Richard Sylvestre, Oklahoma State University
(Published August 14, 2023)
Salt, as James Chase Sanchez points out in his autoethnographic and deeply rhetorical work Salt of the Earth: Rhetoric, Preservation, and White Supremacy, can preserve, but it can also corrode. He uses this metaphor to great effect with his analysis of white supremacy in the Texas town of Grand Saline. This town owes its name and founding to the nearby salt mines, making the metaphor even more salient. Sanchez ties these qualities of salt to the stories he experienced as an adolescent in the town—stories that are still being told with little variation. These stories preserve presuppositions of a hegemonic structure of race; however, they also lead to the corrosion that such perpetuation of structurally racist ideas can cause. This kairotic book appears at a time when the United States is struggling with a surge of Christian nationalism and alt-right politics grounded in racism (among other -isms). This emerging national context situates Salt of the Earth as an important analysis of the narrative power of white supremacy to preserve and perpetuate structural racism.
Sanchez argues that the community of Grand Saline uses several rhetorical strategies to maintain the racialized (and racist) hegemonic status quo. He lists three distinct rhetorical moves that are embedded within the stories told by residents of Grand Saline. These strategies include:
(1) using ambiguity and stock formulas to hide white supremacist viewpoints; (2) taking defensive stances against people referring to the town as racist via apophasis; and (3) constituting themselves as white supremacists via their histories and stories—even if they say those histories and stories aren’t real. (61)
These moves can be seen in the three repeated stories that Sanchez situates in place and time with clear purposes grounded in white supremacy. Stories of the lynchings in the Poletown neighborhood giving it the name, the KKK’s activities and secret meetings in the nearby Clark’s Ferry, and the status of Grand Saline as a possible sundown town. These stories exist as more than static constructs; stories hold power, just as salt does, to preserve or to corrode.
Sanchez implicitly invites his readers to reflect on their own experiences as he models an autoethnographic methodological process. Sanchez shares his stories of adolescence as a young man with Mexican American heritage surrounded by white supremacy and having participated in the white supremacy himself. He defines this term as “the ways in which people and institutions enact and reinforce ideologies of white superiority” (xxii). Through attending to his own choices of complicity as a young man “at the intersection of segregation,” Sanchez admits that he “could more readily assimilate into Grand Saline and the culture of the town if [he] chose whiteness” (6). This choice places him firmly within a hegemonic hierarchy of race with Whiteness at the top, Blackness at the bottom, and Brownness taking up a middle spectrum; this hierarchy echoes through his analysis and stories he shares. Sanchez writes, “What a society chooses to remember (via public memorials, statues, remembrance days, and more) shows you what that society deems important” (30). The stories we tell speak volumes about us, but also create commonplaces to bind communities. Story is one, if not the most effective, way to create in-group knowledge—to learn what can be said, can be claimed as a joke, needs not be said, and requires silencing.
More than once while reading, I found myself nodding along and commenting on the margins about similar experiences I had having grown up in a rural town in New Mexico. Indeed, Sanchez brings up the fact that many people have had similar reactions to his work that remind them of their own hometown (115). Sanchez points to a foundation of practice in hegemonic storytelling that, though grounded in the specifics of Grand Saline, connects to a much larger issue of structural racism. Sanchez includes examples such as the pseudoscientific myths that teachers pass on about Black people having “extra muscles” that make them better athletes and racist commentary being framed as “jokes” (xxii, 17, 24, 41, 44). Racism is masked as just a story, just a joke, just a historical note that is in the past and thus no longer relevant.
However, that same disregard of present problems is couched in a subtext of warnings not to talk about, study, or dredge up racism lest one face accusations of race-baiting. Referring to his work on Man on Fire, the award-winning documentary about preacher Charles Moore’s self-immolation in protest of Grand Saline’s racism, Sanchez states, “I was critiqued for talking about racism openly, for ‘race-baiting,’ and for being a ‘traitor’” (xxvii). As a result of his past experiences working on racism, whiteness, and white supremacy, he expressed fears that this would happen again on his work on Salt of the Earth. Sanchez writes, “Going into this project, I imagined we would get a fair amount of pushback from people who didn’t want us ‘race-baiting’” (86). This hesitancy makes sense when put into conversation with Sanchez’s adolescent experiences of Grand Saline.
Sanchez weaves together several threads of analysis throughout the book. First, Sanchez shares his aforementioned personal experiences with familiar milieu of smalltown football glory, adolescent mischief, and teenage dating. In the various stories, Sanchez highlights the undercurrents of racism that he experienced as someone with visible Mexican American heritage. There is a particular edge Sanchez walks between constructed racial boundaries as being “browner than most white folks and whiter than most Brown folks” (13). Sanchez recounts experiences that reveal a tacit permission possessed by other white people to critique him, his body, and his validity as a person. This was made clear when the father of a white girl that he was dating felt he could openly critique the origin of Sanchez’s family and if they came to the U.S. legally as a natural line of questioning (7). It cuts the other way when Sanchez joins his white friends in degrading a Brown student whose family had emigrated from Mexico and whose English skills lacked fluency (10–11). Through his autoethnographic take, he openly points to his own participation and perpetuation of white supremacy through assimilation within Grand Saline and how he benefited from choosing whiteness.
