The Ideologue: "It's been said that the phrase 'up from' has been used in virtually every facet of Black American history and subculture - 'up from' slavery, 'up from' a lowly Blackness into 'New Negrohood', 'up from' the south during the Great Migration - it's an arc that's been used to signify what many might call our 'narrative of ascent'. Sometimes this gets muddled when we compel young Black Americans to translate their knowledge into the language the dominant society recognizes - and so while we run the risk of mother wit becoming a watered down version of a valuable worldview, we also stand to establish and reaffirm our presence in the larger national and global discussion - we become W.E.B. Du Bois' coworkers in the kingdom of culture.
Moving from this instruction (to translate 'Black' knowledge into 'legitimate' knowledge) to participating in a society that seems to value folksiness over reason enrages me. Could you speak to the roles that Blackness and ascent play in soapbox oratory in the 20th century, and how they relate to our current mode of social discourse?"
Professor Mary Anne Trasciatti: "Not only is there a tradition of speech that's nurtured in the African-American community, there's also recognition (among many groups of oppressed people) of the importance of eloquence. In order to enforce change, you've got to be eloquent. It's central to the tradition, but [it's also important to note that] it drew on other ones - namely the 19th century study of elocution.
African-Americans recognized that elocution gives working class people, people of color, and [white] women an opportunity to deliver crafted ideas to the larger society, and then you have the tradition of 'borrowing' elocution and debate manuals - so when you combine an inclination to formulate ideas and deliver them well with disenfranchisement - you get an appreciation of voice.
And so you've got this tradition of borrowing elocution manuals working in conjunction with a group of historically oppressed people who've been denied literacy, the ability to [originally, at least] write and read. Orality is central to my own culture as well - Italian immigrant culture was so steeped in this tradition that even the newspapers read like oratory. This is why my partner and I are doing this soapboxing project.
Now, why do [modern] Americans fall for folksy language? That is a question that has dogged people who study, practice, and teach oratory since the time of Plato - that people can be duped by someone who sounds good and is not wise. Unfortunately, I don't have an answer for this - if i did, i'd probably be somewhere else, being the supreme ruler of the universe [audience laughs].
There's a certain power inherent in sounding good, but at the same time, I don't think I would trash people who manage to do so. For example, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr sounded good and much of the 'I Have a Dream' speech is metaphor - that's all. There's not a great deal of argument there; it's not stating things we don't already know - it just sounds so beautiful and people were enraptured by it. Most of the time, we don't watch the speech in its entirety; we begin at the most famous point. And we've got to remember that this was a speech he gave more than once; he did it in Brooklyn.
And so I don't know if i'd be so quick to say that falling for someone who sounds good is inherently bad. I would assert that there is an entire tradition of disenfranchised people claiming that 'yes, we need to sound good, but we also need to engage and debate well'.
I admit that it often stems from an inclination to model the ways of being that people 'above' you implement."
The Ideologue: "Thank you, professor. Could you say a bit about the space that women's bodies occupied on the soapbox circuit?"
MAT: "They would display either their sartorial side [thereby signalling class status] or would be ignored - certainly by the press. So they pretty much worked it so that the women who participated were most likely the women to get attention - beautiful women and middle class women. And they were very strategic about which they selected sites to set up - and part of the advantage was that you got an immediate audience [because of shock value].
People in Boston would hang out of the windows gawking at these 'female interlopers', women who 'clearly didn't belong there' - women who were 'attractive', not worn or tired from doing any sort of labor.
So sites were strategically chosen and [I'm sure that] precautions were taken against violence. Yes, they were sometimes taunted by the public, but that's not to say that women who spoke always experienced violence. I found out that in Missouri [in 1909], the crowd did rush the soapbox when a woman began to speak - and immediately the negative press coverage began - she was a damsel in distress.
And yes, they often worked that 'in need of protection' thing. If you were threatened at all, guys would come to your aid - and this was in labor movements, not suffrage movements - but yes, guys in the crowd would rise up to defend you. Granted, the women who benefitted form this protection were considered the embodient of 'model femininity'. and therefore worthy of protection.
Mary Anne Trasciatti is a professor of Speech Communication, Rhetoric and Performance Studies at Hofstra University. This interview took place during her presentation entitled 'Athens or Anarchy? Soapbox Oratory and the Early 20th Century American City' at the Massachusetts Historical Society