Rhetorical Criticism of a Major Speech in New York City



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Stephanie Gomory

January 26, 2016


Rhetorical Criticism of a Major Speech in New York City

Malcolm X’s Speech at the Founding Rally of the Organization of Afro-American Unity
This paper will present a rhetorical criticism of Malcolm X’s Speech at the Founding Rally of the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU), delivered at New York City’s Audubon Ballroom on June 28, 1964. This was the first public address given on behalf of the OOAU, a movement that Malcolm X had conceived of while traveling across Africa in the months prior, during a trip that included a pilgrimage to Mecca. The OOAU speech, with its emphasis on secular Pan-Africanism, directly addresses Malcolm X’s recent break with the Nation of Islam and represents an overall dramatic shift in the leader’s rhetoric around black liberation. In the following pages, I intend to unpack the meaning and tone of Malcolm X’s speech by looking at constitutive rhetoric and framing, in order to better understand how the OOAU speech functioned as a pivotal moment in the leader’s outlook and in the movement he inspired.

Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska in 1925. After the violent murder of his father by Klan-like Black Legionnaires and his mother’s commitment to a mental hospital thereafter, Little was placed in foster care and later fell into an adolescence of crime (Foner, Garraty 1991). While serving a ten-year prison sentence for burglary and weapons possession beginning in 1946, Little was introduced to the Nation of Islam, a religious movement founded by black nationalists, led by Elijah Muhammad. It operated on an idea of black separatism, and the idea that whites were “devils” (Malcolm X Project). Little converted, abandoned his last name for “X” -- to symbolize a “stolen identity” and to rid himself of his “slave” name -- and after being released from prison in six years, became a minister of Nation of Islam temples in Detroit and in Harlem (Foner, Garraty 1991). Between 1955 and 1961, with Malcolm X as a charismatic proponent, the Nation of Islam garnered thousands of new converts and became a strong institution with hundreds of temples and mosques across the country. It also fell under FBI scrutiny (Malcolm X Project).

Despite his responsibility for spreading the Nation of Islam and generating thousands of new followers, Malcolm X soon became disillusioned with the group. Corruption flourished in the higher ranks of the organization, and Elijah Muhammad became involved in a number of sexual scandals. Furthermore, there was the Nation of Islam’s political conservatism and its refusal to support the civil rights protests that were swiftly spreading across the country (Malcolm X Project). Malcolm X himself was critical of the civil rights movement, accusing non-violent leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. of being tools of the white establishment, and believing blacks should advocate separatism, not integration. Still, however, the Nation of Islam’s lack of political action, among other factors, frustrated Malcolm X to the point that in March 1964, he broke with the group, embracing Sunni Islam instead.

That spring, Malcolm X set off on a trip to Mecca to make a holy pilgrimage, where he found that orthodox Muslim scholars preached equality of the races, and not separatism. From Mecca he went to Africa, and returned home with a new outlook. While he remained a militant advocate of black self-determination and black self-defense (Malcolm X Project), he all but abandoned the idea that whites were “devils,” and his politics took more of a socialistic turn (Foner, Garraty 1991). Upon returning to the United States, Malcolm X founded two new organizations: the Muslim Mosque, a spiritual group for former Nation of Islam members, and the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU). The latter was a back-to-Africa, secular organization modeled on the Organization of African Unity, a network of African solidarity established in Addis Adaba, Ethiopia in 1963, whose efforts had greatly impressed Malcolm X during his trip abroad (Malcolm X Project). It was against this background of spiritual change and personal upheaval that Malcolm X, newly named el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz, delivered his speech at the Audubon Ballroom on June 28, 1964. (At this same venue, during another rally for the OAAU months later, Malcolm X would be assassinated by a Black Muslim on February 21, 1965.) (Foner, Garraty 1991)

The crux of Malcolm X’s OAAU speech is talking through the guiding principles of the organization, whose main purpose is to “unite everyone in the Western Hemisphere of African descent into one united force.” There are five main areas Malcolm X discusses, in a numbered order: I: Establishment; II: Self Defense; III: Education; IV: Politics and Economics, and V: Social. The speech is arranged in a problem-solution format, the racist ills of society functioning as the problem, to be alleviated by a solution of black unity vis-à-vis the OAAU. Malcolm X ends his lengthy, nearly 12,000-word speech with a call for action: he implores his audience to become members of the OAAU by paying a modest membership fee, and to mobilize along with him and his newborn organization to fight white supremacy at every turn.

