All posts by Muhammed Ahsan

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

In the excerpt  “‘Nah, We Straight’: Black Language and America’s First Black President” from In Articulate While Black: Barack Obama, Language, and Race in the U.S published by Oxford University Press, the authors H. Samy Alim and Geneva Smitherman investigate the way Barack Obama spoke in different settings. The authors discuss how Obama utilized a mixture of Black Language and Standard English to his advantage in making himself appear more familiar and more American, which contributed greatly towards his election. 

The authors claim that language is usually not talked about in the context of race. There is a well-defined dialogue about race, but when it comes to language and the role it plays in the broader context of the race most Americans are largely unaware. The authors intend to use the example of Barak Obama and his strategic use of language to shed light on this relatively uncommon subject. It is a well-established statement that Obama is a skilled orator and has a way with language that adds to his credibility and enables him to connect with average Americans. The authors mention that Obama’s change in the style of speaking is in fact deliberate. Obama is “hyperaware” of his surroundings and his audience and has the ability to address different parts of the same audience differently. However, surprisingly White people are less likely to notice this dynamic of speech than Black people. This is primarily because Black people themselves have to struggle and change their language when they are in different spheres of society to fit the needs of that particular sphere. 

The authors provide a detailed analysis of the example of style-shifting used by Obama. When talking to a Black cashier Obama declined the change, saying “Nah, we straight.” The authors mention that Obama’s style-shifting is usually characterized by changing between different “lexical variants and different pronunciations” (pg 7).  In this case, the use of ‘Nah’ a lexical variant of “no” is significant because of its association with the language used by Black people. Another important aspect of this phrase is the word “straight,” which in this case served in the place of ‘ok’ or ‘I am good’. Obama is often heard using a mix of a modernized, hip-hop, pop culture variation of slang as well as slang not widely known to connect and communicate with people on a personal level. Another important thing to note about the phrase is the absence of copula, different forms of the word “to be.” This is a unique aspect of Black Language where copula is often left out.  While some people consider it lazy language or grammatically incorrect, the authors argue that it is not random but rather is rule-governed and systematic, as with any language. 

Another important aspect of Obama’s language is “signifying”, snapping, or poking fun at someone, which is a distinct aspect of Black Language. The authors note that Obama is able to “signify” as well as mirror the language of the person he is addressing at the moment. Obama is willing to turn his standard English speech into the English commonly used by the Black folks if the person he is addressing is doing the same. 

The overall style of Obama’s speech is characterized as that of a preacher by the authors. His way of speaking includes repetition, narration, slow and deliberate words, and rhythm almost as if he is singing. This puts him in a positive light with other Black orators like Martin Luther King who had a similar style. Obama uses parallel structure in his sentences and repetition of certain phrases to put emphasis on them and makes it seem almost poetry. Furthermore, Obama also makes sure that the audience is with him with every sentence he says. Even if he is speaking to a large audience he still speaks as if it’s a conversation between them, not just him talking. 

The authors argue that Obama’s style of language was important and played a key role in his election. He was able to merge “White syntax with Black style” (pg 21). This provided him with three main benefits. Firstly, he was considered capable and someone to be taken seriously because of his command of Standard English which White people are familiar with. Secondly, his Black style of speaking and utilizing distinct features of Black language encouraged a feeling of familiarity with Black people. Lastly, he was able to use this mix of language and style to portray himself as an ‘American’ which eased the distrust of Americans about him being a Muslim in the aftermath years of the 9/11 attacks. He was no too White that the Blacks could not trust him and he was not too Black that the Whites could deem him incapable. He uses many techniques to show familiarity.  In his introductory speech in 2004, he talked about the G.I bill and being born to immigrant parents, and his struggles so that everyone with a similar story, anyone who can relate feels that sense of familiarity.  He used storytelling and narration, especially the ones that his audience can relate to and are familiar with, to connect with people and to hit his point across. He also used techniques like repetition and parallel structure that is rhythmic and poetic to captivate the audience, as seen in the video. Through his language and style, he was able to “Whiten, Blacken, Americanize and Christianize” himself which led to his successful election (pg 23).

The authors’ analysis of the style-shifting and language used by Barack Obama is insightful. Language is generally not given a second thought beyond the surface meaning. The authors, however, looked beyond the surface meaning and broke down his simple phrase of “Nah, we straight” explained the significance of saying what he said, the way he said it. The language used by Obama was very influential in his election and through his examples that the authors analyzed, the gap between the dialogue of language in the context of race is being bridged. The authors’ used people’s perception of Obama’s speech as evidence. This is effective because the issue that is being discussed is the impact of Obama’s style of language on the people and how it made him the popular choice in the minds of the people. For this reason, examining the responses of individuals on his speech gave us a report card of sorts as to how is his language is perceived. 

The authors are highlighting a very significant point: language is beyond just the means of communication, it is the identity of an individual. Therefore the significance of language is also intertwined with the socio-political struggles of its speakers. It is also enabling us to dig deeper into the intricacy of Black English rather than just dismissing it as lazy or incorrect. The way Black people have to switch between different styles of speaking is a testimony to their struggles. They have to change their language to seem qualified, and competent. Their language, their hairstyle, their appearance has to be altered before they are perceived ‘fit’ for a certain job or space. The authors’ are well aware of the absence of serious dialogue on the matter and this excerpt is an example of their effort to bring it into the light of public awareness.  

Alim, H. Samy, & Smitherman, Geneva (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. New York: Oxford University Press.

THNKR. “The Speech that Made Obama President.” Online Video Clip. YouTube. Youtube, 30 August 2012. Web. 10 October 2020.