Fannie Lou Hamer's Audiences and AAVE
After her 1964 DNC testimony was televised, Fannie Lou Hamer finally had access to speak at mass meetings (Brooks and Houck 46) which organized potential black voters and activists. In September 1964, Hamer gave her “We’re On Our Way” speech to a mass meeting in Indianola, Mississippi. While unsuccessful, the MFDP’s challenge gave Hamer “a compelling national reputation as a simple and sincere poor black sharecropper who spoke truth to power” (Brooks 86). According to Brooks, though, this common characterization of Hamer as speaking from her pain and suffering as she did in her DNC testimony disguises the fact that she adjusted her speeches for her audiences (Brooks and Houck 75), which she did for her January 1971 speech to a predominantly white audience in Madison, Wisconsin (Brooks and Houck 121), where she left out many religious elements that were a signature part of her speeches (Brooks and Houck 75).
Hamer’s “Until I am Free, You Are Not Free Either” was a successful speech given in her most frequently visited destination of Madison, Wisconsin (Brooks and Houck 121). The audio of the speech indicates that the mostly white audience (Brooks and Houck 121) enjoyed Hamer’s humor and applauded her truth telling. Hamer thanks the people of Madison for supporting her Freedom Farm endeavor, but she also educates the audience about her background as a sharecropper and how she “rebel[led] in the only way that [she] could rebel”, by doing what her white employers forbade her from doing by doing it before them (eating) or when they were not home (bathing in their tubs) (Hamer 123, 124). Hamer also explains how half of American history is missing because it does not include the contributions of blacks (Hamer 125). She also says that as a black woman she forgives whites because the fates of white and black citizens, indeed all citizens, are “shackled” together (Hamer 125). Hamer’s audience, at the University of Wisconsin, certainly had to overlook her use of African American Vernacular English (AAVE), but based upon hearing Hamer speak and her audience’s reactions (laughter and applause throughout her speech), Hamer was effective in thanking Madisonians for their help with Freedom Farm and in tying the success of each race to the other.
Hamer’s earlier speech “We’re On Our Way”, given at a Mass Meeting in Indianola was a success before she even arrived. Charles McLaurin had been trying to organize a mass meeting there for two years (Brooks 46). With Hamer’s televised testimony, many black Mississippians wanted to hear Hamer speak (Brooks and Houck 46). Hamer recounts signature elements in this speech: her political awakening at a similar mass meeting, her attempts to register to vote and the backlash from whites in the Delta, the realization that whites and blacks lived very different lives, and her Winona jail beating (Hamer 47-52). Hamer also includes elements she left out of her 1971 speech in Madison, references to Christianity, the Old Testament prophets, and the need to love whites instead of hating them (Hamer 53-54). According to Brooks, Hamer uses the Jeremiad to convince blacks that the salvation of the nation depends upon their action (Brooks 109). She concludes with the idea that now is the time to take action and register to vote so that all blacks will have the right sooner rather than at a distant time in the future (Hamer 56) and so that they can “save their crumbling nation” (Brooks 109). In an audience of black Deltans, Hamer’s AAVE would not be unusual. Her audience would perfectly understand her intentions and would not necessarily realize that there was anything nonstandard with her speech as that was the standard dialect of the area. In fact, her dialect would help Hamer as it would indicate that she was of the same background as her audience members; she simply happened to have had her testimony televised, giving her visibility within the community.
Brooks, Maegan Parker. A Voice That Could Stir an Army: Fannie Lou Hamer and the Rhetoric of the Black Freedom Movement. UP of Mississippi, 2014.
Brooks, Maegan Parker, and David W. Houck, editors. The Speeches of Fannie Lou Hamer: To Tell It Like It Is. [UP of Mississippi, 2013].
Hamer, Fannie Lou. “We’re On Our Way.” The Speeches of Fannie Lou Hamer: To Tell It Like It Is, edited by Maegan Parker Brooks and Davis W. Houck, [UP of Mississippi, 2013], pp. 47 - 56. Audio at http://www.jsums.edu/hamerinstitute/resources/ flhspeeches/.