Please join us for the Greenspun College of Urban Affairs' College Colloquia Series featuring Dr. Sara VanderHaagen, assistant professor in Communication Studies. Dr. VanderHaagen will present her talk entitled, "Children's Biographies of African American Women: Rhetoric, Public Memory, and Agency."
This talk examines how children’s biographies about African American women invite readers to think about themselves as agents in a public world. The presentation will illustrate how biographies about African Americans for children use traditional means to serve progressive ends, revealing the rhetorical power of biography in shaping identity and public action. Drawing on scholarship in rhetoric, memory studies, and children’s literature, this talk engages in rhetorical analyses of biographies about three African American women that were published in the 20th and 21st centuries: poet Phillis Wheatley, speaker and activist Sojourner Truth, and educator and politician Shirley Chisholm. The analysis begins by examining how biographical sketches for black children from the 1920s represent Wheatley and Truth. Then, the analysis shifts into examining books published between 1949 and 2015. This portion of the analysis uses a concept adapted from philosopher Paul Ricoeur—the idea of the “agential spiral”—to chart the ways that biographies have used rhetoric to shape the life stories of Wheatley, Truth, and Chisholm. By bringing a rhetorical critical perspective to the study of biographies for children and young people, this presentation advances our understanding of how the lives of the past are deployed persuasively in order to shape identity and action in the contemporary public world. This project contributes to the study of rhetoric and African American children’s literature, and it refocuses the field of memory studies on children’s biographies, a significant but overlooked site where public memories first take shape.