Sunday, February 04, 2007

The Double Bind of Articulateness

Joe Biden rightly got into hot water for his tone-deaf-if-not/(perhaps not)-explicitly-racist characterization of Barack Obama as “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” In today's New York Times, Lynette Clemenson writes: "There are not enough column inches on this page to parse interpretations of each of Mr. Biden’s chosen adjectives." These would presumably include all of them, each of which is ripe for analysis and criticism: "first," "mainstream," "African-American," "articulate," "bright," "clean," and "nice-looking," maybe even "guy."

Biden could have saved it all by adding that "I don't think all of America has gotten around to evaluating Senator Obama on his full experience and merits," which would have done him the double service of distancing himself from the weird half-informed limited praise everyone has heaped on Obama while subtly suggesting that if they did evaluate Obama on his experience and merits, he would come up short, or at least shorter than Biden. Instead he has had to go around assuring everyone that he thinks lots of black people are bright, clean, and articulate, and Obama most of all, which is an even weirder kind of statement to be making, both racially and politically.

Barack Obama zeroed in on "first" (“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”), and Biden himself seemed to especially regret "clean," but Clemenson zeroes in on "articulate" -- which, by being the most double-edged and most often misunderstood term of art in Biden's faint praise, might drive black people nuts even more than any of the others.

Anna Perez, who used to work for Condoleeza Rice and George Bush, files it under (surprise) "the soft bigotry of low expectations." Penn prof Michael Eric Dyson says "You hear it and you just think, ‘Damn, this again?’ ” D.L. Hughley says, "subtle words like this are more insidious. It’s like weight loss. The last few pounds are the hardest to get rid of. It’s the last vestiges of racism that are hard to get rid of." (I think the NYT's "get rid off" is a typo.)

This mode of analysis, which owes its popular dissemination to Chris Rock's fantastic rant about Colin Powell's reception in 1996's Bring the Pain -- "'Speak so well' is what you say about retarded people who can talk" -- demands reiteration, again and again. But I wonder if there's another way in which we can think about this as well.

Certainly, "articulate" can be used by white people to distinguish black people who speak and enunciate in clear, standard (white) English from "other" blacks, who apparently sound to average white ears like they're mumbling some unintelligible hoodoo dialect. ("Stewardess? I speak jive.") Brown University prof -- I almost just wrote "Brown prof," and corrected myself before I understood why I thought it needed a correction -- Tricia Rose makes a nice argument that despite his oratory skills, because Al Sharpton "speaks with a cadence and style that is firmly rooted in black rhetorical tradition you will rarely hear white people refer to him as articulate.”

On the other hand, though, this is the real paradox of articulateness, and where the black rhetorical tradition comes in. White people might believe that most black people fall short of basic standards of articulateness, but when it comes to exceptional articulacy, especially in the political arena, American whites -- and especially white liberals -- have nearly always turned to African-Americans. Lincoln was an outstanding writer and public speaker, but the voice of abolition was Frederick Douglass; Martin Luther King Jr. trumped JFK, LBJ, and RFK (no slouches themselves); and most white liberals burned for Michael Dukakis and John Kerry to have something, anything, of the rhetorical gifts of Jesse Jackson, Sharpton, or Obama. White liberals nominate white candidates and elect white presidents, but they have always counted on blacks in the party to inspire them and fire them up. Bill Clinton managed and manages to do and be both, which much more than his charm, a poor southern past, and a love of soul food is why he really was America's first black president.

So calling a black politician articulate or charismatic, and even more so, using their charisma to raise money, fire up convention delegates, elect other candidates, or make a political party feel more inclusive than it really is -- and I think this is true for both Democrats and Republicans -- isn't just a way of silently condemning a distorted image of the black majority. It's also a way of carefully circumscribing that politician's role within the party and his/her relationship to the public. It's why Martin Luther King is remembered as a craftsman of beautiful words and sentiments rather than as an organizer and strategist of what really was a political opposition party -- the most important third political party that the United States has ever had.

This, too, I think provides some of the context for and stakes of Obama's positioning of himself as outside the traditional categories of baby-boomer politics. Part of the construction of black politics, stemming from the civil rights era, limits the range of issues on which black politicians (and black intellectuals, too) find themselves consulted on and given political and media attention for. In the political opposition, this took the verbal form of "outside agitator" -- even when the "agitators" were from the South -- and applied to blacks and whites seeking to exercise civil rights for blacks. But liberals, too, have tended to think of black politicians as "our agitators" -- the party's voice on all issues having to do with race, and often with poverty, crime, the criminal justice system, and cities. Again, quoting Chris Rock: Al Sharpton "isn't Martin or Malcolm, but if you get your ass kicked by the cops, he's a good person to call."

Obama already has the Clintonian story, the legendary convention speech, and despite his relative newness to national politics, has already put in his time raising money and helping other candidates get elected. All of these things are well-known. What he has to do, and what he has been more successful than any prior African-American presidential candidate in doing, is to refuse being bound by his articulateness, even by his supporters. This is why what looks like Obama's move to the center, his attempt to "move past the racial politics of the past," which could be construed as pandering to white voters skeptical of electing a black candidate, is exactly the opposite. Obama is demanding that he be taken seriously, and not just as a skilled and useful voice of racial and economic justice. In short, he is asking America to evaluate him on his merits. And this is why what Biden was actually trying to say, that Obama presents a pretty picture, a political phenomenon without being genuinely worthy of presidential consideration, may be more racially backwards than any of his troubling adjectives.

1 comment:

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