Thursday, January 23, 2014

Heroic Language

Leaders inspire us with their deeds. Nelson Mandela’s twenty-seven years in imprison, forsaken by the world, attest to the human will to endure, the human capacity for courage, and to wisdom that triumphs over all enemies. Many of us would despair, but Mandela did not, declaring:

I am fundamentally an optimist. Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being optimistic is keeping one's head pointed toward the sun, one's feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lays defeat and death. (from Long Walk to Freedom, 1994)
With these words, Mandela proves his conviction, his contemplative nature, and his felicity with language. The short passage uses alliteration and figurative language effectively, the same tools of Martin Luther King, Jr., remembered with a national holiday earlier this week. Of his own imprisonment in the Birmingham jail, much shorter in duration but only one of many nights spent imprisoned, King said:
We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. …we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, ‘Wait.’ But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: ‘Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?’; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading ‘white’ and ‘colored’; when your first name becomes ‘nigger,’ your middle name becomes ‘boy’ (however old you are) and your last name becomes ‘John,’ and your wife and mother are never given the respected title ‘Mrs.’; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of ‘nobodiness’--then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair.

King also employs the same technique that Tim O’Brien uses in the opening chapters of The Things They Carried, an accumulation of specific, concrete details that make his case vividly and effectively. After such a list, how could anyone argue that waiting longer would be a wise course for King and other convicted protestors?

Leymah Gbowee adds her own courage and rhetorical prowess to this list of heroes who use language as one arrow in their quiver:
Liberia had been taken to our physical, psychological and spiritual limits. But over the last few months, we had discovered a new source of power and strength: each other. We’d been pushed to the wall and had only two options: give up or join up to fight back. Giving up wasn’t an option. Peace was the only way we could survive. We would fight to bring it.

Mrs. Gbowee’s particular contribution to this list of effective language devices is juxtaposition. She lets sharp contrasts underscore the necessity for courage, contrasts between giving up and joining up, between fighting and peace-making, between spiritual death and life.

Courage is not essential for effective language use, but language inspires courage in their hearts of others.

Reading Challenge:

Read the words of Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther, King, Jr., and Leymah Gbowee. Be inspired, but be aware of the masterful uses of language as well.

Writing Challenge:

Employ the techniques of Mandela, King, and Gbowee for your own inspirational messages.