A second thread of the history of Grand Saline stems from Sanchez’s work on Charles Moore. This line of inquiry began with Sanchez’s dissertation work on protest rhetoric and his subsequent status as Producer of Man on Fire. He conducted interviews both for Man on Fire and Salt of the Earth with Grand Saline’s residents on their sentiments toward Charles Moore’s self-immolation. Sanchez focuses not so much on Moore’s story in Salt of the Earth but on Grand Saline’s subsequent reactions, interpretations, and rhetorical choices. Sanchez highlights the various ways that the community repeatedly chose silencing actions and repetition of their older stories as ways of refusing to engage—of preserving the status quo. Sanchez addresses retold misreadings of the letter that falsely presumed Moore’s association with the KKK (74), misunderstandings of Moore’s motivations based on an insistence of his supposed mental illness (92, 110), and to rhetorical silencing of people speaking out about the protest (96, 112).
Lastly, Sanchez’s work considers the differing perspectives on the town and its reputation. He spoke with Black people who had lived and/or worked in Grand Saline. Various stories had been told about the interviewees being “run out” of town; however, they did not corroborate such incidents in their interviews (27–28). Additionally, Sanchez juxtaposes widely familiar local stories from Grand Saline with the perspectives of citizenry in neighboring towns. He keeps to the three aforementioned stories in this regional inquiry: how area called “Poletown” acquired its name, the space referred to as “Clark’s Ferry” and its relationship to the KKK, and Grand Saline’s purported past status as a “sundown town.” Residents of surrounding areas were able to point to the same stories, and the resulting work reveals the hidden ideology of white supremacy through readily accessible hegemonic storytelling. These stories become topoi that are so commonplace they are generally not questioned and indeed their repetition becomes a way to circle around the embedded racism because they are just stories (63). Thus, this ideology remains unchallenged through the town’s silence.
Sanchez brings a great deal of interdisciplinary work to bear on this project. He engages with numerous scholars and traditions of storytelling like Victor Villanueva Aja Martinez, and Keith Gilyard. Sanchez states, “A good story can effectively share knowledge and research just as well as traditional scholarship can” (xxviii). The use of story as scholarship (rather than as subject for scholarship) is yet to gain traction in some disciplines, despite the ubiquitous nature of story in and out of the academy. In some areas of rhetorical studies, like feminist rhetorical theory and critical race theory, stories are welcomed as scholarly work. Sanchez’s methodological grounding in story is one that those interested in alternative approaches to rhetorical work can appreciate. He not only tells his own stories (of his adolescence, of his journey as an early scholar, of his experiences as a Mexican American, of his work as a rhetorician), but the stories of place and the stories of community. Context is of the utmost importance to rhetorical considerations, and these stories help to elucidate the complex richness of context that can preserve white supremacy, and that white supremacy can in turn corrode.
Sanchez weaves personal narrative, scholarship, and research into an elegant argument. He engages with scholars on his research questions from Cheryl Glenn’s work on silence and silencing to critical race theorists like Aja Martinez and Ashley N Woodson, and he even offers a range of “(im)practical steps” for change (117). Some of this impracticality stems from seemingly simple suggestions like holding public conversations on racism and Grand Saline’s past, and a suggestion of listening to people who note that there is indeed a problem. Sanchez grounds this radical idea of listening in Krista Ratcliffe’s work in Rhetorical Listening: Identification, Gender, Whiteness. His approach is well-rounded, multifaceted, and has few shortcomings. With a focus on such a specific place, it is understandable that at points there is some repetition in content. Interestingly, though, Sanchez also encountered varied attitudes toward the interviews. Sanchez notes there were interviewees who were more reserved by focusing on racism as being a thing of the past or many women not engaging with Sanchez in favor of letting their husbands speak; on the other hand, there were also participants who were hostile, such as the aforementioned accusations of race-baiting and other vocalized animosity.
Sanchez discusses his “attempts to better understand—to constellate—the meaning-making practices of white supremacy” (xxix). As I read, I looked forward to seeing more on the use of constellational autoethnography and constellatory rhetorics, since these are relatively new approaches that are potentially advantageous methods for rhetorical studies. However, the concept and an article by Powell et al. are only mentioned once in the introduction. Powell et al. explain the idea of constellations in their rhetorical work, as opposed to intersectional methods, as “allow[ing] for all the meaning-making practices and their relationships to matter” and “for different ways of seeing any single configuration within that constellation, based on positionality and culture.” It moves away from the linearity that is implied by intersections and spreads further through space, time, and perspective. The metaphor of constellations allows a group to see different meanings and meaning-makings from possibly disparate points. Sanchez’s use of this practice is present but understated in the book. I would have found it beneficial to bring a deeper discussion of this method and application of constellating to Sanchez’s rich body of research. While Sanchez is acknowledging differing positions on the same constructed reality of Grand Saline’s past, more overt discussion about constellating stories and positions could enrich a reader’s understanding of the inherent positionality of individuals constructing different constellations from the same events and stories.
Salt of the Earth is well worth the read for anyone interested in cultural-rhetorical and autoethnographic methodologies and practice. It is a must-read for anyone interested in the rhetorical choices made relating to the stories that are told (and those that are withheld) in perpetuating white superiority and systemic white supremacy. Sanchez has an eye for details in his accounts that stuck with me long after finishing the book—in particular, the smiles of those who participate in maintaining some truly horrific stories spotlight the cognitive dissonance that the refrain it’s just a joke desperately tries to gloss over. One of the many functions of salt is to make the unpalatable into the appetizing. Salt of the Earth is an important step in spotlighting how stories can serve to make racism and white supremacy more palatable to a community.
Powell, Malea, et al. “Our Story Begins Here: Constellating Cultural Rhetorics.” enculturation: a journal of rhetoric, writing, and culture, vol. 25, 2014, www.enculturation.net/our-story-begins-here.
Ratcliffe, Krista. Rhetorical Listening: Identification, Gender, Whiteness. Southern Illinois UP, 2005.
Sanchez, James Chase. Salt of the Earth: Rhetoric, Preservation, and White Supremacy. National Council of Teachers of English, 2021.