Jahmal Cole's 'It's not regular' MLK Day speech, 2018
Jahmal Cole is Chicago based community organiser who was a guest on the podcast and at the 2022 midterm elections was a Congressional candidate for the first district.
"My house is ran by my older cousins, both of them are in gangs. They sell drugs, but that's regular stuff. We don't say we're in gangs where I'm from. We say ‘this is my set, these are my friends. I'm a product of my environment. I'm a victim of my circumstances. I'm in the trenches’, it's regular stuff."
Jahmal Cole, It's not regular', MLK Day Interfaith Breakfast, Chicago, 2018
Jahmal Cole is the founder and director of an after school program, 'My Block, My Hood, My City' which supports and seeks to broaden the experiences of disadvantaged youth on Chicago's south side. In 2018, Cole spoke at an MLK Day Interfaith breakfast, in front of a thousand plus people, and hit every note with his 'It's not regular' speech, which articulated daily life for kids surrounded by gang culture, poverty, unemployment, drug addiction and gun violence.
It's a vivid picture Cole paints, it's the speech equivalent of watching an episode of 'The Wire' and it's such a clever piece of writing and stunning delivery that it went around the world when it was delivered in 2018. Cole's fluency and passion made me think of another Chicago community organiser. Jahmal says in the episode that he received dozens of emails when Obama delivered his 'It's not normal' speech a couple of years after Cole's. 'Obama nicked your speech!', people wrote.
I'll highlight a few techniques Cole uses below. Then I'll publish the transcript.
Jahmal Cole quotes Dr King in his MLK Day speech:
"It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. We are made to live together because of the interrelated structure of reality. Did you ever stop to think that you can't leave for your job in the morning without being dependent on most of the world?"
Episode 16 of the podcast is about Dr King himself, and the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, with preeminent King scholar and the inaugural head of the MLK Centre, Dr Clayborne Carson.
Notes on Jahmal Cole's 'It's not regular'
1. First person point of view, but not as himself: This is such a striking and original technique. Cole plunges the audience into a story, and it's a first person story. It's about a rough neighbourhood, gangs, police, helicopters, crime, drugs -- and for a while, in my case a considerable while, we're unsure if the story that is being told is happening to Jahmal Cole, or if he has a first person character. It turns out it's the latter, but the first person decision maximizes impact, and storytelling power.
" I live in a house with my aunt and her husband. Both of them are drug addicts. Nobody says that where I'm from, that's regular stuff.’
2. "Plagarising real life", multiple source characters: Cole explains in the podcast episode that when he tells his stories he likes to 'plaragise real life', in other words build visceral, detailed narratives out of the things he sees and the kids he talks to. So the character at the start of this speech, the smart kid from the 'hood, is partly drawn from his own childhood and partly built by the kids he supports at My Block, My Hood, My City.
" I order my breakfast every morning at the corner store. I order it through three inch bulletproof glass windows that has mugshots of black faces on it. The windows are so thick I got to yell my order. I said, "Hey man, I want the Doritos. No, I don't want the spicy Nacho. I want the Cool Ranch, the blue bag, the blue bag, the blue bag!."
3. The hinge, revealing his true self - Eventually, the first person character starts talking to Jahmal Cole, and we realise for certain that Cole has adopted a character. He then jumps to his real first person, and the story is over, and the activist part of the speech begins.
’Hello, my name is Jahmal Cole. I thought it was important to start off and tell that story because the more we're separated as a city, the less empathy we have for each other.
4. The real autobiography: We now learn about Cole's actual background, what drives him, and what he's trying to do for kids in his neighbourhood.
" I grew up in a household where all three of my older cousins and brothers, one doing 80 years in Statesville, 40 years, 20 years, same house, man.”
5. It's not regular, repetition, power, and pacing: This is a masterful part of the speech, the bit I lifted as the excerpt for the start of the podcast episode. Cole describes what happens in his neighbourhood, and uses 'it's not regular' to say that it's not right what happens in these neighbourhoods. He has an ability to accelerate here, to be at high volume and passion, but also to allow long pauses after each 'it's not regular', so each descriptor hits home, and it never feels like he's 'galloping'. He finishes with a brilliant articulation of the causes of oppression in the neighbourhood.
”There aint no freedom on 79th and Cottage, man. It's just the Happy's Liquors. There aint no freedom on Roosevelt and Pulaski. It's just the Mitchell PCS and the bulletproof glass. Freedom without equity is not freedom. That's just a struggle.
6. Call to action: He does this really well too. Speeches of this type should have a call to action, something the audience can do, and Cole tells his audience not to just compliment the speech, but to do something to help the program.
It's cool to say, "Oh great speech, great speech." I need support! It's hard to take all these kids around the city. So I charge you guys. If you really want to make a difference text message Explore to 55222 and see how you can get involved.
7. MLK Day, so finish with an MLK quote:
Dr. Martin Luther King said, "In a real sense all life is interrelated." He says, "All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, bound by a single garment of destiny." He says, "What affects one person directly affects all of us indirectly." He said, "I can't be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can't be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be." That's the interrelated structure of reality.
The speech and transcript are below for paid subscribers, or listen to podcast episode.
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