Lift Every Voice: African American Oratory, 1787-1900

By Philip S. Foner; Robert James Branham | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION

In his 1852 address "Orators and Oratory," William Grant Allen advised his student listeners, "Cultivate the oratorical, do it diligently and with purpose, remembering that it is by the exercise of this weapon perhaps more than any other that America is to be made a free land, not in name only, but in deed and truth."1Allen, one of the first African American members of a college faculty, believed the study of oratory to be essential to the pursuit of liberal education and social justice. To study great speeches, he reasoned, was to learn the most influential ideas of the day in their most eloquent expressions; to learn to speak well oneself was to prepare for participation in civic life and reform. These ideas were matters of faith to most nineteenth- century Americans, whose public lives consisted largely of occasions for oratory.2

Although oratory is no longer the popular entertainment it was in the nineteenth century, and training in rhetorical practice and criticism no longer occupies a central place in American education,3 oratory remains a pervasive and important practice in American political and social life. Oratory is still the basic tool of organizing, the crown of ceremonial observance, the currency of advocacy and deliberation. It is the means by which group interests are publicly identified and action is mobilized; it is the means by which individual voices are brought together and purpose forged in common bond. It is also a means by which profound differences may be understood and through which grievances and dissent may be brought face-to-face with audiences responsible for injustice.

Historically, oratory has occupied a significant place in African American life as a set of rhetorical practices and values forged not only in America but also in Africa. The earliest known writings on rhetorical theory and practical instruction are Egyptian. Formal oratory and debate have occupied central roles in many African cultures and continue to do so.4 As Ethel Albert observed in Burundi, "Speech is explicitly recognized as an important instrument of social life; eloquence is one of the central values of the cultural world-view; and the way of life affords frequent opportunity for its exercise."5 In both speaking practices and the power and respect accorded oral eloquence, African American oratory reveals its African, as well as its American, roots. "African American oratory," writes Molefi Asante, is "the totalization of the Afrocentric experience," in which "the African person finds the ability to construct a discourse capable of calling forth nommo,

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