Articulate While Black: Barack Obama, Language, and Race in the U.S.

Articulate While Black: Barack Obama, Language, and Race in the U.S.

Articulate While Black: Barack Obama, Language, and Race in the U.S.

Articulate While Black: Barack Obama, Language, and Race in the U.S.


Barack Obama is widely considered one of the most powerful and charismatic speakers of our age. Without missing a beat, he often moves between Washington insider talk and culturally Black ways of speaking--as shown in a famous YouTube clip, where Obama declined the change offered to him by a Black cashier in a Washington, D.C. restaurant with the phrase, "Nah, we straight."

In Articulate While Black, two renowned scholars of Black Language address language and racial politics in the U.S. through an insightful examination of President Barack Obama's language use--and America's response to it. In this eloquently written and powerfully argued book, H. Samy Alim and Geneva Smitherman provide new insights about President Obama and the relationship between language and race in contemporary society. Throughout, they analyze several racially loaded, cultural-linguistic controversies involving the President--from his use of Black Language and his "articulateness" to his "Race Speech," the so-called "fist-bump," and his relationship to Hip Hop Culture.

Using their analysis of Barack Obama as a point of departure, Alim and Smitherman reveal how major debates about language, race, and educational inequality erupt into moments of racial crisis in America. In challenging American ideas about language, race, education, and power, they help take the national dialogue on race to the next level. In much the same way that Cornel West revealed nearly two decades ago that "race matters," Alim and Smitherman in this groundbreaking book show how deeply "language matters" to the national conversation on race--and in our daily lives.


I chuckled in amusement in the Spring of 2012 as President Obama regaled the audience with his humor in what has to be one of the most enjoyable roles for the commander-in-chief: standup comedian at the annual dinner for the White House Correspondents’ Association. Obama’s pace and timing were a lot better than those of the professional comics charged with bringing down the house that night. Jimmy Kimmel rushed through his jokes a bit too nervously and even stepped on some of his lines. Obama, on the other hand, was smooth and effortless, confident that his zingers would find their mark. His swag quotient was also pretty high that night. He let it be known that his musical prowess consisted of more than a melodically accurate one-off rendition of a line from Al Green’s R&B classic “Let’s Stay Together,” which he had delivered at an Apollo Theater fundraiser three months earlier. Obama’s version of the soul legend’s tune went viral in Black communities as a sign of the president’s effortless embrace of Black Culture despite the criticism that he keeps Blackness at bay. At the Apollo fundraiser, after drawing huge applause from his largely Black audience, Obama addressed the Rev. Al Green, who, along with India Arie, had sung at the affair, by saying: “Don’t worry Rev., I cannot sing like you, but I just wanted to show my appreciation.” At the Correspondents’ dinner, Obama showed his appreciation for Hip Hop and proved his Rap bona fides, and not just by citing the easy or apparent fare. To truly strut his stuff, he’d have to display an aficionado’s grasp of Rap Culture’s range and appeal and flash a little insider savvy.

The set-up for Obama’s Hip Hop coolness was a perfect storm of conspiracy theory and Black cultural signification. “Now, if I do win a second term as president,” Obama teased his audience, “let me just say something to all my conspiracy oriented friends on the right who think I’m planning to unleash some secret agenda.” He paused for a few seconds, then hit . . .

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