Double-Consciousness and the Rhetoric of Barack Obama: The Price and Promise of Citizenship

Double-Consciousness and the Rhetoric of Barack Obama: The Price and Promise of Citizenship

Double-Consciousness and the Rhetoric of Barack Obama: The Price and Promise of Citizenship

Double-Consciousness and the Rhetoric of Barack Obama: The Price and Promise of Citizenship


Robert E. Terrill argues that, in order to invent a robust manner of addressing one another as citizens, Americans must learn to draw on the delicate indignities of racial exclusion that have stained citizenship since its inception. In Double-Consciousness and the Rhetoric of Barack Obama, Terrill demonstrates how President Barack Obama's public address models such a discourse.Terrill contends that Obama's most effective oratory invites his audiences to experience a form of "double-consciousness," which was famously described by W. E. B. Du Bois as a feeling of "two-ness" resulting from the African American experience of "always looking at one's self through the eyes of others." It is described as an effect of cruel alienation that can also bring a gift of "second-sight" in the form of perspectives on practices of citizenship not available to those in positions of privilege. When addressing fellow citizens, Obama is asking each to share in the "peculiar sensation" that Du Bois described. The racial history of U.S. citizenship is a resource for inventing contemporary ways of speaking about race.Joining with other work that suggests that double-consciousness may be a vital democratic attitude, Terrill extends those insights to consider it as a mode of address. Through close analyses of selected speeches from Obama's 2008 campaign and first presidential term, this book argues that Obama does not present double-consciousness merely as a point of view but rather as an idiom with which we might speak to one another. Of course, as Du Bois's work reminds us, double-consciousness results from imposition and encumbrance, so that Obama's oratory presents a mode of address that emphasizes the burdens of citizenship together with the benefits, the price as well as the promise.


This book has its genesis in two rather commonplace and overlapping observations: the study of rhetoric fosters particular forms of duality, and effective democratic citizenship also requires particular forms of duality. This book, fundamentally, is an attempt to begin to work out some possible points of connection between these two apparently parallel notions.

The interdependence of rhetoric and democracy has long been noted, of course, often described in terms of a sort of baseline rhetorical competence that is required if citizens are to participate in civic culture. But I was intrigued by a particular component of rhetorical competence, one associated less with instrumental advantage and more with the extent to which the gaining of rhetorical competence entails the cultivation of attitudes or perspectives that are of particular value to democratic practice. In other words, I was interested in exploring the idea that the foundational necessity of rhetoric to democracy has more to do with the doubled habits of thought and speech that it cultivates than with the fact that studying rhetoric can improve the ability of citizens to present themselves effectively.

I spent a good deal of time thinking about ways to make this connection. The ancient rhetorical canon of invention emerged as a fertile locus of inquiry because it requires a doubled attention to self and to audience, an oscillation between the motives of interpretation and production, that seems particularly valuable to civic discourse. It became evident that the foundational pedagogical practice known to rhetoricians as imitatio, especially as it is implicated in the cultivation of an inventional facility, also was significant in this regard. I returned, as I so often do, to the work of W. E. B. Du Bois, and in particular to his discussion of double-consciousness in his monumental work The Souls of Black Folk, which reinforced my conviction that any discussion of duality and democratic citizenship must engage race. And as I explored the literature on practices of democratic citizenship, it became clear that some sort of duality often was evoked as a trait of the ideal citizen.

But the sort of rhetorical criticism that I practice requires an object of study, a collection of texts, a representative figure. In one of the documents I

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