linguist and author of the book, "Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold Story of English."
People accusing Barack Obama of being insufficiently “angry” need a Shaft fix. After that, they should get back to evaluating our President as a human being rather than as a stereotype.
Yes, stereotype. How “angry” are people waiting for a United States president to look, and why so much concern about it with this president?
This knock on the man reminds me of something I have always carried from a bygone fracas that happens recently to have gotten new media play -- the Thomas-Hill debate. What stuck with me most was not Arlen Specter, Long Dong Silver, or “high-tech lynching,” but a book of articles on the whole thing that was published a few years later.
In it, black women scholars asked, among other things, why Anita Hill had not “turned it out” on her inquisitors. That is, they would have liked it if Hill had utilized what could scientifically be termed African American female disputational conversation strategies – a certain tone of voice, the neck-swiveling, and likely, some well-placed comments about Mommas.
They were serious. These were people who operate from an openly politicized argument that “Ebonics” should have a larger place in the public sphere, rather than being restricted to “home dialect” status. Be that as it may, it’s a rich notion that a black woman might slide into the speech style of an inner city cookout even as a law professor testifying before Congress and the nation. And never mind that this way of speaking may well be alien to Hill as an individual. The writers in this book were, in their way, stereotyping Anita Hill.
As we are, to be waiting for Obama to “turn it out.” It is unclear to me that he has seemed so perfectly detached or so utterly serene about the goings-on we are all so upset about. His State of the Union speech had plenty of pique in it. His famed “They talk about me like a dog” aside indicated someone angry about those dissing him for trying to do the right things in the right way. Already, photos of him during his 2008 campaign show a markedly cheerier person; his current demeanor is one of overall discontent.
Yet it remains fashionable to ask things like “Does he ever sweat?,” as Nicholas Kristof approvingly cited from one of his commenters. But are we really waiting for him to sweat? Wasn’t sweating part of what did in Richard Nixon in his debate with John F. Kennedy?
Even taking this metaphorically, what do we mean by “angry”? Bill Clinton, it is said, registered anger – i.e. that feeling of pain he was so well-known for. But how often did he register an actual high-energy rage? What modern president would, given how poorly it would play on a television screen? A truly angry Clinton was when he denied being sexually involved with “that woman” – and he certainly did not strike that scowling, belligerent note on any regular basis.
I suggest that our sense that Clinton “felt” us in an angry way is based on his Southern accent and our ingrained associations of that accent with authenticity, warm feeling, and the demotic.
Obama can’t do the equivalent. He would have to summon his “Ebonic” cadence when talking about serious things, rather than as a matter of punch-line seasoning, and that wouldn’t work. Our preconceptions about Black English overlap with ours of southern English, but only partially. Black English to modern Americans sounds like church, like hip hop (i.e. honest and a little edgy) – but also dumb. We don’t associate it with higher reasoning. We don’t exactly envision Southern English as a vehicle of Euclidean geometry either – but let’s face it, it comes from a white face.
Yet going “Ebonic” is exactly what I suspect people are waiting for from Obama, and it’s because they think it’s part of what blackness “is.” They want Obama to bring out his inner rapper. But what if there isn’t a rapper in him? Or, if he could, as the black women scholars on Hill put it, “turn it out,” then how helpful would it really be? Instantly, he would be reviled as a hothead.
He would become, even if the anger were expressed in standard English, the Angry Black Man. Not being one is much of what got him elected.
This is business as usual with America and Obama. Americans project their fantasies onto him – and more particularly, racial ones. Leftists, now disappointed, assumed he must be one of them because, no matter what he actually said, surely a black politician must be a leftist. Others assumed he would have a bizarre ability to bring the left and the right together in the America of 2009 – because black people, after all, have a certain mother wit, a certain wisdom born of pain.
And now, people are waiting for him to play the bad m----f----. The term, incidentally, would end not in -er but -a. Sorry, folks. You’re going to have to be content letting him be just a person.
John McWhorter is a contributing editor at City Journal and The New Republic and is a lecturer at Columbia University. His latest book is Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: Untold Stories in the History of English.