How to Create a Rhetorical Touchstone

10 Jan
In his essay, "The Rebirth of Black Rage," Mychal Denzel Smith uses Kanye West's statement, "George Bush doesn't care about black people," as a touchstone for discussing black political rhetoric.

In his essay, “The Rebirth of Black Rage,” Mychal Denzel Smith uses Kanye West’s statement, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people,” as a touchstone for discussing black political rhetoric.

When making an argument, it’s useful to be able to hold up something as an example that everyone recognizes and whose nature everyone agrees upon—to be able to call a spade a spade. In our current political moment, this is difficult, often impossible. I’m hardly the first person to point this out. The Internet is full of articles about “post-truth” or “truthiness” or, as one Donald Trump surrogate said, “There’s no such thing as facts.” Facts do exist, of course, and if you doubt it, stick your finger in an electrical socket and your uncertainty will be cleared right up. But it’s certainly the case that our partisanship has made it difficult to agree upon anything, even when their reality is staring us right in the face.

I don’t know how to ultimately solve this problem. But I encountered one possible solution in Mychal Denzel Smith’s new memoir Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching: A Young Black Man’s Education. It was an essay on Kanye West, originally published at “The Rebirth of Black Rage” in The Nation, where you can read it now.

How the Essay Works

In the essay, Smith argues that, in his lifetime, black rage had ceased to be an option for politicians (and even for regular people). In its place, at least politically, was electoral politics, in which electability is strategically chosen over anger. For anyone born after, say, 1980, this new political discourse was the only discourse. However, as the essay’s title suggests, Smith wants to show that black rage has returned, challenging electability and, in many ways, presaging the Black Lives Matter movement. To make this argument, Smith must establish both terms in specific, recognizable ways; we need to know black rage and electability politics when we see them.

Smith begins with black rage. He finds a perfect example of it in a speech by Kanye West during a televised fundraiser for the victims of Hurricane Katrina:

Speaking as if he were reading from the teleprompter, his cadence straddling the line between stiff and natural, he looked straight into the camera and said, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”

Mychal Denzel Smith's memoir, Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching, is being promoted by Books Are Not a Luxury, a project that aims to turn book-buying into social activism. To learn more, click here.

Mychal Denzel Smith’s memoir, Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching, is being promoted by Books Are Not a Luxury, a project that aims to turn book-buying into social activism. To learn more, click here.

This moment is well-chosen for a couple of reasons. First, it was a primetime event that received exhaustive news coverage. Everyone saw it or heard about it. Second, West’s statement is clearly made in anger. Third, it came from an unlikely source. West had talked about race before this speech, but he wasn’t known for it, at least not in a broad, public way, not like Cornell West or Jesse Jackson.  The speech by Kanye was important because it made people pay attention. It was something that seemed new.

Once Smith sets up this standard for black rage, he uses it to show how different electability sounds. As a primary example, he discusses President Obama’s Philadelphia speech, the now-famous speech in which then-candidate Obama addressed the inflammatory remarks of Reverend Wright, the preacher at the church the Obama family attended in Chicago. In the speech, Obama specifically addressed black rage and said this:

That anger is not always productive; indeed, all too often it distracts attention from solving real problems; it keeps us from squarely facing our own complicity within the African-American community in our own condition; it prevents the African-American community from forging the alliances it needs to bring about real change.

This excerpt can’t be farther from the Kanye West statement. The phrase “forging the alliances it needs” is pure electability politics. He goes on to give a second example:

When Henry Louis Gates Jr. was arrested in front of his own home, Obama’s response was to call him to the White House garden for a beer summit with the arresting officer, thereby sending the message that racial profiling is, meh, not that big a deal.

At the time, President Obama’s speech in Philadelphia was roundly applauded. In it, he even went out of his way to explain that many poor white people in the Rust Belt and rural places did not feel that they had benefited from racial privilege. And, the beer summit also received positive media attention. Even when President Obama forcefully spoke out against racism and violence against black people, as he did after the murder of Trayvon Martin, he continued to offer olive branches to certain groups of white voters, as when he said, “I think the African-American community is also not naive in understanding that, statistically, somebody like Trayvon Martin was probably statistically more likely to be shot by a peer than he was by somebody else.”

Because Smith juxtaposes these statements and actions with the off-script remarks of Kanye West, he’s able to draw clear distinctions. President Obama was working within one frame of thought (Smith calls it respectability politics), and Kanye West was working under another (Smith calls it black rage).

When your audience can’t agree upon facts, it becomes part of the writer’s job to define the pertinent facts to his or her point so convincingly that they they’re difficult to dispute. (That doesn’t mean that everyone will accept them, of course.) If certain politicians are bent on destroying a common set of basic beliefs, then writers can have a crucial role to play in pushing back and creating standards that people recognize and can refer to in their own discussions and arguments. This is what Smith does in “The Rebirth of Black Rage” and Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching: A Young Black Man’s Education.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s define facts and create a rhetorical touchstone, using “The Rebirth of Black Rage” by Mychal Denzel Smith as a model:

  1. Decide what your point is. This goes for fiction as well as nonfiction. In an essay, your point is likely an argument, usually some version of this is how the world works, or this is what exists. You’re pointing to something and telling the reader to take a second, closer look. In fiction, your point is more likely to be connected to experience: this is crazy, this is funny, this is sad, this is sweet, this is big or small or rich or poor. This often applies to character and setting descriptions.
  2. Figure out what is noteworthy about your point. In his essay, Smith nails what is noteworthy in a single word: rage. So, think about your point in terms of adjectives: size, color, normality, intensity.
  3. Choose a touchstone. The original touchstones were pieces of jasper used for testing whether something was gold or not. In writing, a touchstone plays a similar role. You’re looking for something that clarifies or reveals or highlights your point. In comedies, we accept this strategy without thinking; it’s called the “straight man.” In procedural police dramas, there is almost always a good cop and a bad cop. The point of the bad cop is to make the person being interrogated realize what a sweet deal the good cop is offering. In his essay, Smith uses Kanye West’s statement about Bush to the same effect. That statement clearly doesn’t care what people think; it’s simply expressing his anger. When juxtaposed with other statements, it will reveal even the slightest effort at rage-minimization, the least bit of trying to get along. In fiction, we put big characters into tight spaces and outlandish characters into serious situations, neat freaks with slobs, and sweet employees with horrible bosses. So, try to find a character or setting that will highlight whatever you’re trying to show the reader.
  4. Prove that your touchstone is a good one. This is the tricky part. In fiction, we often use descriptions to prove things. If something is small, we show how small it is. Smith uses a slightly different approach. He introduces something we’re all familiar with (Kanye West’s live-TV statement) and then makes an argument that seems so obvious that it’s not even an argument: Kanye West was angry. Because we can all agree upon this point, he’s able to make a claim based on it (the rebirth of black rage) and hold it up against a statement that he believes exemplifies a different approach. The key, then, is finding something that is obvious on its face—to almost everyone. This isn’t easy, as climate scientists will tell you. But it you can find it, you’ll be able to build a complex argument upon it.

The goal is to establish facts for your essay or fiction in order to get readers to buy in to the fundamentals of your argument.

Good luck.

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