Foner and Branham in their important anthology of African American speeches “Lift Every Voice,” wrote that oratory “remains a pervasive and important practice in American political and social life.” They argued that “oratory is still the basic tool of organizing, the crown of ceremonial observance, the currency of advocacy and deliberation.” For them, oratory helps to identify “group interests” and helps those groups “mobilize for action.” It is through oratory; they argued that “profound differences may be understood and “grievances and dissent may be brought face-to-face with audiences responsible for injustice” (1).
Since before the founding of what would become the United States of America, African American’s use of oratory and public address has been paramount to their survival in a country that has consistently deemed them second class citizens. Through powerful sermons, speeches, and spoken word performances, African Americans have not only been able to comfort and encourage their own communities but also cast a vision of what America could become.
In his book review essay, The Renaissance of American Public Address: Text and Context in Rhetorical Criticism, Stephen E. Lucas credits the “stunning rhetorical triumphs of Ronald Reagan during his first presidential administration,” as making the “study of oratory once again relevant.” He writes “not only have we seen a plethora of studies dealing with Reagan as a speaker, but we have witnessed a general revival of interest in oratory as a force in American history” (243-244).
If Reagan’s “rhetorical triumphs” could produce a renaissance such as the one Lucas describes, then I would like to suggest that a revival of sorts is happening right now in our study and appreciation of the African American public address tradition. Driven by the rhetorical brilliance of Barack Obama, not only have we seen many studies on Obama, but we are currently witnessing the revival of the African American oratorical and public address tradition.
For instance, Shawn J. Parry-Giles and Michael Hogan in their Handbook of Rhetoric and Public Address (2010) published two essays that focused on African American public address. Rhetoric Review devoted an entire issue that focused on the rhetorical legacy of Frederick Douglass. The editors of the Handbook of Research on Black Males devoted the first section titled “History” to African American public address essays edited by Bernard Duffy (2019). There have been anthologies of African American speeches such as Richard Leeman and Bernard Duffy’s The Will of the People”: A Critical Anthology of Great African American Speeches (2012), and full-length book treatments such as Andre E. Johnson’s The Forgotten Prophet: Bishop Henry McNeal Turner and the African American Prophetic Tradition (2012), Maegan Parker Brooks’ A Voice That Could Stir an Army: Fannie Lou Hamer and the Rhetoric of the Black Freedom Movement (2014), and Kimberly P. Johnson’s The Womanist Preacher: Proclaiming Womanist Rhetoric from the Pulpit (2017). Add to this the plethora of journal articles, digital humanities websites devoted to the speeches of African American figures and the attention that many in our field are now paying to the intersection of rhetoric, race, and religion, the African American oratorical and public address tradition is indeed enjoying a renaissance of sorts.
However, we contend that there is still much we can and must do within the field. From the abolitionist orators during the days of slavery to the orations delivered during (post) Reconstruction, from Black rhetors finding their voices during the days of legalized segregation to the modern-day Civil Rights movement to even today’s Black Lives Matter orations, the African American oratorical and public address tradition contains some of the most powerful and impactful speeches ever delivered. Therefore, we invite rhetoric and public address scholars to examine and study the rich and diverse legacy of this tradition. We hope this site helps.