Rhetoric Lessons in Street Fiction
“Well, in being a virtuous leader, that’s where your ability to use the third liberal art of rhetoric comes into play. You must be a good negotiator and motivational speaker, make them see and want to for whatever acceptable reasons inspire them.”
“I don’t understand. What’s rhetoric?”
“It’s the art of using words effectively and persuasively. It is one of the seven liberal arts taught by the ancient Egyptians to their students. The others are grammar, arithmetic, dialectic, geometry, astrology, and music to which I added four of my own, semantics, psychology, politics, and exercise.”
“It’s basically rooted in grammar; it deals with the meaning of words.”
“It is the art of arriving at the truth through the exchange of logical argumentation. Also, it’s a method of argument that weighs contradictory facts or ideas with a view to resolving real or apparent contradiction. You can use it with yourself in making sound judgments.”
“Oh, so that’s why you know the meaning of so many words; you be studying semantics.?”
“Yeah, and I want to be able to recognize and understand what I’m dealing with.”
The above passage, which sounds like one of Plato’s dialogues, is actually from a novel, Takin’ It to Another Level, by Darryl Whiting. The character providing the answers, G, is training a protégé, Frost, to establish an ambitious Gangsters Consortium. That is the “virtuous” leadership that Frost is pursuing. G conceived and refined his ideas about the Consortium while serving twenty years of a life sentence after being convicted of being a drug kingpin. He was released on a technicality. Recently, I considered using the book in a course on the African-American novel but ultimately decided that it didn’t hold together well enough as a work of art, though I admire the rhetoric lesson and several other aspects.
Ironically, on the legal front, the author was too persuasive. Whiting is serving a life sentence after a 1991 conviction for operating a continuing criminal enterprise. His case has been featured on American Justice and was also the basis for the 1999 movie In Too Deep, starring LL Kool J and Omar Epps. Unfortunately for Whiting, a good portion of his book is a revenge fantasy, and he uses real names and addresses. Those he feels wronged him at his trial get their comeuppance in a parallel world. This wasn’t significant when the book was published. It became crucial several years later when Whiting became eligible for parole after the sentencing guidelines for federal drug cases had been revised. He had served over twenty-five years by then, but the judge presiding over his hearing had his book. The work of fiction---and it clearly is that---was read as a negative depiction of Whiting’s state of mind. He had to resume serving the life sentence. Other than when a judge read Amiri Baraka’s poem “Black People” I can’t recall offhand any other instance in which an author’s creative words were used against him or her in court.
Other ironies. I was steered to this book and became interested in it because I was familiar with the author, and much of the novel is set in my old neighborhood in Queens. I knew those streets. 105th Street. 106thStreet. 32nd Avenue. Northern Boulevard. Astoria Boulevard. Gilmore Street. Two of the characters even went uptown to Columbia University, which I did for real.
I also teach rhetoric for real and had no idea of Whiting’s interest in the subject. I didn’t know him well back in the day. We were acquaintances moving in different circles, although he had an older brother, Donald, who was a friend of mine. I would like to go back and recruit young Darryl for grad school and the profession. He might have been pretty good.