Funerals and Politics: Black Oration in the Afro-Modern and Post-Soul Aesthetic

The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. giving his famous "I Have A Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial.

The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. giving his famous “I Have A Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial.

The African American oral tradition has long been utilized to explore identity and society. While many of these practices are meaningful, it is eulogies and political speeches that mark critical moments in life as well as in history, drawing upon ideas of racial consciousness and contemporary grievances that find commonality throughout the Afro-Modern and Post-Soul aesthetics.

One of the most important figures for African Americans in the 20th century is the above-pictured Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. This photograph was taken on August 28, 1963 in Washington, DC, during the Reverend’s famous “I Have A Dream” speech. He is pictured actively speaking, with an open mouth and pointed finger at the end of his outstretched arm. He is wearing a dark suit with a white shirt peeking out at the end of one sleeve, and he is otherwise unadorned with any other visible clothing or jewelry. A cluster of microphones is shown in the bottom right corner of the photo. They are clearly in focus against a very out-of-focus backdrop of a listening audience, whose races appear to be varied. They are gathered underneath some type of overhanging structure that details the very background of the scene.

Both protagonists of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Paul Beatty’s The White Boy Shuffle experience similar journeys of personal growth by exploring their racial identities in an urban environment. Throughout this process, they each are confronted with giving a eulogy and a speech at a political rally, of which the implications differ for the respective events, but share many commonalities in tradition and thematic content.

The protagonist of Invisible Man describes the course of events at the Brotherhood gathering he is set to make his political debut at, which includes an invocation and a speech about children before the series of political and economic talks. He notes the contrast between the precise language of the speakers, which forces him to concentrate in order to understand the matter, and the overwhelming atmosphere of the rally. Furthermore, additional “[s]ongs flared between speeches, chants exploded as spontaneously as shouts at a southern revival. And I was somehow attuned to it all, could feel it physically,” (Ellison 340) as though the protagonist’s past experiences with these oral traditions have become ingrained in his consciousness. He is markedly nervous at the outset of his performance, forgetting what he had been taught by the Brotherhood and remembering, “I had to fall back upon tradition and since it was a political meeting, I selected one of the political techniques that I’d heard so often at home: The old down-to-earth, I’m-sick-and-tired-of-the-way-they’ve-been-treating-us approach” (342).

The Invisible Man’s speech relies in part on the repetition of several key words as well as call-and-response techniques with his audience. From the start, a member of the audience uses a baseball metaphor to signal his support, calling out, “[w]e with you, Brother. You pitch ‘em, we catch ‘em!” and several variations on “that’s a strike” phrasing (Ellison 342). He continues to propel his argument based on the concepts of dispossession and uncommonality, at one point claiming, “[d]is-possession is the word! […] Why, they even tried to dispossess us of our dislike of being dispossessed!” (343). The protagonist plays further into the idea of sharing an experience with his audience, which is portrayed at its most powerful when invoking religion, an institution that also becomes uniquely characterized in the African American community. At the climax of the speech, he asks, “[m]ay I confess?’ […] ‘We share a common disinheritance, and it’s said that confession is good for the soul.‘ […] ‘I’ll confess it!‘ […] ‘Something strange and miraculous and transforming is taking place in me right now … as I stand here before you!” (345). Despite the protagonist’s ulterior motives in giving this speech, his mastery of black oratorical techniques resonates with his audience in a way that connects with both the past and present.

One of the most powerful instances of African American political oration is that of Reverend King’s aforementioned speech, which has profoundly impacted subsequent political events, art, and culture.

Therefore, it speaks volumes that Gunnar Kaufman of The White Boy Shuffle chooses to speak at the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial, which according to him “did not dedicate a small piece of the earth and time to Reverend King so much as it took partial credit for his success” (Beatty 199). Gunnar not only problematizes the civil rights movement’s meaning by openly referencing and criticizing its leaders, but places it in the stark context of life for African Americans in the 1990s.

Its resonance and continued viability as a means of racial cooperation is explored through this speech. He begins with such a contextualization, explaining that at the memorial, “[w]hen I bent down to wipe the [Taco Bell burrito] off my sneakers, I saw what the plaque said. It says, ‘If a man hasn’t discovered something he will die for, he isn’t fit to live. Marting Luther King, Jr.’” (Beatty 200). Gunnar notes the remoteness of the political issues presently facing the black diaspora, asking the audience, “How many of you motherfuckers are ready to die for black rule in South Africa?” (200). While later misconstrued as a calling for a mass suicide movement, he expresses his frustration with the inability of the civil rights movement to have made a tangible impact on his life. Despite the willingness of previous generations to do so, he continues, “[s]o I asked myself, what am I willing to die for? The day when white people treat me with respect and see my life as equally valuable to theirs? No, I ain’t willing to die for that, because if they don’t know that by now, then they ain’t never going to know it” (200). This resignation stands in marked contrast to the passionate civil rights movement of the Afro-Modern period, as a referendum on the naivete and failures of its leaders.

