Afro-American Jeremiad, The

David Howard-Pitney
The American jeremiad is a rhetoric of indignation, expressing deep dissatisfaction and challenging the nation to reform. David Howard-Pitney examines the speeches and writings of Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, Ida B. Wells, W. E. B. Du Bois, Mary McLeod Bethune, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Jesse Jackson to show how black leaders have employed this rhetoric of social prophecy and criticism to create a variant that is specifically Afro-American. The Afro-American jeremiad has been a leading feature of black protest rhetoric from the antebellum through the modern civil rights era. While Douglass, Du Bois, and King consistently used the pure form, other black leaders have employed elements of the jeremiad to advance distinct social interests and political agendas. After demonstrating how Douglass used this tradition before, during, and after the Civil War, Howard-Pitney contrasts Washington's emphasis on black self-help with Ida B. Wells's insistence upon white reform. He discusses Du Bois's national reform efforts, the language of black New Dealer Mary McLeod Bethune, and King's civil religious rhetoric. Throughout his analysis the author addresses the ebb and flow of optimism about American promise and progress. Concluding with a discussion of the continued presence of black jeremiahs such as Jesse Jackson, Howard-Pitney describes how this rhetoric has been most successful in fomenting social-political reform with regard to civil rights and least successful when advocating basic economic change. Author note: David Howard-Pitney is a Lecturer in American History and Studies at San Jose State University.

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