“It was that slave who said, you know what, despite the risk of a lash, I'm going to learn how to read. (Applause.) It's Harriet Tubman saying, despite the risk to my life, I'm going to free my people. (Applause.)" He means it, too.
A Readers' Guide To President Obama's Amazing Congressional Black Caucus Speech
September 19, 2016

On a September night when he gave a rousing valedictory speech to the famed Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) at the dinner for its annual legislative weekend, as awareness is setting in about how adroit and blessed Barack Obama has been as our national leader, with reported numbers showing a giant drop in poverty, a rise in jobs, and growth in family income despite the legislative blocks that stubbornly refused to fund stimulative policies for labor, wages and jobs, the President in his remarks took an unusual tact for him: the first black President, Barack Obama openly reclaimed his history and legacy and put it firmly in the history of race in America. He shared the historic challenges of a historically oppressed community formed in America when they were imported to be slaves—humans sold as property, controlled without rights for the benefit of the privileged. He described how this historical beginning was a force within him and within the community itself. How it gave birth to a driving passion for justice.

Because of this remarkable precedent, his speech deserves a close reading. It is an oratory triumph! It is also the historical moment many have been waiting for—the moment when the nation's first African-American President put himself, by his own words, into a history of America where race mattered and still matters. His speech cast light on the veil and shadows that fall on the African-American character. It highlighted African success, including his own.

His speech was masterful storytelling: examples, irony, metaphor, repetition/analepsis, contrasts, even ridicule and anticlimax; bathos and epistrophe were among the rhetoric devices he used to deconstruct the competing versions of history used to deny his place as he built the case for a new Americal historical centerpiece, one arranged by truth and merit, admired for its accomplishments, as unique as America's deeply rooted dream. His words were remarkably clear of gestures and insults. He cast no blame. He relied on the oral tradition, the method for teaching and transmitting ideas when the enslaved were punished for being able to read or write. The oral tradition shared and stored the community's most valuable lessons. It emphasized performance and creativity.

His amazing speech, the last of eight speeches he made at the CBC awards dinner, deserves a deeper review. Especially in the context of oral and rhetorical tradition as a masterwork. The text used below is from the White House's website.


Walter E. Washington Convention Center
Washington, D.C.
9:26 P.M. EDT

[The setting was historical. The Washington convention center is named for Washington's first Mayor Commissioner, an African-American grandson of Georgia slaves, a housing specialist appointed by President Johnson over the interests of Washinton Post publisher Katherine Graham and other powerful political figures who wanted NFL owner Edward Bennett Williams appointed. Among the insults Walter Washington endured was having a truckload of watermelons delivered to his office by the South Carolina Congress member who chaired the Committee on the District of Columbia when he submitted his first budget.

The phoenix is the mythical bird, sourced in Egyptian mythology, who rises from the ashes of its predecessor to renew its life and struggle. The 46th dinner marks the 46th years the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) has been a presence in national politics.]

THE PRESIDENT: Hello, CBC! (Applause.) Thank you, Don, for the great work you are doing and that kind introduction.
THE PRESIDENT: I love you, too. (Applause.)

"I want to thank the CBC Foundation, Chairman Butterfield, members of the Congressional Black Caucus, and the whole CBC family. It’s always good to be with the Conscience of Congress. I also want to congratulate tonight’s honorees, beginning with Charlie Rangel, a founding member of the CBC, an outstanding public servant who, as we just talked about, we’ll be riding off into the sunset together. (Applause.) Representative Marcia Fudge. (Applause.) Robert Smith. The Mother Emanuel Family. And your Trailblazer Award recipient, my friend, a champion for change -- Secretary Hillary Clinton." (Applause.)

[The President's opening is a reminder that black politics is often about moral lessons, sacrifice, and tough choices and remembering black history's martyrs tolerate no cynicism. Alive, join arms with those who “champion change.” He moves immediately to clear the field.]

“There’s an extra spring in my step tonight. I don't know about you guys, but I am so relieved that the whole birther thing is over. (Laughter.) I mean, ISIL, North Korea, poverty, climate change -- none of those things weighed on my mind -- (laughter) -- like the validity of my birth certificate. (Laughter.) And to think that with just 124 days to go, under the wire, we got that resolved. (Laughter.) I mean, that’s a boost for me in the home stretch. In other breaking news, the world is round, not flat.(Laughter.) Lord.”

“This is, of course, my last CBC dinner as President. Next time I show up, I have to buy a ticket. (Laughter.) Now, don’t get me wrong, though. We've still got so much work to do, and we are sprinting all the way through the tape. But the days are winding down. I’ve noticed that whenever Michelle or I travel around the country, folks come up and they say, oh, we’re so sad to see you go. And I really appreciate that. Michelle says, “That's right.” (Laughter.) She gave a speech yesterday -- a bunch of young people were chanting “four more years,” and she said, “Nope.” Nope. (Laughter.) No. She’s ready. (Laughter.)”

