by J. W. Smith
From the Editor: Dr. J. W. Smith is an associate professor teaching communications studies, focusing on rhetoric and public address and political and cultural contexts. He teaches at Ohio State University in Athens, Ohio. He is the Immediate Past President of the National Federation of the Blind of Ohio, a gospel singer who had a CD or two to his name, a family man, and a Federationist who loves good speeches.
JW joined the NFB almost a quarter of a century ago and has long been moved and fascinated by the annual banquet speech highlighting our national conventions. This article represents interviews that he did nearly twenty years ago, so the reader will observe that Dr. Maurer is referred to as president, and Dr. Jernigan is sometimes referred to as the past president.
Here is what he has to say after talking with two dynamic speakers and one very observant, reflective, and articulate member:
I joined the National Federation of the Blind in 1990 when I was a young professor of communication studies at Indiana University, South Bend. As it happens I was invited to a chapter meeting as a result of someone seeing a story that had been done on me by the South Bend Tribune. As you might expect, my life was never the same after that first meeting. I remember listening to Dr. Jernigan and President Maurer on the Presidential Release and, as a professor of what was called speech communication at that time, I was mesmerized by their rhetorical style and delivery.
I was fortunate to attend my first national convention in 1992 in Charlotte, North Carolina. It was an overwhelming and exhilarating experience overall, but the power of the banquet speech was unlike anything I had ever experienced before. Since that speech I have not missed a convention to date or a banquet address. When I attended the 1993 convention in Dallas, Texas, and after leaving the banquet that year, I made up my mind that I would write a critique of the historical/rhetorical significance of the banquet address itself. I decided that it would be helpful to interview Dr. Jernigan, President Maurer, and perhaps several other Federationists who had been longtime members of the movement to ascertain just what this event and that speech meant to them.
I had just missed the 1990 banquet address delivered by Dr. Jernigan, which had commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of the NFB. Although I was not in attendance at that convention or banquet address, it was a desire of mine to do a rhetorical analysis of that speech. In a paper entitled “In Honor of Kenneth Jernigan: Argumentative Functions of History in the 1990 Banquet Address to the National Federation of the Blind” presented at the Central States National Communication Association Meeting in April 2012, my colleague Dr. Jerry Miller and I sought to analyze that speech from a particular communication perspective. In part we wrote:
“Routinely honored and recognized for his achievements and dedication throughout his tenure as the leader of the NFB, Jernigan accepted an invitation to deliver the 1990 banquet address. In reality no other member of the NFB had the knowledge and respect comparable to that of Kenneth Jernigan. Jernigan’s address serves as a defining event for the NFB, as it simultaneously chronicles the historic journey of the blind movement, challenges the audience to accept his historical account of the NFB, and motivates the association and its members to take responsibility in securing their rights. Jernigan’s address permitted his listeners to become part of one-man’s lived experience and perceptions of truth that, in turn, serve as argumentative proof for his audience, particularly members of the NFB. Jernigan’s efforts motivate his audience to take action and embrace their identities.
As Kenneth Jernigan delivers the address, he establishes the importance of such a speech and outlines what is needed in a successful address. He accomplishes this lesson by quoting an excerpt from a letter shared with him by his mentor, Dr. Jacobus tenBroek. In this letter Dr. tenBroek is inviting Professor Kingsley Price to deliver the 1949 banquet address:
“The banquet address is a kind of focal point in which the problems of the blind, their peculiar needs with respect to public assistance, employment, and equal opportunity are formulated and presented both with an eye to rededicating and stimulating the blind persons present and an eye to enlightening and possibly converting the many sighted persons who have been invited to attend. For me, this has always been a job of rehashing and repeating certain central ideas. My imagination and new methods of statement have long since petered out. The next alternative is to get a new ‘stater.’ This is what I would like you to be.”
Jernigan reflects on a passage from another of tenBroek’s letters in which he admonishes Professor Price for declining the invitation to deliver the banquet address. “We are desperately in need of new voices and a new brain to do this job, and a man from New York has geographical advantages as well.” This strategic use of direct quotations and “report speech” by Kenneth Jernigan accomplished the task of calling the membership to action. Although Jernigan provides his own set of guidelines for a successful banquet address earlier in the speech, it is his reflection on the words of his mentor that allows him to call others to action, while admonishing those who fail to step forward when called. As the longest serving leader of the NFB and one responsible for much of its organizing, Jernigan argues that it is fundamentally important to become familiar with their history. As he writes, “In considering our past I am mindful of the fact that except for inspiration, perspective, and prediction, there is no purpose to the study of history.” Jernigan’s ironic phrase draws humorous attention to the importance of history and the instruction such information provides.”
