Friday, January 26, 2007

Buuullshit: The Barack Obama ‘articulate’ meme

Every now and then, I intend to call "bullshit" on some mainstream-media meme or blogospheric bunkum that happens to rattle my cage.

Let’s begin with the fact that some thoughtful folks are offended by the use of the word “articulate” to describe Sen. Barack Obama. It’s condescending, they say, to call an articulate black man “articulate.” You don’t hear people going around calling white men “articulate,” do you? Because they're expected to be!

To paraphrase the old Chris Rock joke, you call somebody “articulate” when you expected him to be stupid.

Racialicious, a liberal, anti-racist blog, put up a post yesterday titled “Barack Obama is AWB: Articulate While Black.” Guest poster Philip Arthur Moore cited references to Obama as “articulate” in the Christian Science Monitor, India’s Financial Express, and on KCCI, an Iowa TV station – all within the space of a couple of days.

Paul Butler over at only needed to quote the first six words of a recent CNN profile of Obama: “Intelligent, articulate, who is Barack Obama?” A commenter named “Bennie” responded: “The patronizing racism from the media and pundits will only get worse from here on.”

To which I must say, with all due respect:

Buuullshit!! It’s not true that the media don't use the word “articulate” to describe white guys.

We have the handy example of another well-spoken Democratic candidate in this very same presidential race… another boyishly handsome lawyer who, in 2003, figured that two years in the U.S. Senate might entitle him to the keys to the White House. I’m talking about John Edwards.

Check out what people were saying – and still say – about that glib-tongued mother-huncher:

Candy Crowley, CNN: “He is a sort of, is a very articulate man. … He was front and center during the Monica Lewinsky impeachment trial of Bill Clinton and was considered very articulate during that time.” – January 1, 2003

Elwin Sherman, quoted on New Hampshire Public Radio: “He speaks well. He’s articulate. He’s a very sincere man.” – August 26, 2003

David Greenberg, Legal Affairs: “Fresh-faced and articulate, he possessed a warmth that his rivals lacked.” – January 2004

Slate partial headline: “… John Edwards is bright and articulate and really, really youthful. …” – February 6, 2004

Charles Paul Freund, Reason Online: “[A]lmost all the coverage was founded on the theme of Edwards as an articulate, appealing, and energetic political force.” – July 7, 2004

Rob McManamy, University of Chicago Chronicle: “The charismatic, passionate and articulate former U.S. Sen. John Edwards is speaking out about the need to lift more Americans out of poverty and into the middle class.” – March 2, 2006

David Hampton, (Jackson, Miss.): “Edwards is young, smart, articulate and a good Southerner with moderate tendencies and a heart for traditional Democratic issues.” – December 28, 2006 “He’s charming, he’s smart and he’s articulate.” – as of January 26, 2007

You know what? I don’t think John Edwards or his sympathizers consider it a freakin’ insult that he keeps being called “articulate.”


SJ said...

It just seems like there are some black people out there who will blame 'whitey' for everything.

This is so ridiculous it's not even funny. The guy is being complimented for god's sake.

Undercover Black Man said...

It's hard not to get paranoid sometimes, sj.

Like, there's this thing I've observed where black people will be misidentified in newspaper or magazine photo captions. I'm talking about well-known black people... and I think, "This shit doesn't happen with white people."

It happened just recently. Rolling Stone magazine with James Brown on the cover. On page 48, there's a small photo with a caption that says: "Brown with Sharpton in 1974." Except the guy with J.B. in the picture ain't Al Sharpton; it's trombonist Fred Wesley.

This happens all the time, dude! I swear! And I'm imagining the editors at Rolling Stone, and I think, "Hey dumbasses, black people know the difference between Al Sharpton and Fred Wesley. How come you don't?"

Sure, it's probably accidental. But it touches that nerve of "they all look alike," just like the "articulate" thing touches that nerve of "oh, he speaks so well!" (dripping with condescension).

I'm telling you, this photo misidentification thing goes back 20 years. I wrote a piece for Insight magazine (part of the Moonie Washington Times empire) about a TV movie, and they ran a picture of Samuel L. Jackson, but the caption said "Avery Brooks." (It was supposed to be Avery; I'd interviewed him.) I confronted an editor and she kind of laughed it off like it was no big deal. At that point, Sam Jackson wasn't the movie star he is today, but black folks loved Avery as Hawk in "Spenser: For Hire."

So black people would pick up that magazine, see the error, and feel the little pin-prick of insult... "Guess they think we all look alike."