But to say the speech is merely a manifesto aimed at recruiting members is to undermine its many other powerful elements. Malcolm X also addresses old enemies (Nation of Islam, Martin Luther King, Jr.), exudes diplomacy, if not inclusion, towards whites, and represents a new outlook and a more nuanced path forward than had been seen in his earlier speeches and mobilizations. To the media, the most resounding phrase of Malcolm X’s OAAU speech was “by any means necessary,” referring to the anaphora he uses towards the beginning of the address: “We want freedom by any means necessary. We want justice by any means necessary. We want equality by any means necessary.” While a wonderful encapsulation of the revolutionary spirit Malcom X exudes in this speech, I would argue that to highlight the depth of what he accomplishes requires a broader look. Below, I will focus on three other key rhetorical elements: his use of constitutive rhetoric as a means of defining and redefining identities; his reframing of the concepts of non-violence, morality, and exploitation, and his extension of a verbal olive branch towards former opponents.

To a very large extent, Malcolm X’s addressing his audience is rife in constitutive rhetoric because the topic at hand is, in a literal manner, the question of defining an identity: an African identity. Malcolm X initiates the topic in introducing himself. He explains that he is no longer in the Black Muslim movement, and that it is now his intention to “work among the 22 million non-Muslim Afro-Americans” in order to form a “black nationalist party or a black nationalist army.” Indeed, Malcolm X seems to aspire to nothing short of identity building. “Our African brothers have gained their independence faster than you and I here in America have,” he says, urging his audience to model their future activism on African success. But how can these representatives of “22 million non-Muslim Afro-Americans” think of Africans as their “brothers”? Malcolm X uses a powerful synecdochal device to drive the point home: “Harlem.” Harlem has the largest number of people of African descent “that exists anywhere on this earth,” there being “more Africans in Harlem than exist in any city on the African continent.” Malcolm X continues:

Because that’s what you and I are, Africans. You catch any white man off guard in here right now, you catch him off guard and ask him what he is, he doesn't say he's an American. He either tells you he's Irish, or he's Italian, or he's German, if you catch him off guard and he doesn't know what you're up to. And even though he was born here, he'll tell you he's Italian. Well, if he's Italian, you and I are African even though we were born here.

With an analogy to white Americans’ attachment to ethnic ties, Malcolm X implores his audience to consider themselves Africans, first and foremost. It is certainly fitting that he makes this point before diving deep into the goal of the OAAU: “to unite everyone in the Western Hemisphere of African descent into one united force.” And the use of “Harlem” goes further. “We start in Harlem,” Malcolm X says, “and by Harlem we mean Bedford-Stuyvesant, any place in the area where you and I live, that’s Harlem with the intention of spreading throughout the state…” In short, Malcolm X uses “Harlem” not just as a literal neighborhood, but as a symbol of all of black New York, all of black America, and furthermore all people of African descent in all of the Americas, from South America to Canada to the Caribbean. The fact that Malcolm X is addressing an audience in Washington Heights, nearly an extension of Harlem, makes his use of “Harlem” as a radiating symbol all the more powerful. “Harlem” connects his audience to an entire world of black unification, in one evocative word.

Malcolm X also excels rhetorically in his ability to reframe complex, loaded issues that were at the forefront of racial discourse at the time. Consider his unpacking of the term “nonviolent” in the section II: Self Defense. In what cannot be other than an address to Martin Luther King, Jr. and his cadre of non-violent civil rights activists and supporters, Malcolm X explains why “nonviolent” as a way of being simply does not work, given the currently highly dangerous environment for blacks. He says: “Be nonviolent only with those who are nonviolent to you. And when you can bring me a nonviolent racist, bring me a nonviolent segregationist, then I'll get nonviolent. But don't teach me to be nonviolent until you teach some of those crackers to be nonviolent.” Malcolm X takes on “nonviolent” in a manner that is both pragmatic and logical, yet impassioned. In doing so, he successfully overthrows the term, refuting its place in situations where there is no room for it, where violent self-defense is literally required. Malcolm X puts a similar treatment on “moral.” He says: “Tactics based solely on morality can only succeed when you are dealing with people who are moral or a system that is moral. A man or system which oppresses a man because of his color is not moral.” Here, while Malcolm X names no names, we can again infer in his words a critique of Martin Luther King, Jr., who preached morality and non-violence in the struggle for civil rights. Then again, perhaps Malcolm X is simply adding to King’s own thoughts on the hypocrisy of “nonviolence.” (In “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” King writes that “segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful,” a sequence of thought that Malcolm X seems to echo here) (African Studies Center). Whichever way one looks at it, the fact is that Malcolm X devotes a good deal of time in his OAAU speech to underline the contradictions at play deep within terms such as “nonviolent” and “moral,” two buzzwords used by other civil rights activists at the time. It is conceivable that many of his audience members had been attracted by these concepts, and Malcolm X implores them to think critically and read between the lines.