I have listened to that speech many times, and it never fails to encourage, inspire, and motivate me as a member of this movement.
The purpose of this article is to bring to light interviews that I conducted over twenty years ago from those most responsible for the creation of this phenomenon known as the annual banquet address. I was privileged to speak with Dr. Jernigan, President Maurer, and the longtime editor of the Braille Monitor, Barbara Pierce. I want you to hear in their own words their thoughts about creating such addresses and their rhetorical and historical significance for both members of the movement and the general public.
I approached Dr. Jernigan in the fall of 1994 and requested a phone interview. As you might expect, he graciously agreed, and on a cold October night I called him, and even though he was tired after a long day, he took time to answer my questions and to provide me an extraordinary experience. I recorded this interview on a small tape recorder, and I maintained that small cassette for approximately twenty years before getting the interview itself transferred to a CD version. There were times during those years when I feared I had lost the cassette or that it had worn out, and I would never be able to get the valuable information from it for this purpose. You can only imagine how elated I was when I was able to get it done, and, in fact, the quality of the interview is still amazing even to this day. Here is what Dr. Kenneth Jernigan had to say on that late October night in 1994:
JW: This will be in essence a historical/rhetorical analysis of the NFB banquet address over the first forty-four years of our movement.
KJ: All right.
JW: And I have a rare chance to talk with a person who has—let me see, how many of them have you heard?
KJ: I've heard all of them since 1952, so I've heard forty-three.
JW: That's right, and do you know how many you've actually done yourself?
KJ: Well, I could count them. I did the 1963 banquet speech, and I did the 68, 9, 70, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 80, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 90.
JW: And 90
KJ: So I've done twenty-one of them, I guess.
JW: Wow. All right, talk to me then a little bit about the banquet address and its present-day impact on the blind of this country.
KJ: The banquet address is meant to be a statement of principles and also a philosophical guidepost for our future. It is meant to be a summing up of where we've been and where we’re going. It is now regarded by everybody as the high point of the convention. I would say the banquet speech constitutes a psychological—it certainly is the key statement of philosophy during the convention or is meant to be.
JW: Tell me about your best and worst memories of the banquet addresses you've heard and you’ve done. It sounds like a strange question, but what is your best, and what was your worst experience with it?
KJ: Let me say that my banquet addresses have been meant to address given things. One time we dealt with the history of blindness, one time with what blindness was like in literature, and another with what kind of relations we have with the public. One time I gave a banquet address called “Blindness: The Patterns of Freedom,” which talked about what the principal elements are that go to make up the pattern that you have to have coming from second-class to first-class status. I would think that my best banquet speeches have been, at least from my point of view, the 1973 speech, which is “Blindness: is History Against Us;” ’75, “Blindness: is the Public Against Us;” ’76, which would be “Blindness: of Visions and Vultures;” and ’85, which is “Blindness: The Pattern of Freedom;” and the 1990 one, which is the fiftieth anniversary speech. I regard those as the five best banquet speeches I've made.
As to my most difficult experiences with the banquet speeches, they had to do with one of those very five. In 1985, in Louisville, when we were just starting, we were a minute or two in and apparently some wires got hot, and the people got all panicky—the hotel people—and jerked all of the video wires and lights. So everything, the sound system and everything, went down, and we had to start the banquet speech over.
JW: Oh my goodness—[laugh], I didn’t know that. Moving on, how in the world does one prepare for such a speech? Talk to me about that—how do you put it together?
KJ: I think that what you have to do in preparing a banquet speech is quite different than what you do in preparing a letter or even an article. In the first place let me say to you that when I have written banquet speeches, I've put in an average of eighty working hours on the banquet speech. Now that is so because every sentence, every comma and period, every word gets careful examination and scrutiny. The banquet speech essentially—it seems to me that the ones that I've given—the pattern I've developed for a banquet speech is you pose a problem or you state a proposition, and then it seems to me you talk some about the historical roots of it all, and then you give illustrations and examples, and ultimately you come to the place where you're going in the future with it and you say some concluding propositions. That's about what a banquet speech is, the patterns that I would use for a banquet speech.
JW: I have read the entire book Walking Alone and Marching Together in Braille. I have a Braille copy. I am now going through the taped version of it, and I must say that I am not finished. I'm at the point where you did your 1986 speech, the last one as president. In my observation you sounded—I don’t know what the word is—you sounded very introspective. What were you feeling during that speech?
