Exhortation and Eulogy – African American Rhetoric Revisited

In my blog and newsletter, I have written about my preoccupations, not only about writing essentials and English fundamentals, but also about the social unrest and civil discourse around racial, economic, and sexual inequalities. Earlier posts focused on rhetoric, especially on how African American rhetoric developed not only for speaking well in public and legal forums, but also arguing for freedom and for a full legal status for blacks.

This is echoed by a podcast resource that contains audio samples of seminal speakers: “For generations, African Americans have been demanding justice and equality, reminding America to make good on its founding principles of democracy. These orators, and the very act of speaking out, played a crucial role in the long struggle for equal rights.”

Martin Luther King, Jr., is probably the best known orator of the modern era, especially as his famous speeches, like the I Have a Dream one, is played often during Black history month. As the podcast points out, King’s remarkable oratory has an irresistible “magnetic cadence,” but he “was nurtured in a centuries-old African American tradition of spoken narrative and oral persuasion.”

On the occasion of the funeral for the Congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis on 7/30/20, The New York Times published two superior contemporary examples. The first is Lewis’s own Op-Ed written close to his death in which he calls on people, especially young dissenters, to continue the fight for equal rights and “redeem the soul of our nation.” A few days later, Jamelle Bouie, writing in the same newspaper, says Lewis “offered words of encouragement and wisdom for everyone protesting discrimination and injustice.”

The second is the eulogy delivered by former President Obama at the service. Obama begins with a Bible passage from James and weaves its tropes into a tribute to “an American whose faith was tested again and again to produce a man of pure joy and unbreakable perseverance.” He brings up many of the recent injustices against blacks, especially the undermining of the original Voting Rights Acts that Lewis helped bring into fruition.

Obama then sets up a counter argument to those who would argue such matters should not be brought up in a celebration of a life by saying thatJohn Lewis devoted his time on this Earth fighting the very attacks on democracy and what’s best in America that we are seeing circulate right now.”

Lewis and Obama are two other black orators who were nourished by this rich heritage of African American rhetoric.

(Say It Plain: Great African-American Oratory; John Lewis Op Ed [7.30.20]; President Obama’s Eulogy-read the full text of the eulogy here; videos and recordings of various lengths are available.)

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *