A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Knowing (Y)Our Story: Practicing Decolonial Rhetorical History

Timothy R. Dougherty, West Chester University of Pennsylvania 

(Published April 20, 2016)

As a graduate student discerning my dissertation project a few years back, I lived in Onondaga Country in Syracuse, NY. The Onondaga Nation is the Central Fire of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, and I was blessed to be living in their homeland during the 400th anniversary of the Two Row Wampum Treaty agreement between Dutch traders and the Haudenosaunee, which is the first known agreement between European and Indigenous people on this continent. During the lead up to these days, Onondaga leaders and their allies at NOON (Neighbors Of the Onondaga Nation) spoke on a panel at Syracuse University to raise awareness about the treaty agreement’s meaning, vision, and contemporary implications for Native sovereignty and environmental protection. 

During the Q&A of that session, I asked Onondaga Clan Mother and longtime activist Frieda Jacques a question that had been on my heart throughout my time at Syracuse: Given the different ways that colonialism and white supremacy has impacted immigrants, African peoples, and Indigenous peoples here in North America, I wondered how white-skinned folks like myself can best work in solidarity to help build bridges across difference and power among the many communities living on Turtle Island. Without hesitation, she replied, “Learn your own people’s story.” 

Five words. It’s as simple, and as complicated, as that. 

As Jacques told it, we must learn our own people’s stories of how they’ve come to be in a place, and of how they’ve lived in that place, in order to walk a path of accountability and solidarity.1

Following Jacques, I want to talk about such accountability and solidarity in rhetorical histories as a promising path to more decolonial futures. Like Ryan Skinnell, I’m less interested in “provisioning” stories for our field’s disciplinary survival in these uncertain economic times (123). Rather, I want more rhetorical histories that shake the foundations of structural injustice, thereby clearly naming and “openly interrogating rhetorical histories’ underlying methodological assumptions” (Skinnell 122),2  through well-researched3 stories that account for the ways that bodies (Dolmage), gender (Enoch), race (Jackson II), and settler colonialism (Powell) are performed and/or resisted in a given moment through a given community’s makings.4

While there is no shortage of stories like these to tell, following Jacques’ advice requires me to work with stories of Irish immigrants’ rhetorical practice on this continent. At the most personal level, I come from an intensely Irish Catholic family, one that sees St. Paddy’s Day as both a sacred and Bacchanalian affair. And as I sought to join conversations in antiracist cultural rhetorics, Jacques’s advice confirmed for me that I needed to research and tell stories that would speak to my family as much as my field. I wanted to understand how the Irish came to be such enthusiastic and willing participants in whiteness’s wages, and to interrogate that story as it’s now told in classic texts like How the Irish Became White. While Ignatiev and other historians of whiteness such as David Roediger and Theodore Allen have amply limned the dynamics of Irish participation in white supremacy along a black-white binary, these authors have had little to nothing to say about Irish participation in settler colonial logics against American Indian peoples. Much like Qwo-Li Driskill’s critique of radical queer-of-color interventions on whitestream queer theory, I felt that studies of white-skinned immigrants’ participation in white supremacy should be “[expected] to integrate Indigenous and decolonial theories into their critiques” (78).5

I was especially interested in the rhetorical activism of those many Irish folks who became politicized by the gross injustice they’d suffered in Ireland at the hands of the British government during the years of the Great Famine and who brought that awareness with them to North America. Known as Fenians, they are a group that Ignatiev’s text fails to mention, even in passing. How did these politicized Irish build their identities in North America? How did they understand their situation as compared to those of the African diaspora and American Indian nation-peoples? 

