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Title:Reconfiguring racial uplift: church-sponsored African American rhetorical work in the early twentieth century
Author(s):Rouillon Calderon, Vanessa
Director of Research:Prendergast, Catherine J.; Mortensen, Peter L.
Doctoral Committee Chair(s):Prendergast, Catherine J.; Mortensen, Peter L.
Doctoral Committee Member(s):Deck, Alice; Kirsch, Gesa
Department / Program:English
Degree Granting Institution:University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Subject(s):Racial uplift
African American rhetorical education
archival work
local history
Abstract:This dissertation contends that members of African American communities have asserted their citizenship early in the twentieth century in predominantly white locations via the display of their rhetorical work, which black audiences received with pride and support, but white ones have utterly ignored. I critically examine here the rhetorical work of a Midwestern African American congregation, Bethel AME Church located in a then smaller urban locality, Champaign, IL, and in close proximity to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Specifically, I claim that members’ uptake of racial uplift entailed a middle-class project—not an economic project, not one stemming from their finances, but a cultural one. Their fraught program of constructing middle-class subjectivities has comprised both distancing behaviors—rejection of lower class membership and resistance to racist portrayals—and cultural (read educational) aspirations and conscious performances of dignity. These seemingly opposing practices—cultural distance and cultural proximity—have therefore carried intra-racial struggles. I further argue that these church members (and others in similar locations), following long-standing traditions of self-reliance, conceived their activist work as a necessary response to the apathy they have encountered in their locales. After Bethel congregants relocated to Champaign from the South, at the turn of the century, they soon witnessed the founding of a university that privileged white men and a city environment seldom receptive, and even openly hostile, to their visibility. They did, however, engage the University of Illinois in productive ways by sponsoring educational initiatives off-campus when comparable campus offerings did not accommodate black students, not at least comfortably. In doing so, they demonstrated too an understanding (and endurance) of inter-racial struggles, and of what Jacqueline Jones Royster (2000) has called situated ethos—a sense of racial place, tensions, and duties (pp. 64-65). Using archival findings from university, public, and private black repositories in town, and oral histories that I collected from senior Bethel members, I demonstrate how, through self-sponsored rhetoric, Bethel became a critical activist site for its congregants and, more importantly, for the African American university students who during the interwar years availed themselves of this church’s services—educational, rhetorical and material. When African Americans were granted their rights to citizenship they had to struggle the most against a national, deeply-felt, and governmentally-sanctioned racism. They did, however, imagine, finance, and offer their own educational venues; they did so with a clear sense of self-determination. Bethel was one such instance. In studying this community, my dissertation accounts for local narratives of uplift through activism. The result is what I have called reconfiguring racial uplift, local race work conducted by lesser-known black individuals and black communities. Bethel members have not become figures of national recognition, and their work, and that of their most visible rhetors, when made public, was only discussed in local periodicals. Nevertheless, they have interpreted the national project and crafted their own version of the “talented,” dignified, and cultured African American. We must therefore study these responses to limited citizenship and racism locally because of their contributions to the development of black citizenship. Bethel congregants understood their racial duties as that of a black middle-class uplift ideology by focusing on the moral and cultural aspects of advancement, performing aesthetically, and associating themselves with a university culture. Bethel’s literary training of black students through such activities as debates and parliamentary work, my point of entry into this community, signaled a larger community investment in rhetorical instruction, historical recoveries, activism, and archival maintenance. Bethel has established the literary, educational, and archival as the core practices my dissertation elucidates.
Issue Date:2013-08-22
Rights Information:Copyright 2013 Vanessa I. Rouillon Calderon
Date Available in IDEALS:2013-08-22
Date Deposited:2013-08

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