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,
PS. What do you think? Other speeches you’d highlight?