The Willie Lynch Myth
UPDATE: Many who heard Dr. Cobb speak at the Museum on March 27 have inquired about his presentation. It is now available as a download by clicking here.
While at a poetry reading, a young black man recited a poem that seemed like his original work until he uttered some familiar lines. “I have a fool-proof method for controlling your black slaves. I guarantee every one of you that if installed correctly it will control the slaves for at least 300 years.” Some people in the audience nodded their heads, and others murmured, but all reacted to his work without regard to the apparent plagiarism. It is likely that the attendees did not know that many of the poet’s lines were lifted from a speech known as How to Make a Slave, which is supposedly responsible for causing the conditions that characterized the American institution of slavery. Such is the power of myth and its message.
At least one publishing company sold the speech as a book, which, for some, affirms it as true. Yet, with as many books, classes, and scholarly articles on slavery in the United States, the absence of Willie Lynch’s speech from the historical record is conspicuous. For Dr. William Jelani Cobb, associate professor of Africana Studies at Rutgers University, the fact that the document “appeared” and was never “discovered” undermines the authenticity of the speech.
In 2004, Dr. Cobb set out to debunk the Willie Lynch speech myth in a piece that ignited controversy over his criticism of it. He noted that the speech was cited by his college students and “a black member of the House of Representatives,” as well as penetrated popular culture as a reference in a hip hop song. This treatment of the text as an established historical fact and his skepticism as historian prompted Cobb to address the veracity of the Willie Lynch speech by discussing several anachronisms and inaccuracies found throughout the speech. Dr. Cobb chose to address the content of the speech in his criticism but refrained from researching how, as he commented, it appeared.
Various websites such as Freemaninstitute.com suggest that St. Louis Black Pages first published the Willie Lynch speech, speculation that Howard Denson, publisher of St. Louis Black Pages, confirms as true. In a telephone interview, Denson said that his publication was not only the first to print it, in 1994, but has printed it several times since then, with the speech appearing most recently in its 20th-anniversary edition.
“I’ve only found two things that resulted in the immediate shift in thinking of black people: the Willie Lynch letter and ‘Listen to the Ancestors,’” Denson said. “Listen to the Ancestors” is an article he published on Black-pages.com addressing the black experience during slavery, beginning with the transatlantic slave trade.
In response to Cobb’s conclusion that the speech is fabricated, Denson made a broader point about the impact of the text on the black community. “I’m more than willing to accept that it was not an actual speech,” Denson said, adding “the meaning comes from drawing our attention to what little we know about slavery and its mental impact on African Americans.”
Dr. Jelani Cobb will discuss the Willie Lynch myth and the speech “How to Make a Slave” in the Des Lee Auditorium of the Missouri History Museum at 7pm on Tuesday, March 27. This event is free and open to the public.
—MK Stallings, Assistant Director, Community Education and Events
Read Dr. Cobb’s comments on the Willie Lynch speech.