I have a Dream Metaphoric Criticism

Rhetoric lies at the center of our human experience and facilitates human interaction. It consists of language (made up entirely of symbols) that ultimately allows us to construct our reality. A significant component of rhetoric is rhetorical criticism. Rhetorical criticism analyzes artifacts of communication; from images to phrases to films and speeches. It serves as a qualitative research method that strives to investigate and find an explanation for the true meaning behind these artifacts and their impact on our society. The entirety of this paper centers around the application of Metaphoric Criticism to the legendary I have a Dream speech by Dr. Martin Luther King, allowing us to surpass linguistic embellishment and acknowledge the injustice faced by the African American community. It elaborates on the context of the artifact, expands on the chosen rhetorical critic method, and significantly, showcases discoveries from applying rhetorical criticism to the artifact.

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         Beginning with an elaboration on the context of the chosen artifact, Martin Luther King stands as not only one of the most significant figures in American history but one of the most influential figures in the world. Fueled by the injustice surrounding segregation, African Americans began the fight for racial equality with the Civil Rights Movement. Martin Luther King, a young pastor from Atlanta, Georgia, stood at the center of this movement. His I have a Dream Speech (the most notable speech he gave throughout the course of his activism) put the Civil Rights Movement on the map. The speech was given in 1963 during the March on Washington, an event where hundreds of thousands of people gathered to advocate for freedom and jobs. After directing a nonviolent protest (the march), Dr. King took center stage at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. and began sharing his hopes and dreams for the American population. He identifies the role the Emancipation Proclamation by President Abraham Lincoln played in freeing the American population and highlights how the change must continue until equality has been established. While countless inspirational artifacts exist in our society, this speech, as a result of its effective incorporation of metaphors, truly exemplifies the power of rhetoric and the role it plays in moving a nation.

         Now that the context of the artifact has been elaborated upon, let’s discuss the chosen rhetorical criticism method. Metaphoric Criticism revolves around the use of metaphors in artifacts to convey the underlining message of the artifact. A metaphor can be defined as a figure of speech in which an action or phrase denoting a symbol is used in comparison to another as a way of illustrating meaning. There are two components to a metaphor, the tenor and the vehicle. The tenor can be described as the topic or subject that is being explained, while the vehicle is the mechanism or lens through which the topic is viewed (Foss, 285, 2018). These comparisons are nonliteral and simply suggest a similarity between the two words/phrases. To provide an example take the metaphor life is a journey. Life (the tenor) is compared to the journey (the vehicle), so as to more effectively capture the rigor and tedious nature of life. To continue with the discussion on metaphors, these forms of figurative language are linguistic embroidery that the rhetor uses only occasionally to give extra force to language (Foss, 286, 2018). Metaphors bring beauty and drama to an otherwise dry description. Often times, topics of discussion can be difficult to comprehend or difficult to mention candidly. Metaphors allow its rhetors to effectively capture these instances. The use and purpose of metaphors go far beyond being a form of decoration. Metaphors are also a constituting force by being a basic way by which the process of using symbols to construct reality occur (Foss, 287, 2018). Metaphors have the ability to shine a light of certain phenomena, while continuing to keep others hidden, paving the way to a formulation of perspective.

         With an understanding of the meaning of metaphors and the role they place in communication, let’s delve deeper into metaphoric criticism. Sonja Foss highlights a four-step procedure to effectively utilizing and applying metaphoric criticism. The four-step procedure consists of selecting an artifact, analyzing the artifact, formulating a research question and writing the essay (Foss, 289, 2018). The significant aspect of this four-step procedure is the 2nd step, analyzing an artifact. Analyzing an artifact contains five essential parts: examining the artifact as a whole, isolating the metaphors, sorting the metaphors, and discovering an explanation for the artifact. Examining the artifact as a whole pertains to becoming familiar with the text or elements of the artifact and its context to gain a sense of the complete experience of the artifact (Foss, 290, 2018). Understanding the text as a whole improves understanding of the metaphors within them. The second step, isolating the metaphors, is as it says. It captures the process of isolating the metaphors used by the rhetor. Effectively identifying these metaphors is relevant for the next step, sorting the metaphors. This step involves sorting the metaphors you have identified into groups and looking for patterns (Foss, 293, 2018). Finding patterns leads to the creation of themes, which paves the way towards the last step of metaphoric criticism, discovering an explanation for the artifact. Also known as identifying the deeper meaning.

