Summary of “‘Nah, We Straight’: Black Language and America’s First Black President” by H. Samy Alim and Geneva Smitherman

In the article “‘Nah, We Straight’: Black Language and America’s First Black President,” Samy Alim and Geneva Smitherman discuss the use of language in American society, specifically in the context of race. The authors use Barack Obama and his election win as a case study in discussing language and race. The authors begin to explain that Barack Obama is an excellent speaker and communicator, noting his ability to styleshifts his language depending on the context. In the reading one main argument I noticed is the type of style you speak has an effect on your race. What I mean by this is sometimes based on your race certain people may have a  stereotype on the way you may speak. An example being Latinos speaking “proper english” is something latinos can’t do just speak broken english just because spanish is  the principal language. It’s one out many stereotypes being made, The relationship between race, language and racism plays such a key role in reflecting and defining the way human societies are structured that it deserves study as a separate field, which he calls raciolinguistics. Raciolinguistics examines how language shapes race and how race shapes language. It’s a field that grew out of a need to understand that there is a close relationship between race, racism and language and how these processes impact our lives across domains like politics and education. An example based on the article, a formal political event, Obama spoke  American Standard English. But, when ordering food at a casual establishment, surrounded by  African-Americans, he will instead use slang and African-American Vernacular English. It has been noted by several African-Americans that he “sounds Black”, in such a way that his words are “White”, but if one listens to him speak, he would “sound Black”. Furthermore, the way he speaks is very similar to a Black preacher and is compared to Martin Luther King Jr. This helped establish Obama in the minds of Americans (subconsciously) as an “American”, “Christian”, and most of all, “Not too Black/Not too White”. This is crucial for his election because in reality, Obama had a difficult job to do (at least in terms of language); Obama had to establish himself in the minds of Americans as an American, as well as find a balance to include everyone racially. He must sound like the previous White presidents to put the White people at ease, yet still sound Black enough so that Blacks would feel included in the political dialogue. He had to sound like an American Christian boy, because of all the rumors of his family line and his name sounding “Muslim”. Essentially, he had to humanize himself, and connect with Americans to silence those rumors. If he failed to do so, he would not have been elected President, talk about language and how it connects to race. These  are some examples that demonstrate language playing a role and stereotypes based on race. The author argument helps us understand how language works because language is something used in daily life and as of right now in today’s society, if you have a degree the way you present yourself language wise is very important. We are so judged if not speaking probably especially if latino or African American race. Something surprising about the argument is that this has been an issue for a long period of time about how slang is considered unprofessional and informal because it is not the language that we hear in books or that is taught to us in school. Overall the way the author speaks about race and language is something I personally appreciate because it’s important for readers to be aware of how race plays a role in language. Language is important in which everyone should feel free to express themselves and not feel judged by the way they speak. Language shouldn’t be judged just because you’re a certain race but instead everyone sticking  together and being able to express your tone in an appropriate way.

Alim, H. Samy, and Geneva Smitherman. 2012. “‘Nah, We Straight’: Black Language and America’s First Black President.” In Articulate While Black: Barack Obama, Language, and Race in the U.S., 1–30. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

One thought on “Summary of “‘Nah, We Straight’: Black Language and America’s First Black President” by H. Samy Alim and Geneva Smitherman

  1. You begin with a nice overview of the topic of the reading, although you might consider being more specific about its purpose: what are Alim and Smitherman trying to say specifically about language and race? You then go into some detail about “raciolinguistics,” but is this a concept Alim and Smitherman are using? I don’t see where they do so.

    Your discussion of the examples used as evidence by the authors is good, but could be improved by making it more clear how the evidence you outline leads to whatever overall argument you think the authors are making. Being more specific about their argument would help you organize your summary of the evidence, and allow you to make a stronger claim than that the authors are simply trying make readers aware that race plays a role in language, perhaps being specific about what they say it plays.

    The critical discussion of the authors’ contribution you offer could be more specific. They are likely doing more than broadly saying race and language are related and important. You make an interesting point about the use of slang, and this could be expanded in light of the fact the authors themselves styleshift between AAVE and formal styles.

    Breaking your summary into paragraphs would help your reader better understand how it’s organized: for example, a paragraph introducing the text, one examining the evidence, and a final one with your critical discussion.

    Throughout your summary you switch between past and present tense. Stick to past tense when describing past events in a summary. Alim and Smitherman often use the “historical present,” which is common in some ethnographic writing, but it doesn’t fit when summarizing another author’s work.

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