It's been four days since President Obama delivered remarks at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation's Annual Phoenix Awards Dinner, just one of 10 speeches that he's given within that time. But the debate over what he said before that mostly African-American audience — and how he chose to say it — is still going strong.
The 28-minute speech, with its overall theme of faith and perseverance through hard times, was meant to inspire the black-tie crowd, which included all 43 members of the Congressional Black Caucus. Acknowledging that black unemployment has reached 16.7 percent and that almost 40 percent of black children live in poverty, the president applauded the CBC for pushing legislation on the community's behalf. "With your help, we started fighting our way back from the brink," he said, citing child tax credits, consumer protections from mortgage lenders, expanded Pell Grants and health care reform as examples.
After calling for the passage of his American Jobs Act, and criticizing Republican opponents who are determined to block him every step of the way, a worked-up Obama concluded his speech: "I expect all of you to march with me and press on. Take off your bedroom slippers, put on your marching shoes. Shake it off. Stop complaining, stop grumbling, stop crying. We are going to press on. We've got work to do, CBC."
With a tap of the podium, Obama exited stage right. Bolting to their feet at his parting words, the crowd in the Washington Convention Center ballroom erupted into thunderous applause.
Well, most of the audience, anyway.
The Backlash Builds
On Monday, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) expressed concern about the president's tone. "I don't know who he was talking to, because we're certainly not complaining," she said on CBS' The Early Show. In fact, she noted, the CBC had long been pursuing a robust jobs initiative. Waters further pointed out that the president doesn't address other key voter blocs, such as Hispanic and gay and lesbian groups, quite the same way.
An irritated Courtland Milloy at the Washington Post wrote: "Funny, isn't it, how Obama always gets the nerve to say shut up when he's addressing a friendly audience?"
With the president's speech repeatedly summarized as "a fiery summons" that "told blacks … to quit crying and complaining," as an Associated Press article put it, the enthusiastic in-person response quickly gave way to displeased takes on Obama's condescending attitude toward African Americans. From the extra bass and preacher-like inflection in his voice to those provocative closing sentences, observers demanded to know: What did he mean?
A Closer Look
Professor Ronald Jackson, head of African-American studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, told The Root that there's often a disconnect between how a message is received in the moment and how it soaks in the next day.
"People can be moved by a presentation because of how it connects with their sense of who they are," said Jackson, co-author of Understanding African American Rhetoric: Classical Origins to Contemporary Innovations. He characterized the president's speech, in both cadence and content, as being tailored to the perspective of its audience. "But like any emotion, whether it's anger or happiness, that has a short-term effect. You feel it in the moment, and then it begins to dissipate. In the days after, people are starting to think more deeply about what they heard."
Yet many others, such as Waters and Milloy, immediately objected to words like "stop complaining, stop grumbling, stop crying." Particularly since black legislators spent much of the summer airing their frustration over the president's inaction on black unemployment, the words rang as decidedly personal.
"When you hear him say that, it sounds like black people can't complain with any sort of legitimacy about the concessions that Obama has made as he's drifted toward the center," said Jackson. "But there are legitimate concerns there."
Faking the Funk?
Richard Leeman, a professor of African-American oratory at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and co-editor of the forthcoming The Will of a People: Great Speeches by African Americans, had a different interpretation of Obama's infamous last words. The president, he said, was clearly referring to gripes about the Republican obstructionists that he called out in the section just before that.
"He was making the same kind of appeal that a preacher makes as a way of connecting with his congregation," Leeman told The Root. "He was chastising them a bit, but I don't think he was angry. The chastising was meant to reinvigorate the audience and draw them together, which you find often in African-American preachers, before creating a positive message out of it. In this case that message was: We have a long way to go, and we need to keep working at it."
Of course, there is the small detail of Obama being the president of the United States, not a black preacher. Some critics even found his gospel speechifyin' demeanor offensive. Jackson argues that the president's rhetorical code switching for black crowds is a device that many leaders, from Booker T. Washington to Malcolm X, have employed over the years.
"Even when Maxine Waters speaks to a black audience, she's a little more casual and more identified with that audience than she is when she's talking on the floor of Congress," Jackson said, explaining that the relaxed rhythm signals not only a strategy to align oneself culturally with black folks but also a sense of comfort with that particular audience.
Jackson and Leeman disagree with claims that the effect, when used by Obama, is somehow inauthentic. "What you hear there is coming very much out of the community roots that are part of his background," said Leeman, adding that Obama used the same cadence before 2008 campaign crowds of all types. "I think that is an authentic voice for Obama. It's just not his only voice."
Responding to criticism of the president's speech, the White House maintains that the remarks have been taken out of context. "I think what the president was saying was that he's fighting for a lot of the folks that were in that room," Kevin Lewis, White House director of African-American media, told the Huffington Post's Black Voices. "And calling on not only the CBC but lawmakers and folks … across the country to join him."
It may be unfair to separate the speech's last paragraph from the rest of it, as many reports have, but that comes with the territory of being a public figure. Particularly a black one.
"That's a situation that African-American speakers have been in forever," said Leeman. "[TV journalist] Louis Lomax talked specifically about it in one of his speeches. He said, 'Any time we say anything about what the black community needs to do, or taking responsibility for something, that's all the white audience hears. They never hear the other part of the message.' "
Leeman continued that emphasizing such remarks in isolation can be a way of blaming African Americans for social inequities (See, this black person said that black folks need to take responsibility for themselves!), though he added that Obama did himself no favors by leaving that part for the end. "We know in communications that, if you want people to pay attention, it's about what you put in the beginning and in the end. So it was an unfortunate last paragraph."
And regardless of how the president intended the passage, there's no denying that they were his words. "We can't have a full interpretation without talking to him personally, but what he said was frustrating," said Jackson. "I think it activated a reflex that many black people have in America, and that is to say that people are trying to attack or undermine us. Here he is almost affirming the stereotype that we just sit around complaining, and now we have to counteract that when people hear the speech."
For her part, Rep. Waters explained that she didn't actually view the president's remark as an attack. He did, perhaps, get carried away, and go off script, in the electricity of the moment. "I certainly don't believe that he thinks that the Congressional Black Caucus is sitting around in house slippers," she said on MSNBC's NewsNation by Monday afternoon. "I don't think he really meant that, and we're not going to hold it against him."
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.