KJ: Well, of course that speech represented what I viewed to be a major milestone in my life because, although I had stepped aside from the presidency in 1977 for a year, I did not know whether I would come back as president. I suspected I might if things so indicated—if my health improved, and it did. But in 1986 I knew that, barring a tremendously unforeseen circumstance such as the death of the person coming in as president or some other fantastically unlikely situation, that I was not going to be president of this organization anymore, and therefore I of course reviewed in my own mind my time in the federation as well as many other things in my life.
JW: It came through [laugh]; it really did. I don’t have the chance to talk with Dr. tenBroek, but you were one of his principal lieutenants in those early years. Did you have much discussion with him about the banquet address? How did he feel about it? Do you have any memories about his involvement in it?
KJ: Yep. I think that his own banquet addresses, as I’ve read them, underwent a change also. He was from first to last quite a scholar, a legal scholar, but he was interested in—after studying the philosophical tone of the movement in several of his earlier speeches—he was interested in making a more—I don’t know how to put it, speeches that were immediate-issue-oriented. The earlier ones were also issue oriented, but they were more heavily philosophical--rallying cries as opposed to the heavily issue oriented ones of the latter stage.
JW: What would you say was his best in your mind of the ones that you heard?
KJ: I believe “The Cross of Blindness” was the best that he gave from my point of view.
JW: What year was that? Do you remember the year?
JW: Six, okay.
KJ: No, 1957, take it back. ‘56 was “Within the Grace…”
JW: “Within the Grace of God,” yes.
KJ: Now I regard some of his earlier speeches as perhaps better to read and study than some, and “The Cross of Blindness” was a prime example of one that was better to listen to.
JW: Well, my final question for you, and then I'd like for you to have the opportunity to say anything else you’d like to say about this whole issue. My final question goes something like this: I heard you say at this year's meetings that if things work out and you attend your—I believe it's your fiftieth convention—or is it 2000 that you and President Maurer said that you would do the banquet address is that…
JW: Uh huh
KJ: It will be my fiftieth banquet in a row.
JW: I'm asking you to take out your crystal ball now. What do you see as possible primary concerns for that banquet address? Where do you see the blindness movement, and what do you think you might say?
KJ: Well, of course it is natural to look back over a century or a half a century and to look ahead. We’ll be halfway toward our century mark, so you're really talking about what will be more than fifty for me. This will be the sixty-first convention—or the sixty-second—I guess sixty-first for the NFB. We’ll be into our second half-century; we’ll be into a new century, and this country is bound to have undergone considerable change by then. The first Clinton administration will have come and gone, and there'll either be a second or a Republican administration, and then we’ll be into still yet another administration down the line. There are tremendous changes now coming in the social fabric of this country, and so the blind naturally look to accommodate to those changes and to try to make those changes accommodate to them. All of that will need to be considered.
JW: Yes. Any final comments you could tell me about the banquet address—something that has not been addressed in my questions—observations that come to mind? I mean, I think I've captured the essence of a once-in-a-lifetime experience here.
KJ: I think that the banquet address does many things. For the brand-new Federationist, the banquet address is an experience that brings that convention together. It cements Federationism into the whole of the individual, almost. It is, for the person who has been there five, ten, fifteen years who is in mid-stride in the Federation—I think the banquet address renews; I think it encourages; it gives a shot of energy for the coming year. I think for the person who is a longtime veteran in the ranks that the banquet address has nostalgic overtones to it. I think it also makes one think of generations to come. It tends to expand the sweep of one's thinking forward and backward. It, I think, impresses and invigorates all of us, but it does different things for people, depending on how long they've been coming to conventions.
JW: Yes, as I said, this is the third one that I've actually heard, and, uh boy, I remember that first one in ‘92, and it did all those things that you say.
That was the interview, and even as I write and listen to this recording now, I am struck by its power, focus, and sincerity. Dr. Jernigan’s graciousness and love for this movement was as genuine as it could be, and as a young member then, I could not believe that he was allowing me this amazing opportunity.
In the winter of 1995 it was quite obvious that I should interview President Maurer, and once again I was afforded extraordinary access and genuine graciousness. I conducted this interview by phone as well, and I am indebted to Sarah Parsloe, a graduate student at Ohio University, for her willingness to transcribe these recordings. She captured the essence of the interviews, allowing me the editing license necessary for these finished products.
In the Maurer interview I was struck by the candor and conversational quality of the interviewee. This was 1995, and by that time President Maurer and Dr. Jernigan were functioning as a well-oiled team. In fact, their tag-team approach to everything really did seem to give us double for our admission at the conventions. I think you can also read and hear the genuine love and respect that President Maurer has for his mentor and friend, Dr. Jernigan. For me to be able to interview both of them on this topic provided some profound insights and revelations that I think worthy of future research and study. Here is the Maurer interview:
JW: Marc, could you first talk with me about the historical significance as well as the contemporary significance of the banquet address.
