Friday, February 4, 2011

Famous Speech Friday: Barbara Jordan's Democratic convention keynote

For many, Barbara Jordan was the definition of an eloquent woman. Her rhetoric was decidedly old-school, shaped by her legal and legislative work, and the fact that she was a groundbreaker as both a woman and an African-American. It takes a lot of energy, dedication and bullet-proofing yourself to be:
  • the first African-American since Reconstruction to be elected to the Texas Senate,
  • the first female African-American from the South to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, and
  • the first woman--and African-American--to deliver a keynote address to the Democratic national convention.
We focus on that 1976 keynote this Friday. Delivered in the year of the U.S. bicentennial, it would have been special for anyone. But just by opening her mouth and uttering the first words, Jordan made it historic. She did not let the moment speak for itself:
But there is something different about tonight. There is something special about tonight. What is different? What is special?

I, Barbara Jordan, am a keynote speaker.
When -- A lot of years passed since 1832, and during that time it would have been most unusual for any national political party to ask a Barbara Jordan to deliver a keynote address. But tonight, here I am. And I feel -- I feel that notwithstanding the past that my presence here is one additional bit of evidence that the American Dream need not forever be deferred.
It's an opening that exemplifies Barbara Jordan's brand of eloquence, with simple language, sweeping cadences, pauses for effect, and strong declarative sentences. The impact is both soaring and humble. Here's what to look for in this stirring speech:
  • The vertical pronoun: Jordan was a master of using "I" statements, underscoring that she had a platform from which to speak that had been denied to women and blacks for centuries--and she was not one to let others speak for her. (Put another way, no one can really tell you what you're thinking and feeling, so you should speak for yourself.) It is at once confident and authoritative.
  • Classic rhetorical devices:  She trained herself early in old-school oratory, so it's no surprise that her speech follows classic forms.  One example:  She uses anaphora, a pattern of repetition, as a unifying device to help bring the convention crowd together (the traditional role of the keynoter in that setting). She says, "We are a people in a quandary about the present. We are a people in search of our future. We are a people in search of a national community. We are a people trying not only to solve the problems of the present, unemployment, inflation, but we are attempting on a larger scale to fulfill the promise of America." You can find 40 examples of such figures of speech at American Rhetoric--how many can you identify in Jordan's keynote?
  • Strong declarations:  Look for Jordan's use of sentences that start with "Let," which are peppered throughout the speech. "Let each person do his or her part." "Let there be no illusions..." It's a strong declarative form for those sentences, one that puts them in high relief and serves as an equally strong call to action.
  • Vocalizing that matches the language--and the setting:  Sure, conventions require strong speakers. But listen to the care Jordan takes in emphasizing particular words. There's music in it, a real vocal range. Don't think for a moment this was spontaneous. Her voice is as important a tool here as anything else.
If you follow the first link above, you can see the full text of the speech and audio as well. Here's a partial video for you to get a glimpse of what they called her "eloquent thunder:"

(Photo credit: Larry Murphy, University of Texas at Austin News and Information Service.)

Related posts:  Barbara Jordan: "I never had to apologize", including links to a book collecting her speeches, and much more about her career and growing up.

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