Nannie H. Burroughs' Rhetorical Leadership During the Inter-War Period

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Mason, Michele
Gaines, Robert N.
Although frequently praised for her rhetorical abilities and widely recognized as an influential leader in the African-American community, Nannie Helen Burroughs' speeches and writings have been the subject of little scholarly treatment. The quest for freedom and equality in America, Burroughs believed, would be satisfied through individual and collective struggle, and while she never advocated directly the use of physical force, she often evoked martial themes--using terms such as battles, enemies, crusades, weapons, and sacrifice--along with ideas related to movement and progress, to motivate action among African-Americans. These ideas, complemented by her stylistic tendencies, inspired continued action during a time when basic citizenship rights seemed out of reach for many African-Americans. This rhetorical tendency seemed most strategic during the 1920s and 1930s, a time when African-Americans experienced a renewed and seemingly coordinated assault on their identity as American citizens. They found their constitutional right to vote threatened, their social and economic status weakened, and their identity as American citizens undermined. Burroughs would skillfully combine various styles of discourse to match her rhetorical goals and the demands of the audiences she addressed. More specifically, she employed a clear, vivid, energetic style to awaken and enlist African-American audiences, to empower politically, provide vision, and to rehabilitate identity during the period between the two world wars.