MM: Well, the banquet address is a document which intends to put, at the time that we are having the convention, into perspective where the blind of the United States and—for that matter, in a sense, the blind of the world—are. In fact I think the blind of the United States, at least at the moment, are ahead of the blind of the world and developing the opportunities for independence, and I think that's the objective involved—for blind people to exercise their talents to the extent that we who are blind have them, and therefore that tries to put into perspective at the time it is delivered where we are. Now, it also intends to have a sweep which is broad enough to show that what we are doing and what we are trying to achieve as a movement is a part of the broader perspective of history so that the banquet speech is timely when delivered, but is also in a sense timeless because it will show, in one facet or another, one element or another of the greater society, why this particular movement matters, and what difference it is making to the broader arena or the broader community in which blind people live.
JW: I talked to Dr. Jernigan about this, but I really want your input on this: How do you prepare for such a speech? Walk me through that.
MM: Well, I look for speech ideas all the time. I know that speeches will have to be written. I look for ideas, and I try not to use up ideas when they are of special significance. There is one speech that I have written and delivered which might have been a national convention banquet speech, but was not. Well, no, there are two. One of them became a Monitor article, and it might have had enough importance to be a banquet speech. I know it wasn't developed enough to be a banquet speech, but a Monitor article. It’s a good Monitor article, and it has an important nugget of an idea and reality about it which might have been significant enough to be a banquet speech. See, the sun will rise in the east—that is true, and it is important. It is very important because if the mangy thing does not rise, you'll freeze to death after a while, and a while won't be long, and so will the rest of the world, and so it's important. But, since you can't do a thing about it, it wouldn’t make a good banquet speech. The speech has to be something that you can do something about. It has to be a message showing that the individual action of the human being will matter and can make a change, which is important both for the blind person and to the world at large. So, with that in mind, I look for ideas that can be made into banquet speeches, and I look for them all the time. An idea—it has to be important, and it also has to be one which not everybody in the world already knows so it has some freshness about it, and it has to be an idea which has an element in it which means that a person can do something to make some change which will make a difference to bring greater cohesion, conformity, and a brighter and better world. So that’s the idea I’m looking for. I never know what it is before I see it, and sometimes even then I'm not sure it's good enough.
JW: I see.
MM: So I'm looking for that. Then, once you have that idea, it has to be presented in a package which is understandable. Two or three years ago—I forget which one it was now—there was an idea, the mysterious 10 percent. It said that education happens—that you have to know 90 percent of what you are presented, and the new stuff can be about 10 percent, and that 10 percent is all important. Well, I think this has an element of truth about it, but you have to present this idea in a way which is understandable. It can't be so different and so new that nobody gets it, so it has to be presented in a way that people will understand.
This means that the banquet speech can't be written all at once—100 percent, you write those words, and they take a long time. And then you go over them, and that takes a long time. My experience is that I write the introduction to the banquet speech and then throw it away and start over. And then, after I've written it the second time, usually I like it well enough to keep it, except that it gets massaged—probably anywhere from a dozen to twenty times before it's finished.
JW: By you?
MM: By me.
JW: Do you have other official or unofficial editors, people you’ve trusted over the years look at it?
MM: I went to Dr. Jernigan on them.
MM: But I don't show it to anybody else.
JW: I see. Let me ask you: I have read the Braille issue of Walking Alone and Marching Together. I am now listening to the tape issue. I am now at 1987.
MM: You have the one with the voices?
JW: That's right. I'm in 1987 now. I'm about to listen to your first banquet address. Talk to me about what it was like getting ready for that and how you felt delivering that if you can remember.
MM: Well, there was only one real question. Everybody has a speech in them—one. Your own story is a speech if you know how to write it.
MM: So everyone has one speech, and the question was could I deliver it.
JW: Uh huh.
MM: There are two speeches that the president gives as a matter of tradition although it hasn't always been that way, and I don't guarantee that it always will be. Dr. Jernigan and I have agreed for example that in the year 2000, he's going to give the banquet speech—which is a nice thought—I won’t have to write it if I'm around.
