Black Caucus Speech: What Did Obama Mean?
Amid a backlash for his tone with black folks, experts analyze his strange remarks.
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."