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Book Review

Obama's Way With Words

Ebony Utley
Contributor
Ebony Utley, Ph.D. is an expert in popular culture, race, and romantic relationships. She is the author of Rap and Religion: Understanding the Gangsta’s God (2012) and is currently working on her next book…
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.
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.

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

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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