Saturday, May 19, 2012

Otis Moss III and Historical, Rhetorical Knowledge

Trinity United Church of Christ pastor Otis Moss III's delivery of his "letter to a brother" on May 13, was yet another reminder of how some black church practices are vital sources of historical and rhetorical knowledge. Moss's counterargument was to an anonymous (and thus any) black clergyman who erroneously placed  the world's problems on gay and lesbian couples and Barack Obama's support of marriage equality.  "The institution of marriage, my brother, is not under attack because of the President's words," notes Moss. "Marriage was under attack years ago when men viewed women as property and children as trophies of their sexual prowess."  

In the process of making his argument, Moss takes the time to reference key moments in black history, and at the same time, he draws on the full force of African American rhetorical practices to enhance the delivery of his message. On the one hand, he alludes to the U.S. Constitution, black community, sexism, racism, slavery and struggles for liberation, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Obama's election, and more. On the other hand, he utilizes alliteration, repetition, signifying, African American communal terms, persona-speech, and spirit channeling as he delivers his message.       

Taken together, the substance and style of Moss's letter are compelling displays of black thought and expression. At one point, Moss goes "November is coming, and the spirits of Ella Baker, Septima Clark, Fannie Lou Hamer, A. Philip Randolph, James Orange, Medgar Evers, and Martin Luther King, Jr. stand in the balcony of Heaven raising the question: 'Will you do justice, live mercy and walk humbly with God?'"

Here, he invokes the coming presidential election and revered Civil Rights leaders, and through the use of collective persona, he relays or actually speculates what those black leaders could be asking from "the balcony of Heaven." Moss's ability to elegantly pack so much into short, individual paragraphs is part of what makes the overall piece so powerful.

The live presentation of Moss's letter is also a reminder about the value and contributing power of a vocal black progressive audience. Moss's congregation offers a variety of responses to their pastor's presentation, including co-signing, laughing, shouting words of encouragement (i.e. "Alright!"), waving their hands, applauding, etc. Without that active audience participation, Moss's letter would have meant something different and likely something a little less. Like MLK's and Malcolm's audiences, the congregation at Trinity helped make their lead speaker's speech mean more, resonate a little further. 

I'm thankful Moss's "letter," both the youtube video and the transcription, came to my attention. It arrived and prompted to me to consider multiple perspectives on African American history and rhetorical knowledge. 

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