African American Feminist Rhetorics: A User’s Guide for Call/Response

history, theory, pedagogy, and action

Staci Perryman-Clark, Brittney Boykins & Rhea Estelle Latha
Sponsored by the NCTE/CCCC Black Caucus
blue circle with three orange fists raised.

Invitation to Participate

Sponsored by members of the NCTE/CCCC Black Caucus, contributors invite participants to engage the history of feminist call/response, and how these have been used to promote civic engagement and action. To engage the history of call/response, NCTE/CCCC Black Caucus contributors have created a user’s guide designed to immerse readers, feminist scholars, and teachers in the rhetorical study of call/response as an African-based practice employed by African American women intellectuals in order to expand the repertoire of discursive practices available for use in rhetoric and writing classrooms and institutions of higher education.

As participants engage our user’s guide, we invite them to access pedagogical resources and tools to apply call/response in the classroom, and use these tools and resources to take action with their own local communities and on college campuses.



classroom activities

contemporary feminist action

academic action

Welcome to our user’s guide for call/response sponsored by members of the NCTE/CCCC Black Caucus. The Black Caucus serves as “advocacy group of Black English language arts educators and scholars who are involved in the teaching and learning of communication skills.” Historically, the Black Caucus has shaped civic discourses within and beyond the National Council of Teachers of English and the Conference on College Composition and Communication. The Black Caucus continues to expand its reach beyond disciplinary conversations toward taking civic action. Most recently, members of the Black Caucus have shaped disciplinary conversations on the violent treatment of Black men and women, including our own sister, Ersula Ore, and affirmations of the #blacklivesmatter movement. It is within this space and tradition, then, that we provide a user’s guide that helps users better understand how rhetorical practices can be used to take action within and beyond the academy.

The necessity to take action both within and beyond the academy is critical for feminist scholars and allies doing intellectual and rhetorical work. As such, we have created a conceptual framework that moves feminists toward taking action and offer the African American rhetorical practice, call/response, as one example of how this framework can be used to take action. In this space, you will find print, digital and electronic guides that assist you with taking action and adapting call/response in your own classrooms. Our aim is to provide resources for both feminist teachers and scholars and allies who seek to advance the status of women in rhetoric and composition.

By learning the ways in which call/response has been valued in the histories of rhetoric, teachers and scholars will gain an understanding of its history and how it has been used to promote civic engagement and action, while also receiving pedagogical resources and tools that will enable them to adapt call/response in the classroom and take action within their own local communities and on college campuses.

definition of call/response

Throughout history, Call/response has been used in Africanized and Black discourses to take action in the civic sphere. Specifically, call/response is defined as "spontaneous verbal and non-verbal interaction between speaker and listener in which all of the speaker’s statements (‘calls’) are punctuated by expressions (‘responses’) from the listener" (Smitherman 104). To understand how call/response operates in the civic sphere, one must understand the history behind its usage, the procedures and processes by which it is used, contemporary examples of its use to promote action in civic discourse, and the feminist applications for call/response.


Call/response is a commonly used African American rhetorical device used by African American rhetors. This rhetorical device is rooted in the African American oral tradition; this African-based rhetorical device requires spontaneous interaction between the rhetor and his/her audience. The rhetor initiates a speech act or call and the audience responds to this speech act or call. Call/response can include both verbal and non-verbal interactions between the rhetor and audience.


Understanding the procedural processes for employing call/response in verbal and written exchanges is essential for call/response to be employed successfully. Both the rhetor/speaker and audience are required to participate in call/responses exchanges. The following identifies some of the processes of procedures for recognizing call/response in textual products.


Contemporary examples of call/response are aimed to take action in civic discourse, with one example of this action being literacy education during the civic and voting rights historical periods. These action-driven exchanges are frequently non-verbal and rely on negotiation between individuals and the community. The following list includes several key aspects as call/response toward action.


The uses of call/response as an African American rhetorical practice have been taken up by African American women rhetoricians in various public discourses including women’s speeches, women’s journalistic writing, and women’s rap performances (Pough 165; Richardson “To Protect” 698; Richardson “She Was Workin” 803).

