"Why Am I Called upon to Speak Here To-Day?" the Jeremiad in the Speeches and Writings of Frederick Douglass and Malcolm X

Article excerpt

In this article I take a closer look at the rhetorical strategies and logic Douglass and Malcolm X use in selected speeches and writings as each developed his religious, political, and ideological bases. I argue that both Douglass and Malcolm X use the jeremiad in its uniquely American form primarily to embody a frequently apocalyptic vision of the American landscape even as it allows for the redemptive possibility of achieving social equality between white and black Americans. This latter allowance forces us to revisit the way we read both speakers, especially Malcolm X.

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As two of the most important and highly sought public figures of their respective eras, abolitionist Frederick Douglass and human rights advocate Malcolm X staked out and maintained their respective reputations via public and private speaking engagements that allowed them to display their skills as master orators. Both speakers' fame and desirability as speakers depended upon their abilities to address their audiences using a combination of the techniques of traditional rhetoric and the sermonic styles of American politics, mainstream American Protestantism, and African American churches. Simultaneously, their efficacy as speakers and activists depended upon public images that were elaborate (re)constructions of their true identities--(re)constructions that depended upon highly charged and masterful rhetorical turns. Whereas Douglass addressed the evils of slavery and those who passively or actively allowed the institution to flourish, Malcolm X decried the segregation and brutal violence of American racism and what he perceived as the intellectual dishonesty of his white and black contemporaries. Both speakers argue in their early speeches and writings that America's inability to exorcise the evils of their respective eras would end in its destruction, whether through social unrest or divine intervention. Both thus transformed the rhetorical tradition of the American jeremiad to address crises that threatened to destroy the nation, thereby offering hope even as they lamented the nation's failed promise and predicted its destruction. Their characterizations of the nation are, as a consequence, deeply connected to their personal and political backgrounds; the jeremiad depends heavily upon the speaker positing himself as a prophet.

In this article I take a closer look at the rhetorical strategies and logic each author uses in selected speeches and writings as he developed his religious, political, and ideological bases. I argue that both Douglass and Malcolm X use the jeremiad in its uniquely American form primarily to embody a frequently apocalyptic vision of the American landscape even as it allows for the redemptive possibility of achieving social equality between white and black Americans. This latter allowance forces us to revisit the way we read both speakers, especially Malcolm X. Douglass' championing of social equality serves as a counterpoint to his predictions that America would meet its destruction because of its failure to uphold the promises of the Constitution and of democracy. His 5 July 1852 address in Rochester, New York--better known as "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?"--traces the historical processes that led to the foundation of the United States and the writing of the Constitution, then condemns the nation for slavery, concluding with William Lloyd Garrison's poem, "The Triumph of Freedom," which declares that freedom, civil rights, and fraternity shall prevail (Douglass, Papers 2:387-88). Relatively few of Douglass' addresses and writings, in fact, end pessimistically, while his final autobiography, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, actually ends on a cheery note, claiming an incomplete but inevitable "victory" for himself and his people (487). By the same token, we would be well served by avoiding simplistic readings of Malcolm X as the eternal pessimist of the Civil Rights Movement era. …