African American Oratory

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Rhetoric, in its broadest sense, is the theory and practice of persuasive eloquence, whether spoken or written. Spoken rhetoric is oratory, and oratory is shaped by the historical experiences and cultural worldview of a people. The oratory of African Americans, which is unique from the oratory of other cultural groups, is intricately tied to all African American experiences. Thus the study of African American oratory examines the historical experiences, political situation, identities, and ideological positions of a variety of black speakers, as well as their oratorical abilities and skills. The history of African American oratory reveals the strategies and themes orators employed when confronting 19th- and 20th-century historical topics involving U.S. laws, justification of the institution of slavery, public lynching, Jim Crow segregation, inadequate education, poverty, discriminatory housing, and unfair employment practices. War and peace, human rights, political rights, civil rights, and economic power issues have raised and called to step forth to the platform various black spokespersons, including religious, diplomatic, and protest leaders and revolutionaries, to report various wrongs of the nation. Also within this rich oratorical tradition are the oratorical talents of black comedians, poets, rap artists, pimps, and con artists. What follows is a brief chronological survey exploring African Americans' historical experiences, their oratorical skills' unique characteristics, and their rhetorical choices over the course of the past 4 centuries, which should shed more light on this subject.
The African American community endured violence, discrimination, and segregation. To free themselves from these shackles, African American men and women have served in the armed forces from the Revolutionary War through the Vietnam War and beyond, fighting for freedom, equality, justice, and the preservation of cultural identity. They have adapted to, integrated into, or resisted the strength of the whitedominated and racist system of governance in the country. Yearning for their human dignity and basic equality, African Americans with oratorical skills have responded to white violence and abuse through more radical and revolutionary means by articulating radical integrationist, pan-Africanist, black nationalist, and Marxist themes. Many of them made both sacred and secular appeals calling for national peace, harmony, love and nonviolence, religious fellowship, militancy, nationalism, black power, and/or repatriation. These orators delivered messages in an attempt to persuade the nation to give blacks equal citizenship status with whites.
There were rampages against oppression in the late 19th- and early-20th-century accommodationist appeals of the Tuskegee Institute's Booker T. Washington and his political machine, as well as in the late 19th- and 20th-century black nationalist and pan-Africanist oratory tradition of Martin Delaney, Edward Blyden, Alexander Crummell, Bishop Henry McNeal Turner, Marcus Garvey, W. E. B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson, Kwame Toure, and Malcolm X. From the mid-19th century to the present, there have been confrontational, agitational, radical integrationist addresses against oppression by orators such as David Walker, Charles Remond, Henry Highland Garnet, Maria Stewart, Frederick Douglass, Ida B. WellsBarnett, Sojourner Truth, Adam Clayton Powell, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Fannie Lou Hamer, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Robert F. Williams, Angela Davis, Stokley Carmichael (also known as Kwame Toure), Maulana Karenga, Huey P. Newton, Louis Farrakhan, Jesse Jackson, and Al Sharpton. A persistent theme in this African American oratory was and is the issue of race and slavery. Men and women orators before and after the abolition of slavery expressed their concerns, feelings, attitudes, and aspirations about ending white supremacy and racial and ethnic discrimination and replaced these issues in their speeches with the themes of black pride and freedom.
An important dimension of African American oratorical history involves the principal spokespersons' ability to create articulate and effective speech behavior on the platform. Early on, Africans in America cultivated an appreciation for Nommo, the generative power of the spoken word, since reading and writing by Africans was outlawed. African Americans' communicative uniqueness in using Nommo for sacred and secular purposes became for these orators a transforming power of vocal expression and eloquence. Out of an African heritage steeped in the oral tradition, African American orators developed, consciously and unconsciously, unique communication patterns and skills in work songs, sermons, and spirituals with two meanings, one for the body and one for the soul. Nommo also created an atmosphere in which the calls of black speakers and the responses of black audiences in sacred and secular contexts constituted one act of communication. This is apparent in most African American Baptist church settings when the preacher states something and the congregation responds, “Take yo' time, take yo'time,” “Fix it up, Reb,” “Preach it, Reb,” and when contemporary rap music artists say, “Somebody scream,” and members of their audience scream.
Other rhetorical qualities of Nommo on which African American orators rely in sacred and secular situations involve the use of proverbial statements, spontaneity, indirection, and image making. Indeed, the oratory of African Americans is predicated upon the power of the spoken word. The oratory of Malcolm X, to a greater extent than the oratory of many of his contemporaries of the latter half of the 20th century, was stunning in cadence and logic. Malcolm X—like Martin Luther King, Fannie Lou Hamer, and the oratorical giants before them such as Marcus Garvey and A. Philip Randolph—relied on Nommo for force, majesty, and an oratorical style steeped in the perennial traditions of art to bring about a comprehensive and passionate statement on justice. Following these rhetorical conventions, a number of contemporary rappers, comedians, and other orators— from Langston Hughes to The Last Poets, Melle Mel, Chuck D, KRS One, Queen Latifah, Will Smith, Ice T, Common, and Sister Souljah—have continued the rich oratorical tradition of African Americans.

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Further Reading

  • Illo, John. (1972). The Rhetoric of Malcolm X. In MolefiKete Asante (Ed.), Language, Communication, and Rhetoric in Black America(pp. 158–175). New York: Harper and Row. This is the classic essay on the style and eloquence of Malcolm X.
  • Smith, Arthur (aka Molefi Kete Asante), and Robb, Stephen (Eds.). (1971). The Voice of Black Rhetoric. Boston: Allyn and Bacon. This is an introduction to rhetoric and a collection of speeches by African American orators.
  • Smitherman, Geneva. (1986). Talkin' and Testifyin': The Language of Black America. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University. In this major work on the creation of the African American language, Smitherman presents arguments for the uniqueness of the African American language.