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Friday, August 31, 2018

August 31, 2018: SpeechStudying: Three Recent Speeches


[On August 28th, 1963 Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous speech to the March of Washington. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy that and four other great American speeches!]
On two speeches that seem to tell the story of our last decade, and one that offers a different view.
1)      Barack Obama’s “A More Perfect Union” (2008): I’ve written multiple times in this space about Obama’s 2008 Philadelphia speech on race, his own heritage, and the nation, a moment that not only quite likely saved his presidential campaign and reshaped the next eight years (and more) of American political and social life in the process, but also one that exemplifies Obama’s many connections to foundational and ongoing American histories and stories (which is why I made the speech part of the conclusion of my second book). But all those broader contexts can make it easy to overlook the incredible power of the speech itself, which in its sweeping imagery and metaphors, its use of repetition and cadence, and its movement from challenge and critique to optimism and hope (among other compelling elements and strategies) makes it a worthy successor indeed to King’s “Dream” speech. This is both a great American speech and a pitch-perfect encapsulation of Obama’s appeal and presence.
2)      Donald Trump launches his 2016 campaign (2015): I don’t think I’ve written much at all about Trump’s infamous campaign launch, for two contrasting but equally frustrating reasons: because at the time it seemed like a ridiculous joke; and because it has turned out that the ridiculous joke is on us, in every sense. I couldn’t bring myself to watch Trump’s remarks again or even read a transcript now, so (perhaps fortunately for all of us) I can’t provide a close reading of their rhetorical strategies or audience appeals. But I’d still argue that Trump’s “speech” represents a polar opposite to Obama’s, and not just because it’s so incoherent and rambling that I feel compelled to put “speech” in scare quotes. Indeed, despite all those gaps and failings Trump’s remarks do have a consistent theme and purpose, and they’re one and the same: highlighting and amplifying national divisions, especially along racial and ethnic lines. I don’t think Trump’s remarks had a title (he’d probably just call them “Donald Trump,” natch), but “A More Perfect Disunion” would accurately sum up both them and much of what Trump has represented and argued for since.
3)      Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “The Danger of a Single Story” (2009): It’d be very difficult to think of a pair of speeches that capture the story of our last decade better than do Obama’s and Trump’s. But as the wonderful Nigerian American novelist, educator, and activist Adichie reminds us in her important and inspiring TED talk, having a single story about anything is always at best limited and at worst damaging and destructive. The highs of Obama and the lows of Trump are one part of our 21st century story to be sure, and these two speeches serve as metonymic reflections for those huge trends. But I don’t know that either focus quite allows room for Adichie—for her writing and career, for her voice and perspective, and for this 2009 speech in particular. Collectively listening to and learning from Adichie’s speech would help us in so many ways, including both a recognition of the power of oration itself and a desire to keep adding stories to our collective conversations.
August Recap this weekend,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other speeches you’d highlight?

Thursday, August 30, 2018

August 30, 2018: SpeechStudying: Garnet’s “Address”


[On August 28th, 1963 Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous speech to the March of Washington. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy that and four other great American speeches!]
On the contextual and the contemporary importance of a striking speech.
When I learned I would have the chance to teach 19th Century African American Literature (the first of our two-course Af Am survey sequence, and a class cross-listed between our English Studies and African American Studies programs) for the first time this past spring, I knew I would want to include a number of texts and voices on the syllabus that I have never before taught. Of course folks like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs and Charles Chesnutt and Ida B. Wells, favorites whom I’ve taught many times before, would occupy prominent places. But for my own experience and benefit, and even more for the goal of exposing the students to the widest range of texts and figures possible, I wanted to balance such existing favs with ones with which I’m far less familiar. Thanks to the great first volume of the Norton Anthology of African American Literature, I had no shortage of such authors and works to choose from, and included at least one text per week that I’ve never taught before. Today I wanted to focus on one such work, Henry Highland Garnet’s stirring and controversial 1843 speech “An Address to the Slaves of the United States of America.”
Garnet (1815-1882), a former slave (he escaped from slavery in Maryland with his entire family when he was about 10 years old, moving to New York City) turned Presbyterian minister and Abolitionist activist, delivered his “Address” at the 1843 National Negro Convention in Buffalo. An aggressive and impassioned call for noncompliance and violent resistance—the final paragraph opens, “Let your motto be resistance! resistance! RESISTANCE!”—Garnet’s oration, which came to be known as the “Call for Rebellion” speech, drew forth condemnations from Douglass and other abolitionist leaders, although it also fell just one vote short of approval as an official resolution of the convention. And that duality—the speech’s controversy yet also its popularity—offers a vital illustration of the spectrum of perspectives, voices, arguments, and goals within the nascent Abolitionist movement, much less the broader social and cultural debates over and narratives of slavery and race in America. I can’t imagine a better course in which to engage with that breadth and depth of voices and ideas than a survey of 19th century African American literature, and I hope Garnet (among others, like David Walker) will help us engage with those themes and threads fully and successfully.
My goal for the course was to focus on those historical topics and frames pretty consistently, but there’s no way that this course—like any in the age of Teaching under Trump, but also in specific and particularly salient ways—wouldn’t engage with 21st century American issues and conversations as well. For example I made sure to have a #BlackLivesMatter thread throughout the semester, to think about what our different authors and texts have to add to that concept and conversation. In the case of Garnet’s speech, even his titular address to a slave audience—as well as the speech’s opening clause, calling that audience his “Brethren and Fellow Citizens”—reflects a humanizing and individualizing perspective on each and every African American slave that wasn’t necessarily central to every Abolitionist argument (at least some of which focused on slavery as a system, on broader moral or economic questions, and so on). One of many interesting contemporary echoes that it’s vital to draw out of this speech and all of the course’s complex and crucial texts.
Last speech tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other speeches you’d highlight?

