A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Review of Aja Y. Martinez's Counterstory: The Rhetoric and Writing of Critical Race Theory

Alexis Rocha, San José State University

Ryan Skinnell, San José State University

(Published March 10, 2021)

Counterstory: The Rhetoric and Writing of Critical Race Theory is something of a happy misnomer. The title implies that Aja Y. Martinez’s book is a conventional history or genealogy of Critical Race Theory (CRT) with a consideration of its value for rhetoric and writing studies. Valuable though such a book would be, Counterstory is not that; or more precisely, Counterstory is not reducible to that. It’s much more complicated, and therefore, more valuable, especially for people interested in the intersections of rhetoric and writing studies, race, and history. What it is, in fact, is perhaps best described as a performative methods book that pushes against the conventions of the research methods genre. Not content to just hone in on the intellectual and practical work of research in the field, Counterstory pulls together intellectual history, praxis-oriented theory, research methods, and anti-racist pedagogy to intervene in how we think, write, and teach—ultimately, how we inhabit the world.

The complexity of Counterstory’s task is best explained as three interwoven strands. The first strand theorizes counterstory in relationship to research methods. In rhetoric and writing studies, it is conventional to distinguish between a methodology as “the underlying theory and analysis of how research does or should proceed” and a method as “a technique or way of proceeding or gathering evidence” (Kirsch and Sullivan 2). Working from complementary perspectives in CRT, Martinez writes that counterstory “as methodology is the verb, the process, the … justification for the work;” and “as method [counterstory] is the noun, the genre, the research tool” (2). As methodology, counterstory theorizes counternarrative as a means to destabilize and rewrite the destructive master tropes that have shaped and invalidated minoritized people’s experiences; as method, counterstory is the specific set of tools or genres—including counterstories, allegories, dialogues, and autobiographical reflections—for doing the work theorized in the methodology. The tension between methodology and method is crucial for Martinez because it allows her to move dexterously from theory to practice and back to the benefit of both.

Notwithstanding the breadth of her method/ological vision, one of Martinez’s goals is the relatively narrower aim of introducing counterstory into rhetoric and writing studies, which accounts for the second strand of Counterstory’s complexity. Although the field has long been eager to import methods and methodologies from other fields and disciplines, importing counterstory into rhetoric and writing studies presents a significant challenge. Because counterstory is intended to destabilize and rewrite master tropes, it is inherently oppositional. Calling upon the work of luminary CRT scholars before her, Martinez defines critical race theory as “a challenge to ‘majoritarian stories’ or ‘master narratives’ of white privilege,” a rejection of “‘neutral’ research or ‘objective’ research,” an exposition of “research that silences and distorts epistemologies of people of color,” and a recognition that “experiential knowledge of people of color is legitimate and critical to understanding racism that is often well disguised in the rhetoric of normalized structural values and practices” (3). Based on this definition, readers might expect Counterstory to fit nicely alongside landmark, award-winning studies about race and racism published in rhetoric and writing studies in the last few years, including books about Black linguistic justice (Baker-Bell), racism and literacy education (Epps-Robertson), and lynching rhetorics (Ore). To a significant degree it does, especially in its effort to get scholars to see how central race and racism are in shaping dominant discourses. But Counterstory also asks readers in the field to engage self-critically with the hegemonic, majoritarian beliefs and values that make up our field and discipline. That is, Counterstory asks us to see how we invest in and project/protect whiteness in rhetoric and writing studies.

Martinez’s invitation to self-awareness is in keeping with CRT’s oppositional orientation, but it makes for a unique challenge. The argument for importing methods and methodologies from other disciplines—multimodality, community-engaged pedagogy, or feminist methods, for example—is generally made on the grounds that they can complement and augment the field’s traditional goals and values. In her 2016 examination of digital rhetoric’s emergence, for example, Crystal VanKooten argued that “the methodologies and methods of digital rhetoric are rooted most firmly in rhetorical theory and the analysis of written and digital texts, but these methods are beginning to expand to include more experimental, interdisciplinary approaches to research that include digital composition, empirical observation, and self-definition.” VanKooten aptly captures the broader disciplinary practice of pairing imported methods and methodologies with the field’s more traditional goals and values.

