The spoken word occupies a central and indispensable position in African American history and culture. As a vessel for remembrance, the oral tradition carried African narratives to a new continent and sustained them through bondage; as a political catalyst, speech defined the struggle for freedom and moved ordinary people to extraordinary acts of courage; and as an art form, the word has conveyed itself forcefully and dramatically by drawing on the rich African American musical heritage. The Smithsonian Folkways archives contain an unparalleled range of examples of African American spoken word recordings that express the richness, complexity, and diversity of African American oral traditions.
Sharing Stories, Creating Identity
Institutions of slavery and racism attempted to silence generations of African Americans; thus oral history became a means of maintaining identity, surviving, and resisting oppression and exploitation, as well as a tool for achieving freedom. Oral histories showcase personal stories and reflections, and offer African Americans a platform from which to define experiences and viewpoints apart from racist constructions. From the inspirational thoughts of visionary scholars and revolutionaries to the narratives of artists and everyday individuals, each history has added a chapter to a living document of struggle through powerful statements of identity. Viewed collectively, oral histories and recorded interviews demonstrate the rich diversity of African American experiences.
From the Pulpit to the Streets
African American history encompasses an abundance of speakers with inspiring things to say, and exciting ways to say them. The greatest of these speakers imbue their words with meaning by exploiting the musical potency of speech. As with African American preachers, who tend to involve their congregations in sermons through the dialectic of call and response, great speakers make their individual performances into communal ones. Words become vehicles for feeling and inspire a sense of shared experience in listeners. Political speech also provides a forum for powerful ideas. Though mere words, statements like Dr. King's "I have a dream," Sojourner Truth's "Ain't I a woman?" and Booker T. Washington's "Cast down your buckets" have changed the course of history.
The Art of the Spoken Word
The artistic use of the spoken word in African American culture today draws on and reflects a rich literary and musical heritage, and the interaction among these genres, as in the past, has produced some of America's best-known art forms. Just as Langston Hughes and writers of the Harlem Renaissance were inspired by the feelings of the blues and the African American spiritual, contemporary hip-hop and slam poetry artists are inspired by poets like Hughes in their use of metaphor, alliteration, rhythm, and wordplay. Similarly, the experimental and often radical statements of the Black Arts Movement developed a synergy with cutting-edge jazz and funk music that would expand the boundaries of African American cultural expression, and thereby provide space for increasingly alternative political ideologies to be raised, discussed, and acknowledged.
The voices here testify to the power of African American oral traditions. As professor and music writer Robert Cataliotti notes in the liner notes to Smithsonian Folkways' collection Every Tone a Testimony, these oral traditions serve not merely as pieces of history; rather they have provided "a way of remembering, a way of enduring, a way of mourning, a way of celebrating, a way of protesting and subverting, and, ultimately, a way of triumphing."