I think I'll start keeping that scrapbook...

Every time the photo-
misidentification thing happens, I tell myself to start a scrapbook, accumulate evidence, just to prove you're not crazy-paranoid. But I never do.

This goes back 20 years. I worked

Undercover Black Man said...

Oops... got pretty sloppy at the end of that last comment. I posted it too soon. Oh well, you get my point.

SJ said...

Just so you know I am a foreign student studying here in the US (in Birmingham, AL to be exact), and I grew up in the Middle East (though I'm not Middle Eastern...).

I have a very limited view of race relations in the US as I have only lived here for nearly 3 years. I kinda know the feeling of paranoia...for ex., I was at this formal dinner yesterday where I was seated at a table full of middle aged to much older white people. I was like "God these people are going to start judging me when they get home, etc. etc.", but it turned out to be a really friendly group and I realized that I was getting paranoid for no reason.

The newspaper/magazine mistakes you mentioned reminds me: When Katrina happened showed this picture with a black guy wading through the flood with some items in hand, saying that he 'stole' them or something like that. Similarly they showed a picture of a white man doing something similar and the caption said that he was surviving.

I found the pictures:

SJ said...

It seems that links do not show up properly...just add 'ml' to the previous link.

S.O.L. said...

Great piece today, UBM. We ought to start worrying about people being called articulate when it's used to describe our current President.

Anonymous said...

I guess being "articulate" is not the worst thing to call a black person, but I'm still wary about that characteristic. Noted black conservative John McWhorter noted a scene in his book "Losing the Race" where he cringed during a commencement address when a black high school speaker flubbed a word.

Yes it's a petty reaction from a right-wing hack from a think tank, but if this is what we get from this supposedly fellow black man, how do you think his white patrons really feel?

submandave said...

sj, re the two pictures I remember when they were published it was the same person who wrote both captions and described the reasoning as follows: the individual labeled as "stealing" was observed to go into a store and exit with the items, the individual labeled as "surviving" had grabbed the items as they floated by on the street. The photographer did not consider the fact that the former was black and the latter white until a contraversy alleging racism in captioning arose.

Not saying there isn't a problem in general, just that this was a poor example to use. I'd rather bust someone for something they really did than for something someone thought they did.

Believer said...

We need healing! How can we get past the hurt?

Barack Obama is articulate and intelligent regardless of his skin color. Let the praises for this man stand alone.

Anonymous said...

You see what you want to see. Me, I saw (and wanted to see) the description of any politician as "articulate" as distinguishing one from George W. Bush, as inarticulate a person as ever lived. That, by the way, easily refutes the assertion that whites are "expected" to be articulate. Some people are just more articulate than others, and Barack Obama is more articulate than most people, white, black, or otherwise. I say this, having read his books, by the way.

Anonymous said...

The comparison to Edwards is interesting - to me it says that they are both rookies, superficial pols without much of a track record - and that "articulate" is the best that the media types can come up with to complement them (at least without revealing too much about both candidates' liberal agendas). I would note, however, that Donald Trump was excoriated for referring to a black man as very well spoken.

As to the comparison with Condi - while a lot of folks would pan her performance over the last 8 years, her CV prior to that point was extaordinary - a real child prodigy, amazing pianist. So far Obama has not done anything that a fairly intelligent law school graduate could not do - Condi's done and can do stuff that very few of us can do.

Anonymous said...

I would note, however, that Donald Trump was excoriated for referring to a black man as very well spoken.

I don't recall this incident, but given it's Trump, I wouldn't be surprised if his tone of voice made his comment seem less than flattering.

Anonymous said...

I just stumbled on this page and now I see it's got some Japanese content, which is strange, because I'm in Japan too - is Undercover in Japan? A mystery at this point.

Anyway, for some reason - wait! I remember! I just heard a Jesse Jackson interview on the Super Bowl radio broadcast here, and I COULD NOT UNDERSTAND HIM. Like, several phrases were incomprehensible to me - I had some thoughts I wanted to express. I am a 61-year old white jazz saxophonist, so you know I've been around a bit and am both comfortable with and appreciative of the ryhthms and colorations of black dialects. Jesse's Keep Hope Alive speech at the Demo convention, both deliciously black and simultaneously eloquent was unforgettable and moving. As regards the "articulate" issue, my sense is that even if the word is used elsewhere for whites, this came in conjunction with "clean" and "bright and nice-looking." Sorry, that's whitey way over the top for me: it was an unconscious racial slur and (as detailed by Lynnette Clemetson in the NYT ( it's not an uncommon event.

