Specializing in the wholly impossible: A rhetorical analysis of phronesis and kairos in the writings of Nannie Helen Burroughs




Robinson, Sandra Lynn

Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title



This study examines the rhetorics employed by school founder and civil rights activist Nannie Helen Burroughs (1879-1961). "We Specialize in the Wholly Impossible" signifies the complexities and contradictions inherent in being black and female in America during the first decades of the twentieth century. Burroughs's motto of specializing in impossibility denotes a profound paradox that African American women were able to believe in their own agency despite the virulent forces of racism. Rhetoric is the most significant referent to how African American women survived and progressed historically. Burroughs forged a powerful verbal connection between resistance to oppression, spiritual consciousness, and the spoken word. Her speeches and writings reveal complex rhetorical strategies that teach and model phronesis (practical wisdom) and kairos (timeliness) together creating a discourse grounded in feminist principles. Her rhetorical strategies are unique because her discourse exposes rhetorical distinctions between the descriptors feminist and womanist for rhetors whose lives predate the terms. For Burroughs, the plight of women was a convenient and timely platform to advance her personal and political agenda of righting wrongs committed against women using extreme measures of oppressive rhetoric. Burroughs's startling approach unsettles her contemporaries, withstands the forgetfulness of time, and emerges as a highly unusual progenitor of black feminism. Burroughs's rhetorical contributions are revealed in an analysis of rhetorical artifacts including her comedic play, On Their Way to the Slabtown District Convention: A Comedy in One Act Full of Wit- Good Sense Practical Lessons (1909), the first morality play written by an African American woman, Think on These Things an undated topical collection of practical wisdom, and "Black Woinen and Reform," an editorial published in 1915. This study joins in the scholarship of rhetorical practices of African American women especially as discussed by Shirley Wilson Logan and Jacqueline Jones Royster. Exploring the rhetorics employed by African American women adds to our understanding of the curious trajectory of the practical uses and useful practices of Burroughs's writings and how they inform rhetorical pedagogies in Western and African American rhetorical traditions.



Phronesis, Social sciences, Rhetorical analysis, Language, literature, and linguistics, Womanism, Burroughs, Nannie Helen, Writings, Kairos