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The New York Sun

 

Talking the Talk

April 27, 2008

By John H. McWhorter

Of late, Barack Obama has come under criticism for “gauzy” speeches heavier on music and exhortation than substance. But those wondering why Obama often shuns policy talks on the stump miss the pragmatic nature of his decision. He is channeling the most narcotic form of oratory in modern America for whites as well as blacks: a preacherly style of speaking rooted in black American tradition.

A century and change ago, William Jennings Bryan was considered the orator of the age because of his florid vocabulary and inverted syntax, which today would sound pompous and insincere. It was Martin Luther King who made the black preacher’s cadence a lingua franca, and 40 years after his assassination, “The Word of the Lord Is Upon Me,” by the Barnard sociologist Jonathan Rieder, examines King’s oratorical gift.

This admirably diligent book centers on more than just the sermons: Rieder finds it interesting that King could engage in salty Ebonics with black friends and also give sermons to whites in standard English laced with references to Paul Tillich. I, for one, do not find this attribute especially interesting, particularly compared with King’s many mesmerizing features.

Rieder analyzes how King’s varied ways of talking reflected his sense of self as it was woven into America’s social fabric. To some, the author’s distinctions will seem oddly hairsplitting (e.g., differentiating church sermons from “political sermons”) or broad (e.g., including the casual manner in which King talked off the record).

However, this is common practice in the ethnography of communication, the scholarly framework Rieder is working in, long established in linguistics and anthropology. This method applies a laser-beam focus to forms of speech, stressing that, as its founder, Dell Hymes, warned, it is dangerous to assume that words simply mean what they say and say what they mean. Not just because people can lie, but because language is much more than descriptive statements like “The cat is on the windowsill.”

As often as not, a statement is actually a request, as when one says, “It’s sure hot in here,” to somebody standing by a closed window. Or take the tradition in which a person speaks to a paying audience with the intention of eliciting serial spells of laughter — i.e., stand-up comedy. It’s as peculiar and coded a ritual as any exotic tribal one we see on the Discovery Channel, based on a web of expectations involving speech style, response and performance.

Rieder’s plan, then, is to take the full range of King’s speech, from the casual to the formal, and examine the tensions between apparent and hidden meanings and how they express the complexities of personhood. For example, the F.B.I. recorded King on tape yelling “I’m not a Negro tonight!” at the climax of an extramarital encounter. One might well be inclined, as Rieder is, to dwell on just what King meant by that, in light of the complex nature of the image of blacks in their own eyes as well as in whites’.

Rieder also skillfully debunks the idea that the “black”-talking King was “real,” while the one who invoked Reinhold Niebuhr was a mere performer (like a stand-up comic, for instance), trying to appeal to powerful whites. Both Kings were real. It was hardly unknown for him to mention the likes of agape and Martin Buber to black audiences, and they were thrilled at the display of erudition.

Problems arise, however, when Rieder embarks on a corresponding mission, to dispel any notion that the “white” King was the “real” one. He writes, “No more than Malcolm X’s jail tutorial in the classic texts of white civilization did King’s mastery of white texts, fluency in universalistic idioms and ample supply of cultural capital extinguish his deep love of black culture.”

But who said they did? In line with the traditions of modern sociology and sociolinguistics, Rieder is simply interested in cultural hybridity, and is hungry to describe it in King. But description, be it ever so elegant, is not always enlightening. The Georgetown sociolinguist Ralph Fasold once observed about his discipline — which includes the ethnography of communication — that “a really successful theory will eventually lead to surprises, and I am not sure we have yet been really surprised.”

For example, King was the son of a preacher and grew up in the segregated South; he trained as a minister with white students and became a public figure. Ergo, he could both talk trash with black friends and expound on philosophy with whites. This is not surprising, and I am unsure that readers will typically be inclined to follow Rieder through his lengthy disquisition as to why it apparently should be. A multifaceted cultural identity and linguistic repertory is a worldwide norm.

On the other hand, I have always been quite surprised — awe-struck, in fact — that King and his associates persuaded so many to espouse nonviolence and get beaten in the streets. Rieder’s main interest in this topic? That King’s references to Exodus and Jesus were intended not as mere narrative, but as exhortation to action. Once again, I presume we already knew that, even if it is phrased along the lines of “King tried to prompt action through evocative rhetoric and metaphoric parallels.”

Rieder is excellent when he undertakes thorough descriptions of how King used language — just as one might describe each line in a Jay Leno monologue and explain exactly why it was funny, on the basis of shared background information, use of pauses and facial expression, and so on. This would be, though, an academic feat, much like the bulk of Rieder’s book. That is not inherently a bad thing; the book will be a gold mine for readers seeking line-by-line analysis of a large number of King’s orations. But it is less stirring than one might wish.

The book is also welcome for demonstrating that this preaching style is a form of articulateness. Obama’s performances are especially revealing, showing that one can electrify audiences even without much by way of content, but with tempo, cadence and a “Come with me” subtext. King’s speeches applied the style to, at times, almost scholarly argumentation, but one can imagine women fainting at Obama’s speeches if he were just reading the Indianapolis phone book.

This is a fascinating, if at times almost unnerving, type of performance: style in itself anoints the speaker with likability and authority, such that content can come later. It becomes easier to imagine how King — despite the impossibility of persuading men and women, through logical argument alone, to allow themselves to be beaten — got people out into the streets with his voice.

In the introductory chapter, Rieder worries that the subversive intent of the “I Have a Dream” speech has been forgotten, that those words are now replayed as “a sappy version of Rodney King bleating, ‘Can we all get along?’ ” There’s something to that, and Rieder makes good use of analytical tools when he reminds us of that speech’s original intent. This leaves one wishing that, for the benefit of general readers, he had done so more often in his rigorous but only fitfully engaging book.

Original Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/27/books/review/McWhorter-t.html?_r=2&scp=1&sq=john+mcwhorter&st=nyt&oref=slogin&oref=slogin

 

 
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