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An Inarticulate Kickoff

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By Eugene Robinson
Friday, February 2, 2007

What is it, exactly, that white people mean when they call a black person "articulate"?

I'll leave it to Joe Biden to explain (or figure out) why he used "clean" as one of a logorrheic string of adjectives describing his Senate colleague Barack Obama. I'm not sure his initial revision and extension of his remarks -- that he meant "clean as a whistle" -- get him off the hook. Just a suggestion, but Biden might fall back to "clean as the Board of Health," meaning sharply dressed; the last time I saw Obama he was, indeed, wearing an impeccable navy suit.

For anyone who missed it, Biden explained Obama's appeal as a presidential candidate by calling him "the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy." He was talking to a reporter for the New York Observer, who recorded the interview; an audio clip was soon posted on the Internet.

There was a sharp reaction, mostly focused on Biden's incomprehensible reference to personal hygiene. The Rev. Al Sharpton, a one-time presidential candidate, said that when Biden called him to apologize, " I told him I take a bath every day."

For my part, I never made it past "articulate," a word that's like fingernails on a blackboard to my ear. As it happens, President Bush used that same word Wednesday to describe Obama. "He's an attractive guy. He's articulate," Bush told Fox News.

Will wonders never cease? Here we have a man who graduated from Columbia University, who was president of the Harvard Law Review, who serves in the U.S. Senate and is the author of two best-selling books, who's a leading contender for the Democratic presidential nomination, and what do you know, he turns out to be articulate. Stop the presses.

It's interesting that Obama's reaction dealt solely with the A-word. "I didn't take Senator Biden's comments personally, but obviously they were historically inaccurate," he said in a statement. "African-American presidential candidates like Jesse Jackson, Shirley Chisholm, Carol Moseley Braun and Al Sharpton gave a voice to many important issues through their campaigns, and no one would call them inarticulate."

Maybe he heard the screech on the blackboard, too.

Yes, I'm ranting a bit. But before you accuse me of being hypersensitive, try to think of the last time you heard a white public figure described as articulate. Acclaimed white orators such as Bill Clinton and John Edwards are more often described as eloquent.

What's intriguing is that Jackson and Sharpton are praised as eloquent, too -- both men are captivating speakers who calibrate their words with great precision. But neither is often described as, quote, articulate. Apparently, something disqualifies them.

Condi Rice is another story. Regular readers know that I think this administration's foreign policy is wrongheaded and dangerous. But I leap to Rice's defense when I hear people say, in the most patronizing tone, that she's soooooo articulate. What on earth do they expect? The woman has served as provost of Stanford University, national security adviser and secretary of state. Think maybe she ought to be able to speak in complete sentences?

I realize the word is intended as a compliment, but it's being used to connote a lot more than the ability to express one's thoughts clearly. It's being used to say more, even, than "here's a black person who speaks standard English without a trace of Ebonics."

The word articulate is being used to encompass not just speech but a whole range of cultural cues -- dress, bearing, education, golf handicap. It's being used to describe a black person around whom white people can be comfortable, a black person who not only speaks white America's language but is fluent in its body language as well.

And the word is often pronounced with an air of surprise, as if it's an improbable and wondrous thing that a black person has somehow cracked the code. I can't help but think of the famous quote from Samuel Johnson: "Sir, a woman preaching is like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all."

Articulate is really a shorthand way of describing a black person who isn't too black -- or, rather, who comports with white America's notion of how a black person should come across.

Whatever the intention, expressing one's astonishment that such individuals exist is no compliment. Just come out and say it: Gee, he doesn't sound black at all.

eugenerobinson@washpost.com


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