These questions led me to my current project on the transnational constitutive rhetorical practices of the Fenian movement. The Fenians were revolutionary Irish nationalists operating in North America/Turtle Island, Ireland, the UK, and France during the U.S. Civil War and Reconstruction eras. Steeped in the physical force tradition of Irish nationalism, the Fenians began in 1858 as an organizing platform for Irish exiles to collect money, munitions, and military personnel in preparation for a sustained armed revolution in Ireland. These men and women were as politicized a group of the Irish diaspora as you can find, a group who quite readily recognized colonialism as practiced by the British across the world and drew lines of solidarity transnationally with other groups resisting British occupation or economic aggression (Whelehan). Yet, here in the States, their will to Irish national liberation led them to seek recognition and alliance with the United States government. It was a calculated tactic they utilized to gain respectability and, hopefully, military support from the United States. Yet, in the process, such alliances dampened their willingness to recognize the colonial logics being practiced here in their new home.6

In what follows, I tell one small story of the Fenians’ rhetorical practice on this continent through a lens that combines Burkean constitutive rhetorical theory7 with the decolonial cultural rhetorical framework set forth by the Cultural Rhetorics Theory Lab in their essay “Our Story Begins Here: Constellating Cultural Rhetorics” (Powell et al). I will use this story to sketch one possible path for a replicable practice of decolonial rhetorical history. Following Malea Powell, such a practice would first “investigate rhetorical history on this continent” in such a way that it engages the “difficult work of reconciling responsibility for the meaner events within those histories, not with guilt, but with a larger, more honest sense of who and what ‘we’ are” (“Down by the River” 58). Having taken accountability for those meaner events, a decolonial practice then calls us to unearth other options for rhetorical action, excavating latent opportunities for solidarity in history that can help to guide our work for more decolonial futures today.  

By telling this story with this lens, I hope to operate in alliance and constellation with the important historiographical recovery and retheorization work engaged by feminist, revisionist, and scholars of color over the past few decades. For instance, scholars such as Malea Powell and Jacqueline Jones Royster have substantially broadened what Royster calls “the disciplinary landscape” by recovering the rhetorical practices of Native people and African American women (Royster, “Disciplinary” 148). And, in addition to recovery work, scholars have been retheorizing the Western rhetorical tradition through lenses that account for race, gender, disability, the body, and other factors traditionally neglected by hegemonic approaches to the discipline.8  Here, I seek to build with these important interventions by following Frieda Jacques’ call to focus on my own people so as to practice alliance. In doing so, I proceed with the authors of “Our Story Begins Here: Constellating Cultural Rhetorics,” who remind us that thoughtful scholarship must “[consider] the very real impacts of colonization on all peoples” (12, Act II, Scene 1). At this moment, it’s especially important to describe those impacts on folks like my white-skinned ancestors and myself. For one, we have stood/stand to benefit in certain ways by buying into these logics and deploying them as part of their (our) own stories of self, albeit in different ways throughout history. But more importantly, our participation in these logics and their spoils has allowed us to cement a whitely story of self wherein colonization and white supremacy happens to others while we remain un-raced, un-impacted by colonization.9 A cultural rhetorics framework explodes that myth, and demands rhetorical histories that trace the processes wherein sedimented moments of rhetorical action—of doing—accrete into the seeming stone of being simply white. One important job of rhetorical history in 2015 is to break that seeming-stone of being back into its sedimented stories of doing white supremacy, settler colonialism, and heteropatriarchy. The story I tell here, painful as it is, is only one of the stories I’ve learned so far of how the Irish did and do these logics in North America. I know there are many more to come. And the more stories we have, the more options we have for decolonial futures. 

Step 1: Name the Meaner Events 

This story begins in late 1865. The Irish-American Fenians have been organizing for seven years in the United States, having gained enough adherents to declare themselves a provisional Irish republican government in exile at the January 1865 Fenian convention, where they also empowered themselves to issue war bonds of the Irish republic in anticipation of a “final call” for resources to begin the armed revolution on the Old Sod. Yet, by October 1865, this vision had been severely compromised. Irish-American Civil War veterans, who’d been booking passage back to Ireland in anticipation of the war, were being arrested by British authorities in the streets of Dublin. The Fenian newspaper offices in Dublin had been raided in September 1865, allowing the British to imprison a few key Fenian leaders in Ireland and effectively put an end to a revolutionary threat there for the foreseeable future. In light of these developments, the Fenians in North America fell into a wrangle over how best to keep the dream of Irish republican freedom alive. One faction remained loyal to the original Fenian vision of fighting in Ireland. But another increasingly vocal faction began to entertain a new constitutive vision: to invade the British-controlled Canadian provinces from the United States, rout the colonial government there, and found New Ireland in its place. Once this was accomplished, they’d develop a Navy and amass the military might to sail on Ireland and free it once and for all—with the blessing and aid of the United States, of course. 