HOWEVER, what struck me today, and what I would like a reaction to, is this: was Joe Biden's flub expressive of a typical dissatisfaction among white people with a tendency in black culture generally to perpetuate a kind of speech that "separates them from whites" and "hurts their chances for economic progress?" Granted, there are millions of Afro-Americans who choose to speak "white enough" to make themselves "presentable" in the business world. But I think this is the case with Biden. He was saying (consciously or unconsciously) "Why can't black people just talk "normally?" He wants blacks to sound like whites.

For me, the poignant aspect of it is that there is a kind of emotional truth, a truth of feeling and heart in traditional black dialect that America needs to feel. I was around when Dr. King made America feel this in 1963. I can't think of any white speakers since then who could bring appropriate passion to the issues of the day.

So to wrap up this long-winded thing, there are two sides of it to me. One, I am wondering if others feel that the "attitude-laden" aspects of black communication (i.e. ebonics) inherently discourage upward mobility in the lower class black communities. And two, I long to hear more passionate black voices on the political/social scene. If Obama is that (I haven't even heard him yet) that's good. I think for all the "Christianization" of white people, the fact is that they can be persuaded through fear tactics by an idiot in a cowboy hat to bomb the shit out of an Arab nation and totally f___ up their infrastructure, to neglect Katrina victims, and on and on. We need PASSION on the left. That's where I'm coming from on that. Now you can kick my white ass around some if you like. Just don't mess with my chops, I need them to play tenor like Joe Henderson used to (you know if he was like ill or partly paralyzed).

Undercover Black Man said...

Hey anonymous, glad you found me on the other side of the planet. As for this site having "Japanese content"... shit, bro, I hope that's just a glitch in your browser. (And we know how painful those can be.) I'm in California, though I've always wanted to see Tokyo. (They love the P-Funk over there, so I’m told.)

Also, speaking of jazz saxophonists... I just saw Pharoah Sanders at Catalina's last night. I'll blog about it in a day or two, so please come back for that. (As for Joe Henderson... if you can hang with this, I want to know your name.)

Now, to the crux of your comment. The ways of black speech, I fear, will always be a topic fraught with controversy, conflict and confusion. The same speech pattern that gets Obama praised as "articulate" by whites also signifies to some blacks that Obama isn't "one of us."

This happens in reverse too, like when Bill Cosby dogged Wanda Sykes on a live Emmy broadcast because of her ghettoish diction. (Cosby said something like, “At least we spoke English.”)

Members of the black middle class, particularly those with recent roots in the working and lower classes, are functionally "bilingual"... expressing themselves one way among whites, another way amongst themselves. I understand this, and other ethnic groups are no doubt similar (Latinos, some Jews).

But as a writer who loves the English language, it pains me to hear people who just can’t speak it well… especially black folks in notable positions, like Congressman John Lewis and former police chief Charles Moose.

Wirkman Virkkala said...

I'm with the original post. This whole meme is suspect. The context is not race, in this case, it's politics.

As I wrote about here.

Still, I understand how a black person might be suspicious. Were I black, I wouldn't want to be associated in any way with nine-tenths of the famous black people.

But then, as a white person, I'm lucky NOT to be associated, by race or any other identifier, with the 999 out of a thousand idiots on TV, in the media, or in politics who are "white."

Anonymous said...

You just proved your own point, UBM: David Hampton, (Jackson, Miss.): “Edwards is young, smart, articulate and a good Southerner with moderate tendencies and a heart for traditional Democratic issues.” – December 28, 2006 “He’s charming, he’s smart and he’s articulate.” – as of January 26, 2007

They expected John Edwards to be a dumb Southerner like Bush. Surprisingly, he is a charming, smart, and articulate GOOD SOUTHERNER!!!!! Thank you Chris Rock.

Anonymous said...

I'm white and when I say Barack is articulate I'm not using it as code for "speaks white english" or "he speaks well even though he's black".

I mean (surprise surprise) that he is articulate.

Dear black folks,
Calling someone articulate is not always an insult. I know it can be sometimes, but Barack is a fantastic public speaker and deserves the label.

So I'm going to continue to call Barack articulate (gasp). I'll say it right to his face. I don't care.

I'm certainly not going to edit everything I say when I speak to a person of color. That would be making a big deal of their race every time I interact with them. And that seems kinda, well, racist.