Talking Whose Talk?


Over at POLITICO, Nia-Malika Henderson writes a great bit on the different voices that belong to President Barack Obama:

In January remarks about the economy, Obama made a reference to “American dreams that are being deferred,” a phrase black audiences understood without a citation as black poet Langston Hughes’. First lady Michelle Obama often cites her upbringing in the “South Side of Chicago.” On Election Night, the winner promised that “we as a people will get there,” an echo of Martin Luther King Jr. made more powerful by not expressly invoking King’s name.

Or a year ago in South Carolina, when he tried to swat down the persistent rumors that he is Muslim. “They try to bamboozle you, hoodwink you,” Obama said that night, in what many listeners heard as an unmistakable reference to activist Malcolm X, as portrayed in Spike Lee’s movie.


Ta-Nehisi Coates adds that he “remember[s] watching Tim Russert try to tie Obama to Farrakhan, and thinking, "Don't they know this dude has been paraphrasing Malcolm X? Why aren't they asking him about that?"

My first notice of this “black voiced” Obama was when the Democratic primary rolled to South Carolina; during the much-reported on Sunday morning post-church rally with Oprah Winfrey in December, the candidate strode out before a sea of church hats, crying “Givin’ all glory and honor to GAH-WD.” A month later, when appearing with Sen. John Kerry in Columbia, SC, for one of the first endorsements after his New Hampshire loss, Obama rattled off a litany of problems facing ordinary Americans and concluded, “It ain’t right.”

Where was that voice in Iowa? These were subtle slips into signifyin’ that were met with good natured understanding on the part of black and white, old and young Americans. Zadie Smith has written on the virtues of a polyphonic Obama: “Obama can do young Jewish male, black old lady from the South Side, white woman from Kansas, Kenyan elders, white Harvard nerds, black Columbia nerds, activist women, churchmen, security guards, bank tellers, and even a British man called Mr. Wilkerson,” she writes—though Henderson seems to think there is some troubling secret code contained in the different voices.

But my understanding is that Obama is just a really chameleonic listener and speaker. He’s lived everywhere and understands many Americans. Even if he did “talk black”—what would that mean? Blacks and whites from Louisiana sound more similar to one another than my Nigerian parents sound like hyphy-loving black folk in Oakland. I criticized Obama’s encompassing style in my piece on Eric Holder. But that inherent understanding of plural perspectives is what makes a good politician, and carried Obama through the campaign. And in an age where kids of all races have homogenized their lingo and synchronized their style, it’s a little silly to be dicing the president into his black and white vocal chords. He’s never liked sound bites, anyway.

Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.