To evangelize this updated constitutive vision, the faction intent on invading Canada published a propaganda text entitled The Fenians’ Progress. The Fenians’ Progress was an anonymous composition published as front matter to the decisive October 1865 revision to the Fenian Constitution that paved the way to this faction’s power within the Fenian Brotherhood—and a concomitant change in focus from war in Ireland to an invasion of Canada. Consisting of nearly 70 pages of material, three chapters, and 17 addenda, it is broken into two major sections. The first section is a narrated dreamscape sequence whereby the writer has a premonition of Irish victory over the British by striking Canada first. This section allegorically alludes directly to Pilgrim’s Progress. The second section is a potpourri of “objective reportage” that relates the history, goals, and current tactics of the Fenian Brotherhood. The audience this constitutive effort addresses is two-fold: the Irish living in North America who need to join the fight with their bodies, and the non-Irish United States citizens who can convince their government to recognize the Irish as allies and legitimate national belligerents. 

To do so, the Fenians work to, as Kenneth Burke might say, “widen the circumference” of their conflict with the British to include North America (365). Burke uses this term in Grammar of Motives to describe the substance-making function of a constitution, using the U.S. Constitution as his “representative anecdote” for the ways Constitutions create the context in which identification or persuasion can literally take place. For Burke, a constitution is like all parts of his pentad happening at once: it’s an audience-addressed act, made by agents, for a distinct purpose that becomes both scene and agency, or tool, for future action.10 Fenian rhetoric’s constitutive invitations had, to this moment, defined the geopolitical circumference of conflict in very limited terms: the Old Sod. The Fenians’ Progress, rather, seeks to establish the British Canadian provinces as fair game for a military strike. Indeed, it goes a step further and makes North America the new epicenter of action for this widened circumference of Irish-British conflict.  

To constitute this widened circumference and successfully re-constitute the Fenians as invaders of Canada, The Fenians’ Progress invokes what Burke would call three key voluntary “constitutional principles” or “wishes” (375): transhistorical Irish-U.S. unity, Irish nationalist respectability, and Irish Manifest Destiny.11 In the first wish, I borrow the phrase transhistorical unity from Maurice Charland, who first coined the term constitutive rhetoric from a merger of Burke’s concept of identification and Althusser’s concept of interpellation. Charland used the phrase to describe one of the main ideological effects of a constitutive rhetoric—the establishment of timeless unity between the living and the dead. The Fenian Brotherhood had been working to cultivate transhistorical unity amongst the Irish diaspora for years leading up to The Fenians’ Progress. In this document, though, the United States is added to their revolutionary vision of transhistorical unity, as the author widens the timeless bond of Irish to include the United States. The author primarily seeks to cement this vision through the invocation of two dead soldier-patriots of Irish descent: Lord Edward Fitzgerald and General Richard Montgomery. Fitzgerald was hanged by the British in 1798 as one of the chief architects of the United Irishmen rising. Montgomery, born in Ireland and stationed in North America as a British soldier, married a woman in the colonies and took up farming. He fought for the colonists in the U.S. Revolutionary War against the British, and was killed in battle by British forces as his company sought to take Quebec. These characters play a central role in the dreamscape narrative of The Fenians’ Progress, arriving magically to galvanize the Irish soldiers and encourage them to fight first in Canada before returning powerfully to take Dublin. Arriving together “splendidly mounted” on horseback, they carry the emblems of transhistorical Irish-U.S. unity as they “vied with the wind in the swiftness of their coming, one bearing aloft the cherished green flag, while the other unfurled to the breeze the mighty banner of the Stars and Stripes” (11). And, their presence together in the dreamscape—despite their deaths in different national contexts separated by over 20 years—quite literally performs the embodiment of transhistorical unity between Irish and U.S. patriots, as both dead and living remain unified for these causes. As the narrative plays out, Montgomery declares his death avenged when the Irish soldiers, aided by their “American Brothers,” victoriously “[enter] Quebec to the enlivening strains of ‘The Green Above the Red’ and ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’” adding an aural quality of unity through the inclusion of these patriotic songs (12). 

