Tuesday, January 8, 2008

The Slang Thang

Ezra Klein makes a good point:

...One element of Obama's appeal to young people that has not garnered much attention is his speech patterns. Not the oratorical brilliance he demonstrates on the stump, but the slang. There was something undeniably powerful about watching him lean into the microphone the night he won the Iowa Caucus and saying, "Give it up for my wife Michelle!" Politicians don't say "give it up." My generation does. They also don't say, by way of greeting, "what's going on?" And they shake hands, they don't, as Obama often does, slap into a clasp linked around the thumbs.

I noticed the "Give it up for my wife, Michelle!" last week myself. There's also a point in the interview I linked to here when he refers to his security detail as a bunch of secret service guys "who are packing". When I heard it, my first thought was 'Does everyone who hears that know he's referring to their guns?' My second was, 'Can he really afford to talk street like that?' I was reminded of a recent Matthew Yglesias post in which he wondered if America was ready for a President who watches The Wire.

There's something more complicated going on here than just a generational thing, though. Because Obama isn't of the same generation as the young people in the audience, or as Ezra Klein, for that matter. And while they've grown up in a generation where everyone speaks hip hop, Obama didn't. This is language that has become the way young people speak, but has its origins in the way black people spoke.

The fact that Obama can so seamlessly and authentically insinuate it into the political discourse says something about the gray area of American identity that he inhabits, between black and white, street and campus, authentic and constructed. But in "transcending" race, Obama in fact represents a composite of several American racial archetypes. He's the black man who alleviates white guilt by making white people feel comfortable about race. He's the hip black man who makes square white people feel like they're "down" by unself-consciously talking to them as if they were. He's also the black man who managed to "play the white man's game" without losing his street cred, an uncommon but archetypal black persona that combines aspects of the House and Field Negroes while being wholly neither. (Specifically, neither servile as the former nor angry as the latter.)

By all appearances, Obama's just one of those guys, and in particular one of those black guys, who gets props wherever he goes and whoever he's with. That it's in a style that's more recognizable to younger people is understandable. But it's not an age thang. It's a black thang.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   Race In America   

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