“But we do want to take this opportunity just to say thank you -- say thank you for your support over the years -- (applause) -- to say thank you for your friendship, to say thank you for your prayers. (Applause.) As I just look across this auditorium, there are so many people here who lifted us up, who steadied us when things got tough.”

[ President Obama continues his theme of the moral life within the political life: “Lord.” “your prayers,” “lifted us up,” in contrast with the secular: “I'll have to buy a ticket.” He mocks the birther claim by showing how long it persisted. He embraces contrast, with a story about Michelle, the First Lady. He has connected with the audience. He thanks them. They are alert and listening.]

“When we began this journey coming on 10 years now, we said this was not about us. It wasn’t about me. It wasn’t about Michelle. It wasn’t just to be a black President, or the President of black America. We understood the power of the symbol. We know what it means for a generation of children, of all races, to see folks like us in the White House. (Applause.) And as Michelle says, we’ve tried to be role models, not just for our own girls, but for all children, because we know they watch everything we do as adults. They look to us as an example. So we’ve taken that responsibility seriously. And I’ve been so blessed to have a wife and a partner on this journey who makes it look so easy. (Applause.) And is so strong, so honest, and so beautiful and so smart. But we're all -- we're just thankful because you guys have lifted us up every step of the way.”

[The President focuses on the strength, durability, viability of the black family by using his love of his wife and their sharing and unity of mission as an example of his leadership of the nation beyond politics and policies.racism cannot be legislated, but it can influence elections; he is messaging the social order.]

“Now, we know, however, that what matters most for our community is not just the symbol, not just having an African-American President. It’s having a President who’s going to do his or her darndest to make the right decisions, and fight the right fights. And think about the fights that we’ve waged together these past eight years.”

[Here, he answers his critics, left and right, but especially among Democrats: a President “fights the right fights.” He acknowledged not fear or personality traits but conscience choice determined his course. Below, he lists the outcome of these choices, many and varied, as the true caliber and character of service. (I highlighted passages throughout.)]

“Together, we fought our way back from the worst recession in 80 years -- (applause) -- turned an economy that was in free fall, helped our businesses create more than 15 million new jobs. We declared that health care is not a privilege for a few, but a right for everybody -- (applause) -- secured coverage for another 20 million Americans, including another three million African Americans. Our high school graduation rate is at an all-time high, including for African-American students. More African-Americans are graduating from college than ever before. (Applause.)”

“Together, we’ve begun to work on reforming our criminal justice system -- reducing the federal prison population, ending the use of solitary confinement for juveniles, banning the box for federal employers, reinvigorating the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, pushing to make sure police and communities are working together to make sure that our streets are safe and that our law is applied equally. We’re giving opportunities for kids so that they don't get in the criminal justice system in the first place. And I want to thank all of you who’ve helped us reach nearly 250 My Brother’s Keeper communities across the country. (Applause.)”

“And just this week, we learned that last year, across every race and age group in America, incomes rose and poverty fell. Folks’ typical household incomes rose by about $2,800 -- which is the fastest growth rate on record. Lifted 3.5 million people out of poverty, including one million children -- the largest one-year drop in almost 50 years. (Applause.)”

“By so many measures, our country is stronger and more prosperous than it was eight years ago. And none of it’s been quick, none of it's been easy. None of it has come without a fight. And so much of our work remains unfinished. But then we knew that we would not solve all of our challenges in one year, or one term, or even one presidency, not even in one lifetime -- because we understand better than anybody that this is the story of America, that the project of America is never finished. It is constantly a work in progress.”

[ Nothing is quick/fast/easy/not long or happens on the first day when problems are difficult; the President strikes at his opponents by silent contrast, revealing false claims, improbable promises by focusing on how important knowledge and time is to the process of change.]

“And what has always made us unique is our capacity to change -- our conviction that change doesn’t come from some ruler, but it comes from the bottom up, from us; from the actions we take, whether it's women seeking the right to vote, or a young John Lewis leading a mighty march in Selma. We do our part to slowly, steadily, make our union a little bit more perfect. We know that.”

“And that’s what we’ve done these past eight years. And now that's what we have to keep on doing."

You may have heard Hillary’s opponent in this election say that there’s never been a worse time to be a black person. I mean, he missed that whole civics lesson about slavery and Jim Crow and (applause) -- but we've got a museum for him to visit. (Applause.) So he can tune in. We will educate him.(Applause.)”

