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The articulate assault

By H. Samy Alim and Geneva Smitherman


We’re at the Tacoma Theatre in Washington, DC, packed house, predominantly Black crowd. Chris Rock struts across the stage: “You know how I could tell he can’t be President? Whenever he on the news, White people always give him the same compliments, always the same compliments. ‘He speaks so well.’ … Like that’s a compliment… What the fuck did you expect him to sound like?!”

Rock was not talking about Barack Obama, but Colin Powell, and his routine was first performed in 1996. But the insidious racism that Rock identified when Powell’s name was being floated as a presidential candidate has persisted, indeed been amplified, by Obama’s presidency, and there are already hints that Romney supporters intend to exploit it again this campaign cycle, as one website describes Obama as “exceptionally intelligent, articulate.”

Why the obsession with Obama’s speech? There has been a particular bipartisan fascination with President Obama’s ability to string together sentences. The same sentiment that Rock joked about was expressed by even Joe Biden, who, in early 2007, as a Democratic presidential hopeful, described his future boss as the “first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” That same week former president George W. Bush told a reporter, “He’s an attractive guy. He’s articulate.” As Lynette Clemetson wrote at the time, “When whites use the word [articulate] in reference to blacks, it often carries a subtext of amazement, even bewilderment. . . . [which] is inherently offensive because it suggests that the recipient of the ‘compliment’ is notably different from other black people.”

As the campaign heated up, it only got worse. In Game Change, Mark Halperin and John Heilemann’s account of the 2008 election, they reported that Senator Harry Reid thought that Americans might finally be ready to elect a Black president, commenting privately that this was especially true because Obama was, relative to such other Black candidates as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, “light-skinned” and spoke “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.”

Reid later apologized for his comments, but not before he found an unusual ally in Rush Limbaugh who repeatedly played a snippet of an Obama speech on education and Title I. Limbaugh urged his audience to listen closely. Obama said: “As a condition of receiving access to Title I funds, we will ask all states to put in place a plan…” Limbaugh stops the tape and asks, “D-ahhhh… Did you catch that? No? You missed it… See, you’re listening to the substance here. You missed this.” After replaying it, Limbaugh said: “This is what Harry Reid was talking about. Obama can turn on that black dialect when he wants to and turn it off. The President of the United States just said here, ‘As a condition of receiving access to Title I funds we will aks [pause] all states.’ … Now, if I use the word aks for the rest of the day, am I gonna get beat up and creamed for making fun of this clean, crisp, calm, cool, new, articulate [pause] President? … I’ll aks my advisors.” [Note to Limbaugh: you could also ask Chaucer and other classic writers who used “axe,” the literary form of the day.]

When Black people are “complimented” for being “articulate,” it often comes along with other adjectives like “good,” “clean,” “bright,” “nice-looking,” “handsome,” “calm,” and “crisp.” This is precisely what makes the articulate compliment feel backhanded. It’s not merely the use of articulate that’s problematic, nor the expression of surprise or bewilderment that makes it suspect, it is also the fact that its adjectival neighbors describe qualities that help create talk about “exceptional Negroes.” These common linguistic patterns open articulate up to charges of racism, which folks may not even realize they’re perpetuating.

Rather than referring to successful African Americans as “intelligent” and “articulate”—like Chris Rock said, “What the fuck did you expect?” — a “post-racial” society would assume that its successful citizens possessed these qualities. And a “post-racist” society would learn to read this “exceptionalizing” talk as language patterns that reinforce racist stereotypes. Such commentary invariably demands that all “Other” Americans gain access to “the Promised Land” based on how “closely [our] speech patterns, dress, or demeanor conform to the dominant white culture,” as Barack Obama put it in The Audacity of Hope. We must continue to challenge ourselves to do better in forming a just, democratic society.

H. Samy Alim directs the Center for Race, Ethnicity, and Language (CREAL) at Stanford University. Geneva Smitherman is University Distinguished Professor Emerita of English and Co-Founder of African American and African Studies at Michigan State University. Their book, Articulate While Black: Barack Obama, Language, and Race in the U.S., examines the racial politics of the Obama presidency through the lens of language.

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Image credit: President Barack Obama, right, announces that he will send U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, left, to Burma, during the ASEAN Summit in Bali, Indonesia, on November 18, 2011. [State Department photo/ Public Domain]

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6 Responses to “The articulate assault”
  1. T.Robinson says:

    The point about Obama – and this has nothing to do with race – is that he is exceptionally articulate, even for a President/very successful individual.

