The Oral Tradition

African American man speaking to a crowd

Street Corner Orator, 1938 (Morgan and Marvin Smith, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, NYPL)

The oral tradition, as seen in Street Corner Orator, has deeply set roots in the African American community.

In this photo, taken in 1938, shows an African American man in a suit and hat standing presumably on a soap box. Gathered around him is a large, mostly black and predominantly male crowd. Most of the men wear hats and it appears that this photo was taken at night in the middle of a street because there is a bus traveling behind the crowd. The speaker on the soapbox appears to be passionately addressing the crowd as his mouth is open wide and he is utilizing hand gestures. In response, all eyes in the crowds are focused intently on the speaker. All of the men appear to be well dressed and their focus is reminiscent of a religious service or congregation.

In the 1930’s, it was not uncommon to find black orators in Harlem rousing a crowd for a specific cause, such as the man depicted in this photograph is doing. These orators are also acknowledged in literature, as is the case with the protagonist and Ras the Exhorter in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. While we cannot know what is being said by this man on the box, we can assume he is pushing for a political cause. At the time that this photo was taken, there was a call to improve the African American condition in the city and break apart the power that whites were privileged.

It is difficult to tell but I think that it is safe to say that there are little to no white men amongst this crowd. On one hand, this could be a factor of whites in Harlem not wanting to change or they are blind to the problems of the African American community. On the other hand, perhaps it is this crowd that does not want the assistance from whites and the man on the box is fighting towards a resistance that would promote the black community of Harlem through the means of fellow black people. One thing that is certain is that the crowd and speaker are bold to hold this gathering in the middle of the street. It poses the question as to how radical are the ideas being spread here. What this photograph fails to show, are the ones that may oppose this group and their reactions to the speaker.

The lack of women shown in this photograph can suggest several meanings. For one thing, this photograph suggests that this is a black man’s plight. If anyone was to get more power in society it would be the men as women have always been the minority, especially women of color. The fact that the speaker is a black male further depicts the lack of voice that black women had in society. Even if a woman was speaking on behalf of the same cause, I doubt she would be listened to with such intent as the crowd here is listening to this man.

Oration in the African American community was essential for the rallying of a cause, however this particular cause may not have been as common among women as much as men.

Source: Morgan and Marvin Smith, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, NYPL. retrieved from

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