As the narrative transitions to the “objective reportage” section, this theme of transhistorical unity is carried through as the author—positioned as a supporter of Irish freedom but a non-member of the organization—explains the Fenian prospects for success. This authorial position attempts to invoke an objective sheen that would lend credibility to their assertions that “this [invasion of Canada] is no Utopian scheme. It is a scheme that is perfectly practicable, and would be certain to receive the sympathy, if not the open support, of the American people” (30). Here the author invites the reader to add the majority of the U.S. population to this transhistorical unity established between Ireland and the United States. Just as the geopolitical circumference of conflict is significantly widened in The Fenians’ Progress, the ideological circumference of alliance is significantly widened here as well. Pushing further, the author looks beyond the Fenian movement’s prospects for success, inviting readers to assent to the vision of Irish-U.S. unity into the foreseeable future: 

whatever be the plans of the Fenian Brotherhood, whatever be the fate of their movement, it is certain that the hopes, interests, aspirations, and the very life of the Irish people are indissolubly wound up with the United States...It is not to be wondered at, that the first wish of his heart, with every true Irishman, is to see, not only the British provinces, but his own ‘green isle of the ocean’ wheel into line under the Heaven-inspired institutions of America and her ever glorious banner. (37)

There is much to unpack with this statement. The author here is inviting readers to imagine an ongoing future of intimacy between the United States and Ireland, one that would challenge some readers who felt greater affinity for republican nations like France that shared a primarily Roman Catholic faith tradition.12 What’s more, the Irish reader who balks at this imagined intimacy would find their own credentials as a “true” patriot called into question, given that The Fenians’ Progress has claimed that the “true” Irishman’s “first wish” is for Ireland to come unto the protective folds of the U.S. American flag. Beyond this policing of true Irishness, this quotation also introduces the notion of divine intercession, positioning the United States’s form of government as a “Heaven-inspired institution.” These tropes of “true-ness” and “divine ordination” play heavily in the other two Constitutional wishes—Irish nationalist respectability and Irish Manifest Destiny—to which I’ll now turn.

In terms of Irish nationalist respectability, the author of The Fenians’ Progress works hard to present the Fenian movement as an orderly scheme planned by respectable revolutionaries drawn from the “right” parts of society. In the face of dehumanizing stereotypes promulgated in U.S. and British newspapers of the Irish as racially inferior people who are short-tempered and prone to drunken licentiousness, the author of The Fenians’ Progress interrupts that narrative by describing the Fenian movement’s leadership and rank and file as drawn from wealthy Irish merchants, the clergy, and the United States military (50). The author bolsters this overt declaration of respectability with a subtle reinforcement through compelling cultural references. Throughout the text, in both the dreamscape and the objective reportage, the author peppers the narrative with references from classic British and Scottish authors like Byron, Dryden, and Shakespeare, demonstrating their cultural capital by being well-versed in the classics.13 This, of course, is carried through in the title of the text, itself a play on the classic Protestant spiritual text Pilgrim’s Progress

