"What Have We to Hail?" The One Speech We Should Study
Fannie Lou Hamer’s “What Have We to Hail?” delivered in Kentucky during the Summer of 1968 would be the speech I would choose as a curriculum designer for a school. Hamer covers many injustices that blacks face(d) in the speech, from false white voter registration (Hamer 75) to the randomness of a fine assessed on a bus that took black voters to register in Indianola (76) to the many patterns of intimidation blacks in the South faced, such as having to say “Yes, sir” to white men without the same respect given back to blacks (77) to the sixteen bullets shot into the home Hamer was staying in after she was kicked of the plantation (77) to her torture in the Winona jail (77) to the “damned if we do and damned if we don’t” of Marlon Brandon’s poem that expresses the story of black Americans (81). Hamer spoke to a predominantly white audience (Brooks and Hock 74), and she repeats the audience doesn’t want to hear what she has to say but she will say it anyway (Hamer 81). She says that the audience doesn’t want to hear the truth (82), but she is telling them the truth of the situation blacks face daily (82) so that all Americans are eventually “treated as human beings” (81) and so that together they can “make democracy a reality” by starting to work together immediately (82).
Hamer’s speech gives a range of historical context with references to slavery such as when she says that “the women had to bear, not only their kids, but they had to bear the kids for the white slave owners” (Hamer 83), the political situation of the time of black Congressional delegations not being elected due to the white power structure (80), and America’s current crisis with police brutality when Hamer references her beating in 1963 at the Winona jail (77). The speech allows the instructor to investigate the history of slavery in America, the state of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, and modern instances of official abuse of power in recent police brutality cases and the Black Lives Matter Movement.
While Hamer’s speech is not standard English, African American Vernacular English is an actual dialect of English that many blacks in my area of Florida are familiar with. Whites in my area, especially poor whites, are familiar with this nonstandard dialect as well. While the speech would not be an example of standard academic writing, it would be an example of a dialect many students in central Florida would understand and relate to, giving them additional access to the text that they would not have if a text from another orator were chosen. Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X generally used Standard American English as well as complex analogies which make for complicated reading. For students to truly understand the situations Hamer describes, the lesson(s) will need to include background information on slavery, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Thirteenth Amendment, and the events Hamer references in her speech, but the speech itself grants access to both black and white students as its language is familiar to those in central Florida and Hamer acknowledges to whites that these are difficult truths to hear, thus ameliorating some of the “white fear” whites experience when reading such speeches.
Finally, Hamer, while confronting difficult truths about the situations blacks and poor whites face, is nonconfrontational herself. She uses her Christianity to unite with white listeners and says that they are “of one blood” (Hamer 82-3) and that she forgives America for what it has done to blacks (83), Because of this, the speech is accessible to white (student) audiences who may be unaware of the history of discrimination blacks have faced and allows them to avoid white guilt because Hamer has issued blanket forgiveness to all whites. Therefore, because Hamer’s “What Have We to Hail?” relates the history of black oppression, uses language that is accessible to students in my area of Florida, creates an opportunity for further discussion of discrimination both past and present, and allows whites the opportunity to move beyond guilt to action, this would be the one speech I would choose if I were allowed only one oration to teach.
Brooks, Maegan Parker, and Davis W. Houck. “Introduction to ‘What Have We to Hail?’” The Speeches of Fannie Lou Hamer: To Tell It Like It is, [UP of Mississippi, 2013], pp. 74 - 75.
Hamer, Fannie Lou. “What Have We to Hail?” 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. 75 - 83.