In “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child: The Call and Response for a Liberational Ethic of Care by Black Feminists,” M. Eugene Toinette argues that call/response be used in the “liberational ethic of care,” one that is grounded and rooted in “the religious and Biblical context of the [Black] women experience [that] celebrates the Black woman who has assumed the role of servant leader in their communities” (qtd. In Thomas et al. 45).

Examples of Call and Response

The following examples illustrate how call/response is used to take action. These examples may be used as a pedagogical overview for students studying African American rhetoric in rhetorical theory, histories of rhetoric, cultural rhetorics, or African American rhetorics courses; these examples may also be used to train rhetoric and writing educators to recognize call/response in various genres of written prose. Each further offers pedagogical examples of the various genres in which rhetors may use call/response to take action. These include published speeches, published novels, and African American students’ writing.

Historical Speeches: In Malcolm X’s Message to the Grass Roots

We all agree tonight, all of the speakers have agreed, that America has a very serious problem. Not only does America have a very serious problem, but our people have a very serious problem. America’s problem is us. We’re her problem. The only reason she has a problem is she doesn’t want us here. And every time you look at yourself, be you Black, brown, red or yellow, a so-called Negro, you represent a person who poses such a serious problem for America because you’re not wanted. Once you face this is a fact, then you can start plotting a course that will make you appear intelligent, instead of unintelligent. (4)

Malcolm X wants his listeners (respondents) to employ strategies or tactics that emphasize the fact that African Americans are among the undesirables in America (Woodyard 145): “Through masterly call-and-response techniques, Malcolm X is able to elicit agreement, all the while dancing around the issue. Moreover, this pre-issue speaking time permitted listeners opportunities to indicate that they not only agreed with the foregoing, but also enjoyed following Malcolm X in the anticipation that he was leading to some agreeable space” (145). In short, Malcolm X’s response is a call to action. It is a call not only for African Americans to consider their unequal status in American, but also, a call for citizens in positions of power and authority to revise this status (response).

Contemporary Novels: Toni Morrison’s Beloved

Maggie Sale argues that “Beloved … is an oral text shaped by the principles outlined above, with a special emphasis on improvisation and call-and-response patterns”(42). Moreover, Sale suggests that Sethe and Beloved’s relationship is one indicative of a call/response that reflects the ways in which verbal and nonverbal communication interacts in a dialogic and spontaneous way. Sale notes:

Call/response: patterns both structure and are the theme of Sethe and Beloved's relationship. Sethe's guilt, which she acknowledges only to her murdered child, keeps that child alive and eventually calls her back into the physical world. Beloved calls Sethe to account once Sethe realizes who she is, and Sethe responds endlessly but uselessly, since the healing response is not reciprocal. When Sethe and Beloved become locked in a narrowing spiral that threatens to destroy the mother even as it feeds the child, Denver leaves her self-imposed exile, calling the women of the community, who respond with food and later with spiritual assistance. (43)

The verbal and non-verbal interaction between Sethe and Beloved can also be seen as a call to action that is reciprocated. In contrast to call/response interactions where the rhetor initiates a call to action and those in positions of authority are invited to respond to that call, the call/response dynamic that happens in Beloved is spontaneously reciprocated, where the call in the relationship shifts from one of the characters to the other depending on each individual character’s needs. Based on the needs and desires from the caller, the lover on the other end is then invited to respond in various ways. Therefore, both characters are invited and obligated to take action based on the needs of the caller.

Procedural Uses in Students’ Writing

It is essential to understand that when students employ call/response repetitiously, as they refer back to the writing prompt, that they are not only purposefully employing African American rhetorical strategies, but also, that they are not repeating text or ideas unnecessarily or redundantly. The following are a few examples of how Black students employ call/response as an African American rhetorical device in academic writing:

With each of these examples, the writers are not only employing call/response, but are also recommending the need to take action. With the first example, the writer recommends that Blacks be respected, prompting the audience to take action by reconsidering how Black citizens have historically been treated so that they now become considered as respectful citizens in American society.

With the second example, while the writer returns repetitiously to the prompt to engage readers in a dialogic call/response discourse, the writer still wants readers to revise their notions of being Black and literate; in essence, the writer is calling for readers to change their notions of what it means to be literate so that these notions include Black literacies.