Although the ongoing goals and values of the field are important, they are precisely what Martinez asks us to critically rethink. In her counterstory about the original Octalog, for example, she directly engages with the field’s (relatively recent) investment in seeking “silenced or appropriated voices” (71). Martinez asserts that “[a]lthough some have historically characterized people of color as ‘in the margins,’ we know that we’ve never been marginal. We’ve been here all along and have always practiced our rhetorics” (71-72). For Martinez, the goal of recovery is not undesirable, but when it’s carried out uncritically, recovery reinscribes the marginalization it sets out to correct. As such, Martinez’s central challenge is that she has to define, contextualize, and advocate for CRT and counterstory while at the same time identifying weaknesses, limitations, and violences in the hegemonic beliefs and values she attempts to destabilize and rewrite…and she has to do it to the people who hold those beliefs and values. We found Martinez’s oppositional stance refreshing and invigorating—we’re here for it!—but as she recognizes, it is also provocative. For instance, Martinez notes that mentors and colleagues called her “loca” for writing this scholarship and urged her to wait until she was in a less vulnerable position (30). She reports that some people even threatened her. Apparently, the challenge she’s issued is alarming. Fortunately, she was undeterred.

It is also fortunate that she does not set out on this path alone, which brings us to the third strand of complexity in Counterstory. To achieve her objectives, Martinez positions herself as the inheritor of a long, proud tradition of protest, resistance, and survivance through storytelling. It is a personal counterpart to her method/ological and disciplinary motives. In her prologue, she foregrounds her storytelling stance, writing, “I come to this project, this book, as, first and foremost, a storyteller within a legacy and genealogy of storytellers” (xxv). From there, she narrates stories her grandfather used to tell about their family origins in Mexico, their relocation to America, and their “sense of self and place as indigenous-Mexican people in a country that has historically crafted master narratives that would cast us, and people like us, as those who have been conquered” (xxviii). Hers is a story of self-making and identity formation, but it is simultaneously an explanation of and justification for counterstory more generally. This book is a genesis story: it theorizes counterstory-as-methodology, which illuminates the practical tools of counterstory-as-method, which in turn justifies its value to the field. Although Martinez presents a different storytelling tradition than the one rhetoric and writing scholars may be familiar with in the work of people like Wendy Bishop, it extends a tradition increasingly critical to cultural rhetorics that sees story and intellectual practice as interconnected and mutually informing ( e.g., Bratta and Powell; Cedillo, et al.). The strands of complexity we’ve been describing in this review, then, should be understood as co-constitutive.

It is through this tripartite complexity—method/ological, disciplinary, and personal—that we can make sense of Martinez’s project as a whole. In Chapter 1, Martinez sets up her theoretical framework and elaborates on the work she is doing in the book. She narrativizes the challenges minoritized students face in trying to navigate the structural inequities of academia, including students of color being racially profiled and their scholarship being dismissed on the account that their experiential knowledge isn’t “legitimate.” Martinez then uses the challenges faced by minoritized students (and faculty and staff) as an entry point to introduce the history of critical race theory. The origins of CRT provide the groundwork for counterstory because CRT developed out of the lives and experiences of people of color trying to succeed in academia’s supposed meritocracy and finding it inhospitable. Counterstory offered tools for remaking the academy. In so doing, Martinez illustrates the need for counterstory as one remedy for structural racism in the academy and beyond.

