Grad Students

I study the intersection of rhetoric, race, and religion. Grounded in a multidisciplinary/transdisciplinary understanding of scholarship, I study African American public address and rhetorical criticism, prophetic rhetoric, and rhetorical theology along with political rhetoric, critical race theory, and religious and hip-hop studies. 

Below is a list of my current and former graduate students who have joined me on this journey.


Current Ph.D.Students (Advisor)

Natonya Listach

Natonya is an instructor of communication at Middle Tennessee State University. Her interests lie in rhetoric, gender, and instructional communication with a focus on the rhetoric and pedagogy of African American women.  


I am interested in focusing on the influence and impact of various African American women (Hallie Quinn Brown, Charlotte Hawkins Brown, and Juanita Williamson) on African American rhetoric. I am particularly interested not only in their impact on their own contemporary rhetors and speakers but how they impacted African American rhetoric as a whole while remaining largely unknown and rarely included in discussions. I will use information from their textbooks, papers, and speeches to complete a rhetorical memory project that shows their impact on rhetoric and society.


(with Andre E. Johnson) "Women, step forward!" Doing Rhetorical Historiography by Exploring Womanist Leadership in the AME Church. In Annette Madlock Gatison (ed). Womanist Ethical Rhetoric: A Call for Liberation and Social Justice in Turbulent Times. Lexington Books, 2020)

Tom is the pastor of Bluff City Church in Memphis, Tennessee. Tom was previously the lead pastor of an extension campus for Lynn Haven United Methodist Church in Panama City, FL. Tom is married to Cassie and they have three children. Tom's interests include religious rhetoric, specifically prophetic rhetoric. 


While plenty of scholarly attention has been directed toward the conversion narratives of 19th century African Americans, little attention has been paid to their prophetic call narratives and visionary experiences. These narratives occur in rhetorical texts such as sermons and Spiritual Autobiographies, both of which provide rhetorical avenues for the subversion of white supremacy and patriarchy. By analyzing the larger genres in which these call narratives are rhetorically expressed, and by examining the structures of the narratives, themselves, my hope is to add to the larger, expanding scholarly discourses of rhetorical theology, prophetic discourse, Womanism, feminism, and the intersections of race, rhetoric, and religion.

Specifically, my dissertation will rhetorically analyze the prophetic call narratives and visionary experiences of Nat Turner, Maria Stewart, Julia Foote, and Henry McNeal Turner. I will place them both in their sitz en leben as African American men and women in the nineteenth century, but I will also analyze the rhetorical structure of their narratives, particularly with attention paid to their intertextual relationships with the Hebrew prophets and the New Testament. An intertextual analysis requires an appreciation of the biblical and African American prophetic traditions, the biblical and African American apocalyptic impulses, and the biblical and African American choices of genre.

Methodologically, I will employ a multitude of modalities. I will largely rely on Andre E.  Johnson’s discussion of prophetic personas in The Forgotten Prophet, and Walter Brueggemann’s definition of the prophetic task in The Prophetic Imagination. I will rely on Kenneth Burke’s notions of Perspective by Incongruity in my analysis of prophetic and apocalyptic rhetoric. Also drawing on Burke, I will discuss these call narratives through the lens of Identification theory. Expanding on Burke’s Identification theory, I will use Brown and Anderson’s notion of Conscious Identification to describe how 19th century African American call narratives and visionary experiences both identified with and subverted the theological and religious expectations of white supremacy. Further, I will employ Womanist theory and the ever-expanding literature after Alice Walker to explain how these prophetic, apocalyptic call narratives work toward a black sense of Redemptive Self-Love.

I have chosen two men and two women, ultimately, because the nature of their resistance literature, as expressed in their call narratives, will have both overlap and significant differentiation. They both rely intertextually on prior biblical traditions and Christian genres, but they do so in unique ways. Men who experience these visions must merely fight white supremacy. Women who tell their call narratives, however, must not only resist white supremacy, but they must also subvert patriarchy both in the white and black church. 


"A King’s Place is in the Kitchen: The Rhetorical Trajectory of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Kitchen Table Experience." Listening Journal of Communication Ethics, Religion, and Culture

Ayo M. Morton is a native of Richmond, Virginia. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism and Communications from Hampton University, a Master of Divinity from the Samuel DeWitt Proctor School of Theology at Virginia Union University, and a Master of Theology from Union Presbyterian Seminary where she was a Katie Geneva Cannon Center for Womanist Leadership Fellow. She is a current Doctor of Philosophy student at the University of Memphis where her work is centered on rhetoric and Black sound. She is a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Incorporated. In addition to being a licensed and ordained minister, she has written three novels, a devotional, and released a spoken word CD. 