With the final example, while the writer also creates a dialogic interaction with readers by returning repetitiously to the prompt, the writer demands that readers and those in positions of authority respect his/her “time and effort,” as (s)he demands respect and recognition. While the demand for respect can be used as an example of how rhetors take action (the call), those in positions of authority are also required to take action in the way that they respond to these demands (the response).

Download Historical, Contemporary, and Procedural Examples of Call/Response (docx, 167KB)

call/response classroom activities

As stated in our definition, call/response includes both spontaneous verbal and nonverbal interaction. The following information consists of a series of sample activities instructors can use in their classrooms to promote call/response with verbal and non-verbal communication. The verbal communicative practice is derived from the African oral tradition and reflects the preaching style often experienced in the Black church, while non-verbal communicative practices suggest that the listener take action in response to the call by the rhetor.

Each activity further enacts feminist pedagogy because each classroom activity invites students to participate, collaborate, and contribute knowledge in such a way that disrupts power dynamics. Both the instructor (caller) and students (responders) are dependent on each other to employ call/response successfully, especially in the calls to action. One cannot take action without the other.

As A Classroom Rhetorical Style for Verbal Communication

When engaging call/response in classroom discussions, ask students to talk back.

Example: When explaining a difficult concept, the instructor may ask the students, “You dig?’ (meaning,’ does this make sense’), and [students] orally (and sometimes visually) respond back” (Perryman-Clark Afrocentric Teacher Research 39).

When engaging in peer review activities, students can use Black literacy practices of the Black church.

Example: During oral presentations that assist with revisions of drafts, allow students to respond during presentations as a rhetorical strategy for both speaker and listener. Students will not only become more aware of audience, but the needs of that audience.

As a Classroom Assignment Example for Nonverbal Communication

When giving instructions for a specific classroom activity or assignment (Call) that provokes a spontaneous, students may provide an unintended response that is driven by their own intellectual curiosities on the topic/activity (Response).


  • Create a self-designed multigenre essay usually in the form of a print-based handbook or packet (Call).
  • Students wished to create a website that included different genres representing their different theme (Response).
  • This call/response dynamic prompted the instructor to redesign the multigenre assignment, giving students the option to choose whether their project would be print-based or digital (Response) (Perryman-Clark 41).
  • Student creates a Youtube video of her brother showboating on the basketball court to show how African American rhetoric is used by speakers in everyday contexts (Response) (Perryman-Clark 42).

When students are reluctant to respond during oral presentations (Call), nonverbal cues can indicate the success of the text upon a given audience.


  • Students orally present their position papers (Call).
  • The use of gestures may reflect the confidence and ethos of the speaker (Call).
  • Silence offered by audience can be an indicator of speaker’s success or lack thereof (Response).

Pedagogical Opportunities for Call/Response and Taking Action

Download Classroom Tips for Call/Response (docx, 169KB)

contemporary feminist action with call/response

As illustrated in our call/response classroom activities, feminist pedagogy that requires participatory and collaborative relationships is essential to ensure that call/response is employed successfully. In our user’s guide, we provide contemporary examples of how call/response is used to take action in the civic sphere; however, it is also critical to acknowledge and affirm the ways in which Black women continue to influence the discourse surrounding call/response. Here are a few present-day examples of how Black feminists have taken action with call/response:

Women in Christian Black Churches

The Call: Black women demand healthcare reform.

The Response: Legislatures, healthcare providers, etc. must Reform healthcare.

In the article, “Faith and Feminism: How African American Women from a Storefront Church Resist Oppression in Healthcare,” Mary Abrums provides an ethnographic study that investigates beliefs about healthcare from African American church leaders and working class African American women (190). The African American women employed call-responses rhetorical practices as a call to action that resists oppressive healthcare practices in their local communities, despite the limited resources they possessed as citizens, in addition to the limited resources of their small church congregations. Abrums asserts: “These stories, told with much ‘call and response’ participants, were based on the women’s experiences and evolved from an alternate wisdom (or consciousness) rarely acknowledged and/or validated by the medical community” (195).

Further, these dialogical stories, told over and over to one another, with much call and response, strengthened the women’s belief system in God’s power, identifying the frailty of the human doctor. As the women told these stories “they were strong and justified, happy and powerful”… They held a truth that others did not seem to know, a truth that helped them maintain a “sphere of freedom” when encountering the dominant ideology of the health system. (199)

Black Girls Rock

The Call: Change the ideology of black female insecurity.