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

August 29, 2018: SpeechStudying: “Eulogy on King Philip”


[On August 28th, 1963 Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous speech to the March of Washington. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy that and four other great American speeches!]
On one speech that offers two complementary models of critical patriotism.
Many of the ways I’d make the case for William Apess as an exemplary American critical patriot were summed up in this post. I don’t think it’s the slightest bit hyperbolic to describe Apess as the 19th century’s Martin Luther King Jr.—a fiery preacher of supreme oratorical and rhetorical talents who dedicated his life to pursuing civil and human rights for his people and for all his fellow citizens of the world, one whose life was tragically cut short but who achieved a great deal in that time and has left a lasting legacy down into our own. If Apess’ era had had the technology to record and broadcast his speeches, or even to publish his writings in more mass-market ways, I have no doubt that we’d listen to and read his voice and words alongside those of King (and yesterday’s subject Frederick Douglass) and our other most potent orators. And however and wherever we encounter them, we consistently find in Apess’ works models of bitingly critical yet still patriotic visions of our shared American society, community, identity, and history.
In that prior post I focused on Apess’ 1833 essay/sermon “An Indian’s Looking-Glass for the White Man,” but I would argue that his critical patriotism is best illustrated by his January 1836 speech “Eulogy on King Philip.” Delivered at Boston’s Odeon lecture and concert hall, which had opened the year before and would go on to host speeches and readings by such luminaries as William Ellery Channing, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Edgar Allan Poe, Apess’ stunning speech uses his own life story and mixed-race heritage (as scholar Patricia Bizzell traces at length in this excellent piece) to argue for his alternative vision of American history, community, and identity. While much of the speech is as righteously angry about both past injustices and present oppressions as was “Looking-Glass,” the final lines, addressed overtly to his (likely entirely non-native) audience, reflect the optimistic core of Apess’ critical patriotism: “You and I have to rejoice that we have not to answer for our fathers’ crimes; neither shall we do right to charge them one to another. We can only regret it, and flee from it; and from henceforth, let peace and righteousness be written upon our hearts and hands forever, is the wish of a poor Indian.”
While Apess thus ranges across a number of topics and themes in the course of his speech, its central focus is indeed King Philip (Metacomet), the 17th century Wampanoag chief and distant ancestor of Apess’ mother who was and remains best known in American collective memory for the 1670s war that came to bear his name. Yet from the start of his speech, Apess presents a stunning shift in those narratives, arguing that this supposed enemy of the English should be collectively remembered instead as a revolutionary hero: “so will every patriot, especially in this enlightened age, respect the rude yet all accomplished son of the forest, that died a martyr to his cause, though unsuccessful, yet as glorious as the American Revolution.” Arguing for that vision of Philip, in the same 1830s Boston that was cementing its collective narratives of the Founding Fathers and the American Revolution, was as bold a rhetorical move as Douglass’ July 4th speech. Yet if we can see the Massachusetts Puritans and the Wampanoags as two founding American cultures (as I’ve argued multiple times in this space), there’s no reason why we can’t see Philip as a revolutionary, critical patriot, one whose tragic end shouldn’t overshadow his work toward a collective American community.
Next speech tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other speeches you’d highlight?