We Pod Black?* Black Rhetoric & Podcasting During White Reclamation
When the news broke on January 6, 2021 that the Capitol was “being besieged”, I was scheduled to be in my home studio. That is where I record my podcast with Roxane Gay, “Hear to Slay”. Oddly enough, the day had started going to, er, pot the moment I woke up. My doctor’s appointment was cancelled as I was in the car on my way. When I returned home, a malfunctioning transformer meant a black-out throughout my neighborhood. I live in a cell phone tower dead zone. When my electricity is out, I am cut off from the outside world. As it happened this day, I had to cancel our scheduled recording session.
The electricity returned just late enough to not warrant calling everyone back to the studio but just in time to be on social media as the news started to break. Images of screaming hordes of mostly white people were breaking down doors to take back their nation. The scenes moved from chaotic to unbelievable to violent and absurd. A man carrying a Congressional lectern. The police helping a woman being helped down the steps, after her crimes. A weirdo in a fur coat and little else. Some ninja cos-play. Lots and lots of screaming.
There is not much to be said that I have not said, mostly with friends and in safe spaces. I visited Christopher Lydon of Open Source radio on WBUR (Boston). Chris is good to talk to. He is sensible. He is comfortable that he does not know everything. I like that in a person.
I told Chris that what happened on the Capitol was the twin process of what happened the same day in Georgia. The violent insurgents were protesting democracy as Georgia was making democracy fulfill its promise. Both sides are responding to the reality of a plural nation, but only one side is willing to kill because of it.
Back on “Hear to Slay”, Roxane and I moved our Wednesday recording to Thursday. Our very smart production team knew what we knew — Roxane and I just needed to talk with each other and with our audience.
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As whiteness found its flame of nationalist aggrievement, my instinct was to find my audience and speak to them in my mother tongue.
In this way, I did what Black people have done for as long as we have identified as a people. I fell into Black rhetorics because that is the rhetorical tradition where audience and justice find their levels, calling each other into existence.
It struck me that this is what I wanted and needed in this moment. I was not alone. Our audience has been as vocal this week as they have ever been. They want to be called in, even if they do not know that they are asking for refuge in the Black rhetorical tradition.
The moment got me thinking about how the white rhetorics of most media, and especially of podcasts. One of my professional academic organizations sent me an email last week. The email invited people to write about the “feminist politics” of podcasting. The publisher pointed out how the largest podcasts are helmed by men. They are also all helmed by white men.
There are a lot of reasons why podcasting has been so white, in sound and representation. There is the free time to invest in a lot of free labor, feedback loops for white male consumer interests, and the cost to do a good podcast.
I also suspect that the medium has resonated with white men creators and listeners because its traditional format is modeled so precisely on the white rhetorical tradition: a great man at a podium, a passive audience, and an argument. It’s very Greek.
Think of the podcasts you know of and I bet a lot of them adopt this model. A single “voice” speaking to an audience that is included through the assumptions the producers make about the audience’s knowledge on the topic at hand. If you do not know what a “bit” is or why everyone is supposed to “go on Chapo”, then you are not the audience — even if you are listening. Then there is an argument. Sometimes they’re arguing with the audience. Sometimes they are arguing on behalf of the audience. But there is always a call to persuasion.
It is a fine enough tradition.
Black rhetorics, on the other hand, is a sublime tradition. It really is. Black rhetoric speaks with an audience. The speaker is lifted up from the audience, by the audience. The tradition of call-and-response, where the speaker and audience have a two-way dialogue is a recognition of how one does not exist without the other.
Black rhetorics can also be visual, using images that seek an audience by calling out to the symbols they share. Black rhetorics can be music, like jazz and also like hip-hop (except when Drake is doing it. I don’t even know about Canadians, man. I think that whole thing was a mistake). It can be dance, like the Alvin Ailey dance troupe or girls jumping double-dutch.
It should also be podcasting.
When Roxane and I were developing “Hear to Slay”, I kept saying to producers that the show needed to match our rhythm. I could not explain it any other way. I wanted the energy, pacing, structure and editing of the show to mimic the rhyme and meter of Black (American girlfriend) cadence.
That was easier said than done. We still do not always get it right but I am proud of our development.
I am also all the more certain this week than I have ever been, that audio stories and news have to develop the foundation of Black storytelling as a format and style.
That means more than having Black voices on a program, although that matters. It means critiquing “NPR sound” as what it is — aural white homogeneity. It also means critiquing the assumptions of podcasting for the assumed whiteness that have become taken-for-granted style requirements: the pacing, the length, the music beds, the us-versus-them audience construction.
It mattered to me this week that I could go to a Black auditory space. When we are inundated by voices telling us very important news, we need to hear that news in multiple registers.
When we have one register, there is only ever one outcome:
- This is a reference to Gwendolyn Brook’s classic poem, “We Real Cool”. It is a poem structured in Black rhetorics, about Black rhetorics, as a love note to Black rhetoricians:
- Friend and professor, Chioke I’anson, runs an academic program dedicated to the African and African American philosophical tradition and contemporary podcasting.