Let us look, too, at how Malcolm X unpacks and reframes another big, hoary concept: rent exploitation. As is his strength, the speaker does not take on an elevated, scholarly tone in his speech. He uses familiar language instead, and a friendly cadence, to appeal to his audience’s experience with familiar problems. In IV: Politics and Economics, this gift of tone shines through especially well, allowing Malcolm X to make a big, visceral impact. He calls the economic exploitation faced by blacks “the most vicious form practiced on any people in America. In fact, it is the most vicious practiced on any people on this earth.” Malcolm X invokes metonymy here, using “Park Avenue” to epitomize race-based income inequality throughout New York City – indeed throughout the country. The technique works particularly well: Park Avenue literally traverses the bulk of Manhattan, from opulent Midtown penthouses to impoverished housing projects in Harlem. It evokes a visceral image, of downtown/uptown, wealth/poverty; and it did then, in 1964, when Malcolm X was addressing his audience. So when he proclaims: "It costs us more to live in Harlem than it costs them to live on Park Avenue. Do you know that the rent is higher on Park Avenue in Harlem than it is on Park Avenue downtown?” and that “Twice as much rent is paid for rat-infested, roach crawling, rotting tenements,” the image of actual Park Avenue speaks volumes about a city where poverty comes at a steep price. More importantly, it helps Malcolm X reframe a situation that he perceives much of his audience to have ignored or overlooked, out of forced complacency, as evidenced by saying: “You and I are in this country being exploited and sometimes we don't know it.” As with the rest of his address, including his sections on “nonviolence” and “morality” as excuses for direct action, Malcolm X aspires to “wake up” his audience to the injustice all around them.

Finally, we should consider the effect of Malcolm X’s acknowledgment and verbal support for two opposing groups of his past: the Nation of Islam, which nurtured him into activism but then disillusioned him to a breaking point, and traditional civil rights activists, whose efforts he had long rebuked as toothless. In the OAAU speech, having returned from Africa with a new perspective, with new determination to win black freedom by way of black unification, Malcolm X is not in a position to be divisive among black groups seeking change. His tone of reconciliation begins in general terms: “let's you and me not be too hard on other Afro-American leaders… They're our brothers and we're responsible for our brothers.” He soon gets more specific, telling his audience that they will offer aid to Martin Luther King and Jim Forman, should they need it. He insists that his “purpose is not to become involved in a fight with Black Muslims, who are my brothers still, and even offers a peaceful plea to the Nation of Islam’s Elijah Mohammad, calling him to “lead us against our enemies, don't lead us against each other.” Even in a speech full of powerful indictments of oppression and impassioned visions of radical progress, few elements speak louder to the spirit of black unification and togetherness than Malcolm X’s displays of support (apologies, even) to opposing, yet ultimately allied, forces in a quest for black rights.

Malcolm X’s speech at the Audubon Ballroom in June 1964 accomplishes more than conveying the founding principles of the Organization of Afro-American Unity. The speech also exudes a sense of unity through constitutive rhetoric, re-framing of crucial issues, and reconciliation with old enemies. This combination of powerful elements leaves an audience with a distinct takeaway: if people of African descent, in “Harlem” the world over, from the poorest quadrants of Park Avenue, are to exert their power and reclaim what is theirs, “by any means necessary,” then they must do it together, as a unified force. After experiencing the hopeful high of this speech, it is indeed disheartening to learn that after Malcolm X was assassinated just months after announcing the birth of the OAAU, the organization essentially fizzled out without his charismatic leadership (BlackPast).

Works Cited


Foner, Eric and John A. Garraty. The Reader’s Companion to American History: (New York:
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014). Found at HISTORY.com: Malcolm X. Url:
http://www.history.com/topics/black-history/malcolm-x. Retrieved: January 20, 2016.
King, Martin Luther. “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” African Studies Center, University of
Pennsylvania. Url:

https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html. Retrieved: January 25, 2016.

Malcolm X. By Any Means Necessary: Speeches, Interviews, and a Letter by Malcolm X: (New


York: Pathfinder Press, 1970), pp. 35-67. Found at BlackPast: An Online Reference Guide to
African American History
. Url: http://www.blackpast.org/1964-malcolm-x-s-speech-
founding-rally-organization-afro-american-unity#sthash.48xRhfed.dpuf. Retrieved January
20, 2016.
“Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU) 1965.” BlackPast: An Online Reference Guide
to African American History
. Url: http://www.blackpast.org/aah/organization-afro-american-
unity-oaau-1965. Retrieved: January 21, 2016.
“The Life of Malcolm X.” The Malcolm X Project, Columbia University. Url:
http://www.columbia.edu/cu/ccbh/mxp/life.html. Retrieved: January 20, 2016.




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