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Lift Every Voice: African American Oratory, 1787-1900. – book reviews

Edited by Philip S. Foner and Robert James Branham University of
Alabama Press, 1998 Tuscaloosa, Ala. 940 pages Paperback: $24.95 Cloth
cover: $49.95

How is a culture — or a nation, for that matter — created? It is
called into being at the aboriginal level. Sound and sign, and song,
and word are deployed. And the African American experience — as Black
cultural construction in the United States is now called — like all
other cultures, has an oral tradition at its center.

The vast majority of the Black oral tradition, however, has never
found its way into print or been passed down to succeeding generations
in written form. A verbatim transcript of Black words that inscribe a
piece of Black voice is a rare thing. Lift Every Voice: African
American Oratory, 1787-1900, edited by Philip S. Foner and Robert James
Branham and containing 151 jewels of African American oratory, is such
a collection.

Realities of power, profit, politics, production processes, and law
enforcement practices have had a tremendous constraining effect on the
words — as well as music and art — of Blacks in the U.S. getting
published, preserved, and heard. This is one aspect of the pressure
that historically has been applied against expressions of Black
cultural, political and economic nationalism, unity, and struggle.
Viewed in this context, the speeches by Blacks in the U.S. before the
twentieth century are, by virtue of their existence in the surviving
written record of earlier centuries, “great.” They are certainly great
sources that shed numerous significant insights on American history as
it affected Blacks and Whites and all people.

Assembled in this thick but pleasantly crafted volume are precious
gems of Black speech across a wide range of vocations. Of course, the
speeches of educators, ministers, lawyers, government officials, and
members of other professions — those who lived by their words and were
most likely to have the chance to have their words recorded — appear
in this anthology. Familiar historical figures such as Richard Allen,
David Walker, Maria Stewart, Henry Highland Garnet, Sojourner Truth,
Frederick Douglass, Henry McNeal Turner, Alexander Crummell, Booker T.
Washington, and W.E.B. DuBois are found here. Other significant — but
almost entirely forgotten — political activists and struggling folk
from the grass roots like Lucy Parsons and Frank Ferrell are also

The editors have broadly surveyed the pre-twentieth century Black
oratorical terrain, scrutinized what they found, and selected the best
works in terms of sheer genius, rhetorical power, historical
representativeness, or uniqueness. Before each selection they provide
brief biographical material on the orator, situate the speech
historically, and provide the reader with information on where the
speech is archived or was first published. Where available, they list
the major works in print on the speaker and/or the speech’s context for
additional information and reference. And they furnish notes at the
foot of each speech clarifying remarks or citations of persons, places,
or things that would prove antediluvian or arcane to most contemporary

These features, as well as scrupulously prepared indexes of the
speeches by subject, make Lift Every Voice a valuable book for
researchers and students of history and rhetoric. And they don’t
diminish its accessibility for the general interest reader.

The late Philip Foner originally published the first version of
this book in 1972 as The Voice of Black America and it became an
instant classic. The esteemed Benjamin Quarles praised it as a
“well-edited and richly inclusive work,” which “unveils the full sweep
of Black expression as found in platform addresses” by “men an women
who join eloquence with reason in articulating their grievances and
their aspirations and in arousing their listeners with their ringing
and prophetic challenges.” Like many “classics,” however, Foner’s Voice
went out of print, and this indispensable collection of speeches became

Lift Every Voice is a completely revised and expanded version of
the original anthology, and Robert Branham has added more than sixty
additional texts to the new collection. The diverse range of texts in
this volume will provide numerous avenues of investigation of more than
a century of Black and American culture in the making.

For example, one can study the quotations and citations of various
speakers, which range from the Bible to the great Sesostris of Egypt,
from Macbeth to the popular slogan among the freed people of a “mule
and forty acres of land.”

Moreover, given the much stronger position of Africology and
American cultural studies in the academy from twenty-five years ago,
this edition should enjoy a wide readership and remain in use well into
the next century.

DR. AMILCAR SHABAZZ is an assistant professor in the department of American studies at the University of Alabama.

COPYRIGHT 1998 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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