Reporter's Notebook

by Kate Ellis and Stephen Smith

Say it Plain is the first anthology of African American political oratory designed for the ear and the eye. This fact shaped the collection in ways that might not be obvious. Say it Plain does not claim to be the definitive collection of rhetoric by African Americans. It is a sampling from the great stream of words spoken by black Americans, exhorting the nation to make good on its democratic principles. We "cast down our buckets" into that broad, deep current. Reading the texts of these speeches should be a satisfying, moving experience. But the words were meant to be heard.

As we began our search for recordings of great black political oratory, we agreed to pass over re-enactments of speeches by actors. We wanted only recordings of the actual historic figures giving their speeches. A primary influence on this project is therefore the history of technology. Audio recording of public figures dates back only to the late 19th century. Early recording equipment was too primitive to capture live events. Most phonograph records were cut in a studio or a private room. Phonograph and wire recorders became better and less expensive over time, but until the 1960s, the practice of making audio recordings was generally left up to professionals in the music and radio industries. Furthermore, African Americans were generally excluded from much of mainstream America's public discourse, whether written on paper or cut into the grooves of a phonograph record.

Another challenge was finding historic recordings of black oratory. Our search for sound took us to a wide array of archives, some rich in recordings of African Americans. These include the J. Fred MacDonald collection in Chicago, the Vincent Voice Library at Michigan State University, Pacifica Archives in Los Angeles, the Library of American Broadcasting in Maryland, the Library of Congress, the National Archives and Records Administration, and the archives of Minnesota Public Radio. Family members and descendents of important African American orators also aided our search for sound.

Sadly, many audio collections remain unpreserved or uncatalogued for lack of money or lack of institutional interest. Among these is the audio collection at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York, where we were never able to learn what the archive actually holds. In some cases, copyright holders - including well-financed networks that originally broadcast the speeches - demanded such high permission fees that important, historic speeches were placed outside the reach of this project. In other cases the copyright holders declined our request outright. We spent months negotiating with the heirs of Malcolm X to include his "the Ballot or the Bullet" speech in our collection. Optimistic about reaching an agreement, we included his speech in the manuscript of our book. Days before the book went into production, we had to pull it. Malcolm X's family simply said "no."

We've tried to present a compelling and illuminating cross-section of black political oratory from the past 100 years. Over the coming months, we will add more speakers to this site. But there remain legendary figures, significant events and important political perspectives we will have to leave out. We hope future projects - in books, broadcasting and the Internet - will coax more of this great legacy of African American oratory back into our hearing.

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