To be sentimental, powerful, and Black: Affective agency in Viola Davis’s award speeches

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Agata Janicka

Abstract

This article considers how the long-standing American cultural tradition of sentimentality and its affective power can be discursively utilized by contemporary Black women in the public contexts. Using the concept of sentimental political storytelling as discussed by Rebecca Wanzo, I analyze three award speeches given by Viola Davis – a popular and acclaimed African American actress whose speeches generate significant public and media attention. Framing Davis’s speeches within the Black feminist epistemology, I draw on the conventions of sentimental storytelling proposed by Wanzo to argue that Davis is an example of a Black woman skilfully using sentimentality to gain affective agency and mobilize sympathy from mainstream public while at the same time narrativizing African Americans’ lived experiences to have their humanity and their struggle recognized today. Given the continued prioritization of White female suffering in the American media over stories of Black women’s struggle, the ways in which Black women can discursively utilize sentimentality to gain affective agency and negotiate self-definition in interactional public contexts is of significant sociolinguistic interest.

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Janicka, A. (2020). To be sentimental, powerful, and Black: Affective agency in Viola Davis’s award speeches. Yearbook of the Poznań Linguistic Meeting, 6(1), 159-181. https://doi.org/10.2478/yplm-2020-0009
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