The past as rhetorical resource for resistance : enabling and constraining memories of the Black freedom struggle in Eyes on the prize
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I began this project with the question of how today's social justice activists might find a useable history in a massively influential text like Eyes on the Prize. Thus, the broad question that motivated this rhetorical inquiry was: what means are available to people interested in social change, but whose access to the resources to influence society is limited? One important resource that oppressed peoples can lay claim to is a shared sense of the past. Through a critical analysis of Eyes on the Prize, this dissertation examines shared memory as a resource for rhetorical production. I am interested not only in how the past is re-presented in the documentary, but also what resources the documentary provides its audience to consider and take action for social change. The films present memories that complicate or run counter to the dominant narrative of the black freedom struggle and thereby make available a reservoir of rhetoric power for a political present. My analysis suggests that Eyes on the Prize does not contradict public memory's dominant values of the black freedom struggle, but it does resist their blind adherence. The documentary does not force viewers to take sides on divisive issues like separation/integration or violence/nonviolence. Instead it allows them to realize that these concepts are dialectical. These are, in my estimation, productive tensions. Eyes on the Prize is an excellent pedagogical tool for producing citizen activists. Although activism gives way to electoralism by the end of the documentary, activism is portrayed positively in the documentary. There are certainly costs to activism, as some activists experienced in the most extreme way. However, the heroes of Eyes on the Prize are certainly the activists. In an analysis of a text's rhetorical potential, it is also necessary to acknowledge how the text limits rhetorical possibility. Significantly, Eyes on the Prize inadequately addresses the importance of class in the black freedom struggle. The lacuna of class in the documentary neglects fundamental changes in the goals and tactics of the black freedom struggle and limits the material and psychological structures that maintain racism.