Black History Month means unearthing grainy black-and-white photos of Black people from archives, backrooms, and attics everywhere.
The New York Times played this storyline literally this year, announcing a month-long series of photos never before published in the print newspaper or digital site.
The newspaper’s photographers once wandered Black neighborhoods and followed Black civil rights leaders and artists from event to event. They froze each photo subject on film, perhaps hoping that their work would help illuminate the lives of Black people in a society that otherwise refused to acknowledge them.
Today the Times‘ editors explain that previous teams had been too small to process all the images, that the newspaper’s publication focus had been on text journalism rather than on image-based reporting, and that editorial bias limited stories featuring Black people. All this at what was the nation’s flagship’s newspaper for most of the 20th Century.
It was a microcosm of what we all do in different ways every day.
Every archived photo and every editorial choice asks us to question whose lives and concerns are worth recognition and whose eyes we see those people through, not just historically but also in our own time.
Secondary rhetoric is an analytical term for persuasive communication about persuasive communication. We do secondary rhetoric quite naturally when we explain communication events to people who weren’t present. Recounting a past sermon over potluck is secondary rhetoric. So is live-tweeting a conference talk, or talking to siblings about a conversation with your parents.
These acts of retelling and recounting are all more than merely noting and sharing someone else’s words. They also mean making substantive choices about how to represent a communicator’s messages, the atmosphere in the location, the context for the moment, and the role that the original speaker played with their first audience.
None of these choices are neutral because meaning-making isn’t neutral. The stories we tell build up our world, framing both how we understand ourselves and how we interact with others, who we foreground and who we leave in the archives. unpublished.
Our stories are powerful reality-shaping tools that impact us and the people around us, in some cases for generations. How we handle them matters.
Kay Siebler’s study of Sojourner Truth’s speech to Ohioan women’s suffrage activists in 1851, “Far from the truth.” (In Pedagogy, 10(3): 511-533, DOI: 10.1215/15314200-2010-005)