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

“‘Nah, We Straight’: Black Language and America’s First Black President,” by Alim, H. Samy, & Smitherman, Geneva (2012) published by Oxford University Press,  is an article that focuses on the racial experiences of President Barack Obama before and after being elected into office. Being African American in America, it will always be a challenge due to the hatred and prejudice that we face because of our skin color. We will forever be judged for where we come from and our backgrounds. The author of this article wanted to use Obama’s way of speaking as a segway into the conversation of language based on race. Race defines the way we are viewed by others and who we are able to connect with. Smitherman also uses examples of how Obama relates to different cultural backgrounds while still maintaining his presidential responsibilities. Through these examples, this demonstrates how a certain setting can change the way you are meant to speak in society. The usage of black slang in the professional world is an argument that is often two-sided, especially here in the United States. 

Throughout the text, Smitherman was fascinated with how Obama used his dialect to connect with the diverse crowds. His enthusiasm when speaking to an audience made a lot of people respect him for embracing his culture and expressing himself no matter what. Language in the African American community is an important part of our culture. However, it makes it a struggle for us to get professional opportunities because of how we are viewed. The author recalled a time at Barack Obama’s rally where political figures commented on his language. A politician named Harry Reid stated that he “speaks no Negro dialect, unless he wants to have one ” (3). These racialized comments aren’t the only ones that Obama has received during his campaigns and presidency. People constantly accused him of not being black because he is from Hawaii and his mom is white. The truth in the matter is Barack Obama is considered African American if he has any kind of African American background. Because of these rallies, Smitherman was captivated with the fact even through all of the fuss, Obama would potentially become America’s first black president. 

In addition, Obama was known to use black slang as a way to amuse the African American community and to show that he was still one of us even though he was president. On pg. 8, “Many observers have noted Barack Obama’s use of Black slang in relation to Hip Hop Culture, using such words as flow or tight” (8). The use of this language showcased to the world the significance of black language and how it connects us as a culture. Studies have shown the Black Language separates itself from the typical American English. Obama also tries his best to connect with communities outside of his own race. For example, he uses what he knows to speak to people in the Latin community and create a connection with them also. On the contrary, numerous amounts of non-black supporters on Twitter  call this kind of speech “lazy” and “ungrammatical.” Smitherman defended his argument by explaining how complex Black Language actually is. According to the article, Black Language has origins in a Creolized form and from Europe as well (Smitherman 8). This creates a sense of uniqueness from the original White American English used in the United States today. 

After Obama became our president he had to change the way he spoke to crowds because of his newfound position. As president, you have to maintain a professional dialect to “impress” the public eye. Barack Obama was known to be proficient at communicating towards an audience when speaking. Every time he made a speech, he was able to grasp the attention of everyone who was listening. In the article, his language was described to be confident and composed. He was always in control of every situation he was put in. Although many Republican politicians described his speech as too professional, “he was often described as ‘clear,’ ‘direct,’ ‘down to earth,’  and also as ‘careful.’” (4). According to an article on CNN about a speech given at the Oval Office in 2010, CNN experts discussed his language with two different perspectives. One viewed it as less academic and professional, while the other viewed it as straightforward and easy to understand his points. Obama’s language struck the attention of the younger generation like myself and inspired others to believe that anything is possible. Through all the criticism that he faced before and during his presidency, he knew that he would become a very successful leader. 

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.

“Language Mavens Exchange Words over Obama’s Oval Office Speech.” CNN, Cable News Network, 17 June 2010, www.cnn.com/2010/POLITICS/06/16/obama.speech.analysis/index.html.

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