MM: There are two speeches: one is the presidential report, and one is the banquet speech. I had delivered the presidential report by the time we got to the banquet in 1987, and the presidential report went all right. You could offer criticisms of its delivery, but it went all right—people liked it, at least. When Dr. Jernigan ceased to be president, as you will remember from this year’s banquet, there were many people that weren't sure if that was a good thing to have done. I believe Dr. Jernigan wasn't sure, although he never said so. I wasn't entirely sure myself. He asked me once upon a time if I wanted to be president of the organization, and I told him I did. He said “That's just as well, because you can't be president if you don't want to be.” So we talked about it, and I became president. Whether it was a good thing to have done, a lot of us were wondering about. I was wondering, he was wondering, although he didn’t say so. The question was whether or not I could carry what the organization had already done. Dr. Jernigan makes great speeches, so the organization cannot have somebody who can’t make pretty good speeches as its leader because it will look like second-rate and second best. Say what you will about the organized blind—we’re not prepared to have second rate by and large. On occasion we might take second best for some specific purpose, but it will have to be to achieve a different end. We’re not prepared to have it overall, and I'm one of the ones that isn't. So, with that in mind, the question was whether or not the speech could swing at all, and it went all right.
MM: And it's hard—with that kind of understanding behind you, it makes a person moderately uneasy.
JW: Yeah [laugh]. Let me ask you about the audiences you have to address. I’ve sat through three banquet addresses now live and in person, and probably just about all of them or most of them on tape. Talk to me about—as you prepare that speech and as you deliver it, what are the audiences you are addressing, and what—you know—how do you get at meeting their needs?
MM: The Federation is a good audience, a very good audience. When the then president comes to the microphone to speak to the Federation, the president knows that the Federation is friendly to begin with. It is longing for whatever is being done at the podium to be successful and is willing to empathize with the person making the address. All of that is good. But the Federation is a very knowledgeable audience. It knows what good speeches are like. It recognizes a flimflam, and it's not willing to tolerate one. Consequently, you have to give it to the audience straight, and it has to be of good quality. The audience knows when it’s not going to have good quality. It's willing to tolerate people who aren’t top quality, but it's been through enough of the good quality stuff that it's perfectly well aware of when it's not getting the best. So with that in mind you’ve got to prepare for the people who are out there. Now, who have you got: you’ve got the guy who is on the line in the factory; you've got the unemployed person who didn't get much education; you’ve got the fellow from the hills who didn't get much chance; you've got the college professor and you’ve got the lawyer and the engineer; you’ve got people who didn’t find a way to go and be a part of the broader society too much, so they’ve spent a lot of time listening to the talk shows, they are aware of what's happening on the talk show circuit. You’ve got all those people. And you’ve got all of the ethnic backgrounds, and you’ve got all of the religious backgrounds. There are some people in the audience who will be—probably there aren’t many who are anti-religious—but there are many who don't have religion as a high priority, but there are some who wouldn’t miss a Sunday at church. And you've got to know that.
MM: It's a very broad range of individuals.
JW: If you had to highlight two or three key things or issues that you try to bring out within this address, what would they be?
MM: Well, individual responsibility and individual power. If you don't have individual responsibility, individual power doesn't make any sense. If you don't have individual power, neither does individual responsibility. The fact that anyone can, with the right motivation, the right persistence, the right understanding make a significant difference sufficient that it will change the fabric of society at least in the area where that individual is—that is part of every single banquet speech.
JW: Okay, well this is fascinating, you know. I’m going to write an article about the banquet address. I’ve spoken with Dr. Jernigan, but you had a chance to work closely with Dr. Jernigan, and you had a chance to hear a number of his banquet addresses. Tell me how you felt as an audience member listening to his banquet addresses.
MM: Oh, my. I don't know whether your experience was the same as mine, but the first banquet address I heard was the 1969 banquet. I was in the audience, and Dr. Jernigan got up there and began to talk, and in a minute I knew he was talking to me. I think that most of the people in the audience felt the same way: he was speaking to me individually. He was saying these things that would make a difference to me in my own life, and it was positively magic.
JW: Oh yeah, yeah. My first one was yours in Charlotte, and I'll never forget it. I was hooked from then on. Let me ask you also, then, what do you think was the best Jernigan speech you’ve heard? I've already asked him what he thought was his best. What would you say was his best?
MM: I don't know.
JW: So you haven't singled out one in particular?
MM: Well, I could tell you some I liked. I could tell you some I liked for different reasons.
MM: Banquet speeches are supposed to be timeless, and mostly they are. But some, it seems to me, came at a particularly good time. I think that the 1990 speech was one like that. The 1976 banquet speech had a magnificent power, too. But then maybe the 1985 banquet speech does. Anyway, I don't know which one I liked better.
JW: Yes, yes. Well, how about you personally? You've done seven of them. Which one would you say has been your best or worst, and why do you think so?