More important than transhistorical unity and Irish respectability, though, the author of The Fenians’ Progress makes direct appeals to the United States’ Manifest Destiny ideology, and works to constitute the Irish “nation” as a worthy and natural participant in the unquestioned blessings of North American consolidation under the flag of the United States. In the objective reportage section, after the aforementioned nod to Divine will in the U.S.’s “Heaven-Inspired institutions,” the author claims that helping Irish people to claim a piece of Canada will help to hasten North American consolidation “under the benign and protecting folds of the American flag” (36). Though this rhetoric would no doubt ring hollow to the American Indian nation-peoples and African diaspora who knew firsthand how malignant and menacing those folds of the flag actually could be, these references are tame compared to the rhetorical flourishes of Irish Manifest Destiny placed in the mouths of Montgomery and Fitzgerald during the Dreamscape narrative. On the one hand, after the victorious march into Quebec, Montgomery calls to the gathered Irish combatants, “Proceed in the great work. Merge these provinces into one State, to be called New Ireland” (12). So, having presumably relieved the British of their colonial ties to Canada, the Irish here are now called to reverse-engineer and eventually replicate the settler colonial dynamics of a European empire in these First Nations territories. If Montgomery’s call for “New Ireland” left any doubt, the United Irishmen martyr Fitzgerald then, “by proclamation, [calls] upon the scattered children of his race and country to hasten with the strong arms, and with their wealth, to this vast domain which the Eternal God had given them; and from here, with their united strength, to strike for their native land” (13). The religious fervor continues in the dreamscape narrative, as the author then sees:

the highways, and the byways, and the fields, flooded with my faithful countrymen, who, pressing forward to our ‘New Jerusalem,’ were all eagerness to aid in the noble work. And, as if Heaven had determined to reward such patriotic toil in a twofold manner, I saw shipyards, foundries, commerce, trade, and golden harvest spring up throughout the whole land. (13)

As should be painfully clear by now, these constitutional visions are exact replications of the U.S. Manifest Destiny ideology, one that overtly “un-sees” the genocide that was part of its birth and the American Indian nation-peoples who would call that legitimacy into question through their ongoing struggles for sovereignty and self-determination. This is unequivocal Fenian participation in what Malea Powell calls “the American tale,” a “central component” of which is “the settlers’ vision of the frontier, a frontier that is ‘wilderness,’ empty of all ‘civilized’ life” (“Blood” 3).  

No doubt, these stories of Irish people’s relationship to this continent—while being a calculated move to curry favor with the larger United States population—buried stories of horizontal identification with other marginalized peoples like American Indians with a narrative of vertical identification with the U.S. settler and white supremacist state.14 No doubt, this strategic remembrance is a meaner event in the history of Irish North America, especially in light of the solidarity that had been shown just two decades prior by the Choctaw people to starving Irish victims of the Great Famine in 1847. Knowing full well their dependence on recognition from the United States, the Fenians choose to stake their rhetorical sovereignty on U.S. identifications amidst other options for transformation lying within their Irish histories. When they arrive in North America, their will to nationhood leads the Fenians to “publically forget,” to echo Bradford Vivian, such kindnesses from the American Indian survivors of U.S. aggression. 

Step 2: Unearth Decolonial Options

If the story stopped solely at the “meaner events” of Irish participation in the colonial discourses of this continent, though, I wouldn’t be practicing a fully decolonial historiography. After all, as Powell and the Cultural Rhetorics Theory lab collective authors attest in “Our Story Begins here,” “we want to make sure that critique leads to something even more important—making. Critique is not the end of the process of decolonization—it's the beginning. We want to make something that people will use, rather than to take things apart only to show that they can be taken apart” (11, Act II, Scene 1). This next step allows me to see The Fenians’ Progress for what it was: a distorted, dusty window into Ireland’s past relationships in North America that was necessarily clouded by a will-to-power that demanded a strategic remembrance encoding a hagiography of Irish-U.S. patriotic history. To paraphrase M. Lane Bruner, the vast distance between strategic memory and history in The Fenians’ Progress can create opportunities for other stories.15

