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  • Articulate While Black: Barack Obama, Language, and Race in the U.S. by H. Samy Alim and Geneva Smitherman
  • Kyle T. Mays (bio)
H. Samy Alim and Geneva Smitherman Articulate While Black: Barack Obama, Language, and Race in the U.S. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2012. xvii + 205 pp. ISBN 9780199812981 paper.

In the monograph Articulate While Black: Barack Obama, Language, and Race in the U.S., co-authors H. Samy Alim and Geneva Smitherman argue that it was not simply race that led to Obama's election; it was his ability to style shift between Black English and the "language of wider communication" (p. 76). He was further praised for his linguistic flexibility—the ability to speak in many language varieties to multiple audiences. Beyond Obama, this book explores [End Page 114] the link between race and U.S. political discourse, engaging fully with and adding to the cultural wars over hip hop and language rights in contemporary American society. Of the many books written on President Obama, this is one of the first to focus on his use of language. As the authors suggest, "unlike race, we have no national public dialogue on language that recognizes it as a site of cultural struggle" (p. 3). In languaging race, they demonstrate that this country is far from postracial.

In the first chapter, the authors show the effectiveness of Obama's ability to shift between African American and White speaking styles. They analyze a particular scene where, after paying the cashier at Ben's Chili Bowl in the heart of Washington, D.C., President Obama replied, "Nah, we straight." This scene not only illustrates Obama's capacity to use Black English, but also his ability to connect with the hip hop generation, using the slang term "straight" to mean he's okay. The authors shift to an exploration of the word "articulate" in chapter 2 and provide scientific evidence of a Black folk theory of its perception. Relying on survey data gathered from 50 ethnically diverse U.S. undergraduate students, the authors argue that Black people, overall, view the word "articulate," in regard to speech, as a form of racism, whereas speakers of other dialects may have a variety of differing attitudes toward the term. "Articulate" is an important trope for understanding cultural assimilation and integration and, in essence, the authors suggest that Black language speakers do not have to give up their language. Instead they can be like Obama and switch between English language varieties.

The third chapter discusses Obama's infamous "Race Speech." Facing a rhetorical situation in which he had to please both Black and White audiences, Obama "made a way outta no way" (p. 71). Relying on the Black Jeremiad rhetorical device (the Baptist preacher style with a critique of America), Obama adapted his speech to meet the needs of a contemporary "postmodern, post-Civil Rights, twenty-first-century Black and White audience" (p. 80). The authors continue in chapter 4 by tackling the "fist bump heard 'round the world" that occurred between Barack and Michelle Obama following his Democratic nomination for president. The "fist bump" between the future President and First Lady produced a media frenzy and was turned into a caricature on the cover of the New Yorker and discussed in other media outlets, such as the Washington Post (p. 95). Placing the "fist bump" (which the authors correctly call a "pound") in its proper cultural context, the authors suggest that the media's reaction illustrated how Black communicative forms are misunderstood and can become misconstrued when introduced into mainstream society. These ideas are explored further in chapter 5, in the authors' discussion of the significance of President Obama's relationship to the hip hop community. [End Page 115]

The authors conclude with a set of exercises designed for language teachers, encouraging educators to use ethnography to help students explore language varieties within their own lives. The book makes clear that President Obama is "a linguistic role model not just for Black Americans but for all Americans" (p. 168). With its unique cool pose and analytic depth, this book is unapologetically bold and refreshingly brilliant in that it's not...


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