The structure of her next three chapters highlights the method/ological, disciplinary, and personal connections Martinez is working across. Each chapter begins by introducing a counterstory exemplar and ascribes to them a particular counterstory method, which we can’t recall encountering in other scholarship. In Chapter 2, Martinez introduces Richard Delgado, an “intellectual Padrino” of counterstory as “‘a kind of counter-reality’ created by/experienced by ‘outgroups’ subordinate to those atop the racial and gendered hierarchy” (33). In Chapter 3, Martinez highlights allegory by introducing Derrick Bell, Jr., who championed the idea that “race is endemic with no linear progress available” (xi). In Chapter 4, Martinez introduces Patricia J. Williams, who spearheaded the use of autobiographical narrative to “present a text that is multilayered—that encompasses the straightforwardness of real life and reveals complexity of meanings” (82). With each of these introductions, Martinez simultaneously theorizes and practices counterstory, personalizing the methods through stories that she connects to methodological concerns of CRT and counterstory. We told you the strands were complex.

Martinez follows each exemplar by extending counterstory’s relevance to rhetoric and writing studies. She works across method/ological, disciplinary, and personal concerns by describing her own experiences teaching counterstory at multiple institutions. Those stories are then used to tie counterstory to insights from process theory, genre theory, and “the” rhetorical tradition, among others. Martinez’s goal is to bridge the gap between CRT and rhetoric and writing studies to show how deeply their interests align around pedagogy, student empowerment, and textual engagement. In the process, she also invites readers to identify myopic disciplinary knowledge—especially in instances where disciplinary assumptions about race and ethnicity act as an invisible barrier that harms minoritized students.

Finally, Martinez writes counterstories featuring Alejandra, a composite character drawn from Martinez’s experiences and the experiences of people she’s known, to exemplify the method/ology she introduced at the beginning of each chapter. In Chapter 2, Alejandra and her daughter, Sofi, co-construct a counterstory about race in the literature public schools assign. In Chapter 3, in an allegory that speaks directly to rhetoric and writing specialists, Alejandra exchanges a series of questions and answers with the original Octalogers and argues that rhetoric is fundamentally about race (a point which, notably, none of the panelists critically engaged in the original convening). In Chapter 4, Martinez gives readers two counterstories. The first she calls a “precounterstory,” which she titles “An Autobiographic Reflection Octalog: A Practice in Ancestorship.” Martinez reconstitutes her allegory from the previous chapter with an alternate group of Octalogers: Frankie Condon, Keith Gilyard, Carmen Kynard, Eric Pritchard, Elaine Richardson, Victor Villanueva, and Vershawn Ashanti Young. Following her precounterstory, Martinez tells an autobiographical narrative in which Alejandra narrates multiple microaggressions in her life and highlights the lived consequences for BIPOC. It punctuates Martinez’s argument, and the argument of CRT and counterstory, that the stories we tell about ourselves have deep, abiding—and for minoritized people, chronic—effects. Taken together, Martinez’s counterstories demonstrate that rhetoric and writing studies is not just potentially aided by counterstory, the field is actually weakened without CRT’s insights.

It’s hard to know how scholars will receive Martinez’s challenge to adopt counterstory, but we’re not above speculating. Undoubtedly there will be more reactions like those Martinez experienced while writing the book—chastising, warning, even threatening. But it’s not at all hard to imagine even more reactionary responses of the sort that we’ve seen on disciplinary listservs, at conferences, and in journals in the past few years (e.g., Flaherty; Steudeman). One could even imagine a "well-meaning" scholar asserting that the real racism is Martinez calling out racism. At the same time, as readers we find ourselves cautiously hopeful because of how adeptly Martinez makes her case and how powerfully she engages the issues.

Although Chapters 1-4 constitute the bulk of Counterstory, there are four additional sections that bear quick mention because of how they reinforce the book’s method/ological, disciplinary, and personal complexity. Chapter 5 calls educators to incorporate CRT and counterstory into their pedagogy. As in previous chapters, Martinez illustrates the argument with a counterstory. In the epistolary exchange between Alejandra and her mentor V, the counterstory asks the reader to engage in important questions about their teaching philosophy: Is it antiracist? Does it invoke CRT tenets? Is it serving white supremacy? Martinez reminds her readers that “in 2020, minoritized peoples and our perspectives are still not considered core-course material in the (usually white) racist imaginary” (117). And just before her dive into counterstory, Martinez states, “I conclude this project with a call to action to embrace our identities as students—students forever in the process of becoming—who are still capable of learning and reframing education in rhetoric and writing studies toward the social transformation called into action by critical race theory and counterstory” (118). Martinez leaves no room for interpretation; she is demanding a change in the racist educational system.

