Friday, February 11, 2011

Famous Speech Friday: Maya Angelou's eulogy for Coretta Scott King

A eulogy can be the most difficult of speeches: The speaker is mourning, and already emotional, and the charge to honor a loved one who has died may seem daunting. It would be easy to fall into vague, general platitudes and too many adjectives (of the "all her life, she was the best, most honest person who every lived and helped everyone all over the world" variety). But those types of words don't move mourners, nor do they bring the departed person into focus.

You have a great example for any eulogy you might give in Maya Angelou's 2006 eulogy for Coretta Scott King.  "But she's a writer--of course she's eloquent," you might say. And while that's true, not all great writers are great speakers. This is a cogent eulogy, one that's short, knowing, humorous, stirring. Here's what I like and notice in this famous speech:
  • It helps us picture the departed person:  Early in the eulogy, Angelou begins a description of Mrs. King using simple words, but adds this deft analogy that lets the audience picture her in their minds for the rest of the talk: "In times of interior violent storms she sat, her hands resting in her lap calmly, like good children sleeping."  That image, so familiar to those who knew her and those who only knew of her, gives the audience something on which to focus during the descriptions that follow.
  • It uses words to bring the audience together: This was not a small funeral, and included a wide range of people--all races and political views and faiths. Angelou uses several devices to unite this disparate audience. She begins and ends by singing the words of a hymn that says "I'll see what the end is gonna be," a reminder of our common mortality.  She spends a paragraph acknowledging the different groups of people Mrs. King championed, a subtle way of recognizing people in the audience who belong to those groups.
  • Once united, she gives the audience a call to action:  In fitting tribute to Mrs. King, Angelou tells the assembly, "those of us who gather here, principalities, presidents, senators, those of us who run great companies, who know something about being parents, who know something about being preachers and teachers -- those of us, we owe something from this minute on; so that this gathering is not just another footnote on the pages of history. We owe something." Then she leads them through a list of five simple wishes for justice and fairness, using the rhetorical device anaphora--a repetitive phrase at the beginning or end of a series of sentences. In this case, it's "I mean to say I want to see" with the wish following.
  • It's blessedly short, but packs a punch in every paragraph:  This is a eulogy with 17 paragraphs, 8 of them a scant sentence long. The entire speech, including the singing, runs just over 7 and half minutes. It's full of active verbs and concrete nouns, and no wasted words. Would that we all could do so much with so little.
  • It makes a saint into a human: It would be easy to consider Mrs. King a martyr of sorts, but Angelou brings her back to earth with personal stories only she would know--a card that every eulogist should play, if she can, because it offers novel content that will grip the audience's attention. Like this story: "On those late nights when Coretta and I would talk, I would make her laugh. And she said that Martin King used to tell her, 'You don't laugh enough.' And there's a recent book out about sisters in which she spoke about her blood sister. But at the end of her essay, she said, I did have -- 'I do have a chosen sister, Maya Angelou, who makes me laugh even when I don't want to.' And it's true. I told her some jokes only for no-mixed company." That in turn made the audience laugh, providing a needed moment of emotional relief during a solemn and sad occasion--something eulogists should plan on doing when possible.

Here's the video of the eulogy, a must-watch-and-listen so you can hear Angelou sing, listen to the cadences of her speaking, and understand how all those one-sentence paragraphs help her to pause for effect--a good demonstration that you can write a speech to aid the speaking of it. You can read along with the full text at the link above.

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