Articulate While Black. Barack Obama, Language, and Race in the U.S.: H. Samy Alim and Geneva Smitherman, Oxford University Press, New York, 2012, 224 pp., ISBN: 9780199812967, $ 99.00 (hardcover)

Articulate While Black. Barack Obama, Language, and Race in the U.S.: H. Samy Alim and Geneva Smitherman, Oxford University Press, New York, 2012, 224 pp., ISBN: 9780199812967, $ 99.00 (hardcover)

Journal of Pragmatics
Volume 71, September 2014
pages 148-150
DOI: 10.1016/j.pragma.2014.08.010

Marta Degani, Assistant Professor
Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures
University of Verona, Verona, Italy

Alim and Smitherman’s Articulate While Black: Barack Obama, Language, and Race in the U.S. is an engaging new book that sheds light on the intricacies of race relations in present-day America while highlighting how intertwined the politics of race and that of language are. The scale, however, is tipped in favor of language to show “how ‘language matters’ to the national conversation on race” (p. 4). Obama’s rhetoric is at the core of the investigation, and it is analyzed with great accuracy and a keen ability for uncovering peculiarities of its “Blackness”. In particular, the book emphasizes Obama’s ability to successfully communicate with different types of audiences and establish rapport with them. On a larger scale, it also shows how Obama’s shifting communicative styles and strategies in using both verbal and non-verbal communication have had an impact on the politics of language and race in the US. Overall, the analyses of Obama’s different usages of political language offer a good example of how audience-centered style-shifting can be skillfully used as a pragmatic tool to convince the audience of one’s political persona. From a pragma-sociolinguistic perspective, Obama’s ability to adjust his speech and gestures to his different audiences falls in line with the postulates of Communication Accommodation Theory (Giles et al., 1991).

What is also remarkable about the book is that the authors mirror Obama’s strategy of style-shifting to engage a large readership and communicate an authentic message. In the book, they alternate academic prose with a style of writing that mirrors African American English (AAE). The nature of this successful linguistic alternation is already evident in the table of contents, which includes chapter titles such as “‘Nah, We Straight”: Black Language and America’s First Black President’ or ‘Making a Way Outta No Way: the “Race Speech” and Obama’s Rhetorical Remix’. Apart from the table of contents, the reader will also find instances of “non-standard” English (e.g. “to be sure, hittin that small sweet spot ain’t easy” p. 23) scattered throughout the main text.

At the beginning of the book, in chapter 1, the authors briefly introduce their work and its aim. As they suggest, the novelty of their approach consists in looking at race from the perspective of language, a practice they call “languaging race”. This concept is applied to Obama’s use of language and the authors claim that it was crucial for his victory. In this chapter, Alim and Smitherman present interesting findings from their sociolinguistic research on Obama’s Black language use and its perception. Data from conversations with young people (mostly aged between 18 and 24) reveal how Obama is unanimously considered an excellent and gifted communicator. Most significantly, findings show that Black respondents are more sensitive than White respondents to Obama’s ability in style-shifting, which is characterized by the use of different lexical variants (e.g. nah and no), shifting pronunciations (e.g. wit mah Bahble for with my Bible) and variance in grammatical constructions (opting at times for zero copula construction) to connect to a multiracial audience. Obama is also praised for his ability to master the Black cultural mode of discourse known as “signifying”. Obama’s recourse to a “Baptist preacher style” is yet another feature that chiefly strikes Black American participants in the survey. The Black preacher style is detected in the cadence, rhythm, pausing, use of repetition, metaphors and storytelling that characterize some of Obama’s speeches. The President is also charged with using a deep Black communicative style of “call and response” that breaks down barriers between addresser and addressee when engaging with a predominantly Black audience. His capacity to shift from White “standard” English to Black modes of communication is presented by Alim and Smitherman as the key for understanding his success. This linguistic flexibility is seen by the authors not only as a reflection of his multicultural and multilingual upbringing but also as a conscious rhetorical strategy.

Chapter 2 starts out with a metalinguistic analysis. The focus is on semantically loaded use of language. The authors refer to “exceptionalizing” racist discourses and provide the example of White politicians who employ terms like “articulate” to describe Obama’s eloquence. According to the authors, exceptionalizing discourse means that what on a surface level might appear as a praise is indeed a racist judgment based on the covert assumption that non-White people are unintelligent and illiterate. The label “articulate” makes Obama ‘exceptional’ in the sense that he sticks out qua Black…

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