“He says we got nothing left to lose, so we might as well support somebody who has fought against civil rights, and fought against equality, and who has shown no regard for working people for most of his life. Well, we do have challenges, but we're not stupid. (Applause.) We know the progress we’ve made, despite the forces of opposition, despite the forces of discrimination, despite the politics of backlash. And we intend to keep fighting against those forces.”

[ Using the rhetorical device, anthypophora, the Presidents points out the ridiculous idea that those who opposed merit opportunities are suddenly friends who are concealing their same old habits. He refutes the opposing Party's candidate with this contrary inference: progress has been made; it is right to fight against those who invite support but never fought for justice, merit, and opportunity. Using epistophe (ending a series of phrases with the same word), he unfinchingly calls national leaders and citizens to action.]

“When governors refuse to expand Medicaid, that hits the folks most in need: “we'll fight. When folks block an increase to the minimum wage or refuse to expand paid family leave or won’t guarantee equal pay for equal work, that hurts the pocketbooks of every family, and African-American families -- we will fight. (Applause.) When we’re not investing in the schools that our kids deserve; when one group of Americans is treated differently under the law, when there are those who somehow think it's wrong to make sure that folks have access to affordable housing, or unwilling to do what it takes to make sure our veterans get the benefits that they’ve earned, or aren't helping to sign folks up for health insurance -- we will not stop our march for justice. We will not stop pushing for the security and prosperity of all people. That doesn’t stop with my presidency. We're just getting started. (Applause.)”

“And when people -- when across this country, in 2016, there are those who are still trying to deny people the right to vote, we've got to push back twice as hard. Right now, in multiple states, Republicans are actively and openly trying to prevent people from voting. Adding new barriers to registration. Cutting early voting. Closing polling places in predominantly minority communities. Refusing to send out absentee ballots. Kicking people off the rolls, often incorrectly.”

“This should be a national scandal. We were supposed to have already won that fight. (Applause.) We're the only advanced democracy in the world that is actively discouraging people from voting. It's a shame.”

“Then they try to justify it by telling folks that voter fraud is rampant. Between 2000 and 2012, there were 10 cases of voter impersonation nationwide. Ten. People don't get up and say, I'm going to impersonate somebody and go vote. (Applause.) They don't do that.”

“Meanwhile, some of the same folks who are trying to keep you from voting turn a blind eye when hundreds of thousands of people are killed by guns. (Applause.) Imposing voter ID restrictions so that a gun license can get you on the ballot, but a student ID can’t -- apparently more afraid of a ballot than a bullet -- no, our work is not done. (Applause.)”

[Here the President makes a historical reference to the most famous of Malcolm X's recorded speeches, sold on vinyl in black record shops in the sixties, “The Ballot Or The Bullet.” He extends Malcom's sage contrast with a modern update. This is inside, hip politics many (especially reporters!) will miss!]

“But if we are going to advance the cause of justice and equality and of prosperity and freedom, then we also have to acknowledge that even if we eliminated every restriction on voting, we would still have one of the lowest voting rates among free peoples. That's not good. That is on us."

"And I am reminded of all those folks who had to count bubbles in a bar of soap, beaten trying to register voters in Mississippi, risked everything so that they could pull that lever. So if I hear anybody saying their vote does not matter, that it doesn’t matter who we elect -- read up on your history.  It matters. (Applause.) We’ve got to get people to vote. (Applause.)”

[Then he does something he has not done in eight years; he moves away from issues to make a deeply personal appeal. He asks the crowds (he's aware of the television audiences) to expand democratic participation by registering and voting. His appeal echoes the cadence of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr's “Drum Major for Justice” sermon given days before his assassination in Memphis. By example, the ballot beomes more powerful than the bullet. The spirit of Dr. King, his moral legacy, rises with each vote cast. He uses synecdoche. a rhetorical technique when one thing, by its influence, stands for an issue.]

“In fact, if you want to give Michelle and me a good sendoff -- and that was a beautiful video -- but don’t just watch us walk off into the sunset, now. Get people registered to vote. (Applause.) If you care about our legacy, realize everything we stand for is at stake. All the progress we've made is at stake in this election. (Applause.) My name may not be on the ballot, but our progress is on the ballot. (Applause.) Tolerance is on the ballot. Democracy is on the ballot. (Applause.) Justice is on the ballot. Good schools are on the ballot. (Applause.) Ending mass incarceration -- that's on the ballot right now! (Applause.)”

And there is one candidate who will advance those things. And there’s another candidate whose defining principle, the central theme of his candidacy is opposition to all that we've done."

