Recently, a friend asked me what I considered the best Barack Obama speech and it took me an instant or two to respond decisively with “the race speech.” It wasn’t as though I recalled many of the details, but I did remember the timbre of Obama’s voice as he talked about his own life as it related to the history of an America that is continuously in motion.

“At various stages in the campaign, some commentators have deemed me either ‘too black’ or ‘not black enough,’” he said and I remember wondering what, in particular, does blackness mean to a brown person? The questions that the speech raised reassured me and made me feel optimistic, the same feelings that I carried with me to the polls that year.

Good speeches articulate unspoken sentiments. They are stirring if delivered with urgency and clarity, but perhaps even more importantly with surprise, distress or elation. Good speeches look a problem square in its face. They take your thoughts and give it coherence and direction. Good speeches are intimate.

“… if anybody dreams of the exclusive survival of his own religion and the destruction of the others, I pity him from the bottom of my heart,” said Swami Vivekananda at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago. In its depth, lucidity and message of acceptance, Vivekanda mediated and moderated my own secular beliefs. His words became an evolutionary lesson for me.

With humility and venerable grace, Dr. Martin Luther King addressed America in his “I Have a Dream” speech, imploring his fellow citizens to see him and his kind, those who drenched the earth with their blood, as an equal part of this country. Who can ever forget the desperate eloquence of his message?

India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, captured the fidelity of India’s triumphal moment with such beautiful elation and optimism in “A Tryst with Destiny,” as he addressed how “the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.”

As I write this, I’ve spent a weekend listening to writers and journalists articulating their ideas at the Jaipur Literature Festival held at Boulder, Colorado. As I think back, it was Suki Kim, the Korean American writer and journalist author of Without You, There Is No Us, who clinched the festival for me with her riveting performance.

Simply dressed in black jeans, broadly striped knit shirt and a white jacket, Kim occupied her presence on stage with taut intensity. Her piercing dark eyes looked at the audience and it felt as though she was speaking to me. It was not my story she was telling, but in a few short sentences she persuaded me that it was a story I wanted to hear.

She spoke of her experience as an ESL teacher in a school for the children of North Korea’s elite. As an undercover journalist, she knew she had only a “5% chance of coming out alive,” but yet she had decided to secretly document and record all that she encountered at the school in the suburbs of Pyongyang, even though she was under constant surveillance. What Kim said and showed was revelatory and complex, and I wholly participated in that moment as the entire audience stilled, not wanting to miss a single nuance of her narration.

I have, on one memorable occasion, felt that sense of stillness. In 2015, I gave the convocation speech to San Jose State University’s computer science graduates. As I began, I could sense a collective distraction. It had, no doubt, been a long and exhilarating day for the students. But a few minutes into my story, I felt the quiet spread and, all of a sudden, the only thing I heard was my voice echoing in the cavernous hall. I knew I had finally found the pulse of the assemblage and it was beating steadily for me.

I imagined Kim realized it too. But she didn’t pay it any mind as she spoke about a system of lies that she, her students, and the North Korean leadership engaged in, almost like a hypnagogic dance, where everyone knew only one small part of the whole truth.

Good speeches articulate unspoken sentiments. They are stirring if delivered with urgency and clarity, but perhaps even more importantly with surprise, distress or elation. Good speeches look a problem square in its face. They take your thoughts and give it coherence and direction. Good speeches are intimate.

YouTube is filled with inspirational speeches. One of my favorites is the Oxford Union debate featuring India’s Member of Parliament, Shashi Tharoor. With rapier wit, Tharoor confronted Britain’s inglorious past, not in a desperately seedy sahib club left behind in some forgotten corner of India, but at Britain’s own hallowed institution. Holding but a tiny scrap of paper in his hand he thundered, “As others have said on the proposition—violence and racism were the reality of the colonial experience. And no wonder that the sun never set on the British Empire because even God couldn’t trust the English in the dark.” That speech validated me and my Indian heritage. It was thrilling theater.

The greatest speech of all, for me, though, was the one delivered to me, as I left India for my new home, by my father—a man of little consequence to the world. “Nothing ever comes easily in life, and nothing good or bad is ever constant. Nevertheless, I expect great things,” he said, his voice wobbling. His words live in every word I write.

Jaya Padmanabhan was the editor of India Currents from 2012-16. She is the author of the collection of short stories, Transactions of Belonging.

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