Branham, Robert J(ames) 1953-1998

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BRANHAM, Robert J(ames) 1953-1998


Born 1953, in Bremerton, WA; died of colon cancer, October 29, 1998, in Lewiston, ME; son of Ralph Lamar and Gloria Branham; married F. Celeste Branham; children: Noah. Education: Dartmouth College, 1973 (graduated cum laude); University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill, 1974, master's degree; University of Massachusetts, Ph.D.


Educator, writer. Bates College, Lewiston, ME, Department of Theater and Rhetoric, instructor, 1974-1988, full instructor, 1989-1998. Assisted in making documentary videos, including Roughing the Uppers: The Great Shoe Strike of 1937, Ella Knowles: A Dangerous Woman, and The Phantom Punch, all broadcast on Maine Public Television.


Media Award, New England Historical Association, 1993, for video Roughing the Uppers: The Great Shoe Strike of 1937; Daniel Rohrer Award, American Forensic Association, 1994, for "Debate and Dissent in Late Tokugawa and Meiji Japan," and 1997, for Stanton's Elm: An Illustrated History of Debating at Bates College; Roger C. Schmutz Faculty Research Grant, 1998.


Debate and Critical Analysis: The Harmony of Conflict, L. Erlbaum Associates (Hillsdale, NJ), 1991.

(Editor, with Philip S. Foner) Lift Every Voice: African American Oratory, 1787-1900, University of Alabama Press (Tuscaloosa, AL), 1998.

(With Stephen J. Hartnett) Sweet Freedom's Song: "My Country 'Tis of Thee" and Democracy in America, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 2002.

Also the author of journal articles and reviews published in Argumentation and Advocacy and Quarterly Journal of Speech, among others. Author of commemorative volume, Stanton's Elm: An Illustrated History of Debating at Bates College, 1996.


Robert J. Branham blended a career as educator—a professor of debate and rhetoric—with that of a writer, authoring three books that investigate and elucidate the power of the spoken and sung word. Over the course of his twenty-five years at Maine's Bates College, Branham contributed to the revitalization of that school's debate program and also led his teams of debaters to several "national and international honors," according to the Bates Student Online. Born in Bremerton, Washington, Branham was brought up in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. At only twenty-one, after earning his master's degree at the University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill, Branham became an instructor at Bates College. Later earning his doctorate, he became full professor as well as director of the college's debate program. He died in 1998, from colon cancer, after fighting Crohn's disease for over two decades.

Branham's first book publication, Debate and Critical Analysis: The Harmony of Conflict, appeared in 1991. A communications textbook, the work details aspects of debate from its history to technique, investigating aspects such as research, evidence, briefing, refutation and counterplans. He also authored award-winning journal articles in Argumentation and Advocacy. Writing for a wider audience, Branham revised and expanded Philip S. Foner's 1972 work, Voice of Black America, to produce the 1998 Lift Every Voice: African American Oratory, 1787-1900. Adding some sixty speeches to the original compilation, including more women's voices and slave testimony, Branham provides a "diverse range of texts … [that] will provide numerous avenues of investigation of more than a century of Black and American culture in the making," according to Amilcar Shabazz writing in Black Issues in Higher Education. The anthology was intended as a standard source for African-American public address, and includes classic orations of famous African Americans such as Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, W. E. B. Dubois, and Booker T. Washington, along with those of lesser-known but equally relevant and important educators, lawyers, ministers, and educators. Such speeches deal with vital issues of the nineteenth century, including slavery and racial equality, as well as more tangential issues such as Indian policy, women's right, labor and socialism, and immigration. Shabazz went on to call Branham's collection a "thick but pleasantly crafted volume" that was filled with "precious gems of Black speech across a wide range of vocations." Brooks D. Simpson, reviewing the anthology in Library Journal, found it to be "essential and enlightening reading for all Americans."

Branham, working with Stephen J. Hartnett, next turned to the verses of a song for inspiration. Published posthumously in 2002, Sweet Freedom's Song: "My Country 'Tis of Thee" and Democracy in America is an investigation of changing attitudes to freedom and democracy through the genesis and evolution of one of the best-known songs in the United States. "Branham … had a hunch that in American borrowings of this melody lay a story fascinating in its own right," noted Richard Crawford in a Times Literary Supplement review of Sweet Freedom's Song. Such a "hunch" fueled Branham's and Hartnett's research. For Branham, this unofficial national anthem was powerful evidence of historical and social change in the United States over the past two and a half centuries. His and Hartnett's book chronicles the various incarnations of the song over that period, from its original "God Save the King/Queen" to its adaptation as patriotic ballad celebrating the newly independent colonies. "My Country 'Tis of Thee" was first performed in 1831, in Boston, and was quickly thereafter adapted as a patriotic tune, serving many masters. The same song, the authors show, was later adapted by slave owners in the South, abolitionists, temperance movements, suffragists, and labor leaders as their anthems. Tracing these developments, Branham and Hartnett also follow the course of democracy in the United States.

Sweet Freedom's Song, published in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., received positive critical response. Writing in Notes, Linda Pohly and David Gilbert commented that the authors "have not necessarily proven convincingly that this song has been able to persuade and transform. More realistic descriptions might be 'inspire, arouse, illuminate,' or 'give voice.'" Pohly and Gilbert further noted that Sweet Freedom's Song "provides reading which is as fascinating for its coverage of history as for its analysis of texts." Similarly, Alan H. Levy, writing in the American Historical Review, praised the book for providing "a wealth of information." Levy also felt that "students of American history will find the authors' work a useful source in regard to the many forms of a most important American hymn and its links to nineteenth-century social reforms." Crawford likewise observed that "readers will learn much from these pages." And reviewing the same title in Choice, C. W. Henderson called Sweet Freedom's Song "a superb example of cultural history."

In addition to his book-length works, Branham also taught a class on documentary videomaking at Bates College, producing three films broadcast on television in Maine. At the time of his death in 1998, Branham was at work on a second volume of Lift Every Voice, covering the period of 1901-1953.



American Historical Review, February 2003, Alan H. Levy, review of Sweet Freedom's Song: "My Country 'Tis of Thee" and Democracy in America, pp. 194-195.

Black Issues in Higher Education, April 16, 1998, Amilcar Shabazz, review of Lift Every Voice: African American Oratory, 1787-1900, p. 50.

Choice, October 2002, C. W. Henderson, review of Sweet Freedom's Song, p. 288.

Library Journal, March 15, 1998, Brooks D. Simpson, review of Lift Every Voice, p. 82.

Notes, March 2003, Linda Pohly and David Gilbert, review of Sweet Freedom's Song, pp. 647-649.

Times Literary Supplement, November 1, 2002, Richard Crawford, review of Sweet Freedom's Song, p. 23.


Oxford University Press Web site, (June 30, 2003).

University of Alabama News, (February 5, 1998), "UA Press Releases Book Devoted to African-American Oratory."



Bates College Web site, (winter, 1999), "Obituary," and Thomas Foley, "Tribute."

Bates Student Online, (November 6, 1998), "Robert J. Branham, Bates Professor of Rhetoric, Succumbs to Illness at Age 45."*