Here are a few quotes about language and speaking I’m reflecting on as I complete this week’s writing prompt: Write Your Own Inaugural Address or Poem for 2021.

What are some speeches or advice about speeches that you’ve found inspiring or notable? What are some speeches or poems that you’ll never be able to forget?

“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Maya Angelou

“Is there no context for our lives? No song, no literature, no poem full of vitamins, no history connected to experience that you can pass along to help us start strong? You are an adult. The old one, the wise one. Stop thinking about saving your face. Think of our lives and tell us your particularized world. Make up a story. Narrative is radical, creating us at the very moment it is being created. We will not blame you if your reach exceeds your grasp; if love so ignites your words they go down in flames and nothing is left but their scald. Or if, with the reticence of a surgeon’s hands, your words suture only the places where blood might flow. We know you can never do it properly – once and for all. Passion is never enough; neither is skill. But try. For our sake and yours forget your name in the street; tell us what the world has been to you in the dark places and in the light. Don’t tell us what to believe, what to fear. Show us belief’s wide skirt and the stitch that unravels fear’s caul. You, old woman, blessed with blindness, can speak the language that tells us what only language can: how to see without pictures. Language alone protects us from the scariness of things with no names. Language alone is meditation.”

Toni Morrison, The Nobel Lecture In Literature, 1993

“I was going to die, sooner or later, whether or not I had even spoken myself. My silences had not protected me. Your silences will not protect you…. What are the words you do not yet have? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence? We have been socialized to respect fear more than our own need for language.”

I began to ask each time: “What’s the worst that could happen to me if I tell this truth?” Unlike women in other countries, our breaking silence is unlikely to have us jailed, “disappeared” or run off the road at night. Our speaking out will irritate some people, get us called bitchy or hypersensitive and disrupt some dinner parties. And then our speaking out will permit other women to speak, until laws are changed and lives are saved and the world is altered forever.

Next time, ask: What’s the worst that will happen? Then push yourself a little further than you dare. Once you start to speak, people will yell at you. They will interrupt you, put you down and suggest it’s personal. And the world won’t end.

And the speaking will get easier and easier. And you will find you have fallen in love with your own vision, which you may never have realized you had. And you will lose some friends and lovers, and realize you don’t miss them. And new ones will find you and cherish you. And you will still flirt and paint your nails, dress up and party, because, as I think Emma Goldman said, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” And at last you’ll know with surpassing certainty that only one thing is more frightening than speaking your truth. And that is not speaking.”

Audre Lorde

Can you identify where the quotes below come from? Or who wrote or uttered them? It’s very likely. But have you ever considered what precisely has made these speeches and poems so powerful, so memorable? 

“I have a dream…” 

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” 

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty,                         and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

“Yes we can.”

"Though you may hear me holler- And you may see me cry- I'll be dogged, sweet baby- If you gonna see me die."

“Ich bin ein Berliner.”

“Still I rise.”

“For there is always light. If only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it.”

What speeches or excerpts about the power of language have influenced your writing, or understanding of writing? 

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