A personal bit concerning the beginnings of my interest in speech and rhetoric.
Perhaps the seed for this reading group was planted several years ago in my Baltimore home. I was sitting on the white couch in my living room, when my father turned on our record player and pushed play. Martin Luther King began to speak through our stereo. He was not saying “I have a Dream” or “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” but “If I had sneezed.” “If I had sneezed,” repeated King, “If I had sneezed . . .”
In February of 2008 a friend and I wanted to hold a student event in honor of Dr. King’s birthday. In my mind, I wondered if I could recreate the atmosphere of my living room, where it felt as though King were just a few feet away from me. We went to the library and watched films that showed King delivering speeches in a variety of settings. We saw his “How Long, Not Long” speech in which he engaged in a call-response rhythm with his audience. We saw him at the March on Washington. We saw him at the pulpit in church and we saw him walking in peaceful protest.
The evening of our event, we showed some of these clips and then ended with the “If I had sneezed” speech which I had heard as a child. In this section of the speech, which culminates in the eerily prophetic moment of “I’ve been to the Mountaintop,” King tells a story. King was in New York City, autographing his first book, when a woman came up to him and asked, “Are you Martin Luther King?” He said yes. Before he knew it, this woman had stabbed him in the chest. The next day, as King tells us, the New York Times had written “that if I had merely sneezed, I would have died.” He describes a letter that a girl wrote to him after this incident.
I read in the paper of your misfortune, and of your suffering. And I read that if you had sneezed, you would have died. And I’m simply writing you to say that I’m so happy that you didn’t sneeze.
King then continues, “And I want to say tonight — I want to say tonight that I too am happy that I didn’t sneeze.”
After a semester abroad in which I brainstormed with peers, professors and advisers, I decided to begin a reading group in the fall semester to further explore speech and rhetoric. I submitted a proposal to the Hurford Humanities Center, and the steering committee accepted my application, providing me with the funding, support and resources to make the group happen.
So perhaps the sneeze initiated an interest which developed and finally culminated into a tangible project. Beginning in November, six other students and I began to meet throughout the semester, looking at a variety of speakers and supplementing their words with a diverse set of texts. The speech group has continued into this spring semester, with six new students participating. We have looked at a wide range of speeches, and broadened our exploration of oration to films as well. From Roosevelt to Obama, from Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird” to Spencer Tracy’s portrayal of Clarence Darrow in “Inherit the Wind” the opportunities for examining speech and rhetoric, in all its forms, are truly endless.
I am extremely appreciative of the support and funding I have received from the Humanities Center. A special thanks to James Weissinger for encouraging me to go through with this project, and providing me with his creative and insightful ideas. And of course, many thanks to the reading group participants who have dedicated their time and energy to this activity.
* Excerpts come from King’s “I’ve been to the Mountaintop” speech, delivered April 3, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee.