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Dr. Kirt Wilson to deliver Carroll C. Arnold Distinguished Lecture at NCA Convention

Associate Professor Kirt H. Wilson will deliver the Carroll C. Arnold Distinguished Lecture on Friday, November 11, at 5:00 p.m. at the National Communication Association Annual Convention. Professor Wilson is a scholar of political communication, rhetorical criticism, and contemporary theories of race and society at Penn State University. In his lecture, "Dreams of Union, Days of Conflict: Communicating Social Justice and Civil Rights Memory in the Age of Barack Obama," he will analyze the relationships among three communicative phenomena: the symbolic proposition of a more perfect union, commemorative rhetoric about the civil rights movement, and contemporary activism to remediate racial injustice. Wilson will argue that since the early 1990s, but especially with the civil rights movement's golden anniversary, public rhetoric in the United States has reframed a collective memory of the movement. Specifically, a set of narratives has emerged that reconfigures past racial and political conflicts into a demonstration of the nation's enduring commitment to equality and democracy. 
  

 

Wilson's research moves from African American public discourse to presidential rhetoric, and from the political history of the Civil War era to the symbolic construction of memory in the late 20th century. He is the author of The Reconstruction Desegregation Debate: The Politics of Equality and the Rhetoric of Place and has won numerous NCA awards, including the James A. Winans and Herbert A. Wichelns Memorial Award for Distinguished Scholarship in Rhetoric and Public Address.

  

About the Carroll C. Arnold Distinguished Lecture

In 1994, the Administrative Committee of the National Communication Association established the Carroll C. Arnold Distinguished Lecture. The Arnold Lecture is given in a plenary session each year at the annual convention of the Association and features the most accomplished researchers in the field. The topic of the lecture changes annually so as to capture the wide range of research being conducted in the field and to demonstrate the relevance of that work to society at large.

The lecture has been named for Carroll C. Arnold, professor emeritus of Pennsylvania State University. Trained under Professor A. Craig Baird at the University of Iowa, Arnold was the co-author (with John Wilson) of Public Speaking as a Liberal Art, author of Criticism of Oral Rhetoric (among other works), and co-editor of The Handbook of Rhetorical and Communication Theory. Although primarily trained as a humanist, Arnold was nonetheless one of the most active participants in the New Orleans Conference of 1968, which helped put social scientific research in communication on solid footing. Thereafter, Arnold edited Communication Monographs because he was fascinated by empirical questions. As one of the three founders of the journal Philosophy and Rhetoric, Arnold also helped move the field toward increased dialogue with the humanities in general. For these reasons and more, Arnold was dubbed “The Teacher of the Field” when he retired from Penn State in 1977. Arnold died in January of 1997.

The Carroll C. Arnold Distinguished Lecture is sponsored by Pearson.

Below is the abstract for Dr. Wilson's talk:

Dreams of Union, Days of Conflict: Communicating Social Justice and Civil Rights Memory in the Age of Barack Obama

On March 18, 2008, presidential candidate Barack Obama stood before a podium at Philadelphia's Constitution Center and began a speech dedicated to the subject of white and black race relations with the words, “We the people, in order to form a more perfect union.” Since that moment, scholars and citizens, journalists and activists have reflected on the promise of “A More Perfect Union” and asked, “What happened?” The President’s election seemed to indicate a wide-spread desire for unity in the United States. At the time, claims of a post-racial America seemed overly optimistic; nevertheless, national polls indicated that most adults viewed relations between whites and blacks as either “somewhat good” or “very good.” By 2015, however, public opinion had swung in the opposite direction. A majority of adults believed that race relations were “somewhat bad” or “very bad.” In his 2016 Carroll C. Arnold lecture, Dr. Kirt H. Wilson contends that when we ask what happened to the hoped for unity of Obama's Philadelphia address, we first need to interrogate how society selectively remembers the struggle for black freedom in the United States.

 

Dr. Wilson argues that since the early 1990s, but especially with the civil rights movement’s golden anniversary, public rhetoric in the United States has reframed a collective memory of the movement. Specifically, a set of narratives has emerged that reconfigures past racial and political conflicts into a demonstration of the nation's enduring commitment to equality and democracy. This memory is not entirely stable, but it is sufficiently coherent to influence not only our understanding of history but also our deliberations about social justice in the present. Today citizens communicate about racial divisions, social protests, and remedies to discrimination within a horizon of possible action that is constrained by what we remember about the civil rights movement’s purpose, success and failure.

 

By analyzing the relationships among three communicative phenomena--the symbolic proposition of a more perfect union, commemorative rhetoric about the civil rights movement, and contemporary activism to remediate racial injustice--Dr. Wilson reinterprets the conditions that have led to a pessimistic view of current interracial relations. Contrary to what some suggest, he is optimistic that we have arrived at an important juncture. The unrealized hopes for Obama's presidency and recent instances of racial conflict invite us to consider what we have forgotten about our past. It is more possible today than it was in 2008 to construct different memories of the black freedom struggle. These alternatives provide new resources for political action and communication. While some of these memories force us to abandon the ideal of a “perfect union,” they may offer a better foundation for creating a just society.