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Dubisar, Abby M. Mother-Based “Buffer” Rhetorics. CE, Jan. 2018. Posted 02/11/2018.

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Dubisar, Abby M. “Mothers Against Gun Violence and the Activist Buffer.” College English 80.3 (2018): 195-217. Print.

Abby M. Dubisar responds to a call to recognize, value, and study “knowledge production by women” (195). She finds that rhetorical studies has not paid adequate attention to such knowledge production, especially that by African American women (195, 211, 213). In order to show how attention to rhetorical work by African American women can illuminate important strategies to serve the needs of communities and causes, Dubisar provides a case study of the group Mothers Against Gun Violence (MAGV) in Syracuse, New York (195-96).

Dubisar’s focus is “mother-based buffer rhetorics” (212). She defines “buffer rhetorics” as “embodied position[s]” that can appeal to wide audiences; as “a networked tactic” that both allows interaction with audiences and serves as a “unifying” force within communities responding to grief; and as “a stance that ranges from presence to direct action, able to be mediated online as well as in person” (196). She finds these rhetorics at work in a number of contexts, “as activists strategize ways to put themselves between public audiences and perpetrators and their victims and mourners” (196).

Dubisar presents the work of mothers of slain gun-violence victims to demonstrate how buffer rhetorics enable activists to lay claim to effective rhetorical identities and keep issues publically visible (211). Dubisar’s project grew from the 2008 Ray Smith Symposium: Feminist Rhetorics for Social Justice, in Syracuse; she took notes on MAGV speakers and went on to investigate media coverage of MAGV (196-97).

The author connects her study of MAGV with other rhetorical scholarship that examines the use of “maternal activism” (197) to further struggles for social justice. “Public mothering” has been studied for its ability to foster identification across racial and contextual boundaries (199). In Tamika Carey’s words, mothering rhetorics are “rhetorics of healing” (qtd. in Dubisar 198) that can appear in public spaces and in social and public media as well as in fiction and nonfiction (198).

Founded in 2005 by Helen Hudson after her stepson’s death by gun violence, MAGV illustrates how, as a buffer rhetoric, the rhetoric of public mothering functions to intervene with the younger audiences most likely to be affected by gun violence at the same time that it empowers activists as “liaisons” between grieving families, affected communities, and institutions like police and hospitals (200). Public mothering assures young audiences that they are cared for and valued (197), while “[i]dentifications in mothering and expressions of love for children, even grown children” draw in “disengaged white audiences” who may tend to blame family dynamics for violence and crime (201). In Dubisar’s view, risks that the use of motherhood as a persuasive strategy will “essentializ[e] mothers as a monolithic group” (198) can be overcome by careful use of the trope.

Noting Jacqueline Jones Royster and Gesa E. Kirsch’s understanding of rhetoric as “embodied social experience” (qtd. in Dubisar 200), Dubisar explores the embodiment inherent in MAGV’s activism. She illustrates this embodiment with the example of vigils that reclaim spaces where violence has occurred, pictures of people holding hands as “physical touches of care,” and an image of Hudson hugging another grieving mother, an action that “protect[s] people from the camera’s gaze and exposure to others” (202).

Dubisar sees such “invitation[s] to grieve” as encouraging more embodied action as community members, especially young people, are moved to speak up when they see signs of imminent violence (202). Members of MAGV also interject their physical presences into events and make themselves visible through speeches and videos. Dubisar provides the example of Lepa Jones, president of MAGV, who was featured in a 2015 news story and video in Syracuse and again in a video interview in 2016 (203). Dubisar argues that Jones is able to translate her presence into an appeal for solidarity, casting community members as “family” who have shared embodied experiences (203-04) and standing in for young people who may be cast as the cause of violence by white audiences (205). These efforts, Dubisar writes, allow MAGV participants to “make a mourning stance an activist role” (204), one that can remain visible beyond specific moments and events (211).

Dubisar further discusses how MAGV action creates networks, both to share comfort and to reach young people “who need support and to hear the message that they are loved and appreciated” (206). This networking extends to public office and to participation in other service organizations such as the Trauma Response Team, which calls on MAGV to step in between the many actors involved in a violent event, like families, hospital personnel, police and sources of financial support (206).

Involvement in these networks as mother-based rhetors generates authority and expertise as well intervention that contrasts with that of officials and social workers (207). Noting that such action cannot completely combat the extant “systemic racism and pro-gun legislation,” Dubisar contends that the group’s rhetorics of care provide “essential” connections among diverse groups who are working to limit gun violence (207).

The work of MAGV, Dubisar states, is also “mediated” in that it expands through media and mediates in that it actively enters spaces where young people are likely to congregate to assure them that they are loved (208). She illustrates the media influence that derives from the group’s mother-based rhetoric with a public-service video narrated by Hudson and other members. This 38-second video, “Dead is Forever,” which was shown widely in the area in venues where young people would see it, spoke directly to youths, urging them to see themselves as the children of mothers who would suffer if they were killed. The public-service announcement, which claimed space between “a police-produced antiviolence PSA and a news report about gun violence,” urges young people “to identify with their moms in a new way” by imagining themselves as capable of “pleas[ing] their mothers and mak[ing] them proud” (210).

Dubisar cites the embodied, networked, and mediated work of maternal spokeswomen like the mothers of Emmett Till, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, and Michael Brown to illustrate specific examples of the “range of strategies African American women invent and adapt, both when asked to respond to violence and to sustain attention to an issue” (213). These strategies, in Dubisar’s view, deserve increased attention from rhetorical studies as forms of knowledge production by women.

Author: vanderso

I'm a recently retired associate professor of English in Southern Indiana. I've been teaching writing for twenty-five years, but I feel I have much to learn about how people really learn to write. In this blog, I'll be sharing research and thoughts and hopefully gathering information from others about the process of learning to write.

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