When Barack Obama speaks, novelist Zadie Smith hears in him Whitman-esque multitudes. Part of Obama’s oratorical appeal—as she explains in a December speech printed in the current New York Review of Books —is his ability to voice almost anybody, which he repeatedly demonstrates in his autobiography Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance. She writes:
Obama can do young Jewish male, black old lady from the South Side, white woman from Kansas, Kenyan elders, white Harvard nerds, black Columbia nerds, activist women, churchmen, security guards, bank tellers. … He can even do the 40-ish British traveler named Mr. Wilkerson, whom he remembers looking up at the night sky in Africa and saying, “I believe that’s the Milky Way.”
Obama’s gift—or skill—isn’t mimicry. “He can speak them,” Smith writes, because he possesses an ear that can really hear them, the way that George Bernard Shaw heard the variants of English and captured them for the page.
Smith points to the comic dialogue from Dreams From My Father to illustrate his linguistic dexterity. Earlier this month, the Boston Phoenix made the same point in a different fashion by ripping some funny, slangy dialogue from the Obama-read audiobook edition of Dreams and putting them online. Playing these MP3s against, say, the recording of his first presidential press conference, you begin to appreciate his range. “Sure you can have my number, baby,” “Blam!,” and profanity-laced clips culled by the Phoenixpulse with both humor and gravity.
If Obama were just an impressionist, his attempts to capture regional dialects or ethnic accents on the campaign stump would educe mostly laughter. But he gets away with speaking about Main Street in Iowa and sweet potato pie in Northwest Philly by “carefully tailoring his intonations to suit the sensibility of his listeners,” Smith writes. Sometimes he fuses separate argots in a single sentence, as Smith illustrates with this speech snippet:
We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states.
When Obama says awesome God, Smith writes that she visualizes a Georgia church. When he says poking around, she envisions a South Bend, Ind., kitchen table conversation. Obama maintains a balance, Smith writes, that is “perfect, cunningly counterpoised and never accidental.”
She continues: “It’s only now that it’s over that we see him let his guard down a little, on 60 Minutes, say, dropping in that culturally, casually black construction ‘Hey, I’m not stupid, man, that’s why I’m president,’ something it’s hard to imagine him doing even three weeks earlier.”
Obama’s code-switching doesn’t stop at speech. Obama can march to a podium as stiff-necked as an insurance salesman and stand as rigidly as a Ken doll, if that’s what the moment calls for. Making a speech, he understands the communications magic contained in thrusting your arms down, just as they teach at Toastmasters International. If he needs to command respect during a press conference, he’s good at posing as a professor leading a graduate seminar. He can play the gentleman, gracefully rebounding after a debate opponent spurns his offer to shake hands. Or if payback is due, he’s just as adept at quoting from a Jay-Z video, insulting Hillary Clinton with a brushing-his-shoulders-off move. Whether wheeling down a basketball court in Indiana or bowling like a two-left-legged doofus in Pennsylvania, he knows how to radiate physical authenticity. He’s the anti-Nixon.
In Smith’s thinking, Obama comes close to being both Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins—the student as worldly self-instructor who has studied in Hawaii, Kenya, Kansas, Indonesia, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Cambridge, and other points. Citing Pygmalion, Smith notes that a lost accent usually signifies some sort of betrayal. “We feel that our voices are who we are, and that to have more than one, or to use different versions of a voice for different occasions, represents, at best, a Janus-faced duplicity, and at worst, the loss of our very souls.”
“How can the man who passes between culturally black and white voices with such flexibility, with such ease, be an honest man?” Smith asks. In public life, toggling your identity is ordinarily a binary process: The new identity cancels the other. Obama’s trick has been to make additive what is ordinarily subtractive, and do it convincingly. Smith answers her own question, concluding:
The tale [Obama] tells is not the old tragedy of gaining a new, false voice at the expense of a true one. The tale he tells is all about addition. His is the story of a genuinely many-voiced man. If it has a moral it is that each man must be true to his selves, plural.
Thanks to reader Jim Milstein for alerting me to the Zadie Smith piece. But what have the rest of you done for me lately? Send tips to email@example.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name in “The Fray,” Slate’s readers’ forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)
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