His convention speech should draw from the wisdom of black women activists who were the prophets of American democracy.
When he accepts the Democratic nomination August 28, Barack Obama will give the most important speech of his life. The bar is set especially high after a primary season of soaring rhetorical achievements. Obama must capture the historical relevance of his nomination while keeping his focus firmly on the country as a whole. He must define the nation’s problems while conveying a spirit of optimism. He must promise to bring change while offering reassuring familiarity.
As those in the Obama camp try to meet this oratorical challenge, I am sure they are culling the history of American political rhetoric, especially since his bid for the presidency inspires comparison. Proponents have likened him to the inspirational Bobby Kennedy, who was brash enough to take on his party’s elders. Some detractors have compared him to Bill Clinton, arguing that Obama is a moderate in charismatic clothing, hawking hope but wedded to the status quo. His hometown of Chicago compares him to the city’s machine-busting first black mayor, Harold Washington, and to another famous Chicagoan, the Rev. Jesse Jackson. On August 28, most will be listening for a resonance of Martin Luther King Jr. because Obama will be speaking exactly forty-five years after Dr. King declared, "I have a dream."
These are fair comparisons, but they ignore another important tradition from which the Obama candidacy emerges–that of Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, Barbara Jordan, Shirley Chisholm and the many thousands of black women activists whose names history failed to record. These women are the lost prophets of American democracy. As a country we dimly recall their accomplishments and have almost wholly forgotten their words. The epic battle between Obama and Hillary Clinton heightened conversations about race and gender, but it did little to illuminate the intersection between these identities where black women leaders have made significant contributions.
When Barack Obama takes the stage in Denver, he could draw on the political rhetoric of African-American women as the core of his historic speech. The Obama candidacy is built on the organizational foundation laid by these women at least as much as it is on the oratorical showmanship of black male preachers. Obama’s speeches may be reminiscent of Dr. King, but his organizing fellows program, use of existing social networks and concern with sustained mobilization recall Ella Baker, the inspirational activist whose work set the course for every major civil rights organization of her time. It was Baker who kept refocusing the movement on organizing rather than oratory, and her work showed that when citizens are given the skills to organize on their own behalf, rather than relying on charismatic leaders to show them the way, real change happens.
Collectively we know very little about the deeds, lives and words of Baker and other black women leaders. Many Americans assume that they spoke about parochial, narrow or self-centered topics. Quite the opposite is true; black women’s political work hits the notes of inclusion, universalism and patriotism that Obama needs to emphasize.