Stokely [Carmichael] was a spellbinding orator. Through gestures and intonation, he articulated the rage of a movement that had seen too many dead, too many beaten, and too little progress. He mastered southern lingo to express his university-learned ideas—'We is [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] all right but we ain’t students no more and you know somethin’ we ain’t nonviolent either.’
I studied him hard that night. The year before he had published a brilliant paper on the speech of rural Mississippi blacks. To teach it as faulty English, he argued, was a racial slur, which bred a sense of inferiority at the onset of public education. The paper triggered ideas in my head. My whole education taught me to lecture in a way foreign to my innate feelings about activism. Remain aloof from the subject, the university taught me, for only from that high unemotional plateau could one glimpse the truth. It was reasonable and rational. But to whom? The established power, of course.
Wasn’t there a way of speaking that evoked visual images, rather than spewing forth dead words in rhythmic, religious procession that bounced off dulled eardrums and dissipated into empty space? Wasn’t there a way of destroying the boundary between audience and speaker? To let people experience feelings as well as thoughts? Above all, to get people to act? Could revolutionaries afford to speak the King’s English?
Just as rock musicians study blues and soul music for inspiration, I built my style of verbal riffing on Stokely’s spoken R&B. Without realizing it, Stokely was one of the formulators of hippie dialect.
Abbie Hoffman, Soon to Be a Major Motion Picture