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African-American women who entered the nineteenth-century U.S. public sphere as speakers and writers stepped into an arena dominated by rhetorical techniques derived from the Roman authorities Cicero and Quintilian. Women such as Sojourner Truth, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Mary Church Terrell, Ida B. Wells, and Anna Julia Cooper had to decide how best to represent their political goals within this restrictive environment. Those who had access to the education necessary to develop classical rhetorical skills sometimes chose to employ politically savvy figural techniques that, in proving their authoritative intellectual status, temporarily veiled or obscured their bodies. Yet these same women’s political goals necessitated a simultaneous strategic unveiling of their literal figures, the fleshly racial and gendered signifiers that facilitated their exclusion from this intellectual sphere. This dance between concealment and exposure of the body via rhetorical figures of speech owes much of its political weight to the historical aftereffects of classical debates over the relationship between bodies and words.

This paper pairs Cicero’s de Oratore with Anna Julia Cooper’s 1892 collection of essays and speeches, A Voice From the South, in order to trace an understudied trajectory of postbellum African-American women’s strategic adaptation and transformation of classical rhetorical models. The argument in de Oratore rests upon Cicero’s association between the idealized body of the male orator and persuasive speech, exemplified by his parallel usage of the word conformatio (“configuration” or “figure of speech”) to refer to how the successful orator arranges and conducts his body and his words. The legacy of Cicero’s equation between proper bodies and proper speech had a significant influence on the development of nineteenth-century rhetorical and racial theory. Cooper, a Latin teacher undoubtedly familiar with the works of Cicero, develops a rhetorical strategy in A Voice From the South that nods to Cicero’s equation between words and bodies by deploying metonymic and prosopopoetic figures of speech that veil or displace her literal body and its perceived oratorical disadvantages. These figural displacements nevertheless retain the political essence of Cooper’s argument for the further inclusion of women and African Americans in higher education by deftly re-introducing signifiers of her own race and gender back into her speech. By adapting and transforming Cicero’s figural strategies, Cooper questions prevailing assumptions about who has the proper bodily conformatio to be a successful orator in late nineteenth-century America.