For instance, we could tell other stories of Lord Edward Fitzgerald, stories that would nullify the Manifest Destiny ideology he’s made to parrot as a rhetorical tactic in The Fenians’ Progress. Rather, he’d likely have staunchly stood against such a narrative of Native erasure. In reality, Fitzgerald traveled North America extensively on his own, and found himself drawn to the American Indian nation-peoples he met along what is now known as the border between the United States and Canada. Rather than cozying to the socialite spheres of the creole elite in the colonies, he instead found more fellowship among the Native peoples in these same Canadian provinces, staying and travelling with nation-peoples like the Haudenosaunee along the way. In fact, it is rumored that he was made an honorary chief by the Bear clan of the Huron (Wendat) during one of his visits (Gibbons 87; Chisholm 444).  

What’s more, rather than piously lamenting the inevitable death of indigenous lifeways in Ireland when he returned home to agitate with the United Irishmen, Fitzgerald instead took to finding ways to both celebrate and protect those cultural and linguistic traditions back in Eire. For instance, according to Luke Gibbons, the United Irishmen movement sought to preserve and strengthen Gaelic lifeways by holding a traditional Gaelic Harper’s festival to celebrate Bastille Day in 1792 and arguing for the importance of Gaelic language newspapers as “indispensible equipment for living” (Gibbons 89-90). Telling Fitzgerald’s life-story, as both an Irish revolutionary and an admirer and advocate of Native culture in Ireland and North America, is one way to work toward a decolonial future for folks of Irish descent looking to live in better accountability and solidarity with struggles against white supremacy and settler colonialism. 

And there is yet another story made possible by close analysis of The Fenians’ Progress, and one that demonstrates the latent possibilities for identification among Irish-American and American Indian nation-peoples. One of the cultured quotations employed by The Fenians’ Progress is a poem written by “John O. Sargent.” Presented in the context of an Irish nationalist strategic remembrance, it becomes easy to imagine that the composer is writing from an Irish perspective about the English: “Away! Away! I will not hear/Of aught save death or vengeance now;/By the eternal skies I swear,/My knee shall never learn to bow!/I will not hear a word of peace,/Nor grasp in friendly grasp a hand,/Linked to the pale-browed stranger race,/That work the ruin of our land” (25). This poem opens the objective reportage section, and is presented without context or comment, thus reinforcing the oppositional tone taken by the Fenians and leading the reader to assume it’s composed on behalf of the Irish. Yet, a closer examination of Sargent’s poem demonstrates that it is more likely from a poem composed by C. Sherry to commemorate Wampanoag chief Metacomet’s (known to colonists as King Philip) death at Mount Hope in what’s known as King Philip’s War (or the First Indian War) in 1676. Placed alongside the intensely colonial implications of the overtures to Manifest Destiny in The Fenians’ Progress, this poem’s presence underscores that the American Indian experience in North America has been so close to the Irish experience in Ireland—and undermines a simple invocation of Irish participation in the spoils of Manifest Destiny ideology here in North America. 

These stories don’t change the ugliness of the original strategic remembrance, nor do they alter the reality that many Irish invaded Canada with Manifest Destiny dreams and—after that failed miserably—many of these same Irish served in the U.S. military during the Sioux Wars in the 1870s. We folks of Irish descent must own those painful stories and those painful realities. But these other stories exist, and lay fallow, waiting to be rediscovered and re-made for strategic remembrances of solidarity that might resonate in our time. Once unearthed, they can be re-planted to form the seedbed for self-making in accountability and solidarity, for the open-ended and ongoing work of a decolonial future. 

Bringing It All Home

In Ryan Skinnell’s recent plea to revive critical historiography in rhetorical studies, he reminds us that our first task is not to cement the discipline but to constantly “[re-examine] relationships of language to power” over time (124). As he puts it, “the central critical question is, what can we discover in the past to help us rethink our most established beliefs in the present and act differently in the future?” (124). Skinnell’s crystal-clear framing here reminds me why I have been drawn to this profession, and why I research and write. Constellating Freida Jacques’s advice with Skinnell’s question reminds me that such a search for discovery begins at home. To learn your own people’s stories of how they came to be in a place, and how they’ve made a life in that place through word and deed, is to begin a practice of accountability. Just as Christa Olson argues for a stance of learning as rhetorical historians travel, practicing decolonial historiography seeks to learn more deeply about the apparently settled truths of “home,” that we may emerge renewed and more accountable for the ways that these stories impact our ability to see and hear and do differently today. 

