24 February 2009

The day Barack Obama discovered his powers of oratory and rhetoric

There’s a fascinating sequence in Dreams from My Father in which Barack Obama describes his involvement in a college anti-apartheid rally when he was about 20 - in the lead-up to which be became aware that people were listening to what he said and that he was becoming ‘hungry for words’:

But as the months passed and I found myself drawn into a larger role-contacting representatives of the African National Congress to speak on campus, drafting letters to the faculty, printing up flyers, arguing strategy – I noticed that people had begun to listen to my opinions. It was a discovery that made me hungry for words. Not words to hide behind but words that could carry a message, support an idea. When we started planning the rally for the trustees' meeting, and somebody suggested that I open the thing, I quickly agreed. I figured I was ready, and could reach people where it counted. I thought my voice wouldn't fail me.

The plan was that he, as one of the few black students, would start making a speech but would be dragged away by white colleagues, disguised as South African security men, in order to illustrate how ANC supporters were treated by the apartheid regime. But, as he spoke, his role in the piece became more real and less of the acted-out part it had been supposed to be :

Without waiting for a cue, I stepped up to the microphone.

“There’s a struggle going on," I said. My voice barely carried beyond the first few rows. A few people looked up, and I waited for the crowd to quiet.

"I say, there's a struggle going on!"

The Frisbee players stopped.

"It's happening an ocean away.
But it's a struggle that touches each and every one of us.
Whether we know it or not.
Whether we want it or not.

A struggle that demands we choose sides.
Not between black and white.
Not between rich and poor.

No — it’s a harder choice than that.
It's a choice between dignity and servitude.
Between fairness and injustice.
Between commitment and indifference.
A choice between right and wrong ..."

I stopped. The crowd was quiet now, watching me. Somebody started to clap. "Go on with it, Barack," somebody else shouted. "Tell it like it is." Then the others started in, clapping, cheering, and I knew that I had them, that the connection had been made. I took hold of the mike, ready to plunge on, when I felt someone's hands grabbing me from behind. It was just as we'd planned it, Andy and Jonathan looking grim-faced behind their dark glasses. They started yanking me off the stage, and I was supposed to act like I was trying to break free, except a part of me wasn't acting, I really wanted to stay up there, to hear my voice bouncing off the crowd and returning back to me in applause. I had so much left to say.

… At the party that night, Regina came up to me and offered her congratulations. I asked what for.

"For that wonderful speech you gave."

I popped open a beer. “It was short, anyway.”

Regina ignored my sarcasm. “That’s what made it so effective,” she said. “You spoke from the heart, Barack. It made people want to hear more ... ”


Although he is very self-deprecating in what follows, three things stand out as being of special interest in the light of what has happened since his speech to the Democratic Convention in 2004.

First, in what was perhaps his first ever political speech, a command of some of the most important rhetorical techniques was already there (though admittedly as recalled and rewritten by him many years later).

Second, his response to the positive audience response shows that he was not only fully aware of the good rapport he had achieved, but also thoroughly enjoyed it.

Third, Regina’s compliment about his speaking from the heart and people wanting to hear more was an an early and accurate prediction of the effect he would have on national and international audiences more than two decades later.

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