My research will focus on African American Public Address. Within this tradition, I will study the rhetoric and performance of African American preaching. More specifically, I will study the intersection of rhetoric, race, and religion from a womanist lens and framework. My goal is to build upon the growing womanist rhetorical scholarship to include how this rhetoric not only speaks but performs. My research, in how womanist rhetoric performs, will lead to the examination of sermons and how these texts are performed and delivered in non-traditional spaces.

My aim is to review, critique, analyze, and challenge the current Black preaching tradition. Currently, many understand Black preaching to be an activity solely happening in religious edifices delivered in traditional oratory from elevated pulpits. My research would not only lead to a larger understanding of what Black preaching is, but it will contribute to the small, but growing literature in sermon studies. Blending homiletical and rhetorical theory and criticism, and building upon previous scholarship in these areas, I will develop new definitions and directions of Black preaching. My plan is not to move away from churches and elevated pulpits, but to incorporate an appreciation for the spoken word, performative art, and literature within the homiletical tradition.


Celnisha L. Dangerfield 

C.L. Dangerfield is an award-winning educator with nearly 20 years of experience in the classroom. Her research aligns at the intersection of race, identity, and rhetoric–with an occasional homage to hip-hop culture. Expanding her scholarship to include more prominent considerations of gender, faith, and digital media, she seeks to interrogate spaces of oppression to offer “voice,” visibility, and a renewed sense of authority to those that might otherwise be dismissed.

Dangerfield has earned degrees in Speech Communication from Clark Atlanta University and Penn State, as well as a graduate certificate in Writing and Digital Communication from Agnes Scott College. She is now in the Ph.D. program in Communication Studies at the University of Memphis.


Lauryn Hill as Lyricist and Womanist. In Ronald Jackson, II & Elaine Richardson (eds).  Understanding African American Rhetoric: Classical Origins to Contemporary Innovations. New York, NY; Routledge; 2003, pp. 209-221

(with Mary Beth Oliver, Ronald L. Jackson, II and Ndidi N. Moses) The Face of Crime: Viewers' Memory of Race-Related Facial Features of Individuals Pictured in the News.  Journal of Communication, Volume 54, Issue 1, 1 March 2004, pp 88–104

(with Ronald L. Jackson II) "Defining Black Masculinity as Cultural Property: Toward an Identity Negotiation Paradigm." In Ronald L. Jackson (ed)African American Communication & Identities: Essential Readings, 2004, pp. 197-208. 

Clark A. Harris

Clark A. Harris Jr. is a first-year Ph.D. student in the Department of Communication and Film at the University of Memphis. He is interested in studying the rhetorical aspects of theological discourse at the intersection of race and oppression. He lives in Little Rock, Arkansas, and teaches at a number of institutions. His ambitions in education are teaching and researching in the disciplines of rhetoric and writing. He believes that writing can serve as a gateway to knowledge of self-revelations and understanding of one's past. Furthermore, he encourages his students to write daily in a journal with expectations of passing it down to their children’s children. An inheritance can be spent, and a picture is only worth a thousand words, but your story can guide future generations to a greater destination. In addition, there is no one more worthy of sharing your story than you.

Lionnell "Badu" Smith

Lionnell Smith, affectionately known as Badu, is a 2018 Fulbright-Hays Fellows, recipient of the 2018 Monica Pombo Early Career Teaching Award, and is currently a doctoral student at the University of Memphis. His research centers on critical intercultural communication studies with particular emphasis on language and identity and critical communication pedagogy. He is a member of the Carolinas Communication Association, the Southern States Communication Association, and the National Communication Association.


My research interests focus on two sub-disciplinary areas: 1) critical intercultural communication studies, and 2) critical [communication] pedagogy. My interests within the former area center on African American Communication and Culture with particular emphasis on language, culture/race, and identity. Within the latter area, I am interested in the instructional discourses inherent in critical pedagogies, culturally relevant and sustaining pedagogies, and liberatory education practices. For clarity, I bracket communication as I prefer to situate myself and my scholarship within the broader conversation on critical pedagogy. In this way, I am able to deposit to and withdraw from that conversation as a communication scholar to facilitate my research agenda. Essentially, I am interested in understanding the ways through which pedagogy and instructional discourse can be weaponized to respond to the socio-politics of cultural and linguistic hegemony in education.