This is about blood, yes, but it is more than that.16 We folks who are raced white and living on this continent, in this moment, are called to clear-eyed accountability for how we got here and how those like us who came before us have lived in this place. This includes, as Jay Peters might put it, using their immigration here as “a cultural tactic” for their very survival (565). But it also almost certainly includes the mundane doings of domination that attend white supremacy and settler colonialism to this very day. We know that even our silence is a rhetorical act, and that it speaks volumes about where someone stands.  

As I write this now, I’ve quite literally returned “home,” having landed a teaching job back in Lenape Country outside Philadelphia where both sides of my family settled upon their arrival from Ireland. My personal journey has led me to living briefly in the Tiwa-speaking Pueblo country of Taos, NM, the Dakota country of Minneapolis, MN, and the Onondaga Country of Syracuse, NY. I feel great exhilaration and trepidation as I finally return, renewed, to this Lenape landscape carrying the responsibility of the stories I’ve learned from these other places that are seeking more decolonial futures, stories like the one gifted to me by Freida Jacques. Sitting on my porch less than a mile from the Tool-Pay Hanna (known also as the Schuykill River) that pulses through my town, I am thinking now of Sandra Bland and Rexdale W. Henry, of Sarah Lee Circle Bear and Sam Dubose. I am heartsick and furious, frankly bewildered, but—above all—I am implicated in this interconnected violence against Black and Indigenous people. I have responsibilities in this moment. No doubt, I need to say their names, to publically mourn, to demand that my country repent from its founding and ongoing sins. But, like Frankie Condon tells us, I must also work with other raced-white folks to take the “long lean into our collective ignorance” about the reality of this continent’s recent history since 1492 (26). 

I offer this practice as one path to excavating important stories that can help to someday eradicate my—our—collective ignorance. Small and wholly insufficient as it is, I offer it here as a replicable practice of accountability and solidarity alongside the many contemporary movements for justice, from #BlackLivesMatter to #IdleNoMore, that have emerged in this moment that could use a whole lot more stories of white folks’ accountability and solidarity from our collective past. Nigerian storyteller Ben Okri tells us, “If we change the stories we live by, quite possibly we change our lives” (qtd. in King 153). In that spirit, then, let’s learn more and tell more of these stories. And let’s use them to help more raced-white settler folks like me to fashion more considered selves out of the pain, the potential, and the all too-often unexplored options for solidarity waiting for us in our collective past. Such options can be unearthed, for instance, by dwelling in the “distance between memory” as represented in a strategic remembrance like The Fenians’ Progress “and history” as represented in the reality that the United Irishmen Patriot Edward Fitzgerald was far more admiring of the Haudenosaunee than the American colonies (Bruner 68).

Of course, it is possible that such stories of potential solidarity, no matter how small, are not awaiting you in your collective past of how folks like you came to be here in this place, and in this moment. But to practice decolonial rhetorical history, we need those stories of the “meaner events” too (Powell, “Down” 58). After all, as the authors of “Our Story Begins Here” put it: 

To be plain, we have to have a solid understanding of as many stories as possible if we're going to be able to say anything at all about the practice of rhetorics over the past 10,000 years. And, just as important, we have to have a solid understanding of the relationship between these stories—good, bad, ugly and beautiful. (7, Act I, Scene II)

Even the ugliest stories are instructive for us in this moment as we constellate them with other histories of rhetorical practice in this place. They, too, are crucial as we seek to work together, in accountability and solidarity, toward a more livable present and a more beautiful future for all our relations.

