Dec 11, 2013
Obama’s Way With Words
Posted on Oct 24, 2012
By Ebony Utley
As an example, they explain the historical significance of “niggaz” and “muthafuckaz” to the black community, and then use the language themselves. They describe a YouTube video as having “gotten almost eight million muthafuckin hits, nigga!” In fact, throughout the book, the authors adapt Black Language practices in parentheticals and direct statements like “telling you, can’t make this shit up,” “kickin it,” “dig it,” “aontha fuhtha,” etc. As a black female rhetorician, I too traffic in Black Language and have been called out for not using white standard English as many times as I have been referred to as “articulate.” That said, I did not like their use of uncensored speech.
I have no desire to be the respectability police. I have no desire to align myself with the ridiculous actions of the NAACP when it held a funeral for the word “nigga.” I have no desire to uphold white English as the appropriate standard for an Oxford University press publication. So I had to ask myself: Why did I feel so much discomfort with the phrase “eight million muthafuckin hits, nigga!”? It’s not like I’ve never heard uncensored speech before. It’s not like I’ve never used uncensored speech before.
I was most bothered by the boundaries immediately created by the phrase. It felt masculine. “Nigga” is raced, classed and gendered. Black women refer to black men as “niggas” but are more apt to refer to one another and to be referred to as “bitches,” which is classed and gendered but not raced in the same way. “Nigga” was a word I might hear around me but not directed to me. I immediately felt like I was being pushed to the outside of the conversation, and since Alim and Smitherman write in a unified voice I wondered what Smitherman, the female author, would say about gendered uses of “nigga.” It was then that I realized the book lacked a sustained gendered analysis.
Articulate While Black: Barack Obama, Language, and Race in the U.S.
By H. Samy Alim and Geneva Smitherman
Oxford University Press, 205 pages
Their stylistic choice created not only gender boundaries, but racial ones as well. I felt immediately protective of the phrase. As if “eight million muthafuckin hits, nigga!” belonged to Black Language speakers. An outsider would certainly be censored if he or she were to use the phrase uncritically around me. Could one book on Black Language practices provide enough context for nonblack speakers to know what language was acceptable and with whom?
Finally, there was a class issue. When engaging in an “academic” enterprise, it would be deemed disrespectful for someone to speak to a black female professor in this way. Because this is a nonfiction, critical, cultural publication, I was not in the mode or mood for such an interjection.
But my consternation is, in fact, the point of the book. Where do our language standards come from? How is language raced, classed, gendered, etc.? What is the best way to address these necessary questions and remain articulate while black?
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