“Let ’em Know!”

African American Rhetoric and the Art of Persuasion.

“You can never really get your point across to a person until you learn how to communicate with him. If he speaks French, you can’t speak German. You have to know what language he speaks and then speak to him in that language.” — Malcolm X, Malcolm X Speaks, 106–107

Every great communicator instinctively recognizes that it is not enough to have something to say. Rather, one must express thoughts in such a way that an audience can not only understand the content, but also connect with both the speaker and the premise. Skilled communicators know how to use language to influence, persuade, and engage audiences so that listeners are drawn into the message. According to Aristotle, the art of persuasion can be characterized by three key elements: ethos, pathos, and logos.

  • Ethos is a signal of credibility — letting the audience know why they should believe what you are saying. For me personally, my passion for politics and my desire to better understand my heritage as an African American led me to receive degrees in both Political Science and African American Studies from Stanford. In the process, I took classes that allowed me to study the mechanisms African Americans have used to communicate both colloquially and politically to achieve their aims. As a marketer, I’ve been able to take these learnings and further distill them into insights for effective communication.
  • Pathos is an appeal to the audience’s emotions that encourages them to identify with the speaker. In essence, “Why should your topic matter to your audience?” Throughout our collective history, African American orators have had to master the art of making “Black” issues relevant to the broader public while maintaining authenticity within their own community.
  • Logos refers to the logic of the claim. Do you have facts to corroborate your premise? Is your thinking clear and your reasoning sound? In other words, does your argument make sense? Skillful orators build upon common experiences and accepted premises to establish a shared foundation for their position.

Great speakers and communicators are found across the full spectrum of humanity — skilled oratory is not linked to a singular gender, race, color, or creed. The tenets of good communication are not confined by such distinctions; rather they transcend time, space, and political circumstances. Furthermore, just as languages and dialects differ from place to place, culture has a similar impact on modes of expression. In the United States, scholars such as Geneva Smitherman and Henry Louis Gates Jr. (whose works have served as sources for this article) have studied and identified the distinctive rhetorical markers that are characteristic of the socio-political experiences of Black Americans.

If you’ve ever seen Whoopi Goldberg’s early 90’s hit movie The Sister Act, you can witness the juxtaposition of the subdued traditional Catholic choir music with the more rhythmic and upbeat styling frequently heard in gospel music and black churches around the country. On any given Sunday, you can step into an African Methodist Episcopal Church and find a sermon that sounds markedly different from one at the Methodist church across town. It should come as no surprise that the most fervent examples of black modes of discourse are commonly exhibited from the pulpit. Similarly, distinctions can be heard in the speeches of prominent African American leaders and personalities.

So what are the distinctive tools that African American orators employ to make their speeches persuasive and engaging? According to Dr. Geneva Smitherman, four rhetorical strategies have emerged from the African American oratory tradition that generate particularly persuasive, engaging, and memorable experiences for audiences. Through these “black modes of discourse,” African American speakers enhance the classic tenets of persuasive language outlined by Aristotle.

Call and Response

The first black mode of discourse is “call and response.” In her book Talkin and Testifyin: The Language of Black America, Smitherman describes this as “spontaneous verbal and nonverbal interaction between speaker and listener in which all of the speaker’s statements (or “calls”) are punctuated by expressions (“responses”) from the listener. Call and response is frequently accompanied by repetition, and often the response is drawn from the speaker’s appeal to the audience’s emotion, or pathos. President Obama’s campaign speeches, as well as his farewell address, employed this feature. The “Yes We Can” chant of 2008 became “Yes We Did” as his time in office drew to a close.

More than four decades earlier, on March 25, 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood in front of a 25,000-person crowd after marching from Selma to Montgomery in support of voting rights for African Americans. His speech, Our God is Marching On!, was delivered after a previous march attempt — one that was met with such excessive violence that the day was dubbed ‘Bloody Sunday.’ King’s message was one of persistence and perseverance despite the adversity they had faced. The importance of continuing the fight for voting rights was cemented by the call and response section at the end of the speech, which eventually gave the speech its informal title: “How Long, Not Long!”