Now that we’ve discussed the moving parts of Metaphoric Criticism, let’s begin with the application by addressing the four components of metaphoric criticism previously discussed. We examined the artifact as a whole by elaborating on the context behind the I have a Dream speech and its significance. Let’s proceed to the isolation of the metaphors within the speech itself. For the sake of comprehension and organization, the quotes highlighted will be numbered (with subscripts) for further analysis. At the beginning of the speech, MLK mentions the Emancipation Proclamation and how this momentous decree is a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice1 (King, 1963). With this metaphor, the emancipation proclamation, which serves as a tenor is compared to a beacon of hope, the vehicle. King also mentions that this sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality2 (King 1963). With this metaphor, the anger of the African American community (tenor) is compared to the sweltering summer sun (vehicle) and freedom and equality (tenor) are compared to invigorating autumn (vehicle).

Continuing with the isolation of metaphors from the artifact, King mentions toward the middle of the speech let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred3 (King 1963). Freedom (tenor) is compared to a draught (vehicle), while hatred (tenor) is compared to a cup of bitterness (vehicle). Other significant quotes from the artifact are the whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nations until the bright day of justice emerges4 and I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice5 (King, 1963). With the first quote, the danger that the nation will continue to face if the needs of the Civil Rights Movement are not met (the tenor) is compared to a whirlwind (vehicle). For the second quote, injustice and oppression (tenor) are compared to heat (vehicle), while freedom and justice (tenor) are compared to an oasis (vehicle).

Following isolation of the metaphors, comes sorting of the metaphors. Exemplified through the highlighted quotes from the artifact, King relies heavily on weather metaphors and high and low contrasts. The theme of incorporating weather can be found in the 2nd, 4th, and 5th quotes, when he speaks of the sweltering summer, the invigorating autumn, the whirlwinds of revolt, the bright rays of justice, and the oasis of freedom. As for the high and low contrast, these can be found when King compares the whirlwinds of revolt (low) to the bright days of justice (high). It can also be found in his juxtaposition between the sweltering summer and the invigorating autumn (the 2nd quote). Another significant theme within King’s I have a Dream speech is the notion of love and brotherhood.

Despite the injustice, the African American community continued to face and despite their efforts for equality being dismissed, King continues to stand by non-violent revolt and dispels anger and hatred. This is evident in the 3rd quote when he speaks of how the thirst (desire) for freedom and equality shouldn’t be satisfied with bitterness and hatred. It’s also evident when he argues we must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. He continues, we must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again, and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force (King, 1963). Even after personally experiencing the detrimental effects of racism and inequality, love stands at the center of his heart and he urges for it to stand at the center of the Civil Rights Movement.

We’ve isolated significant quotes from the artifact and sorted them through the creation of themes, so what does this analysis reveal about the artifact in particular and about the rhetorical process in general? Through metaphoric criticism, we’ve been able to gain a more profound insight into the intentions of Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement. Upon initial recognition, many viewed the intentions of MLK and the Civil Rights Movements as advocacy for the black perspective and moreover that their desires were driven by pain and hatred with no regard for how their actions could negatively impact the population at large. In addition to this, many (those around the world and in the United States) remained completely unaware of the struggles faced by the African American population. They believed the Emancipation Proclamation was sufficient and that through segregation (separate but equal) the circumstances of the black man had improved. MLK’s I Have a Dream speech addressed these misconceptions.

As revealed through Metaphoric Criticism, the metaphors embedded in his speech exemplified the true nature of the Civil Rights Movement and their true intentions. As previously mentioned in the 3rd and 6th quote (introduced above), King dismissed desires of hatred and bitterness and pushed for individuals to act with kindness and love. He encouraged the African American population and the world in general that violence, pain, and damage should be welcomed with dignity, discipline, and compassion. As for awareness regarding the struggles faced by the African American community, the metaphors within King’s I Have a Dream speech shines a light to its full extent. Let’s take as an example the 2nd quote where King says this sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality (King, 1963). As previously mentioned, the I Have a Dream speech was given in Washington D.C. Anyone who has spent a summer in the south or anywhere, in general, know it’s accompanied by frustration, a sense of suffering, misery, and significantly, a longing for relief. There’s difficulty in understanding struggles faced by those outside your community. Metaphors such as the one mentioned above (and just about everywhere in the artifact), not only enable those outside the African American community to understand the extent of their struggle, but it allows them to relate to it, and become advocates for change.

As exemplified through metaphoric criticism of Dr. Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech, metaphors are far more than forms of figurative language. The metaphors highlighted in King’s speech drew on themes such as nature, brotherhood, compassion, and high/low juxtapositions. They made the American population and the world knowledgeable on the intentions of the black community, as well as the extent of their struggles. Metaphors and metaphoric criticism are means of exemplifying intentions, perspectives, and truth that would otherwise remain silent and submerged. They capture the power of rhetoric on the human experience and its ability to shape our reality. Through specific, purposeful, persuasive, and metaphoric communication, King’s speech propelled the American Civil Rights Movement and began the establishment of change and equality for all.


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I Have a Dream Metaphoric Criticism. (2019, Aug 16). Retrieved December 4, 2022 , from

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