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New book explores Obama’s use of Black Language

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Days before his inauguration as President of the United States in 2009, Barack Obama visited Ben’s Chili Bowl, the famous black-owned restaurant in the U Street Corridor of Washington, D.C. He ordered a chili half smoke, Ben’s signature dish, and gave the cashier a $20 bill. When she handed him the change for his $12 meal, Obama declined, saying, “Nah, we straight.”

While Obama’s one-liner was making headlines around the country, linguists H. Samy Alim and Geneva Smitherman were busy deconstructing it.

“For us linguists, ‘Nah, we straight’ had particular significance because in these three simple words, we have three different features of Black Language,” they say in an email interview. As they explain, pronouncing “nah” instead of “no,” using “straight” to mean “okay” and omitting “are” in the sentence are all distinctive features of Black Language.

For Alim and Smitherman, this shows that not only is Barack Obama the country’s first black president — he is also the first Black Language-speaking president.

In their new book, “Articulate While Black,” Alim, director of the Center for Race, Ethnicity and Language at Stanford University, and Smitherman, director of the African American Language and Literacy Program at Michigan State University, explore the many instances Barack Obama employed Black Language during his 2008 presidential bid — a tactic they argue was key to his success.

From his “fist bump” with Michelle after clinching the Democratic nomination, to his celebrated speech on race, Alim and Smitherman say that Obama used Black Language as a way to communicate directly with African Americans, proving that he is one of them and gaining their political support. Without this show of cultural authenticity, black voters may not have rallied behind the president in the high numbers that they did.

Obama’s use of Black Language wasn’t limited to 2008. Alim and Smitherman say the best example of Obama borrowing from black oral tradition on the 2012 campaign trail was his “Romnesia” quip, when he criticized Mitt Romney for forgetting his old positions.

“What we and other linguists noted was the way Obama builds his argument, uses repetition, and especially his use of the black preacher’s ‘stutter,’ to draw attention to important points,” they say. “Before it’s all over, Obama has his mostly white audience participating in call-response, that interactional, back-and-forth mode of talk that characterizes communication in black contexts.”

In addition to his employment of Black Language, Alim and Smitherman show in their book how Obama would also slip seamlessly into “standard” English when speaking to white audiences — which was crucial to his gaining the trust of the white mainstream. Obama’s mastery of both Black Language and “standard” English — and at times, fusing them together — is an example of what the authors call style-shifting, the ability to move in and out of different modes of speech depending on the audience — a skill imperative not just for the first black president of the United States, but for anyone who aspires to the White House.

In contrast to Obama’s masterful style-shifting, Alim and Smitherman say that Romney’s way of speaking was a political liability.

“Romney’s manner of speaking is essentially the verbal equivalent of his public persona: flat, one-dimensional, unable to connect,” they say. “Strikingly, he sounds almost the same in every speech, regardless of audience … Romney’s linguistic inflexibility negatively influenced many Americans’ perceptions of him and lowered his likability rating.”

And this has nothing to do with party or race, they point out: “Our last three presidents have all been able to shift their speaking styles. Both Clinton and Bush were known for shifting into a ‘folksy’ manner: Clinton with black and Southern audiences, and Bush with Southern and Latino audiences.”

With the nation growing ever more diverse, the authors say that the ability to speak to multiple audiences is becoming an increasingly important political tool.

“In a multiethnic, multicultural America, where Hispanics are the largest minority, Asians are the fastest-growing minority, and women comprise over half of the voters, national politicians will have to be fluent in multiple ways of speaking,” they say. “For too long, sounding presidential meant sounding like a white, middle- or upper-class straight man. In 2012 and beyond, it has taken a lot more than that to win over the hearts and minds — and ears — of the American people.”

More than just an exploration of language in the 2008 presidential campaign, “Articulate While Black” also argues that Black Language is no less intelligent or proper a way of speaking than “standard” English — and that blacks should not be forced to adopt white, middle-class speech patterns to be deemed articulate or well-educated.

To make this point, Alim and Smitherman write their entire book in black vernacular, showing that even scholarly works can be written in this style of speech.

“If all languages are equal — and they are, in linguistic terms — why must we conform to some dominant so-called ‘standard’ in order to express our deepest intellectual thoughts?” they say. “We are our language, and our language is us; so why not bring our whole selves up into the text?”

Plus, if the president does it, anyone can. Alim and Smitherman say: “[Barack Obama], like us, regularly switches between multiple ways of speaking — without devaluing any of them. That is the crucial point. In this generation and even more so for future generations to come, it is a decided benefit for American citizens to be able to speak more than one tongue. In this sense, we argue that Barack Obama serves as a linguistic role model, not just for Black Americans but for all Americans.”