The Response: Create black girls rock to celebrate black womanhood.

Notice, however, that the response does not always place agency on those in positions of power and authority. With this example, the response comes directly from members of the Black female community, where the call to action is to create a movement that celebrates Black womanhood. Since slavery, the union of race and gender afforded Black women the lowest tier of personal status, making them feel inferior to white men, Black men, and even white women. They were then implicitly taught, through the roles associated with performing as house slave and as field slave, to compare and rank themselves amongst other Black women, based on the hue of their skin. This separation amongst Blacks, whether it’s gender or hue, is a condition that continues to permeate in society today. On one hand, gender is still a concern in terms of access, employment and promotion, and authority. The notion of hue can be witnessed in our secular and sexualized music, in conversations concerning romantic/mate preferences, and even in the insecurities expressed by little Black girls, especially. Black Girls Rock is the response to a past ideology that has yet to die. In other words, the ideology of indifference within and beyond the Black community is a call, whereas Black Girls Rock is the response, whose goal is to celebrate and acknowledge the success, uniqueness, and beauty of all Black girls.

A Feminist Response to My Brother’s Keeper

The Call: President Obama’s initiative to address challenges facing young Latino and Black males.

The Response: Include Black and Latina girls in the plan.

In an open letter, Why We Can't Wait: Women of Color Urge Inclusion in "My Brother's Keeper, publicized by the African American Policy Forum and signed by writer Alice Walker, lawyers Anita Hill and Mary Frances Berry and actress Rosario Dawson, among other leading academics and activists, the coalition of women asks that Obama “re-align this important initiative to reflect the values of inclusion, equal opportunity and shared fate that have propelled our historic struggle for racial justice forward.

Movement: #Blacklivesmatter

The Call: Establish #Blacklivesmatter movement as response to the systemic killing of black men (at the time) by law enforcement.

The Response : Expand #Blacklivesmatter to include black women and black trans citizens who are also victims of police brutality, genocide, and killings at the hands of law enforcement.

The #Blacklivesmatter Movement was originally formed in 2012 after George Zimmerman was acquitted for the murder of Trayvon Martin (“Who We Are” par. 1). The creators of this movement state that “#BlackLivesMatter is a call to action and a response to the virulent anti-Black racism that permeates our society” (par. 2). While this movement gained momentum after a series of killings of Black men including Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner, Tamir Rice to name a few, the movement expanded when news of the killings of Black women, including Sandra Bland, Meagan Hockaday, Aiyana Jones, Rekia Boyd, and many others became made public in media. In response to killings and police brutality, #Blacklivesmatter has broadened its mission to affirm “the lives of of Black queer and trans folks, disabled folks, Black-undocumented folks, folks with records, women and all Black lives along the gender spectrum. It centers those that have been marginalized within Black liberation movements” (par. 4).

Download Feminist Taking Action with Call/Response (docx, 173KB)

academic action with call/response

The following guide offers some suggestive tips for both feminists and allies who seek to take action with call/response at their home institutions. As feminists, we have also included two practical examples of how we have used call/response to take action at our home institutions.

Tips for Faculty Members on Campuses

Identify key audience members who may be stakeholders on a problem or issue facing your institution in higher education.

Additional Examples of Feminist Call/Response: Taking Action at Institutional Sites

Rhea Estelle Lathan, Associate Professor of English at Florida State University

The Call: FSU’s Diversity and Inclusion Council [SP4] initiative mandates increased recruitment and retention programs to target faculty of color on campus.

The Response: Elected President of FSU’s Black Faculty and Staff Network providing support to Black faculty and staff campus wide. Overseeing mentoring program research and startup with FSU administrators in collaboration with campus faculty and staff.

Staci Perryman-Clark, Associate Professor of English and Associate Director of the Office of Faculty Development at Western Michigan University

The Call: WMU’s campus needs mentoring and support for faculty women of color on campus.

The Response: WMU’s College of Arts and Sciences Women’s Caucus provides support to attend the Faculty Women of Color in the Academy National Conference sponsored by the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign.

The Revised Call : WMU women faculty want to collaborate with the Office of Faculty Development on campus to provide support for faculty women of color.