MM: Well, I think that I'm not in a good position to answer that question. I think that one of the more interesting banquet speeches was the first, and yet I don't think it was as well delivered as I would have hoped. The 1994 banquet speech may have been delivered better than any of the others. It had an interesting idea in it, but it’s not the idea that I would regard as the most interesting of any of my banquet speeches. Last year's banquet speech I found interesting. I don't know whether other people did or not, but I did.
JW: Well, my final question to you, President Maurer, is very simple, and it is related to the banquet address. What is the future of the banquet address, and what are some of those future themes. Let's say it's ten or perhaps fifteen years from now—look into your crystal ball, and tell me what that banquet speaker is talking about.
MM: Well, the Federation has changed over the years. The position that we now have is different from the position that we had twenty-five years ago. The National Federation of the Blind is more powerful. It has a larger membership; it has many successes to its credit. It seems to me that one banquet speech will need to focus on something which Dr. Jernigan talked about a little bit two years ago. There will be two things that I think will occur that will have to be addressed in banquet speeches, and one is that we have to find a way to know how to manage the power that we possess with understanding and restraint. Most countries that have gained independence have fought hard to gain it, have had a period of time that was relatively peaceful, and then have gone into civil war and civil strife either for longer or a shorter time because they didn't know how to govern internally. The failure to know how to manage the power that they had attained caused conflict, disturbance, and destruction. We must prevent that. We have to be able to use the power that we gathered together to make the society better. We have to find a way to become truly integrated, and that means to interact with other outfits around the world or at least around this country. That has to be done without strife.
The second thing that is important, it seems to me, is that as you gain a measure of success and as people grow up not facing the stark reality of nonparticipation, then they begin to believe that there isn’t anything important for the organization to do, and they may not join it. Especially is this so if they think they've made it on their own, so why bother. We have to address that. That is occurring right now, in fact.
MM: I think that the number of people who have that feeling may increase. A sense of history must be a part of what we are, and a sense of history must give us a sense of community, so we have to address that in times to come. If we don't address it now, I think it will be a greater phenomenon in the future.
Just imagine having had the opportunity to speak with the two men who had delivered the banquet addresses from 1968 to 1995. It seemed to me what was left for me to do was to find a unique audience perspective—and did I ever with Barbara Pierce.
My original plan was to interview several longtime Federationists and then take themes from their responses in reference to their recollections of the banquet addresses. After thinking about it, I thought that interviewing the then-editor of the Braille Monitor would be sufficient and provide a sort of insider/outsider perspective on the topic. Unlike the two previous interviews, this one was conducted in my hotel room at the 1997 convention in New Orleans. Of course, Barbara Pierce was my affiliate president at the time, and she was her usual professional and confident self during the interview. Her unique take on the topic is timeless and instructive even today.
JW: Ok, I have Barbara Pierce here and Barbara, first of all, two-part question: how long have you been with the NFB, and what is your role in the organization?
BP: I joined the Federation in January of 1974 and have been active in the organization ever since. I have organized a chapter and become that chapter’s president (that was back in the 70s). I've been a state board member and a state officer. Since 1984 I have been president of the NFB of Ohio. I have been the director of public education for the national organization since about 1980, or maybe ‘78, to the present, and since 1988 I have been first associate editor and now editor of the Braille Monitor magazine, the house organ of the Federation.
JW: As you know, this interview is about the banquet address. Now I say that to you as someone who knows what that means, but what does that mean to you?
BP: I have been present at twenty-three consecutive banquets of the National Federation of the Blind. The banquet address, as an element in the organization—it’s certainly the high point of the convention, and the convention is the high point of the Federation's year. For me the banquet address is the focal point of the magnifying glass; all of the rays come together and focus on one point. It is an articulation of the philosophy as it is manifest in the lives of blind people. It is a way of saying to ourselves over and over again, “Here's who we are; here's what we struggle against; here is the victory we define for ourselves.”
JW: Now that’s a twenty-three-year-old answer, and that’s good. I want to ask you something else: can you remember your first banquet address, and can you take yourself back to how you felt, talk to me about the atmosphere; put me back there.
BP: Okay, now first of all, my first banquet was 1975, and as it happens that was the third in a series of three banquet addresses: “Is History Against Us,” “Is Literature Against Us,” “Is the Public Against Us.” So in fact, I had heard recordings of the first two elements before I went to the 1975 address, but there was something electric in the air about being present for that address. Dr. Jernigan is a powerfully eloquent speaker, and his delivery is nearly flawless. I could hear that on the recordings before then, but there is something about being in the room and sharing the experience with over 1,500 other people. Somehow sharing such an experience with 1,500 people has in itself a powerful effect, and I can remember sort of reaching and pinching myself. Am I really here? Having heard the speeches, suddenly to be present and to have this speech laid out before us, which was, “Here are all the ways in which in a sense it feels as though public attitudes are so piled up against us, and yet the public isn't really against us. We must see that people understand and come to the realization of blindness that we have,” and it was like being hurled out into the world on a catapult. I think nothing will ever be as exciting to me again. I have heard better banquet speeches since, but the impact will never be the same because nothing like that will ever be like the first.
