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Voyant and Race: Comparing HRC and Jesse Williams

Voyant and Race: Comparing HRC and Jesse Williams

     I compared and uploaded two speeches on race in the United States by Hillary Clinton and Jesse Williams. Hillary Clinton spoke in the aftermath of police killings of black people at the Old State House in Springfield, Illinois, where Lincoln gave his historic speech 160 years ago. Jesse Williams delivered his speech at the BET (Black Entertainment Television) awards and also discussed racialized police violence.

     The two words I chose to compare were “just” and “black.” “Just” was the most frequent word used, while “black” was one of the most frequent. Specifically, “just” appeared nineteen times, while “black” appeared nine times. Thus, the Cirrus window reveals that while these words pop up commonly, “just” is the political word of choice for these speeches collectively.

     Both “black” and “just” (and “justice”) appear more frequently in Williams’ speech. This initial Voyant analysis suggests that Williams’ speech is more directly racially political than Clinton’s. Obviously, that is a fair assessment of the speeches because Hillary is attempting to minimize conservative backlash over inciting racial tensions, while Williams is unabashedly attempting to express his anger over black lives not mattering. In that way, the frequency tool of Voyant was quite successful: it conveyed the differing natures and contexts of the two speeches on racial relations in the United States.

     What was difficult to capture in Voyant, however, was the nuance to which each spoke about being black in America. At certain points, both, of course, argue that in many respects black lives do not matter in America, but they convey this sentiment in wildly different ways. Here is an excerpt from each on being “black” in the United States:

Williams: “We've been floating this country on credit for centuries, yo, and we're done watching and waiting while this invention called whiteness uses and abuses us, burying black people out of sight and out of mind while extracting our culture, our dollars, our entertainment like oil - black gold, ghettoizing and demeaning our creations then stealing them, gentrifying our genius and then trying us on like costumes before discarding our bodies like rinds of strange fruit.”

HRC: “Too many black Americans, especially young men, feel like their lives are disposable and they worry every single day about what might happen. They have every reason to feel that way and it is absolutely unacceptable. Everyone in America, everyone deserves to be treated with respect and dignity.”

     Williams is obviously making a stronger and more affectively charged claim about blackness than Clinton is, but that would not be clear if one simply used Voyant’s textual analysis tools. For example, Hillary is never going to say, “whiteness uses and abuses us, burying black people out of sight[…] ghettoizing and demeaning our creations then stealing them.” Conversely, Williams is probably not going to use the language of “everyone deserves to be treated with respect and dignity.” While, that is ultimately the claim he is making, that wording invokes the figure of the “All Lives Matter” activist.

     Overall, Voyant is useful for capturing the big picture of textual analysis but misses the nuance that is critical to academic analysis.  

The speeches can be found here: http://time.com/4404897/hillary-clinton-speech-illinois-transcript/ and here: http://time.com/4383516/jesse-williams-bet-speech-transcript/

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1 comment

Pirzada, you did a great job here, for many reasons. You clearly ran these two speeches in Voyant and produced visualizations that you used as a springboard for your own analysis. Specifically, your dive into how Voyant does not show the nuance of how each author speaks about being black was particularly revealing and astute. It looks like you were following uses of the term "black" to these two passages, which say similar things in very different ways. I think your analysis of these two passages is quite good. I also find it interesting that Clinton singles out black "young men" while Williams refers more broadly to "black people." Perhaps this is just a function of these two excerpts you pulled out, but it's a notable difference. Is it a difference that pans out across the two speeches? 

I also wonder if there is a way that Voyant does measure or at least describe style with data? How might you use V to describe or investigate style? Maybe tracked by diction and/or words found next to (collocates) or near one another? Another way to ask this question is this: do you think Voyant is useful for analysis despite the weakness you point out? And why/how?  

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