Staci’s Response: Respond to job posting for Office of Faculty Development Associate Director position and establish support for faculty women of color as part of this position’s platform.


Feminist Sites and Resources for Call to Action on College Campuses

Faculty Women of Color in the Academy National Conference: This annual conference, usually offered the first week of April, provides support and resources for women of color in the academy. Participants may attend sessions under the following tracks: graduate student, postdoctoral, tenure-system, and university administrator tracks.

Sisters of the Academy: Sister of the Academy Institute was founded in 2001. The mission of Sisters of the Academy (SOTA) Institute is to facilitate the success of Black women in the Academy. Specifically, the organization aims to establish an educational network of Black women in higher education; to foster success in the areas of teaching, scholarly inquiry, and service to the community; to facilitate collaborative scholarship among Black women in higher education; and to facilitate the development of relationships that enhance the professional development of its membership.

Online tools and Media

The following list includes various examples of how educators might consult digital media of additional examples for teaching call/response in the classroom:

Black Twitter by Francis Scott. Presentation explores the ways in which Black women use social media and the Africanized rhetorical practices they employ, including call/response.

“How Black People Use Twitter: The latest research on race and microblogging.” Slate article that explains the ways in which Africanized rhetorical strategies, including call/response are employed in social media and digital blogging.

#Blacklivesmatter Official Website

#Blacklivesmatter twitter hashtags


Abrums, Mary. "Faith and Feminism: How African American Women from a Storefront Church Resist Oppression in Healthcare." Advances in Nursing Science 27.3 (2004): 187-201. Print.

Alkebulan, Adisa A. “The Spiritual Essence of African American Rhetoric.” Understanding African American Rhetoric: Classical Origins to Contemporary Innovations. Ed. Ronald Jackson and Elaine B. Richardson. New York and London: Routledge, 2004. 23-40. Print.

Gilyard, Keith, and Elaine Richardson. "Students’ right to possibility: Basic writing and African American rhetoric." Insurrections: Approaches to Resistance in Composition Studies. Ed. Andrea Greenbaum. Albany: SUNY UP, 2001. 37-51. Print.

Lathan, Rhea Estelle. Freedom Writing: African American Civil Rights Literacy Activism, 1955-1967. Urbana: NCTE/CCCC Studies in Writing and Rhetoric Series (SWR), 2015. Print.

Perryman-Clark, Staci M. Afrocentric Teacher-Research: Rethinking Appropriateness and Inclusion. New York: Peter Lang, 2013. Print.

---. "Africanized Patterns of Expression: A Case Study of African American Students' Expository Writing Patterns Across Written Contexts." Pedagogy 12.2 (2012): 253-280. Print.

Pough, Gwendolyn D. Check it While I Wreck It: Black Womanhood, Hip-Hop Culture, and the Public Sphere. Boston: Northeastern UP, 2004. Print.

Richardson, Elaine. "She Was Workin Like Fo real': Critical Literacy and Discourse Practices of African American Females in the Age of Hip Hop." Discourse & Society 18.6 (2007): 789-809. Print.

---. "‘To Protect and Serve’: African American Female Literacies." College Composition and Communication (2002): 675-704. Print.

Sale, Maggie. “Call and Response as Critical Method: African-American Oral Traditions and Beloved.” African American Review 26.1 (1992): 41-50. Print.

Smitherman, Geneva. Talkin and Testifyin: The Language of Black America. Boston and Detroit: Houghlin Mifflin/Wayne State UP, 1977/1986. Print.

Thomas, Veronica G., Kisha Braithwaite, and Paula M. Mitchell. African American Women: An Annotated Bibliography. Santa Barbara: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2001. Print.

Toinette, M. Eugene "Sometimes I feel like a motherless child: The Call and Response for a Liberational

Ethic of Care by Black Feminists." Who cares (1989): 45-62. Print.

Woodyard, Jeffrey Lynn. “Africological Theory and Criticism: Reconceptualizing Communication Constructs.” Understanding African American Rhetoric: Classical Origins to Contemporary Innovations. Ed. Ronald Jackson and Elaine B. Richardson. New York and London: Routledge, 2004. 133-154. Print.

Coalition of Feminist Scholars in the History of Rhetoric and Composition