African-American Oratory

Oratory has played an important role in the emergence of African Americans as a major demographic group in the United States since the 18th century. Oratory has been particularly instrumental in raising the African American self-consciousness and giving voice to aspirations for greater freedoms, as well as political and socioeconomic rights.

Oratory among African American communities emerged in the 18th century. The primary focus of black orators at that time (and in the following century) was raising awareness of the plight of black slavery, urging blacks to counter racial discrimination and engage in social activism and political organization. Oratory was one of the few resources available to African Americans as a way of countering their plight. A large number of the orators were slave preachers who spoke in black churches. Free blacks were excluded from the professions that facilitated public oratory, such as the law, politics, and much of the church ministry, but gatherings of free black mutual benefit and fraternal organizations were often marked with oratory. Both the free and slave orators were not necessarily well educated or trained in the art of speaking. However, they were often charismatic, utilizing histrionics, prayers and religious rhetoric to engage with the emotions of the listeners, using parallelisms that could be easily understood by the common man, as well as ethos and pathos. Preachers in particular often developed contemporary interpretations of biblical narratives; for example, comparing the exodus of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt to the need for blacks to be redeemed from slavery in the South. One of the characteristics of African American oratory was the integration of language and common expressions used by the average black person. The speeches may not have been masterpieces of language, but they appealed to their audiences who could easily understand them and the messages that they sought to convey.

As the audiences were almost exclusively black, most whites would not have heard -- or even heard about -- speeches delivered by blacks. Most of the speeches were delivered without any notes and those speeches that were published were often not attributed in case they offended whites who might attack the orators. Some of the best known black preachers prior to the American Revolution were the itinerant Methodist preacher Harry Hosier, George Liele, and Andrew Bryan.

By the 19th century, black oratory was contributing to the growing anti-slavery activism, with black speakers participating in anti-slavery rallies in the North, often before predominantly white audiences. On many occasions, the speakers were freed slaves who recounted their experiences. In some instances, the black speakers were assaulted by anti-abolitionist whites. Most of the black orators at this time were men, as the notion of women (whether black or white) speaking in public, particularly to mixed-gender audiences, was considered promiscuous and scandalous. During this period, well-known black orators included Charles Lenox Remond, , newspaper editor Samuel Ringgold Ward, novelist and playwright William Wells Brown, attorney and educator John Mercer Langsdon, Nathaniel Paul, pastors Alexander Crummell and James Pennington, and Henry Highland Garnet. They also included two women, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and Sojourner Truth (Isabella Baumfree). Most famous among them is Frederick Douglass, who was born a slave in 1818, later escaping and becoming an anti-slavery lecturer, author, and speaker.

During the Civil War, African American orators helped contribute to the realization in the North that slavery was a root of the conflict and that abolition of slavery was essential to securing peace between North and South.

In the years following the Civil War, blacks began entering public office and their oratory contributed to the development of public policy. In addition, black orators gained increased access to audiences in the South among freed slaves.

The black voice continued to be heard in the decades that followed, culminating in the great oratory delivered during the civil rights movement of the 20th century. Famed civil rights orators included Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Eldridge Cleaver, and Stokely Carmichael. King, for example, electrified the movement, and his "I have a dream" speech delivered during the 1963 March on Washington has entered the history books as one of the most powerful and inspiring addresses of all time.

After the civil rights movement's successes in the 1960s, black oratory continued to raise the consciousness of African Americans and the public at large toward the position of blacks in American society. Well-known orators in the latter half of the 20th century included political figure Jesse Jackson and controversial Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.

In the 21st century, one of the most famous black orators has been Barack Obama, the 44th president of the United States.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

African-American Orators: A Bio-Critical Sourcebook
Richard W. Leeman.
Greenwood Press, 1996
Witness for Freedom: African American Voices on Race, Slavery, and Emancipation
C. Peter Ripley; Roy E. Finkenbine; Michael F. Hembree; Donald Yacovone.
University of North Carolina Press, 1993
Lift Every Voice: African American Oratory, 1787-1900
Philip S. Foner; Robert James Branham.
University of Alabama Press, 1998
Oratory and Rhetoric in the Nineteenth-Century South: A Rhetoric of Defense
W. Stuart Towns.
Praeger, 1998
With Pen and Voice: A Critical Anthology of Nineteenth-Century African-American Women
Shirley Logan Wilson.
Southern Illinois University Press, 1995
Rhetoric of Black Revolution
Arthur L. Smith.
Allyn and Bacon, 1969
The Preacher King: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Word That Moved America
Richard Lischer.
Oxford University Press, 1997
Sojourner Truth as Orator: Wit, Story, and Song
Suzanne Pullon Fitch; Roseann M. Mandziuk.
Greenwood Press, 1997
Frederick Douglass: Freedom's Voice, 1818-1845
Gregory P. Lampe.
Michigan State University Press, 1998
Amid the Fall, Dreaming of Eden: Du Bois, King, Malcolm X, and Emancipatory Composition
Bradford T. Stull.
Southern Illinois University Press, 1999
Black Identity: Rhetoric, Ideology, and Nineteenth-Century Black Nationalism
Dexter B. Gordon.
Southern Illinois University Press, 2003
On the Rhetoric of Afrocentricity
Strother-Jordan, Karen.
The Western Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 26, No. 4, Winter 2002
PEER-REVIEWED PERIODICAL
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Performing "Truth": Black Speech Acts
Brown, Antonio.
African American Review, Vol. 36, No. 2, Summer 2002
PEER-REVIEWED PERIODICAL
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
American Orators of the Twentieth Century: Critical Studies and Sources
Bernard K. Duffy; Halford R. Ryan.
Greenwood Press, 1987
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