My research brings communicationists, ethno/racio/sociolinguists, and educationists into conversation with each other to explore the role language play in expressing and sustaining African American culture, particularly (but not limited to) within the educational context. Currently, my language focus is African American Language (AAL) which has been defined as a “language form with a unique and logical syntax, semantic system, and grammar (Hecht, Jackson, and Ribeau, 2003, p. 144). As Piller (2011) notes, language “offers us concepts for experiencing the world around us–and different languages sometimes offer different concepts for perceiving and experiencing the world around us” (p. 37). The problem, as I see it, is that many minoritized languages—such as AAL—are endangered as the struggle for their survival continues on the inequitable terrain of whiteness and western thought. I aim to challenge linguistic hegemony in education by advocating for the legitimacy and cultural capital of African American languages and literacies. Given this, I hope to establish as a research agenda the development of a pedagogical framework founded on African American communication and rhetoric.

For my dissertation, I am interested in developing an Afrocultural pedagogy that I call mission-oriented pedagogy. This framework draws on what Johnson (2012) calls the African American prophetic tradition. Johnson (2012) defines mission-oriented prophecy as a “constitutive rhetoric that calls a people to participate in a divine mission by reconstituting the people from their perceived identities” (p. 13). A mission-oriented prophecy finds the constructed identities [of a people] problematic and offers and new vision or identity for the people. In the same respect, mission-oriented pedagogy is indeed a constitutive rhetoric, or [instructional] discourse, that invites students to participate in the divine mission of a liberatory, emancipatory education which affirms cultural identities through critical literacy and community. Like Johnson, I am not interested in focusing on educators as “prophets” as much as I am interested in the ways in which instruction functions as a prophetic discourse. By implementing a mission-oriented pedagogy, educators take on a prophetic persona to facilitate education as a practice of freedom (hooks, 1994).

Pierre is a native of Jackson, MS, was a Lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force, and is a licensed attorney who entered the legal profession as a judicial law clerk in the New Jersey Superior Court and was later a trial attorney in Philadelphia, PA, for 17 years. After teaching at night while practicing law by day, Pierre decided to teach, because teachers build people up and lawyers cut them down which was antithetical to his spirit. He has sat on the faculties of Community College of Philadelphia, Temple University, Delaware County Community College, DE, and he is currently an Instructor of Speech Communication at Middle TN State University for 14 years. He holds a Juris Doctor from Syracuse U. College of Law, an M.A. in Speech Communication from Syracuse U., an M.P.A. from Golden Gate U., and B.A. in English/French from Howard University.


His research interest centers on the examination of the Black eulogy.      

DiArron Morrison was born in New Orleans, LA, and raised in Atlanta, GA. He is a skilled higher education professional with experience in teaching, residence life, new student orientation, and student organization advising. His research interests are primarily focused on the rhetorical tradition, including African-American studies, higher education, equity and liberation, and religion. He is an active member of the National Communication Association and Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. His personal interests include working with students, cooking, professional wrestling, battle rap, and preaching.

Jason Mikel

Jason Mikel began his doctoral studies at the University of Memphis's Department of Communication and Film in the fall of 2020. He is an ordained and full-time pastor in the Cumberland Presbyterian denomination and is the founder of the Nashville Burrito Ministry, a weekly meal with Nashville's unhoused where dignity and community are emphasized. In addition, he serves on the Board of Trustees of Memphis Theological Seminary. Jason is married to Suzanne, a psychiatric RN, and they have four boys between them, one of which is the father to two adorable grandsons.


Jason's research interests include the intersection of faith, culture, and politics in the rhetoric of the southern white evangelical church, an interest gained from years in parish ministry. Current research focuses on rediscovering the writings and work of Claude Clossey Williams, an early and mid-1900s Arkansas labor organizer who centered his work in the Christian Bible. Further research includes the Desert Blues of North Africa's Tuareg people and the effects of western influence on their culture and music.

I also serve as a member of the following committees:

Tyler Stafford 

Jonathan Smith 

Degan Loren

Noor Aswad

Laura Sullivan

Tamara (Tami) Sawyer (MA)

Christian Theological Seminary

Ph.D. in African American Preaching and Sacred Rhetoric

R. Janae Pitts-Murdock

Gina Stewart

Justin West

William (Bill) Lamar IV

Chicago Theological Seminary

Ph.D. in Religious Studies

Lawrence (Larry) Green



The University of Memphis 


(2021) Damariye L. Smith: "The Anatomy of the Commencement Speech: An Examination of Barack Obama's Rhetoric Delivered at HBCUs." (Defended: March 30, 2021)


In my dissertation, I explore the rhetorical construction of commencement address at historically Black colleges & universities (HBCUs) and interrogate the rhetorical invention of Barack Obama when addressing Black audiences. In order to accomplish these tasks, I examine the commencement speeches of Obama at Hampton University, Morehouse College, and Howard University. I ground my study in the methods of genre criticism, close reading, and Afrocentricity to interrogate Obama’s discourse. 

