New book explores Obama’s use of Black Language

Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil | 12/19/2012, 6:53 a.m.

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.”