Tag Archives: Alim and Smitherman

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

The reading “‘Nah, We Straight’: Black Language and America’s First Black President” explains how the different use of language can be a powerful source of interlinkage within certain situations. Barack Obama was used as a victim to demonstrate how we tend to shift languages and accents when needed. Obama is the perfect example because not only he was the president of the United States, but he was a multicultural president of the United States, identifying as an African American and American man. Obama got the opportunity to gain exclusive access to experiencing both black and white cultures. Due to his ethnicity, he has the power to connect with each race through his use of language. The reading emphasizes that we live in a country where the ideal figurative speech is the standard “white American” persona to make it far with professionalism. Though in Obama’s case it was necessary for him to speak professionally and formally to maintain his image, it was also necessary for him to use black language to gain a relationship with his multicultural citizens. The reading states different forms of opinions towards Obama’s worth of presidency. For instance, the author states“ ‘we argue that the ‘brotha with the funny name’ wouldn’t have gotten elected if he couldn’t kick it in a way that was ‘familiarly Black.’” (3). As well as,  “ ‘In order for Obama to sound ‘knowledgeable’ to the majority he must speak like a white man, communicate clearly, say r’s, etc.’” Who was “bluntly stated by a white woman”. (23). The many different interpretations of how people perceive language prove that language is very powerful, it determines who you are as a person, and humans tend to complement and cater to their culture. Based on the reading, this gave Obama a hard time because without realizing, he would say “ ‘nah rather than ‘no.’ “. (7). And for linguistics, that is not proper, especially for a president.                  

     Though the United States hosts many different cultures, it is still ideal to speak proper English. We learned from Obama himself, after the election he had to change the way he spoke to represent professionalism. In that case, it helped citizens take him seriously while it prepared him to be the best version of himself. Despite the professionalism, Smitherman was amazed at how before the election, Obama used his African roots to connect with the diverse crowd. Smitherman felt that Obama taking a break from proper dialects into slang was comforting and inspiring to the diverse population. Obama connecting with the crowd manifested signs of encouragement and confidence within different cultures. Obama represents an eloquent balance of speech through his black and white roots, which lead to Smitherman’s conclusion of him making a great president one day. 

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.

The Article “Belated Thoughts on Obama’s Accent” by Ben, shows a timeline of Barack Obama’s speeches and how his dialect improved over the years. Ben accomplished keeping track of Obama’s speech through staying in tune with Obama’s background. In the first video, Ben explained how Obama was “shaped by Chicago” because of the way Obama stretches and intensifies his a’s. In the second, Ben recognizes a slight Southern Kansas accent by the way Obama “leans towards glide deletion”. Ben pointed out that during the second video, Obama ”is talking to democratic voters in a Red State. Since his audience is a group of people who probably disassociate themselves from the surrounding political environment, slipping into a local accent may hurt Obama more than it helps him. Although I couldn’t say for sure.” Compared to Smitherman’s reading, Ben’s quote was another opinion on dialect which proves that language is a powerful source of forming relationships and should be transitioned depending on the situation. 

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.

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.

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

In “‘Nah, We Straight’: Black Language and America’s First Black President” by Alim, H. Samy, & Smitherman, Geneva (2012), the reading explains the meaning and use of language in America. As the authors specifically look at the background of different races to see and understand their own set of language. One of the arguments I see is that based on your race or culture you part of, it impacts the way you speak your language. Depending on what situation, you are in, you would change your use of language into a different and more manner way of speaking. In other words, race or culture impacts your way of speaking to other people, as it would change when you are in a different setting or speaking to someone. An example of this would be Obama’s language and race, in the article it was claimed that Obama was elected because he had a good and formal way of speaking English in America. However, it was stated that Obama was at a restaurant and while ordering food, he was using slang and African American English. Obama reported to say “Nah” then saying no, and it a big deal since it was a bad look and ungrammatical in the black language system. The authors explain Obama may have changed his way of speaking English, so it can help him be elected as president. As many people of America look for a president who has proper English, but Obama had to focus on his grammar as a lot of people had expectations of his use of language. During Obama’s campaign, he was in a difficult situation, as he had to balance the way he was speaking as a black person but also a white person. It is claimed by the authors that based on the way we use language, it identifies us and shows people who we are as a person to talk to and how formal we are. The authors explain they had to sound educated in order to win his elections as he would fail if, he didn’t fix his way of speaking or use of language. It was surprising former president Obama was using slangs but more surprising as he was able to practice and establishes himself as an American. I realize the reason why the authors were writing the article was to inform people and this generation to realize our use of language. As many people and cultures in America recognize the slangs and the different languages we speak, is not formal. As a result, we must take notice of how we use language, as it defines us and shows who we are. That is why Obama had to change his language as he needed a better image and presentation of himself.

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.

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.