How long? Not long, because no lie can live forever.
How long? Not long, you shall reap what you sow.
How long? Not long … How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.
How long? Not long, because mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the lord.

This speech highlights a few different ways in which we see call and response occur. The first is directly calling out to the audience, through repeating “how long?” and then providing the simple answer “not long” followed by a more complex response to the question. King sets this up further by asking “how long” a few times before giving the audience the answer. He invites the audience to not only answer the question themselves, but also ask the question as well. The second manifestation of call and response is the ad libs added by those listening — most frequently heard in the video is a simple “yes sir” — signaling agreement with and acknowledgement of King’s message.


The second black mode of discourse is called signification, or “signifyin’.” Henry Louis Gates Jr. in his book The Signifyin Monkey: A Theory of African American Literary Criticism, defines this as stylized wordplay and “making a point through indirection and wit.” Highlighting truths through irony and humor, a speaker is able to relate to the audience in a way they will understand (logos) and also solidifies why a given premise matters to the listener.

In 1852, Frederick Douglass, an author, orator, and abolitionist who was born into slavery, was asked to speak on the 76th anniversary of our nation’s birth. Douglass’ speech, entitled “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” is a great example of signification. His title alone, and the question it posed, was an indictment of the irony of asking a former slave — at a time when racial slavery was still legal and commonly practiced — to speak in celebration of the founding of a nation that did not recognize his own manhood. Later in his speech, Douglass lists a multitude of activities that persons of all colors are able to do and do do, thus indirectly uncovering the logical fallacy that slaves and former slaves are still asked to prove their humanity.

“I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity, and independence bequeathed by your fathers is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought light and healing to you has brought stripes and death to me.
This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me by asking me to speak today? If so, there is a parallel to your conduct. And let me warn that it is dangerous to copy the example of nation whose crimes, towering up to heaven, were thrown down by the breath of the Almighty, burying that nation in irrevocable ruin! I can today take up the plaintive lament of a peeled and woe-smitten people.”

While most of Douglass’s language is extremely direct, more signification is employed when you consider his audience is exclusively abolitionists — no fervent supporter of slavery would have been in attendance at an event that asked a former slave to speak. Yet, he does not separate his audience from those who actively participate in the institution of slavery. His speech is directed not at “they” or “them” but at “you” and “yours.”

He refers to the audience as citizens — an indirect reference to the difference between himself and them, solely due to his race. As he later indicts the church and the people he is called to celebrate (the founding fathers), he is also calling out those listening for their own hypocrisy. While they may have acknowledged that slavery must go, they have not rebuked the various institutions that have kept it alive. They may seemingly disagree with the practice, but in fact are celebrating a nation and extolling a government that has continued to allow slavery to exist.

Tonal Semantics

The third mode of discourse, tonal semantics, refers to “the use of voice rhythm and inflection to convey meaning” by using one’s voice “like a musical instrument.” Particular points are emphasized via how it is expressed as much as by the message itself. Smitherman notes that these “songified patterns” appeal directly to the audience through highlighting a “shared human experience which words alone cannot convey.” The impact of these tonal variations are essentially impossible to capture in print.

The following clip of Rev. Al Sharpton’s address at the funeral of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old African American male who was fatally shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, is a great example of tonal semantics. Rev. Sharpton uses his voice much like a conductor leads his symphony, incorporating improvisations, riffs, and variances between the notes. So much so, in fact, that actual music begins to play as he speaks.

Comparably, while delivering his eulogy in honor of the victims of the South Carolina church shooting in 2015, President Barack Obama employed similar pauses and variations in his voice and tone. He too, feeling the natural connection of his speech patterns to music, breaks into song, switching spontaneously and seamlessly from speech into vocalization of the hymn Amazing Grace. The mourners soon rose and joined in with the President.

