His Way With Words Begins at the Pulpit

By Michael Eric Dyson
Sunday, January 18, 2009

Barack Obama's inaugural address could be one of the most eagerly anticipated speeches ever given. As the world awaits his words on Tuesday, the speculation is rife: Will he be as eloquent as Lincoln? Can he match the oratory of JFK? Or even of Ronald Reagan?

But to understand what Obama does with language -- how words crackle and sentences simmer, or sing, in his mouth -- you can't just turn to theories of rhetoric or listen to other gifted presidential communicators. You have to get a feel for black speech, whose best rhetoricians marry style and substance to spawn a uniquely earthy eloquence. I expect Obama's inaugural address to reflect this speech in full, the kind of speech he heard for years from black preachers in the church pulpit. Because as much praise as he has justly received for speaking in a way that doesn't assault the white eardrum or worldview, his rhetoric is firmly rooted in black soil.

Consider a campaign speech he gave last Jan. 23, in Sumter, S.C. He was a bit peeved at how his ideas about taxes were being misrepresented by his opponents in the Democratic presidential primaries, and at how his acknowledgment of Reagan's ability to get Democrats to vote Republican had been unfairly twisted into praise for the Great Communicator's ideas. Addressing a largely African American audience, Obama let loose with the black tradition known as signifying -- in which the speaker hints at ideas or meanings that are veiled to outsiders.

"They're trying to bamboozle you," he said. "It's the same old okie-doke. Y'all know about okie doke, right?" he asked, as the audience erupted in laughter at his comic timing. Keeping up the humor, he protested the idea that he was a Muslim, insisting, in a spurt of black English, that "I've been a member of the same church for almost 20 years, prayin' to Jesus -- wit' my Bible." And he repeated his theme of political trickery: "They try to bamboozle you. Hoodwink ya. Try to hoodwink ya. All right, I'm having too much fun here."

Ironically, in style and substance, Obama's flight of rhetoric echoed, of all people, Malcolm X -- or at least the one portrayed in Spike Lee's biopic, who says in a memorable speech from the film, "You've been hoodwinked. You've been had. You've been took. You've been led astray, led amok. You've been bamboozled." Obama was making a risky move that played to inside-group understanding even as he campaigned in the white mainstream: While denying that he was Muslim, he fastened onto the rhetoric of the most revered Black Muslim, mimicking his tone and rhythm beat for beat.

It was a gutsy, playfully defiant gesture, rife with black humor and speech. But if you weren't familiar with black culture, most of what he said and how he said it went right over your head -- and beyond your ears.

Or hark back to the first time Obama got our attention -- with the keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. On that occasion, he obeyed the black preacher's dictum: "Start low, go slow, rise high, strike fire and sit down." After telling the story of his biracial roots, applauding the aspirations of ordinary Americans and praising the virtues of democracy, all in measured tones, he built steadily and rhythmically, with shifting cadences and varied registers, to a climax that exploded in lines of warning to cynics who would divide the country into blue and red states, thinking that they had color-coded the country's ideological divorce: "Well, I say to them tonight, there is not a liberal America and a conservative America; there is the United States of America. There is not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States" -- a slight pause, on beat, for more emphasis still -- "of America."

And he capped his oration with a device often used by black preachers in backwoods and urban pulpits alike: anaphora, or repeating the same word or phrase at the beginning of successive sentences. "I believe that we can give our middle class relief. . . . I believe we can provide jobs for the jobless. . . . I believe that we have a righteous wind at our backs."

Martin Luther King Jr. relied heavily on anaphora, especially in the "I have a dream" refrain of his most famous speech. And Obama used it to brilliant effect after he won a surprise victory in the Iowa caucuses against Hillary Rodham Clinton: "They said this day would never come. They said our sights were set too high. They said this country was too divided." But of course it wasn't, because a black man had pulled off an unlikely upset in a nearly all-white state. And a mere five days later, after barely losing the New Hampshire primary to a surging Clinton, Obama rallied his troops with a bit of what's known as epistrophe as he trumpeted a now-famous phrase at the end of several serial clauses: "Yes, we can."

This is not to say that Obama has mastered every type of public communication. Yes, he beat John McCain in debate, but that's because Clinton took him and the rest of the field to school during most of the Democratic primary slugfests. Obama's penchant for professorial rambling plays well in the classroom, but it thudded in the debate forum. Although television is now in color, it often requires a black-and-white straightforwardness. Obama ruminated and was sometimes desultory; Clinton was crisp and precise, detailed and deliberate. In debating McCain, Obama had clearly learned a lot from her.

Moreover, Obama's speech is sprinkled with hiccups and hitches, "ahs" and "ums" -- a verbal tic encouraged, no doubt, in academe, where one learns to be extremely cautious, reluctant to offer sweeping statements without justification, and where arguments sometimes die the death of a thousand qualifications. In such a setting -- and I can tell by my own speech -- "ahs" and "ums" are not uncommon.

But there may be more to Obama's "ahs" than meets the ear. Every conversation about black speech is a conversation about black intelligence, and ultimately, about black humanity. Obama's speech, like that of other blacks, may be pressured by the awareness that what he says will be nearly infinitely parsed. To be sure, that's true for most politicians. But it's even truer for a black politician, even one like Obama who has gained fame for his ability to talk.

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