"There’s no such thing as a vote that doesn’t matter. It all matters. And after we have achieved historic turnout in 2008 and 2012, especially in the African-American community, I will consider it a personal insult, an insult to my legacy, if this community lets down its guard and fails to activate itself in this election. (Applause.) You want to give me a good sendoff? Go vote. (Applause.) And I’m going to be working as hard as I can these next seven weeks to make sure folks do. (Applause.) Hope is on the ballot. And fear is on the ballot, too. Hope is on the ballot, and fear is on the ballot, too.

[The President reinforces the importance of voting with an echo of “blacks lives matter,” tying it to the vote (“all votes matter”), and used repetition to show the importance of voting. He then amplifies his message as he switches the topic to a new ground-breaking institution whose work and existence defies the description of African-American communities held by the GOP candidate.]

“A few days ago, Michelle and my mother-in-law and the girls and I, we snuck over and got an early look at the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. (Applause.) We looked at the shackles that had been used to bring folks over. We saw the shacks that slaves had been trying to make a way out of no way. And then, with each successive level, we saw the unimaginable courage and the struggles, and the sacrifices, and the humor, and the innovation, and the hope that led to such extraordinary progress, even in our own lifetimes.”

[Ground breaking still, the President reaches for his highest mark. He puts the African-American experience's most fundamental principle, which is his and his family's guiding principle, into the history of the nation. He indirectly recalls one of its sources, Langston Hughes' poem, “Mother to Son,” its reference to persistence and to a life without “crystal stairs.” The President uses the device of epiploce. He entwines successive examples from history. “Making a way out of no way,” each one develops the feeling of the journey as he marks its steps as a witness to the lives whose acts and example he urges us to follow. His historical examples spill into our vision and breathing as he calls the names John Lewis (sitting in the audience!) and Fannie Lou Hamer (who first challenged the Democratic Party to end its racism). History has not ended; the fight is not past. No room for a private righteousness but plenty space for broad social justice that calls us, consistent not with losses but with gains for all.]

“And it made us proud. Not because we had arrived, but because what a road we had to travel. What a miracle that despite such hardship, we've been able to do so much. (Applause.) And I know everybody in this room understands that how progress is not inevitable. Its sustainment depends on us. It’s not just a matter of having a black President or First Lady. It’s a matter of engaging all of our citizens in the work of our democracy.

“It was that slave who said, you know what, despite the risk of a lash, I'm going to learn how to read. (Applause.) It's Harriet Tubman saying, despite the risk to my life, I'm going to free my people. (Applause.) It’s Fannie Lou Hamer saying, despite the ostracism, the blowback, I'm going to sit down here in this convention hall and I'm going to tell people what it's like to live the life I've lived. I'm going to testify to why change needs to come. (Applause.) It's a young John Lewis saying, I'm going to march despite those horses I see in front of me. (Applause.)”

All those ordinary people, all those folks whose names aren't in the history book, they never got a video providing a tribute to them -- that's why we're here. That's how progress is sustained. And then it's a matter of electing people to office who understand that story, who feel it in their hearts, in their guts, and understand that government can't solve all our problems but it can be a force for good. (Applause.)”

[After the litany patterned by him (we all recognize its easy familiar cadences, its praise and teaching) builds inspiration (not anger), he ties the values he expressed as embedded in the unnamed who deserved to be honored for their work by those “who understand that story, who feel it in their hearts.” This is African storytelling. It is an homage of joy to the ancestors. Always the climax of the griot, the oral history teller, is that his tales honor the ancestors; respect is a powerful political guide. Barack is the griot and President-as-citizen, the roles interchangeable, owing to his humility and conscience choices. He makes sure the crowd knows he has been authentic by metaphors, and repetition--by using a lexicon from his campaigns as a call to action]

“To experience this incredible new monument, this museum is to be reminded we’re just a small part of a long chain, generation after generation, striving against the odds. What an inspiration they are. And what an inspiration all of you are -- especially the young people who are here.”

“That’s why I am still fired up. That’s why I’m still ready to go. (Applause.) And if you are, too, if you’re ready to continue this journey that we started, then join me. Register folks to vote. Get them to the polls. Keep marching. Keep fighting. Keep organizing. If we rise to this moment, if we understand this isn't the endpoint, this is the beginning, we're just getting going, we're just getting moving -- then I have never been more optimistic that our best days are still ahead.”

“Thank you for this incredible journey, CBC. God bless you. (Applause.) God bless this country that we love. We love you.” (Applause.)

[He means it, too.]

Can you help us out?

For 18 years we have been exposing Washington lies and untangling media deceit, but now Facebook is drowning us in an ocean of right wing lies. Please give a one-time or recurring donation, or buy a year's subscription for an ad-free experience. Thank you.


We welcome relevant, respectful comments. Any comments that are sexist or in any other way deemed hateful by our staff will be deleted and constitute grounds for a ban from posting on the site. Please refer to our Terms of Service for information on our posting policy.