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The Gin in the Campari of That Speech

The New York Times has compiled a roundup of former presidential speechwriters’ receptions of Barack Obama’s inaugural address, and all are rather ho-hum, both in the form of their rhetorical analysis and the ultimate judgments they make of common subject … Read More

By / January 21, 2009

The New York Times has compiled a roundup of former presidential speechwriters’ receptions of Barack Obama’s inaugural address, and all are rather ho-hum, both in the form of their rhetorical analysis and the ultimate judgments they make of common subject matter. (One exception: William Safire relating that the phrase "we cannot stand pat" occurred exactly once in a Nixon speech, given within earshot of the first lady.)

But I knew this would happen: John McWhorter, by far the most original and incisive observer of race matters, has written the post-address linguistic essay you should read. What is that special x-factor, that secret ingredient in Obama’s oratory? Can we all take a deep, post-p.c. breath now that it’s official and he’s in charge and admit the obvious: it’s the blackness. Here’s McWhorter:

Black English is a matter not just of slang, but of sentence structure and sound (why you can tell most black people’s race over the phone, which is proven in studies). Some blacks use all three; Obama is one of the many who wields mostly the sound. Listen to the way he often ends sentences on a higher pitch than, say, Tom Brokaw would, with that preacherly hang-in-the-air. Or the way he often pronounces "history" as "historih," "ability" as "abilitih." His rendition of the word responsibility was indicative: with a cadence typical of Black English, capped by a final "ih." No President has ever intoned sentences in this way, because they were not black.

And no president, McWhorter’s shrewd enough to add, had the cultural advantage of hearing this beguiling patois pouring from the lips of young people of every race and ethnicity, and more in earnest tribute (or envy) than in mocking irony. What untold debts Obama owes to Eminem and Tarantino.

"That brother can spout" was the all-business email I received from my cant-immune father at around 2 p.m. yesterday. Courtesy of a fellow Obama voter who, having grown up a secular Jew in Queens in the 1950’s, has lived long enough to detect the orotundity of the black church tradition — and probably wish that most New York rabbis had a verbal rep of their own that didn’t immediately call to mind Jackie Mason or Ed Koch.

Unlike, say, Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton, Obama can aurally pass for white, but he knows just when, and to what degree, to infuse his rhetoric with the pulpit cadences that send thrills up the thighs of cable news anchors. And here’s the meta appeal of that: Smatterings of demotic speech in brilliant, erudite speakers is a very clever way to remind one’s audience where one came from, and just how extraordinary one’s arrival has been. The New York intellectuals used to self-consciously refer to each other as "Oiving," an easy way to gauge the feat of a bunch of working-class, City College Jews transforming themselves into men of letters and serious political thinkers. (If you’ve ever heard the Oiving whose last name was Howe pronounce the word "perfervid," you’ll appreciate the trick of this shtick even more.) It’s like hearing Lionel Trilling recite Kaddish.

Obama’s Black English may be more of an acquired trait than George Bush’s Texas twang ever was, but "Yes we can" sounds rebellious in a way that "Bring ‘em on" does not. This owes less, in my view, to any major difference in semantic sophistication. If a man who normally spoke in public as an Ivy League-educated scion of a great American family got a little rough and tumble, but only rarely, and as occasion called for it, then phrases of reckless bravado might now be remembered as phrases of stirring defiance. (Being a better president might have helped, too.) Perhaps more ennobling than his frequent citations of "hope" is the subtle manner in which Obama makes them.

This is why I think Chris Rock might be wrong about the impossibility of parodying him. With all the speeches (in all the locales) the new president will have to give in the next four years, might there not at least be the chance for a lurch into the verbal terrain hilariously mapped by Eddie Murphy in an otherwise dud comedy about making it as a minority in Washington?

 

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