His Way With Words Begins at the Pulpit

By Michael Eric Dyson
Sunday, January 18, 2009; B01

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.

We got a glimpse of the surprise at black verbal facility in 2007, when Sen. Joe Biden made his gaffe about Obama being "the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy." It wasn't the fact that Biden recognized that Obama could talk that raised eyebrows among blacks; it was the fact that in his view, and perhaps that of millions more, Obama was the first "articulate" and bright African American to chase the presidency. Behind his praise of Obama was an assumption of the vices of black speech, a suspicion of its ability to be eloquent or analytical. But contrary to misperceptions, black speech at its best proves that style is not a substitute, but a vehicle, for substance. Because we pay attention to how we say what we say doesn't mean that we have nothing to say.

Obama took no offense at Biden's words but called them "historically inaccurate." Black presidential candidates including Jesse Jackson, Shirley Chisholm, Carol Moseley Braun and Al Sharpton, he said, had given "a voice to many important issues through their campaigns, and no one would call them inarticulate." Obama understood that his gifts made him an extension of, not an exception to, the group.

Still, it is odd, even dispiriting, that the broad public remains ignorant of black oral and verbal performance. The complex signifying, verbal devices, oratorical talents and rhetorical mastery taken for granted in the black church, for instance, are largely unknown outside it. Yet there is a linguistic trace in Obama's speech that leads straight to the black pulpit.

Obama's "audacity of hope" is a phrase that my late, beloved pastor, Frederick Sampson, who ministered at Detroit's Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church, first uttered in a sermon many years ago, and that Jeremiah Wright repeated in a sermon that Obama heard. There is little doubt that Obama heard many masters of black sacred rhetoric at Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ during his 20-year membership there, including Wright, Sampson, Charles Adams, James Forbes, Vashti McKenzie, Freddie Haynes, Lance Watson, Rudolph McKissick and Renita Weems. These ministers attract large followings, drawing thousands to hear them preach with educated zeal and verbal artistry, shaping words to sharpen minds, revive spirits, condemn social injustice, relieve the vulnerable and uplift the downcast. When Obama opens his mouth, many of these same ideas flow out.

There is a question, however, of how much black sacred rhetoric can survive the flight from prophecy to political power. After all, much of the rhetoric of the black church has been drawn from the imagery of the oppressed and powerless. As Obama wrote in his memoir, "Dreams From My Father," as he attended church, he "imagined the stories of ordinary black people merging with the stories of David and Goliath, Moses and Pharaoh."

But now he is in the unique position of having reversed the course: From the ranks of the oppressed has come a ruler. Pharaoh has yielded to Moses. David is now Goliath. How that changes Obama's rhetoric -- and that of the black prophets accustomed to criticizing unjust rulers -- remains to be heard.


Michael Eric Dyson, a professor of sociology at Georgetown University, is the author of the forthcoming "Can You Hear Me Now?" and "Full of Hope That the Present Has Brought Us: Obama and America."

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