Both political speeches emphasize the utility of death as a marker of both opression and supposed racial uplift. Upon approaching the microphone, the protagonist of Invisible Man exclaims, “[j]ust look at it, it looks like the steel skull of a man! Do you think he died of dispossession?” (Ellison 341). Gunnar loses control of his idea when he elaborates on the value of being ready to die for a cause and tells the audience, “I ain’t ready to die for anything, so I guess I’m just not fit to live. In other words, I’m just ready to die. I’m just ready to die” (Beatty 200).

During Tod Clifton’s funeral in Invisible Man, the song “There’s Many a Thousand Gone” calls forth profound emotion and revelation for the protagonist as well as the rest of the attendants, wordlessly bonding them to one another and to the entire African American experience. In this moment, he recalls that this phenomenon “was not the words, for they were all the same old slave-borne words; it was as though he’d changed the emotion beneath the words while yet the old longing, resigned, transcendent emotion still sounded above, now deepened by that something for which the theory of Brotherhood had given me no name” (Ellison 453). In stark contrast to his earlier political career, the Invisible Man is unable to call upon ritual or stand with the comfort of a microphone to deliver Clifton’s eulogy. The protagonist emphasizes the simple act of death and the small nature of a sole life, concluding that his political aims proved useless because “[h]e had struggled for Brotherhood on a hundred street corners and he thought it would make him more human, but he died like any dog in a road” (457).

The eulogy includes a repetition of references to the attendants standing in the sun for the funeral, looking for some sense of direction or solace in the wake of tragedy. These remarks undoubtedly acknowledge their common ancestors, who suffered great racial oppression at the hands of slavery. Blood-related imagery is also found throughout the speech, serving as a common denominator for not just those in attendance, but for the novel’s audience as well.

In elaborating on the nature of Clifton’s death, the protagonist claims that “[i]t was a normal mistake of which many are guilty: He thought he was a man and that men were not meant to be pushed around. But it was hot downtown and he forgot his history, he forgot the time and the place. He lost his hold on reality” (Ellison 457). Furthermore, he then alludes to the death of the entire race, saying “[h]e’s in the box and we’re in there with him […] And don’t be fooled, for these bones shall not rise again. You and I will still be in the box” (458).

A similar eulogy is for that of the assassinated political leader Malcolm X in 1965, during which he was hailed as the “black prince of Harlem.” In delivering this final goodbye, actor Ossie Davis taps into many of the same rhetorical devices that are displayed in the Invisible Man’s as well.

The Post-Soul interpretation of untimely death, as can be expected, is decidedly less serious than its predecessors. In the wake of his gangster friend Pumpkin’s death, Gunnar struggles to feel any strong sense of remorse or grief over his passing, saying “it was hard to feel any sympathy for the pudgy redbone devil who had almost pierced my ear with an arrow in the Montgomery Ward sporting goods department” (Beatty 98). Furthermore, Beatty pokes fun at the ridiculous nature of most inner-city deaths that arise from small confrontations and in doing so, makes it clear that the issue of young black violence is far too prevalent. Like Clifton, Pumpkin is killed by way of a misunderstanding with an individual of another race. When gang leader Psycho Loco tries to rob the local convenience store that is run by the well-known Ms. Kim, Joe Shenanigans recounts that “Psycho Loco fires a warning shot to get her attention, and he hits one o’ dem huge inflatable Maelstrom 500 malt liquor bottles. The fucking ting falls on Pumpkin’s ass and suffocates him” (99).

This satirization becomes futher exaggerated when Gunnar is called upon to deliver a eulogy in poetry form at the funeral. Titled “Elegy for a Vicious Midget,” he describes how Pumpkin is being lowered into the earth/next to his grandfather/a diminutive light-skinned black man/who passed for white Munchkin/in the Wizard of Oz” (Beatty 105). Pumpkin’s comparison to his grandfather parallels the course of African American history over several generations, additionally noting the utility of passing for white during a time of racial and societal upheaval. In a particularly revealing moment that reflects the values of the Post-Soul culture, Gunnar remarks that from then on, “I earned movie money as a human Hallmark card, reading sappy epithalamiums at weddings and dour elegies at funerals” (105).

African American oratorical traditions combine unique components of history, culture, and performance to create a powerful experience for both the speaker and audience. Drawing upon these aspects of speech as well as historical precedent, Afro-Modern and Post-Soul authors portray its importance to the events of their novels in both similar and contrasting ways. Although the tradition has a clear lineage and form throughout, the Post-Soul -era eulogies and political speeches offer a distinctly satirical referendum on the practices and popular sentiments of its Afro-Modern parentage.

Works Cited

Image: http://www.shadowandact.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/mlk_jr_speech.jpg

Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York: Vintage International, 1952. Print.

Beatty, Paul. The White Boy Shuffle. New York: Picador, 1996. Print.

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