Emma Gonzalez’ Speech and the Future of America

March 31, 2018

Even from my distance in suburban Sydney, Australia, thousands of kilometres away, the turmoil of American politics feels all too real in the digital age of instant news. As commentators have noted, Australia does not have a gun problem, so unlike the USA. So the Never Again MSD (standing for Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School) student-led gun control movement wouldn’t happen here.

The medium and long-term impacts of the social, cultural and political vectors of the current moment of American gun control debate are almost impossible to predict. But some things are clear already: there is a generation of previously unknown young American student leaders who are passionate and articulate, wielding an unexpected political and moral power that does not appear to be dissipating.

At the “March for Our Lives” Washington DC rally on 24 March, we witnessed one of the more powerfully affecting – and astonishingly short – political speeches of modern times. Emma Gonzalez, a senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and one of the movement’s leaders, spoke for about 7 minutes. Rebecca Mead (The New Yorker) describes the impact, and makes some astonishing historical and cultural comparisons:

But it was Emma González, a Stoneman Douglas senior, who provided the afternoon’s most memorable moment….. González, who is small and compact, and who wears her dark hair cropped close to her skull, spoke for just a couple of minutes, offering an emotional name-check of the students who had died. Then, lifting her eyes and staring into the distance before her, González stood in silence. Inhaling and exhaling deeply—the microphone caught the susurration, like waves lapping a shoreline—González’s face was stoic, tragic. Her expression shifted only minutely, but each shift—her nostrils flaring, or her eyelids batting tightly closed—registered vast emotion. Tears rolled down her cheeks; she did not wipe them away. Mostly, the crowd was silent, too, though waves of cheering support—“Go, Emma!” “We all love you!”—arose momentarily, then faded away. She stood in this articulate silence for more than twice as long as she had spoken, until a timer beeped. Six minutes and twenty seconds were over, she told her audience: the period of time it took Nikolas Cruz to commit the massacre.

The best speeches, we now know, are mostly short, serving to respond to the moment and to inspire future action. Gonzalez’s speech may soon join the panoply of these greats.

Never have I seen someone wield silence so effectively. In hearing – or rather not hearing – her speak, you were forced to meditate on what happened and what had delivered this unlikely group of young people to the force of what had previously been one of the most intractable issues of American politics.  (Jelani Cobb, interviewed by Dorothy Wickenden, New Yorker Politics and More, WNYC radio and podcast, 31 March 2018.)

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Teaching Feature Writing – Ahladeff’s Martin Luther King Article

August 27, 2013

Feature writing is not like news writing. The structures and styles are both different, with rules of their own.

What writing students often don’t realise is that in the feature article the most important parts are the opener and the closer – unlike the classic news article with its inverted triangle structure.  You need a strong hook at beginning and a “pot of gold” ending.  And short sentences help. A lot.

Yesterday’s The Sydney Morning Herald (26 August 2013, p. 19 of the paper edition) included a good example of classic feature writing by Vic Ahladeff, the CEO of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies.  In an article entitled “Kings dream just a sleeper but for Mahalia Jackson”, he writes about the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.  Others have noted this:  it’s on the cover of this week’s Time magazine.

But Ahladeff’s article takes one angle:  that of African-American gospel singer Mahalia Jackson’s role in encouraging King to use the “dream” theme.

So after teaching feature writing to university public relations and journalism students twice in the last 18 months (University of NSW and APM College, North Sydney), I find this article to be an excellent example for students.  Here’s why.

Ahladeff’s opener:

If anyone warrants a footnote in history, it’s Mahalia Jackson. (10 WORDS, CATCHY) If anyone deserves a modicum of recognition for what transpired before 250,000 people crammed at the foot of Washington’s Lincoln Memorial on a sweltering afternoon 50 years ago, it’s surely Mahalia Jackson.

Comment:  First sentence, catchy.  Ten words.  Second sentence 31 words, really too long, however he gets away with it because the sentence is evocative and he uses the repetition technique – mirroring the first sentence – at both the beginning (“If anyone deserves …”) and the end of the sentence – “it’s surely Mahalia Jackson”.

His second paragraph:

Yet her story remains unsung, her involvement in one of the greatest speeches of all time unheralded.

Comment:  One sentence, which runs 17 words, and it is the “real catch”, placed just where the article most needs it.  He throws the reader’s attention to the rest of the article.  Wow, the reader thinks.  Really?  Tell me more.  What was her involvement, they ask?

There’s lots of good stuff in the middle.  His quotations are nicely chosen.  I particularly the following part, because it develops its own pace, leading towards the final payoff of the “dream”:

Mahalia Jackson, one of the supporters clustered near him, spontaneously shouted: ”Tell them about the dream, Martin!”

King droned on. ”Go back to the slums and ghettoes of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.”

Jackson again, more urgently: ”Tell them about the dream!”

He paused …”

And then the closer, the “pay-off”:

King was assassinated in 1968. Jackson sang Take My Hand, Precious Lord at the funeral. She died four years later, 50,000 people filing past her coffin to honour the queen of gospel whose unforeseen outburst paved the way for an oratorical masterpiece whose eloquence reverberates 50 years later.

Comment:   First sentence of the paragraph is only five words long.  Shocking.  Assassinated.  Yes, we knew.  But still.  This is the first mention of King’s untimely death.  Second sentence – nine words, the connection is made again – she actually sang at the funeral.  Third sentence – she died four years later – oh goodness, she died too.  “The queen of gospel” is a nice phrase.  The final sentence is a little long but it reads very well.  It contains only two real adjectives – “unforeseen” and “oratorical” – both of which work well and do not duplicate their nouns, as so many adjectives and adverbs tend to do.  The “50,000” and “50” numbers also create a parallelism.  The words “eloquence reverberates 50 years later” give us a sense of history.  Overall, the sentence makes us feel good about ourselves in that we are, somehow, a part of that “reverberation” and a part of that “history”.

Convinced?  Read the full article, especially since it is available online free in its entirety (at least as of Tuesday 27 August, morning in Sydney).  It may not be freely accessible for long, given the recent massive changes in newspaper business models.

Here is a copy of the “South Pacific edition of this week’s Time magazine, Volume 128, number 9:

Time magazine cover MLKing 26Aug2013

Want to read the full speech:  go to the US National Archives (note PDF document):

*****

(Declaration:  I know Vic Ahladeff, and he was the editor of The Australian Jewish News for many years while I wrote film reviews for that paper.)