    Compared to George W. Bush, George H. W. Bush and Ronald Reagan to name but three former presidents, Obama is leagues ahead in his speech-making abilities. I am sure that there are those people for whom race is an additional element but there are also many people who simply recognise his exceptional qualities.

    For those who oppose Obama, the rationale for highlighting his articulacy is not to make the simply racist point that here is someone who ‘is articulate for a Black person’ but rather that here is someone who is very good at making speeches but don’t be fooled into thinking that he is trustworthy or a good leader. Articulacy is praised in order to warn the unwary. Here is someone who speaks with a silver tongue, so be careful you are not persuaded by his pretty words. Indeed articulacy can then be used almost as a shorthand for being untrustworthy or deceitful.

  2. K. Maya says:

    The beautiful thing about Alim and Smitherman’s book is that they stay true to the people. That is, they take a controversial topic, such as President Obama’s articulate-ness, and bring it all the way down to “Black folk theory” in how they–members of the Black community–perceive and understand the deep structural meaning when a white person tells a Black person that they are “articulate.” They sho nuff deserve mad props for this sociolinguistic work of genius.

  3. Has it ever occurred to you that we might not actually be talking down to the professor from the University of Chicago, and that those might actually be just legitimate compliments?

    Is it so hard to believe that a joke from 15 years ago might not correctly apply to a president of today, and that he might actually be so well spoken that it’s of note above and beyond other politicians?

    I mean, by this “logic,” we also hate Bill Clinton for being black.

    I love Chris Rock too. I have that skit – it comes from Bigger and Blacker – memorized.

    But I also don’t hide money in my books. It’s a comedy skit. Sometimes, when you’re finding insults in compliments and declaring it racism, you’re really just perpetuating the stereotype that lives in your own head.

    Personally, I’m not racist. The only practical difference between the skin colors is who sneaks up on you better at night, and who in a snowstorm.

    But Barack Hussein Obama is so ridiculously clearly spoken that yes, I feel the need to pay him that lip service.

    Speech quality is the dominant method of determining intelligence in these United States. Go ask any psychologist or middle school teacher: the IQ test that works best to predict success is the Stanford-Binet, which is nearly entirely vocabulary.

    To speak well requires three things: intelligence, education, and having a point.

    It’s actually a high compliment, if you take off the blinders.

    And no, we also aren’t keeping you down through the slogans of Tony the Tiger and Sonny from Cocoa Puffs.

    This discussion of conforming to patterns is similarly beggaring: the topic is raised because the second it’s raised, you’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.

    Either you follow the Arabic speech patterns that Western universities teach (they aren’t white patterns,) like Obama and Powell do, and people are told they’re racist for saying “that guy speaks well,” because you’re saying they’re too white, or you follow traditional speech patterns of the south, like MLK and Jesse and Maya Angelou did, and you say “that person speaks well,” and you’re racist for saying they’re too black, or they follow modern civic english, like Malcolm X and Percy Julian did, and you’re racist for saying they’re too normal.

    It’s ridiculous.

    Saying that someone speaks well is the strongest praise you can give them for intelligence. It isn’t a backhanded compliment, much less a subtle insult.

    You’re just beggaring for victimization.

    Barack Obama is my president. He is my favorite president. Behind him is Carter, who never dropped a bomb, or fired a shot. I grew up in a well mixed city, my highschool was predominantly black, and my girlfriend is black.

    And I think Barack Obama speaks well.

    I’m not a racist for saying that. It’s legit. He’s smart enough to earn the phrase.

    Maybe try living one day without interpreting everything like you’re a John Witherspoon character. “That leaf waited until I walked in front of it to fall. RACISM!”

    Morgan Freeman, in his interview with Mike Wallace, is right. This constant, ridiculous focus on the imagined racism is a big part of what creates the real thing.

  4. When every compliment is subtly racist, with no need of actual evidence, there is no option for civility, no matter how hard what you percieve to be “the other side” tries.

    This beggaring for victimization creates what you say you hate, directly. The racism you’re experiencing is real, in that it affects you, but it’s also fictional, in that what’s affecting you comes solely from inside your mind.

    Learn from Morgan Freeman, please.

  5. [...] words like doctrinaire and perspicacious long ago.) A public speaker’s rich vocabulary smacks of elitism, a crime only a notch above [...]

  6. First quoted words from Seattle Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik in 2010 about his new manager: “Eric {Wedge] brings the energy, passion and leadership that we think is important as we move forward.”

    First quoted words from Zduriencik about his latest new manager yesterday: “Lloyd [McClendon] is a bright and articulate guy.”

    Guess which guy is black?

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