By Associate Professor Elaine B Richardson, Ronald L Jackson II
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Additional resources for African American Rhetoric(s) Interdisciplinary Perspectives
780). Harper, who hardly looked the imagined part of slave, could have been one, and there she stood. Thus, Harper’s performance, as much as her ideas, argued against slavery, at least for some. To be sure, Harper suited her audiences’ rhetorical tastes. In response to a speech she delivered in the Reconstruction South, the editor of the Alabama Mobile wrote the following: The lecturer was then introduced as Mrs. F. E. W. Harper, from Maryland. Without a moment’s hesitation she started off in the flow of her discourse, which rolled smoothly and uninterruptedly on for nearly two hours.
Qtd. in Still, 1872, p. 775) A reporter from the Portland (Maine) Daily Press described Harper as having “splendid articulation,” using “chaste, pure language,” having “a pleasant voice,” and allowing “no one to tire of hearing her” (qtd. in Still, 1872, p. 760). Carla Peterson suggests that such descriptions represent attempts to “decorporealize Watkins Harper by emphasizing the quietness of her body, the chastity of her language, and the purity of her voice,” adding that the resulting effect is “to eliminate the public presence of the Black female body perceived as sexualized or grotesque, and to promote the voice as pure melody, insubstantial sound, a negation of presence” (1995, pp.
We all construct biography from voice, especially from disembodied voice and are often surprised when our constructions prove wrong. Those constructing Black biographies in the nineteenth century had to resolve the conflict between what they heard and what they saw. The oxymoronic articulate Black body presented a unique challenge. Black Speakers, White Representations 33 What in Harper’s rhetorical training may have enabled such responses to her public speaking? She attended her uncle William Watkins’s Academy for Negro Youth in Baltimore until she was thirteen.