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Arts and Culture

Obama’s Way With Words

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Posted on Oct 24, 2012
White House/Pete Souza

President Obama during his 2011 State of the Union address.

By Ebony Utley

“Articulate While Black: Barack Obama, Language, and Race in the U.S.”
A book by H. Samy Alim and Geneva Smitherman

In 2008, U.S. citizens elected their first black president. Kind of. It depends on whom you ask. Some say Barack Obama is black because he embodies the truest definition of the term African-American—his father was from Kenya and his mother hailed from Kansas. Others declare that Obama is not black but biracial since his mother is white. And well-intentioned, colorblind souls claim his race no longer matters because his election ushered in a post-racial society.

If there’s one thing on which these disparate perspectives can agree, it’s that Obama’s mere presence in the White House inspires national conversations about race and citizenship. H. Samy Alim and Geneva Smitherman’s new book, “Articulate While Black: Barack Obama, Language, and Race in the U.S.,” offers a refreshing take on how language informs those conversations. Their insightful analysis provides answers to two key questions about Obama’s candidacy:

1. Is Barack Obama black enough to be re-elected?

2. Is Barack Obama too black to be re-elected?

Alim and Smitherman move us away from the content of Obama’s messages to an exploration of their delivery. The book opens with a delightful, perspective-shifting exploration of Obama’s pre-inauguration declaration at Ben’s Chili Bowl in Washington, D.C., that the cashier could keep the change: “Nah, we straight.” As the authors identify the linguistic features of the phrase, they provide ample evidence of the president’s style-shifting capabilities from Black Language to white American English.

book cover

 

Articulate While Black: Barack Obama, Language, and Race in the U.S.

By H. Samy Alim and Geneva Smitherman

 

Oxford University Press, 205 pages

 

Buy the book

Each chapter is filled with exemplars of Obama’s mastery of Black Language practices. They explore his ability to signify, his propensity for call and response, his penchant for black sermonizing, his affinity for the pound (known by people unfamiliar with black nonverbal communication as the fist bump), and his appreciation for hip-hop. Alim and Smitherman argue that Obama’s adept style shifting consistently acknowledges that he is part of the black community. Of course, language practices are not policy but the authors convincingly argue that through his language Obama remains intimately connected to the black community and that should indeed make him “black enough” for re-election.

They also demonstrate the necessity of an astute balancing act. Despite his affinity for Black Language, Obama must never appear too black. At this point the authors move away from his specific linguistic practices to demonstrate how the content of his messages speaks to American plurality.

They note how his “Race Speech” demands that white and black Americans take responsibility for creating a more perfect union. They argue that his appropriation of a black preacher style made him familiarly American and Christian to audiences that questioned the Muslim influences in his background. They analyze his comments on hip-hop, showing how he critiques it for its misogyny and materialism while simultaneously acknowledging that it’s an art. 

Alim and Smitherman effectively parlay the president’s style shifting into a national conversation about how we see and hear race. This message is communicated most powerfully in the titular chapter “Articulate While Black,” which offers responses from 50 undergraduates from various ethnic backgrounds on how they would feel if someone referred to them as “articulate.”

To see long excerpts from “Articulate While Black” at Google Books, click here.

The students’ cultural experiences became very apparent when they explained the many nuances carried by a simple phrase. Some black Americans received “s/he’s so articulate” as an insult when communicated by a nonblack person because it implied blacks who speak well are exceptional. Other students received it uncritically as a compliment. Additional students of color received it as a cautious compliment that suggested they had mastered the widely acceptable speech standards, but only because they had successfully assimilated white standards of speaking. The students were cautious about accepting white English as the standard, and Alim and Smitherman clearly advocate that white English should not be considered standard English. They argue for a plurality of language practices and offer practical suggestions for teaching your own children or students in a classroom to value multiple language perspectives.

I was convinced by the conclusion of “Articulate While Black” that Black Language deserved national attention. I was further convinced that Obama was the perfect impetus for these conversations, especially during an election year. The authors’ close readings of rap lyrics and their reporting on survey data only strengthened the book’s arguments. However, Alim and Smitherman adopted a stylistic choice that was unpersuasive to me.

 


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