Friday, September 16, 2016

Famous Speech Friday: Mary Ann Shadd Cary's 1858 "Break Every Yoke"

(Editor's note: Mary Ann Shadd Cary is one of a number of nineteenth-century American black women orators like Sojourner Truth who defied societal norms against women, and black women, speaking in public. You can read more about them and the conditions in which they spoke in Doers of the Word: African-American Women Speakers and Writers in the North (1810-1880) by Carla L. Peterson.)

Mary Ann Shadd Cary--abolitionist, feminist, teacher, newspaper editor, lawyer--gave one of her most popular speeches at the Philadelphia Colored Convention in 1855. A free black from the United States who had emigrated to Canada after the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act was passed, Shadd Cary nearly didn't speak at the convention at all. There was some discussion among the delegates about whether she should be admitted as a "corresponding member" of the meeting, since she lived in Canada. And many at the convention disapproved of her support of emigration for black families in the U.S. But eventually she was allowed to speak, and her speech on emigration was so well-received that she spoke longer than she was allotted originally.

This, however, is not a post about that famous speech. The text of that 1855 address was struck from the convention record, with later historical accounts suggesting that her speech was left out because she was a woman.

It wasn't the first time that Shadd Cary had encountered this kind of sexism. In the years before she returned to the U.S. to join the abolitionist speaking circuit, she had established her own newspaper, The Provincial Freeman, as the first black woman editor of a North American newspaper. (A trailblazer in more than one way, Shadd Cary was also one of the first black women in the U.S. to earn a law degree, from Howard University.) She kept her editorship under wraps until she received a letter in 1854 praising "Mr. M.A. Shadd" for his fine newspaper and "the ingenuity of the colored man who published it." She immediately placed her full name and title prominently on the masthead.

We do have a handwritten copy of another speech by Shadd Cary, an 1858 sermon delivered in Canada that touches on many of the themes that made her a popular antislavery speaker in the critical years leading up to the U.S. Civil War. Let's take a look at what we can learn from this famous and available speech:
  • Start with a strong statement, and carry that idea throughout the speech. In the sermon, Shadd Cary begins with the "great commandments" or what she calls "the 1st business of life," to love God and your neighbor as yourself. Not that controversial or original for the start of a sermon, maybe, but it's a strong, singular point of agreement with her audience that she then builds on throughout the rest of her speech. If her listeners accept these commandments, she reminds them, they must accept them fully on behalf of all races and all sexes.
  • Read your speech aloud to yourself as you practice. Shadd Cary's speech is not an easy one to read--as text. That's in part because the language has an old-fashioned, flowery sound to it that might seem melodramatic to modern ears. But it's also because it was never meant to be read, but meant to be heard. I think you'll enjoy this speech much more when you read it aloud, and begin to feel which parts might have been emphasized and how it may have been paced. Try it with this passage:
    Slavery American slavery will not bear moral tests. It is it Exists by striking down all the moral safeguards to society by--it is not then a moral institution. You are called upon as a man to deny and disobey the most noble impulses of manhood to aid a brother in distress--to refuse to strike from the limbs of those not bound for any crime the fetters by which his Escape is obstructed. The milk of human kindness must be transformed into the bitter waters of hatred--you must return to his master he that hath Escaped, no matter how Every principle of manly independence revolts at the same.
    If you do this with your own speeches as you're preparing them (or even after you deliver them), you may recognize places where a change of pace, a dramatic pause, or a shift in tone could be a benefit.
  • Consider the history of "angry" women speakers. If you read about Shadd Cary's career (Jane Rhodes' biography is a great place to start), you'll soon learn that she didn't pay much attention to her gentlemen colleagues in the antislavery movement who advised her to sweeten her words. Even the famous Frederick Douglass noted that her writing and speaking seemed to him too confrontational, complaining and shrill--while admitting that for some reason, audiences still seemed to like hearing from her. If this sounds familiar, well, let's just say that Shadd Cary has lots of contemporary company.
(Becky Ham contributed this Famous Speech Friday post)

Join me in Edinburgh, Scotland, on October 20 for a new workshop, Add Meaning with Metaphor: Improve your Speeches with the Most Powerful Figure of Speech. It's a pre-conference workshop at the Edinburgh Speechwriters and Business Communicators Conference, designed to help both speakers and speechwriters use this powerful tool. You can register here for just the workshop, the conference, or both.