Narrative Sequencing

The final mode, narrative sequencing, grew out of the strong storytelling tradition of the Black community. The narrative has emerged into a common form of discourse among everyday African Americans who are known to render “their general, abstract observations about life, love (and) people in the form of a concrete narrative.” Such stories, both real and imagined, are used to illustrate, emphasize, validate, and persuade. As a result, narrative sequencing frequently displays ethos, pathos, and logos.

Consider Michelle Obama’s address at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, where she spoke about raising her two black daughters in the spotlight. She recalls their first day at their new school in Washington, D.C. “I will never forget that winter morning as I watched our girls, just seven and ten years old, pile into those black SUV’s with all those big men with guns. And I saw their little faces pressed up against the window, and the only thing I could think was, ‘What have we done?’”

Here, the First Lady did two things. She conjured a jarring image through the juxtaposition of her daughters and armed agents to evoke emotion from the audience. It also serves as a reminder that she is credible and speaking from experience as a mother. Later, she connects her family’s story to…

“the story of generations of people who felt the lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation, but who kept on striving and hoping and doing what needed to be done so that today I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves. And I watched my daughters, two beautiful, intelligent, black young women, playing with their dogs on the White House lawn.”

This powerful image reinforces the premise of her speech, the importance of “who will have the power to shape our children for the next four or eight years of their lives.” It is with that statement that she declares her endorsement of Hillary Clinton as “only one person [in this election] who [she] trust[s] with that responsibility.”


On August 28th, 1963, hundreds of thousands of people gathered on the National Mall in Washington in front of the Lincoln Memorial. There, they heard Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. tell the world about his dream. Today, King’s speech is lauded as one of the best and most powerful speeches ever to be delivered. It is no coincidence that his speech also embodies each “black mode of discourse” that I have outlined in this article.

As you listen to the closing segment of Dr. King’s address, note the deliberate and liberal use of repetition — the hallmark of a call and response. “I have a dream,” “let freedom ring,” and “free at last” are all met with applause and cries of “yes!” from the thousands gathered on the National Mall. These clamoring phrases are also indicative of tonal semantics as Dr. King’s voice rises as he cites various mountain ranges from every region across our nation.

He also uses tonal semantics as he places vocal emphasis on “ALL” as he quotes the phrase “all men are created equal” from the Declaration of Independence and as he dreams of change “down in Alabama” by drawing out the enunciation of both “down” and “Alabama.” Furthermore, just as Frederick Douglass had used the juxtaposition of American ideals against the harsh reality of the African American experience, Dr. King highlights elements of his dream to “signify” that same disparity. The segments of Dr. King’s speech tell the story in a narrative sequence that he could only hope for in 1963. It is a dream and a hope that still lives on.

While many are often thought to be mimicking Dr. King’s speaking style, in reality, he masterfully drew from the deep well of the oral tradition that had been established long before he was born. He employed these modes of discourse with such eloquence that his speeches are often the most prominent examples of the African American oratory tradition and communication style.

These same modes of discourse are not solely reserved for speeches, sermons, or other galvanizing events. They appear in everyday conversation within the black community, and are prevalent in American pop culture. Chris Rock’s 2004 cinematic comedy, Head of State, depicts the campaign of a Black alderman, Mays Gilliam, for President of the United States. His character runs on a platform of being “of the people.” His signature speech “That Ain’t Right!” clearly employs all of these modes of discourse and allows him to display authenticity to his audience, appeal to their emotions, and provide a logical context for his arguments thus allowing him to boost himself as a contender for the highest office in the land.

His speech, like Dr. King’s, becomes more than just the words spoken. It becomes a performance that is engaging, persuasive, and memorable for all those who witness it.


Smitherman, Geneva. Talkin And Testifyin: The Language Of Black America. Boston : Houghton Mifflin, 1977. Print.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism. Oxford University Press, 1988.