JW: I know, it’s kind of like your first love, your first whatever.
BP: First baby, yeah, [laugh], that’s right.
JW: Of the twenty-three you’ve heard, what was your favorite and why?
BP: Hmmm, well, 1976 “Of Visions and Vultures” has a special place in my heart, partly because I was sitting there in all innocence, and suddenly a letter that I wrote got read in the banquet address. That was a pretty astonishing experience suddenly to make it into the banquet address—it sort of felt like I had achieved a little piece of immortality, but that banquet address is certainly the articulation of a lot of our perceptions of what it is like to live out the Federation’s philosophy. We must keep our eye on what it is that we're doing; we must not be distracted; we must move forward in absolute focus and attention. It was laid out in intimate detail, anecdote by anecdote, letter by letter, personal crisis by personal crisis, so that one was a very powerful one.
I really like—and I'm going to have a hard time getting it right—I think it's 1985, it’s Dr. Jernigan’s “The Patterns of Freedom.” I personally find that a very powerful one because it goes to the heart of what constitutes freedom, and it seems to me this is absolutely essential for blind people to understand. No one can give us what it is we must have. We must take it; we must deserve it; we must maintain it, and I think that is such a fundamental truth, and he managed to find ways of saying it. There are so many wonderful quotes through the ages that he pulls together and puts into a blindness context; I love that speech.
JW: You know that Dr. tenBroek, Dr. Jernigan, and President Maurer have done the majority of the speeches since the founding of this organization. You’ve had the privilege of sitting through that transitional phase of Dr. Jernigan to President Maurer. Talk to me about that.
BP: Of course, in the structure and evolution of the organization that was a very important speech because the question in everyone's minds had to be, can President Maurer deliver a speech of the force and caliber that we have been used to hearing. If this is the single experience that is going to galvanize an entire organization for a year, it is fraught with a great deal of importance, so everyone, myself included, came into the banquet that night with a profound question on our hearts: Can he do it?
JW: No, no pressure on him!
BP: No, none whatsoever—I mean, you know that was just astonishing, astonishing how he did it, and I suspect he will never work on a banquet speech as hard or as long as he must have worked on that one. I don't know that for a fact, but I believe that is in fact the case. “Back to Notre Dame” was the name of the speech, and it was his thinking about his own evolution and how far we have to come by looking at his experience as a student at Notre Dame, and it worked. So there was this great euphoria for that that all of us were caught up in because the magic was there. You know, we’re looking at a young man just beginning, taking over for a man seasoned and experienced, who had an impeccable ear for the language, and so it’s not the same. It’s a different voice. The great sophistication and sensitivity to nuance of the language that Dr. Jernigan has, Mr. Maurer didn't have in 1986. But, but, it was clear that it was going to be all right and that the nurturing, the feeding, the food, and the energy were all there. We were still capable of sending people out into the world, marching together, and we were capable of going out to walk alone, and that is so essential for us in this organization. So much of the time each of us labors in a little part of the vineyard where we’re the only person.
JW: Do you have a favorite part, a favorite segment?
BP: Of the address?
JW: Of the address itself, of the oration?
BP: I have never really looked at it in that way before.
JW: See, I like introductions. I like the introductions of those presentations.
BP: When introductions are done well, I agree with you. I think that the introduction is probably the hardest thing to do well, and I think that as we plow this particular field it gets harder to find a way into the material. Certainly, historically, the most fun part of the banquet address is the middle part where all of the examples such as the putting sponges on blind people’s heads and twenty-seven steps and teaching a blind person to clap and all of the nonsense, the nonsense that so much of our lives leads to such painful frustration, and suddenly, for one glorious moment together, we laugh, and that is so healthy for us to be able to laugh about it together. I think that is such a creative, energizing, and frustration-letting portion for the group to experience together that that I find that great fun. So, in sum, in many ways I think that's my favorite part.
JW: And your laughter—it does stand out, as does your clap. I have a couple more questions, and I have one specifically for you now as an editor—you know as an editor of this journal/magazine. Do you listen differently to these addresses—as both a Federationist and as an editor—does the job ever enter in?
