand on this last point, I want to point to Gilyard’s discussion about a “sharpened social awareness” he claims to always have possessed, because I think it relates to this (in my own view) necessary hedging that he does at the introduction of the text. Gilyard writes:

“I carried with me a tremendously empowering repertoire of speaking and listening skills when I shuffled off to public school and continued to
expand it once I arrived. Included in my bag of communicative tricks were
that prize strategem, Black English, a productive (speaking) biloquialism,
and a broader receptive (listening) bidialectalism. There was also an adroitness
at responding to the perceived need to match each dialect to different
sets of social circumstances“ (33)

I couldn’t help but wonder if my own desire to hedge—or maybe the better term is “contextualize, perhaps iempathically (?)—emerged from a similar place. In recognizing, as a black, queer male of a certain stature who occupied various different “communities of meaning” and negotiated no shortage of literacies, it has always seemed important to me to make it known that while I believe there is some validity in my perspective, that it is important to recognize it as “a persective”—”a literacy”, a “way of being”—rather than one. I think that, perhaps those who occupy those spaces which are understood to be the “standard” manner of being—”standard English” speakers of “standard” skin colors, “standard” socioeconomic status and “standard” orientations, for example—may lack such sharp awareness as Gilyard speaks of, leaning only into those rhetorical modes that are given to them from birth and afford them power while otherwise leaving them ill-equipped to recognize their limitations or to accept the validity of those perspectives or modes of being that live outside of standardization. There is a certain kind of power in that ignorance (or maybe the power always existed and the ignorance is just imbued by it), too, as it allows theorists (for example) to assert their ideas as novel, or paradigm-shifting, or whatever, when in fact people have come before them with the same ideas, under different names.

I imagine that, when enough people buy into that “standard” storyline with that “standard” literacy, it’s easy to get away with that kind of thing—because “standard” institutions might lack the awareness to say, “Hey, wait—didn’t… Geneva Smitherman talk about communicative competence first? Say, what are the differences between this and rhetorical savviness? Doesn’t Keith Gilyard give us a use-case for such competence?”

Certainly I have that question now.

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