Oprah evokes MLK on her way to the White House

By on January 11, 2018

Talk about the power of public speaking!  With one little speech Oprah is now a possible candidate for the highest office in the land.

How did she do it?

How did she do it?

Well, she first built a room and decorated it so that we could look into it.

She started with specificity.  The time: 1964.  The place: a linoleum floor in her mother’s house in Milwaukee.

The situation: watching Anne Bancroft give Sidney Poitier the Oscar at the 36th Academy Awards.

We know Oprah is telling the truth because of the specificity–1964, Bancroft, the 36th Academy Awards.

It’s cinematic. A little girl on a linoleum floor.  Sidney Poitier’s white tie and black skin. The optics are fantastic.

And then her mother coming in the door exhausted from cleaning other people’s houses.

Paint a scene

Oprah has painted a scene–cinematic, specific, concrete, and familiar. We can identify with it. Nothing is abstract.  It’s all American.

I see a black and white TV, a green linoleum floor, a little girl with her legs curled up, alone, waiting for her mother to come home.  

Oprah has transported us to a different–yet oh so familiar–time and place.

She connects herself with Poitier and all the little girls watching the awards ceremony in their living rooms, perhaps on a couch, perhaps curled up on a floor.

She thanks the people who helped her. Good manners are inherently persuasive.

She honors the press, trumping those who trade in alternative facts.

She is proud of the women who have endured abuse, who have told their personal stories–who have become the story.

Broaden the canvas

And then she begins to broaden the canvas, begins to sound like an orator:

They’re the women whose names we’ll never know. They are domestic workers and farm workers. They are working in factories, and they work in restaurants, and they’re in academia and engineering and medicine and science. They’re part of the world of tech and politics and business. They are athletes in the Olympics, and they are soldiers in the military.

No wonder people are saying she should run for president. She reminds me of Hubert Humphrey, and many other presidents, who have enjoyed painting miniature images of different kinds of everyday Americans in their speeches.  She tells the horrible story of Recy Taylor, who, lived too many years in a culture broken by brutally powerful men.

For too long, women have not been heard or believed if they dare speak the truth to the power of those men. But their time is up.

And now I can hear her closing in for the kill, for the ring shout.  Two more times she called,

Their time is up. Their time is up.

This is a powerful rhetorical device. It gives courage to the audience since it is a positive forward-looking statement, implying that the movement will not peter out.  

It is a dire warning to those who are in the dog house, and those who just don’t get it.

It allows an audience to discharge its emotions. It becomes a kind of bumper sticker, a slogan.  In fact, that night many sported lapel pins that proclaimed, “Time’s Up.”

Inspiration and storytelling

Suffice it to say, at this point in the speech, we are now in the land of lofty rhetoric– inspiration, storytelling, and preaching.  She even gets into the foul underbelly of our lives…how we behave,

…how we experience shame, how we love and how we rage, how we fail, how we retreat, persevere and how we overcome.

Listen to that last word, overcome. We are in the echo chamber of the powerful, emotionally-charged civil rights movement…feminist movement… gay rights movement.

I have to say that I don’t think I’ve ever heard a man speak about such personal, emotional, messy things in such a forum.  This is a female talking–a “mother” who nurtures not only our bodies but our well-being.  This is a strong woman with a capacity for empathy, one acquainted with the darker side of life , who speaks not only from her heart but from her guts.  

Cadences from history

And then, slowly, I begin to hear the cadences of Martin Luther King, and the imagery of a new day dawning

And when that new day finally dawns, it will be because of a lot of magnificent women, many of whom are right here in this room tonight, and some pretty phenomenal men, fighting hard to make sure that they become the leaders who take us to the time when nobody ever has to say “Me too” again.

Can you hear Dr. King at the close of his dream speech?

When we allow freedom to ring… we will speed up that day…when all God’s children…will join hands and sing, “Free at last, free at last, Great God a-mighty we are free at last.”  

Oprah’s final peroration is not up to Dr. King’s transcendent eloquence, but it is a good facsimile.

And she chose a good speaker to emulate.  To paraphrase a line from T.S. Eliot, “The minor speaker borrows but the great speaker steals.”

Oprah may not be ready for a run at the White House, but she touched a nerve with her sweeping rhetoric, and borrowed wisely from the soaring words of Martin Luther King.

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