“Plymouth Rock Landed on Us: Malcolm X’s Whiteness Theory as a Basis for Alternative Literacy,” by Keith D. Miller

Keith D. Miller, “Plymouth Rock Landed on Us:  Malcolm X’s Whiteness Theory as a Basis for Alternative Literacy.”  College Composition and Communication 56:2 (Dec. 2004): 199-222.

Reviewed by Paul Lynch, Purdue University

In “Plymouth Rock Landed on Us:  Malcolm X’s Whiteness Theory as a Basis for Alternative Literacy,” Keith D. Miller demonstrates the ways in which Burke’s rhetorical theory can explain both the imposition of hegemony and the attempt to dismantle it.  Miller uses Burkean terminology to describe Malcolm X’s decisive break with a long tradition of African American civic oratory.  In breaking with this tradition, Miller argues, Malcolm X manages to name whiteness.  Having brought this invisible hegemony into sharp relief, X is able to create a counter-hegemonic discourse and an alternative literacy.  Miller’s thesis is sound and straightforward, and his use of Burke illuminates his argument nicely.  In fact, Burkean theory provides the fulcrum on which Miller’s argument turns.  Ultimately, though, it serves as a means of description rather than as a means of invention.  As a result, Miller does not explore other ways in which Burke might enrich perspectives on X’s rhetoric.

Miller argues that X’s attack on other African American orators included not just individual targets such as Martin Luther King but also a long tradition of African American civic orators that includes Frederick Douglass, Francis Grimke, and W.E.B. DuBoisThese orators’ jeremiads rely on a basic structure that David Howard-Pitney names “past Promise, current Failure, and eventual Fulfillment” (Miller 201).  King’s “I Have a Dream” speech offers a representative example:  The past promise of equality has declined into a current failure of segregation and discrimination; however, African Americans will find eventual fulfillment as equal participants in the American dream.  Miller himself calls this the “Argument by Trajectory” (207), the notion that the United States is progressing more or less naturally toward equality.  Not surprisingly, the argument by trajectory underwrites the tradition of African American oratory that has gained mainstream acceptance.    

Malcolm X, however, places himself in a different tradition, one that includes separatist orators such as Martin Delany, Henry McNeal Turner, and Marcus Garvey.  Like his oratorical forebears, X rejects the accepted narrative. Indeed, he turns it on its head.  Miller describes this counter-hegemonic discourse in Burkean terms:  when X declares, “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock, Plymouth Rock landed on us,” he undermines a classic American piety through perspective by incongruity.  In so doing, Miller argues, X makes whiteness visible by interrupting African American identification with a narrative that elides their suffering and exploitation.  Through this reversal, X manages to disrupt the hegemony that claims Plymouth Rock as symbolic of liberty for all. 

Miller goes on to argue that X’s oratory also disrupts the casuistic stretching of the promise/failure/fulfillment narrative.  By relying on this narrative, Miller argues, other African American orators had stretched the myth of freedom to include those who had been denied it.  Miller here uses Burkean terminology to describe not what X is doing but rather what he is undoing.  On the one hand, X uses perspective by incongruity as rhetorical strategy; on the other, he attacks his targets’ casuistic stretching as rhetorical trickery.  While Miller previews this shift in perspective early in the article, he does not discuss it when it actually occurs.  He does not, for example, examine X’s own casuistic stretching.  X draws an analogy between the founding fathers and his fellow African Americans:  “they were fed up with taxation without representation.  And you’ve got 22 million Black people in this country today, 1964, who are fed up with taxation without representation” (qtd. in Miller 211).  This constitutes a perfect example of rhetorical casuistry, but Miller does not examine it as such.    

The same holds true for Miller’s use of “bureaucratized imagination” (201).  Again, Miller describes perfectly what X is attacking:  the all too familiar “cow path” that the promise/failure/fulfillment narrative had become.   Yet Miller does not subject X’s own counter-hegemonic discourse to the same Burkean scrutiny.  Miller recounts the courses in Western Civilization that X taught as a minister in the Nation of Islam; he argues that these courses, which questioned the fundamental tenets of Western history, helped “refashion and radicalize African American identity” (217). Miller’s argument is persuasive, but it does not explore how X bureaucratized a new imaginative.  A reader unfamiliar with Burke might reasonably infer that bureaucratization of the imaginative, along with casuistic stretching, are merely rhetorical tricks to be discovered rather than rhetorical strategies for discovery. 

I do not mean to suggest that Miller’s use of Burke constitutes a problem or shortcoming in the article.  Miller’s main point—that Malcolm X used his oratory to undermine hegemony and to undisguise whiteness—is convincing, and Burke’s theory proves itself useful in this argument.  The article also does an excellent job of placing X’s oratory in richer contexts, and it makes a compelling argument that X was among the earliest thinkers to recognize and question whiteness.  Rather, I mean to suggest that Burkean analysis can offer even more insight into X’s rhetoric.  X did not merely critique; he also created.  His methods of rhetorical invention can be described in Burkean terms just as accurately and just as fruitfully as his rhetorical analysis.  Either way, it is clear that future research on Malcolm X's rhetoric will continue to find Burke essential. 

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.5 License.