I contend that understanding the manner in which commencement addresses are rhetorically constructed for the Black audience is worthy of academic attention in a number of ways. First, possessing knowledge of how discourse is constructed helps us gain insights into the culturally specific meaning of Black graduation not only for the students but also for their families and supporters. Second, commencement discourse often sheds light on historical and contemporary issues within the Black community. Third, commencement discourse engages not only education practitioners in a critical discussion about the collegiate experience but also the public which may lead to future progressive actions towards education policy. Lastly, this study will add to the literature on Obama as a rhetor by examining Obama’s commencement rhetoric.

Current Position: Incoming Assistant Professor of Contemporary Black/African Rhetoric and Media Studies at San Diego State University.

(2020) Dianna Watkins DickersonDaring to be Herself: Womanist Rhetorical Theory in Black Women's Presidential Announcement Speeches (Defended: April 6, 2020)


Black women’s theoretical production has neither been consistently celebrated nor canonized within the academy; therefore, the primary focus of this dissertation is to establish a definition for womanist rhetorical theory in order to acknowledge Black women’s voice as carriers of theory and persuasive prowess (Collins, 1998). Theorizing through rhetorician Kimberly Johnson’s (2015) womanist rhetorical criticism, I build from Alice Walker’s (1983) definition of womanism and ethicist Stacey Floyd-Thomas’ womanist tenets. These tenets are radical subjectivity, critical engagement, traditional communalism, and redemptive self-love. The tenets help us not only conceptualize a trichotomous rhetorical triangle of Black women’s discursive diary of tripartite oppression within the larger African Diasporic context but also helps us develop a methodological pattern for understanding Black women’s communicative acts. 

In order to do this, I explore the presidential campaign announcement speeches. of the late Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, Ambassador Carol Moseley Braun, and Senator Kamala Harris. By analyzing the broader themes within these texts, I argue the womanist rhetor well understands her inability to craft a counterpublic for the public that rejected her voice, instead re-defining her own space. I work through “movements” demonstrating how the rhetor re-claims her voice; re-constructs rhetorical boundaries; re-imagines and re-constitutes her audience; and comes to voice by re-framing her epistemological privilege to love herself regardless. Overall, I contend this study allows Black women/womanist communication scholars to have, not only a theoretical frame of their own enterprise, but one that “sings the song” of “possibilities” highlighting her wit, wisdom, and words with an integrity of her own vision (Shange, 197).

Current Position: Adjunct Professor: Memphis Theological Seminary

(2020) Steven Tramel Gaines: Rhetorical Leadership in Organizational Conflict and Change: Case Studies of Antiracist Preaching (Defended: March 19, 2020)


This study investigates how leaders call for change while also caring for their organizations. The theoretical framework comes from the interdisciplinary study of prophetic rhetoric, developed by scholars of communication, English, and homiletics. That framework is used here in the analyses of speeches and public letters by leaders who challenge ideologies and practices shaped by and contributing to racial injustice. More specifically, this dissertation studies how audiences’ white fragility leads to constrained prophetic rhetoric that is a communication strategy inviting change without destroying organizations or being expelled from them. From analyses of such rhetoric in religious contexts, this study produces a model of pastoral rhetoric that combines nurture and challenge and can apply to leadership in other types of organizations. 

Current Position: Associate Professor, Department of Communication, Midland College

Committee Member: 

(2020) Keven James Rudrow: “Resistive Black Masculinities: Race, Masculinity, and the Hip-Hop Sensibilities of Black Popular Culture.” 

(2018) Earle J. Fisher: A Close Reading of Albert Cleage Jr’s The Black Messiah: A Study in Rhetorical Hermeneutics, Black Prophetic Rhetoric, and Radical Black Politics 
  • Current Position: Senior Pastor, Abyssinian Baptist Church, Memphis, Tennessee
(2016) Scott Anderson. Rhetoric, Race, and Barack Obama's Discourse of Division 

  • Current Position: Assistant Professor, Department of Communication, Arkansas State University

(2015) Marcus Hassell: “Under Siege: Conspiracy, I-Pistemology and Resistance through Hip-Hop in Killarmy’s Silent Weapons for Quiet Wars”  *Recipient of the 2015 Top Dissertation Award from NCA's African American Communication and Culture Division
  • Current Position: Instructor, Tennessee State University


Committee Member:

(2019) DiArron Morrison (Religious Studies) Abilene Christian University

Thesis: A Power Man’s Theology: Marvel’s Luke Cage and Black Liberation Theology
  • Current Position: Fall 2020 incoming Ph.D. student (Communication) University of Memphis 
(2018) Kimberley Nicole Travers (History)

(2017) Anthony Jerome Stone (Sociology): University of Memphis

Thesis:  "I am a Cartoon, Not Me!!: Racial Identity and Native American Caricature Iconography.
  • Current Position: Ph.D. Student (Sociology) University of Cincinnati