Chapter 5 is followed by an epilogue—a story about her daughter’s birth and young life. The story of her daughter’s developmental years performatively extends the storytelling tradition Martinez has been expounding into a legacy for future generations. Martinez tells the story of welcoming her daughter into the world surrounded by strong feminine energy, thus creating hope for the future. Martinez suggests Olivia Isabel Martinez is the future; her sense of self, importance, and storytelling will continue the legacy her mother is a part of. Stories don’t just tell us who we are, she avers, but they also provide a blueprint for responsibility to ourself and others.

The epilogue is followed by the afterword, in which Jaime Armin Mejía projects Martinez’s storytelling tradition into a future changed by Counterstory. Finally, appendices A-D are supplemental syllabi and pedagogical materials. This book is, after all, a performance every step of the way of the theory it’s advocating.

Ultimately, Counterstory: The Rhetoric and Writing of Critical Race Theory is inexorable. The issues Martinez takes up are central to our moment and probably to many moments in our future. As such, this book demands not just to be read but to be engaged. It demands that readers not only learn, but also reflect on their own choices and lives to chart a better future. Counterstory is not without limitations, of course. Not all of Martinez’s counterstories are as successful as others, which indicates the challenges in practicing (much less teaching) counterstory. It’s clear that people need substantial practice to perform counterstory well. It is not hard to imagine, for instance, that counterstory could fall easily into didacticism, cliché, and/or fallacy. Like any writing, counterstory will take practice, feedback, and revision to do well. But Martinez calls us to this task with the conviction that it’s work worth doing. We think it’s a call we would do well to heed.

Works Cited

Baker-Bell, April. Linguistic Justice: Black Language, Literacy, Identity, and Pedagogy. Routledge, 2020.

Baker-Bell, April, et al. “This Ain’t Another Statement! This is a DEMAND for Black Linguistic Justice!” NCTE/CCCC, 2020. https://cccc.ncte.org/cccc/demand-for-black-linguistic-justice.

Bratta, Phil, and Malea Powell. “Introduction to the Special Issue: Entering the Cultural Rhetorics Conversations.” enculturation, no. 21, 2016. http://enculturation.net/entering-the-cultural-rhetorics-conversations.

Cedillo, Christina V., et al. “Listening to Stories: Practicing Cultural Rhetorics Pedagogy.” Constellations, 2018. http://constell8cr.com/pedagogy-blog/listening-to-stories-practicing-cultural-rhetorics-pedagogy/.

Epps-Robertson, Candace. Resisting Brown: Race, Literacy, and Citizenship in the Heart of Virginia. U of Pittsburgh P, 2018.

Flaherty, Colleen. “More Than Hateful Words.” Insider Higher Ed, Mar. 28, 2019. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2019/03/28/racist-writing-instructors-listserv-post-prompts-debate-about-future-field-and-how.

Kirsch, Gesa, and Patricia A. Sullivan. Methods and Methodology in Composition Research. Southern Illinois UP, 1992.

Ore, Ersula J. Lynching: Violence, Rhetoric, and American Identity. U of Mississippi P, 2019.

Steudeman, Michael J. “Own Your Complicity, Then Fix It: Reflections on Whiteness in Rhetoric & Public Affairs.” Departures in Critical Qualitative Research, vol. 9, no. 1, 2020, pp. 33-40.

VanKooten, Crystal. “Methodologies and Methods for Research in Digital Rhetoric.” enculturation, no. 23, 2016. http://enculturation.net/methodologies-and-methods-for-research-in-digital-rhetoric.