Friday, February 2, 2007

My last word on articulaciousness

Boy oh boy, the blogosphere is buzzing over the Biden-Obama brouhaha concerning the a-word.

Philip Arthur Moore, whose “Articulate While Black” post at Racialicious prompted me to sound off in the first place (here and for the Huffington Post), was triumphal on Wednesday. Moore’s follow-up post on his own blog was titled: “Joe Biden proves my point about Barack Obama. (David Mills, what say you now?)”

Yeah, I deserved to get called out. So this morning I posted a comment on Moore’s blog and ate my humble pie. Indeed, Sen. Biden provided a perfect demonstration of what Moore was talking about: the condescension of white people who praise black folks as “articulate.”

I shouldn’t have called “bullshit” on the man. Regardless of the word’s occasional use in describing John Edwards or Hillary Clinton, “articulate” can totally be a backhanded insult when applied to blacks.

In my comment, I tried to refine my main point. I asked Mr. Moore:

“Can we agree on a middle ground? To wit: as Freud said, just like a cigar is sometimes a phallic symbol and sometimes it’s just a cigar, couldn’t the word ‘articulate,’ even when applied to Obama, sometimes be a patronizing put-down but sometimes be a valid, value-neutral descriptor? … Is EVERY use of the word ‘articulate’ re: Obama an insult? Or just some of the time?”

Philip Moore posted a gracious reply, which reads in part:

“Admittedly Biden’s comment was a bit of a gimme that proved my point, but I’ve heard the word ‘articulate’ thrown around again and again, and it’s usually with a different tone than when it is in regard to Edwards or Clinton. But, I can surely meet you on the middle ground.”

A civil exchange on the Internet… how about that?

Meanwhile, a commenter at the Huffington Post yesterday wrote:

“Let’s try golf: Google ‘Tiger Woods’ ‘Articulate.’ Then Google ‘Jack Nicklaus’ ‘Articulate’ – hell any well-spoken white golfer for that matter. Still think it’s not a tad racist?”

This guy must not know about me. I can play this game all day long. It’s more fun than Sudoku!

Instead of comparing Tiger Woods with a white golfer, how about another white pro athlete… say, baseball pitcher Curt Schilling?

Dennis Manoloff, Baseball Digest: “Schilling, 36, can speak on a variety of subjects, and people will listen. It helps that he is one of the more intelligent, articulate players in any clubhouse.” – August 2003

Seth Stevenson, Slate: “He’s articulate and funny, and he’s dorky enough to play online fantasy games like EverQuest…” – December 3, 2003

Letter to the Boston Globe: “Why subpoena Curt Schilling for the congressional steroid hearings? Because he is outspoken and articulate? That isn't fair.” – March 15, 2005

Michael McCann, Sports Law Blog, on the congressional steroid hearings: “Curt Schilling: Most articulate and most comfortable, by far.” – March 17, 2005

Jonah Keri, “Talented and cerebral, ornery and articulate, the big righty snatched the spotlight from his team's other ace starter.” – July 28, 2006

Like I said, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

At, they’re getting real deep. The comment sections at Blackprof consistently host some of the feistiest, frankest discussions of race to be found online. This topic was made for those folks.

“Malik” commented yesterday: “It's simple really. ‘Articulate’ is shorthand for, ‘gee, you don't sound at all like I expect a black person to sound. If I closed my eyes, I could almost imagine you were white!’”

But “anthony” wrote: “With all due respect to fellow blacks who were insulted or offended: please lighten up! We have too many substantive things to be insulted and offended by to waste time fulminating against Biden based on tortured inferences drawn from his comments. … We are made of sterner stuff. But this thin-skin furor reflects a hypersensitivity that's almost embarrassing.”

I’ll give the last word to “D”: “I have decided to stop caring. Not about white people's comments, but about black people's ones. All the shit we have going on in our community. All the problems. And yet all we can focus on is whitey. Whitey didn't make my cousin get pregnant at the age of 18… I'm sick of it all. Black folks WAKE UP”


ItAintEazy said...

This whole thing reminds me of the one line DeAndre said during your miniseries "The Corner" when the interviewer asked him if he knew what the word "melodramatic" means.

"I know what it mean! You think I have to be some college-assed, tie-wearing motherfucker to know what words mean?"

Apparently you CAN be a college-assed, tie-wearing motherfucker and still be associated with the ghetto rats.

I think the reason why the word "articulate" gets under the skins of so many educated professional black people is that despite their accomplishments their perceptions among whites and others are still denigrated by the existence of people like DeAndre.

The thing I liked about The Wire and The Corner is that it doesn't shy away from the reality of things. I'm watching the third season, and the detectives listening on the wiretap have hired an interpretor in order to make sense of the scattered ebonics the black corner people are using.

But still, how many of us like to drop into our style of speaking when the white folks aren't around? Not saying that the complainers need to look at themselves, but as you point out there are a lot more to this controversy than some of us would like to think.

Undercover Black Man said...

itainteazy, you wrote: "But still, how many of us like to drop into our style of speaking when the white folks aren't around?"

This reminds me of a conversation I had with the great David Milch back in the mid-'90s, before he hired me as a writer on "NYPD Blue." Milch had gotten into a little trouble when he publicly expounded on why black writers don't tend to succeed in TV.

His theory, as he expressed it to me, was that blacks can't move outside of their blackness and write about the "mainstream," whereas Jews are particularly successful in writing for television because Jews live both inside and outside the white mainstream, and that "doubleness" is a great vantage point for a dramatic writer.

I tried to explain to him that the black middle class experiences this same "doubleness": we have to survive economically in the white world (dealing with white professors, white bosses, white co-workers, etc.) but we live culturally in the black world. Like you say, most of us are almost "bilingual" in how we express ourselves in the white world and the black world.

Also, for most of us in the middle class, we've often got cousins or neices and nephews, etc., still on the ghetto side of things. We live that American "doubleness"... perhaps not as profoundly as Jews, but I think blacks are well positioned to address the cultural mainstream. We grew up watching "The Flintstones" and "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" like everybody else. We're hip to the Beatles (though maybe not to Dylan). We've got one foot in and one foot out of the white mainstream.

I do agree with Milch (who became a mentor and friend to me, beyond just a boss) that that "doubleness" is a good position from which to tell stories about America.

ItAintEazy said...

His theory, as he expressed it to me, was that blacks can't move outside of their blackness and write about the "mainstream," whereas Jews are particularly successful in writing for television because Jews live both inside and outside the white mainstream, and that "doubleness" is a great vantage point for a dramatic writer.

One of these days, the people running the media empires are going to have to be honest about why they are so averse to hiring black writers and actors and take their beatings over how utterly ridiculous their positions are.

You'd think the accomplishments of Michael G. Moye (whaa? "Silver Spoons" and "Married With Children were created by a black man?!!) would have demolished that perception among the Hollywood executives. But I guess lessons are hard to learn in that town.

susie said...

David - I thought of you last night while watching Meet the Press with Edwards burbling incoherently about his health plan.

Articulate he was not.

Looking forward to your comments on the Superbowl if you watched it, particularly that Coke commercial that ended "Especially Today".

Undercover Black Man said...

Hey Suze. I sat out the Super Bowl, actually. Except for the halftime show, of course. (Prince killed it. Love when he threw his doo-rag into the crowd.)

Figure I'll see what I missed on S.O.L.'s blog.

everythingis said...

Under cover black man,

It's Me Yance,

Waz uuupp!

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