  • 1. Thanks to Freida Jacques for this advice, and for giving me permission to share this story with all of you.
  • 2. See Octalog I.
  • 3. See Octalog II, especially Linda Ferreira-Buckley.
  • 4. Parenthetical author-name citations here are from Octalog III (2011). When I say “makings,” I follow the definition of rhetoric set forth by members of the Cultural Rhetorics Theory Lab in their “Our Story Begins Here: Constellating Cultural Rhetorics:” “For us the general term ‘rhetorics’ refers both to the study of meaning-making systems and to the practices that constitute those systems” (5, Act I, Scene 2).
  • 5. For a brief but powerfully incisive exposition of the intertwining logics of white supremacy beyond the black-white binary, see Andrea Smith’s “Heteropatriarchy and the Three Pillars of White Supremacy: Rethinking Women of Color Organizing.”
  • 6. For a related story of failed alliance at the tail end of Fenian agitation in North America, see Chorley’s description of William O’Donoghue’s participation in—and ultimate undermining of—Louis Riel’s Métis provisional government in 1871.
  • 7. Though space doesn’t allow for full explication here, I am working with Burke’s constitutional/constitutive theories because he wrote and theorized from within a settler society that imagined itself as a sole sovereign in North America/Turtle Island, an imagining that the Fenians relied on heavily in their nation-building. What’s more, his location became an unstated methodological assumption underpinning his choice of the U.S. Constitution as the ideal “representative anecdote” to examine the theory of substance and the dramatistic pentad that he lays out in the Grammar of Motives. His examination of this Constitution became a very useful lens to look at the Fenians, who sought to build the Irish nation-in-exile (at least in part) through writing constitutions as well. My use of Burke, then, is not meant as disciplinary hero worship. I follow Christa Olson in this, when she states, “Burke’s theories are imperfect tools for inquiry, not omniscient guides to every landscape” (85). Burke and the Fenians share, at times, a similar settler imaginary, which makes Burke one useful guide to the Fenians’ rhetorical landscape.
  • 8. This, of course, is but a small taste of the important recovery work that has been ongoing since the first Octalog, a summary of which is beyond the scope of this essay. The Octalogs themselves are a great place to glimpse the shifting disciplinary landscape, and “Octalog III” seems an important harbinger of the future of our field.
  • 9. For more on whiteliness, see Frankie Condon’s I Hope I Join the Band, wherein she borrows the term from Minnie Bruce Pratt.
  • 10. See Olson’s “Places to Stand” for a terrific review of Burke’s constitutive theory and the main traditions of Burkean constitutive rhetoric.
  • 11. In the Grammar, Burke defines voluntary constitutional principles as the body of “wishes” that a constitution makes in contradistinction to the necessitarian principles that emerge from the conflict of those stated wishes (375). For instance, a legal constitution can announce its wishful support for capitalism as well as liberty and justice for all. On paper, those wishes can coexist quite nicely. In practice, those wishes often conflict and produce a necessitarian principle of one wish being more valued than another.
  • 12. This was a complicated shift that had been coming as early as the Young Ireland movement in 1848, yet many Irish still felt besieged in the U.S. for their Catholicism during this time period. For more on France and U.S. identifications in Irish nationalism in the years leading up to Fenianism, Belchem provides a solid overview.
  • 13. This echoes Fanon’s insight on the formation of African national cultures, wherein intellectual cultural workers seeking to build a nationalist vision first attempt to demonstrate how well they’ve “assimilated the culture of the occupying power” (179).
  • 14. I borrow this notion of horizontal vs. vertical identification from Kurt Spellmeyer’s address at the “Writing Democracy” Workshop at CCCC 2013 in Las Vegas.
  • 15. In his essay written for The Public Work of Rhetoric collection, Bruner states that a key task of the rhetorical critic is “mapping the distance between history and memory, measuring the distance between those imaginaries and historical fact, and with what consequence” (68).
  • 16. As far as I know, I am not directly descended from any active Fenians, though I have found a few Dougherty and Harkins names on the rolls in the archives.
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