BP: The job enters in as I note how things will go, because, of course, in our journal we have both a print and a Braille version, and that's just text. That’s set because the speech has been typeset, and he's reading a copy of it. That's it, you know: that's cast in stone.
But the recorded version—we will tape, but we roll cleaned up tape. There was the year that the fire department came rushing in, and we had a ten-minute hiatus in the middle of the banquet address because they pulled the plug on the microphone. Of course we clean up little things that go on, so I'm always listening to see how much of that kind of thing has to be done and to note the places where I want to make sure that the technician has, in fact, done it correctly. My goal is to see that the person in Dubuque who didn't get to the convention has the sense of magic that we had in being there, that he is swept along, at least to the degree that we can get it onto the tape. At the same time I want to work to see that the person is not distracted by the little things in the banquet room that didn't matter with all the emotion and everything there working together, but which, if you just listened to the tape recorder at home, would get in the way. So it's more of the technical things that I pay attention to as I'm listening and to see where I’m going to have to polish the mirror to make sure that the reflection comes up accurately.
JW: I see. What advice would you give to potential banquet speakers for this occasion in terms of preparation?
BP: Of course I do banquet speeches because I go around the country and do state banquets. So the banquet address as an art form is something I agonize over quite a lot. I am deeply grateful that I will never have to give a banquet address of the significance and with carrying the freight that this one has, because it is an awesome responsibility to have. Anyone who is giving a banquet address to an organization doing the kind of work that is done in our Federation has to take it seriously. You need to give more than just a delightful, lively, interesting after-dinner speech that will keep the folks awake. You have to think hard about your message and how you will deliver it when you really want the banquet address to work and when the work that has to be done is serious work because it has to kindle people and unite them and send them out reenergized to lift their weight in wildcats.
I think that you cannot just stand up—or it takes many years before you can stand up and do that kind of speech off-the-cuff and have it work right. So you have to decide what mechanism you're going to use to try to accomplish what needs to be done. Are you going to try humor? Are you going to try to do it with tight logic? Are you going to try to do it with just inspirational words? Or, if not just one but several, what is the mix you’re going to try to use? How much are you going to try to make this a personal expression, and how much are you going to try to take material that you come across and shape that into to a fully developed argument of the kind that you want to make? Different people in this organization have different styles. Some of them are very personal and idiosyncratic, some of them depend absolutely on ideas that they play with and develop, and some of them roam around and pick up a lot of anecdotes and pieces of literature and leave their speeches at that. You’ve got to decide what your way is to do that.
It seems to me the other thing that one has to decide is whether you are going to do a speech that you're going to read and deliver sentence by sentence, carefully crafted as Dr. Jernigan's and Mr. Maurer’s speeches are always done. They are reading a speech that takes about eighty hours to put together, and they read the speech almost exactly as written. In many ways I think that is extremely hard for most people to pull off because it is so hard to project one's personality into that kind of crafted prose and not have it sound as though you're just reading the text. You have to project so that you are speaking to them and ensure that you really are bringing your audience along.
I've tried delivering speeches in which I've read the whole text, but I have settled more or less on extensive notes so that I've got my focus very carefully honed. I’ve plotted my path, my map is very clearly defined of where I’m going and how I'm unfolding it, but I depend on the energy and the hormones at the moment to give me the actual sentences and the words to convey the ideas. But it seems to me that you have to find your own personal style, whatever it is that is most successful for you, the most successful mechanism for you to use in conveying your ideas. Then be comfortable with that choice, and don't eat your heart out because you can't do it some other way. The important thing is to develop your own style, and then go on about your business.
So there you have it—the words of three giants in our movement, and my extraordinary interaction with each of them. I don’t know why it took me twenty years to do this article, but in some ways it seems timely and appropriate for the 75th year of our movement. Little did any of us know that Dr. Jernigan would deliver his last banquet address in 1997 and pass away in 1998. Hearing his voice in this recording continues to inspire and encourage me, and I hope it does the same for you. I could feel the emotions of President Maurer as he prepared to bring the gavel down on the convention with President Riccobono at the banquet last year. Thus, hearing his voice from 1995 and watching his efforts to build the Jernigan Institute and lead this movement into the twenty-first century, has been quite amazing as well. And I never would have thought that when I conducted that interview with Barbara Pierce in 1997 that I would follow her as the President of the NFB of Ohio.
Perhaps twenty-five years from now someone will write a similar piece albeit probably much better than this one, and it will be fascinating to see what the story of our movement is then. I am confident that the banquet address will continue its historical and rhetorical significance for us, and although the audiences will change, the message will only get more clear, necessary, and focused.